An unexpected window into a world and a point of view I could never have imagined — I like it when books do that. This is about a decaying city, a falling-apart and burning-down city, and yet a vibrant one. A life spent almost in one place, written from the same building where he grew up. It is about surviving and continuing on after the end of empire, this Turkish word of huzun (apologies that I don’t have the special characters to write this correctly) and I couldn’t help but compare it to Gilroy’s work on melancholy, while he has much more literary comparisons. But it is a fascinating wander through a city, a world, a language, a childhood. Some things I liked:
In Turkish we have a special tense that allows us to distinguish hearsay from what we’ve seen with our own eyes; when we are relating dreams, fairy tales, or past events we could not have witnessed…(8)
This made me think of Trouillot, how our language forms our ways of thinking of the past, and this is particularly interesting in thinking of history as both its events and its narration…
These are nothing like the remains of great empires to be seen in Western cities, preserved like museums of history and proudly displayed. The people of Istanbul simply carry on with their lives amongst the ruins. Many Western writers and travellers find this charming. But for the city’s more sensitive and attuned residents, these ruins are reminders that the present city is so poor and confused that it can never again dream of rising to the same heights of wealth, power and culture. It is no more possible to take pride in these neglected dwellings, in which dirt, dust and mud have blended into their surroundings, than it is to rejoice in the beautiful old wooden houses that as a child I watched burn down one by one (91).
There is much here about the gaze, about being caught between East and West yet uncaught…
Why this fixation with the thoughts of Western travellers, what they did on visits to the city, what they wrote to their mothers? It’s partly that many times I’ve identified with a number of them (Nerval, Flaubert, de Amicis) and…it was by falling under their influence and arguing with them by turns that I forged my own identity. It’s also because so few of Istanbul’s own writers have paid their city any attention whatsoever.
Whatever we call it — false consciousness, fantasy, or old-style ideology — there is, in each of our heads, a half legible, half secret text that makes sense of what we’ve done in life. And for each of us in Istanbul, a large section of this text is given over to what Western observers have said about us. For people like me, Istanbullus with one foot in this culture and one in the other, the ‘Western traveller’ is often not a real person — he can be my own creation, my fantasy, even my own reflection. But being unable to depend on tradition alone as my text, I am grateful to the outsider who can offer me a complementary vision…So whenever I sense the absence of Western eyes, I become my own Westerner.
Istanbul has never been the colony of the Westerners who wrote about it, drew it, filmed it, and that is why I am not perturbed by (260) the use Western travellers have made of my past and my history and their construction of the exotic. Indeed, I find their fears ad dreams beguiling — as exotic to me as ours are to them — and I don’t look to them of entertainment or to see the city through their eyes, but also to enter into the full-formed world they’ve conjured up (261).
From one empire to another perhaps, lacking this colonial relationship, though surely more power dynamics are at work here? But I’ve been thinking a lot about this. One last quote:
Was this the secret of Istanbul — that beneath its grand history, its living poverty, its outward-looking monuments ad its sublime landscapes, its poor hid the city’s soul inside a fragile web? But here we have come full circle, for anything we say about the city’s essence, says more about our own lives and our own states of mind. The city has no centre other than ourselves (316).