Thursday, July 10, 2014

Memories & Istanbul

Not at First Sight
My first vivid recollection of the Bosphorus is, strangely, not of the first time I saw it. I know, of course, when I did see it the first time – on the bus from the airport to our hostel in Sultanahmet – and it must have been as majestic and as resplendent as ever. But try as I may, I cannot recover this image. It is, perhaps, lost in the labyrinths of my memories forever. There is a story in here somewhere, of a man lost in a maze of his own memories in a quest to find a particular image – a story that a Borges might have fancied.
It is the view from the rooftop café of the hostel that I do recollect. A warm sunny July afternoon. The red chequered table cloth. The beer (Efes). The quaint white-gray houses that lead up to the waters. The vast muddle of buildings on the far side, indistinguishable from one another. The occasional dome and minarets of a mosque. Sea gulls. Everything in shades of gray. In Elif Şafak’s delightful novel “The Flea Palace”, a character muses about how her memories, of every city she’s been to are, defined by a particular colour. Except Istanbul. Istanbul, she says, is devoid of a colour. In that moment, taking in the city as it spreads around me, I understand what she means and yet, disagree with her.
For right through the middle of the muted shades, flows the legendary Bosphorus. It is just as I have imagined for all the years since I first knew it existed. Its famous waters sparkle in the afternoon sun – turquoise and white and turquoise again – a gentle shimmery haze hangs over the many boats and yachts and sea vessels that bob over it. If this cannot define the colour of a city, nothing can.

What other Colour does one need?
I traveled to Turkey for 10 days with two friends in July 2011. Now, almost a year later, reading about the turmoil the country is in at the moment, my mind, invariably, takes me back to those 10 days and it occurs to me that I must document them as best as I can, before more images slip away into that unforgiving labyrinth like the first view of the Bosphorus has. As I write, I realize that I recollect a great many scattered images in glorious detail while large chunks in between have gone missing. I suppose it is comforting to presume that the brain intuitively retains only the best and the most important bits, but really, can one be certain?

I remember, for example, a mundane breakfast in one of the many by-lanes that thread their way through İstiklal Avenue. It isn’t our first day in Istanbul. We are in a café; the tables set outside on the street. We eat what we have eaten pretty much throughout the trip – simit (ring-shaped bread with sesame seeds) with cheese and tea (çay in Turkish; pronounced chaai).  There are two old men sitting on chairs set out for them next to us. They share a newspaper and a cup of tea. There is no table laid out for them. They are regulars. The street is quiet and peaceful at this hour. I remember sounds – the swishes of brooms, the unseen scooters on another street and the sirens of ferries. Why do I remember all this?

İstiklal Avenue, incidentally, is right in the eye of the storm that Turkey faces today. It is where the fiercest protests have been. It is where the voices against Erdoğan are the loudest. From having spent several hours there, it is not hard to understand why this must be the place. It is in İstiklal that Istanbul is at its most modern, most liberated - or most ‘western’ if you like.

İstiklal Avenue
I remember the first evening of revelry in İstiklal. We have spent the day visiting the main tourist attractions of Istanbul – The Topkapı Palace, The Blue Mosque, The Aya Sofya, The Basilica Cistern. They are all overwhelming structures, each of them; it is impossible to not be overawed by their grandeur. But like most tourist attractions anywhere in the world, they have long become limited to that identity. They teem with foreign visitors and profiteers and the discordant sounds of several languages spoken all around at once. All of this cannot take away from the splendor of the architecture and the building themselves, but it robs them to a great extent of the unique sense of place and feeling they could evoke in the centuries gone by. As an outsider, the feeling one is left with inside The Aya Sofya or The Blue Mosque is exactly the same as if one were in the St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

The Blue Mosque

And so it is that we head to İstiklal for the evening, having been simultaneously awed and underwhelmed by what we have seen during the day, with high hopes of an exuberant evening. My cousin, who is incidentally in the city for some months as a visiting faculty at the local university (Man, how I hate him!), has assured us that there isn’t a better place to be in after the sun goes down.
He meets us at the Sultanahmet end of the Galata bridge near the Grand Bazaar. We walk on the bridge over to the other side as the sun sets, the inimitable Istanbul skyline behind us. On both sides of the bridge, we see hundreds of men – tourists and locals, rich and poor – fishing. Their fishing rods are placed on the parapet, the lines plunging to the water below. Next to each man lies a basket or a vessel to hold the day’s catch. It is a unique sight.

Fishing on the bridge

The bridge deposits us into Karaköy (Galata district; for the football minded, this is where Galatasaray belongs) from where the Tünel – a two coach shuttle train inside an underground tunnel – takes us to İstiklal.
An astonishing range of colours and lights and smells greet us. There are neon lights of every conceivable colour; the shops on either side, the quarters over them, the spaces between them – they are all covered in these lights. The street itself stretches out ahead of us and although it is only a few kilometers before it opens on to Taksem Square, just then it makes us believe that it never ends. All around us there are food stalls and restaurants and cafés and pubs and turku bars (dimly lit spaces with live Turkish music). Somewhere in the middle of all these, there are the unavoidable McDonald’s and Subway; we are grateful to find that they are both nearly empty.


On the street, there are hundreds of thousands of people, walking. They scarcely pay any heed when the famous antique tram passes through, perilously close. They step aside at the last moment to allow the tram to pass and it is only in those instants that the tram lines on the street are visible. There aren’t many people on the tram; people are happier looking in from the outside than the other way round.
We start with a turku bar. Inside, a lady and her troupe sings for the customers. Her voice is boisterous and interspersed with exaggerated quivers and the main accompanying instrument is the bağlama (or saz – a Turkish version of the guitar with seven strings), both of which are in line with what we have seen in Fatih Akin’s enchanting film on Istanbul and its music - ‘Crossing The Bridge: The Sound of Istanbul) and we are, therefore, absolutely thrilled and speak of Sezen Aksu in barely constrained voices. We drink Raki – Turkey’s own aniseed flavoured drink – from tall glass flutes. My cousin explains to us the ritual that goes with drinking Raki – two flutes, one filled with raki and the other with cold water, a sip from one and then the other, and enormous plates filled with fruits and sometimes some form of meze. They have built rehydration into the ritual, he tells us. If one were to adhere religiously to it, no amount of binge drinking would lead to terrible mornings after.

Turku Bar

Soon, people on other tables get up and start dancing and swinging and singing along. Much drunken merriment ensues.
We leave the joint near midnight. The street, it appears, is even more crowded than when we left it. We eat Dolma Kebaps (one of the great joys of traveling in Turkey are the innumerable words that one recognizes from Hindi) at a busy, cramped restaurant; they are delicious. There’s also Ayran, which is basically buttermilk, and Baklava. The Baklava is so heavy it could easily pass for the main dish.
We head for our hostel in the small hours. At no point, during all of this, have the lights dimmed or the crowds thinned.

I remember a particular conversation with a young local who spoke half-decent English. We meet him on a ferry ride to the eastern shore of Istanbul. He is studying film at a school in Izmir, we learn, and immediately hound him for the names of Turkish filmmakers. We mention Nuri Bilge Ceylan (he is thrilled that we know of him and teaches us to pronounce the name properly) and Fatih Akin. Fatih Akin is German, he states quietly. He recommends other names that we hear for the first time – Dervis Zaim and Zeki Demirkubuz. In the last year, I have seen films by both men; they are brilliant.

I do not remember a great deal of detail of the hours we spent in Kadikoy, except a half hour we spent in a cafe. It is on a little known street, where we spend a half hour sipping tea.

The place is a cluster of tables with green velvety tablecloth and on most tables, old men sit and play cards. Their attention scarcely strays from the cards they have been dealt and even when they pick one and flick it carelessly on to the table, their eyes are glued unwaveringly to the ones that remain in their possession. Their teacups are never empty. A large man refills them every few minutes; nobody on the table notices him do so.

There is a particular moment there that has stayed with me -- a man about to throw a card on the table and the large man serving tea standing between him and the window behind just so a shadow covers the player but not his card (a seven of spades, I think, though I am unsure if my memory can be that precise).

We take the ferry back near sundown, and this time, the domes and minarets and everything else form silhouettes against a gradually darkening orange sky. The waters of the Bosphorus are no longer turquoise; they too reflect the sky's orange. Some of our best pictures of Istanbul are from then.

Is it then that our memories are slave to the pictures we take? I wonder while I write. Is it then that the fact that I remember so much of certain passages and nearly nothing of others is merely a product of the pictures I have or have not taken?

I haven't a single photograph of the Bosphorus when I first passed by it. But I remember so much else that is not captured in pictures, that can perhaps not be captured in pictures.

I remember searching desperately for ways to grasp the concept of Huzun, as I have imagined it, from reading Orhan Pamuk's fascinating memoir on Istanbul. Pamuk describes 'Huzun' as it applies to the residents of Istanbul -- as individuals and as a people. 'Huzun', he explains, is a Turkish word, without a precise English equivalent; it defines a state of mind in which one experiences a melancholy that comes from a mixture of great spiritual loss and hope. Istanbul evokes it, according to Pamuk, through the awareness of its glorious past and the realisation that the city's greatest era is, perhaps, left behind forever; a forlorn pride that the people of Istanbul experience throughout their lives.

Although I have spent hours in the neighbourhoods Pamuk actually describes -- Cukurcuma, Cihangir, etc -- it is, in fact, in Kadikoy that I recall sensing this feeling most palpably -- perhaps because the old, short buildings, red-gray and decrepit, the damp streets, the old people gathered in cafes such as the one I just described and a general sense of artsy decay remind me of Kolkata -- a city that I believe will understand and embrace Huzun as much as Istanbul does.

It is a great city, Istanbul -- to me, the greatest city I have seen yet. The sights are breathtaking. The people are warm and friendly. The women are gorgeous. The food is sumptuous. And the memories of it still left to me are incomplete and haphazard but filled with indelible images and cheerful vagueness.

And there's the Bosphorus.


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