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Turk becomes unexpected cybercelebrity

©Associated Press

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 3, 2000


SAN FRANCISCO -- Mahir Cagri, a 37-year-old bachelor from Izmir, Turkey -- about as far as one can get from Silicon Valley -- set up a personal Web site a year ago. Cagri soon became a most unlikely cybercelebrity.

"Welcome To My Home Page! I Kiss You!" he wrote, listing his hobbies and posting photos of himself playing ping-pong and wearing a skimpy bathing suit. He figured he would meet a few pen pals, maybe welcome a guest into his home near the Aegean Sea.

Then, in the fall, hackers invaded and embellished his site, spicing up the text and adding that Mahir enjoys taking photos of "nice nude models." The hackers also moved it to a new location and quickly spread the word about the site.

People found the site hilarious and took delight in goofing on Mahir and his fractured English. The Mahir Homepage (http://members.xoom.com/primall/mahir) has since received 2.5-million hits and inspired dozens of fan and spoof sites.

As for Mahir, once the hackers did their work, his phone wouldn't stop ringing; his 5-year-old computer froze up, overloaded with messages.

"There were thousands of e-mail messages that I couldn't reply to because I couldn't leave my computer at least six to seven hours a day. There were thousands of people that wanted to visit my house," the freelance journalist said. "Ninety-nine percent of the messages and critics were positive. And only 1 percent criticized my English."

The combination of broken English ("Who is want to come Turkey I can invitate.") and the primitive design amused Leah Cunningham so much that she set up a Webring, or a list of Cagri-related sites.

Her collection includes sites that superimpose animals on Cagri's photos, games such as "Where's Mahir?" instead of "Where's Waldo?" a Mahir search engine and a game in which players try to kill the evil Mahir character, who is playing an accordion.

"It's amazing the things people have come up with," said Cunningham, who works for Earthlink Network, an Internet provider, in Sacramento, Calif. "It struck me as so strange the way people were going crazy over this guy's site."

Pamir Bezmen, who has set up a company in Istanbul designing Web sites, said no other Turkish site has had such success.

"It's so bad," Bezmen said, laughing. And that may be the secret of Mahir's success, he said. "Had he written it in good English, it wouldn't have had such a success."

Tourism officials in Turkey said Mahir's invitation and the excitement his Web site has stirred could help the country's travel industry, which suffered greatly last year after a series of rebel bomb attacks and two earthquakes that killed more than 18,000 people.

But others said Mahir gives a bad image of Turkey.

"If a woman from Europe goes to the Internet site, she'll think that everyone here looks like him!" said Sami Oradya, who works in a record shop in a hip neighborhood of Istanbul.

Mahir has visited New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

"This guy's like the living, breathing Web site," said Jim Lanzone of eTour.com, which sponsored Cagri's trip to the United States. "This is amazing. Everybody wants to meet this guy."

Cagri graciously gives autographs, poses for pictures wearing dark sunglasses and answers reporters' questions through a translator. He is juggling talk show invitations and marriage proposals.

At his new and expanded Web site, he says: "I'm too happy that I made lots of people laugh and for a minute I could take them away from their private problems."

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