Friday, 5 April 2013

Walking Istanbul

I was in Istanbul recently, working on a project that hopefully you'll one day hear more about. I write pages and pages of this sort of thing, and rarely type it up, but perhaps some of you will appreciate it.

Thanks as always for reading, thanks for the feedback, I promise one day I'll reformat the blog to give everyone a nicer, easier-on-the-eye read.

Good weekends all round....


I first started spending time in Istanbul in 2007. I know some who could say they first visited the city in 1976, but while that might convey how much has changed over a quarter of a century, it doesn’t express just how dramatically the speed of that change has picked up. In 2007 I was teaching English, and moved in with a colleague of mine in the district of Cihangir, where he told me the area was experiencing an aggressive gentrification. My Turkish family, a little behind this curve, gave me a different warning, they told me to watch out in the backstreets of Cihangir, and with a small laughter, they also warned that the area was home to Istanbul’s surprisingly large community of transsexual prostitutes.

A year later I left, and when I returned again for a month in 2010, Cihangir had electricity sockets hanging on coiled cables above the bare wood furniture of an espresso bar, and both the transsexual prostitutes and my friend had moved in search of cheaper rents to Tarlabașı. Tarlabașı was, to be cruel, a slum. Tarlabașı was, to be fair, a community for those whose main crime in life was to have been born poor. People sold fruit and bread on the street corners, children played football in the roads between high kerbstones painted yellow and white. This March, I returned again to Istanbul, my friend has moved a little to the north, to Kurtuluş, and Tarlabașı is being levelled – neoclassical apartment buildings and all – to make way for luxury flats. The area is to be regenerated, which means you will now find the poor who lived there thirty miles away, trying to piece together the fragments of their community. In the streets they left behind, I find a postmodern touch; an Austrian in shades and a leather jacket, wearing blue espadrilles as he sets up a tripod. In truth, the slum clearance makes for excellent photojournalism, and the photographer is there for reasons not so different to my own. My one-time colleague has by now become one of my closest friends, an American who has settled in Turkey and made it is home. In March 2013, where once we sat in apartments with a breeze blowing through the window frames, I meet him in a new shopping centre in central Istanbul. Before finding him, I slide through three floors packed wall-to-wall with vacuum cleaners, food processors and vibrating cushions that can be strapped to a regular chair to fulfil the aspiration of any self-respecting chair, making it a massage chair. On the basement floor, I find my friend amongst the laptops, with two days until his Turkish girlfriend’s birthday, and faced with the universal dilemma of convincing someone you love them without coughing-up for a MacBook Pro.

On every level, Istanbul has changed. Police officers now ride segues up and down the main shopping thoroughfare, perched on that wheeled platform as it glides absurdly a little way above the crowds, while others patrol in a well-polished Mini Cooper. The Turkish are masters of aesthetics, and since Istanbul was awarded European Capital of Culture in 2010, there’s been a concerted effort to keep up appearances. Istanbul is very much dressing for the world. For those who don’t make it to the ruins of Tarlabașı… it must be quite convincing.

I walk the city… I’ve spent weeks of my life just walking around this city. Most of all I like the Bosphorus, because that’s the only thing that never changes. Sure, humans are only temporary… but we’ve already been made temporary enough for my liking. It was a better writer than me that once said that. In Turkish, the Bosphorus is called Boğaz… it means ‘throat’, and it’s a great name for a strait… for me… Bosphorus just never does it justice. When the sun shines it turns blue, and when the clouds come it turns black, with the crown of each breaking wave leaving a trace of silver in the dark waters. The wind blows so stiff, up from the Sea of Marmara, so that leaning forward I walk from the castle of Rumelihisarı back into the city, coat forced back against my body, eyes half-closing, tearing with the wind, face flushing cold. I’ve had breakfast… you wouldn’t believe the breakfast I’ve just eaten, the best in a city that is as good a place to eat breakfast as anywhere I’ve ever been. The tomato salad, the fried halloumi, the olives and the kaymak… the cream of the yoghurt with a gold bar of honey poured over the top of it. I’m not going to tell you where I’ve just eaten breakfast… because if I did then you’d go there, and then one day I'd return to find it had been ruined forever.

Slowly it begins to drizzle, and then to rain, and as it does then I smile again at the immutable force of Turkish capitalism, another thing as unfailing as the Bosphorus. A man hops down from a tram, calls out to crowds lifting clipboards and files to cover their heads… he pulls open the clasps of a bag… and starts selling umbrellas. Down at Kabataş, and in spite of all Istanbul’s renewal, I find a market for another timeless Turkish industry, where a man has set a string of balloons floating on the water. He sells shots with an air rifle, and into eternity fathers, husbands and boyfriends are still eager to prove their aim. Along the concrete quay are tiny inlets, like little crenellations, and each landing wave explodes out of the gap, bursts of white spray shooting skywards so that one by one… boom… boom… boom… the wave works along the promenade. A young girl in pink coat and wellington boots stands on the parapet, jumping in puddles against the curtain of falling white. Down on the quayside are strewn the plump bodies of jellyfish thrown from the water, their tiny electric hearts still glowing against the seaweed and concrete.

I escape the rain in the café of the Istanbul Modern Gallery, where you find the summits of Turkey’s high society. And me. We call them “White Turks” and were it not that I’m a foreigner in Istanbul, were my Turkish better, my clothes smarter, then I don’t doubt I’d be seen as one of them too, a liberal class pretty much reviled by the average Turk, especially conservatives. The archetype of the White Turk lives a life that is not hard and has tastes that are not Turkish. They sit in the Istanbul Modern in well-cut shirts, drinking expensive wine, the women checking the reflection of their mouths in the back of a knife, like urban MacGyvers of the face they go about making sure no herbs have stuck to the white of their smile. Hatred of White Turks is a key ingredient in the success of the eleven year government of the AKP… all you have to do is point out what workshy, self-satisfied schmucks they are and the Common Man goes nodding agreement all the way to the ballot box. To be honest, the White Turks deserve everything they get… they vote for the AKP too, even though they have entirely opposing social values. White Turks are rich, and for all the social conservatism, the AKP government have offered a neoliberal agenda that – for now – has provided a decade of comparative currency stability. Inflation recently hit 8 per cent, which in Turkey is good news. When life seems positive, memories get shorter, and nobody pays much attention to words like ‘leverage’ and ‘construction’ written all through the economy. I sit in the bar at the Istanbul Modern, wondering if there will come a day when the government takes away the red wine, the plunging necklines and plumes of falling hair. Perhaps then politics will mean something to them, and they'll realise they had something in common with the human rights activists after all.

I leave the Bosphorus via the two hundred steps that climb the hill back to Cihangir. At the top of the steps people sit, drinking beers, turning over sunflower seeds in their teeth and spitting out the husks. There are young couples here, old socialists too… the steps at Cihangir are like an informal office for Turkish bohemia. In the past, as they watched the Bosphorus fade to dusk, the lights flickering on in Florence Nightingale’s hospital at Üsküdar, people sat here and sang traditional songs together. The songs are still the same, but this evening, they come rattling out of a smart phone, held open between the knees of a young man.

The last place I look in on before returning home is Gayreteppe, where an Englishman has opened a brewery. Rising out of the Metro, the most noticeable thing is the heights of the buildings, how far back your head must tilt before your eyes hit sky. I used to work in Gayrettepe, dull copy about developing world economies, written for a journal in a skyscraper called Maya Tower. When they heard I’d got a job in the Maya Tower, my Turkish family were proud of me, visibly impressed that I had business in the tallest address in Istanbul. Maya Tower isn’t so tall anymore. Gayrettepe’s skyline has turned Babel, the streets are buried beneath glass and steel, gusts of wind go barrelling along the roads, turning right-angled corners at the foot of each skyscraper. Trees, blackened by exhaust fumes, stand lank and leafless in the concrete. The flow of yellow taxis is now dotted with black 4x4s, there are suits appearing from the subway beneath me, endless suits, standing motionless upon the escalators as they come sliding out of the earth.

Istanbul – March 2013

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