Istanbul, for all that ails you

Today, I feel like maybe I died and went to heaven. I am sitting in an apartment that is perched on the heights of Istanbul’s Cehangir neighborhood right across the Golden Horn from the Topkapi Palace. I stare out of the picture windows at the confluence of the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus. Ferry-boats of all sizes ply busily this way and that across the broad waterways. Seagulls wheel and shriek in the light mist. A tram clangs somewhere far beneath me. There is a steady hum of traffic.
Last night the towers of Topkapi, and the great rotund masses of Agia Sofia and the Blue Mosque all sat like jewels, bathed in the amber tones of great floodlighting. All the great mosques of that part of the city– and even many of the smaller ones, including the one near us in Galatasaray– are floodlit at night. The lights from Topkapi and the waterfront mosques bleed out across the water towards us. At night, each ferry-boat scuttles across the water suspended above the inky depths on the insect legs of its own reflected lights.
In the past, I have thought of Istanbul as “Venice on Steroids”: that combination of an organic reliance on waterways and their boat-systems, with the sheer weight and wealth of stupendous religious monuments. But the two cities are different in important ways, as well. Where Venice lies flat, beached (and sinking) at the top end of the Aegean, Istanbul sits astride what is evidently an extremely busy international waterway. Last year when we were here we were sitting at an outdoor restaurant near the second bridge across the Bosphorus and behind our friends as we sat there, there passed a long procession of vast tankers and container boats traveling up to the countries of the Black Sea.
And Istanbul (unlike Venice) is exuberantly 3-D: There is not a flat street in sight except those that flank the city’s many coastlines. Yesterday afternoon we walked to Istiklal Cadessi through a network of small streets that plunged up and down the hillsides here: No other way to get there! City residents must all be extremely fit! Istiklal Cadessi (Independence Street) and a very high proportion of the smaller side streets were all humming with activity. On the backstreets, there are sidewalk cafes just about everywhere. And never mind about those sloping sidewalks: The enterprising business owners have put in long platforms that give each group of tables a flat base to stand on. Okay, it pushes pedestrians into the street; but many of these small streets are actually or effectively pedestrianized, anyway.
We had dinner with Soli Ozel and his family. Great to catch up with him and hear his (generally but not wholly admiring) views of the policies of the present government. The criticisms he voiced were mainly that the government could have been smarter in some aspects of its diplomacy– especially on Iran, where he thought Turkey should have abstained on the recent resolution in the Security Council, rather than voting against it. But he did concur with the judgment that– according to Bill the spouse, who has been here since the beginning of the month– is quite widespread here, namely that PM Erdogan is one of the most talented political leaders that Turkey has ever seen.
There is, as always, a lot going on here politically. I still think that the transition Turkey has made since 1999, from what was still a military-backed system of government to one in which the democratic basis of governance has been much more solidly entrenched than hitherto, is a really important experience that democrats worldwide should hold up and appreciate. And the two facts that this transition has been achieved through almost wholly nonviolent means and that it has been undertaken largely though not wholly by a moderately and democratically Islamist party are both really, really important.
It is great to see Istanbul and the whole of Turkey doing so well in the current times! While economic woes continue to plague much of the “west” today, the course that this country has been on since the end of the Cold War has overwhelmingly been one of opening new markets and new (or, more accurately, renewed) cultural and political ties with all the countries around it in a dazzling 360-degree display of smart outreach. And the success of that outreach really shows– in the buzzing activity, self-confidence, and nice lifestyles you see in the streets here. (Istanbul is stunningly well-run as a city, too. It is significant that Erdogan and his AK Party cut their political teeth here back in the 1990s by proving they could run this city well, before they moved on to take over the commanding heights of national politics.)
Where our apartment is, here near the Galatasaray district, is not far from the area Orhan Pamuk wrote about growing up in, in his memoir “Istanbul”. The Istanbul of Pamuk’s youth was drenched in sadness, neediness, and nostalgia for the loss of the city’s past glories. The contrast with the way the city feels today could not be starker!
I feel so lucky to be here. When Bill first set up the short-term teaching gig he has at Bilgi University, the idea was that we would come together for the month. But then, I realized October would be really busy for Just World Books, so I shortened my stay to one week… Well, I am still doing a bunch of work for the three books JWB will have coming out within the next month– three! count ’em! But at least as I sit here connected to the Intertubes, I have the supreme joy of looking out over this amazing view. And then, from time to time, I can even detach myself from the ‘tubes and go out and have some real-life experiences of today’s Turkey… Wow. Even in the drizzly rain it is all spectacular.

7 thoughts on “Istanbul, for all that ails you

  1. Jack

    although all of my information and views are based merely on media reporting, mostly non-MSM,I think that the rebirth of Turkey under Erdogan is one of the most important and underreported stories on the international scene today. Erdogan and his foreign minister have done a masterful job of moving the country forward. The final recognition that Turkey would never be fully accepted by “Christian” Europe, I believe was the turning point. By turning East, without abandoning the West Turkey has become the major player in the region. The other candidates – Egypt, Saudi-Arabia, Iran, and to a lesser extent Jordan and Syria are all stuck with dysfunctional governments who must , with the exception of Iran, allow themselves to be run by the US in order to keep their ruling despots in power. Even Syria is making moves in that direction. The US is missing the opportunity to make the most of this rise of Turkey by allowing the neocons in Congress, both Dems and Republicans, to begin to demonize Turkey and Erdogan because they no longer kowtow to Israel. Although they still retain correct relations as part of the no enemy neighbor policy. Turkey appears to be the new bridge between the East and the West economically as well as politically and we allow our relations with Turkey to deteriorate at our own great loss. But in all this, lets not forget the Kurdish issue, still the blemish on the rose, although Erdogasn seems to be making some progress there too.

  2. Helena

    About the Kurdish question, two things. (1) Things have already become a LOT better here for Turkey’s Kurdish citizens than they were until a few years ago. There is even Kurdish-language programming on national TV. (2) Well-connected people say the government is actually in negotiations with PKK leader Apo Ocalan, who’s in a prison on an island in the Sea of Marmara, on the terms for a final ceasefire and reintegration of PKK reintegration into the national body politic. Let’s hope so!

  3. Salah

    Helena,
    Things have already become a LOT better here for Turkey’s Kurdish citizens than they were until a few years ago.
    ……FEW YEARS AGO……?
    Iraq had before and specifically in late 1970 Iraqi Kurd have their right to speaks Kurdish, learn Kurdish language in their schools also they have their own TV & Radio station in Kurdish language, these were the Kurd in Iraq few decades not few years. But what the western media and western propaganda left all those fact playing their leis and propaganda about Iraqi Kurd and how the live in Iraq for decades or centuries.
    I been in Turkey late 1970 when the Kurd were not allowed to dress or speaks Kurdish if the caught speaking Kurdish the death penalty waiting for them.
    They never mentioned that a group of them “gangs” raised their weapons against succussive Iraqi governments from 1950 and on which the right of the Iraqi governments to bring down these criminals and killers.
    As for gassing the Kurds this very famous case although there is few sources on of the CIA reported different stories about it.
    This link one of those sources.

  4. annie

    Well-connected people say the government is actually in negotiations with PKK leader Apo Ocalan
    that is excellent news indeed.
    i love this report helena. i’m jealous! next year i’m going to turkey!

  5. KDJ

    Kudos to you and Professor Quandt for enjoying Istanbul. Its terrific that Bill is still teaching, and in such an engaged venue as Turkey. I am sure his students will be lively and inspiring.
    Enjoy!
    KDJ
    PS: Helena, with that lucid and image-rich travel writing knack you possess, take care not to be co-opted by the Turkish Ministry of Tourism as a tourism ad script writer of some sort!

  6. TC

    May I suggest you visit some of the lesser known gems of Istanbul, such as Sokolou and Rustem Pasha mosques (both by Mimar Sinan), and Piyale Pasha Cami (probably by Sinan’s bureau, if not by the master himself). Sabanci museum has on its second level what must be the best collection of Turkish Islamic calligraphy anywhere (it far bests those in State museums). It also boasts a 15th century Tughrah in Arabic, a veritably unique document. As to cheap eats, I enjoy eating Fasolia smack next to Sulimaniyae, a popular spot for working class Turks (the mosque itself is currently closed for renovation). Enjoy.

  7. Helena

    Sadly, TC, your suggestions come too late. I am back in Washington DC.
    However, I should file them away.
    Last year we did go to the Rustum Pasha mosque, and the Yeni Mosque nearby. Both sensational… also, a bunch of other mosques of that caliber including one in Uskudar built for the Caliph’s mother (name escapes me.)
    This time, the best single gastronomic experience we had was in Kadikoy, where our ‘neighborhood-born’ friend took us to one of the Chiya restaurants. The most amazing dish there was a form of kufta bi-saniyya baked along with large wedges of quince: fantastic! So the folks there said h cuisine comes mainly from Entep, in eastern Turkey, not far from Aleppo. That kufta dish reminded me of a great dish we had in Aleppo last year, which was the same except with sour cherries instead of quince. In both cases, the sweet/sour flavor of the baked fruit makes the meat taste unbelievable.

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