Saturday, October 6, 2012
I am in Istanbul, for the first time, with no fixed agenda. As so, I am using this as an opportunity to get back to business, and write everyday, something which the success and excesses of the previous year have prevented me from doing almost entirely. Behold! My Istanbul diary, presented as a series of immediate sketches, written up each day, an important exercise for me, hopefully vaguely diverting for you.
Exiting Ataturk International, heading headlong into the hungry belly of the city, in the back of a taxi-cab the city’s mantle broke open all around me. Miles of concrete, neon lights, freeways, overpasses, strip malls, billboards flaunting Kate Moss’ exquisite corpse; in short I could be anywhere in the world, from New York to Athens, and I wouldn’t know a discernable difference. It’s late, 2.30am, the constant stream of street lights bleed orange into the aubergine sky, a nether light colors the night sky as we pull into the city proper, which throbs with life and a pleasant warming breeze. We pull up outside an embassy, we step out, a solo soldier regards us with little interest from behind his machine gun, paces back and forth a little to relieve his boredom. A few stray cats leap around behind us, distractedly.
Our apartment is down a steep set of stairs, with the luggage and the after effects of the valium, the descent is hard, the neighborhood gets quieter as we move lower. Inside, the bright white fluorescents dazzle me into a complete exhaustion, barely capable of undressing I crawl into bed. There is no air in the room, all the windows have to be locked for security, I am thirsty but have been warned against the tap water. Dehydrated and strangely overcome with sexual longings I pass out. Waking up this morning, I did not recognize the thin floral sheet I was wrapped up in, or the cheap blanket acting as a curtain. Construction work was going on close at hand, people passing by the window spoke almost exclusively Turkish, with the exception of an American twenty-something, expostulating the national mantra, “Like, I don’t even know.” Amnon was still asleep, I don’t remember him sliding into bed alongside me, and for once he seems to have slept without shouting in his sleep. Often, he will yell out a single word in Hebrew or German, and I, sleep encrusted and bemused, will repeat the word with a quizzical intonation, prompting him to wake himself up by replying to me out loud. These blind conversations usually keep us engaged for large parts of the night, but not last night. Last night we both slept silently and woke up late. When I did come to, I felt adrift, being without a project to work on, for the first time in who can say how long. Work has become my way of understanding the world.
As usual, upon unpacking it became clear that many necessities had been packed by neither of us. We brushed our teeth with a shared toothbrush and an abandoned tube of fresh mint dino paste (for ages 2 and up), we squeezed the last handful from a travel-sized bottle of shower gel I bought in Edinburgh. (Heaven, only knows why but I am psychotically fixated on travel miniatures). Breakfast was the camembert sandwich I insisted on taking with me from the flight, even though it looked dismally unappetizing.
Outside the world seems like a party we are late too, the hustle is well underway. The traffic is like nothing I have seen, not in LA, where the cars sit behind each other for hours, and not in Rome where the sheer volume of vehicles annihilate any sense of protocol. I want to cross, but car after bus after taxi-cab hurtles by, and motorbikes invade the sidewalk. The noise is immense, a personality in its own right, endless, all encompassing, a mass of sounds all at odds with each other; traditional music, pop music, police cars, street musicians, commuters and construction workers, duking it out under the crisp, pastel blue sky. That strange, calm winter sun, so unusual to a Northern European, warm yes, hot no, a comfort, but a gentle one, as though sunlight had been muffled like the shrill cry of a trombone, muted for a more intimate environment.
I am disappointed, approaching Taxim Square, by the familiar sights of an Italian restaurant, a mall under construction, bus stops, billboards and broken payphones. Above the square itself flutters a huge Turkish flag, luxurious hotels overlook the street food vendors, the photo mad tourists, and the locals on their way to and from. Istiklal opens up before us, and I stare down its throat, the entire length of the strip is packed with a density of people, that from this perspective resemble nothing so much as an enormous shoal of fish, packed tightly together in sun spangled waters. Buskers play, chestnuts are hawked, this could be Oxford St at Christmas, even the lights being erected overhead have a snowy, festive feeling. Topman, Nine West, United Colors of Benetton, press up against Miss Poem, Republik, The House, and other such X christened local corporate entities. The thronging of people, once I am amongst them, can barely be described. I am in a mass of bodies moving with a frenetic energy that can only be acquired in an ancient city. All around me the swirling goes on, in every direction, pouring down side streets, flowing into and out of doorways, spilling onto trams, and rising like a tide, so as my eyes follow I see the balconies above my head, and indeed the rooftops above those, are packed with people. I feel like I am splashing my feet in the fountain of life, there is a spring from which humankind gushes forth and I am drenching myself in it. We stop at a café, a gay café no less, where they are obviously playing Madonna’s latest hit album. I enjoy a coffee with raspberry syrup, and a lyric along the lines of “Better call the babysitter, I’m tweetin’ in the elevator.” A friend tells us he worries that the war has already started on the Syria border. The barista tells me I look like Patrick Wolf, I dream briefly of suicide, we leave.
Strolling further away now, from the pulsating hordes of Istiklal, down half-stoned streets drizzled with graffiti and smothered with posters for forthcoming concerts, I feel a world away from the world. These winding lanes, crammed between soot covered nineteenth century wrecks crumbling under the weight of brownish pigeons, are chock-full of greengrocers and butchers, barely a trinket shop or a waffle stand peeps out. Here, with hearts hanging on hooks in the windows, and old men squatting on upturned coca-cola crates, with evil eyes peering up from the cement, runs a riot of original color. Great walls of pomegranates, rows of fish on ice, pumpkins the size of television sets, the true riches of the world laid out as though for inspection at auction. Everything looks delicious, from the swollen peaches, to the sun faded window decals, the stray cats and the mountains of nuts. No fashion week ever compared to the colors of these fruit stalls, no movie premiere would dare to compete with the glamour of these mounds of produce. And all around, magnificent buildings which would house a hundred people, fall down, boarded up, decay suspended whimsically above life at its most ripe.
Walking down towards the river, the city drops steeply beneath my feet, we are passing back to more tourist familiar territory and the streets bustle with offers of fresh juice, rose soap, shwarma, glassware and traditional clothes. The opportunities to buy are endless, if not in the streets, then in markets, if not markets then in underground passageways, crammed full of hysterical toy birds swooping in circles forever just overhead, electronics, cheap clothes and smoking paraphernalia. On the river bank itself, restaurant boats bop manically, and little boys with palettes of soda approach you with hydration deals, old ladies silently beg a few coins, waiters practically drag you into dinner, and above it all the sun is setting and turns the sky a remarkable ochre.
Suddenly it is dark, the night falls just like the curtain at the end of act one, heavy, smooth, precise. The long rows of men on the bridge go on fishing, casting their guppies into the water below, in amongst them vendors sell iphones and packets of tissues alike, the foot traffic teams on. At my feet are countless cats fucking, the shopping continues, car horns blare loudly and then comes the call to prayer. From three different points in close proximity I hear the ancient amplified Arabic, it wails high above my head in triplicate, and I am forced to stand still to receive it, to locate myself within it, as it echoes like a hallucination about me. To my left the bank tumbles into the restless river, to my right the great city booms up, the mosques picked out in orange light which illuminates them from below. I feel the ground breathe, the whole city swells with each inhalation, vibrates with each exhalation, here is timelessness. The hubbub, rambling, cacophonous nature of this place, the endless stacking of life on top of life, the ceaseless, sprawling expansion, speaks in a voice which can only come from an eternal, holy city, from ground trampled by millions and for centuries, from earth soaked in the blood of martyrs, trading on unknowable riches, from a nexus through which civilizations have been sieved since before history was accountable. New York is too new, London is too knowing, Paris has been asleep for half a century, and Berlin is a backwater. Istanbul is imperial, Istanbul straddles continents, Istanbul always was. And still the shopping continues.