English translation: Peter Byrne
Ask the Dust
(Swans - September 6, 2010) If you don't want to go belly up in Istanbul, you have to learn to watch out. Watch for the holes in front of you, because you can be sure they are waiting and watching for you. You'll find out in the European quarter that will make you think of Persia or Samarkand as you will over on the Asian side that looks like Salonika or Trieste. But not going down on your back doesn't mean you are on top of the problem.
To come and go untroubled is what you want, and that can come only with the key to this particular mystery, the right key on a clanking ring full of the wrong ones. You want the least common denominator that makes people one with the color of their houses, that even inserts them with ease into the geometry of Galata's narrow lanes.
No one is more in the know or intent on knowing more than your friends who come to the city and ask to be led on ritual tours to Topkapi, Santa Sophia, the Roman Cistern, Sultanahmet. These visitors go home happy and convinced of having clearer ideas than yours. They may be right.
But living here you have doubts about making the consecrated stops. Istanbul gushes on all sides, not to be gathered in at a glance. At Kasimpasha you see the Spanish Quarter of Naples. The Imperial Mosques make you think of Damascus. Nishantashi could be Milan's via Montenapoleone plus a traffic jam of shoppers. Maslak and Levent, overgrown with skyscrapers, recall the downtowns of world cities.
Truly this city slips from your grip. When you have to leave, always too soon, you will murmur a single word to yourself, the only one that can embrace the whole scene. It came to you on a rainy day. The streets of your neighborhood, Cihangir, all up and downhill, ran with strands of muddy water. When you got home your shoes were soaked through. You took them off and put them in the bathroom to dry.
Drying took hours and then your shoes were stiff and caked with mud. You went out on the balcony to brush it off. As you worked, looking out once or twice at the Marmara Sea, you finally understood. Dust. Istanbul is dust.
Ridges of dust gather in the cracks of asphalt that multiply during never-ending work in progress. Dust founds colonies on windowsills, motes spiral in the wind or settle becalmed on puddles -- such images ran through your head. Separate at first they gradually form ranks under one captain.
Dust commands with absent-minded authority. It bloats the summer breeze. When winter rain cascades down the slopes, dust shows its bad temper as mud. Dust gets under your nails, saturates your overcoat, finds ways into lidded boxes and between the pages of closed books. To see clearly, look into the dust. In Istanbul people feel about it as in Madrid they feel love and hate for bulls.
The more dust in the Istanbul streets, the shinier its pedestrians want their shoes. Shoeshine men and boys must show the fervor of priests at an altar. Motorcars too are brought to a gleam. All that moves and is moved must glow. Honor has to be defended and nature fought off. It's a calling. It's destiny. To prove they are human, toreadors risk their lives to kill bulls. In Istanbul dust is the dreaded beast. Your house may be tumbling down but your dazzling car reclines in a soft bed of plastic bags stuffed with garbage.
Why not sweep the dust away for good? Why not pave the streets properly? Because deep in their hearts people love the dust. It tastes of the parched earth and the desert, of the steppes of Asia that were crossed to come from Sinkiang to Constantinople. Who would sweep away the past or turn his back on his mother? Dust is the detritus of Byzantium. It's the city of Constantine. It's the Sultan's seraglio. Sometimes it glitters like the gilt in a mosaic, or reflects the turquoise of Iznik majolica. At others it's dull as the bricks of a ruined dwelling or the rust on weapons. Here below are city streets, shops, lopsided wooden houses, beggars, veiled women, others in miniskirts, men in rigid suit and tie or in jeans or with the crotch of their Ottoman trousers at the knee.
Here below there's all this and more. Above you will find only dust.
Author's Note: This is Peter Byrne's translation of an article that has only ever appeared in Italian. That was in the review Gulliver in November 2000.
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About the Author
Fabio De Propris is a Roman writer who has also lived in Istanbul. He has published three novels (Brenda e Plotino, Se mi chiami Amore, Nero Istanbul) and translated books from English (Markheim of R. L. Stevenson, Paradoxes and Problems of John Donne, An Anthology of William Hazlitt's Essays) and from Turkish (Two Girls of Perihan Magden, translated with Mehmet S. Bermek, The Clown and His Daughter of Halide Edip Adivar.) Fabio teaches in Rome and writes occasionally in Il Manifesto. He is presently at work on his fourth novel. His poems appear in the paintings of the group Artisti di Fortebraccio. (back)