Left: Istiklal Avenue. Photo: Tressler. Right: Netflix promotional poster for ‘The Club.’


“Do you know why this city exists? So that a guy like me doesn’t take you to the end of the world!”

This is what the womanizing driver Ismet says to Raşel, as they are locked deep in an embrace in the rainy streets of Beyöğlu. The scene is from “Kulüp,” or “The Club,” a popular Netflix series set in 1950s Istanbul.

The two lovers are both estranged from their families, the girl having been raised in an orphanage and the boy Izmet alienated from his father. They are kindred spirits, aligned in their self-proclaimed independence. “They say tuberculosis is the disease of the century,” Izmet insists. “But the real disease is family.” In a sense, they are united by identifying themselves as the children of whores, bastard offspring.

Watching this scene, set as it is at night on the rainy streets of Beyöğlu, I had a lot of impressions. Partly personal: like many Turks watching the show, I too recognized the street, having walked in that very spot countless times. Part nostalgic: Also like many Turkish viewers, I found myself longing for those days of colorful, cosmopolitan Pera (like those who watch “Mad Men,” and wistfully imagine living in the smoky, cocktail-swilling world of 1960s Manhattan).

And finally, the scene evoked a strong impression that has lingered with me ever since my arrival in the city, a sense of weightlessness, of loss, of competing impulses of duality and nullity – a city that is and is not what it appears to be. Sure, you can insert the usual clichés – East meets West, Muslim world meets Christian, Ancient meets Modern, and so on – but the core of the city at times seems to exist only in its absence; as a vacuum or black hole rather than as a planet or star. Like the characters in “Kulüp,” it is a city that is forever in search of something, of itself.

The French writer Andre Gide, upon visiting the city in the early 20th century, was infamously contemptuous in his assessment. Nothing in the city, he wrote, seemed to have come from the city itself – everything seemed to come from somewhere else, that the city lacked a distinctive native identity, cultural or otherwise. Of course, Edward Said’s “Orientalism” appeared to refute such effete criticisms, which he believed came out of Western writers imposing their own set of beliefs and values on a culture that was not theirs to define.

Of course, a writer such as I runs the same risk, so I am not trying to define or judge, but merely reflect on the impressions the TV series “Kulüp” left with me as an outsider myself. I am aware that my knowledge of Turkish history (or “modern” history) is brief and cursory. The series was directed by Turks, Seren Yüce and Zeynep Gunay, after all, so the reader is free to go and watch the series and arrive at their own conclusions.

At any rate, the series centers around the Jewish community living in Istanbul around that time. The titular club is a nightclub in Beyöğlu whose owner seeks to revolutionize the quarter, through modern music, and making the club into a kind of beating centerpiece of cosmopolitanism. He enlists the help of Selim Songur, a young composer whose music combines traditional Turkish music with the rhythms and style of modern jazz. Also working at the club are the girl’s mother Matilde, daughter of a once wealthy Sephardi Jewish family. Having spent years in prison on a murder charge, Matilde is now reduced to a washerwoman and hopes to reconnect with her long-lost daughter – who as I said up front is estranged and locked in the embraces of the wily Izmet.

There are other stories weaved into the narrative – the series has six episodes – and all center in and around the club and the interactions of the Muslim and non-Muslim characters. We are introduced to painful historical realities that affect the lives of the characters. The mother Matilde, for example. We learn that her family lost their fortune due to the Wealth Tax of 1942, which cruelly discriminated against non-Muslims and was aimed by the Turkish government at taking away businesses and properties from the non-Muslims (principally Jews, Greeks and Armenians) and handing them over to Muslims. Also, the Istanbul pogrom of 1955 factors into the story.

Again, what drew me most to the program was not all the ins and outs of the historical events. Rather it was the overall impression, or aesthetic, that it evoked. Throughout much of its history, going back to Ottoman poets, Istanbul has been compared to a woman. In the same stroke, it has been oft-likened to a whore or bastard, depending on the context. The former because of the perceived sell out nature of the city – that it welcomes everybody and anybody (including yours truly) into its opportunistic embrace, and for its endless obsession with money and status. (Interestingly, when the girl Raşel meets her mother Matilde, one of the first things she asks is, “Are you a prostitute?”)

The latter because of its lack of a putative father (Greeks? Romans? The Levantines? The Byzantines? The Ottoman Turks? Et al?), its somewhat nebulous, disputed origins. Looking over this, I fear that the tone or register may seem overly critical, or too limited in its scope. For those hoping that “Kulüp” will offer a gleaming, vibrant portrait of Pera in its past glory, by all means it does. The sets, whether they are real or digitized, more than satisfy the viewer’s imagination with a rich palette of colors and reconstructions of shop fronts and signs, and the sight of cars cruising on Istiklal itself is enough to make a discerning viewer smile. For lovers of this city, it’s a time capsule and travelogue into these familiar haunts.

Perhaps I am drawn to those two figures embracing in the rainy streets of Beyöğlu – Izmet and Raşel – because they, in their willful, stubborn romance, the embrace of outcasts – are for me the perfect visual symbol of the city. Almost as if to say: “We are bastards and whores, and we don’t care!” That’s romantic and probably misleading, I know, but I leave the impression for what it’s worth.

“You know why this city exists? So that guys like me don’t take you to the end of the world!” I think of Izmet’s entreaties again to the smitten Raşel. In other words, the two of them could only belong in a city like Istanbul, despite its many cruelties and hard realities that they and the other characters soon face.

But then again, perhaps it is not Izmet and his Raşel that I am thinking of, nor Matilde or the other characters, but of myself, a yabancı. I was able to mentally place myself somewhere in the story, amidst that scrambling multitude passing by the club’s location on Istiklal, not far from where the tram rounds toward Sişhane, And watching the show has just provided a new lens with which to view my own, floating, ever-evolving relationship with this great city and its many, many people.


James Tressler is a teacher and writer living in Istanbul. His most recent book of short stories and essays, “Building For The Apocalypse,” is available now at Amazon.