Monday, September 05, 2005

Pamuk’s Istanbul, and mine

I impulsively journeyed to Istanbul as a young man in the early 1980s, after I discovered a Victorian travelogue (Constantinople: City of the Sultans, by Clara Erskine Clement) in a Santa Barbara antiquarian bookstore (here, I think, though I can no longer be certain). It was a peculiar time to visit—I arrived to guns on the tarmac unaware that the city was under martial law, and that the Turkish economy was in shambles—but in many ways it was the perfect moment. Even as the population had grown steadily since the 1960s (and was to take off around 1980), much of the boom was on the Asian side of the Bosporus, as well as on the outskirts of the European city, in sprawling shantytowns I encountered on the bus-ride from the airport to the old city.
Istanbul panorama
Upon disembarking in Acksaray, walking down the muddy, semi-paved street towards Sultanahmet, I wandered (and wondered) for weeks, primarily on the south side of the Golden Horn—haunting the mehanes, the pudding shops, and the dark tea houses with raki-drinking, television-watching, middle-aged men, the omnipresent visage of Atatürk overlooking the proceedings; streets filled with the clacking of printing presses (plus the occasional chorus from Thriller) and narrow passageways with old men smoking hookahs; the heavy quiet of Beyazit Square on a hot summer afternoon, with a nearby convenience store on the southern outskirts selling lukewarm ayran, or warm Pepsi out of wooden crates, or black currant juice (my favorite); the outdoor market amidst traditional wooden houses in Vezneciler, with tables of slender, striated Asian eggplant; the medical school with the fluorescent-lit vitrines, showcasing hand-painted, plastic models of the human body; the rural snack-sellers of simits, roasted ears of corn, cucumbers-peeled-before-your-eyes, and the minced-mussel sandwiches vended by watermen.


When I returned in 1997, the city was almost unrecognizable to my eyes. Some fifteen years had past, but so little remained the same, or seemed to remain the same.
Pamuk's Istanbul
There was a tram running from Topkapi, the Cannon Gate of the walled city (where I had departed, overland, to Greece on my maiden visit—then, the ‘bus station’ consisted of a muddy field and plywood kiosks serving as ticket booths) down to Sultanahmet, the touristic epicenter of the old city. There was a subway, too, and bars that wouldn’t be out of place in Soho. But the disparity between what I had experienced on the two trips left little doubt that not only had Istanbul changed radically, but I had, too. Parsing these changes, and their degree, has been an important question, critically, in understanding my place in the world. So this year’s occasion of the English translation of Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul: Memories of the City was a significant and meaningful landmark. Pamuk is ten years older than I am, and his experiences center around the middle-class, European city laying to the north of the Golden Horn, but his account of the "city of sultans," filtered through the eyes of the West—the author argues that Istanbuli cannot, by the circumstance of history, understand their city in any other way—allows this Westerner to make a little more sense of what I experienced over twenty years ago.

Bosporous map detail

Memories has been well-received in the Anglophonic world (and discussed in the litblogs, too); everyone properly focuses on the river of hüzün—that peculiar brand of Stamboul melancholy derived from the loss of Ottoman grandeur—that flows through the city, but there are a few old saws to avoid, too. Pamuk is pointedly wary of the “torn between East and West” interpretation of the Turkish character, one that I had trotted out in my writings when I was lad in trying to describe the men (and it was almost always men, then) I met in my travels, shoeblacks and tea-boys and soldiers, many of who seemed to be carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders. Even when I declined to have my boots shined, they would buy me a beer or take me to Friday prayers.


Many of the more gratifying highlights of the book come when Pamuk describes four of the writers he most admires; one, Reşat Ekrem Koçu, the author of the never-completed Istanbul Ansiklopedisi, spools a discussion that captures the wonder of the city through publishing (!): a tour of other popular Turkish encyclopedias, including the mysteriously-illustrated From Osman Gazi to Ataturk: A Panorama of Six Hundred Years of Ottoman History. Pamuk’s memoir is highly recommended, and—for this reader, who cannot speak the Turkish language and has been unable to find a contemporary social history of the city for some time—essential.

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