A Torah, a Koran, and a Christmas tree: Mario Levi’s Istanbul

By Joshua Bruce Allen

While Istanbul’s overall population has swelled from around one million in 1945 to 15 million today, various splits and calamities have caused much of the city’s Christian and Jewish populations to emigrate. Along with this movement, the living memories of old Istanbul have slowly evaporated. One exception to this pattern is the writer Mario Levi, whose family roots in the city go back 500 years to the Jews’ escape from persecution in Spain. Seeing Levi in his Kadıköy apartment, filled with Turkish carpets, modern art, and dark wooden furniture, is a vision of a true Istanbul aristocrat.

“I lived in Şişli until I was 18 years old. So I like the European side too but these days I find it tiring. It feels like everything’s piling up on top of me. Crossing to the Asian side I feel relaxed, refreshed,” Levi explains. Like many older Istanbul residents, he feels nostalgia for the more refined life that prevailed when the city was a fraction of its current size. “Istanbul’s so crowded. And there are so many rude, arrogant, unmannered people.”

The power of hindsight is often a cause for regret that things were not done differently, and Levi places blame on the intercontinental bridges for allowing the city to expand. “I sometimes ask myself, ‘Was it a big mistake to join the two sides of Istanbul with a motorway?’ For example we could have made more use of sea transport. The center of Istanbul could have been like Venice, and it would have been very beautiful.”

As someone who has spent a lifetime there, Levi has an almost bodily relationship with the rhythms of Istanbul. While tourists tend to arrive in spring or summer, and some writers enjoy the image of snow on minarets, Levi feels most alive in the autumn. “My view on autumn is not the one you find in Romantic literature, which says summer has ended, everything is dying, and love is over. I take a more realistic and more hopeful view. Autumn is when the ban on fishing ends and the fish start returning to the Bosphorus. Everyone leaves Istanbul in the summer, then in autumn they come back and revive the city.”

It is this spirit of change and regeneration, the fluctuation of families, fortunes, and empires, that informs much of Levi’s writing. Studying French literature at university, his first influences were Camus, Flaubert, and Proust. Later, modernist and postmodernist writers such as Virginia Woolf and Paul Auster contributed to his experimental style. Levi’s most famous novel, Istanbul Was a Fairytale, is a Proustian reminiscence of a Jewish family and its social milieu from the late Ottoman Empire to after the Second World War. For the Jewish community, he says the major factors today are a drop in the population, the loss of the Sephardic language known as Ladino, and an increase in marriages with non-Jews.

“I have a two and a half year old daughter with my current wife, who is Muslim. We gave her the name Masal Clara,” Levi explains, deciding on one Turkish and one European name for their child. While Levi and his wife would never pressure their daughter to adopt one religion or another, the Turkish state normally requires a child’s religion to be stated at birth. “The official at the records office agreed to leave the religion box blank after I made a formal request. When my daughter grows up she can write whatever she wants there – atheist, Jewish, Muslim, another religion, it doesn’t matter to me. A lot of conservative families won’t be happy when they read this, but that is the reality.”

Other than the occasional argument in jest, Levi and his wife keep a respectful distance from questions of religion. At the same time their synthesis of backgrounds makes for a colorful household. “We’re a funny family actually. A Jewish father, a Muslim mother, and every New Year we put up a Christmas tree,” he laughs. “On top of the cupboard we keep the Torah and the Koran, and inside there are Christian icons. I take great happiness from feeling this togetherness.”

Mario Levi’s questions for the sultans

  • Mehmet the Conqueror (1432-1481): “When you first rode into Istanbul through the city walls, what did you see and how did you feel?”
  • Abdülmecid I (1839-1861): “When you signed the Tanzimat reforms, didn’t you take the great risk into account?”
  • Selim III (1762-1807): “I guess you really didn’t like being sultan. You wanted to be a composer most of all, didn’t you?”

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