Very early in the morning of a cool summer day, not so long ago, I was driving on the bridge across the Bosphorus on my way to the airport. The sun was just coming up over the hills flooding the sky with a gentle pink light. The air was crisp, the city was asleep and a huge oil tanker was silently gliding over the blue waters of the Bosphorus straits. All around me was breathtaking beauty, a moment of intense joy in this magic city which, no matter how crowded difficult and noisy it may get, never fails to fill your heart with bliss.
I had come to Istanbul for the first time over ten years ago with the companion of my life - a girl born on Istanbul's Asian shore, whom I had met in far away lands. It was love at first sight and during my subsequent visits, I found Istanbul always new and, at the same time, immutable.
At first, I was fascinated by the buzzing bazaars, the impossibly grand mosques, the noise of tavla (backgammon) in Ortaköy's tea gardens, the hamam (Turkish Bath) and the smoky cafes full of men pulling on nargile (water pipes). But, as the years went by and I got to know the city better, I saw another of its many faces: that of a modern, ultra-dynamic metropolis where signs of a renewed cultural vibrancy come hand in hand with a physical renaissance; and yet the past is everywhere. There is a new pavement where before you could not walk, clean streets where once there were only dark and unwelcoming alleys, sophisticated hotels and restaurants that seem to spring up overnight, and a new subway which now takes me to Levent from Taksim and sometime soon will take me across the Bosphorus, from Europe to Asia and back, in no time.
I go to Beyoğlu and instead of the red light district of bygone days, I see a long stretch of newly-renovated charming old buildings, trendy restaurants, a bevy of just-open hip shops, and a sea of humanity walking up and down - no matter what time of the day or night. At the same time, though, nothing has really changed. The Malatya Pazarı where I can buy all types of dried nuts and fruits is still there, my favorite newspaper vendor is still doing brisk business at the exit of Tünel on Istiklal Street, and impeccably dressed waiters eagerly invite you to the delight of fresh fish at the Çiçek Pasajı, just as they have always done. As one of Turkey's leading international writers, Orhan Pamuk wrote in his autobiographical book entitled Memories of Istanbul, “not even in my dreams did I ever expect the streets of my childhood to be as crowded as they are today. But when you are as tied to a city as I am to Istanbul, you come to accept its fate as your own; you come to see it as an extension of your body, your very soul”.
It is this great divide between the old and the new, the East and the West, Europe and Asia which constantly reminds this unique city, and the over thirteen million people who live in it, of the need of constantly redefining its own powerful identity. A difficult task for a city where every stone, if only it could talk, would tell incredible stories of glorious empires and the splendor of the past - of dark days and of an indomitable spirit. And if for years being cool and innovative meant simply being western, today there is a cultural revival which is helping the city reclaim its own heritage. There is a novel energy and signs of renewed confidence are everywhere, artists are rediscovering their own voices and superb musicians mix the haunting melodies of Sufi rituals with computer beats. In many ways, this incessant quest is what makes Istanbul so fascinating, a feeling that in my many years of traveling I perhaps found only in the crowded and noisy alleys of Hong Kong.
Often, from a ferry slowly crossing the Bosphorus I look at this immense city glowing in a soft shade of blue and I feel blessed, no matter how many millions of people are there at the same time, or how long it took to get there and how many other problems might be waiting when the ferry with a deep whooo sound signals that the trip is - unfortunately - over. And I feel equally blessed when in winter I sit by the Bosphorus at a table of my favorite coffee house in Çengelköy and see the dark shadow of a gigantic ship cutting through thick fog on its way to the Black Sea, while everything around me is still and the silence is broken only by the shrill cry of the seagulls. These are magic moments - difficult to share and even more difficult to forget. The thing is that whenever you want, whichever may be your way, whether you like the small streets of Eminönü or if your scene is the fashionable night clubs by the Bosphorus, in Istanbul you can always find a way to get in touch with yourself, a place where you feel that you can be forgiven for thinking that life is pretty good.
In so many ways, Istanbul reminds me of Rome, where I grew up and lived for many years. Both cities are extraordinarily beautiful, albeit in different ways and there, as in Istanbul, you can live and love the city only if you feel that its history is also yours, that its past belongs to you too. At the same time, however, Rome noisy and chaotic as it often feels, is a much smaller and subdued city. Nowhere in Rome will one see the incredible crowds that are constantly on the move in Istanbul. One of the things which never fails to amaze me is while waiting for a ferry in a huge hall full of impatient passengers to watch the astonishing amount of people who come out from the long white boats when they finally dock. They are coming precisely from where we are all going, and they never seem to finish.
Granted, Istanbul is not all beauty and bliss. Distances are enormous, traffic is impossible, and life is often more complicated than it needs to be. Everyone complains, but then nobody seems to really mind. No one will hesitate, for instance, to travel an hour on a Sunday to go for breakfast at their favorite cafe, which happens to be on the other side of town or in another continent. Every weekend, Bağdat Caddesi, the main artery of the Asian side is milling with people, cafes are overflowing with customers waiting for a table, and an incessant flow of bumper to bumper cars, blasting the latest hits out of open windows, packs the four-lane avenue. Recently, on a Saturday night, I was going with some friends to have dinner at a fish restaurant by the Bosphorus in Beylerbeyi. It took us well over an hour to get there, traffic was terrible, but then, as we sat down at a table by the water, it took less than an instant to feel that it was all worth the trouble and the hassle. As we were coming out it was past midnight and somebody was buying fresh vegetables out of a stall as vibrant with colors as this city is. And so as Istanbul goes - life can be difficult, but a prize seems to be always waiting for you someplace. You just have to get there.
Originally published in The Guide Istanbul September/October 2006
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