Exploring Istanbul “Virtually”

My process for “virtually” exploring new cities begins subjectively.  Literature, memoirs, poetry, and popular histories help me to understand a locale emotionally, enhancing my chances for bonding with any given place.  For example, James Joyce brought me to Dublin while Victor Hugo introduced me to Paris, albeit to specific periods within each city. I need multiple authors from different eras, possessing various viewpoints for discovering the possibilities of any given location. This is how it happens for me. I am more intuition and feelings than logic and reason. Then if suitably engaged, I’ll progress to objective, academic sources.

When Chris Garcia and Doug Berry said, “Let’s do an issue about Istanbul for The Drink Tank,” I realized that I knew next to nothing about the Queen of Cities and needed a point of entry to help me develop empathetic ties.  The two volumes I’ve chosen to review for this special issue did so quite remarkably — one a memoir from a Turkish Nobel Laureate and native Istanbullu, and the other a popular history of Istanbul between World Wars I and II from a respected American scholar.  Thanks to these, I’m ready to learn more and one day walk among the majesty of Istanbul myself.

Istanbul: Memories and the City by Orhan Pamuk (Translated by Maureen Freely)

Already a renowned writer, in 2005 Orhan Pamuk gained notoriety with the following statement: “Thirty thousand Kurds have been killed here, and a million Armenians.  And almost nobody dares to mention that. So I do.”  The quote appeared in Das Magazin, a Swiss publication for which Pamuk was doing an interview. A retaliatory campaign ensued, his books were burned, and Pamuk fled Turkey until returning to face criminal charges, since such talk was punishable under Turkish law. But this didn’t stop him from doubling down when he told the BBC News, “What happened to the Ottoman Armenians in 1915 was a major thing that was hidden from the Turkish nation; it was a taboo. But we have to be able to talk about the past.”  And then during a award ceremony in Germany: “I repeat, I said loud and clear that one million Armenians and 30,000 Kurds were killed in Turkey.”  Eventually, the court dropped all charges, and Pamuk moved on to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature.  The author felt that Turkey could not grow without truth, without freedom of speech, and he’d damn well let you know that.

With Istanbul: Memories and the City (2004), Pamuk applies this truthful practice to his hometown. Born in 1952, Pamuk came into a city defined by hüzün, literally meaning “melancholy,” but the author distills this general concept into a melancholy specific to Istanbullus, one related to a city that had become, “poorer, shabbier, and more isolated than it had been before in its two-thousand-year history.”  Hüzün, in short, is “an end-of-empire melancholy.”  Here we see an Istanbul plunging uncertainly toward westernization, where black-and-white chiaroscuro abounds across the landscape and within each inhabitant’s soul.  Pamuk will not spare us from this truth, however, because he loves his city and his people.  No propagandist is he.  He’d prove that a few years later as I discussed in my first paragraph.

Famous authors and painters make cameos: Flaubert, Hemingway, and Melling, for example. Pamuk also devotes much time to influential Istanbullus, such as the poet Yahya Kemal, the historian and journalist Reşat Ekrem Koçu, the novelist Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar, and the memoirist Abdülhak Şinasi Hisar. Like me, Pamuk draws inspiration from the artistic and subjective. This in no way, however, detracts from the memoir’s worth to those seeking historical knowledge of the city. Readers experience the streets and districts of the Queen of Cities quite vividly. This is neither pure autobiography nor common travelogue. Instead, Pamuk blends the two, devising a template for understanding how individuals both are influenced and influence their cities.  Pamuk would have you see Istanbul not just for its historic beauty, but for its truth, warts and all, for its uncertainties and for its anxieties, for its past glories and for its mistakes from which no Turk should hide but must confront. I find that refreshing, and it compels me to learn more.

Midnight at the Pera Palace: The Birth of Modern Istanbul

We move now from memoir (of a sort) to popular history.  A Professor of International Affairs and Government at Georgetown University, Charles King concerns himself with the history of Istanbul between the two World Wars, providing a view into the people and events that led to the Istanbul of Pamuk’s generation. During this period, Istanbul shifted from decaying empire, to an occupied territory, to the republic established by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.  Such turmoil, and, like Pamuk, King spends many pages illustrating the rigors of national transformation and its effects on the citizenry.  Although never discussed deeply, the Pera Palace mentioned in the title becomes a loose metonymy reflecting the movements and progressions of this period.

The Wagon-Lits Company first opened the Pera Palace Hotel in 1892, aiming toward several deluxe accommodations along its Orient Express. European tastes and fashions were enticing Ottomans at that juncture, and the hotel reflected that aspect of the zeitgeist.  Later in 1919, the flamboyant Prodromus Bodosakis-Athanasiadis, an Istanbullu Greek, purchased the establishment, an evolution reflecting the blend of occupation forces, exiled White Russians, and Armenians populating Istanbul.  Then in 1927, the hotel came into the hands of Misbah Muhayyeş, a Muslim from Beirut, very much on par with the nationalist tendencies arising after the Treaty of Lausanne (1923) that facilitated the expulsion of foreigners from the budding republic.  Currently, Jumeirah Hotels and Resorts, an Emirati concern, owns the property.  Beyond this metaphorical framing, however, King doesn’t dawdle with the Pera, instead presenting a history that transforms readers into participants of culture and events.

That nationalism though . . . ugh.  Several times, I thought to myself, “Ah, that’s what Pamuk means.”  Pamuk rises barely above allusion while King delivers the nitty-gritty.  King explains the root of Pamuk’s hüzün, although of course this isn’t his main intention.  After the empire’s demise, changes arrived rapidly, and the republic’s birth rose hand-in-hand with aggression toward foreigners.  So adept is King at making us a part of the action I often felt my neck twist back and forth from the quick turns and jerks he describes, as if on the roller coaster of the Joker’s dreams.  How could ordinary Turks have endured that day after day?  They did, which speaks highly of their collective character.

King never forgets ordinary Turks. Shopkeepers, former imperial eunuchs attempting assimilation into the republic, and musicians enter the story alongside George Milne, Charles Harington, Mehmed VI, and Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.  Any successful history book, whether popular or academic, narrates with little data-dumping.  King succeeds magnificently in this regard.  Thanks to him and Pamuk, I’ll happily expand my journey through Istanbul, most assuredly by reading, and, if luck goes my way, physically as well.