Time Among the Nomads, Between Enchantment and Logic.

This morning I got up and went to breakfast with a book that I started just before we went to Edirne.  I walked up the street from our apartment, past the 24 hour corner store where we buy our bottled water, with the young man who works there sleeping in a white plastic lawn chair out front, his hood pulled over his head.  I walked up past the locals going to work, business-women in suits and talking on cell-phones, slightly bewildered and askew looking tourists puzzling over maps, past the schoolyard with children in uniform (ties and knee-high socks), past baskets being lowered from upper level windows, past baskets being raised, now with milk, bread, fruit and honey, past the local cats (14 at count), past the construction workers smoking on scaffolding.  We finished our reviews yesterday and the semester has come to a close – barring some grading, some deadlines, some blog-posts (ahem).  Time in Istanbul, for me at least, is almost done.  Some of our students are lingering a little longer, some a lot longer.  Others are taking more direct routes home, others more circuitous paths through places like Lebanon and Tehran, Berlin and New York, Thailand and Paris.  I however, have a few more days here in Old ‘Stamboul and with time coming to and here, it’s hard not to wax poetic, and because I can’t resist, I won’t.

Our reviews finished up yesterday and we had a very good round of discussions with some terrific critics.  Ross Altheimer joined us from Rome (via Minneapolis and Wisconsin), Çağrı Akay from Murat Tabanlioğlu’s office in Istanbul (by way of Istanbul, then Minneapolis – and CDes actually), the inestimable Nedret Butler from Istanbul (via Minneapolis and Boston) and Brit Salmela from Istanbul (via Minneapolis and Duluth).  The discussions were great – but I’ll leave that for another blog post, or perhaps one of our intrepid students will take on the task of posting their reflections.  There WILL be more blog posts – I have a lot to catch up on, but before all of that, I wanted to share something I read in a book on our way back from Edirne – the same book I took with me to breakfast this morning.  I read a passage to the students in the bus as we left the historic center, past the Caravanserai built by Sinan for Rüstem Paşa (and where the great architect slept while working on his masterpiece), past the Eski Cami and the Üç Şerefali – those mosques that are emblematic of the transition from the old Selcuk to the new Ottoman architectural worlds, past one of the universally acknowledged buildings of the old Master’s canon – the Selimiye Cami, resplendent over the Arasta Bazaar, on top of the hill, with its breathtaking unity, symmetry and quiet grandeur.  The book was written by a Turkish author who I didn’t know until last year. Irfan Orga wrote The Caravan Moves: Three Weeks Among  Turkish Nomads on the late 1950s.  There are many passages of sublime writing in his books, but one in particular stood out for me and was especially moving.

“I am a traveler only in the modern sense. I seldom go far off the beaten track, so that my journey to the Yürük tents still retains the elements of wonder and achievement. Moving among them my life was if it were suspended in another dimension. I forgot the world of time, of cities and bustle, of established law and order, and tranquilisers. I felt freer than I have in my entire life – yet more imprisoned because my heart searched for its reasons and my mind didn’t know how to use such freedom. One has to be born to freedom to accept it. To live primitively was frighteningly easy. The daily bath was sloughed off as easily as a snake sloughs off an old skin. The bearded face was comfortable. The veneer of civilised living dropped away from us, was forgotten, had never existed – except in a life so remote it might have been lived by someone else. Sleeping and eating were no longer rituals, but moods, states of being governed strictly by fatigue and hunger. Our senses hung somewhere between enchantment and logic, touching the periphery of freedom, then darting away like a dragonfly tipsy with too much sun. We found it easy to identify with the Yürük, but impossible not to remember that we were transient. We were bird of passage, ships passing in the night; with a wealth of gesture and extravagant words we wove them into our imagination. We would remember them long after they had forgotten us.”

We could not, of course, forget the bustle of the city (we were in one). We did not live primitively or drop away the veneer of civilization either, but for me, Istanbul was – and is – our  Yürük tent for these months.   Although our time seems impossibly short here (it always does when you have to leave), Istanbul is always like a chemistry coming out of solution, its particles hanging suspended in the liquid form of its continuous, ever-changing states of being – like a series of dust motes in a sunlit window.  It IS changing – it has changed drastically in the short time we’ve been here –  and it is changing incredibly fast. Time is oddly accelerated here, but the quickness of this change is set against the geologic age of its monumental ruins and its living histories.  The city is like two temporal tectonic plates, one frozen in time, the other racing against it, re-making it  every instant, every second.  Against that change, for me at least, are those moments of experience that still leave me suspended between logic and enchantment. These moments  of everyday ritual, of observed (and drawn) life, of photographed instances, of lived life.  And it is precisely in this simultaneity of time that Istanbul is made real more manifest, more bright.  I am profoundly sad to be leaving here, but so very grateful that I can carry these moments with me back to my house in the Twin Cities, past the Half-Price Books and the Dairy Queen, past the park with its swings and slides, past the leafy green boulevards (I hope), and that left-hand turn onto the driveway, next to the white picket fence.

But first, one more cup of çay.

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