THE ANNEX BLOGDo You Know About Orhan Pamuk’s Literary Istanbul? – 8.4.16
Ilustration for Orhan Pamuk's Literary Istanbul

An Armchair Traveller’s History of Istanbul is a travel book in the classic tradition of Robert Byron, Evelyn Waugh, Patrick Leigh Fermor and Jan Morris. Tillinghast is an old Istanbul hand who first visited the city fifty years ago and has seen the faded majesty of the city transform into a vibrant, modern metropolis. This historical guide explores the art, architecture, culture, history and cuisine of the city, ranging through the various Byzantine, Ottoman and Turkish roots, all of it framed by the author’s own voyages of discovery. With Tillinghast as a guide through Istanbul’s cafes, mosques, palaces and taverns, and along its streets and waterways, readers will feel at home both in the Constantinople of bygone days and on the streets of the modern city. His Istanbul is a place of densely layered memories, where the ghosts of Byzantine emperors, theologians and courtesans rub elbows with Ottoman sultans, poets and dervishes. Below is an exclusive extract celebrating Orhan Pamuk’s literary Istanbul, which the Nobel Prize winning novelist visits in The Black Book, My Name is Red, Snow, and The Museum of Innocence.

Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul

Istanbul in her days of imperial greatness never lacked for writers to celebrate her beauty. If we can believe the words of literary travellers and poets like Lady Mary Wortley Montague and Lord Byron, Pierre Loti and Gerard de Nerval, this was a city of gardens, of excursion boats and royal barges rowed by liveried oarsmen, of phaetons clattering imperiously down cobbled streets at midnight on secret missions, dark-eyed harem ladies peering out through latticed windows at the street life below, and moonlight shimmering on the Bosphorus, its waters unsullied by pollution and teeming with fish. Then as one catastrophe succeeded another throughout the two centuries leading up to the First World War – a trauma for the whole world but perhaps even more so for the Ottomans – the disappearance of empire gave birth to the diminished but still vibrant city of ‘Istanbul as it used to be’, which even as it sank into bankruptcy, managed to maintain a brave, even ostentatious façade well through the waning years of the nineteenth century.

Cities become legendary in the eyes of the world, countries become fabled lands, when a poet or bard comes along to celebrate them and give them a larger existence, a penumbra to surround the scenes of everyday life with suggestions of amplified significance. Sooty chimney pots over the roofs of eighteenth-century hipped roofs in dense fog become ‘Dickensian’, and the Thames seen from Blackfriars Bridge recalls Pip and Herbert Pocket rowing the convict Magwitch downstream in their futile attempt to escape his pursuers. The sea viewed from a hillside on the Peloponnesian peninsula becomes ‘wine-dark’ in the hot afternoon light. We know that Odysseus sailed these waters. Istanbul, in its modern incarnation, was waiting for its defining voice.

Over the past couple of decades it has become clear that the city has found that voice. Istanbul’s indispensable chronicler – both of its present tense and its used-to-be – is Orhan Pamuk, whose Istanbul: Memories and the City, gives the place a dimensionality that might not otherwise be apparent. Pamuk was born in 1952 into a diminished, post-imperial Istanbul at a time when it had become the drab, black-and-white city brilliantly captured in the photographs taken by Ara Güler – a drabness reflected even in the way people dressed.

Drab perhaps, but at the same time still oddly elegant. It was a city where, despite the proliferation of concrete apartment blocks, one came unexpectedly upon wooden mansions like those that once filled the city – elegantly carpentered, unpainted, the oriel windows of their haremlik upper stories projecting out over the street – abandoned, their windows the targets of stone-throwing boys, or occupied by squatters and gypsies, windows curtained off with bedspreads and old kilims. American cars, imported by the rich or brought here by GIs stationed on military bases that looked north toward the Soviet Union’s encircling Cold War missile installations, were adapted as taxis and dolmuşes, and kept running with the Turkish auto mechanic’s heroic ingenuity and improvisation. Above these rolling museum pieces from the New World rose the domes and minarets of Istanbul’s imperial past – powerful, awe-inspiring and mysterious.

Witness to the city in decline
Part of what makes Istanbul: Memories and the City such an appealing book are its eye-witness accounts of how the city’s past became its present. Pamuk is both a knowledgeable observer of the city’s history and a participant in its on-going present tense. During the period when the yalıs, those exquisite wooden mansions that once lined the Bosphorus, were regularly being torched for the insurance money and the opportunity to build taller, more profitable apartment buildings, Pamuk was a teenager. ‘My friends and I’, he writes, ‘would immediately phone each other, hop into cars and go out to Emirgan, say, and park our cars on the pavement, turn on our tape decks (the latest consumer rage) and listen to Creedence Clearwater Revival, ordering tea, beer and cheese toasts from the tea- house next door as we watched the mysterious flames rising from the Asian shore.’

Does every city have its own characteristic mood? According to Pamuk, Istanbul is permeated by an atmosphere of hüzün, a word mentioned previously in these pages. This Turkish word, literally translated as ‘melancholy’, has entered the vocabulary of book-reading foreigners who have succumbed to Istanbul’s allure. English language authors ranging from Shakespeare to Sir Thomas Burton have analysed the various aspects of melancholy at length; but hüzün is different. While melancholy is the humour of an individual, hüzün, ‘the smoky window’ between the poet and the world, is a quality often found in Sufi poetry, where it is suggested that the sufferer from hüzün is ennobled by the burden that has been imposed on him. ‘Imbued still with the honour accorded it in Sufi literature, hüzün gives [Istanbullus’] resignation an air of dignity, but it also explains why it is their choice to embrace failure, indecision, defeat and poverty so philosophically and with such pride …’

The Pamuk family fortune was established by the author’s grandfather, one of the nouveau riches of the Republican era who made their money from railroads and manufacturing. As was the custom among those who could afford it, they constructed their own apartment building to house the various family groupings in separate flats on different floors of the building. It made sense for the extended family all to live under one roof. In this bourgeois interior, Pamuk’s grandmother’s sitting room housed the family’s books, treasures, curios and mementos that spoke of their status as an affluent, secular family in modern Turkey – even though Pamuk’s father and uncle were running through the family money as fast as luxurious living and bad business decisions could deplete a large fortune. Sitting rooms like this, which can still be found in many an Istanbul apartment, showed off the family’s crystal and good china, its bibelots and objets d’art.

Even the city itself could be seen as a museum: ‘in Istanbul the remains of a glorious past and civilisation are everywhere visible. No matter how ill-kept they are, no matter how neglected or hemmed in they are by con- crete monstrosities, the great mosques and other monuments of the city, as well as the lesser detritus of empire in every side street and corner – the little arches, fountains and neighbourhood mosques – inflict heartaches on all who live amongst them.’ Pamuk goes on to distinguish the sense of Istanbul as a museum from the prideful way traces of an illustrious past are preserved and displayed in Europe. The past in Istanbul is accompanied by a sense of defeat and shame, in a way that reminds one of the former Soviet Union in decline. There are similarities. The sister religions of Islam and Marxism carry in their scriptures a promise of ultimate victory and triumphalism. Marx presents the ultimate victory of Communism over capitalism as historically inevitable, just as Islam’s narrative claims that the true faith will win out over the infidels.

Istanbul: Memories and the City contains within its covers a priceless guide to many aspects of the city, but Pamuk’s remarks about failure, indecision, defeat and even poverty had, for many Istanbullus, already become outdated by the time the book was published. That’s how fast the city has been changing. One could mention 2001 as a turning point for the entire world, but especially for the Middle East. Al Qaeda’s attack on the World Trade Centre was traumatic for the entire global community, and the Anglo-American response led to great losses of human life, money, prestige and influence in the Middle East. The West’s loss has been Turkey’s gain in that the ‘moderate Islamicist’ government of the ruling Ak Party has skillfully moved to fill the void left by America’s diminishing presence in the region. Turkey has moved strategically to regain the pivotal role that it played in Ottoman days. Its economy boasts a growth rate that is the envy of Western nations.

Pamuk’s novelistic portrait of Istanbul came into being in fits and starts throughout the 1990s – first in the form of The Black Book, set in the 1950s, and then as My Name Is Red, a historical novel that recreates the city in the late sixteenth century, probably during the sultanate of Murad III. Pamuk numbers among his precursors as chroniclers of his native city not only the novelist, poet, art critic and essayist Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar, but also the the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century şehrengiz or ‘city books’ extolling the wonders of the capital, including its lovely boys, as well as the columnist and popular historian Reşat Ekrem Koçu, whose Istanbul Ansiklopedisi (Istanbul Encyclopædia) does, in a non-fictional form, some- thing of what James Joyce’s Ulysses did for Dublin. The encyclopædic if quirky knowledge of the city newspaper columnist who wrote for the Sunday supplements with an imagination and curiosity that could delve freely into whatever subject seized his fancy, no matter how far-fetched or tangential – acts as a kind of collective unconscious of Istanbul.

While Pamuk’s grandmother’s museum of a front parlour is a static, fly-in-amber kind of place, the remit of Jelal (Celâl in Turkish) Salik in The Black Book is to lay out his encyclopædic knowledge of the city in daily newspaper columns. His is a museum that mutates with time. A journalistic chronicler of Istanbul life, he amasses an archive of old clip- pings, curiosities, notes and jottings, and as a connoisseur of the city’s low life, he is always on the prowl among Beyoğlu’s gangsters, drug dealers, gamblers, prostitutes and hustlers. The stories he tells surely also derive to some extent from the Scheherazade tradition of storytelling in the Islamic Middle East.

As Ulysses gave readers an imperishable picture of Dublin in 1904, The Black Book accurately recreates the Istanbul of the 1950s, traces of which are still to be seen in out-of-the-way places. Galip, whose wife has gone missing, roams the city in the same way that Stephen Daedelus covered Dublin, stopping off ‘at a pudding shop in Karaköy which had marble tabletops. He turned away from the mirrors that reflected each other and had some vermicelli chicken soup and potted eggs. On the only wall in the pudding shop that wasn’t hung with mirrors, there was the view of a mountain inspired by postcards and Pan American Airways calendars.’ Pamuk clearly relishes the period details. In the voice of a religious fundamentalist prone to the conspiracy theories so common in this part of the world, he also presents a convincing picture of Istanbul as a dystopia.

Ottomans and Franks
Supremely confident, arrogant even, in its glory days as the colossus that bestrode the world from the Arabian Sea to the gates of Vienna, from the Black Sea to the Atlantic Ocean, its resolve and self-confidence stiffened by the moral power of the young religion of Muhammad, the Ottoman Empire nevertheless from an early date suffered crises of self-doubt. These crises spanned several centuries, from the sixteenth right up to the twentieth. But the era of Muslim invincibility began to pass, and European Christendom increasingly dominated a world evolving from the Middle Ages into modernity.

The armies of the infidels, better trained and disciplined, with more modern weapons, began to win battles they had previously lost to the fear- some Turk. European warships, swifter and more manœuverable, took back control of the Mediterranean. As early as 1571, at the Battle of Lepanto, the stronger navy and greater firepower the Europeans were able to muster, as well as their better-trained troops, carried the day. The combined forces of Venice, the Spanish Empire, the Papacy, Genoa and other European powers brought to the battle more than twice the number of weapons the Ottomans brought, and they had an additional technological advantage with their arquebuses and muskets. Europe feared the Ottomans’ bows, but they were no match against firearms. And the six galleans the Venetians built in their famed shipyards at the Arsenale, each a large galley capable of carrying heavy artillery, literally blew the Ottoman navy out of the water.

Certainly the power of European science, technology and military strategy was overwhelmingly clear by the beginning of the nineteenth century to the reforming sultan Mahmud II, who in an attempt to reverse the empire’s decline, destroyed the power of the corrupt and nepotistic Janissaries and brought in French military experts to help him reform his army. By the time of the First World War, Ottoman troops were commanded by German officers. In the scientific realm, the earlier accomplishments of Arab thinkers, astronomers and mathematicians were outstripped by the scientific West.

Italian painting began in imitation of Byzantine art: the great Madonnas of Duccio and Cimabue look very much like Byzantine icons. But at the dawn of the Renaissance, in the Italian quattrocento, painters like Masaccio and Masolino discovered what they called a new, ‘scientific’ approach to painting that revolved around perspective. If you can get close enough to Masaccio’s fresco, The Tribute Money, in the Brancacci Chapel in the church of Santa Carmine in Florence, you can see the nail that the painter drove into the wall to establish his perspective point.

The plot of Pamuk’s masterpiece, My Name Is Red, revolves around attempts to modernise Ottoman painting through the adoption of ‘Frankish’ (European) methods in the early seventeenth century. The book is a murder mystery that takes place among court miniaturists. Speaking from beyond the grave, the victim appeals to readers of his story: ‘open your eyes, discover why the enemies of the life in which you believe, of the life you’re living, and of Islam, have destroyed me.’

A world of princely states stretching from Herat on the western borders of what is now Afghanistan, to Isfahan, Shiraz and Tabriz in what is now Iran, to Baghdad in what is now Iraq, where rival khans patronised workshops of calligraphers and miniaturists in their courts, provides the surround for the murder mystery plot in My Name Is Red. The novel animates the multifaceted life of the imperial capital in its glory days – the dervish sects, the many and differing neighbourhoods of the city, the various trades, and the coffee houses where men gathered.

If all one knows of the dervishes is derived from an evening of ‘turning’, chanting and music in the reverent atmosphere of the Mevlevihanesi in Tünel, or the appearance of young men in dervish costumes performing in some of the city’s cafés, then Pamuk’s account of some of the other dervish orders will come as something of a shock.

The Kalenderhane Camii, originally built as the Church of the Theotokos Kyriotissa, almost adjacent to the Aqueduct of Valens that runs to the west of the Süleymaniye Mosque in the old city, is one of the most interesting of the city’s mosques. Mehmed II, on converting it from a church, gave it to the Kalenderis. Pamuk’s account of these lads, ‘opium- addicted madmen … piercing themselves with skewers and engaging in all manner of depravity’, springs to mind when one is visiting the mosque. These vignettes are part of Pamuk’s project of reclaiming for readers much of traditional Turkish and specifically Islamic lore that Atatürk attempted, largely successfully, to exorcise from Turkish consciousness.

In The Black Book, the storyline revolves around the mysterious disappearance of Rüya, the main character’s wife. In My Name Is Red, as in The Black Book, we meet a chronicler who provides sketches of life in the city, tangentially related to the plot. The journalist Jelal Salik is the city chronicler in The Black Book; his role is played in My Name Is Red by a coffee-house storyteller, a shape-shifter who brilliantly speaks in the voice of a horse, or a gold coin, or a dog, and whose stories inevitably poke fun at one Nusret Hoja from Erzerum, a Savanarola-like Islamic fundamentalist who wants to punish the free-thinking coffee drinkers, artists and illustrators for their deviations from what he considers the true path that the Prophet laid out in his holy book.

Pamuk’s evocations of life in the seventeenth-century city give his modern day readers a feeling for what Istanbul must have been like in days gone by – back to a time when humans coexisted with beings from other dimensions: the spirits of the dead, even messengers from heaven. When we walk the streets around Topkapı Palace at midnight, we know, thanks to Pamuk, that we are venturing into the same neighbourhoods that the sultans used to prowl at night in disguise, to spy on their subjects. He deftly establishes the feeling of walking across the sleeping city five centuries ago, past ‘mosque courtyards where angels reclined on domes to sleep, beside cypress trees murmuring to the souls of the dead, beyond the edges of snow-covered cemeteries crowded with ghosts’.

The Museum of Innocence
Pamuk sets his most recent book, The Museum of Innocence, which was published in Turkish in 2008 and translated into English in 2009, in the late seventies and early eighties among the wealthy, Europeanised residents of Istanbul who live in upscale neighbourhoods such as Nişantaşı which visitors to the city seldom frequent. Kemal, the narrator, is typical of the Turkish upper-middle classes. Speaking of the Kurban Bayramı, when sheep are slaughtered all over Turkey in commemoration of the time God ordered Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, and alms are given to the needy, the narrator comments: ‘neither my mother nor my father was religious. I never saw either of them pray or keep a fast. Like so many married couples who had grown up during the early years of the Republic, they were not disrespectful of religion; they were just indifferent to it… . We left it to the cook and the janitor to distribute the alms. Like my relatives, I had always kept my distance from the annual ritual sacrifice in the empty lot next door.’ But perhaps the sense of estrangement, the cultural isolation, that members of Pamuk’s class feel, says more about the social disconnection between classes than about religious matters: ‘the pain, it seemed to me from then on’, Pamuk writes in his memoir, ‘was not being far from God but from everyone around me, from the collective spirit of the city.’

This separation from the Turkish masses is common among well-educated, affluent Turks such as Kemal’s father’s wealthy friend who ventured out only once a day, to sip tea for two hours in the lobby or pastry shop of the Hilton Hotel, ‘because it’s the only place in the city that feels like Europe’. In the 1950s the newly built Istanbul Hilton came to symbolise modernity and westernisation. ‘On Sunday evenings’, Kemal recalls, ‘we would go as a family to eat that amazing thing called a hamburger, a delicacy as yet offered by no other restaurant in Turkey… . In those days so many Western innovations made their first appearance in this hotel that the leading newspapers even posted reporters here’.

As Istanbul has become increasingly transformed by wave after wave of immigrants from Anatolia, with their village ways and their fundamentalist understanding of Islam, the native, worldly Istanbullu can find himself feeling increasingly isolated. Pamuk addresses this cultural disjunction head-on in Snow, his most political novel, where the poet Ka, an Istanbul intellectual, travels to the far eastern Anatolian city of Kars (kar means ‘snow’ in Turkish) to investigate a wave of suicides among young girls forbidden by the secular Turkish state from wearing headscarves to school. The native Istanbullu is more comfortable either in his own neighbourhood or suburb, or in older quarters whose mixture of ethnicities and origins harks back to the days of Constantinople as the great mélange it used to be. Çukurcuma, where the Keskin family lives in Snow, is now home to Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence (an actual museum whose collections flesh out the lives of the middle-class characters from the novel).

Through Turkish eyes
Orhan Pamuk has done more to put his city on the world’s literary map than any previous Turkish writer. He has brought a Turkish voice to a culture that has usually been seen through European eyes. In My Name Is Red he lets his characters, most of them artists, discuss in terms of their own world-view the relative claims of Middle Eastern miniature painting and Frankish painting, with its realism in portraiture and employment of perspective. This book gives us Istanbul on its own terms, rather than through the eyes of the foreign visitor, who is on the lookout for the exotic and, yes, Oriental. Not that Turkey has not previously produced other novelists – notably Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar, whose 1949 novel Peace – translated in 2008 by Erdağ Göknar as A Mind at Peace – Pamuk himself has called ‘the greatest novel ever written about Istanbul’. But no one else has opened as wide a window on the city and given such a detailed and informed view of it.

His now considerable and global audience probably gives him little credit for doing this, but his Istanbul readership is undoubtedly very aware of Pamuk as a literary voice of the non-exotic middle class trying to live within the realities of life in post-imperial Republican Turkey, now that society has come to embrace the new, rising power of the more religiously observant Anatolian business class, with their wives who wear the headscarf – that potent symbol of everything Atatürk tried to lead his country away from.

The main characters in The Black Book exist within a diminished world where the city they have known has been transformed beyond recognition, where they live side by side with millions of immigrants from the countryside with whom they have little in common culturally. The Museum of Innocence tells its story of obsessive love within the milieu of Istanbul’s upper-middle-class socialites who live in the posh neighbourhoods which visitors to the city rarely see unless they make a point of going there, which they seldom do, since the old historic neighbourhoods are of greater interest. I seldom venture into those parts of town myself, but whenever I do, having read Pamuk makes me feel I know the people I see in the chic shops and restaurants.

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