Letter from Istanbul: One Afternoon in Beyöglu

James Tressler / Sunday, Aug. 19, 2012 @ 9:14 a.m. / Letter From Istanbul

[James Tressler, a writer and teacher in Istanbul, was a political writer for the Times-Standard. His work has also appeared in The Prague Post. His stories from Eastern Europe and Turkey are available on Amazon. His newest collection, Lost Coast Stories, is available on Lulu.com.]

In three years here in Istanbul, I’ve actually spent very little time in Beyöğlu, the historic district on a high hill overlooking the Bosphorous on the city’s European side. So one recent Saturday afternoon I decided to stick around and have a proper look around. I ended up getting more than I bargained for.

Having crossed over on the ferry boat from my home on the Asian side, I walked up the hill past the Galata Tower and over to Istikklal Caddesi, which runs through the heart of Beyöğlu and leads to Taksim Square. Since Ottoman times, Istikklal Caddesi has always been a cosmopolitan commercial district. Many foreign embassies, including the Swedish, French, Dutch and Greek, are located there. By day the street is filled with bustling shoppers; by night, it’s streamed with bar-hopping and club-going revelers.

I started with a stroll over to Cihangir, just off Istikklal. Recently this neighborhood was voted one of the world’s most desirable neighborhoods, with its cozy, tree-lined streets and panoramic, hill-top view of the Bosphorous. Returning to Istikklal, I went to Pandora’s, my favorite English bookshop, and found Nazim Hikmet’s epic novel in verse,”Human Landscapes From My Country, which I’ve been hunting for months, as well as Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72.” With these treasures in hand, I went in search of a decent café. It was a sultry Saturday afternoon, and all the shoppers were in shorts and light tops, except for the conservative women who still wore headscarves and long sleeves. The street musicians, with their sazes and saxes, their flutes and lutes, played traditional Turkish melodies which passed over the heads of the crowds.

One of the reasons I don’t come here more often, I reflect, is that the bars and cafes don’t have the outdoor seating they used to have. It used to be you’d go to the bars – especially the busy back streets – and they would be teeming with people sitting outside at tables drinking Efes beer and talking in lively groups in the dusk. It was a great atmosphere. But a government directive, driven by a concern for public “decency,” led to a ban. Now I’m all for “decency,” I suppose, but not at the expense of one of the finer qualities of Beyöğlu. Now, as I walked one of the backstreets near the Shishane metro stop, it was depressing to see how empty and forlorn some of the places were. One of the places I used to haunt is now boarded up, a damn shame.

Still looking for a place to sit down and read, I walked back up Istikklal past the French Embassy and found a place that let you drink Efes outside on cushions near the nargile smokers. It was nice to get off my feet, sit on the cushion and relax with my beer and admiring Nazim Hikmet’s amazing ability to connect with his countrymen in verse. Like Hasan Shevket’s friend, who says:

I say nothing
I don’t even eat
     the slice of cheese on this plate
     I mean I can’t
I can’t afford a second slice
And my father was no lord or tyrant
And I don’t give a damn about the fall of Europe
We should fall too
     and the sooner the better,
       along with Europe

Reading Nazim Hikmet’s “Human Landscapes,” I’m reminded of Orhan Kemal’s affectionate portrait of Hikmet in his book, “In Jail with Nazim Hikmet.” The two served time at Bursa State Prison. Hikmet, a Communist, was jailed for his Communist views, and Kemal was doing time for reading Hikmet, whose work had been banned by the authorities. Anyway, Kemal was eventually exiled from Turkey, spending the rest of his life mostly in Russia and dying there in 1960. He first caught my attention while I was living in Prague. One day I ran across a Hikmet poem about his time there, “Prague Dawn.” His verse, as elegant and precise as a surgeon’s scalpel, evoked the city I knew so well. And yet the final verse comes as an unexpected KO: “Ah, my rose, ah my rose/exile is worse than death.”

Drawing in the beauty of Prague in one breath, exhaling his despair over his lost homeland in the next, this one verse shows all of Hikmet’s unexpected revelatory power. The beauty of the world … yet not able to go home!

My thoughts on Nazim Hikmet were suddenly interrupted by great roars erupting over on Taksim Square a hundred meters away. Having paid my bill, I finished my beer and decided to go and check it out. On the square were perhaps 100 people, maybe more, all waving signs and clapping their hands and shouting at the top of their lungs. Most of the signs read TKP, denoting the Turkish Communist Party, and the protesters largely appeared to be students and workers. The din suddenly resolved into clarity and I heard the familiar phrase: YANKEE GO HOME! YANKEE GO HOME! YANKEE GO HOME!

“What’s happening?” I asked a young man standing nearby. He had a kind face and, like me, appeared to be just observing.

“They are protesting against Hillary Clinton,” the young man said. “You know she is in Istanbul today to talk about Syria.” Oh right. I remembered seeing something in the Hurriyet Daily News that morning.


“Where are you from?” my companion asked. When I told him America, he smiled sympathetically.

“Well, don’t take it personally,” he said. The protesters had began shouting again and he nodded in their direction. “I think most of us like Americans. It’s a problem between the governments, you know, the management.”

“Anyway,” the young man turned to go. “I wouldn’t say anything to them if I were you, I mean, you never know. Take care.”

Before he left, we shook hands and I asked his name. Bariş, he said. It means “Peace” in Turkish.

YANKEE—GO—HOME! YANKEE—GO—HOME! YANKEE—GO—HOME!

The chant was ringing in my ears as I turned away and went back toward Istikklal. It was one of those unsettling moments when you realize you are very far from home, and feel raw and exposed. It was best to just move on and join the crowd of shoppers, whose only party affiliations are names like Gucci and Vuitton. This Yank was in no mood for trouble.

But try as I might to avoid the scene, just then, as if to taunt me, the crowd of protesters decided to leave Taksim Square and take their protest marching down Istikklal Caddesi. It was like an angry nest of hornets, or a storm cloud directly overheard. So I ducked into a back street (“Well, you did say you wanted to really see Beyöğlu today,” I thought grimly). The bars and cafes were still quiet, waiting for the evening rushes.

By now, of course, I realized I was being irrational – like most writers, I have a flair for the dramatic. It was, after all, a peaceful demonstration, by students and workers. They were perfectly harmless. Still, I was reminded of a year or so ago, when in the early dawn a bomb exploded not far from Taksim Square (it was later reported to be the work of the outlawed Kurdish Workers Party, or PKK). I just mean to say that, in these troubled times, anything can happen.

Still keeping ahead of the protesters, I ran into a young woman who was passing out fliers about the demonstration. She was a student from one of the universities, and as we talked she proved to be very pleasant and articulate.

“The USA wants Turkey to go to war with Syria,” she insisted. “We don’t war. You know, in Turkey we say, ‘Peace in Turkey, Peace in the World.’ So we are trying to send this message to Hillary Clinton.”

“I see,” I said. “But what about al-Assad? I mean, what do you think of him killing his own people? And all of the Syrian refugees who are crossing the boarder into Turkey to escape?”

“—Yes, you are right,” the young woman said. The protesters were getting closer and it was hard to hear each other over their shouts: YANKEE—GO—HOME! YANKEE—GO—HOME! YANKEE-GO-HOME!

“Yes, I agree,” the young woman continued. “al-Assad is bad. But it is not our fight, or the USA’s fight. It is a fight between the Syrian people!”

I have often come across this sentiment in Turkey, a kind of stewing resentment toward the United States: We don’t want to do your dirty work, Uncle Sam. We don’t want to be your hatchet man. Stop sticking your noses into places it doesn’t belong.

By now the throng of protesters had passed, their chants growing faint as they blended with the hectic noise of Istikklal Street. It was early evening and the light had changed, the air cooled. The ice cream vendors were demonstrating tricks with the ice cream, stretching it and bending into groovy shapes and shouting to passersby, tourists and Turks alike, “Come on! Come on! Fresh Ice Cream!” Their boisterous shouts played a strange counterpoint to the YANKEE-GO-HOME! cries still ringing in my head. Perhaps a translation of the two taken together would read: Come on! Spend your money here, Yankee! Then go home!

On the ferry boat crossing the Bosphorous back over to the Asian side, I reflected. How different the European side is from the Asian side, like two different cities, like East Egg and West Egg. Certainly the Asian side has its share of angry protesters. I remember last summer a violent clash with police in Kadikoy during a Kurdish demonstration, a clash which left a trail of shattered glass for blocks. Still, life on this side of Istanbul, in Anatolia, seems a shade less dramatic. Over drinks that evening with some Turkish lady friends, I told them how I’d spent my afternoon. They were sympathetic. One of the women said something that took me back to my reading of Nazim Hikmet earlier that afternoon, and to my thoughts on Beyöğlu.

“Remember, you are living in Istanbul,” she said. “You are not in America.”

Ah, my rose, ah my rose. Yes, Nazim. Sometimes one does feel very far from home.

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