Monday, 3 December 2012

Istanbul, Take One

On our last night in Istanbul, we went to a 6 o'clock session of The Master at the Majestic Sinema off Istiklal St in Begolu. We were on a movie roll - this would be our third in four days (the new Bond movie Skyfall and Ben Affleck's Argo were the others, since you asked - English soundtrack, Turkish subtitles). On any other evening we would have made our way by foot across the Galata bridge and up the very steep climb from Karakoy to the Galata tower, past the dervish lodge and from there to the start of Istiklal St. In seven days, we did a lot of walking, but of course the best walk is across the Galata bridge, with its perspective on the minarets and domes of Sultanahmet, shoulder-to-shoulder fishermen lining the railings, and the busyness of the water traffic at the confluence of the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus.

But at 4.30 pm when we came out of the Istanbul Archeological Museum there was a big bear of a thunderstorm stomping across the city, and really, there was no question of crossing the Galata bridge on anything but wheels. So, with our jeans sodden from the knees down, we squeezed into a tram going in the direction of Kabatas. We knew Kabatas. It was where we'd caught the ferry to go to Kadikoy on the Asian side - we'd been to Kadikoy twice to eat at Ciya Sofrasi. More on that later.

From Kabatas, we took the funicular up the hill to Taksim Square, ducked between a continuous stream of taxis and buses to get across to the top of Istiklal St, and then followed the moving mass of umbrellas and drab clothing down the hill to the cinema.
You need to be more than averagely alert to stay on your feet in this neighbourhood. Taksim and surrounds are being torn up by machinery well into the night, and you can round a corner to find yourself in the path of an approaching digger.

Every hundred metres or so on the way down Istiklal the delicious smell of roasting chestnuts hits your nostrils, but the strongest smell comes from the West. This is the big downtown shopping street, the place to buy your name-brand clothes and, if you so choose, the place to demonstrate for your cause, with riot police in attendance. We walked its length at least once a day, often more, but we never saw it less than seething except on our first morning, a Sunday.
With half an hour to spare before the movie started, we went looking for an Efes. If the cocky young bar owner could have refrained from chanting "Aussie, Aussie Aussie, oy, oy, oy", we'd have felt quite at home in Begolu that evening. Our "apartment" was up behind Taksim Square, and Begolu's winding streets had become our turf.  We'd been into every bookshop (there are lots - and how lovely they look with their stacked shelves), ogled at the many music stores and jewellery boutqiues, been to galleries and museums but mostly just wandered the streets, admiring building and graffiti, watching boys playing street football and grown men feeding street cats. We could now find our way around pretty well in the dark. We'd found our city legs. It took a few days.

That first Sunday in Istanbul was overwhelming though. We did a double take at the length of the line to get into Ayasophya. Another time, we said (we didn't learn until the next day that our residents-only Museum Cards, bought at Bodrum Castle, entitled us to bypass ticket queues).

We joined the tide of Sunday trippers surging towards the Blue Mosque. There was a press of people outside the first set of gates, trying to get to a table where Syrian opposition supporters were hawking pamphlets and trinkets. At the next entrance into the mosque courtyard, I lost Alex for a few minutes. He was completely distracted by the potential of the location, whereas I was upended by it.
It wasn't so much the numbers of people that unsettled me, nor the fact that they seemed to be mostly observant Muslims, judging from their clothing. It was more the way people were using technology - their cameras and their phones - to mediate between them and their surroundings. It threw me. I'd been on a boat too long.

I wrote in the previous post that I imagined Istanbul in black and white because of my reading of Orhan Pamuk's memoir. As it turns out, in late November there is a lot of drabness about Istanbul's crowds, skies and streetscapes. I was reminded me a bit of how sullen Paris looks in November.  I'm fond of drabness, within limits. It often provides a cover for great treasures and in Istanbul, the theory holds. As for Pamuk's theory about Istanbul's melancholy, well, that's not for me to know. A city of 20 million people can't be known in that way by a foreigner, even one who stays a long time, I suspect.

Of course, there is colour in Istanbul. There are flower markets, street markets, rug shops, shops selling "Iznik" ceramics and other stuff for tourists.

I'm not a huge shopper, and  I could do only an hour or so in the Grand Bazaar before the piles of cushion covers, scarves, gold jewellery, bags, linens, ceramic plates and bowls, rugs, silverware, spices, olive oil soaps etc became oppressive. But it was colourful.

The silky scarves that a certain kind of Istanbul girls wear are colourful too. They've got no style quotient in my eyes, but these girls, who are invariably beautiful and perfectly made up, wear them with as if they were the hippest thing out.

They wear them with tight jeans and boots, fashionable jumpers or jackets, and sometimes a piercing. I don't get these scarf girls at all. I'm told they're part of the "new elite" riding in on the wake of Erdogan's power. I get them even less than I get the tent ladies, or the women in raincoats whose headscarves lack any kind of panache.

Dome of the Ayasophya
There's colour in the mosaics of Ayasofya, and on the amazing mosaic floor of the excavated Byzantine Grand Palace. There's colour (one only) on the interior walls of the famous Blue Mosque.  But colour seems, to me anyway, to be mostly attached to another time, the time before modern Turkey, before Ataturk, a time which I don't see celebrated anywhere much except in Sultanahmet's monuments and museums, and even then with a kind of embarrassment.

Domes of the Blue Mosque

Harem courtyard

Mosaic floor of Byzantine Grand Palace

Where does a woman who in 2012 leaves the house covered from head to toe in black serge place herself in relation to Ottoman sultans who owned emeralds the size of quail eggs, and kept beautiful women for their pleasure in gloriously-tiled prisons? Somewhere else, I suspect. That stuff's all very well and good for tourists, she might say, but it has nothing to with the country I live in, Turkey, where a television channel was this week fined 53,000 TL for showing an episode of The Simpsons deemed to be offensive to God. And the Ottoman empire is an embarrassment?

 I found no trace of humanity in the stripped interiors of the Topkapi palace and its harem. I learned more about Ottoman history from a small exhibition of hugely interesting Oriental paintings held by the privately-owned Pera museum than I did in Sultanahmet's magnificent, but gutted, historic centre. 


The New Mosque

That's a start on Istanbul. Alex has taken nearly a thousand pictures, so if I pay out more pictures with more stories over the next little while, you won't mind, I hope. Today, back in Marmaris, there's another storm brewing. We've spent the past hour or two, with the help of the marina boatmen, securing Enki with an extra mooring line. No need to look for a cinema though tonight. Our home is cosy and comfortable compared to the cheerless apartment at the back of Taksim. Travel exacts a small price.

I leave you with photos of the Bosphorus...the ones that I couldn't let get away.

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