This short essay was written by internationally acclaimed Turkish author Elif Shafak for The Guide Istanbul November/December 2005 issue. Fast forward to now, Shafak’s take on dawn in Istanbul is still relevant and continues to be beautiful.
by Elif Shafak
“Dawn is nothing but an eerie threshold between day and night,” my grandmother would say. Thresholds, in turn, are utterly unreliable and uncanny. Thresholds belong to the djinni, not to human beings who are in need of less ambiguity and more clarity in life. Thus, if you happen to be in Turkey and wide awake at dawn, my grandmother’s like minded would urge you to go back to sleep—unless of course, you deliberately want to step into the threshold of the djinni.
You wipe out the sleep from your eyes and let’s say, find yourself in a hotel room in Istanbul. It is dawn. Apart from some scattered twinkles, it is still densely dark all over the city. All along the grimy, narrow streets snaking the oldest quarters, in the apartment buildings cramming the newly built districts, throughout the deluxe suburbia… People are everywhere, and everywhere they are fast asleep. All but some.
Some Istanbulites have, as usual, woken up earlier than others. The imams all around the city, for instance; the young and the old, the mellow-voiced and the not so mellow voiced, makes no difference. The imams of the copious mosques are the first ones to wake up, ready to call the believers to morning prayer. Then there are the simit vendors. They too are on their way, headed to their respective bakers to pick up the crispy, crunchy merchandise they will be selling all day long.
Accordingly, the bakers are awake too. Most of them usually get a few hours of shut-eye before they start work while some others never snooze at night. Either way, every day without exception, the bakers start to heat their ovens in the middle of the night. Before dawn, the bakeries in the city are already thick with the delightful, delicious smell of early morning bread.
Then there are the cleaning ladies scattered far and wide; they too are awake. They are surprisingly swift, sometimes indolent and reluctant but always necessarily frisky women of all ages who get up pretty early since they have to take at least two or three different buses to arrive at the houses of the well-off where they will rub, clean and polish all day long. These houses are unlike theirs. The residents in them are a distinct species. Here women always wear make-up and never show their age. This agelessness of theirs is what most surprises the cleaning ladies. Unlike their own husbands, the husbands in the suburbia are always busy, surprisingly polite and somewhat effeminate. Time is not a scarce commodity in the suburbia. People use it lavishly, freely, just like they do with hot water. The cleaning ladies cannot help but marvel at the ease and length and frequency with which the housewives of suburbia take showers or make bubbly, milky baths, morning and evening, though it is hard to tell that they do any work that might drench them in sweat.
The imams, simit vendors, bakers and cleaning ladies, burglars and car thieves, bag ladies and the homeless, prostitutes and glue sniffers, bodyguards and bar girls ending yet another night shift at the clubs, talkative cab drivers and morose milk van drivers, those who abandon city and those just arriving at its gates, and radicals left and right out on the empty streets to paint slogans on the walls… other than these motley cluster of early birds, the rest of Istanbul is still in deep slumber. There is something in sleep that resembles the all-embracing, all-pervading, almost egalitarian smothering of death. Be it the moneyed or the deprived, the various ethnicities, subcultures, countercultures, minorities or those solidly rooted in power… makes no difference, sleep canopies all.
It is daybreak now… that uncanny threshold between nighttime and daylight… the only time of day when it is too late to find solace in dreams and yet too early to let go of them. When you are a foreigner in a hotel room in Istanbul at dawn, you will find yourself standing in a threshold between not only day and night, but also East and West, the future and the past, and the human beings and the djinni. Istanbul at the crack of dawn is a gummy, almost gelatinous entity, an amorphous shape of a material half-liquid half-solid. And so you will be… open to change… all set for transformation… ready to embark on the art of living.
Learn more about Elif Shafak on her website: www.elifsafak.com.tr.