Memories of Istanbul

By Chris Deliso

Today’s Zaman, Nov. 5 2010

I don’t remember much of the things that have happened to me in Istanbul, or, at least not the circumstances surrounding them. I cannot recall them in an ordered narrative; more than any other place, what comprises my memories of Istanbul is independent images, dreams that glow brightly but then disappear, luminous objects that just slip away when you reach for them.

I had never expected to go to Istanbul, much less to live there. It was a coincidence, or fate, that sent me the first time. But the second time, the third, the fourth and so on? Perhaps there is some irresistible magnetism…

I am familiar with Istanbul less as a physical place than as a product of extreme Idealism. It has always reminded me of how Borges described the imaginary planet of Tlön, and its hrönir (the imagined duplicates of things, with their dissimilar, but not arbitrary degrees of difference). “In Tlön, things duplicate themselves,” he wrote. “They tend at the same time to efface themselves, to lose their detail when people forget them. The classic example is that of a stone threshold which lasted as long as it was visited by a beggar, and which faded from sight on his death. Occasionally a few birds, a horse perhaps, have saved the ruins of an amphitheater.”

Like many other great cities, Istanbul has existed for a very long time; yet this magnificently bizarre theory seems somehow appropriate here. The manifold and divergent lives, the dolorous loves, the quiet murders and mayhem and forgotten flowering places alike, the endless human interchanges and transactions of all types… verily, one could more easily comprehend the universe in its unexplored vastness than the totality of spirit that, accumulated over thousands of years of human history, still generates all of what we perceive, what we would wish to perceive, until there is no difference between the two, save for what we don’t have time to enjoy and thus ignore. Yet it all still remains, present and waiting to be discovered, in a million unexpected ways. So it was fortunate for me, and for extreme Idealism too, I suppose, that such a city exists.

Before ever visiting Istanbul, I had spied its contours from across the gaping chasm of organized studies- this ensured that it would be elliptical, inscrutable and ideal. There was nothing tangible about this city, nothing practical: even the maps were antiquarian. All this happened in the last century, before time was flattened out by the Internet, destroying the very concept of presence itself. There can be neither luck nor fate, not even the excitement of anticipation, without time; and for reminding me of my appreciation of time as a concept, I will always be grateful to Istanbul.

So, that time before my first visit in the city was both significant and necessary. Long before I first heard the sonorous rising and falling and delicate refrain of the spoken Turkish language, I had discovered that “all seventy-two” of the world’s languages had once been spoken there- a most marvelous conception in every respect. I had heard too about the rather unfortunate Basil the Bogomil, and how he had been burned alive before the public- a very rare occurrence, they said. And before I had ever ascended the Galata tower, I knew of the wily Genoese and Venetian traders and the Ottoman who fired the imaginations of centuries by daring to fly to Uskudar (nowadays, many would agree that it’s dizzying enough just to look down from the top!) And I had felt a concave silver, sea-shell-thin coin in the palm of my hand, probably redeemed from a gutter once by someone when they really needed it, and buried again in a trove before finding its final resting place in a soft-backed case in a museum far away. And so on and so forth…

Such an introduction meant that actually visiting Istanbul would be a singular experience. Again speaking of the denizens of Tlön, Borges noted that “centuries and centuries of idealism have not failed to influence reality.” This happened to me with Istanbul… it seemed that wherever you looked, a new revelation would come into existence, from the brightness of sunlight on the Blue Mosque’s ceramic tiles, or on the rims of tiny tea-glasses, to the buckets of bait-fish overseen by fishermen unaware of ambition, on the bridge over the Golden Horn. Or, that moment when we found ourselves chasing after the black cloaks of the patriarch – only to get invited in for lunch – what luck!

It was just after the earthquake when I came to Istanbul to live. The lira was roaming wild like some untamed beast, upwards and upwards, up to the heights then occupied by Tarkan, at the peak of his popularity, and the school owner would regularly, and furtively dodge out the door with briefcases full of pretty colored paper to exchange. On certain preordained days would pass the Aygaz truck with its brittle, diabolically oriental music briefly filling our street, where empty white cups waited to be rescued, with people’s fortunes engraved in the black rivers of Turkish coffee hardened and engraved within.

But from that September, what stands out most was one sweeping moment when indeed everything seemed possible. Descending the winding hill by the Tramvay, Eminönu came into view, with the water, the bridges, buildings and the masses mixed, all going in different directions, and all under an impossibly blue sky that encompassed everything while blessing you with its stiff autumn breeze. Seabirds circled in it and the skyline of structures old and new stood unaffected and serene, while the wakes of boats were wrapping around themselves, like the ribbons of some fine present. I breathed in big chestfuls of air, as much as anyone could want, and it was still not enough. That, I thought, was ultimate freedom. I was very happy.

There were many more memories from that time. I took great pride in my Akbil and felt myself a very proper urban citizen when pressing its metal button-end down, the dependable ferry turnstiles opening yet again. I remember standing before the Theodosian obelisk, that unspeaking, immortal endowment to the city, and wondering (as Jung had thought about the stone) whether I was thinking it, or it was thinking me. Perhaps a sufficient number of bemused observers over thousands of years, I might add now, have helped to will this solid object into keeping up its cryptic vigil? After all, less unyielding monuments like national identities and ideologies have been preserved on this contested soil by the collected psychic energy of whole populations and their fears, desires and demands.

At other times I thought of sultans and their disaffected consorts, or of Photius patiently collating his manuscripts (some we can only imagine, as no one chose to will their survival, when the Latins came destroying). And there was Mecidiyeköy (why was I there? I will never know), where a half-step of luck alone separated me from the huge whooshing bus passing in front of my nose. And the Galatasaray football match (with whom did I go? I will never remember) when I was jolted upright by the roaring fans opposite, who pounded drums and lit (real) torches; were they the ghosts of Mehmet’s legions, camped outside the walls for the final siege of Constantinople? And then there was the slightly gold-hued gym trainer who claimed to be Aztec, who with a stern smile pronounced in this life you can choose either to feel sorry for yourself, or to love. (I never saw him again and I suspect he did not exist, or did for me alone… as with the ampitheatre ruins and the vigil of the horse).

Istanbul was and is a city for all and it is impossible not to love it. And it did not leave me, even when it sent me on missions elsewhere in Turkey. Indeed, I remembered Istanbul everywhere…

I remembered the city and its insufferable traffic, in the frigid dawn of Erzurum, back when there was no law against the bus drivers, and they would push it and push it, the invisible night flying by the window, a cigarette awaiting them at the end; I remembered it in lush Rize, and Trabzon with its unerring gunsmiths and obsidian sea, the land of the Laz and the Tsan;  I remembered it in Van, and Hakkari too, in the depth of a dark night when those lads came racing up unasked to pull our car from a dirt hole completely unanticipated.

I also remembered Istanbul – and the honey-store of Kadiköy, where they had boasted of the 22 wildflowers that went into their eastern Anatolian variety – on the rocky roadside by the River Zab, when the kindly itinerant vendor counter-weighed the dripping comb, still in its box-frame, with an accidentally-found stone on a beaten silver scale; and I remembered it when reputations preceded us in the form of a very polite white-suited man (certainly, not sent from Istanbul?) in the dim lobby-light of a dubious village motel, not long before the war started.

There was never any end to Istanbul and probably there never will be, no matter the floods or the earthquakes or other calamities to come. If you believe in the city enough, its existence will never be in doubt. If you are patient, in its own time and according to its own inscrutable design, the city will bring you absolution. And if you are both patient and lucky, it may also bring you joy.


This article was originally published in Today’s Zaman on November 5, 2010.