Letter from Istanbul: Sessiz (or, Silence in the City)
It’s Sunday morning, you’re having coffee and reading the newspaper on the balcony, and your neighbor Chetin is hammering away on the walls.
“Yavaş, sesiz, Chetin Bey,” you could say, calling from the balcony. Slow down, quiet. Chetin Bey might just look at you and say, “What? Pardon, abi,” he’ll say. Then he goes right back to hammering.
And, when you think about it, why shouldn’t he? He’s got work to do. Besides, the sound of his hammer, heard a certain way, blends melodiously with the sound of the buzz saw screaming across the street, or the car horns bleating down on Rihtim Caddesi.
It is a matter of adjusting the ear, just as one adjusts the other senses to accommodate Istanbul’s endlessly changing rhythms.
Like with the bus drivers … An Istanbul driver can count change, speak on his mobile, smoke a cigarette and yell at a driver trying to cut him off all at the same time. They’re masters of multi-tasking. Driving seems to be something like breathing, done by the sympathetic nervous system.
This can make a first-time visitor a bit nervous, especially since the concept of a one-way street seems to be absent from Istanbul drivers’ vocabulary. Suddenly another car will be coming head on, and you flinch, turn to the driver, who is busy talking on his phone. He looks at you, then at the oncoming car, and swerves to avoid it. The driver pats your shoulder, chiding you. No problem, no problem, he says. If you put on your seat belt, he might even be insulted. What, you don’t think I’m a good driver? He would then gesture backwards at the car you have just narrowly avoided. He’s the bad driver, not me, abi.
Of course, in Istanbul one must gently avoid assigning blame, for the blame will likely be thrown right back. Had there been a crash (and assuming you have both survived a head-on collision), your driver would have immediately got out and started shouting at the driver of the other vehicle.
“What the fuck abi?” he’d say, pointing at the driver of the oncoming car.
“What do you mean, what the fuck, abi?” the other driver would say.
“You were driving the wrong way!” your driver would say.
“Well, if you weren’t so busy talking on your mobile phone, abi, you would have seen me!”
The two would then proceed to find marvelously obscene ways of cursing each other, their backgrounds and maternal figures, the shouting escalating to the point where you think they are about to come to blows. Instead, they just keep tossing the insults until eventually they both get in their cars and drive away, still swearing at each other out the window.
Back in the car, your driver pats you reassuringly on the shoulder. “Don’t worry,” he says. “I’m a good driver.”
I’ve given the impression that Istanbul is a rude noisy city: well, they don’t call it The Bull for no reason. But there’s more to it.
I remember my first night in Istanbul. The school put me up in a hostel in Beyoğlu, just off Istikklal Caddesi, which is the cultural and commercial heart of the city.
That night I scarcely was able to sleep. A few roof tops away a wild party was in full swing, and the pulsating music, the sounds of the people clapping and singing up on that nearby roof top, were enchanting. I longed to be there with them, hands outstretched toward the dark heavens like ecstatic El Greco ghosts. Then sometime in the night a loud storm came in from the sea. I lay awake listening to the sound of thunder and the rain beating against the windows.
Near dawn, the imam began the morning call to prayer, and the melismatic chant echoed through the empty streets.
Of course, that first night I didn’t care, for they were the voices, the sounds, of Istanbul, my new home, and I wanted to hear them. They filled in the sense of loneliness, of weightlessness, of being in a alone in a strange city.
The best time to catch the silence of the city is in the early morning hours before dawn, before the first call to prayer. For there are silences in the city too. All great cities have them. Once, on a trip to New York, I was with a friend at a night club on the Lower East Side. Sometime after midnight, the friend and I were standing on the sidewalk outside the club. We’d been drinking, and the friend suddenly proclaimed that he was off to a Korean whorehouse, wherever that was, hailed a taxi, and was gone.
I had no idea how to get back to my hostel, which was over on the Upper West Side. This guy from Houston who was in town on business, was also stranded. We found a nearby Katz’s and sobered up over the cafe’s famous sandwiches. We decided to split a cab over to Lower Manhattan near Ground Zero. The Houston guy was staying at a five-star hotel there. He paid for the cab and wished me good night.
I got out and walked through Lower Manhattan in search of Battery Park. By then it was past three o’clock, and I found myself strolling down Wall Street past the Stock Exchange and the old Federal Building with the George Washington statue on the steps.
The buildings towered high all around, gloomy and silent. Wall Street was completely deserted, except for a lone security guard, who wished me good evening as I passed. It occurred to me, at that strange hour, how silent everything was, at the center of the financial world. It was like drifting through
Caesar’s Rome in the creeping dawn, while Caesar’s armies were out on the frontier, and all the merchants and patricians of the great Empire slept.
Or in Paris, where I passed a solitary week one January long ago. There were no tourists in the city at that time of the year, yet the weather was unseasonably sunny and warm. I had the Luxembourg Gardens almost to myself most mornings. I would read books and look at the Rodin sculptures, with the stark winter trees for company, and then in the afternoons go for a walk down the Boulevard St. Michel to the Seine.
It was like that often in Prague, too. Many nights a visitor can walk on the Charles Bridge after midnight and have the castle view, the roar of the Vltava, and the Smetana statue all to himself.
Or the Embarcadero in San Francisco, where in the dawn you can stroll alone along the shoreline beneath the bridge and look at the seals and the fog drifting across the bay.
So I would imagine all great cities have these silences.
Istanbul is a city to work in, to live in, to love in and to fight in, and all of these, done properly, and going to make their share of noise. The eskiji, or junk man, pulling his wagon behind him in the streets shouting, “Eskiji! Eskiji!” Or the guys selling simit, the sesame-seed, circle-shaped bread. In the mornings you can see them in the streets, balancing trays of simit on their heads, calling “Simit! Simit! Simit! Hot Simit! Fresh, hot simit!” at the top of their lungs up to the windows of just-waking flats. Then there are the street musicians, in Taksim, in Kadikoy, and along the Bosphorous, with their sazes and saxes, the tambola, the drums and lutes. Meanwhile, there is the sound of honking horns at the busy intersections, as the taxis and bus drivers start their day.
Some nights, you pass the football stadiums in Fenerbahçe or Beşiktaşor Galatasaray, and the roars of the crowds erupt up into the night sky. You sit out on the balcony with flatmates, sip Efes beer and talk on into the night in loud, strident voices.
“Is it all right?” you ask, suddenly self-consciously lowering your voice.
“The neighbors?” your host waves his hand dismissively, hands you another beer. “Oh, don’t worry. We went to university together.”
The Nazim Hikmet Cultural Center, just off Bahariye Street in Kadikoy, offers its own kind of retreat. Nazim Hikmet is the country’s national poet, although he spent much of his life in exile for his Communist beliefs. Inside there is a bookshop and a kind of museum. Outside is the Piraye Café, named after the poet’s wife. All of the tables sit in the shade of pleasant trees. On weekends it’s hard to get a table, and in the evenings there is live music. The street on which the café is located is small and narrow, and is home to local artists and artisans. Their pictures hang in the kiosks, the pictures adding a sense of calm and décor.
Here one can always find a decent traditional Turkish breakfast plate, with bread, cheese, tomatoes and olives, as well as tea, read a newspaper or book. The buzz of the other diners – lots of students go there, as well as prominent left-wing intellectuals, artists, professors – is noisy, but pleasant, cheerful, under the trees.
During Ramazan, the city can be very quiet, and also during bayram, the holiday just after the month of fasting. During these times, Istanbul is virtually abandoned for the holiday resorts on the coast. The neighborhoods of Cihangir, with its tree-lined streets and European boheme aesthetic, and Moda, with its hill-top cafes overlooking the Sea of Marmara, have their own idyllic intervals.
Finally, there is the Bosphorous itself, that splendid piece of aqua-logic holding two continents together. At night, from Kadikoy to Uskudar, from Beyoğlu to Bebek. the Bosphorous offers up its waters for contemplation, for solitude, for gazing, for romance, and for prayer. It is here, under the cover of the darkness, the crash of the waves, that you come across young lovers locked in stealthy embraces, just as you see them downstairs in the dark corners of cafes. Their stealthy kisses, their youth, are touching, and you can’t help but envy them.
There are always people along the Bosphorous – the fishermen are usually there until sundown. An old man strips to his shorts and takes a cool plunge into the churning waters. Groups of students in the sunset sit and sing songs and drink bottles of beer. As for you, you carefully tip-toe across slippery rocks down to the water line, where the crashing waves and passing boats are the only sounds you hear.
“Sessiz” in Turkish means silent, or quiet. Loud, or noisy, would be “Çok siz.” Istanbul is definitely “Çok siz.” But as my little survey of the city suggests, one can find silence beneath the constant clamor, and even within it. As I write this, sitting outside at the Piraye Cafe, the sound of a buzz saw suddenly cuts through the afternoon air, screeching out the muted jazz coming from the speakers. The grinding wail of the buzz saw continues for several minutes. In the cafe, oblivious to the intrusion, people carry on with their conversations.
James Tressler, a former Times-Standard reporter, is the author of several books, including “Conversations in Prague” and “The Trumpet Fisherman and Other Istanbul Sketches,” available at Amazon and at Lulu.com. He currently lives in Istanbul.