Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Istanbul in Three Acts

When I mention the cities I visited this last summer, I always neglect to mention Istanbul. I go in order from start to finish, lumping Berlin as one city, glazing over Istanbul, I say, “Prague, Berlin, Paris.” Not even a waver as to whether to mention Istanbul, but a total absence. Until it is brought up in conversation later, or I suddenly remember those four nights, my time in Istanbul is relegated to someplace in my memory similar to where I have been on vacation. I’m from Lansing, Michigan. Oh, I’ve been to Lansing. I would never offer up the information that I have been to Lansing until it is pertinent to the conversation, much in the same way I do not mention Istanbul on my travel list. It, apparently doesn’t seem relevant enough to say, or was, perhaps, too much like a vacation than a study. This is not because of what happened in Istanbul, but more because of the time spent there in the middle of Berlin comparatively. It was, essentially, a break from Berlin, and from here, it is not much of a jump to say a holiday from Berlin. Not necessarily from the program, or learning, quite the contrary, but certainly from the city of Berlin. For me, Berlin was the program, and now, Istanbul seems to have this tenuous connection to that time spent abroad. It seems more a dream than a part of my time in Berlin (Berlin the program, not Berlin the city). Yes. I studied abroad in Berlin. Did I study abroad in Istanbul? I’m not sure.


Istanbul is a city on the edge of civilization. A city steeped in melancholy. A city of a Caravaggio painting. A city of spices and color. A city of canyons and ridges and waterways and bridges. Istanbul, it seems, is a city that cannot decide on an identity. Istanbul is struggling within herself. She, as all European cities, struggles with the modern dilemma of the treatment of history. Starbucks is adjacent to the Blue Mosque. All New Europe tours start from a Starbucks in the historic city center. Is this really that big of a deal? I’ve been to Beijing, and into the Forbidden City. At the dead center of it is a Starbucks. I bought a t-shirt there.

In Istanbul, I sat in that Starbucks for two hours. The question I asked myself there was whether this is the real Istanbul or not. There are Starbucks everywhere, and they are all identical. It is certainly part of the real world. But by being so, does it necessarily become a part of the real Istanbul? Yes. It is a part. Our mistake as tourists and travelers is to assume this is posing as the real Istanbul. We know it is not. That burden to dissociate these universalities from the uniqueness of the city rests on us as visitors to the city.

I. The Hookah Bar

The charcoals glow each time we inhale. After, they return to this stasis color of ash and soot. Still, there is an ember and it has to stay lit and so we continue to puff away at “Ahman’s Special No. 1.” The waiter comes over to us and explains.“There is milk in the water. We also mix coconut too so the smoke gets fuller.” We fail to get the full-bodied exhalation of smoke that the others in the bar have. We’re also pretty sure we’re being laughed at at our expense because of it. As soon as we sat down, the men in the booth across from us turned and stared. When we said we wanted to sit outside, this drew more looks from more booths. I didn’t think Turks were supposed to know English. Maybe I just missed the translation.

—Where are you from, the waiter asks.

—America, we say.

More looks. America is universally understood.

It’s easy to ignore the stares though. The colors in this place are more vibrant than my digital palate of 256 font colors to choose from in word. I always thought that was a beautifully made palate. But these are radiant. On the building are international flags. We try to see how many we can name. To the left are lamps. They look like bits of glass glued together, or beads, or like a shattered Nite-Brite. Above it all rises the smoke from the hookahs. Pure white. We are still not getting the full smoke we expect. The Turks blow full-blown cumulus walls of cotton that obscure everything on the other side. We blow whiffs of cirrus hairs that whimper out of our lungs like dogs with tails between their legs. Still, the smoke hangs in the air just long enough to connect us. It comes from our mouths and hovers above, becoming one blanketing cloud for a moment before dissipating in the night colors. But once this veil is lifted, a mosque appears behind, under-lit and glowing against the black of the distant night.

—This is the way to see Istanbul. A golden-lit mosque, past color beaded lamps, through a thick white cloud of smoke just exhaled from your lungs.


The word “real” is often used when there is an apparent dichotomy in a city, or when the user is living outside what they perceive to be the real city. But the fact is that all these are parts of the real city, it then becomes a matter of choosing the parts you see in the time you are allowed.

As a native of the Puget Sound, I had no qualms sitting in a Starbucks for two hours in high school. They were the only coffee shops in Gig Harbor and it made sense to drink my coffee there. But tourists in search of the real Gig Harbor would take their money elsewhere, likely to the harbor proper for their espresso. But for me, a native, Starbucks was the real Gig Harbor. Part of this distinction is the time spent there. I was at leisure to experience the entire city because I lived there. A visitor has a limit to their wanderings. So, the obvious thing to do is go places you could not go elsewhere. This, I believe, is a common distinction that is seldom made: the real city versus the distinct city.

II. The Tour Bus

When it started moving again, I wondered if anyone realized what actually just happened. I mean, we just took a chartered tour bus through a geçikondu. Did anyone know, or feel at all weird about doing that? Anyone? It was just weird. We imposed on this already cramped neighborhood, yes, with our 20 selves, our physical bodies, but also with a fucking tour bus. In my three months gone this summer, I never felt so geographically out of place. Our bus probably had more square footage than some of the houses, and definitely than some of the apartments. And as a group, we seemed to gaily accept that this was normal. Or as normal as taking a tour of the Haga Sophia or the old palace hill and the hippodrome. Sure, in some ways it was though. That we saw them both, with the same tour guide, Orhan, in the same bus, contextualizes both experiences with each other. What we see in a given setting is based on its surroundings, and so we saw the geçikondu on the heels of the palace. This informs out treatment of them both, or at the very least, it informed my treatment of both locations in the city. Obviously, it was “not just another tourist site,” but for me it was interpreted as such like a ride through Universal Studios where you see the Bates Motel and a staged flash flood and Main Street in every Old West movie you’ve seen. These places lose their uniqueness when combined, but on the other hand, they also clump together. They become the whole Universal Studios.

And so, in the way chimneys rise to blankets over cities, this whole is Istanbul.


The melancholy I feel for Istanbul does not come from the city itself, but from my lack of time there. I do not feel sadness when I think about the city’s monuments of intellect and their neglect, but my sorrow comes more from a place of not feeling like I gave Istanbul enough, of feeling like it deserved more than what I offered. I was crunched for time, and yet, I seemed to have enough of it to spend two hours sitting in a Starbucks by the Blue Mosque. Was I in Starbucks or Istanbul? As a visitor, I was in Starbucks because I had come to see Istanbul. I came to see what was unique about Istanbul and while I maintain I was in a part of the real Istanbul, what made Istanbul Istanbul lay outside the door. If I lived there and stopped by Starbucks regularly, I would not hesitate to say, “Yes. I am in Istanbul.” But for us as tourists, it’s almost shameful to admit what happened. We were visitors and tourists, not residents.

Strangely though, I felt at home. I perhaps too readily considered myself at home and a resident. This I believe, is why I felt it acceptable to sit at Starbucks—I was acting as if I had all the time of a resident, when, even sitting there and ignoring time, I felt I was neglecting my role as a tourist. I was ashamed to be sitting there and yet did not care.

III. The Blue Mosque

Time passed meaninglessly. It was the first occasion in which I felt no obligation to be anywhere else. In which I felt it was right for me to be there. That there was nothing else I should be doing. I entered and left on my own terms with nothing else on my mind except the immediate place: the colors, the script, the people, tourists, pilgrims, regulars. I saw children running. I saw a man and woman kiss and a guard walk across the room to tell them it was inappropriate. I saw a woman fall asleep. And everyone was barefoot. It puts everyone on the same level, barefootness. The guards don’t even wear shoes and for it they are actually less authoritative and imposing a force. I felt at home. In this public, tourist, busy space I felt isolated and content and relaxed, even more so than in my apartment in Berlin. The simple act of taking off shoes was certainly a sign of respect, but it also turned out to be incredibly soothing, almost therapeutic. Even in the grandiosity of the basilica I never felt imposed upon, nor like I was imposing. It was a stark contrast to Christian cathedrals in Rome and especially to the geçikondu the day before.

Much of my time there was spent looking at shadows on the ceiling and patterns of light, trying to figure out if they were from the sin, or hidden inside lights. As the time progressed, we decided they were due to natural light. We had been there long enough to recognize changes in the light.

I never checked my watch, or wrote in my notebook.


This is the way to see Istanbul.

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