Istanbul

A little while ago, a great Turkish friend of mine – a charming architect who wound up marrying one of my students after he took her on a tour of Istanbul on his motorcycle – told me what the Turkish  word “yabancı” meant.  I had heard it, time after time, directed at me and usually at the loping chain of the University of Minnesota College of Design students who were always around.  “Yabancı,” he said, “Means foreigner!”  We laughed, and then he said “You know, everyone in Istanbul is a foreigner, even the natives.”  We laughed again, and watched these young students walk past us, towards the grill where an artisan of otherworldly skill was preparing skewers of kebabs – fresh lamb seasoned with parsley and onions and spices; where flat dürüm bread was heating, green peppers charring.  These students walked past us and we watched them while talking and drinking tea, taking in the sight of these young (mostly) midwestern kids chatting with an equally young group of Turkish architects and designers, little domes of blonde hair mixing in with dark curls.  All easy laughs and introductions, smoke from the grill in theair, as we sat in a garden almost underneath the Bosphorous Bridge.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, more so since Saturday, when a suicide bomber killed 4 people and wounded 36 others on Istiklal Caddesi, one of my favorite streets in all the world.  Istiklal is itself a chain, connecting Taksim Square (of recent Gezi Park fame) and, where it turns into Galipdede Caddesi, a street of musical instruments – pianos, the saz, electric guitars, mandolins – to the Galata tower.  There a short turn left turn along Serdar i Ekrem Caddesi brings you to Hoca Ali Sokak, where for the last four years, we have had a home away from home. 

On Istiklal, from top to bottom, you walk past stately buildings, some swathed in construction fabric, others wrapped in steel scaffolding and still others in fluttering canvas sheets.  You will walk past storefronts with old books with their pictures ofTurkish movie stars, images of the Bosphorous, engravings of yalıs – regal waterside, Ottoman-era houses – antique (perhaps) hamam bowls.  You will walk – near the top of the street – past fast food joints, some with steaming stacks of hamburgers – Işlak – in piles, heaped atop each other in glass boxes, illuminated with single bulbs; these little food hamams line your journey from the top of a ridge that slopes west down toward the Golden Horn – the Halic – and east towards the Bosphorus Strait.  Taksim is where water from the Belgrade Forest was brought to, to be distributed to the city communities along and lining this ridge.  There are rivulets of people now, like those old water channels, moving down from the top to the bottom, down towards the Galata Tower and eventually, to the Galata Bridge, across the Horn and into the Historic Peninsula.  Along Istiklal, you will see schools and consulates, art galleries and stores.  There’s a Shake Shack too, and across from it a gelateria that has undergone far too many renovations to count.  Like Istanbul, the ice-cream shop has constantly re-invented itself, first as Giolitti and now as something else; vaguely Italian in some way. 

Istiklal is linked from Galipdede to Taksim by streams of people and by a bright red nostalgic tram that clinks up and down from Taksim to Tünel, packed with people. Sometimes – many times – children run up to it laughing and hold on the back, hitching a free ride up and down this busy promenade.  In the summer, another open air carriage is hitched to the tram and it is often inhabited by unknown, but gloriously earnest, bands.  A full kit – cymbals, high-hat, you name it – often accompanies.  Often two to three guitarists, perhaps a bass if you’re lucky, and regularly, a growly yodeling singer who pours his and her heart (and probably a lot of rakı) into a thunderous thumping song (?) of some (moderatly) discernible narrative.  This is also sometimes accompanied by a disco ball oddly propped above, throwing little beads of light onto onlookers and storefronts. Weary proprietors look on and bemused tourists take lots of cellphone videos. This train lunches up and down, the loud music fading in and out, children hopping on and off.  Old Turkish men and women look on, some nodding, others clearly disapproving, many smoking; they are sitting and standing with tulip tea glasses in hand, a long, ashy cigarette dangles, backgammon is played. The train continues up and down, a red leaf in a long stream that parallels those people streams on either side. People are looking on from intersecting streets and from patios and restaurants where tea is served and fried fish and döner, and skewers of lamb and grilled chicken, calamari and pide

There are many streets that intersect with Istiklal.  Some go towards the Horn –  long alleys full of shops that sell everything from Camper Shoes to Mavi Jeans, to mounds of Turkish delight, to baklava rolls that roll on for miles it seems.  All of these streets are rivers of people, shopping, looking, eating and drinking.  It is a cultural imperative in Turkey – an impulse that propels all who come – to enjoy the company of a city in food and drink, public and open, full of sound and conversation. The streets that intersect with Istiklal are lined with places to sit and eat, to sample meze plates of astonishing variety, color, texture and taste: smoky eggplant, creamy haydari and cacik, yoghurts with mint, crushed peppers mixed with egg, sardines and bulgur, tabboulehs and salads with olives from Bursa, pistachios from Gaziantep, drizzled with a thick pomegranate syrup. All this is supplemented by a divinely ordained drink, a liquid that likely runs through the veins of every Turkish person who ever lived – çay.  It is a religious duty to consume tea – by the gallons if possible, and daily too; tiny spoons stirring in sugar, a thousand million bells sounding in the streets of Istanbul, on Istiklal – wherever you are.

And so you stop at a tea garden, and you drink tea and you watch the world move on in front of you.

Once you continue walking, you walk past the Balık Pazar – the Fish Market – which leads you past stores and booths selling Galatasaray mugs next to Besiktas bobble-heads and Fenerbahce scarves (a heresy if I ever saw one – and besides, Besiktas is the only real team in and around these parts).  You would walk, if you turned down this fragrant street, past innumerable stores selling spices, lokum, fruits and vegetables, a butcher here and there, eager cats waiting for scraps from the fish markets with their displays of bulbous, shiny, lean and warty looking catches artfully arranged in a tradition that hails from the Ottoman period.  Here shrimp, there Turbot, some levrek, more and more – gifts from the waters of Istanbul’s liquid environs.  Down to the end and right and you’ll come across Dürümzade – a shop popularized by Anthony Bourdain in an episode of “No Reservations,” but worshipped with an obstinacy bordering on the heretical by our students.  Hoş Geldiniz HocamI,” the usta shouts when he sees us (this year with 17 students, 3 faculty, Her Lovely Self and our two daughters along for the ride too). This year, we made it on to their Facebook page.

But you don’t turn there at the Gate of the Fish Market. You continue on, rather, past Galatasaray High school, then Odakule – one of the first tall buildings built in the city, and whose passage beneath it leads to a view that begins to suggest the vast sprawl of the city. You see the Golden Horn and there, the Süleymaniye, there the Rüstem Pasa next to the New Mosque, and beyond, the slender minarets of the Blue Mosque in silent monumental dialogue with the squat towers of the mountain of the Hagia Sophia, and at last before the land falls away into Seraglio Point, you see the Tower of Justice at Topkapi, with Sinan’s chimneys of the imperial kitchen marking a quiet line behind.  Then, it all comes together – the Bosphorous, the Marmara and the Golden Horn.

But instead you move past this passage and this view, and you continue down towards Galipdede Caddesi, where musical instruments mark your right and left, down a winding street also lined with hipster soap shops, stamp emporia, antique bookstores.  There’s a Caribou Coffee here too, with a terrace (of course) so you can see over the old, faded upper stories and if the buildings align just right, you can see the peak of the Galata Tower. 

That venerable icon marks the center of the Genoese district of the Constantinople, and where you turn left down towards the Center where you find the Mark and Nedret Butler Design Studio and our Erginoglu + Calislar renovated building. Opened four years ago, this building has been our home-away-from-home.  This is where students get their orientations to Istanbul – on how to use Metro Cards, where the post office is, the art-shop, the coffee shop, the tea garden, the other tea garden, the pilawchi, the good bread place and so on. Here is our studio space and our classrooms, where we’ve learned about Sinan and Constantinople and Byzantium and Emperors and Sultans and Mosques and Churches, Frescos and and Muqarnas.  Here we designed ferry stations and landscapes, had reviews and charettes. This center is an island of familiar normalcy in the frenetic entropy of Istanbul; this magical city is as mesmerizing and captivating as it has always been – since the first time I came to the City of the World’s Desire years ago.  Here at the center, our faculty and guests, our amazing partners in ACCENT, our donors and families, our loved ones and our dearest friends have watched our students stream in and out, hurrying to catch the metro, the tram, the ferry; rushing to get to history class, to a studio site visit, to grab a quick bite up at the tower; to saunter in and crash on the couches downstairs, to pass out on a beanbag – or a desk – after a long periods of drawing and modeling and writing.  We watch them from the front lobby, walking up Hoca Ali street to grab a quick çay, or down Hoca Ali to… well, to grab a quick çay.

The writer John Freely, in his beautiful book Stamboul Sketches, describes a parallel narrative in a series of chapters that move between time.  In these moving vignettes, the Sultan observes the procession of guilds that make the city – as written by the poet, writer, scholar, diplomat, traveler (and rascal) and chronicler of the Ottoman Age – Evliya Celebi.  Evliya desribes how the Sultan watched these guilds – the people that made, make and manage the city and its functions – move past the kiosk at Gülhane park where he would sit with his retinue. Freely weaves this narrative with the stories of his Stamboul, with his observations and experiences wandering it’s streets and sitting in its meyhanes.  

Istiklal is the modern processional of Celebi, where the people of Istanbul watch their city unfold before themselves in stream after endless stream. The Center is where we have done the same with our students; It is our kiosk, where we can see our community – although Sultans we most definitely are not – as they wander in and out of our lives, and us in theirs, together for a time, then gone.

For Freely, however, the best place to observe Istanbul is a passage just off Istiklal Caddesi, very close to where you would have turned down to get to Dürümzade.

It is said that on a certain day in June, the crazy tilt of the buildings allows the sun briefly into this alley… Osman Effendi passed by here an age ago and his delight in what he saw was such that the alley has been named for him. ‘The Street of Osman Effendi Passed By’ leads from the flower-market to the fish-bazaar by way of an arcade lined with methanes, or kerbside taverns, and is therefore a museum of Stamboul smells. It is more often called the Çiçek Pasaji, the Passage of Flowers…And as I sit alone by the tavern window, I recall the words which Evlliya Effendi wrote so long ago, speaking of the wandering minstrels of his time: ‘These players are possessed of the particular skill to evoke by their tones the remembrance of absent friends and distant countries, so that their hearers grow melancholy.’ And Evliya’s words evoke for me the memory of the dear friends who once sat with me in the Passage, most of them now far away and some gone for ever, and so I grow melancholy too. Then I think of Evliya himself, who for so long has been my unseen companion in my strolls through Stamboul, and I wonder what he would say if he could see his beloved town today, so changed but so much the same, and then I lift a last glass in his memory. Thus the evenings pass and the years go by in the Passage of Flowers, a little alleyway in Istanbul.

It was off a little alley much like this one, on Istiklal Caddesi, that those lives were lost on Saturday. The dead and wounded were a mix of the local and the global; they were wanderers too, hey were foreigners, they were all yabancı. And so were those wounded by that attack.  They were all wanderers and minstrels, in and out of the streets of our live, in our little Istanbul.  And like them, we are – all of us – Istanbullus ourselves, at once at home, at once minstrels in our own right.

And so we move on, for now.  Our groups shift to Spain for the remainder of the semester; a difficult decision and profoundly saddening.  We’ll update from there. 

We were – thankfully – out of town when it happened, but it is a moment that remains undiminished in my memory.  I took an early morning walk through a very quiet Istanbul on Sunday morning. I walked through my neighborhood – where I stayed four years ago when the Center opened. I saw a young father making tea on a gas grill in the park above Tophane. His two daughters played in the playground and he watched them, occasionally looking out at the Bosphorous beyond; a small but beautiful sense of normalcy.

The streets in Karaköy were slowly stirring; boats on the water, seagulls on the wing, a cat warily watching a dog. I am very grateful that we and our students and friends and family are safe, but sad beyond measure for lives lost and to leave Istanbul so quickly. We met with these friends and family today in Beşiktaş, had çay and peynir and börek and almond cake and we watched a little blonde boy ride his bicycle through an apartment and strike superhero poses with his tiny fists. We talked, and laughed, got quiet and not a little bit sad, but then back to laughing and thinking ahead, looking out at each other and occasionally, out to the little sliver of the Bosphorous beyond, sun streaming in to a full living room, afternoon light on a little boy’s face, and on my daughters too. More çay? Yesplease. Evet. See you soon, old ‘Stamboul.

IMG_8804

4 comments

  1. Oh to have been fortunate enough to have been both at home and of minstrel on Istaklal. Profound and palpable memories … to pick up one’s head, to not look at the ground and just move along and across these streams of people… local people, global people — yabanci all of us–to look at the faces and to feel the force of thousands of stories moving past and through you. This is Istaklal. This is Istanbul.

  2. Pingback: Update from Madrid | hmayer

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: