Falling in love again with a first love
It was only after more than a year of saving up money that I was able to afford a visit to Istanbul on the back of an undergraduate conference I was attending in Europe. This was 12 years ago. I had already fallen in love with the idea of Istanbul. The name Istanbul (adopted over Constantinople by the Turkish Republic in 1930) comes from eis tin polin, which in Greek means ‘in the city’ or ‘to the city’—to say you were going to ‘the city’ was enough because there was clearly only one worth going to.
In my mind, I too had to go to the city and one could not simply fly there: there would be no accompanying drama of going to the city. Instead, I spent a few days in another great Ottoman-era entrepôt, Thessalonika, and then took a seven-hour train ride to Istanbul. It is a journey I am now glad I made (the trains were suspended in 2011). I still remember being woken in the morning by a conductor informing me that we had snaked our way across Thrace and were now in Istanbul. It was an indication of the urban sprawl of the city that it took another two hours of slowly crawling into the belly of the beast before I saw firsthand the view of that skyline, with its many slender minarets and domes surrounded by the crowded slopes that extended downhill to the glittering waters of the Bosphorus.
During that first visit, I stayed in Istanbul for two weeks. I was fascinated by the tension between the staunch secularism of the Turkish state that Atatürk had established and the country’s mostly religiously observant population. At the time, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and then prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, were just finishing their first term in power. The sheen had not yet worn off. The AKP was stabilising the economy, pursuing EU membership and rapprochement with Turkey’s brutally marginalised Kurdish minority. In a post-9/11 world trying to comprehend the Middle East, Erdoğan was seen as, perhaps, the Muslim equivalent of Christian Democracy, and Turkey as a model for other countries in the region.
When I decided to pursue a Master’s degree, I chose Turkey as my area of focus. At Oxford, the bond deepened; I worked on my Turkish for 12 hours a week and spent my breaks in Istanbul. As someone who had a peripatetic childhood, there was no place in India I could really call home. I had come to love Istanbul of my own accord, not because I had been born there but because I had chosen to build a relationship with the city and make it mine.
After my MPhil, I moved to Istanbul for about two years. They say the more intimately you know someone the more clearly you see their flaws. Like any big metropolis, Istanbul was challenging. The traffic was legendarily awful. And, from a professional vantage, it was clear to me that there was a statute of limitations on how long I could work in Istanbul. For all this, it was also bliss. I worked a regular corporate job, but had the weekends to explore the city, do some research, write a bit. I had a wonderful group of academic and journalist friends. I had the best commute in the world—every day I would cross the Bosphorus from Asia to Europe and back by ferry. On some weekends, I would wake up in the morning, walk aimlessly through the city’s neighbourhoods all day, come home and pass out from exhaustion. Those were the best days.
But politics in Turkey had become increasingly polarised. Erdoğan, constrained by term limits as prime minister, had become president and was pushing constitutional changes that would turn Turkey into a one-man state. Istanbul, it seemed, had become a fiefdom. In the last few months that I was in Turkey, it felt like something had to give. It finally did when the 2013 Gezi Park protests broke out over the government’s plan to refashion Taksim Square, including a small adjoining park, a last verdant refuge in a city increasingly marked by concrete. It was more than the loss of green space that brought out a host of protestors. Taksim Square had been envisaged in the 1930s by the urban planner Henri Prost as a symbol of Republican modernity. Erdoğan’s redesign included shopping malls and a mosque, an architectural expression of the economical neo-liberalism and religious conservatism that had come to characterise his rule.
I had moved to London a short while before Gezi Park was finally cleared out and barricaded, but I would return to Istanbul often. Gezi had changed the city and brought the brutality and antagonism of Turkish politics out into the open. Orhan Pamuk has famously talked about Istanbul being characterised by hüzün, a deep communal sense of spiritual loss that is nonetheless life-affirming. In Istanbul’s boom years, Pamuk was criticised for thrusting his self-flagellating nostalgia on a city that was nothing like the city of his youth. And yet, after Gezi, it was hard to think that Istanbul hadn’t reverted to some of that hüzün, only that it was now mixed with distrust and aggression. It wasn’t the happiest place, but I couldn’t stay away, feeling in turn joyous at being back in the city and sorrowful about what had happened to it. Perhaps I shared in the hüzün of Istanbul, for only if you care so deeply about a place can you feel such deep melancholy for it.
My fortunes seemed tied to the city. The summer of 2016 was a difficult one for us both. Having just called off an impending marriage, one of my first reactions was to phone my best friend, Kerem, in Istanbul and tell him I was coming. In the midst of all the chaos, Istanbul seemed like a familiar refuge. As another Istanbul-loving friend said to me at the time, the city is a balm for heartache. Three days before I was supposed to fly out, I received a flurry of text messages in the middle of the night asking me if I was following the news out of Turkey. A coup attempt was underway.
It seems so selfish as I write this now, but at the time my greatest sadness was for myself. For not being able to return. Someone once told me there was something cowardly about claiming a city as your first love, because it could never let you down in the way people did and therefore didn’t take that much out of you. And yet here I was. I felt that when I needed Istanbul the most, it had let me down. It was the tipping point for all the grief and anguish that I had accumulated all summer. Life took me further away from Istanbul after the coup attempt. I went to business school in the United States. Still, I used one of my additional course credits to study ‘Islamic Visual Cultures’ and, at every sight of Sinan’s soaring Ottoman architecture on a PowerPoint slide in Philadelphia, my heart would twinge with longing.
I finally went back for a few days early this May, after a gap of more than two years. There was trepidation, of course, about how both the city and I had changed. I was staying with Kerem in the genteel, green neighbourhood of Tarabya, encircled by the Bosphorus and, on its northern edge, the Belgrade Forest. Tarabya comes from the Greek word therapeia, chosen for the supposedly therapeutic qualities of the air in this part of the city. It was the gentle reunion I needed.
What makes Istanbul special is its location on the Bosphorus. The strait is the beating heart of the city and, as I went for my daily morning walk along its shore, the sahil, I had to smile at the many ways in which Istanbul had not changed. The Bosphorus was still gloriously blue. The seagulls were still there, as were the jellyfish. The anglers still lined up for their daily catch. The street vendors selling simit, the ubiquitous sesame-encrusted bread that is the fuel for millions in the city, were still doing their rounds. And the sahil tea and breakfast houses were still filling up.
But even in Tarabya it was hard to escape politics. The day I landed in Istanbul, Erdoğan was holding a rally in the city. Parliamentary and presidential elections will have been held on June 24, almost 18 months ahead of schedule, in a bid to complete Turkey’s transition to a presidential system of government. At the Tarabya waterfront square, there was a lonely Atatürk banner. It was a reminder of my first visits to Turkey. Then Atatürk had been everywhere, as Erdoğan is now. En route to Taksim, I noticed the new squares and bridges commemorating the ‘martyrs’ of the 15 July coup for their role in fighting what Erdoğan has described as an internal war of independence. Taksim itself was a clear summation of what had happened in Istanbul while I was away. On one side, the iconic Atatürk Cultural Centre stood hollowed out, awaiting its new avatar. On the other, construction continued apace on a massive mosque that will now be the focus of the square, dwarfing the Republic Monument that commemorates the 1923 establishment of the Turkish Republic. As I walked through the streets of hilly Cihangir, which borders Taksim, I also noted another addition to the Istanbul skyline. Soaring above the Asian side of the city, sitting on the Camlica hill, once a spot for lovers, is the largest mosque in Turkey.
Dispirited, I decided to visit the old city. I exited at the new Vezneciler station in the historic Fatih district where I noticed an old Byzantine structure. Despite having spent a significant amount of time exploring Fatih, I couldn’t recall having seen this building before. It was empty but a plaque told me this was the Kalenderhane Mosque, converted from a former Greek Orthodox Church to a Roman Catholic Church after the Fourth Crusade, to a dervish lodge for the Kalenderi Dervish sect after the Ottoman conquest, and then to a mosque by the chief eunuch of the Topkapi Palace in the 18th century. The gorgeously simple red Byzantine brickwork was exposed in this tiny mosque, sitting atop which was a dome decorated in intricate calligraphy. I sat inside, with just a stray Istanbul cat and centuries of history for company, while the city bustled with life outside. In that moment, I fell in love with Istanbul all over again.
Somehow, something about the spirit of city, whatever its temporary troubles, remains constant. The greatest chronicler of Istanbul, Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar, wrote that it is in Istanbul’s little corners and unexpected views, not beautiful in themselves necessarily, but as parts of the whole, that her heart is to be found. Even as attempts are underway to refashion the city, it is obvious that history has melted into the fabric of the city in a way that can’t be erased: through her architecture, her edifices and the deep nostalgia of her residents. Yes, Istanbul will forever be haunted by other Istanbuls, but perhaps it is here that the life-affirming aspect of hüzün comes into play: there is loss but also remembering, a keeping alive of ‘the city’.
This article was published in the July-September 2018 issue.