My first chance to visit Istanbul came suddenly, in the spring of 2004. I’d be spending my forty-ninth birthday where continents converged, in a city which contained both east and west: just where life had placed me and so many others like me. A city with a body of water that was both river and sea. When we arrived, I was as anxious as a lover: or more appropriately as someone meeting an unknown partner for the first time after an arranged marriage.
On the way from the airport my eyes began to respond to hazy colours: blue and coral and pale gold, of skies and walls and water. A few hours later, in the blue mosque, where people prayed while tourists looked on, I found that odd sense of tranquillity I’d often experienced in places of worship, though I didn’t say the ritual prayer. In contrast to the interior, the architecture of the outside was more stern than I, accustomed to the mosques of Delhi and Lahore, was used to: grander, perhaps, but more austere. Everywhere in the city, I found the architecture both familiar and unfamiliar, resplendent but intimidating.
After we’d visited the mosque, my travelling companion suggested that we take a boat trip across the Bosphorus, to Uskudar. We’d be setting foot on Asian ground. We would be stepping on the edge of our own continent: an illusory encounter, perhaps, but romantic. The April sky was very dark when we stepped off the boat and so was the water. For a moment we imagined that the stars in Asia were shining with a certain different light.
On the way back, walking back to our family-run hotel, we heard music in the shadow of the mosque’s dome: it came from a café in the wall. We sat down on a pavement table: I asked for Turkish coffee and my friend ordered a raki. The very courteous waiter smiled and responded that they didn’t serve alcohol, because the café was on the precincts of the mosque. For a moment I faced a familiar double-edged dilemma: though we’re used to enjoying ourselves without alcohol, we find ourselves in awkward situations with those who don’t. But my friend decided on tea, and I could see that she was fascinated by the spectacle of young people clapping and revelling as they listened to traditional music in the space where people who may have been their relatives had been praying just a little while before. We sat facing the square and looking at the dark outline of trees and towers against the night sky.
My friend had filled each waking hour with plans for sightseeing. We were there five nights, and every day we visited mosques and monuments, markets and malls. On a Friday evening, in the walls of a railway station by the Bosphorus, we watched dervishes, some of them women, dance to the verses of Rumi’s Masnavi, and I, who grew up with Rumi’s words in my ears, felt I understood the Turkish translations.
In an old house in the Sultan Ahmet neighbourhood we met a man on the street outside the shop where he sold quaint hats: he told my friend she was silly to buy one. He was an architect who had opened his curio shop as a diversion. His mother spoke Laz, which he could barely understand. He took us to the roof of the old house which belonged to him: we saw the neighbourhood spread around like a peacock fan. But when he offered us tea, my friend refused and we left an unfinished conversation.
We cruised down the straits again – in daylight, this time – and saw the pastel colours of the villas on the Asian shore. Neither of us had any Turkish, but the few words we acquired helped us find our way everywhere: the old men of the city, seeing us lost, would approach us and point us in the right direction. All too often I’d be taken for an expat Turk; how strange it felt, to be taken for a native, and yet to feel so foreign. And feeling foreign was a consequence of my frustration at being unable to communicate, though the language seemed so familiar that at night I’d dream I was speaking it. I vowed that the next time I was here I would walk around with someone who spoke in Turkish.
And I did. Three years after I visited Istanbul, I received a note from an editor in Turkey, asking me to write an essay for a collection of essays entitled ‘Istanbul in the Eyes of Asian Writers’. I hadn’t kept a diary on the trip: I wasn’t going to try to list the epochs and eras and dynasties that seemed to coexist in Istanbul, as if analysis or reportage would take away the colours.
And the launch of the book took me back in the summer. I was on the other side of town, very near Taksim, in a street that had none of the charm of Sultan Ahmet, in a luxury hotel that could be anywhere. At midnight I was taken to a TV studio, where I was to give a live broadcast, with the editor of the volume and an interpreter, on my relationship with Istanbul. I don’t remember what I said, but I do have in front of me the essay I wrote for the volume. Interwoven with the memories of the city I’d reconstructed were some reflections on my oblique relationship with Turkey.
This time I saw Istanbul through Turkish eyes, in gardens and pavilions, cafes by the waterfront, listening to traditional songs in ancient churches, and eating grilled fish on boats on the Bosphorus. Our two interpreters, a young woman and a young man, called me ‘older brother’ and became my good friends. They represented two different facets of contemporary Turkish culture: she’d been born in a Kemalist milieu, but was sympathetic to those young women who wore the headscarf and struggled to be allowed to attend university in Islamic dress; she was attracted to Arabic and to Sufism, though she smoked and drank in public, and wore the latest Paris fashions. He said his prayers as often as he could, didn’t drink alcohol, fasted throughout Ramadan, and was fascinated by the Ottoman past, but also played Western classical music, which was his passion, on the piano. Both of them would stop in front of Ottoman inscriptions and ask us to read them out, as they couldn’t read the script, and laugh in delight when they understood what we recited.
I began to feel a transient sense of homecoming. Though I was born and brought up a few miles away from the sea, I have always loved rivers, cities through which they pass. But the lashing blue Bosphorus isn’t a river, it’s a strait, which divides the city in two like a river would. There are cities that aren’t really ours as we aren’t theirs, but we can love them and fit into them of our own volition, without compulsions or convictions or the pressure to belong. Istanbul could take the place of home for a few days at a time because I laid no claims to it.
Mostly I’d felt on my first trip that I was in the East, but in this version of the East that had confronted the paradoxes of modernity. Or, more accurately, in a microcosm that had made away with continental distinctions. Away from Istanbul, conservatism or tradition may persist, but there in the city I felt I was in a cosmopolis which was, at the same time, firmly located on the edge of Asia. More than once, however, in a bar near Taksim Square, surrounded by young men and women dressed in the latest styles drinking beer, I thought I was in Berlin or Barcelona. But the illusion passed when, on a stall in the street, I saw a Karagoz shadow puppet play. And I was back on the western shore of the great body of water that lies between Europe and Asia, and closes the distance between. I’ll be back, I vowed, before too long.
For several days I was on television every day, and on stage for the launch of the book. The gist of the questions was often the same: was Istanbul an Eastern or a Western city, or a city with a unique and multicultural identity? My position among the other writers who had arrived for the launch of the book was anomalous: they were Arabic speakers from Lebanon and Iraq, and had ancestral memories of the Ottoman Empire that braided historical insights with deep and possibly imaginary nostalgia, of Turkey as the once and future centre of a civilisation that questioned Eurocentric hegemonies. I came from a country and a region that had its own imperial heritage – the Mughals, who had left their imprint of every aspect of culture I could recall. And its legacy of an entirely different kind of colonialism.