Through a glass darkly – 100

Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul

My accompaniment in Istanbul was reading Orhan Pamuk’s melancholic, but seductive, memoirs of growing up in the city, Istanbul: memories and the city. He was born in 1952, so the dilapidated Ottoman city which he describes is more-or-less the city that I dimly remember. It was a city of maybe half a million inhabitants, living surrounded by reminders of past imperial glory; everything now broken, worn out, and past its prime. Pamuk writes evocatively of men returning home under street lights carrying plastic bags; of the old Bosphorus ferries moored by deserted stations in the middle of winter; of house facades discoloured by dirt, rust, and soot; of broken seesaws in empty parks; of ships’ horns booming through the fog; of city walls in ruins since the fall of the Byzantine Empire. He writes of seagulls perched on rusty barges caked with moss and mussels; walls covered with frayed and blackened posters; tired old dolmusses, 1950s Chevrolets that would be museum pieces in any Western city, but which here huff and puff up dirty thoroughfares; buses crammed with passengers for the mosques; little children in the street trying to sell a single packet of tissues to passers-by; underpasses and overpasses at crowded intersections where every step is broken in a different way; the man who has been selling postcards in he same spot in the city for forty years. And the packs of dogs, commented on by every Western visitor in the 19th century. [Word is that some of these dogs are now in the habit of taking the metro.]

Hüzün, which apparently has an Arabic root,is the Turkish word for melancholy. Orhan Pamuk insists that hüzün is the key to understanding the city of Istanbul and its inhabitants. He writes of his family, who all lived in the same apartment block: his father, who frequently disappeared on unexplained trips to faraway places; his mother, who embraced her children warmly but was much given to issuing detailed instructions, about what to say and how to behave; his grandmother, who spent half the day in bed and never made herself up, but who had positioned the dressing-table mirror to give her sight of the long corridor, the servants’ quarter, the sitting room, and the windows that gave onto the street; and assorted aunts and uncles who took it in turns to fall out with each other. As he recreates the city of his childhood he evokes four lonely melancholic writers whom he never met. Their common theme was the decline and fall of the great empire into which they had been born; and their great strength, he asserts, was their exploration of the tensions between the past and the present, or between what Westerners like to call the East and the West.

Pamuk, writing in 2008, never left the city of his childhood. And when the book was written he was living fifty years on back in the Pamuk Apartments in which he grew up.

I tell myself that this the city that I first encountered in 1964. It was certainly run down. In those days there was only one bridge, the old Galata bridge across the Golden Horn, which burned down decades ago. [There are now at least four bridges across the Golden Horn and three huge bridges across the Bosphorus.] Noisy trams rattled around the city then, but I chose to walk everywhere. For reasons of economy. I went barefoot part of the time. A sure sign of juvenile madness.

 I visited Hagia [Sancta] Sophia, and the Blue Mosque, and the Topkapi Palace. And I don’t recall any queues or admission prices at any of these tourist attractions. In between I sat and drank glasses of tea in a cafe near the youth hostel. And swopped stories with other travellers and hitch-hikers. Including a trio of students from Edinburgh Art College, whom I later met again in Venice. And with whom I went to camp at Ravenna. To look at the mosaics.

Forty eight hours in Istanbul

It wasn’t like that last week. We went down from Ankara on the very comfortable high-speed train. And stayed in a very comfortable [and budget=breaking] four star hotel in Sultanahmet, the old part of town. The great attraction of the hotel is an amazing buffet breakfast on the sixth floor with magnificent views across the Golden Horn towards the Galata Tower. I think the youth hostel was once there, but there is no sign of it now. The whole area is full of hotels and restaurants. Many with ‘greeters’ on the pavement outside to drum up business. The ‘art shop’ adjacent to the hotel had a novel pitch: ‘Come into my shop and spend some money on something you don’t want !

The population of the city now is said to be around 17 million. But I’m not sure if anyone really knows. The streets in the centre are jammed with traffic. There are tourist buses, and a lot of yellow taxis,  and a lot of hooting. The day we arrived, May 1st, was a public holiday with crowds of people on the streets and strolling along along by the water of the Golden Horn. And stalls selling simit, [bread rings with sesame seeds], and corn on the cob, and roast chestnuts.

We did what tourists do. We had dinner, lamb and salad, in Güvenç Konyah, a Konya restaurant. We went on an excellent cruise up the Bosphorus, as far as the castle and the second bridge. And paused for coffee at Uskùdar on the Asian shore.. We had dinner in the Tarihi Sultanahmet Köftecisi Seilm Usta, which has been serving meatballs and salad to customers since 1926. But which still doesn’t accept credit cards. We made an early-ish morning visit to the Roman Cistern. Which I had previously only known from a scene in From Russia with Love.

We stopped for tea at Caferaga  Medresesi, a courtyard cafe, a former madrassa turned arts centre, in the shadow of Hagia Sophia. We joined hordes of people to revisit Topkapi Palace. And were disappointed that the wonderfully-sited up-market cafe overlooking the confluence of the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus  has disappeared. [All that remains is a railing with lots of Russians taking photos of themselves.] But in the Court of the Janissaries we had a chance encounter with John and Barbara Drake, who worship at Holy Trinity, Norwich, and who run Boundary Breakers,  an organisation that promotes better Christian-Muslim relations in Jerusalem. 

It was only two days. And it was lively and noisy and hectic and wonderful. But it was tinged with sadness too. Back in 2002, a few months before her wedding, Joanna came here on a Euro-Railing adventure. She and a friend came to visit us in Lyon, and they then trained on to Florence and to Rome. The friend went home, and Joanna continued by boat across to Athens and then up via Thessalonica to Istanbul. I don’t know where she stayed and how she spent her time here. Only that afterwards she flew home with Lauda Airlines to go to [I think] a James Taylor concert in Musselburgh. In a different world we would have rung her up, and enjoyed exchanging e-mails and photos. It’s not exactly Pamuk’s hüzün. But it was a running sadness not to be able to have that contact with her.

May 2023

Published by europhilevicar

I am a retired vicar living on the south side of Edinburgh. I am a historian manqué, I worked in educational publishing for 20 years, and after ordination worked in churches in the Scottish Borders and then in Lyon in the Rhône-Alpes. I have a lovely and long-suffering wife, two children, and four delightful grand-children

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