Dodging tourists in Istanbul

In September last year, on a five-day vacation in Istanbul, my wife and I stumbled upon the Hagia Sofia. The irony here did not escape us, but what mattered more was that we had failed to escape the Hagia Sofia, despite our resolve to stay away from tourists. We were staying away from tourists to avoid the classification: we were travellers. It is a fashionable distinction these days, tourists vs travellers, and on the surface the two appear similar. They aren’t.

Tourists move around in droves, families or groups with a leader, while travellers often are solitary animals. When a tourist is lost, she looks lost, and helpless; to a traveller, being lost marks the beginning of adventure: he relishes it. While the tourist is busy framing postcard snapshots of a monument, the traveller clicks away at a vendor next to its entrance, a bearded old man who palms roasted chestnuts to baffled passersby. The traveller, then, has an eye for the not-so-obvious, an instinct that leads him to interesting corners; the tourist goes where the guidebook takes him, ticking off five more of the 1000-must-see-places-before-you-die. You’ll never spot a traveller on a camel or an elephant (unless this is the lost traveller in the wild); the tourist, especially a mutant common in our networked society, posts a selfie with the camel on Facebook, and every minute of the ride she checks for likes. (Other tourists on her friends-list oblige.) And in Istanbul, the forgotten great city that straddles East and West but belongs to neither, you can find tourists sipping tea on the Bosphorus cruise, haggling for a carpet at the Grand Bazaar, or gazing at murals in the Hagia Sofia, while the traveller finds refuge in the warren of lanes below Galata tower watching the play of commerce that hasn’t changed much in a hundred years, or counting boats crossing the Golden Horn into the Sea or Marmara, or watching a company of middle-aged men taunt a puppy at a shady street corner: pointless things, and the only memories worth returning home with.

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Istanbul’s Hauptstrasse


Living in Germany we’ve grown used to the concept of a pedestrian shopping street at the center of a city or a town. Cities here have an altstadt, with buildings a few centuries old, and the altstadt has a main pedestrian thoroughfare, often the Hauptstrasse, with shops lining both sides. Towns and villages with no distinguishable older sections are also organized (this is Germany) around a Hauptstrasse. The Hauptstrasse in Wiesloch, the provincial town I live in, is a kilometer long traffic-free cobblestoned stretch that features cafes, restaurants, bakeries, beauty salons, pharmacies (one of which claims to be the world’s first fuel station), a bank, a post office, and a variety of large and small shops. This is the town center. Locals come here to socialize, to buy the daily newspaper or brotchens, to chat with shopkeepers. On Thursdays a vegetable market springs up in a nearby square. During summer festivals spread their stalls in and around the Hauptstrasse. Nothing much happens elsewhere in Wiesloch. In Heidelberg, where the Hauptstrasse runs parallel to the Neckar for a couple of kilometers, the scene is metropolitan. Tourists and locals walk in droves all year, shopping, eating, sightseeing. In Mannheim, another city nearby, the pedestrian shopping street is called Planken, and it features a tram line.

This familiarity with the pedestrian shopping street leads us to seek similar avenues in the cities we visit. In Europe this is easy, but in the U.S., where the historical core (the “downtown”) of most cities is now a business district with high-rise buildings, there is no Hauptstrasse. (Moreover, the only pedestrian streets in the U.S. are all in Disneyland.) Indian cities feature commercial districts or famous roads (like the Marine Drive, or the ubiquitous M.G.Road), but I know of no main pedestrian shopping street through a historical center. What about Istanbul?

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Istanbul scenes – 4



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Our hotel was in a run-down neighbourhood in Beyoglu, not far from the touristy Istiklal Caddesi. The four storey building had been renovated, inside and outside, and it stood like a white swan (the hotel’s name) amid colourless starving ducks. Fifty meters away began an area with gutted buildings and crumbling facades. Opposite this partially demolished stretch was a thriving community: kids playing soccer on the streets, clotheslines across balconies facing each other (an image from Venice, with clotheslines across canals), groceries and vegetable shops with half the wares displayed outside, cars and vans winding through narrow lanes. This could have been a scene in old Delhi.

I later learned that this area, Tarlabaşı, was designated for “urban renewal”: eviction of the residents, demolition of old buildings, construction of new area that would, in the words of Beyoglu’s mayor, “rival the Champs-Élysées in Paris.” At stake here was the preservation of a vibrant culture of migrant workers from eastern Turkey (who moved into the area after the original settlers, Greek, Jewish and Armenian craftsmen, were driven out by riots against non-muslims in 1955), and “210 historic Ottoman era buildings.” A familiar conflict between the commercial interests of the elites and the survival of the marginalised, with a mix of history and politics thrown in.

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Istanbul scenes – 2

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On Wednesday morning, our fourth in Istanbul, P. and I found ourselves sitting on the floor in a ballet class with teenage boys and girls. The instructor, a short, wiry woman in her forties, demonstrated each step and spoke a few words in Turkish (of which we understood nothing), switched on the music — a piece of Chopin or Tchaikovsky or another modern classical composition — and said “Hazir”. The students, six boys and eight girls, stood on three sides of the rectangular studio holding with one hand the horizontal bar. While they performed, some with more precision and elan than others, the instructor gave verbal cues for the steps to follow. This pattern recurred several times, each with a different sequence, before a break was announced. But this was no real break: the students began stretching exercises, arching and bending their impossibly flexible young bodies.

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Istanbul ahead



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We returned last Sunday after a week in Istanbul. The visit wasn’t planned much in advance. A business trip to the city appeared in my wife’s calendar at short notice, and I decided to take a few days off to travel with her.

We traveled light – two half-empty suitcases – but in our minds we carried a ton of images, impressions of Turkey accumulated over a decade of living in Germany (where Turks are the largest immigrant community, a working class engaged largely in manual labour), impressions gleaned from Turkey dispatches in The Economist, from the movies and photographs of Nuri Bilge Ceylan, and the books of a Nobel laureate I shall try not to mention in the forthcoming posts about the city. Some of these impressions were challenged soon after we landed at Ataturk International airport. This was not a conservative muslim country full of women in headscarves. (About ten percent of the women we saw through the week wore them.) This was not a city full of chaotic traffic and streets choked with peddlers, vendors, and customers. (Such scenes existed, yes, and they were charming, but alongside them were areas more modern than parts of affluent Germany.) And the people! Why did we not expect the warmth and curiosity we were met with through the week? Living in Germany and traveling through Europe had plastered our minds with a set of behaviours we expected from locals; Istanbulites surprised us, delighted us, from our first day to the last. So did the cats in the city: never before had I seen so many cats in a week.

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Notes from September

I know, I know what some of you are thinking. Another blogger falls for Facebook. He’s lost the motivation to write, perhaps. Or he’s turned plain lazy. He’s probably grinding his way through a writer’s block. Work must be drowning him. Marital troubles, maybe. They must’ve had a baby! Perhaps he’s even dead, who knows…

Wishful thinking, I’d say. My excuse for the silence here is untypical. I’ve been writing fiction.

At this stage it’s the process that interests me more than the result, and the process of writing longish short stories (about five to ten thousand words) is not what I expected when I set out on this journey early in summer. It takes over everything else you do, this business of writing fiction. All my writing is focussed on the fiction pieces I’m working on, all reading directed towards getting the “right” influence on the story. Here’s Zadie Smith on ‘Middle-of-the-novel Magical Thinking’:

In the middle of the novel, a kind of magical thinking takes over. To clarify, the middle of the novel may not happen in the actual geographical centre of the novel. By middle of the novel I mean whatever page you are on when you stop being part of your household and your family and your partner and children and food shopping and dog feeding and reading the post — I mean when there is nothing in the world except your book, and even as your wife tells you she’s sleeping with your brother her face is a gigantic semi-colon, her arms are parentheses and you are wondering whether rumage is a better verb than rifle. The middle of a novel is a state of mind. Strange things happen in it. Time collapses. You sit down to write at 9 a.m., you blink, the evening news is on and four thousand words are written, more words than you wrote in three long months, a year ago. Something has changed. And it’s not restricted to the house. If you go outside, everything — I mean, everything — flows freely into your novel. Someone on the bus says something — it’s straight out of your novel. You open the paper — every single story in the paper is directly relevant to your novel…

My situation isn’t this extreme. If Zadie Smith’s condition is a malarial fever, mine is an ordinary mosquito bite. But the bite consumes a good portion of my attention each day. I live in my fictional world for long periods, among characters and situations that exist only in my head. (It is a form of madness.) Ideas and leads turn up at unlikely moments, and I know I cannot follow them all, because this is a short story, not a novel. But things can get out of hand. Short stories can turn into novellas, novellas into novels. I cannot control this. Right now I’m following my instincts the way a leashed dog follows his master. I only know where the next few steps go. Beyond that, it’s a mystery.

* * *

The other day we were in Frankfurt for lunch in a South Indian restaurant. It had opened not long ago, and some friends had dined there, Facebooking the culinary experience. Social pressure of this kind is hard to stomach. We drove a hundred kilometers for vada and dosa.

The place was chock-full of Indians. The cooks, visible through a glass partition, were Indian; the waiters and waitresses, dressed in dark jeans and white shirt, were Indian; the diners were all noisily Indian. It was odd, stepping into a place like this. We’ve grown used to appearing different from others around us, and here we were all looking same same. The first few moments were terrifying. Then it struck me that we weren’t really like the other Indians there. The immigrant always considers himself a different breed.

The waitress taking our order, a short young woman with two plaits, was humble, soft-spoken, diffident. Unlike German waitresses in a German restaurant. Or Indian waiters at established Indian restaurants here. She was new to the country, it was clear, and in this setting she was a pleasant reminder of a certain kind of people back home.

This attitude, it seemed, was taken as an invitation by some customers. At two tables nearby the waitresses were spoken to in harsh tones. Common in India, unheard of here. The immigrants had reverted to their original colours.

Dosa was good, vada less so. But this was no time for complaint: South Indian food is hard to come by in Germany (most Indian and Pakistani restaurants serve only North Indian cuisine). We were happy, we ate well.

In the men’s room — dingy, wet-floored — there was a short queue at the wash basin. The man behind me stood rubbing my back. After I finished washing he pointed me to the napkin dispenser next to the basin: there, he said, the napkins are there.

In all, a refreshing experience. How boring the Germans can be in comparison, and how I long at times for unpredictable behaviour from others. To be surprised, occasionally, keeps you alert, active.

The UK and the US have their Little Indias; the Germans now can boast of a Saravana Bhavan in Frankfurt.

* * *

Earlier in September we celebrated Onam. Four families came home for a sadya — a feast, prepared in parts by everyone. The celebration is an yearly affair, but this time the immigrants had a fresh claim to authenticity: the sadya was served on plantain leaves. Wife had returned from Singapore not long before, smuggling on board Lufthansa a dozen or so crisp leaves. Our conclusion was unanimous: the meal tasted better on leaves than plates.

We ate not on the floor but at the dining table, taking turns, the men going first (served by the wives), the women following after. Tradition did not shape this sequence: space on the dining table was limited. The ritual was altered.




Sadya


“The rituals have altered.” Naipaul writes, in an essay titled ‘East Indian,’ describing practices of the immigrant Indian community in Trinidad:

Since open-air cremation is forbidden by the health authorities, Hindus are buried, not cremated. Their ashes are not taken down holy rivers into the ocean to become again part of the Absolute. There is no Ganges at hand, only a muddy stream called the Caroni. And the water that the Hindu priest sprinkles with a mango leaf around the sacrificial fire is not Ganges water but simple tap water. The holy city of Benaras is far away, but the young Hindu at his initiation ceremony in Port of Spain will still take up his staff and beggar’s bowl and say that he is off to Benaras to study. His relatives will plead with him, and in the end he will lay down his staff, and there will be a ritual expression of relief.

It is the play of a people who have been cut off. To be an Indian from Trinidad, then, is to be unlikely and exotic. It is also to be a little fraudulent. But so all immigrants become… Immigrants are people on their own. They cannot be judged by the standards of their older culture. Culture is like language, ever developing. There is no right or wrong, no purity from which there is decline. Usage sanctions everything.

The class photograph

Pinned to the desk he’s writing on, in his nephew’s room, is a frame with a fourth-grade class photograph from the boy’s school last year. It isn’t a single photograph, but individual passport-size images of all students, and of their class teacher, set to a common black background. There are sixteen students in all, seven girls, nine boys. The students are handsomely dressed, and each one is smiling at the camera. In their formal shirts and dresses there is also a hint of adulthood, he thinks, a glimpse of how these nine-year-olds will perhaps turn out ten, fifteen years from now: this is what draws him to these images again and again. He looks at the faces as though he’s staring at the future. They are the future, he tells himself. How will they turn out? The confident smile of Luke, the relaxed charm of Robert, Shruti’s gaiety, Sandra’s shyness: what sort of individuals will they grow up to be? What will they do? How different will their lives be? What sort of a world will they inherit and enter? How will they shape it? How much can one glean from their photographs?

He begins to imagine their futures. Gabriel, wearing a tie, looks to him like a future Wall Street banker; Christine, head tilted and on the verge of laughter, will end up as an actress; Khalid, bespectacled and studious looking, is a writer no doubt. His nephew brings him down to earth. Khalid, the boy tells him, is the class bully; Christine hardly speaks to anyone; and Gabriel is interested only in sports.

Concealed beneath his keen interest in these portraits is the desire to become one of them. To be a nine-year-old again. He believes this is a sign of age: in his twenties he never wished he was in school again. And with age comes weariness. What he thinks of most when he sees the photograph is the cyclical nature of things. These new faces are just another iteration in life’s eternal cycle. The same lives will be lived all over again. Some will be labelled high-achievers, others will be called also-rans; some will improve lives of others, some others will make life difficult; some will be mere consumers, others will strive to conserve; some will make money, others will make music; some will read, others will write; some will even end up thinking, like he does, that there isn’t any point at all in life. These smiling faces will go through it all once more: youth, work, achievements, failures, friends, sex, love, marriage, children, unfaithfulness, divorce, re-marriage, old-age, death. And they will do this as if it were all happening the first time: the pervasive illusion necessary to give human life meaning. He places himself beyond all this, as though observing the madness and beauty of existence from a distance, but this understanding offers him no solace: his tiredness does not leave him. It does not make him depressed either. His everyday interactions are easy, normal, and sometimes fun. But when he pauses to reflect over where all this is heading, or the point of it all, he faces a blank. Perhaps the point is simply that: to go through it all over again.

The frame, he thinks, holds his own class photograph, thirty years old.