In 1992, the Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk shared with The Guide Istanbul the best ways he can think of to experience his Istanbul vision.
Orhan Pamuk’s most famous stories are The Dark Book and The White Castle. The White Castle, a haunting tale of cross-cultural passion, set in Ottoman Istanbul, has recently been published in English by Faber. Because of it, Pamuk won the annual award for foreign fiction from Britain’s The Independent newspaper. He looks well set to take over from Yaşar Kemal, world-renowned author of Memet My Hawk and the grand old man of Turkish fiction.
As a child, Pamuk preferred to spend his summers under a tree reading books whilst his friends messed around on bikes or in boats. He was never a great sightseer in the city where he was raised. But then, who is? What Parisian visits the Eiffel Tower unless he is accompanying a foreign friend? Or what Londoner would queue to see the Crown Jewels in the Tower of London.
Because of this, the resident knows his city in a different way to the tourist who has been to every famous building several times over, guidebook in hand. Pamuk has never stepped inside the Dolmabahçe Palace, for example. Or the Basilica Cistern or the New Mosque.
For locals, maintains Pamuk, the Dolmabahçe Palace has certain special connotations. “At the mention of Dolmabahçe, all Turks with an elementary school diploma think of a dramatic death, that of Atatürk, founder of the Turkish Republic…. His bedroom, his death-bed and furniture, the clock tower stopped at five past nine – the hour of his death – the commemoration ceremonies held on November 10 every year, the teachers and the students crying during the ceremony, and the boats whistling sadly for a moment of respect. It’s hard to relate the spirit and the images of the early republican years to anybody who did not live in Istanbul then.
“Today, a tourist visiting Dolmabahçe will only see pretentious admiration for the Western world and the prodigality of the Ottoman empire before its decline. And someone thought that it was kitsch. I saw a full-page picture of the principal gate of Dolmabahçe in an encyclopaedia of kitsch published in England.”
So what should a tourist visiting Istanbul do, if he does not want to follow the guide books? We continued to ask Pamuk. If a book is a must, he suggests, then let it be a dictionary to help the tourists read and understand the names of Istanbul’s streets. Many of the narrow little streets of the city have long and poetical names. Galip, the hero of The Dark Book, wanders through the streets in the district of Fatih:
- The Street of the Twin Doves
- The Street of the Well-Read Man
- The Street of the Young Spirit
- The Street of the Dwarf Fountain
At The Guide Istanbul, we always enjoy the name of “The Aynalıkavak Palace” – The Palace of Poplar Trees with Mirrors (see Palaces under Sightseeing). And Pamuk reminded us of another name that is even more delightful: “The Street of the Hour of Perfect Sensibilities” – a loose translation of Eşref Saat Sokağı.
But “The Street of the Hour of Perfect Sensibilities” is in Üsküdar, not Fatih, and Üsküdar is where Pamuk would recommend that the visitor should wander. To get there, take a small boat from Beşiktaş – not a ferry – and when you are in the middle of the Bosphorus turn back and look at the Dolmabahçe Palace, and think of Atatürk, and of his death bed.
When you arrive in Üsküdar, hang around on the quay and watch the crowd running for the boats, and see the fishermen and the people eating in the streets. Get yourself something to eat there too, then turn right and walk in a southerly direction towards the hill where stands two mosques. And there is the Street of the Hour of Perfect Sensibilities. Walk on the old narrow pavements and climb the streets until you find it. Then walk on until you get lost inside the real Istanbul.