Going back to Istanbul in March 2007

Many of the views and sights in the city look familiar, but I am not sure that I can remember anything distinctly anymore. Photographs and guidebooks are dangerous props for memory. I stayed in Istanbul in 1980, en route to and from an Aegean village where I joined a group of young volunteers digging channels to bring piped water from a hillside spring. There were many women in the village and not many men. The male labour force had migrated to Switzerland, West Germany and France, digging channels in the streets and searching for the gold which had fallen from heaven, deep into the earth.[1]

Istanbul is probably one of the most exotic places on the planet: the Golden Horn flowing into the Bosphorus beneath towers, minarets and all manner of bridges. In 1980 I had arrived by train from Niš in ex-Yugoslavia, where I had given up trying to hitch hike eastwards and had slept on a park bench waiting for an early departure. I remember that the train crawled slowly through Bulgaria and that I was uneasy about arriving in a strange place where I couldn’t understand the people. But otherwise few images remain from my first visit: some tall grey buildings near Taksim Square; the crowds at the bus station in the evening when the volunteer team left for Bursa; the sweat and fumes around my broken-down taxi on the old Galata Bridge when I had to run for the departing train at Sirkeci Station.

A month after the trip there was a coup d’état in Turkey. I was already en route to Denmark, to visit Lene, my new friend…. My life was changing as a result of a long kiss in the little village on the Aegean coast. Such is the fickle finger of fate! As it turned out, the decision to travel to Istanbul that unimaginable summer was…, decisive… So on returning in 2007 I am disturbed to find that the pictures of the city in my mind’s eye have almost all faded.

Anyway Istanbul has been transformed since 1980, which doesn’t make any memories any easier to recall. The population has increased steadily to around 14-15 million. Horse drawn carts have more or less disappeared and there are many signs of considerable affluence. The streets have been cleaned up, a metro system and ultra-modern trams are expanding the urban transport network across the burgeoning suburbs, while in the centre of the city there are numerous stylish tourist hotels and English seems to be spoken almost everywhere.

Another modern layer is being built onto the ancient city, but the struggles between the west and the east have not yet been resolved. The Turkish nation is still trapped between Europe and the Middle East, between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. On the bustling surface the older influences are hidden, but on entering the monuments or studying artifacts in the museums a rich diversity appears: ranging from the ancient Greeks, the Armenians and the Arabs, to the Byzantines, the Christians and the Ottomans. Istanbul is a swirling patchwork of histories, concealing and revealing emperors, conquerors, sultans, courtesans, traders and artists at every turn.

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In March 2007 Lene and I stayed at the Hotel Empress Zoe, in the shadows of the imposing Aya Sofya and the towering Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet Camii). This comfortable lodging is named after the restless wife of two successive emperors, Romanus and Michael. Zoe was empress from 1028 to 1050, during the period when the Byzantine rulers held out against successive waves of attackers. It was not until 1453 that the Ottomans under Mehmet the Conqueror finally defeated the remnants of the Byzantine Empire and took control of the city, changing the name from Constantinople to Istanbul and introducing Islamic customs and beliefs.

At the hotel we wake every morning at 05.30, as the wailing call to prayer echoes from the nearby mosque. But the Aya Sofya has become a museum after 500 years as a mosque preceded by over 900 years as a church. Nothing is permanent! Some of the original golden mosaics, with scenes of the virgin and child, the day of judgement and so on can be seen high on the enormous arches of the church. However, the dominant decorative motifs are all Islamic with huge Arabic characters glowering from the four hidden pillars supporting the dome. It is a place in which people seem to be dwarfs, overawed both by the power of the gods and the skills of the builders.

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Like the monuments, which can be peeled open to reveal different phases of the city’s past, the people on the streets of Istanbul are an intriguing mixture of different influences. Some from the Anatolian highlands have lined faces and tough hands. Others are dressed in the latest fashionable suits from Paris and Milan. Many women wear head-scarfs, often brightly coloured, but there are also a few dressed in somber cloaks with veils showing only their eyes. At the same time other women shake their thick, black hair in the sunshine, ignoring the attempt to censor beauty.

Istanbul is perched on top of countless memories. But for some reason the authorities and rulers do not seem to like admitting to the diversity of stories and ethnicities. Even the Nobel prize winner Orhan Pamuk, who shared his melancholic thoughts about growing up in the city during the second half of the 20th century, has been forced into exile recently. He began to fear for his life after questioning Turkish national myths and protesting about the persecution of the Armenian and Kurdish minorities. So like many other writers, he has abandoned his roots and sought shelter in a foreign land.

After a couple of days in Istanbul I begin to think about my Flemish friend Kris who committed suicide around 12 years ago. He was also fascinated by the fractured relationship between the Turkish and Europeans. We often discussed the conditions faced by migrant workers and the conflicts which arise due to different languages and behaviour. As a translator, he was instrumental in bringing the poems of a Turkish writer called Aras Öran living in Berlin to the attention of Dutch and Flemish readers.[2] But my images of Kris are increasingly blurred too; time is the great healer of pain…

Three times a week at the railway station there is a performance by a group of Sufi mystics with chanting, drumming and whirling dervishes. We joined the packed audience one evening and watched with amazement as five men went into a trance, spinning so fast that their long white robes floated up round their legs. Maybe the “mind out of body”, mystical state is the best way to appreciate Istanbul!

[1] This image was used by John Berger in his 1975 study of migrant workers in Europe (“A seventh man”), in which he explained how the Turkish labourers arriving in Zürich expected to find the streets paved with gold. Then they had to start excavations for the construction of new underground railways and they realized that the gold had fallen from so far up in the sky that it had penetrated a long way down into the ground…

[2] The collection of poems was called: ”In den vreemde is ook een thuis” (De Geus, Breda, 1986) which means something like: “One is also at home as a foreigner.”

A window in the Topkapi Palace

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