holy month began. David woke up early and headed out. He was curious
to see what the streets would look like, with the reports that a full
lockdown would be in place in hopes of curbing a recent spike in
Covid cases. His wife and son had left for her parents’ house on
the south coast a few days before since travel was also restricted
during the holy month, so he was all alone in the city.
He walked the long coastal road to the neighborhood of Kuzguncuk. It was a bright, clear morning. A few people were out walking, but there was very little traffic. The air felt warm and pleasant, a sign that spring was perhaps finally on the way. He walked unhurriedly, reminding himself that he was on break from the university – a whole week – and there was nothing that needed to be done except relax, and maybe even get some writing done.
In Kuzguncuk, the sidewalks were deserted, and most of the places closed except for delivery, as reported in the news and social media. He went to one of the few coffee shops that was open, ordered a large take away Americano, and sat at a bench that had a good view of the street. All of the trees along the street were still bare from winter, and you could see clear down to the waterline, where the Bosphorus was calm and also quiet, except for a few ferries making their usual rounds.
He was 35, slenderly built, and still dressed for winter out of habit. After months of winter and lockdowns, he was very pale, as were most people. He’d shaved that morning for the first time in several days, and he was well-rested, not having had to get up to teach or help around the house for a change.
It felt strange being alone, all alone in the city, the first time he had been on his own in what seemed like years. He was determined to write something, anything. His thoughts arranged themselves in neat rows, each idea itemized, assessed and ready to be explored.
David picked up his notebook and scanned the empty page. So, he surmised, we have an American living in Istanbul, his wife and child are out of town for a few weeks. Well, what kind of trouble can we get him into? A noir thriller sprang to mind. He had always wanted to write a proper thriller, especially one set in his adopted city. The problem was finding a fresh approach. He didn’t want to write chase scenes in the Grand Bazaar, with the protagonist eluding the bad guys by knocking over fruit stalls in the crowded markets. He rather liked the idea of a femme fatale, but where does one encounter such a woman during the holy month of Ramazan? He looked up and scanned the street. The only women out were the usual mixture of fashionable housewives and young university students, also enjoying the term break. She could be a Russian tourist, bound for the shores of Antalya, he mused, but then he’d read in the news that Russian tourist flights had been suspended as part of the precautions during Ramazan, so there went that idea.
What else happened in thrillers? There was always the misplaced package, the one containing secret plans, a MacGuffin. Perhaps the plot could involve the American picking up the wrong package that his wife had sent, setting in motion a story of espionage and mistaken identity. But he crossed out that idea after reflecting that, in this day and age, what villain would send secret plans in the post? Wouldn’t he or she just email them? He laughed as he imagined a technophobic mastermind, or the plight of spies being unable to travel during the lockdown, or even coming down with Covid while on their nefarious mission.
“I could call it, ‘The Spy Who Came Down With A Cold,” he said to himself, chuckling.
After a while he put down the notebook. Where was all this noir-ish stuff coming from, he wondered. Too much damned Netflix probably. The night before, he’d watched a documentary on the Night Stalker while nursing a six pack of Tuborg. Serial killers, they always sell. A serial killer stalks the streets of Istanbul during the holy month. The media dubs him, The Sahoor Slaughterer because he shows up in the middle of the night, as the people woke for their pre-dawn meal before starting their fast. Or perhaps he attacks in the evenings during iftar. The Iftar Assassin. Jeez, he thought, dismissing the idea. Not only would the story offend Muslims, it offended him as a storyteller. Either lay off the beer or lay off Netflix.
He stared again down the long, quiet street, drinking the coffee. He thought about his wife Lara. She’d called earlier that morning and said the sea on the south coast was not yet warm enough for swimming. Instead she was planning to take the boy Miles in the stroller for a long walk. The boy had adjusted to his new surroundings without any problems. David had spoken to the boy on video chat, and the boy had recognized him and laughed and said, “Da Da!” David smiled as he thought about the call, reflecting that, despite their occasional problems (especially the past year during lockdowns), he loved his wife and son dearly, and already missed them terribly.
With the writing not going anywhere, he now wished he’d gone with them, even though it would have been a pain to go all the way to the south coast only to have to return in a week to begin the next term. He thought about how they went to the south coast the first summer of their marriage, how each evening they walked along the quiet beach under the hot sun, leaning close together, both wearing swimsuits and sandals. Back then it seemed they were the only people in the world, and they found comfort and reassurance in being alone together, the beach deserted and silent except the hushed sounds of the sea. With the boy Miles now, they were never alone, and over the past year, they’d been stuck together every hour of the day in their small, cramped Istanbul apartment. They’d found themselves, to their dismay, growing tired of each other, arguing over small domestic things, over the child’s constant needs, and out of boredom. Oh, the boredom! (He would have said, “ennui,” but wasn’t that word a condition reserved exclusively for characters in Antonioni films, he thought wryly)
Come on, he rallied himself. You stayed behind in Istanbul because you needed a break. All couples do at some point. What was it that old UPI reporter friend of yours once said? “The secret of a successful marriage is to be a little deaf and dumb, and have frequent periods of long absence.” OK, so try to relax and enjoy the freedom you have now. Let Lara have some time with Miles and to be with herself. She always relaxed there. It will be good for her too.
He finished the coffee, paid, sprayed his hands with the lotion, donned his mask and walked up the street. He turned on a side street that led to a steep hill. At the top of the hill was a long, wide staircase that led up to a park. The stairs were similar to the Spanish steps in Rome – he and Lara had gone there the first year of their relationship, a young lovers’ trip. It took several minutes to climb the hill to the steps, and he had to take off his mask to gulp down air and rest a few times. All this sitting at home during the winter had left him a bit out of shape.
Reaching the steps, he stopped and looked around. The neighborhood already looked tiny and far away. On the steps, a young couple sat gazing out at the bright blue sky, the Martyrs’ Bridge in the distance, and the rooftops of all the houses and buildings. A trio of young girls took selfies, one of them stretching out languidly at the top of the steps, posing with black shades and smiling radiantly. Feeling conspicuously older, David walked passed them and continued on up the hill. He turned and looked back, taking in the view of the city, looking across the Bosphorous at the minarets of the famous mosque in Ortakoy over on the European side. The bridge was very busy, with cars speeding along in both directions, and he was high enough now that the bridge was level with his gaze.
The road here was old brick, the bricks faded and broken up here and there by tufts of grass and weeds. Further up there was the entrance to the park that, if he walked through it, would eventually take him back to the neighborhood. He knew that because he and Lara had made the hike a few times together. But he didn’t feel like going back to the apartment. So instead he meandered onto a nearby street, stopping to look at the houses. They were built into the side of the hill, almost like hobbit houses, and he noticed also that part of the ancient city walls, a crumbling section of it, peeked out from beneath shades of undergrowth, the stones jumbled and clinging to life against the side of the hill. He reflected on the irony that once the walls had protected the hills, but now the hills protected the walls.
He snapped a view and sent it to his wife on What’sApp. “Are you in Kuzguncuk?” she asked a few seconds later. “Nice.” Then she sent a photo of Miles, who was playing in the sand. Looking at the photo, David felt a slight pang, missing them all over again. “Remember to buy the cat some dry food,” his wife texted a minute later. He could tell from her messages that she was enjoying herself, being at the beach with Miles, so he resumed his survey of the neighborhood, of the ash-blonde sunlit air.
For a while, David regarded the old houses, peered into their enclosed yards and overgrown gardens, some littered with the bric a brac of accumulated years, and wondered about the people who lived there – old residents, retirees most likely. They, and their homes, had dwelled there for so many years, the great city growing and expanding all around them. Here it had remained secluded, almost overlooked, forgotten, like some forbidden city. Probably at some point the developers would get around to it, grab up the properties, demolish the houses to make way for overpriced new high rises, the kind that sprung up in abundance all over the Asian side in the past decade. He remembered it happening in Goztepe, seeing a whole swath of that neighborhood bulldozed, wholly leveled (except for a single mosque) and that area was now home to a superplex of office buildings, apartments and even a new urban university campus.
It happened all the time. The city was forever being conquered, leveled and redefined, only nowadays the conquerors were not Byzantian or Ottoman, but the developers, eager to cash in on the city’s ever-growing population and housing demands.
David knew that those things were an inevitable part of living in a 21st Century city, especially here at the gate way to Asia. The old was constantly giving way to the new, that he was witnessing the rebirth of the Silk Road; new dynasties were on the way. Much had been written about that. And he knew that Istanbul had always been an ambitious city, proud of its imperial past, and those ambitions and pride were part of what had drawn him there. Avarice, greed, opportunism in all its forms too were part of its history as much as adaptation, transformation and rebirth were. All these elements he too could understand and want to be a part of. The city’s identity, like his own, one of turmoil, of flux, of transmigration, the future always encroaching on the past, the present shimmering, indistinct, like the ripples on the surface of the strait far below.
David walked back down the hill, back down the steps, his knees buckling a little with the reverse steepness. It was nearly noon. Back in the neighborhood, more people were out and a few more places had opened their doors after all. Most only offered take away. People were out and the café employees were standing in their doorways looking up and down the street.
He overheard some Americans (judging from their accents) asking at a coffee shop if they could sit at one of the tables. The patron, a young woman, apologized through her mask, so they just silently walked on down the sidewalk.
He bought another coffee and sat at a nearby bench.
His meditations were interrupted by a middle-aged man and woman. They were part of the group of Americans he’d seen outside the coffee shop a few minutes earlier.
“Excuse me,” the man said. “Do you know if we can catch the ferry here?”
“There’s a station over there,” I said, pointing. “You can check the schedule and see.”
“Thank you,” he said. He had a Turkish accent. The woman was American, and David supposed they were a couple. “So are you American? Where are you from?”
“California,” David said.
“California?” the woman asked, joining the conversation. “Which part?”
“Eureka?” The woman took off her sunglasses and seemed to concentrate. “Eureka … let’s see. Is that where Michael Jackson used to live? I seem to recall something –”
“No,” David answered, smiling. “Michael Jackson did not live in Eureka.”
“Isn’t it near LA?”
“No, Eureka isn’t anywhere near L.A. It’s up north.”
“Oh, Eureka! Right, you’re up near the redwoods. Beautiful country.”
“It is,” David said.
“Encino!” the woman cried, clapping her hands. “That was where Michael Jackson lived. I knew it started with an ‘E.’”
“So how long have you been in Istanbul?” the man asked, interrupting.
“Ten years!” he exclaimed. “Why so long?”
David smiled again. “I married it.”
“Oh, your wife is Turkish.”
“Yes, and my son.”
“I see. Well, thanks for helping us.”
David nodded. “I hope you find your ferry.”
The American woman smiled.
“Take care!” she said. “Sorry if we bothered you.”
“Don’t worry about it,” David said. “Kolay gelsen! Take it easy!”
He walked to the intersection, crossing at the light over to the waterfront. He sat at a bench beneath some trees and looked out at the Bosphorus. A couple of girls, university students on break, sat catching up gaily, but still wearing their masks. David felt much better, having made the walk up the hill, like he had arrived at something there, a new understanding. After a year of living in suspended animation, where every day had felt much like the same day over and over, something inside him had loosened up. He adjusted his eyes to the bright sunshine over the Bosphorus and thought about his wife and son, and the thought that things were finally changing, and for the better. He knew they would be back soon – the time would pass quickly – and when they returned they would continue on with their usual family routine, their life here in the city in a new decade that was finally beginning to feel like a new decade.
Yes, life would go on, and their love and their work, and the city would continue to grow up around them. Wasn’t it better that way, to have become a part of the city, to have settled down, and changed with it, rather than have just been a selfie-snapping tourist? Or a half-assed character in some spy novel? Wasn’t it better that the city itself change rather than be stuck in the past, entombed like some forbidden city? Wasn’t there a balance to be found somewhere, in cities as well as people and their relationships?
Yes, he was feeling much better. David sat back, enjoying the shade of the trees, the warm spring air, the ferry boats passing, and the birds fluttering in the sky. How long had it been since he had been outdoors this long?
He went back to looking at the sea, enjoying the feeling of change and beginnings that were happening all around.
James Tressler, a former Lost Coast resident, is a writer and teacher.