Friday 18 March 2011


Winter in Istanbul: Nuri Bilge Ceylan
(next time, I'll go in winter)

This is for Edition 5 of the >Language >Place blog carnival, to be hosted by Parmanu.  Contributions by Sunday 20 March. See link in my sidebar for details and how to submit.

Everything I remember of Istanbul makes me want to go back, which is really rather surprising, since neither of my trips there was much fun. I love to go to Istanbul by proxy, in the films and in the photographs of Nuri Bilge Ceylan, in the pages of Orhan Pamuk's novels and memoir. I go there several times a week through artist Samantha's beautiful blog, Harika. One day I'll go again for real.

The first trip was for work: brief, hectic, sleepless. We saw little, most of it on a roundabout taxi ride back to the airport - twinkling, chaotic streets and a dusty, mysterious skyline. A year or so later, I persuaded a friend to join me for a brief holiday. Mistake. It competes for worst holiday ever. It was summer and I was too hot. My friend was not. We never once wanted to do the same thing. I wanted the shady side of the street, she wanted the sunny side. I see us hovering crossly at the melting quayside where the boats leave for the islands, almost unaware of the grand, glaucous vista of the Sea of Marmara.  My consolation in discomfort was poring over the 'useful phrases in Turkish' at the back of my guidebook, learning these and trying them out wherever we went. When I got it right, was understood in this strange, difficult tongue, it was utter joy. And my friend cringed, pretended she wasn't with me.

She thinks I'm showing off! and it's so far from that; it's an escape from ego, from the me, me, me who is hot, hot, hot. When I can get beyond the heat, I'm entralled by this city. What is it about Istanbul? The dirty, gritty tangibility, I think. It's full of glories, history and beauty, but not just a place for tourists. It makes me feel the way I used to feel about the north of England - the satisfying, rough depth and breadth and contradictions, the bigness and complexity of everything, along with sparkling jewels of detail (and, no, I’m not oblivious to pollution, potentially oppressive religiosity, violations of minority rights). I want to touch this city, and through language, through touching words, I can touch it.

Istanbul ended our friendship. Not the wretched holiday (those happen), but her incomprehension and intolerance of my wanting to touch language. We were too different, and the week in Istanbul crystallised this.

It was some years later that Turkish film-makers and novelists rose to deserved international prominence, reminding me of that old enchantment, that I always meant to go back to Istanbul, to learn more Turkish.


Dale said...

:-) How wonderful. Yes, yes, yes, about fumbling in a foreign tongue! The opposite of showing off -- how can you show off, anyway, when you're halting and making noises that have to be funny? But you're trying to follow, making the muscles of your throat and tongue dance the same way these peoples' do. And when it works, there's a small way in which you've become one of them.

leslee said...

Lovely. I hope you get to go back under better circumstances. That you loved the city despite the bad experiences says a lot.

A friend's daughter here in the US married a very sweet guy from Turkey. The daughter loves Istanbul and says she'd move there in a heartbeat, but her husband prefers to live here. My vision of Istanbul was what I saw in the movie The Edge of Heaven, which I found very powerful.

Anonymous said...

What wonderful description, Jean. It made me smile, though sorry for the lack of understanding friendship.

beth said...

Do you think we'd be that opposite if we went together, Jean? I doubt it, since we've approached Istanbul through many of the same channels, and I also hate being hot, and love learning what phrases I can...What a beautiful evocative photograph, too.

Dorothee said...

Thanks for taking me to Istanbul with this story. Reading it, i remembered the one word i knew in Turkish: "Günaydin" which is close to the German "Guten Tag" - in English: "Good Day".

It also made me think of Eli Shafak, the Turkish author, featured in Daily s-Press with a video last September, who referred to growing up in Istanbul. here's the link:

Nine said...

I relate to this and it's beautifully put! My first time in Istanbul I was too hot and grumpy, but I still looked back on it as a beautiful place I wanted to return to. I was back a couple of weeks ago, just for two days: colder this time, and rainy too, and this time I mostly wandered by myself. I loved it. I also would like to learn Turkish.

Laurie Kolp said...

Beautifully written piece! It's sad that friendship can be tested during times like that... it made for a stressful trip, I'm sure.

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