Bond, Pamuk, and Me
When I moved to Istanbul in the fall of 2010, I had two preconceived notions of the place: as the subject of Orhan Pamuk’s Nobel-winning meditation Istanbul: Memories and the City and as the setting of From Russia With Love. Admittedly this was a slim band of knowledge. Impressionistic might be a generous way to describe it. Really it was a fantasia of gypsy girl fights and exploding oil tankers and dark bitter thimbles of huzun, the city’s trademark melancholy. My only excuse was that like most Americans I hadn’t given the place much thought, until, in the middle of the financial crisis, I got a job there.
I hadn’t considered writing about the city until 2012. The year and a half before had been entirely exhausted from the living of it. New job, new language, my wife’s new job, decoding the grocery, friends made and their sudden goodbye parties; I felt more comfortable working on stories I had begun in graduate school. There was some irony to this. In the MFA context my work had been classed as experimental, or at least weird. But up against my new life it felt quite comfortable, even homey. It was around that time that Skyfall, the third Daniel Craig ‘Bond’ feature was released. We’d see pretty much anything the Hollywood culture industry would send over. We lived down a steep slope from Istiklal Caddesi, one of the city’s only pedestrian avenues. It had been the epicenter of Turkish film production in the seventies and a number of movie houses lined its northern third. It had also been the epicenter of European trading interests in the era of the capitulations, so it was full of embassies. And when we lived there it was the epicenter of a downtown renaissance of sorts, and so was lined with chain stores and cultural centers sponsored by giant Turkish corporations. Thus was it ever in Istanbul. Some times, particularly in the summer heat, we’d simply install ourselves in whatever English Language matinée was playing next.
Skyfall held the extra promise of featuring our adopted city. We knew from newspaper reports that Craig had been in town, and had damaged the Grand Bazar with his motorcycle. After that ill-fated scene we see James Bond chase the villain onto a train at the famous Sirkeci station, where the Orient Express dropped travelers ahead of their next leg to Bombay or Mecca. Within the few minutes it takes Bond to destroy the train they are so far clear of Istanbul they are on a scenic viaduct in Adana. Across the Bosporus, departing the other train station, 6 hours by fast train, 18 by slow train. I’m sure no-one watching the movie cared, except that it made Istanbul seem a quaint oriental backwater one can clear by train within the span of a long fist-fight instead of Europe’s megacity, sprawling for 600 square miles on either side of the Bosporus. Twelve rounds would hardly get you past the airport. I asked my Turkish friends if they were bothered by this representation of their city. Most complained more that the film had used the old city police cars, which were chintzy tin cans. It was something of a point of pride that the Istanbul police were among the best equipped in the world, as those of us around Gezi Park discovered in the spring of 2013 and the hapless conscripts with their tanks parked on the Bosporus Bridge experienced during the abortive coup of summer 2017.
After seeing Skyfall I went back to watch Bond’s previous trips to Istanbul. These also took liberties with the city in a fairly callous manner. In From Russia with Love Bond and his Turkish compatriot the polyamorous patriarch Kerim Bey row across the Basilica Cistern from the Grand Bazar to the Russian Consulate on Istklal Caddessi. Such a trip, if possible, would involve descending 180 feet from the Bazar to below the surface of the Golden Horn, and then once across, ascending 220 feet back to the perch of the opposite shore. They use a submarine’s periscope, but that hardly counts as a nod towards reality. In The World is Not Enough, Bond is molested in a menacing fashion by Sophie Marceau in the Maiden’s Tower, a charming structure in the middle of the Bosporus. In the movie it is her private mansion, complete with submarine dock. In real life it’s been a prison, a lighthouse and currently a restaurant. From personal experience, having watched James Bond features since I was five and not sitting out even the most unpromising of the bunch, I never once questioned the films’ representations of their actual locals. Their crypto-colonial representations of other cultures, sure. Gypsy girl fights, Azeris cheering when Sophie Marceau saves a church, or even Daniel Craig ordering a bottle of Maccallan on a Turkish beach all show a fairly lackadaisical picture of the people of Turkey. Leaving totally aside the phantasmagoria of geishas and voodoo that characterize other films in the series.
Re-watching these films, I began to worry, in a self-interested fashion, whether it was possible to do justice to my adopted city. If people couldn’t be bothered to get the details of the place right, were all representations of it in some way doomed to oversimplification? Just because there were two bridges spanning Europe and Asia did not, in my growing experience, make the place a bridge between East and West. Behind that orientalist confusion between geography and ethos, was the Istanbul I wanted to write.
Around the same time as my Skyfall crisis of conscience, Orhan Pamuk opened his ‘Museum of Innocence’ a block away from our apartment in the Çukurcuma neighborhood. The premise, for those unfamiliar, was an actual museum to house the flotsam accumulated by the fictional protagonist of Pamuk’s novel The Museum of Innocence. It fit perfectly in the neighborhood. Çukurcuma was a picturesque gully that served as an eddy for antiques of the Turkish mid-century. The air of authenticity this gave off was so strong that Anthony Bourdain had to drive up our street on his No Reservations junket to the city. My love for Pamuk had only grown, I thought of him as essentially the last word on the city. The Istanbul of The Black Book is comfortable next to the Paris of A Sentimental Education or the London of Bleak House. “When the Bosporus dries up,” the second chapter of The Black Book, remains one of my all time favorite pieces of writing about Istanbul, and anyone reading this essay should consider reading that instead.
‘The Museum of Innocence’ on the other hand compounded my anxieties about writing about Istanbul. As I walked through the painstakingly installed ice cream wrappers, cigarette butts and the famous quince grater, my worries about how to capture my Istanbul experience increased. The museum’s Joseph Cornell like amalgamations of the city’s mid-century heirlooms left me cold. I hadn’t loved the novel for perhaps the same reason, that the Istanbul it depicted was something of a dreamy toile of old stuff. Everything came from that time which has become Pamuk’s wheelhouse, around the 1980 coup d’état. That era, basically the end of Turkey’s closed economy, has been characterized time and again by Pamuk through Istanbul’s two supposed ruling emotions: huzun and kayif. That spectrum, between the melancholy of slogging along in a once great place and the joy of drinking a small coffee in a once great place, is not so representative of life in the city as the Pamuk’s Nobel citation had me believe.
The moment of innocence central to ‘The Museum of Innocence’ and Istanbul: Memories and the City ultimately proved fairly short. The capital of three empires had no administrative role after 1923. Much of it was a glorious ruin described so lovingly in Istanbul up until the 1980 coup and the market reforms that emanated from it. Then the city went from 4 million to 14 million in a generation, thanks to rural migrants seeking work in textile factories. The vast sprawl these migrants constructed around the old Istanbul was named by people like Pamuk the ‘gecekondu,’ literally “that built overnight.” Latife Tekin’s Berji Kristin: Tales from the Garbage Hills takes place in these slums, and her picture of the era is unsurprisingly sentiment free. The toxic junk her characters collect doesn’t end up in a museum; it ends up poisoning them to death. That subjectivity and its economic consequences ended the romanticism of ‘one brand of toothpaste, one brand of cigarettes, one brand of ice cream’ and the profound poetic confusion the young Pamuk experiences riding a ferry up the Golden Horn observing the hollowed out city in Istanbul’s penultimate chapter.
In retrospect the experience Pamuk represents in much of his late writing isn’t far from late 19th century representations of the ‘Vanishing America’ of the west. The honest and innocent and poor homesteaders and cowboys on the brink of being bulldozed by modernity are analogous to Pamuk’s street vendors and shop girls and even his scions to small state protected industries. And just as the innocence of the American west was purchased with the genocide of indigenous people, Pamuk’s innocents enjoyed the Istanbul ‘the world forgot’ in large part because its population of Armenians, Greeks and Jews had been systemically driven off or killed by state oppression or state sponsored mobs. Pamuk devotes 4 pages of his memoir to the anti-Greek pogroms of 1955, 2 of which could justly be called ‘defensive’ about the long history of Greco-Turkish conflict, the other 2 fairly frank about the horrors of watching a whole set of people being deprived of their homes and livelihoods. In A Strangeness in my Mind the protagonist and his best friend take over a shop ‘rent free’ from a Greek who ‘had to go back to Athens.’ No further explanation necessary. Not that I fault Pamuk for this. If every American author had to address our country’s sins just once, there’d be libraries of nothing else.
Oddly enough, Ian Fleming had been in Istanbul in September of 1955, attending an Interpol conference, and bore first hand witness to the anti-Greek pogroms. They formed the central impression he had of the place, one marked by ancient blood feuds and cobblestones soaked in blood. The orientalism at the heart of Bond’s adventures in Turkey has its source here, in this moment of injustice and social breakdown. Fleming couldn’t see past it, which makes his vision of Istanbul the reductive one we see again and again on film. But in a fun-house trick of fate, the pogroms are that which cannot fit in Pamuk’s portrayals of innocent Istanbul. The true Istanbul contained both visions, at least how I saw it.
In 2012 I was only just becoming aware of this history. At the same time economic forces were fundamentally altering the city. I certainly didn’t understand them at the time, though evidence of them was all around. The fourth tallest building in Europe at the time had just been completed in 2010. Construction in general was booming. There was a Wagamama, then two or three. Every coastal neighborhood had a ZARA, and many had both a ZARA and a MANGO. There was homegrown generic consumer outlets too with fast fashion from Collezione, high end jeans from Mavi, and twenty dollar burgers or caprese sandwiches ‘The House Café’ or ‘Kitchenette.’ Even the university where we taught felt fresh out of the box, with lots of brand new facilities and constantly improving dining options, all over-looking the sparkling Black Sea. The lives of Pamuk’s bourgeoisie as memorialized in ‘The Museum of Innocence’ were dingy and parochial in comparison.
Pamuk, in a recent profile in the Times of London, said he no longer recognized the city. The final thirty pages of his 2014 novel A Strangeness in my Mind were his best approximation. High-rises, mega-malls and chain stores had blotted out the family houses, the gececondus and the mom and pops alike. My Istanbul was the one where Pamuk’s innocence dropped off entirely, a BRIC megalopolis defined by hot money investment fleeing the crisis in the US and Europe. A place where anyone who wanted a new Audi could have one and Beyoglu, the once hollowed out 19th century city center, was well on its way to being a Lower East Side or Spitafields. Sitting in a bar talking to a German Turk who left Berlin for Istanbul in reverse migration of her parents, it was something to hear her simply marvel at the cultural opportunities of the once sad city.
There was a certain darkness to my Istanbul as well, perhaps ever attendant in a place where people have lived as long. Bits of seemingly immortal urban life would be gobbled up by developers and vanish in a days time. Lively alleys of cheap fish restaurants would shut down, only to reopen with more expensive, more staid versions of the same. The Demirören shopping mall reimagined a dusty 19th century arcade as a slick consumer experience complete with a Popeye’s and a Turkish version of Best Buy. The crowning metaphor of this experience was the plan to rebuild the Taksim Square artillery barracks, demolished in 1940, as another shopping center. This somewhat surreal plot, to use historical preservation laws to circumvent green space preservation laws and replace one of the city’s few parks with yet another mall, was the spark for the 2013 Gezi Park protests. In spite of the liberal application of tear gas on the part of the cops, the protests were the high point of my Istanbul. It was a troubled place, but full of life. And it was that place, for me the ‘real Istanbul,’ on whose likeness I based my novel Not Constantinople.
Ironically, for all the thought on my part, the place where I lived three years is largely over now. The trident of terrorism, authoritarianism and economic slowdown has seemed to directly pierce the form of life I led in Istanbul. A suicide bomber blew up the bench by the hippodrome where my wife and I would sit on winter afternoons to watch sparrows circle the Blue Mosque. A suicide bomber exploded outside the Atlas theater, where we saw Ekümenopolis, a documentary about how neoliberal development was going to destroy the city. That was the eschatology we could imagine in 2013. Two suicide bombers just recently killed 38 people along the coast road, which we walked every day we could. At the same time the Turkish Lira lost more than half its value against the dollar. Starbucks, Columbia Sportswear, and Pizza Hut all left downtown, taking with them Turkish shopping and dining establishments both high and low. As one customer at the Cumhuriyet Soup Restaurant told the AL Monitor, “They forced out all beer serving places, promising champagne for glamorous Beyoglu. Now we have none.” A new wave of migrants, Syrian refugees, have again changed the urban landscape, settling in neighborhoods which had been dominated by migrants from eastern Turkey a generation earlier. This has caused no small amount of tension in the streets. On top of all this, the tightening vice of political oppression has crushed the city’s street life and the kayif of its sidewalk coffee shops and tea gardens. In the face of everything, my remaining friends tell me people are just staying home.
The real Istanbul won’t be defined by these misfortunes. For a city that survived an earthquake nicknamed ‘The Little Judgment Day,’ ruin is nothing new. But as I consider my own contribution to the world of imaginary Istanbuls I’m overwhelmed by the fragility of representation. Fatih Sultan Mehmet supposedly said, “I will conquer Constantinople or it will conquer me.” My experience writing Istanbul has turned out to be something along those lines. Except that, as his epithet ‘The Conqueror’ implies, he experienced it the one way and I the other.