It is my continued good luck in my otherwise seemingly aimless and wandering life to find myself regularly in the company of precious and deeply good people and all in and about some of the most glorious locations. The last year or so has had me in excellent company in London, Glasgow, Malta, back and forth from New York to San Francisco, North Carolina, Cape Cod, Pennsylvania(!?, you say), Greece and now Istanbul (I’m probably forgetting somewhere) – and this for a man who makes little or no money, owns nothing of note, enjoys no fame or fortune, has no partner or children, and in the end will have nothing to show for it, really, except memories. All this is to say only that, when you’re an unattached meandering loner, the world is your oyster… I guess.
Enough about me, though, my point wants to be about other people! At least to begin with. Everywhere I go I am met with grace and goodness from the fellows I find myself with. Perhaps I am attracted to such types through a selfish aspiration to be such a type. My friends are the greatest people on Earth, if not necessarily celebrated as such (though some are, for sure). I am in awe (Aw!! you say). San Francisco Bay holds the finest community of fun-loving and brilliant, beautiful freaks; New York the hardest working, creative motherfuckers and some of my oldest friends as well as in North Carolina, with family and homeland. Recently in Cape Cod I was absolutely blessed with inclusion in a kind of frothy cream of the American creative and educational crop, the collective lot of which makes up much of what is the voice of the heartfelt conscience and perspective of our country’s thinking folk, having the ear of the country as these particular friends do through the power of radio. European and more far-flung contingents are open-hearted, honest, politically savvy, blazingly intelligent. I don’t see what any of the above amazing, talented, and obscenely productive people see in me, I must say! I don’t think I’ve accomplished anything approaching what most of (I’m gonna say) you had done by the time you owned your second car! That said, I know I possess a certain kind of charm. And I’m a good listener. So that’s something.
At the moment I myself am being charmed by one of the world’s oldest cities, awash with every type of person, for sure. I have only met good ones. Istanbul is famously and perhaps arguably the crux of the world, the bridge between East and West (if not exactly between North and South). Enough has been said of it that I will attempt to avoid cliché. It has been a life’s (my life’s) worth of waiting to finally make it here, and although my arrival is a little late – as I’m told by almost everyone, lamenting as they do (as we all do in New York, San Francisco, Berlin, etc., in any of the formerly creatively vivid mecca’s of the world, now playgrounds for a virulent and porcine capitalism) lamenting , as I say, the demise and selling out of what Istanbul once was. Too late for me, perhaps, but the ancient glory of this oldest of cities remains as does the recent spirit of Gezi, tamped down though it may have been by the current conservative, nearly fascist President “Pro Gay Centipede Ray” who also virtually aids and abets (or, at least, does nothing to help rid the world of) the world’s most notorious evil zombie horde of religious whacks intent on bringing about hell on earth in the form of their so-called Islamic State! (Imagine, for example, what it would be like if there were a heavily armed and powerful and influential, purely evil militant Mexican Catholic horde clamoring at our southern border, murdering entire towns – wait a minute! maybe this is happening! – looking for inroads into our country in order to slaughter our black folk and Native Americans and enslave our women – for example! And our, say, Catholic president decided not to bother with them ‘cuz they, at least, were Catholics!)
I digress… Too late, maybe. It does seem bleak. Dame Fortuna spins ever downward for the un-monied and disenfranchised. But nevertheless, grace does even proliferate under pressure, and for sure it is so here. I personally want to believe Istanbul has come too far in all it’s striving towards secular modern free-thought to fall back so readily. However, I am mostly still ignorant of the complexities here, and complex it certainly is. I can only note what I experience through my somewhat privileged and gauzed travelers eyes. There is much that is being shared with me.
On the surface Istanbul appears to be a giant old-world-meets-new shopping mall and restaurant! The city’s many, many neighborhoods are all quite literally filled with vendors of food and stuff, whole sectors with store after store dedicated to, say, handbags, or bras, or wedding dresses, or coats, fabric, or chain, or casters, or tools! Store after store of shoes, or phones, light fixtures, or musical instruments! Entire neighborhoods of the most fantastic selection of antiques you will ever find! Shop after shop of fake fur, or leather, spices, or olives, meat, or vegetables, or perfumes, and the ever-ever present absolute mountains of lokum (Turkish Delight – the fruity, gummy, cubed candies that seem to be the obsession and symbol of the nation), or dripping baklava and the like, puddings and pomegranates! By the waters of the Bosporus, the Golden Horn and the Sea of Marmara, the undulating stalls of fish of all kinds and their cacophonous mongers mong-ing away in the rhythm of chanted names and prices! And throughout all this, one after another of restaurants, cafes, meyhanes, tea shops, bars, kebab stalls, clamoring ice cream cone venders who seem to want to frighten you into buying a scoop or two with their explosive, theatrical panderings. Carts of simits (a kind of bagel-y bread thing), carts of mussels, carts of roasted chestnuts and roasted corn! This city will surely never go hungry; it seems entirely built of food! All of this tripping about with ragamuffin gypsy water sellers and beggars, street musicians, bridge fishermen, weight-guessers, cheap toy sellers, shoe shiners (with the most elaborate set-ups you will find anywhere), delivery boys, Kurd activists, filmmakers, be-camera-ed sunset gawkers, Arab shoppers, Turk shoppers, Euro, American and East Asian tourists. And yes, even the ubiquitous Bolivians (they really are everywhere! Are they clones? Secret police?) with their bloody pan flutes and El Condor fucking Pasa! And prowling through all of this, many, many, many street cats of every stripe and character! All of them, if a bit dirty at times (most, though, are very well-groomed), they are well-fed and apparently loved and collectively taken care of by everyone, cat food and water bowls seen on the stoops of many a cafe and shop. They are, it seems, an Istanbullu’s best friend, man and woman alike. They are everywhere you look, roofs, stoops, gutters, stairways, under cars, on top of cars, sunning on parked motorcycle seats, begging (mostly patiently) at fish markets and cafes, going in and out of book shops and coffee houses. It is a YouTuber’s pussy-filled wet dream! Every one of them a tough little street punk and an adorable cuddly temporary friend. I highly support the phenomenon! Much better than back in New York where we are instead surrounded by rats! I have not seen a single rat in Istanbul. It is no surprise why.
There are essentially though unofficially some 20 million people in this city. It feels like it. The main drag on the Beyoğlu side of town where I’ve been staying, Istiklal Caddesi, is a long, broad pedestrian boulevard which is essentially an open-air shopping mall and gateway to countless side alleys leading to bars, music clubs, meyhanes, prostitutes, and food more food. It is a macro-cosmic view of the city itself, absolutely brimming as it is, night and day, with throngs of people, so much so that it is impossible to walk along it with anything approaching an estimated time of arrival at any destination on the other end. The phrase “press of humanity” conveys the context very well.
Beyoğlu is the more liberal, free-spirited part of town as opposed to the more conservative, and more touristed “old city” across the Golden Horn, full as it is with its mosques and monuments and UNESCO protection. There is what most tourists come to see. Here is the grand Taksim Square and its Gezi Park, both at the heart of liberal, secular, intelligent modern Istanbul. It is just as encrusted with antiquity on this side, but with a bit more joie de vivre, shall we say. Then there is the Asian side, across the mighty Bosporus, with its quaint tree lined streets and San Francisco-like wooden houses and bay windows dotting its hilly neighborhoods. But as I said, I don’t want to slip in cliche. Much has been said already.
I have gotten to “know” the city well enough in my continuing month or so here, being invited to join (and even live with) profoundly charming Istanbullus. I have visited neighborhood after neighborhood drinking it in. Like others shop for souvenirs, traipse in a constant stream to the sites in and out of town, following their guidebook’s “No trip would be complete without…” admonishments, I am more drawn to meeting people and lingering as long as possible to savor their company and place. Though I have certainly visited some sites, which is a lovely thing to do with fellow visitors and revel with un-jaded eye in the splendor of a new place, mostly I have sat, danced, drank and played with local and expatriate artists, anarchists, fellow atheists, writers, journalists, musicians, actors, activists, filmmakers and general ne’er-do-wells who have welcomed me in and have openly all shared their Istanbul with me, and it is a very friendly one! Friendly – if a little sad.
There is a Turkish word that has become the theme of sorts in my time here. Hüzün. Indeed, I have been largely influenced in this by reading Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul where he dedicates a chapter to its explication, and as such it fits like the right puzzle piece into my own impression (and no doubt I suffer a natural predilection towards such a mood anyway, no matter where I am). Hüzün is a kind of melancholy. A sweet, spiritual sadness, the suffering of a life lived in and of the world, full as it is with suffering and loss. It’s a kind of communal, listless “black passion”. A shared compassion in our shared misery. An eternal loneliness despite being in the midst of millions of others. If anything, it seems the baseline above which it is our struggle to strive and reach out of in search of fickle joy, as ready to laugh as much as cry. Though not an unfamiliar tint over other cities, here it is grey haze over the town, a glaucoma-ed, jaundiced eye that has seen, perhaps, a little too much. Maybe I take it a little too far, but it is a perspective on the world difficult to avoid for me but, perhaps, best avoided in order to be like the fun-seeking, party-going, beach-bound, pleasure-based, mentally numbed, yowling vacationers. Maybe this hüzün hangs heavy especially here because Istanbul has been around for so damn long, from pre-Byzantine to Byzantine to Ottoman to Nationalist times, and has indeed seen much too much. She is a ragged old scarved babushka wandering the streets alone and begging for food in three languages. It is a drooping old, broken and dirty window in an abandoned and crumbling, ancient mansion looking out on a world attempting to birth itself anew, the current city rising as it has from it’s more than crippled state as the “Old Man Of Europe” to its jumping through countless burning hoops to aspire towards a modern European town and now against and under a current regime which wants to drag it (Turkey, that is) slouching back down to an oppressive, curtained, religious dark age – in my opinion.
Still though, it’s the people that make a place, and people are plentiful here. Turks, Kurds, Balkans, Arabs, Russians, Greeks and Armenians (there are a few left, anyway, despite the pogroms that Turkey still denies), loads of expatriate North Americans and Europeans. It’s still a colorful, cacophonous place brimming with hospitality and music, lots of hot tea and sympathy! It is exotic and somehow familiar. There’s the constant throng of people in the streets shopping or on their way to shopping and eating. I have noticed among this throng a preponderance of men, apparently “Arabs”, with their be-curtained wives, all with close-cropped heads with odd shaved patches and fresh scalp wounds, sloppily bandaged or unbandaged all over their heads. Thinking, or rather over thinking, that it was some version of the self-mutilation in which certain Muslim Shiites engage in this month of Muharram (a practice I have witnessed a couple times before in Pakistan whereby the devout marched through the streets shouting chants lamenting the martyrdom of Hussein, grandson of the Prophet, while whipping themselves with studded whips or chains, abrading their chests with broken glass or slashing their legs with blades, over and over, shouting “Ya, Hussein” and bleeding profusely until they dropped and were carried off – 1. what good, cheery fun that was! Would that all the religious of the world would engage themselves thusly and we could be rid of them once and for all!!), I thought, well, that’s what this head mutilation must be. Hardly! As I’m told, these Arab men flock to Istanbul for hair surgery….., and that is what I have been witnessing…hair surgery. Well… It’s not a pretty picture, but I guess they end up with bitchin’ coiffs in the end! Anyway, amid all this communion of vanities we are not exactly interrupted 5 times a day by the muezzins’ calls to prayer (I’ve never actually seen anyone praying), simultaneously shouting down from thousands (yes thousands) of mosque minarets, but we certainly can’t ignore them! When you are on the top floor on top of the hill, as I am at my temporary home, it is quite a sound! Exotic at first for sure, but this sense dies away after a while. I’ve come to be of the same mind as my friends here who feel it more like a thousand screaming hammers from the sky pounding you over the head 5 times a day. Cool at first, it is actually kind of awful!
However, it’s the music, people-based music, that reigns if not in the skies, then in the streets. Baglamar, cumbus, clarinets, dumbeks, fiddles, etc. All to be found in the streets here and played well. I’ve heard very little shitty, shitty pop music even in shops, or even bad street music. Although there is a small street in Beyoğlu where there is open-fronted bar after bar, each with a single guitar-strumming, folky, singer/songwriter-y guy, strumming and singing away in heavily accented english, western style sincere songs, usually to an empty bar. For some reason it reminds me of certain areas of Amsterdam or Hamburg or the like where you can walk down a street of window after window of single, lonely, sad and bored looking prostitutes, flaunting their wares to mostly no takers. This more acceptable musical variety of prostitution (albeit for much less money!), this lone guy playing to an empty bar is the fate that I fear most for my own life and one I sometimes seem headed for, indeed arrived at even! But not here, no!! Most folks seem to appreciate good music in Istanbul, or at least listenable music. In my time I’ve had the pleasures of gorgeously sung somber traditional Turkish folk, Greek rembetika, the oh, so ubiquitous Balkan music, raucous wedding music in the streets, rock, jazz, girls on accordions (giving the Bolivians a run for their money for world domination!) When I first got to Istanbul I was invited to a prestigious show of a certain folk music ambassador diva of a region of Turkey who also happens to be a member of parliament. After being surprised to find myself meeting the diva herself (who is a friend of the friend who invited me) for tea before the show, we were then escorted by her bodyguard to the club, where I was taken with her entourage and installed in the most prominent seat in the house directly in front of stage, very obvious and very obviously the only non-Turk in the house! Not exactly where I wanted to be at the moment, preferring as I would to have watched from a respectable distance, a respecting visitor in this private and very local performance, but certainly a great honor! When she was done singing and stepped off stage we, the entourage, were again eschewed out with her to the outside of the club where she got into a waiting Mercedes limo and was whisked away, leaving like the wind with the band still playing and the crowd still cheering back inside! This and so much more, it has all been a charm, to be sure, this striving towards joy through the din of hüzün!
Still, I understand my friends’ despair here. We think we had it bad under Bush/Rove/Rumsfeld! The political arena of Turkey is a bleak field to be sure, where, for example, people can still be arrested for insulting “Turkishness”! As always, leaving America (or, Western and Northern Europe) allows one to see how far “we” have come! Not that this calls for complacency at home, just maybe a bit more perspective. It’s this unimpeded march of corporate-based directives and business models that have taken over urban life on earth! We certainly know it perhaps best in our “safe” and cozy homeland, this world of the aforementioned piggy capitalists and their strangle hold on everything. Istanbul suffers the same, as I say, as these other desirable cities of the world. The modern city is seen now only as a market place and not a place to live (unless you live off in a gated haven and come out only to visit or show off to visitors the polished and preserved jewels in the crown of the imagined past). A product, not one to sell necessarily to a public, but one to rent over and over after doing a quick and dirty Home Depot/Ikea style re-model, and after ridding the town of long-term inhabitants the entire place can be turned into a giant hotel providing mostly for the temporary residents who more readily flow the cash and move on, the prices always free to rise. It’s a sad scenario and one which even my own friends resort to with the preponderance of Air BnBs and people’s own homes and neighborhoods being offered up to short term gains in order to stay afloat. (I am perhaps no one to talk, I am a short-termer myself, vagabond as I am, with no real home of my own, and my own current long-ish term homes about to fall to the developer’s axe.) But it is such a lamentable loss of a community-based lifestyle. Many….most of my friends here speak of the end times and moving out and on (those who can) to somewhere affordable and likely away from urban life, where one can hope for some kind of healthy future for themselves, family and friends. It is the same conversation that is happening all over the world, I can tell you. And this among the ones who make the world a more interesting, creative, and vibrant place to live. This is not news. It is a very common topic (next to cat videos and profile photo changes of you at Burning Man) on the old Fecesbook, this disappearing of a viable future for the real people of the urban landscape. You, my friends. Do we climb on back the slovenly pig of Capitalism and try to ride, or run screaming to the outback and hope to not be rooted out by its ever-groping snout? Stay and fight, like at Gezi and Occupy or try, at least, to be happy while and where we can, while and where we live?