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Streets of Istanbul

We spent a fair amount of our visit hanging out on stairways or in cafes or hookah bars or restaurants, talking politics among ourselves or with our friends and contacts in Istanbul.


This great hangout place was one of the few where you can safely drink in public… but it wasn’t the Cartier-Bresson photo location we tried to find…

This was the view from the stairs, right at dusk as we sat enjoying some Turkish red wine:

The “moderate Islamic” party that has governed Turkey for the past few years has dissolved the parliament is a new election is scheduled for early July. Local lefties are banding together outside of party structures (to enhance their chances of gaining seats, due to some arcane election rules) and there’s some hope that they might win as many as 25 seats in the coming election, out of a parliament of 550, which will be dominated either by the AKP (current Islamic party) or the pro-secular, pro-military right wing party coalition. Lurking behind all political activity in Turkey is the military, which still absorbs a large portion of the national budget (it is the 2nd largest military in NATO after the U.S.), was threatening to invade northern Iraq while we were in town, and always holds out the threat of another coup d’etat if Islamic politics “goes too far.” In fact, its previous interventions have been to ensure the implementation of IMF structural adjustment policies and to ensure the conditions for capitalist accumulation. The foot-dragging and apparent refusal of the EU to give Turkey a path to full membership is fueling nationalist paranoia, even though most on the left are at best skeptical of EU membership, if not openly opposed.

Our time in Istanbul was mostly spent among these lovely cafes and in appealing neighborhoods that it was easy to imagine living in. Here are a couple of shots of this neighborhood BeyoÄŸlu.

On Saturday it was over 100 degrees so we didn’t get moving until around 3 pm. Francesca and I headed over to see a church/museum called Kariye or St. Savior in Chora, which has amazing mosaic murals dating to the 1300s. Luckily it was at the far end of the “western neighborhoods” which gave us our first direct experience of older, poorer, more popular Istanbul, and we felt very lucky for the chance to walk through it. First we took the Metro out to the old wall, climbing up amidst the crumbling, partially repaired ramparts for the view. Funny how completely open it is to walk up and on these historic walls, and it’s definitely at your own risk!

Here’s a shot of one of the mosaics:

and here are some of the street scenes we caught on our walk:


There are lots of these old wooden buildings around Istanbul, often with bay windows and vaguely like San Francisco victorians… but not!

Our walk took us back over Ataturk Bridge, across the Golden Horn, to Galanta Tower, an impressive tower built by the Byzantines originally and reinforced in the middle 1300s by a Genovese merchant, just below the Beyoglu neighborhood, north of the old city. It has fantastic views over the Golden Horn, especially at sunset. Here’s the tower, and then the sunset:

There was a smattering of anarchist graffiti in certain parts of town, especially around Cihangir and BeyoÄ¡lu, where there are also incredible outdoor café and restaurant scenes. We presume there is a lot of political discussion going on there too”¦ Here are some images of graffiti, stencils and a poster we found on the walls, but it would be a stretch to say this is in anyway meaningfully representative”¦


We weren’t quite sure how Malcolm X came to Istanbul, and it only became more confusing after the next one…


A punk-Islamic fusion gang?


The Turkish part of this says something “go back home” or “go back where you came from” and it turns out it was a marketing ploy by someone starting a new magazine!


Transit in Istanbul

I think I saw about 4 bicycles in 7 days, the most memorable being an old guy in a white robe, white beard, on a mountain bike with the red Turkish flag flapping from the back of his rack”¦ Otherwise, this is a town based on taxis, indecipherable private and public bus routes (some people figure it out, but there were no maps or reliable explanatory systems to be found for us non-Turkish speakers) and some modern Metro and Tram systems. The city is so sprawling, 16 million in about 150 square kilometers on both sides of the Bosphorus, so we can hardly claim to have experienced a significant portion of the whole metro area.


We did have fun riding on the ubiquitous and vital ferries (I suppose the SF bay once had this kind of ferry traffic), as well as the taxis and buses. On the way out to the airport this morning we rode 50 km on a small bus on an 8-lane ultra-modern tollroad, crossing the bridge we watched turn colors every night. The charm of the city’s streets was lost in the hideous, sprawl of 8-20 story apartments that went for mile after mile as we sped along the freeway. This is a glimpse of the scene that was unbroken for 45 minutes:

Here I am before going to the concert on our last night in Istanbul, standing on the balcony at our place:

Well if you’ve made it this far, you might enjoy some images of our social lives this past week:

Francesca and Ali playing “exquisite corpse” at the hookah bar.

Dessert after a fantastic fish dinner on the Asian side of the Bosphorus:

One of our post-3 a.m. drinking nights with a gang of Ali’s friends:

Dinner and dessert with E.A. Tonak, Ali’s dad, a chance to talk Marxist politics…

of course you can’t come to Istanbul and not visit the Grand Bazaar…

and even better, the spice market!

As we walked past this display, the guy hawked it our way as the sign reads, but a man standing near him asked sub rosa, “only five times?”

Turkish Multiculturalism

I am in London now, in transit on my way back to San Francisco early tomorrow morning, but thought this would be a good chance to summarize some of the wonders I experienced in Istanbul. Turkey is a city of so many layers, historical and social, that no one week visit can possibly plumb them in any kind of adequate depth. Still, my interest was continually piqued by the good luck to be hosted by Ali and his mother Fatima, her beau Uner, and the window they provided on a new culture that seems to be flourishing beneath the surface, at least in Istanbul.

Our visit to Istanbul was bracketed by two concerts, the first I described in my first Istanbul post (briefly) and last night was an incredible tour de force of some 60+ performers under the name KardeÅŸ Tűrkűler. At any given moment there were upwards of 40 performers on stage, a large chorus plus virtuoso tabla and drummers, saxophone or clarinet or other Arabic flutes, accordion, bass guitar, electric guitars, pig bladders”¦ you name it! A half dozen times during amazing, inspiring musical numbers, dance troupes poured onto the stage. The one I was most inspired by was a Kurdish troupe who performed to a very rousing number, huddling together shoulder to shoulder dancing in hip-swaying rhythm, individuals at the ends of the line occasionally breaking out to do some wild additional moves, then rejoining the group. The audience went wild, many circling up as Turks do to dance together in beautiful rhythms, swaying and stepping back and forth, in and out, so easy and friendly and communal, unlike any dancing we do in the U.S.

This concert, like the one last Monday, featured a number of Kurdish songs and performers, but this one also referenced the assassinated Armenian-Turkish newspaper editor Hrant Dink, and featured a classic Armenian song and dance, very mournful.

This week in Istanbul introduced me to a great deal. I knew very little about modern Turkey or the historic Ottoman Empire. Now I know a tiny bit. Being with Ali and his family and friends was a great window into the left/progressive minority in Istanbul. The concerts both invoked a strong multi-ethnic, diverse culture that celebrates and honors the very minorities that Turkish nationalism denies, suppresses and treats as terrorism” the Armenians and the Kurds especially. Several times we watched crowds get very emotional about the Kurds, the music of Aynura stirring great passion last Monday, and the wild ensemble last night bringing it out again. It brought the house down and sent chills up my spine.

It’s odd to have this cultural experience juxtaposed to the egregiously paranoid Turkish state and its nationalist partisans. Big red flags everywhere (many only put up in the last year I heard), repression against writers like Pamuk and others, plus the endless military operations in eastern Turkey against the Kurds, Ataturk still staring down from everywhere, still total official denial of the Armenian genocide”¦ The Turks are 100% on board with the “war on terror,” made easier by the fact that there actually IS an armed Kurdish resistance here, and it HAS bombed and killed often enough (nothing compared to the ongoing Turkish military operations in southeast Turkey).

The Armenian story we heard was really interesting. Fatima told us about Dink, the editor, speaking at an academic conference last year, where he told the story of an elderly Armenian woman who returned every year to her ancestral village in central Turkey even though there have not been any Armenians living there for decades. On a visit a few years ago she passed away. The local authorities didn’t know what to do with her body, and it led to a search for any distant relatives she might have in Istanbul, and one was finally found. The story that I’m telling 4th hand at this point, apparently provoked an intense emotional reaction by the folks at the conference, and then after Dink’s assassination, it was spread further in the mass media, further inspiring an emotional reconnection to the Armenian question. Because as Dink said, the Armenian-Turks are not asking to take land from the Turks, but only to be able to go down into the land, into the soil”¦ the intensity of the story we heard, the emotions that came up simply in telling us, and those national emotions that the story referred to, show rather compellingly how much the stories that make up modern Turkey but don’t fit the heroic and paranoiac narrative of the State, are far from vanquished. On the contrary, they are capable of unveiling deep reservoirs of sentiment and political passion that are just below the surface. It seems that the oppressive and authoritarian Turkish nationalism is only obscuring the deep feelings in Anatolia and Asia Minor, the languages, songs, dances, poetry and beliefs of some dozens of ethnic minorities. Based on how these glimpses through music and story tapped such enthusiasm and deep emotion, it seems a rather different, multicultural Turkey is trying to emerge.

Touring Istanbul


The view from the apartment where we’re staying.

Istanbul continues to be one of the most compelling cities I’ve ever visited. Last night was another late night along the famous boulevard Iskindar, in Beyoglu neighborhood, a place like nowhere I’ve ever seen. The street is a pedestrian only area, stretching some 20 blocks through a dense neighborhood, with dozens of side streets branching out, each one jammed with outdoor restaurants, cafes and bars. The main boulevard is a typical shopping street full of stores but the streets are jam-packed with strolling people. One of our friends here told me that somewhere around two million people pass through this district every Friday and Saturday night, where the bars and clubs stay open til dawn.

Hard to believe, but this area is only one relatively compact zone in sprawling Istanbul. We’ve been blessed by having Ali and his family hosting us and showing us around, without which we would have missed so much of what we’ve seen. Early in the week we went to the standard but awesome tourist sites, the Blue Mosque, the Hagiya Sofya, the Byzantine cistern, the Ottoman Topkapi Palace and its infamous harem. I don’t tend to react very strongly to religious buildings, only enjoying them at the level of architecture and art, and the Blue Mosque was something to see in that regard. A soaring dome with intricate Islamic patterns, lovely rugs and tiles everywhere (you could say that about most of the places in Istanbul actually), and an intricate ironwork suspended from the ceiling holding lights. Here are some shots of the Blue Mosque:

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