Friday, October 19, 2012

She, the star




“I wrote this yesterday,” she was confused.

She had a vague understanding that the words on the page were her own, only they didn’t, in truth, resonate. She was late, but in no way hurried. “Let them wait,” she shrugged, hinting at malice as sunlight streamed in from the balcony windows. Athens was definitely beautiful, as was she, disappearing into the elevator all marble skin and endless limbs, a revered exile.

When the doors opened and she found her way onto the street it was noon, the traffic was ceaseless, the heat relentless, the journey, hopeless. She could have taken a taxi, but she didn’t believe in cars, too stuffy, too sinister in such sunlight, they made her feel claustrophobic and awash with an LA smog panic. The Mediterranean and California are so much closer than she had ever thought, their pollutions and vegetations made it easy for her to forget where was sometimes. So no, no taxi, and no train either, the simplest journey in this city required multiple changes, and patience is not her virtue, plus all of that transferring would save her no time. Not that she cares to save time, not that she is in a rush.

So, she walks, through the plaka, skimming the foot of the Acropolis, strolling deliberately through history’s great shadow, admiring without irony the great glut of souvenir t-shirts, travel ready food stuffs and factory glazed ceramics; culture, antiquity, adventure, so glibly compacted, self-replicating without guilt. Then come the museums and the packs of stray dogs, very civilized, waiting for the traffic lights to change before crossing the street, the ubiquitous semi-automatic police, the graffiti, McDonalds and overgrown town houses, the riot of time that leads her around the base of the Parthenon’s rocky foothold.

Though it seems a little early in the day, she stops for blue ice cream, and it is chewy with mastic gum, a texture she has come to find comforting in the last few months. From somewhere, any one of these ice cream stands, any number of parked cabs, comes Cher’s Walking in Memphis, it makes her smirk, she lingers longer with the ice cream, thoroughly invested in it.

Coming up to the Piraeus Road, weaving between the empty cafes and restaurants that represent her last few moments of freedom, she notices herself, or rather the absence of herself. Posters are up around the city, advertising the play she has the lead in, only the imagery has proved perhaps too illustrative of the show’s polymorphous themes, and posters are often defaced. Frequently she sees but half of a poster, remaining tacked to a wall, she has been torn out and discarded, an affront aborted. The letters above the head of her surviving co-star read, “An Ill…(second line) His…. (third line) Lon”, like the prayers applied above the heads of Byzantine saints in ancient mosaics, deconstructed by time and her invasions. The destruction doesn’t make her shudder anymore, she knew what she was getting into, “This is a very conservative country,” they had told her. “So am I,” she replied, with a dreamy, divisive opacity.

She was hungover, she could admit that now, in truth she was forced to admit it most mornings, for most evenings she devoured a full liter of anonymous white wine, not that she had ever enjoyed drinking, not that she could remember ever enjoying anything anymore. Taking one last gasp of air she broke the surface of the theatre, strode into the foyer, making no eye contact, and descended down into the auditorium. The place was still, full of frantic energies with no outlet, the cast, the crew shuffled about, looking bored and tense, staring into space, smoking illicitly.

You,” began the director, “Are two hours late! We have been waiting for you, for two hours!”

“Well, I’m here now,” she replied without any attempt to feign a fake apologetic tone, and disappeared into the dressing room.

Commands were issued, lights came up, positions were taken, the place came to life, obligingly in time for another rehearsal, the previous evening had been a disaster, technically that is. The sound cues had been unfailingly hashed and the lighting desk had seemingly adopted her hopeless mood, and simply expired. In the erratic darkness, afloat in muddled sound, the actors had barely made it through the performance, not that the audience seemed to care, so baffled were they by the entire nature of the work. Even she, she who had apparently co-authored the script, and sat in on every dance rehearsal, signed off the costume sketches, could not give a proper account of what it was they were all supposed to be doing down there – besides wasting money and embarrassing themselves.

Some clueless Genet, Homer, Fosse mélange, immersive and experimental (by which she understood rambling and full of wholes) and at the center of it, she the star, was supposed to sit like a jewel and confer comprehensibility. At best it was a show within a show, at worst a garbled tangle of clichés and bad scholarship, underscored with a profuse and supercilious lack of humor regarding itself. One night a dog walked onstage, inexplicably, and nobody cracked a smile, neither in the audience or onstage. That was the death knell for her.

In between her scenes, she would stand just off-stage, forever unable to remember what would come next. It was like bobbing in a recurring nightmare, never quite able to wake up. The stage manager, standing by, would gently respond to her obvious panic, saying softly, “You’re going onto sing ‘Tell All Your Troubles To Me’”, which she would do, onstage confidence betraying none of the confusion which flickered just off in the shadows. The scenes would roll smoothly, smoother than reality, indeed their rhythm down there in the darkness, illuminated by those artificial spotlights, had become more real than real life. Onstage the relationships were defined, the conversations well mapped, the interactions accountable, reliable, known. Offstage it was not so, and as much as she hated to step out onto the boards each night, she hated more for the final curtain to fall, to be hurled back out into the disinterested night.

She would scramble backstage between costumes, dancing a silent, comic, precarious ballet with her co-stars who undressed and redressed around her within a minute or so. It was hard not to trip, difficult not to collide, almost impossible in that cramped space to assemble the next ensemble without disaster. If ever the actors onstage rushed their scene she would curse them, saboteurs that they were! If they took their time, langoured with their lines, an impatient mania would seize her, expanding her desire to be back in the spotlight.

In one scene she appeared onstage, seducing her desirable leading man and smoking a cigarette. She did not, however, at that time in her life, smoke, and so dutifully each evening the stage manager would smoke for her. Overseeing the smooth rising and fallings of the stage curtain, the stage manager with a menthol (as per request) hanging from his lip attended to a hundred different things. Dragging deep on the cigarette, observing flashes of naked skin between costume changes, exhaling blue curls of fog when he had time, and expelling puffs of white mist from his nose when he did not, the stage manager waved her over with his free left hand.

“Here’s your smoke,” he whispered, “The next number is ‘Time To Go Home’, break a leg.”

So she strides on once again, indiscriminate self-inflicted glory, the lit hits her and the dancers break into movement. The band strikes up, she sings efficiently if not effortlessly, but soon loses herself into the moment, which is really all we ever have, the terror and thrill of knowing that. The seconds count onstage, words have meaning and gestures are measured, there is no, “Excuse me, what I meant to say was,” only the inescapable rolling forwards towards the finish line. If you drop the ball, it will be noted, the net cast around it all is taut and if it breaks the beads will spring forth and spill across the floor.

From a fragmented, unbearable existence is formed, on paper, a fictitious platform of being, in which she must believe or be lost. As the scene unfolds, she finds herself ghostwalking stage right, mimicking herself, becoming each evening a greater exaggeration of herself, following in her own dance steps. Like clockwork she cries, “Je voudrais une boir!” and automatically, he turns on his heel from the bar, in her direction, whiskey glass in hand (ill suited to the role she always thinks). He brings it to her, the look on his face like a mock tudor mansion, spelling out “lust” in revivalist lettering, hands it to her. She sips, she swigs, knocks it back, and acknowledges that it is real whisky tonight, poured perhaps to placate her.

Then he kisses her, hard like he means it, and she returns the passion allowing her hands to slide down his body as their tongues clash and their sticky brows bump each other. Her lipstick is smeared around his mouth, his eyes are radiant, he looks deranged, but yes, very handsome, and as he pulls her back towards him, whispers in his offstage voice, with a snigger, “Wow, that was hot!” Embracing him, theatrically, with her face buried in the sweat of his shoulder, in a low voice she replies, “Calm down, it’s only a play.”

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Burgazada



I have just descended a deeply steep path to Martha’s Bay on the island of Burgaz, a pathway which gave me a start, not just with the precarious nature of its incline, but with a joyous false memory, a terrific thrill of worlds colliding as I stumbled to the sea and realized, “Ah! I have been here before.” But I hadn’t, nor was it déjà vu. The path, full of broken glass and prowled by stray dogs, is the very path described in the opening of my novel, “Everything Must Go.” It has been well observed that literature offers a hand out to the reader, an invitation to concur, “Yes, I felt so too,” which is a remarkable experience always. The realization that someone separated from oneself by centuries, continents and languages could have also reverberated with something so apparently private, is always a beautiful thrill, undoubtedly, but when you find yourself unexpectedly both the writer and the reader of the scene, it borders on psychedelic. When one’s own life reaches backwards (or forwards, who can say in this case?), when one actually staggers into a physical place one had imagined for themselves on the other side of the world, then what is there to do but to surrender to serendipity, the tidal wave of everything?

The sun is travelling overhead, as always, we are following it. Around the island runs a concrete sidewalk, like a gastric bypass, though no cars travel it only visiting idlers, strenuous horses and local dogs. Below, on the rocky beaches, sunbathers lie profoundly still, sprawled out on their stomachs, like corpses washed up in swimwear. Two motley hounds have adopted us, one black, one dirty blonde, they have followed us down the ruinous runway, onto the beach and are engaged in chasing and fetching the plastic bottles the boys throw into the water for them. The boys are, of course, on ecstacy, they have set up base in a bay of sunlight allowed by a gentle recede in the profusion and diversity of rocks and greens rolling down the cliff face behind us. The weather is benign, but not hot, I am reading Gore Vidal’s memoirs, a present from my Mother.

Across the bay sits Istanbul, cynosure, misty, vague but insistent, like the future. The waves chorus as they roll up on the rocky coast, bringing in abandoned, mateless shoes, a treasure trove of single sandals and lonely sneakers dashed on a shore studded with endless, priceless, coca-cola caps, bejeweling the nacreous carpet of sea shells, pine cones and vivid green moss. The dogs, like much-loved monarchs oversee their domain, serene sole proprieters of magnificent piles of trash, fabulous, untold riches which they regard as a playground to preserve for future generations, noble and historically minded as they are. A diamond mine of plastic bottles, gallon drums and five liter flasks washed in from the city at high tide, or perhaps thrown over the cliffs above by nihilistic picnickers in a mirroring of humankind’s own waterless fall towards apocalypse. A mountain of contorted, sun bleached bottles, abandoned as the tide retreats, added to daily as it advances again, clean and strangely beautiful garbage, piled upon itself. A wonderous stash of heroic waste, heaps of tragic beauties stranded on land, successors to the fishes, the true riches of today’s seas.

The broken shells under the feet of the boys (really, they are men) tinkle too, like shattering icicles or breaking glass in amongst balletic flowerings of plastic wrap and dessert pots tangled in the stones around their toes. One lonely vodka bottle floats out, ten meters from us, thrown too far for even the zealous dogs, who have escorted us here, to fetch. It catches the light and its form blurs with the vitreous water, glints, attracts the brief attentions of the Imperial Guard, those ever vigilant seagulls. The boys, warmed as much by serotonin as sunlight, find an easy familiarity with the regal dogs, wading out into the water together, finding submerged outcroppings of rock and posing like 50s pin-ups, unselfconsciously good natured.

Turkish floats above my head like the smoke from the joint, which I like a true Californian, smoke too greedily. The meticulously polite, offensively charming boys are somewhat outraged that I drag three times before passing it on. “In Turkey,” says one of the boys in his round about English, “We smoke once.” At the Southern tip of the crest Martha’s Bay forms, swims another boy, alone boy in blue board shorts, his face is indiscernable, featureless like a nightmare or a Julian Opie. How an unescorted traveller finds his way to such an unacknowledged destination is not to my mind known, but the emotional red globe has moved on again, behind the trees, he has the sunlight now, it is lost to me and the boys and the dogs.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Lady Grinning Soul


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.

Leyla Gediz

Since I have arrived in Istanbul (since September in fact, when I was gifted with an iPod touch) I have being taking constant snapshots of detritus, tabloid puns and beautiful architectural fragments. I don’t consider myself a photographer, but I like to keep scrapbooks – I think of this blog as a scrapbook in fact, albeit a semi-public one. Being in such a madly photographed city as I am, a place whose vistas, monuments and marketplaces were known to me long before I deplaned (albeit, not its beauty), I feel conflicted about taking pictures here. Local people walk nonchalantly past the most outrageous Ottoman palaces and staggering Byzantine mosques, whilst visitors grin inanely in front of every photographable nook at every one of their predetermined visiting spots. The endless clicking of cameras, and the unenviable reams of holiday snaps shot in the most badly lit corners of indescribably beautiful locations, produced by the kilometer everyday, is something I am not desperate to be a part of.

I mean, does anyone ever see a picture of an amazing panorama on facebook, or an incredible skyscape on a friend’s phone, and say “Wow! I simply must go there!” – I doubt it. Rather one thinks, “Very nice dear, good for you,” and checks it off the list of things to see and do, feeling that the experience has been had by proxy, that “seeing” it via the personal reproduction of a pal is enough.

I suppose this is what dear old Susan Sontag was prophesizing, when she warned against the dangers of experiencing beautiful moments via the camera, when she told us we were in fact missing out on the experience of being there by cataloguing the experience of being there. And with such constant visual stimulation, as we are all (qualify this as necessary) now afflicted with, we have managed to not only eviscerate the experience for ourselves but for those who encounter the Amazon, London Bridge, Ho Chi Minh City or Dietrich’s grave through our photographic records.

Thomas Ruff said something which really resonates, “Photography can only reproduce the surface of things. What people see, eventually, is what is already inside of them.” We are perhaps guided to see what we already know, to use what we encounter to affirm that things are how we believe them to be, we are viewing selfishly, we don’t want to go to those places we see in photos because if we are drawn to them it is because we feel we already know them. Those vistas across the Golden Horn I had googled, and those photographs of the Hagia Sophia I had seen back in school, stayed with me until I arrived in Istanbul because they represented a narrative I had invested in, that’s why I sought them out. Only now do they reveal themselves as fraudulent.

Likewise, when I take pictures, and disseminate them, I am working within that same narrative and weaving my life (or how I wish it to be perceived) into it. I become a denizen of Istanbul and Istanbul becomes a part of my life story, we confer onto each other a mutual contextualization for our audience; Istanbul makes me worldly, glamorous and adventurous, I make Istanbul accommodating, lustrous and contemporary. My presence here rescues Istanbul from its reputation as repressive, badly dressed and decrepit, Istanbul rescues me from my reputation of being Eurocentric, uptight, and uncultured. (I am talking here of a process which happens for myself, not to say I or my emerging relationship with Istanbul is any kind of symbolic act for a generation). But, when I am taking photographs here, or indeed being photographed here, I have to wonder what it is I am destroying by presenting these images.

In Werner Herzog’s film “White Diamonds” (disappointingly not a documentary about Elizabeth Taylor’s perfume line) there is a scene in which a former tribal leader in Guyana talks about what his people believe to be behind a particularly impenetrable waterfall, something nobody has ever actually seen, so impossible is it to enter the falls. Herzog tells him that a camera man on his team has actually lowered himself down the rockface and filmed inside of the cave, prompting the leader to state his belief quite firmly that that footage should never be shown. It would he said, destroy his people’s entire culture. This is an extreme example perhaps, but I am beginning to think that anybody’s dorky holiday snaps have such a power (though at a lower voltage) of reducing rather than increasing the viewer's desire to be there themselves. By spelling out myths, compounding them and simultaneously devaluing them, the desire to seek out is degraded – our work is apparently done for us.

And so I restrict myself to taking pictures of obscure corners and cats in doorways, and mosaics seen peeping over misplaced balconies, shots taken out of windows, images of rooftops; in short enigmatic details which are loaded for me with significance and seize a moment, without attempting to capture the magnificence of the horizon or the immensity of a monument. I can look back on them, humorously maybe, and they will be a secret pictorial history, without discouraging anyone I might share them with from seeking out the sights for themselves. I have always taken pictures like this, of my little sisters in the soft drink aisle at Tesco (which caused us to be thrown out, thank you very much), of garbage trucks with misspelt environmental slogans, of my shoes casting shadows. Each image has the power to remind me of some precise happening, without being strictly representational of that happening. Those random fragments, become some Proustian memory joggers, that jolt me into remembering how beautiful it was to be in Vienna in by looking over a photo of the light diffracting through glasses on a table top, or to reflect on what a weird time I had in Gran Canaria by looking at the image of a disembodied, slightly out of focus neon octopus looming somewhere in the darkness.

I am put in mind of the work of Leyla Gediz, some of which I saw this week at Istanbul Modern. The gallery text spoke of how she created the strange spaces in her work, recognizable yes, but most definitely off, in which to house her psychic experiences. The text referred to her work as not being an expression of her feelings or emotions, but rather a way to get rid of them, to offload them. I think this is a helpful structure for the tourist photographer in me too, that in taking these innocuous pictures I am freeing myself from the urge to take the sightseer’s pictures, but resisting the urge to catalogue the experience in a “useful” way. I love Gediz’s work because I want to go to the places she paints, although I have no idea where they are, and to be honest a lot of their charm lies in the fact that the idea of going there frightens me. They are witty too of course, not ruthless, but the challenge of accepting the invitation to step into these impossible spaces, implies getting entirely lost in them, or rather in what I am projecting them to be. Looking at the paintings I am aware of my own precarious mental state, Gediz just throws the door open.

Coincidentally, I am reading “Bodies” by Susie Orbach, in which she talks about the psychotherapeautic side effect of countertransference, in which the therapist themselves can experience strong changes in how they feel towards themselves in the presence of certain patients. Orbach talks about her clients downloading their feelings about their bodies (for better of for worse) onto her body, that she can become an ersatz second body for them, perhaps something closer to the real body they have lost contact with. It is interesting to consider Gediz’s downloading in the context of Orbach’s, in the context of holiday snaps. That uncomfortable desire to catalogue oneself to prove that one exists, to take the picture and throw it at the viewer as evidence. Many people find being photographed terribly uncomfortable, but will put themselves through the discomfort to say, "I was there then," to insist they inhabited a specific, unique physicality, in a specific, unique moment.

There is even something aggressive, violent about this deliberate offloading, inflicting the experience on other people once we have failed to really experience it ourselves. And for whom are we posing when we stand with the Eiffel Tower bisected above our heads? Whom are we smiling at with Niagara Falls out of focus in the background? Our parents, perhaps? Is it an attempt to say, “Look! I amounted to something!” to live their dreams for them? Our friends maybe? Is it an attempt to signpost how sophisticated we are, to keep up with well-traveled pals or even show off a little? Is it for posterity? Are we trying to keep a historical record of how cute and suntanned we were, how we were such romantic travelers? Perhaps, it is a chore. That the pictures are an obligation, a necessity to prove we got up out of our sedentary lives, that we pulled ourselves away from gayromeo, stepped out of our virtual, flatscreen worlds, that we are still capable of experiencing the world without the interface of a laptop. Perhaps there is even something resentful then in taking these pictures, something which says, “There! ME! Acropolis! Happy now?” Thomas Ruff's thinking posits that photography itself points out the stark fact that we can never experience the world through photography. Maybe a more abstract, personal, less staged, more obscure photography can prompt a more engaged and exciting audience response. Here’s hoping that it can provide inspiration enough for us to power down and take a walk.

Thomas Ruff

Monday, October 8, 2012

History is on the phone


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.



When I spent time in Athens I felt as though I were witnessing time in riot, degraded splendid townhouses on top of ancient ruins, jammed up against McDonalds and Adidas, tangled up in endless 70s apartment complexes stacked with satellite dishes. When I went to Rome I experienced such masses of people, an Imperial volume of bodies in motion, at work on the city’s bidding, never ceasing to surge from one side of the city to the other, migrants, tourists, pilgrims, refugees. Those cities are the two closest experiences to what I am currently discovering in the magnitude of Istanbul’s teeming streets and relentless scale. Straddling two continents, this is the seat of four Empires, the site of constant conquest and vacillating vanquishments, it is a treasure trove of history (human, cultural, religious) which has yet to be buried. Though of course many have tried.

Wave after wave of invaders sought to capture the city, convert its people and absorb its wealth. The Catholics destroyed the city of their fellow Christians, the Byzantines, to instate a new Latin Empire, the victorious Sultan Mehmed II took the city as stronghold of Islam, twentieth century revolutionaries declared a secular republic, and on it goes.

The ruins of the Byzantine city wall run parallel to a motorway which runs alongside them along the unreasonably beautiful coastline. Under these ancient fortifications you can find children’s playgrounds, opposite enormous petrol stations, and endless miniature plantations where Istanbul’s canny populace grow produce. It is a miraculous sight to see allotments full of green vegetables springing up in the shadow of what were considered the medieval world’s most impenetrable walls, and a total trip to watch all of this from gridlocked traffic, with the Maramaras sea to the right, brilliant and azure, crammed full of boats. Everyday citizens hang their linens to dry from the walls, their leopard print towels and their polo t-shirts, and in the arches of the stone gates where once Roman Emperors exclusively entered the city, homeless people now set up camp, their filthy meager belongings stacked around them.

The building which arguably holds the most powerful record of the city’s ever changing official status is the Hagia Sophia. From 360 their stood a church there, built in Roman times. Rebuilt by Emperor Julian in 537, in just five years after a fire, the basilica became the largest building in the world, and served its Christian congregation until 1453 when Istanbul was conquered by Mehumet II and the by-then dilapidated church became a mosque. After the conquest Hagia Sophia was given one of antiquities most famous interior redesigns. The Crusaders had vandalized the Cathedral, removing many mosaics to Western churches and palaces, doors were missing and the dome was on the verge of collapse. The victorious Sultan chose to renovate the basilica in a more fitting Islamic style, the building was restored to glory but the reamining golden Byzantine Biblical mosaics, were whitewashed and plastered over, in keeping with Muslim teachings prohibiting representational art.

As incredible as it is that given the previous conduct of conquerors (namely destroying everything and stealing the rest) the Hagia Sophia was left to stand, the truly amazing turn of the page came in 1935, when President Ataturk declared the building a museum as part of his new secular republic. As restoration work was carried out the discovery was made that the Byzantine mosaics were in fact still there. For 500 years, the Virgin had been seated above the altar and the mihrab in silence, for five centuries The Last Judgement had waited. The holy place is now an unconsecrated heritage site, dedicated to both faiths, which is a fitting, gracious, worthy tribute to its history as well as a timely pledge to better relations between the two religions.



What most fascinated me today on my first visit, amongst this cat and mouse game of history, were the unexpected additions to the basilica. On the exterior, the minarets stand out obviously as later Islamic additions, and inside the huge golden Arabic characters hanging over the visitors attest to evolution, but elsewhere there are more subtle updates. In a huge mosaic Empress Zoe added different heads to the unchanging body of her consort, as one was replaced by another in her long life. Zoe and her third husband Constantine (her third husband) appear either side of Christ, venerated before Him. Though Imperial egos were not historically averse to adding themselves into depictions of the Divine, the idea of the royal couple photo bombing Christ enthroned does seem, to my eyes at least, ever so slightly hilarious.

Of course we understand that this was a political move, as well as a religious tribute, but ultimately it is a vainglorious attempt at immortality. Upstairs in the gallery, carved into the balcony are a few lines of Viking graffiti from the ninth century. Less of a religious tribute, and seemingly more of an “I was here”, these historic desecrations have the same function as the Imperial photoshopping, they are attempts to carve a place in time out for their executors. In fact, the Viking graffiti is now actually signposted for visitors, and housed under protective plastic, it has itself become a significant relic, a souvenir of the cultural interactions of world wanderers. Success is at its basest, tenacity, all one has to do is stick around long enough. Survive enough sacking, looting, pillaging, deconsecration and museum foot traffic, and you too can become a bona fide artifact of genuine interest.

Of course, the survival of these haphazard scribblings point out, just as the massive holes in the mosaics do, the absence of so much more. If this is what has survived, what has disappeared? What mind-blowing successes, what heart-breaking failures, have been lost, that we might be left with the face of Christ hovering above where we presume his shoulders once sat, the tunnels half tiled in Moorish blue, and the antagonistic knife work of a Scandinavian sailor? It’s all speculation now, whatever was said, whatever grand statements were declared in construction and reconstruction can never really come to us, because we are not living on an Emperor’s whim, on the good graces of the Sultan, cowering daily in fear of the inevitable retribution of an all decimating God. We have rational technology, our own frustrated stabs at comprehension, and even to the expert eyes of archaeologists the graffiti is now illegible.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

One


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.