Shin­ing a light on the darker side of Istanbul

Emirates Man - - CONTENTS -


Istanbul is cold in late Novem­ber. Colder than a sky drained of colour would sug­gest. Too cold to be conned by taxi driv­ers and chancers. The Aegean coast has fallen into mem­ory and swirls of wind cut deep along Istik­lal Av­enue, the wide, nev­erend­ing pedes­tri­anised thor­ough­fare that cuts through Beyo­glu. Its myr­iad side streets have been car­peted a ubiq­ui­tous ashen grey, and its sin­gle cen­tral tram­line glis­tens with a fresh coat­ing of rain. Be­fore us, an end­less sea of peo­ple, wrapped up against the on­set of win­ter, ebb and ow along this broad, wind­ing av­enue; drift­ing from the steep cob­bled gra­di­ents of Galata to the vast open space of Tak­sim Square.

It is dark and night has drawn in but there is a gleam of hap­pi­ness in the face of the woman walk­ing be­side me. Her large, lu­mi­nous eyes have caught the light cas­cad­ing from street lamps and un­told shop win­dows, while ev­ery nook and cranny along this ram­bling com­mer­cial artery is lined with cafés, restau­rants, patis­series, cin­e­mas, art gal­leries, li­braries and the­atres. Over­head, cel­e­bra­tory street­lights sig­nal the on­set of Turkey’s Repub­lic Day.

The melo­dra­matic sweep of Istik­lal is coated with grand neo- clas­si­cal build­ings and their Art Nou­veau cousins, while its old name – the Grande Rue de Pera – em­bod­ies a world of late 19th cen­tury deca­dence, Ot­toman man­sions and the lav­ish Frank­ish houses of pros­per­ous Greeks and Ar­me­ni­ans. As Ayfer Bartu, writ­ing in Istanbul: Be­tween The Global And The

Lo­cal, said: “The ar­chi­tec­tural her­itage of Beyo­glu sym­bol­ised nine­teenth- cen­tury Euro­pean cap­i­tal­ism and its al­liance with the lo­cal pop­u­la­tion. It was the re­minder of Europe in the Ot­toman Em­pire.”

If re­minders are needed, then the me­dieval Ge­noese ci­tadel of Galata, now known as Karaköy and ly­ing at the south­ern end of Istik­lal, was the seed from which Beyo­glu it­self grew. Its steep cob­ble­stone streets and dark side al­leys pro­vide a glimpse into Istanbul’s com­plex and cos­mopoli­tan past, although, like wider Beyo­glu, it has been ed dur­ing the course of the past 20 years. Its cen­tral, strik­ing fea­ture – the Galata Tower – built by the Ge­noese in 1348, re­mains a bea­con to the won­der of Istanbul’s pre- Ot­toman past, although it is now sur­rounded by cafés and bou­tiques sell­ing Ori­en­tal­ist soap tins and Turk­ish tow­els.

Istanbul is beau­ti­ful in the cold. Ex­cess num­bers of tourists have been shaken off, like dan­druff on a broad shoul­der, and the city has been re­claimed by its in­hab­i­tants,

although the Old City re­mains the tourist trap it al­ways was. Only snow and sleet will dis­lodge them.

The idea of snow in Istanbul seems un­real, but for the long­est time, di­rec­tor Nuri Bilge Cey­lan’s painful, lan­guid shots of lone­li­ness and iso­la­tion in the snow- ladened Istanbul of Uzak held sway over my imag­i­na­tion. They sowed seeds of per­cep­tion

The ar­chi­tec­tural her­itage of Beyo­glu was the re­minder of Europe in the Ot­toman Em­pire

that con­tinue to grow. It wasn’t the lo­ca­tion, of course, but the men them­selves who were lost, though the death of ac­tor Mehmet Emin To­prak a few months after the lm’s re­lease in 2002 only added to the city’s sense of despair and melan­choly, and so­lidi ed my con­cept of Istanbul as bleak and for­lorn.

It’s hard to tell whether that melan­choly has lifted, but writer Orhan Pa­muk, who has “never left Istanbul – never left the houses, streets and neigh­bour­hoods of my child­hood”, shared Cey­lan’s sense of sad­ness and loss. When I rst vis­ited Istanbul 20 years ago, to some ex­tent this great me­trop­o­lis was still his “city of ru­ins and of end- of- em­pire melan­choly”. It was poorer, shab­bier and await­ing most of the ren­o­va­tion projects that would trans­form the im­age of this straddler of con­ti­nents.

It’s hard to dis­lodge th­ese older images. Harder still to re­move images of vi­o­lence. Images of men ght­ing as they spilled grotesquely from the front car­riage of a tram in the Old City, edg­ing their way to­wards me in a urry of knives and sts.

No one re­ally vis­ited Beyo­glu back then. Only the hardy and the ad­ven­tur­ous. It was a shadow of its for­mer self, run­down and ly­ing derelict in parts, but in many ways Beyo­glu stands as the em­bod­i­ment of Turkey’s postim­pe­rial cri­sis. A bat­tle­ground for the city’s cul­tural iden­tity, it per­soni es Istanbul’s new­found con dence and eco­nomic en­ergy. It raises ques­tions of what it means to be Turk­ish, Euro­pean and mod­ern, while simultaneously sym­bol­is­ing civil­i­sa­tion, el­e­gance and the “peas­an­ti­sa­tion of the city”. As Pa­trick Wrigley wrote in Guer­nica, Beyo­glu has al­ways been a per­mis­sive part of Istanbul, but its “rapid phys­i­cal, so­cial, and de­mo­graphic trans­for­ma­tion” over the course of the past 20- odd years hasn’t pleased ev­ery­one, least of all those evicted in the name of progress.

Wrigley cited Turkey’s old­est movie the­atre, the Emek, as an ex­am­ple of the con­fronta­tion faced in Beyo­glu. De­mol­ished last year to make way for a shop­ping mall, the Turk­ish and in­ter­na­tional lm direc­tors who protested against the de­struc­tion were tear gassed for their trou­ble, while next door, a 19th cen­tury stone ar­cade was re­placed by a mock Le­van­tine build­ing hous­ing another shop­ping cen­tre. In their own ways, both cases helped fo­cus a sense of help­less­ness and frus­tra­tion that later found voice in the protests that swept across Turkey from the mid­dle of last year. Nev­er­the­less, de­spite its gen­tri cation, the fur­ther you stray from Istik­lal, the dingier and more in­tim­i­dat­ing the streets be­come. Groups of men block dimly lit al­ley­ways. For many, Beyo­glu is viewed sim­ply as a place of sin within a Mus­lim, if sec­u­lar, so­ci­ety. It is this, as well as the area’s his­toric and com­plex mix of na­tion­al­i­ties, that have ac­cen­tu­ated Beyo­glu’s rep­u­ta­tion as a bas­tion of he­do­nism.

On Ne­vizade, ta­bles oc­cu­pied by friends and lovers have eaten away what lit­tle street there is, and there is only a nar­row pedes­trian cor­ri­dor for those seek­ing a place to cel­e­brate the an­niver­sary of the cre­ation of the Turk­ish repub­lic. Men and women sing and shout from

one restau­rant to the next, the canopies above them barely inches apart, and as we weave our way along the slen­der path­way be­tween venues – past wait­ers with black eye­liner, hip­ster mous­taches and posters of doe- eyed Turk­ish movie stars – we are tempted into a bar with vinyl records stuck to its walls.

At the end of Ne­vizade we turn right into Balo Sokak and So­lakzade, where male singers play to packed but pint- sized venues placed side by side. Fe­male rev­ellers dance be­side crowded ta­bles as oth­ers bois­ter­ously cheer, cre­at­ing a mon­u­men­tal sound clash for those who glide up the street in a sin­gle uid move­ment. It is not un­til we head back to­wards the rel­a­tive tran­quil­lity of Istik­lal that the ca­coph­ony be­gins to sub­side.

Five min­utes later and we’re at Fic­cin, a restau­rant spread across six venues scat­tered on ei­ther side of the same nar­row, paved street. Raki fends off the bite of the night air, and as I re­count tales of Ge­noese hero­ism dur­ing the Ot­toman con­quest of Con­stantino­ple, the eyes of the woman be­fore me glaze over. She is in­ter­ested only in the sen­sory ex­pe­ri­ences of the present, not the dis­tance and in­tan­gi­bil­ity of the past. We or­der kofte, ar­ti­chokes, grilled chicken and a salad with yo­ghurt and garlic, her eyes sparkling once more with the joy of fresh dis­cov­ery.

From Fic­cin it’s barely a ve- minute walk to the Pera Palace Ho­tel, Jumeirah, a late 19th cen­tury master­piece re­fur­bished and restyled over the course of the past eight years. A neo­clas­si­cal gem de­signed by French- Ot­toman ar­chi­tect Alexan­dre Val­laury, its grand, high- ceilinged in­te­ri­ors are awash with dark reds, vel­vet, gold and the ef­fort­less ex­u­ber­ance of the Belle poque. The colours of the lobby, tea lounge and li­brary are deeper and richer than when Agatha Christie and a cav­al­cade of early 20th cen­tury celebri­ties made it their ho­tel of choice, yet its re­birth is in­dica­tive of that of the wider Beyo­glu area.

In such a grand en­vi­ron­ment, the two of us pose for fun on our sec­ond night. Me in a clas­sic blue suit, her in a beau­ti­ful se­quinned dress that glit­ters emer­ald green in the light thrown from chan­de­liers and golden leaves. We change, then head out into the Istanbul night and the dark chill of late au­tumn.

The fol­low­ing morn­ing we head down through Galata to the shores of the Golden Horn, cross­ing the Galata Bridge to­wards Sul­tanah­met and the Old City, with all its sani­tised mass tourism and rip- off mer­chants. We lis­ten to the beauty of the call to prayer in the Sul­tan Ahmed Mosque, un­wind from the late­ness of the night be­fore, and sit be­neath the con­tin­u­ous vaulted ar­cade that sur­rounds the mosque’s great court­yard. Even­tu­ally we strike for the Grand Bazaar and the kitsch back­streets that ow down to­wards the spice souk, hop­ing to reach the Golden Horn and the tram back to Karaköy be­fore night­fall.

The Grand Bazaar is what a mod­ern mar­ket would look like if an Ori­en­tal­ist de­signed it. It has ceased to be a liv­ing en­tity that pro­vides for, and feeds off, the city that sur­rounds it, and has be­come in­stead the clos­est ap­prox­i­ma­tion of Ot­toman pas­tiche. This is no Da­m­as­cus be­fore the war. No Al- Hamidiyah souq. It is not even Sana’a and its im­mer­sive, un­com­pro­mis­ing salt mar­ket. This is Ot­toman Dis­ney­land. We hag­gle – as we’re sup­posed to – and ex­as­per­ate sell­ers with sug­ges­tions of lu­di­crous three- for- one of­fers, while a dead­pan stall­holder con­cedes that the cheaper of his prod­ucts will, in all like­li­hood, dis­in­te­grate after a sin­gle wash. On the fringes of the bazaar, an Egyp­tian Turk­ish De­light seller ped­dles love tea to the beau­ti­ful Pales­tinian be­side me. “I prom­ise you,” he says in Ara­bic. “If you give him some of this, you’ll hear him say things you’ve never heard be­fore.”

We head north to­wards Eminön and into a war­ren of Turk­ish tinsel. Man­nequins dressed as os­ten­ta­tious drum­mer boys have re­placed fam­i­lies of Scan­di­na­vian tourists, and ev­ery­thing around us glit­ters or sparkles. Loud, gar­ish shades of red are per­va­sive, and we are con­fused as to how we ended up here. Ear­muffs, pom­poms, tu­tus, gowns, veils, bas­kets and ob­jects with no dis­cernible use line shop after shop as we es­cape into a court­yard lled en­tirely with tow­els. Now red gives way to gold and sil­ver in this won­der­land of faux Ot­toman kitsch.

We con­tinue north in the di­rec­tion of the Golden Horn, stop­ping for food and tea be­fore glimps­ing the choppy, tur­bu­lent wa­ters of the Bosporus. As we cross the Galata Bridge for the last time, hun­dreds of sher­men stand cheek by jowl, their rods a per­fectly aligned hon­our guard to the murky wa­ters be­low. We ride past trick­sters and scam artists, fam­i­lies of beg­gars, and cou­ples in loving em­braces, their forms sil­hou­et­ted against the fall­ing sun. We dis­em­bark at Karaköy and tackle the steep in­cline of Galata, nally spilling into the river of peo­ple on Istik­lal.

There, set back into the dark­en­ing shad­ows, three men sing a song by Fairuz. The face of the woman be­side me ra­di­ates warmth and hap­pi­ness, a frag­ment of her child­hood re­born in Istanbul. She smiles and sings, be­fore we head once more into the dark­ness beyond.

Street life: Crowded al­leys, live mu­sic, and enig­matic faces in Beyo­glu

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