Friday, August 05, 2005

notes from a cosmopolis - II

This was written just under a year ago, and the final version published in The Itinerant Indian, ed. Aruna Nambiar (Bangalore: Unisun, 2005).

Itching in Istanbul

Every holiday has its epiphanic moments. I would like to say mine came as I sunbathed on a gorgeous Mediterranean beach in Bodrum. But actually I was cowering in the cool dark recesses of a seaside restaurant, trying desperately to position myself in the path of the room’s only fan, and avoiding – much to the bemusement of waiters and guests alike – Bodrum’s chief attraction: the sun. ‘Would you like a table outside?’ a waiter asks me, gesturing to an empty spot under a beach umbrella, from where I could have looked out west over the sparkling azure waters of the Aegean Sea and up and down Bodrum’s charming, if somewhat overcrowded, seafront. I shake my head miserably, squeezing big globs of sunscreen onto my palms and rubbing them over my red, mottled, blistering and itchy forearms and thighs, wretchedly recalling the 45 pound sterling diagnosis that a Turkish doctor had pronounced only hours before: ‘Sun is guilty!’

But back to the epiphanies – actually there were two. One was that while the more assimilated NRIs and ABCDs in the West – ABveryCDs – are called coconuts (brown skin, white consciousness), I was turning out to be more like an egg: white on the outside, and somewhat messy inside. After three years in Britain, where summer is a few hours of apologetic sunshine peeking out of dense, unremitting cloud cover, my skin was going Caucasian.

Second epiphany: I am admiring the view – a beautiful indented coastline in two graceful sweeping curves, with the 15th century Castle of St. Peter built by the Crusader Knights of St. John on a promontory jutting out into the sea where the two curves meet. As I watch a woman take off her bikini top to reveal, well, two more graceful sweeping curves, I hear the unmistakable cry of a muezzin calling the faithful to prayer from a neighbouring mosque: ‘Allah, Hu Akbar!’ he cries; ‘Welcome to Turkey’, I think.

I am in Turkey with Oxford friends and flatmates – the Bengali-Malayali Niharika (very clever, fishy, giggles uncontrollably at terrible jokes) and the Scots-Irish Sinead (Scottish when intellectual, Irish when inebriated; projects image of brittle, tragic and brilliant Hollywood star; warm and fuzzy deep down inside). We are here to visit our friend Elizabeth (hyperactive, subversive, bibliophile, Seattle-born refugee from Bushistan) who is attending a two-month language course at Istanbul’s Bogazici University. Everything I have read about Turkey so far abounds in clichés about the place being a bridge between Europe and Asia, a meeting point of civilisations. This is all slightly annoying for me. The guidebooks make it sound like West never met East anywhere else, making me want to say ‘erm…colonialism?’ Nonetheless, there is something unique about Turkey: the cultural contrasts are starker, more abrupt, the pieces more jagged and their juxtapositions more unexpected than anywhere else I have been. Partly this has to do with its history, with the monumental change effected almost overnight in 1923 from decadent, crumbling Ottoman empire to modern, secular Turkish republic, and more recently with the efforts of this 99.8% Muslim country to enter the European Union. All of this makes for some curious contrasts: where else, my guide book asks rhetorically, would you find that the chief imam’s cübbe (ceremonial robe) had been redesigned by an openly gay fashion designer?

Istanbul exemplifies all of these contradictions, feeling very much like a mosaic of neighbourhoods from different parts of the world – and all within easy walking distance of one another. Elizabeth has a large airy flat in Beyoglu, which will be home to us during our time in Istanbul. With its high ceilings and wooden floors and large windows and its location in the heart of one of Istanbul’s most lively neighbourhoods, this is like one of those Parsi flats in Bombay that you could only hope to inherit. Although with a malfunctioning toilet, a shower behind a pile of bricks in a corner of the bedroom, curtain rails that fell off at the slightest tug and no magnificent rosewood furniture, this is a Parsi on welfare from the Panchayat (we were all on student budgets). But our location more than makes up for these trifling inconveniences. We live on what is possibly the noisiest side street in Beyoglu, our neighbours comprising a bookstore, several restaurants and bars, a nargile (hookah) café and a club that advertises itself as Latin/Afro-Caribbean. This last’s choice of music turns out to be somewhat more eclectic, featuring a generous nightly dose of Panjabi M.C. and Euro-cheese. The DJ also seems to have an unfortunate affinity for long sessions of techno-trance that begin as early as noon, reaching a bone-rattling climax at 4 a.m. every morning.

One night when, after a nocturnal ramble, Sinead, Elizabeth and I are locked out of the flat and unable to yell above the din to rouse the evidently sleeping Niharika inside, this will require us to enter the building on the opposite side of the street, batter down the door of the third-floor leftist outfit whose windows open onto our own, explain to its sleepy but surprisingly good-natured occupants in broken Turkish that we cannot enter our flat and that it is imperative that we wake up our friend, attempt to do so by bellowing ‘Ni-harika! Ni-harika!’ into the night air, and finally in utter desperation throw objects including large old Turkish coins at the window. ‘Harika’ being the Turkish world for ‘wonderful’ and with money raining down in the street, one can only wonder at the impression we created.

The centrepiece of Beyoglu is its main pedestrianised boulevard – Istiklal Caddesi – teeming with life at all hours of the day and night. There is a faded, crumbling elegance about Istiklal, with its neo-classical facades featuring intricate wrought iron balconies and other delightful embellishments. Even the local Starbucks has an impressive two-tier chandelier and beautiful black and white floor mosaics. Alternating with brash new storefronts flaunting the latest high-end brands are old churches (hidden from street view by elaborate brick and stone screens because of a restriction forbidding non-Muslim religious buildings to appear on the city skyline, in effect until the 19th century), embassies and consulates in period buildings, restaurants, bars, cafes and sweetshops, bookstores and shops selling old maps and calligraphy, the old French Lycée and markets in colonnaded arcades. But my most treasured find is undoubtedly the Markiz Pastahanesi. With its art nouveau interiors and ceramic tile panels depicting the four seasons and quiet restrained jazz, it is hauntingly evocative of turn of the century Europe. And it sells the richest, thickest, most decadent chocolate cake I have ever sunk my teeth into.

Istiklal Caddesi slopes down sharply through what feels like an entire district of music shops and hardware stores, past the conical capped Galata Tower built by the Genoese in the 14th century, taking you finally to the water: the Golden Horn or Haliç, a channel that bisects the European side of Istanbul. At this point, I am tempted to say something dramatic like ‘crossing the Haliç is like going from Barcelona to Baghdad’, but nothing in Istanbul is quite that cut and dry. All the bewilderingly diverse elements in this city bleed into each other like masalas in some complicated and slow-cooking curry. Nevertheless, there is something dramatically different about the southern shore of the Haliç. After the recreational pace of Beyoglu, Eminönü feels like one of those long-exposure photographs where the lights make bright streaky lines and even stationary objects look like they’re moving at high speed. Everybody is going from somewhere to somewhere else, with Eminönü itself serving as a vast transit lounge for the city. People scurry to and fro, hopping on and off buses, ferries, cabs, and trams, darting into subway tunnels, pausing only long enough to enjoy a quick doner kebab or corn on the cob. Only the fishermen on Galata Bridge and the pigeon sellers around the Yeni Cami (New Mosque, circa 1598) are virtually motionless, their respective transactions across species boundaries seeming to require infinitely more patience and serenity than is in evidence around them. Pausing for a moment on the bridge, we are treated to a stunning view of what must be one of the world’s most spectacular urban skylines: red roofs tumbling higgledy-piggledy down steep slopes towards the water, punctuated by moments of splendour and seriousness provided by a thicket of minarets pegging down some grand Ottoman mosque or palace, and all of this sliced up by the shimmering blue of the Haliç and the Bosphorous Straits meeting each other at right angles in a watery T-junction.

Walking uphill from Eminönü, we pass Sirkeci station, which served as the last stop in Europe for trains from the west including the legendary Orient Express immortalised in Agatha Christie’s famous mystery novel. I wander into its cool, dark waiting room –

…the sun drives me into cool dark spaces at every opportunity, although prior to the Bodrum diagnosis, I labour under the illusion that I am suffering from some sort of allergy and therefore take refuge in anti-histamine pills instead of sunscreen. ‘It’s symmetrical!’ I exclaim triumphantly, vaguely recalling my mother explaining to me that allergies were often symmetrical, but forgetting that sunburn is also symmetrical unless you are wearing something very haute couture and asymmetrical (which needless to say, I am not)…

- to admire its beautiful wooden wall panelling and circular porthole-like stained glass windows. The frontage, unfortunately, is marred by an extension in what any Indian would recognise as the PWD style of architecture.

But all this is quickly forgotten when a short tram ride up the hill, we are deposited amidst the grandeur of Sultanahmet – the heart of Byzantine and Ottoman Istanbul. Here we visit Topkapi Palace, which hitherto has existed in my imagination only as a seedy restaurant on top of Bangalore’s Utility Building. Built at a slight elevation on an outcrop of land surrounded by water on three sides, the real Topkapi was the home of the Ottoman sultans for over three centuries. I have been reading Orhan Pamuk’s intricate and spellbinding My Name is Red, set in the workshops of the imperial miniaturists of 16th century Istanbul, and as I move deeper into the palace grounds through its labyrinthine network of courtyards and pavilions, I can almost see clutches of scheming artisans huddled together in the corridors, plotting away their next intellectual coup. Sinead loses herself in the imperial harem, convinced that she would have thrived in its luxurious and devious environs. I am less sanguine about her prospects, finding it difficult to imagine her sharing her living quarters – not to mention the Sultan – with three hundred other concubines. On the other hand, I surmise, it might be precisely that need for exclusivity that would drive her to become a modern day Roxelana (wife of Süleyman the Magnificent), out-manoeuvring her fellow concubines, banishing their progeny to the far corners of the empire (and perhaps eventually having them strangled), assassinating jealous court officials who oppose her rise to power and generally pushing, plotting and poisoning her way up the palace pecking order. Yes, Sinead would have been fantastic.

Later, in the Grand Bazaar, she goes looking for harem pants. I’m not entirely sure what these are meant to be, but she is shown and urged to try on a variety of costumes that would have made a samba dancer in Rio blush. These (usually) lecherous offers are brushed off with a stiff ‘no thank you’, but one vender takes great exception: ‘I am a designer, not a salesman’ he snaps, as if to say ‘I seek to undress you for the greater glory of art.’ Sinead remains unpersuaded. Other transactions are more amiable: Elizabeth buys gomleks (kurtas), Niharika wrangles out of one shopkeeper an exquisite turquoise bowl decorated with tulips (a recurring motif in 18th century Ottoman art), and I – rejecting the mass-produced ready-to-hang block prints being sold in a government bookshop – return to a tiny hole in the wall to purchase a piece of Arabic calligraphy of dubious pedigree and authenticity. What I am buying is almost less important than where I am buying it: the world’s oldest shopping centre, a half-millennium old market, where the shops still pay their rent in gold. Despite my passionate dislike for shopping, particularly on vacation, I could have wandered endlessly through the maze of interconnecting vaulted passageways that is the Grand Bazaar, marvelling at the smorgasbord of traditional handicrafts, everyday necessities and sheer junk on offer. Jewellery, leather goods, bath accessories, metal and coloured glass lamps, Turkish rugs, souvenirs, ceramics, tea sets, silks, nargiles, sweets and savouries, chess sets, furniture, prayer beads, icons, football T-shirts, miniatures, old coins, nuts and dates and raisins, dried fish, kitschy trinkets, heaps of spices, old silverware and belly-dancer costumes leap out at us, fighting with each other to demand our attention, answering needs we didn’t even know we had.

One need that I am always acutely aware of is the imperative of periodic retreat into cool, dark spaces where I can attend to the blistering copper-red parchment that my skin has become. It is this, as much as their architectural and religious significance, that takes me into Sultanahmet’s numerous mosques. While the others admire AyaSofya’s marvellous dome adorned with black and gold Arabic calligraphy and its Byzantine mosaics and revel retrospectively in its historical importance as world centre of Orthodox Christendom and then Islam, I am considerably more preoccupied with the increasingly cracked mosaic-like appearance that my skin is taking on. While the devout line up to place a hand inside a cold, clammy hole in a pillar and pray for fertility, world peace and other trifles, I wish fervently that my itching would cease. Someone remarks on the Sultanahmet mosque’s six minarets (unprecedented at the time and necessitating the construction of a seventh minaret at Mecca so that it could retain its pre-eminence); I can only think, Red Riding Hood-like, ‘what big scratching posts’…When subaltern historians get around to publishing their urban studies anthology (‘The Leper’s Jerusalem’?), let not be excluded this account of Istanbul through the eyes of an itching itinerant.

There is something about Ottoman mosques that makes them look rather like Sumo wrestlers. They sit low and squat on the ground, their multiple domes looking like so many rolls of fat cascading down on every side. The illusion is quickly dispelled inside by their cavernous unified spaces, surmounted by magnificent central domes – delicate and detailed in ethereal blue in the Sultanahmet mosque and richer, warmer colours in the Süleymaniye. Vast circular wrought iron chandeliers, in size the diameter of the dome itself, hang low over the centre, casting a light that plays with the sunbeams refracted through stained glass windows to give the entire place a sort of dappled brilliance. Ottoman tombs are considerably less inspiring structures, particularly if one arrives expecting the drama of Mughal mausoleums. Here instead are cramped polygonal structures, packed with monstrous graves (the monstrosity of the grave being directly proportional to the importance of the deceased) with a ceramic-tile: wall-surface ratio so high as to create the impression of a bathroom. Government tourist board-like signs extol the virtues and eclipse the vices of each Sultan in bombastic language.

(The state, incidentally, is everywhere in the form of a picture of Atatürk, founder of the modern Turkish republic, who, hitherto has existed in my imagination only as my grandfather’s much loved horse. The more I look at his stern but sometimes kindly, weathered face, the more he begins to look like my grandfather – until slowly but surely, I begin to see my grandfather everywhere: inspecting military parades, on banknotes, teaching children the modern Turkish alphabet, drinking coffee, making speeches, signing treaties.)

Determined to get off the tourist trail, Niharika and I venture into the Western districts of Fatih, Fener and Balat. Poorer and reputedly more conservative, these are fascinating areas of the city testifying to a not-so-distant past when Christians and Jews made up nearly 40% of its population. Walking through Fener – the old Greek part of the city – we pass the high walled and inscrutable Greek Orthodox Patriarchate and the neo-Gothic, cast-iron St. Stephen of the Bulgars built for Istanbul’s Bulgarian community and still used by Macedonian Christians. Making our way through a warren of streets too narrow to show up on our map, we find ourselves in Balat –the old Jewish quarter. The Ahrida synagogue is closed and there is little to indicate that this was once a Jewish area, barring the old woman with distinctly Semitic features who squints at us fiercely from a high window. But we stumble upon an Armenian Orthodox Church not five steps away, where incense burns in hanging brass lamps and the weekly mass is being conducted to the strains of chanting for the tiny congregation that remains. There is a sort of cheek-by-jowl cosmopolitanism to this place, so characteristic of imperial trading cities. Yet despite the unique history of the area that drew this extraordinary hotchpotch of people together, in its outward appearance I cannot help but think (in the slightly modified words of the Beautiful South) ‘This could be Shivajinagar, or anywhere…’ The same hardware stores and wholesale depots selling the same utensils and plastic buckets and ball bearings, the same shop fronts and signs and fonts. I am very much at home.

But home is where the heart is, to use a cheesy cliché, and if Samuel Huntington forces me to chose from the vague continental-civilisational identities on offer in his thoroughly over-cited Clash of Civilisations, I suppose I’d be Asian. Straddling as it does – however nominally – both Europe and Asia, Istanbul is about the only place on earth where I can ‘test’ this simply by leaping from one continent to the other. We take a ferry from Eminönü, stopping at Arnavutköy (the ‘Albanian Village’, still on the European side) to admire its pretty waterfront of timber Ottoman mansions, then pass under an enormous suspension bridge connecting the European and Asian landmasses, and finally disembark at Kadiköy on the Asian side. I fall to my knees and kiss the earth, I text my mother, I sniff the air – but alas, I feel no organic connection with the elements. There is an incredible sameness about the Asian side – not one thing I could point to that was radically different. Elated that I have scored a point (admittedly cheap and academically un-rigorous) against Huntington, Niall Ferguson and all the coffee-table gatekeepers of Western identity, I vow to bring them to Istanbul to rub their faces in the confusing, disorienting identity melange that is Turkey.

Perhaps Turkey’s Asianness would have become more apparent if I had looked hard enough over the next few days, when we managed to tear ourselves away from Istanbul to venture east into Anatolia. Our first stop, however, is Cappadocia, where nature is so distracting that I fail to make any significant observations about how people live. Famed for its canyons and gorges, we spend hours tramping through valleys in which wind and water have relentlessly carved the volcanic landscape into unimaginably weird and fantastic shapes. I name them arbitrarily – but, I think, appropriately – as we go along: Lemon Meringue Ridge, Wigwam County, Ku Klux Klan Milliners, Fairy Chimney Land, and – most impressively – the Valley of the Giant Circumcised Penises. More intriguingly, local communities, seeking refuge from marauding hordes, dug entire subterranean towns in the soft rock – most of which, I discover to my discomfort, were built for very short people.

But imagine being able to spend all your life in a cool, dark place – ah, bliss! Surely you want to know how my skin is doing? Cappadocia is simply awful, skin-wise. If Istanbul is hot, Cappadocia is baking, the occasional scrub vegetation affording little shade and the lack of human habitation providing few opportunities for retreat. Nivea lotion, Aloe vera gel and (finally!) sunscreen are the soothers of the moment, but their repeated and alternating application is quite literally confusing the life out of my skin cells, which are undergoing a rapid inflammation-contraction-sudden-death-and-flake-off cycle in alarming numbers. I observe, worriedly, that I am beginning to look like a bronzed god.

Our most interesting encounter with a human being in Cappadocia is with the (apparently) charming and helpful man who rents us a car, which we use to explore rock-cut churches, monasteries and cities in the countryside around our base in Göreme. Our day is uneventful – which is to say I drive brilliantly, barring occasional tense moments when I am on the wrong side of the road (in my defence, I have never driven on the right before), or when I reach down for the gearshift with my left hand only to hit the driver’s door, or when I try to start the car (unsuccessfully) with the key to the dickey, or when I am stopped by police for a breathalyser test. Having negotiated all hurdles successfully, it is not without a trace of smugness that I deliver the car back to the rental agency just in time (we think) for us to catch our bus to Bodrum. Aforementioned Charming & Helpful clerk inspects the car, sticks his head under it, starts it again and then, listening to the engine, asks darkly and mysteriously, ‘Can you hear that?’ ‘Hear what?’ (this has more to do with my complete ignorance about cars, than with any attempt to feign blamelessness – i.e. being dumb, rather than playing dumb). An argument ensues, the upshot of which is that we cannot leave till Mr. Charming-n-Helpful has contacted his manager and asked him what to do with us since we have ‘destroyed’ his car. My defence comprises the words ‘wheel’, ‘axle’, ‘engine’, ‘tuning’, ‘old’ and ‘car’ strung together in various permutations and combinations (language is not an issue as we both speak fluent English). Located next door to the bus company and knowing full well that our bus is just about to depart (and, therefore, that he has us by the metaphorical balls), Charming-n-Helpful delivers an ultimatum: ‘I will let you go if you pay me 200 million lire.’ Normally this would sound like a ransom line out of a high-stakes mafia movie, but in Turkey – thanks to a severely devalued currency – this is actually quite reasonable, as extortion goes. Not one to be outwitted and even less willing to reject a movie role, I threaten to call the American Embassy. No one stops to ponder what exactly a US diplomatic representative could and would do for us – it is enough that we have been able to summon all the wrath and majesty of the world’s only superpower – but C & H roars in furious impotence: ‘Get out of Turkey and never come back!’

We flee to Bodrum, as planned. The only things of consequence that happen here are: (a) the epiphanies; (b) the diagnosis. Beautiful as the landscape is, Bodrum is synonymous with boredom, and bursting with beet-red boorish Brits, baking on the beach in bikini-briefs. Not a pretty sight.

Our penultimate stop is Ephesus, which all the guidebooks inform us is the largest and best-preserved ancient city around the Mediterranean. This is certainly true, with the ruins rivalling those of the Forum in Rome in extent and intactness. Now I am no archaeologist, but sometimes ‘preservation’ seems to imply putting together whatever is lying around, however mismatched, with large quantities of cement. Happily, this cannot be said of the superbly restored façade of the Celsus Library which – with the perfect symmetry of its massive Corinthian columns and triangular pediments – does not fail to impress even the most sunburnt. I want to go home, but having bought sunscreen of the appropriate strength, am somewhat relieved that the healing process has begun. We spend the night in the neighbouring town of Selçuk, where we are the guests of a warmly welcoming and highly knowledgeable gentleman who talks us to exhaustion, threatens to deny us a single moment of privacy (‘You want pizza? I take you; You want kebab? I take you’), and is something of a control freak (‘How many spoons of sugar would you like in your coffee day-after-tomorrow?’). Niharika is deputed to communicate with him on our behalf, as the rest of us – exploding into spluttering laughter at each new question or piece of information that he volunteers – lack the forbearance that this seems to require. She does so admirably, using the patient voice that is usually reserved for a lovable but slightly demented child. Nevertheless, she too invariably splutters and with much tee-hee-ing and haw-haw-ing, we manage to extricate ourselves from the overwhelming hospitality of our garrulous host.

No journey to Turkey is complete without a trip to a Turkish bath or hamam, and on returning to Istanbul – since my skin was on the mend – I decide that a visit is in order. Much more than just baths, hamams are integral to Turkish social life in a number of ways – many are closely linked to mosques; in patriarchal Ottoman society they were rare autonomous spaces for women, and they continue to be favoured places for such things as arranging marriages. My hamam, it turned out, was a front for rather more amorous activities – and not ones that your parents or family elders arranged for you. ‘Massage? Ma-ssage?’’, the front-of-house man asked puzzled, playing with the word as if it were a strange, unfamiliar concept that I ought to be pursuing elsewhere. ‘No massage’, he said finally, waving me through a door into a large, square, tiled room in which men in various stages of undress poured water, suggestively, over their bodies. All my politically progressive instincts militate against my adding to five hundred years of writing about the decadent ‘Orient’, but it was very clear to me at this moment that East was East and East was hot and West was coming East to get it. And some men were women (and quite possibly, some women men), for did not Virginia Woolf choose Constantinople (as Istanbul was then called) as the location for her androgynous Orlando’s pivotal change from man to woman? Of course literature and postcolonial studies were uppermost in my mind.

Two weeks have sped by and I am on a plane bound for London. I am sad to leave, but for once I relish the prospect of returning to the coldest and darkest place in the world. Finally, I think, an end to dermatological misery. Istanbul will, however, continue to haunt me for many a night. Unknown to me at the time, even as I step onto Air France flight 2391, I am infested with body lice. I am a walking zoo. How? Bed sheets? Bus seats? Hamam? Haram? Who knows? I am still itching as I write this.

- September 2004

If you liked this, you will enjoy the rest of this volume. The Itinerant Indian is available for purchase from major Indian bookshops; in the UK, from Star Books, 55 Warren Street, London WIT 5NW, phone: 020-7380 0622, fax: 020-7419 9169, email:

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