by Peter Byrne
(Swans - March 9, 2009) I confronted Orhan Pamuk face to face. In fact I all but crashed into him. That was a year or two before his 2006 Nobel Prize. I'd been to a chain grocer's in Siraselviler Street and came around the corner sweet shop intending to climb the hill past the little Firuzaga mosque. This was a perfect Orhan Pamuk setting, between a German inspired supermarket and a window full of Ottoman pastry concoctions. After all he was obsessed with Turkey's stumbling in muddy eastern boots as it tried on the latest Western headgear.
Pamuk didn't know me from Adam or Mustapha. My obviously Western face crowding his Bosporus nose would only further his obsession. The bag of shopping got in the way of brilliant repartee. I recognized him from all those books of his that had made it into English, each with his photo amongst the jacket blurbs. Every bookworm knew he lived here in Cihangir.
I wanted to say, "Relax, Orhan, you're in Europe as far as I'm concerned. Every evening I verify it watching the girls in their mini-skirts legging it in the Istiklal. Isn't County Cork Europe? Iceland is Europe and so is the gypsy quarter of Sofia. Forget your problem; there's no problem. Just tell us who you are personally. No one cares what pigeonhole you can't crawl into. And, by the way, that was a smart move to change your translator. This one writes genuine English and..."
But of course I said nothing. I had no intention of passing for a celebrity stalker or an autograph fiend. On the way home, though, I stopped at my favorite second-hand book store. The young man who ran it had worked in a sleek book shop at a better address. But he'd come back to this venerable Istanbul emporium, all leaning piles, puffs of dust, stopped clocks, and glasses of tea. I hadn't talked to Pamuk, but I wanted to talk about him. My young friend was educated. He read and, I suspected, wrote as well. What did he think about the famous writer who was our neighbor? His thumbs did not go up. Pamuk's politics, his brush with the nationalists? The young man of liberal sentiments could only say that the celebrated writer "came from money." Which, as that he was also a well-fed baby in arms, we already knew from his books. Maybe what kept the author from being a prophet here in his home precinct was that his pages were fresh off the press, not yellow and crumbling. I should have asked about Pamuk in that elegant, new-book shop. But there they wouldn't have had time to chat.
My friend Franz would not refuse me an affectless opinion. I would look him up when I got home. He lived above me in our ancient apartment building. His father had owned the top floors with views of Asia across the Bosporus. The premises had been inherited by Franz and his sister. Since then it had all been downhill to the basement. The siblings were at loggerheads in the bad weather of their sunset years. Their fight over the rooms that hadn't been sold was like a Balkan border dispute. I'd been filled in during condominium gossip sessions. For lifelong neighbors, both Christian and Muslim, the old man had been a decent merchant type -- although a Jew, they meant but didn't say. However, they weren't afraid to add that the sister was a rattlesnake and the brother, Franz, though a hibernating reptile, decidedly creepy-crawly.
But I liked Franz. On a gray morning, seen from above, he was a sight to instill courage to meet the day. I'd watch him from my widow as he went out the front door and walked up the lane. The rug he wore on his bald head would always be placed at a new angle. The poor bachelor had no wife to knock him into shape before he went out to beat the world. He would have three or four ballpoints sticking out of his jacket pocket. You wanted to tell him that, in his role as a salesman, the pens, like the wayward hair piece, were a mistake, unless he was peddling ballpoints. But you didn't say things like that to Franz, because he wouldn't say them to you. His discretion in personal matters was made of iron.
Then what did we talk about? Geopolitical matters and big ideas. Franz had an exaggerated respect for the printed word. If he saw a book open face down on my desk he would take it in hand like a wounded bird and bandage it with a book mark. That "decent merchant" father had sent Franz as a boy to school in Switzerland. He became a remarkable linguist who could get by in Arab and spoke fluent English. His Italian was so good he conceived of a disastrous scheme to sell Turkish shoes in Italy. Now if there's anything more plentiful in Italy than plates of pasta, it's Italian-made shoes at all prices. But the project was typical of Franz. His education, in this case his elegant Italian, had ruined him.
There was always an empty chair when Franz and I sat chewing the rag about the Crusades or V.S. Naipaul's fussy trips through Muslim lands. Jewishness was never present. The constant absence became a kind of game for me. How long could Franz hold out without referring to his family history while we dipped into the Jurassic period or refought the Peloponnesian Wars? As it happened Franz held out for all of the three or four years I knew him and since he's dead now that meant forever. It has been up to me to solve the puzzle with whatever hints I could garner from specialists like Orhan Pamuk, the great Kemal Ataturk himself, and sundry non-Jewish inhabitants of Turkey.
Franz was simply showing himself to be a full Turkish citizen. He wasn't ashamed of his forebears. He was a resident of Istanbul, a city of minorities that had known pogroms into the second half of the 20th century. His nationality policy was to keep everything but his Turkishness to himself. This wasn't subterfuge so much as ingrained prudence and embodied no contradiction seen from his compass point in the world. All the same, it meant we missed a great subject to toss around. When Spain drove out the Jews in the 15th century, the Sultans welcomed them as useful elements. Since the Jews, unlike the Greeks and Armenians, never had territorial ambitions, they fared tolerably well in both Ottoman Empire and Republican Turkey.
To say that Franz lived behind a façade isn't disapprobation. That noble front had been handed him by Ataturk and was entirely honorable. Franz held high the right things: learning, the great thinkers, precision in language, tolerance, and decency. (I remember that he pronounced the words "chattel slavery" with a tremor.) Out there in the ideal world he was a bright knight. But the Father of the Turks needed to imbibe a lot of raki to keep his ideals aloft. Franz, no drinker, save for short beers that made him heady, had to grapple in the quotidian with what that Swiss school hadn't taught him. The condominium gouged him on charges. His less educated but dominatrixy sister cut back his living space to a broom closet. The Italians weren't going to wear his Turkish shoes no matter how many flowery letters he wrote them. He was translating from six languages to keep up his shabby genteel standards in a city where people flood in from Bucharest and Belgrade and from the borders of Iraq and Iran, all resolutely on the make. In that whirlwind, how could he keep his hair on straight? No wonder he held tight to his façade emblazoned with I-am-a-Turk.
That was then. Now returning to this messy and beautiful city my vision is blurred by Orhan Pamuk's unforgettable Istanbul, Memories of a City (2005). The authors he read turned his glance backwards. His childhood affections decked out what he saw around him in fancy dress. The passing, impersonal years -- time -- did the rest and Pamuk's Istanbul survives only in words on the page where it makes a magnificent monument. The place I've come back to is different. To make sure it's my own I yield to my affections.
They lead to the Galata Bridge. It's not merely a link between the old European quarter and the heart of the sultanate. The bridge is an urban entity in its own right whose inhabitants are the hard scrabble humanity that cut the stone for the city in the first place. Now they line the bridge rails on both sides with their fishing poles that in fair weather can number a thousand. They pull in an occasional four inch fish from the greasy water. These go into yogurt buckets still stuck with their labels. Brisk commerce thrives on the pavement behind them. Your bedrock Turk sees buying and selling as the tendons that move the world. He also sees it as good sport. Some of the fishermen are selling each other tackle. Others, with a collection of jars and plastic cups, have a sideline as bait dealers. A carpenter peddles something that looks like a bookend. It attaches to the rail and holds your pole for no-hands fishing. Braziers smolder in five-gallon square cans with well-smoked sides. The simet seller dances by with his tray high, piled higher with pretzel-bagels to pacify growling guts. A small boy stands behind his sportsman dad imitating his heroic stance and spitting seed-shells into the wind. Music flares from a parked-van's door, left open to up the morning rhythm. But a couple of all nighters still sleep deeply, stretched out on the high curb. The tea man comes along with his little amber glasses that will be accepted with a princely frown from his busy commercial fingers. Real food comes out of the lahmacun seller's metal box. He offers a hot slab of oily bread brushed with specks of meat and topped with a tomato slice and a curl of parsley.
When chew-time yields to tooth picking, the mind turns to fun and games. The bridge people have their own brand of football. A paying contestant tries to kick a soccer ball between two upright packs of cigarettes. He wins one of them if he manages the near-impossible feat of not knocking over either. The contest can suddenly be called for lack of space. The bridge pavement loves a crowd and refuses no one a foothold. Here comes an old man with portions of candy flow speared on a stick. A boy offers paired stockings. A used-car salesman type displays two used cell phones as if they were dirty postcards. A fisherman's assistant proposes a bag of small fry like goldfish to take home for dinner.
The Galata Bridge is not exempt from class hostility. Beneath the roadstead in a kind of uppity basement there's a second level. A promenade passes a row of restaurants offering fish longer than four inches. Touts are out front pimping these establishments. Customers consist of wedding parties and visiting firemen. The restaurateurs would like to eliminate the sportsmen upstairs with their dangling lines and sour socks. But it can't be done, and so they ignore them. The pole wielders would no more make a visit downstairs than take a taxi to the airport. Only odors are exchanged between floors.
Meanwhile, upstairs, the fish accumulate, little battlers that have survived the Golden Horn's scum and jetsam to concede their freedom to the hook. They are reeled in on equipment that can't always have been cheap to buy. But the frying pans they are headed for will heat up in frugal kitchens. Pursuing the buckets home to their humble dwellings in every direction from the Galata Bridge would be like following blood every which way out of Istanbul's heart.
There are some contorted pages on André Gide in Orhan Pamuk's Other Colors (2007), which is a catchall for articles, opinions, and post-Nobel pronouncements. Gide made a brief visit to Turkey in 1914 and noted his impressions in his Journal. They were biting, the Frenchman venting his "disgust" for the country. He found the national dress ugly and extended the verdict to the whole "race." Pamuk takes pains to describe the Turkish writer Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar's reaction to these comments when Gide won the Nobel Prize in 1947. Tanpinar was hurt by his idol's remarks of thirty-three years before and preferred to make as if they had been written in invisible ink. Pamuk also appears uneasy about Gide's travel notes and actually praises their "honesty." He feels, ninety-three years later, they still need to be taken seriously and explained away.
Why not the following explanation? Gide was dyspeptic that afternoon and had just been short changed by his guide. Moreover, he'd come to gawk at an untouched way of life and hadn't found it. Pamuk should remember his own favorite line about Turkey being forever on the track west. Transformation meant hodgepodge. Gide's acute, not to say shrill fin-de-siècle taste had been ruffled. But a month later he forgot what he'd written and why. That was a very European thing to do, and I would recommend it to Turks, both literary and fishing types.
While they think it over, I'd suggest a descent from Beyoglu down the hill through the narrow way from the Tunel station on top to the Golden Horn below. The hurrying locals will be excited by the sight that lies in store. Debouching in Karakoy Meydan, it's best not to look left, eastward, where the waterside leads to the Bosporus, and then to the Marmara and Black Seas and ultimately to Baudelaire's ailleurs, bien loin d'ici.
Better to stick around today. Look straight ahead and stand stark still while the whole world is born again in light and splendor. There's no need to hurry into the peristaltic movement on the Galata Bridge. The Imperial Mosques across the water will command a long gaze. The time is well spent. If you're lucky the muezzin will call and add another dimension to your life. André Gide will have no place on that horizon.
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