Letter from Istanbul: Pearl Necklace, Black Shades

James Tressler / Sunday, Oct. 14, 2012 @ 8:45 a.m. / Letter From Istanbul

The building which houses the Hera Bar used to be an immense, proud mansion during Ottoman times. The mansion long ago was sold, broken up into bars and cafes, and redecorated. Yet in Hera, as well as in Karga next door, there remain traces of the atmosphere of the mansion that you sense in secluded moments.

Sunday afternoon at the Hera Bar. It is raining outside. The sound of the rain drifts along with subdued trance-pop coming from inside the bar. The back lounge, with its red stone Greek interior and big windows, is full, crowded with young couples, and their voices overlap and mingle with the music, the cigarette smoke and the rain.

Two young women, a blonde and a brunette, university students, dance near the fireplace. They laugh, throw their heads back and close their eyes, sway their hips, their breasts. Their slender arms describe wide, supple curves in the air, interpreting the music. The barman, Selchut, smiles as he passes the young dancing women and takes drinks to the back lounge. At the tables everyone is talking or watching the young women.

Through the wide windows, an old woman can be seen in the building directly across the street. The old woman is sitting in her kitchen. She has silver white hair, tousled about her thin neck and she is wearing a baby blue blouse. Her face, with its almost translucent pallor, is obscured by a pair of black sunglasses. A string of pearls are draped from her thin neck.

Suddenly the old woman rises from her chair in the kitchen and comes out onto the balcony. She looks down and surveys the street below; for several minutes she stands motionless, as if in a dream. She seems to be looking at something, or remembering something. Her absolute stillness is fragile, exquisite; she might be an apparition, a mist brought in by the afternoon rain.

Suddenly she moves, becoming real again. She totters slowly away from the edge of the balcony and sits in a chair, presenting her profile, adjusting the sunglasses. Her hands roam along the edge of the balcony; they are strong hands, creative hands. Behind the sunglasses, the old woman leans back listening to something in the street, in the afternoon, in the rain.

Then abruptly, as if disturbed, the old woman collects herself, turns and slowly takes leave of the balcony, disappearing back into the apartment. Her silver white hair and baby blue dress, the thin, long arms, are framed by the doorway in darkness.

Inside Hera, it has grown darker too. The barman Selchut turns on the ornate lamps, and their lights are reflected in the window and across to the old woman’s balcony like stars in a Van Gogh painting. The music has stopped. The two young women have gone, having paid their tab at the bar. Serchut’s girlfriend is chatting to somebody on her Facebook page. The place near the fire place where the women were dancing seems bare, empty. Across the way, the balcony is now empty too, and it has grown late.

There is a new silence in the bar, a quiet that remains even as the evening voices try to fill it in. Everyone notices it, for such silences in this city are rare – and common. It remains even with the steady sound of the rain.

A pearl necklace, black shades … Why am I interested in this old woman? Not even the woman, but some apparition, some mental projection, standing outside her balcony across from the Hera Bar night after night.

The way she leans out, her strange, strong hands gripping the rail, putting one hand up to her eyes if she’s not wearing the black shades. The way she looks down into the street at the passersby, or how she listens for the music playing from the bar. Of course you’ll say she is a cliché, an old woman standing like some ancient Juliet on the balcony, searching for her youth somewhere in the night. You will say the old woman represents something – Istanbul’s glorious past, for example, the great Ottomans or the first days of the Republic. Let’s try to be a bit more original, you’ll say! Or at least more diligent and perceptive. It would require no great deal of effort to merely inquire around the neighbourhood. She’s probably just a widowed pensioner, or retired teacher; she comes out on the balcony to get some fresh air and sunshine, and to relieve the boredom of being indoors.

I would say that I do not see her as just some relic of the past, but rather a living, breathing symbol of Istanbul’s present; she wears those black shades and pearl necklace simply because they make her feel lovely and elegant. She is like those two young girls in the bar, dancing to the trance music, their supple young bodies describing strange lines in the air. The young women and the old want to lose themselves in the music, in the dance …

One afternoon I met an artist in Kadikoy, a woman in her mid-thirties. I told her about the old woman, and together we went to Herto. We got drinks and sat and waited. Eventually the woman did come out, but just for a second. She was dressed in a bathrobe, and her hair was tied back very plainly. Perhaps she was ill. I asked the artist to make a sketch. Just close your eyes, I said. Try to draw what you saw. When the artist finished, some ten minutes later, she showed me. It was just a brief pencil sketch, done on a plain sheet of paper. The drawing was of a young woman, slender, elegant, wearing an evening dress. She was standing at the balcony and looking out. Was it an illusion? Or was the artist merely being whimsical? Either way, she captured something: the old woman who sees herself as a still young debutante. That to me is Istanbul, the young-ancient city, a new city with a firm foothold in the glorious past.

A few months pass. We are at Hera Bar again, only this time in the evening. The nights have started to turn cool, but it’s still pleasant enough to keep the big window open in the back room. Once again the back room is crowded with groups of young people, and the air is thick with cigarette smoke and chatter. Someone is smoking a cigar, and the smoke sends a deep and pungent cloud over the room.

The beat of a techno song is pounding inside the bar. Again, the bar is empty except for two young women – different ones from last time, and they are not dancing – sitting on stools talking in low voices. The barman Selchut is working, but he’s tired tonight. There are dark circles under his eyes. He needs a day off. As he pours you a draft he informs you that prices have gone up. Ten percent on all alcoholic drinks. They’ve gone up everywhere, he says. The government.

In the back room, a lone seat is available. The talk at all the tables goes on. Some talk of Syria, and whether or not Turkey will go to war. The prevailing sentiment is gloomy, a sense of the inevitable drifts in, and the conversation is steered back toward livelier topics. Never mix alcohol and politics, as the saying goes.

Looking out the window, across the street, you see the old woman suddenly appear on the balcony. A grey shawl covers her stooped shoulders, and her white hair is fussily pinned back. She’s not wearing the black shades, for it is evening, but the pearl necklace still hangs from her neck. She looks down into the street, surveying left and right. She sees someone down there, waves and says something. Perhaps someone is coming to see her, and in a moment she will toss a key down, or ring the buzzer.

Behind her, the inside of the flat is brightly lit and a series of paintings hang on the wall. The person she was talking to has passed on, wishing her good evening. Suddenly it’s clear, what this woman on the balcony was looking for, listening for, on that rainy Sunday afternoon. It is what she looks for now, and listens for. She is simply hoping someone will stop by and see her. But this evening no one comes. After a few minutes, she retires into the apartment, sliding the door shut, closing the curtain and shutting off the light.

James Tressler, a former Times-Standard reporter, is the author of “Conversations in Prague” and “The Trumpet Fisherman and Other Istanbul Sketches.” He lives in Istanbul.

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