Coming together in İstanbul

Istanbullians Istanbullians

by Buket Uzuner

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This short (125 pages) graphic novel (adapted and translated into English from Uzuner's Turkish-language novel İstanbullular) illustrates contemporary Istanbul and its mingling of extremely diverse people. An attractive 40-something genetics professor and diplomat's daughter is returning with trepidation to her home city after years of working abroad, when she is trapped in Atatürk Airport in an emergency blackout along with İstanbullular (Istanbullian) of all backgrounds, including her Kurdish artist lover, a Turkish Greek professor, various Armenians, a Jew, a weary bathroom attendant, a wealthy entrepreneur, at least one fierce Turk and anti-Kurd nationalist, a headscarf-bearing young Muslim woman, a gay bartender, etc. Though their stories are never fully resolved, we know that this crisis will have changed all their lives in some way. Buket Uzuner is author of several other novels, of which this is the first graphic one. Illustrations of social types and places by Ayşe Nur Atsoy are realistic and vivid. The book is a charming and informative introduction to the complexity of this enormous (nearly 14 million population) city and tempts this reader to seek other works by Buket Uzuner.

For more on and by this author, see her website Buket Uzuner.

View all my reviews


Is the Kurdish movement leftist or nationalist? - Hurriyet Daily News

This piece of good investigation and clear argument by Ruşen Çakır helps clarify the context of a complicated political struggle. As he says, the Marxist rhetoric has become mere adornment of the movement — reminiscent of what happened to the Basque ETA after the end of Franco.

Is the Kurdish movement leftist or nationalist? - Hurriyet Daily News

Defying Turkey’s blasphemy law - Hurriyet Daily News

Defying Turkey’s blasphemy law - Hurriyet Daily News


Edirne 2 : the red dervish smiles

Eski Cami interior
Today as our bare feet padded on the thick carpet of Edirne's Old Mosque — the Eski Cami — and we looked up at its wide dome and laterally to the passionate calligraphy calling out from the walls,  I thought again of the verses of the only Sufi dervish I know well, Yunus Emre. Which surely were not the verses being sung by the earnest young imam squatting before a flock of veiled, attentive young women.
Eski Cami, Edirne

The Eski Cami was completed in 1414, probably a century after the time of Yunus, but when Ottoman Islam was still young and its architecture exuberant in intent but simple in engineering. Yunus spent little or no time in mosques and regarded ritual with benevolent amusement as a distraction from faith. But I think even he would not have felt uncomfortable in this quiet place with its dome beckoning like a gate to heaven.

Selimiye Camii, Edirne (WikiCommons)

Only a few hundred meters away stands the Selimiye Mosque, completed in 1575 and designed by Sultan Suleyman I's master architect, Koca Mimar ("Architect") Sinan, who was then 80 years old. He had designed many mosques including Istanbul's famous Süleymaniye, completed in 1558, as well as other large, graceful buildings. But Edirne is considered (and was so considered by the mimar himself) to be his finest and most perfected work. It is an engineering marvel, with an immense dome with a diameter of 31.30 meters whose center rises 43.28 meters above the floor. That enormous structure is supported by an ingenious system distributing the weight to its eight external pillars, with no pillars interrupting is prayer space 1,629 square meters. The booklet from the tourism offices further tells us that "the entire mosque covers an area of 2,475 m2, the largest in architectural history." The proportions are beautiful and its generous space inspires awe.

But if I were to spend a longer time in Edirne, it would be to the Eski Cami that I would come, perhaps to stand, perhaps to kneel, to meditate on our world and my joyous place in it. Yunus Emre said that of course we must believe in God because otherwise He would not exist — or, as I interpret him, God is our creation and must be respected and preserved as such. As a god-fearing atheist, I feel akin to that smiling, gentle poet. And in the Eski Cami of Edirne, I feel myself a kızıl dervişi—a red dervish.


Edirne : music therapy

It has been cloudy and chilly in this dusty city where Turkey's Thracian province reaches out to touch Bulgaria and Greece, a quiet day, the second day of the Kurban Bayramı or "Festival of the Sacrifice," and many businesses are closed.

Merely by looking at a map, even without any historical reading on the area, you will see why Edirne, the Turkish name for Emperor Hadrian's Adrianopolis, has been the site of so many battles and sieges. “Military historian John Keegan identifies it as 'the most contested spot on the globe' and attributes this to its geographical location,” says the Wikipedia article.

But there were also long periods of peace after Murad I conquered it from the Bulgarians (1365) to make it the Ottoman capital until his great-great grandson Mehmet II (the Conqueror) moved the capital to newly-conquered Constantinople in 1453. Edirne continued to be a major concern of the sultans, as a military and administrative district for their European territory and a pleasant retreat from the more hectic life of Constantinople/Konstantiye/Istanbul. They built magnificent mosques here, including one considered to be among the finest of Suleyman the Magnicent's favored mimar (architect) Sinan, the Selimye (1575) — and which we plan to see tomorrow. 

Today we visited an earlier mosque-complex ("küliye"), built in 1682 under the auspices of Sultan Bayezid II, a 30-minute walk from the center to the outskirts of town. This II. Bayezid Külliyesi is famous for its hospital and medical school, which served patients free of charge from its founding until 1916. (The text on the linked page is all in Turkish, but it's the best site I've found for photos.)  It is now a health museum, with displays of medical instruments and mannequins representing medical procedures illustrated in the textbooks of the 17th-18th centuries, some of them pretty scary. One orthopedic procedure involved strapping the patient to a kind of rack to manipulate his vertebra back into place — he didn't seem to be enjoying it. And then there was all that cauterizing.

But best of all, and most pleasant to contemplate, was the music therapy, part of an ancient Turkish tradition from well before they reached Anatolia from the Asian steppes. By Bayezid II's time it had developed from shaman's drumming and humming to a professionalized and elaborate practice, with trained musicians on a variety of instruments performing the specific musical modes prescribed by the physician. There were particular modes for particular illnesses, their effects enhanced by the sound of water — in the kulliye produced by a fountain in the center of the domed inpatient pavilion.

At the moment, in our hotel, we are listening to a collection of İsfahan Makami ("makam" is a musical mode) that might have been prescribed to sharpen "intelligence and clearness of mind" (as well as to cure illnesses accompanied by fever) and is said to be especially effective on Mondays. A group called Tümata has recovered this musical therapy music and performs it on instruments like those used in Bayezid's time. It seems to be working. After all, it is Monday.


In İstanbul: a 5-star jail and other wonders

We love this city, and since we had already seen the top 3-day tourist attractions on previous visits (Hagia Sophia, Topkapı, etc.) and since we're spending more than a week here (of the 3 we're devoting to exploring Turkey) we feel free to stroll around, take the feribot up the Halıç (the "Golden Horn") and take in some  of the museum exhibitions aimed mainly at a Turkish public.

Thursday evening was my talk about my book A Gift for the Sultan before a gathering sponsored jointly by the Harvard and MIT alumni organizations where, fortunately, everybody could understand my English —though I started out with a couple of sentences that I had prepared in Türkçe. My accent is probably all wrong, but they were tolerant. Thanks to Şeyma Yavuz (president of the Harvard Club of Turkey) for organizing it and to all those who came out on this rather inconvenient evening, as it was close to the eve of the Kurban Bayramı (Eid al-Adha in Arabic countries) or festival of the sacrifice which is the beginning of a week-long holiday.

The event was held in the Blue Room of the Sultanahmet Four Seasons Hotel, which is the former Sultanahmet Jail, which from 1919 to 1969  "served mostly as a prison reserved for writers, journalists, artists as intellectual dissidents sentenced," according to Wikipedia. After years of abandonment (the prisoners had been transferred to another jail),  it was converted into this luxury hotel that opened in 1996. What was then the exercise courtyard is now an open-air restaurant, and unless you knew this history you would never guess that the penthouse rooms at each of the four corners had been the guard towers. It was the best jail I had ever visited, and I've visited several, a couple of times (in a Venezuela mix-up and in Chicago after a civil rights sit-in) as an unwilling guest. None of the others offered such a splendid array of olives and cheeses along with the wine. One thing did continue from the old days: the people gathered around me on Thursday were indeed writers and intellectuals, and posed very interesting questions and new thoughts regarding my book and other things. I hope and plan to see them all again on future visits.

On Friday, we spent almost all of the day at two exhibitions at the İstanbul Modern art museum. One was the biennial featuring works inspired by the Cuban-American artist Félix González Torres (check out the links for more detail). González-Torres' own works were not presented but were described and alluded to, for art from many countries aimed at making us painfully aware of violence and censorship. Many women are included amont the artists, but the other big show in the main building was exclusively of women with explicitly feminist themes. A good way to celebrate a Muslim holiday, it seemed to us. The pieces by Turkish women were especially interesting to us. One by Asıl Sungu is a pair of videos, featuring her first with her father and then with her mother, asking opinions on what to wear — pretty funny, the differences between the way her father and her mother wanted her to look: he, favoring a more professional, businesslike style that might be more protective of her, and she (the mother) urging a sort of little-girl costume. But on the whole the works that impressed us most were the old ones: Tina Modotti's marvelous photographs in Mexico, and Martha Rossler's more satiric portraits combining scenes of the Vietnam war (occurring at the time of these works) with consumer paradise images from the US.

Well, that was exhausting. Hours on our feet at two big exhibitions requiring a lot of attention. So next day, yesterday, we took the feribot up the Halıç to Bilgi Üniversitesi, near Sülüce on the far shore of the Halıç. The ferry is large, with two interior decks and and an upper exposed deck, a coffee and snacks stand, comfortable seats, and the fare is the same as for other public transportation, a mere 2 TL (less than 1 euro). Susana was interested in Bilgi for its setting and its architecture, and also for an exhibition on LeCorbusier. It has a good, kind of funky (colorful and intentionally inelegant) restaurant, Otto Santral. And from there we took a taxi to the huge Eyüp mosque complex. "Eyüp" is the Turkish version of "Abu Ayyub al-Ansari, the companion and standard bearer of the Prophet Muhammad",who is said to be buried there. (Wikipedia). From there, we took the teleferik up to the Pierre Loti Cafe, where the French novelist is said to have hung out. Great views, good Turkish coffee. I bought a couple of Loti's boks there. I'll let you know more after I read them. He was a very curious character, whose Turkish experience I hadn't known much about. I'd only read his Pecheur d'Islande, about a very different part of the world, when I was in high school.

Now we're off to Edirne. Talk to you again soon.