Monday, September 21, 2015

Two portraits of Istanbul--another mini photo essay

Recently, I've need to reminding of what's special about Istanbul, but even in the midst of the best of the city's charm, there are reminders of what's happening around us.

Beyoğlu, Europe

There's a new cafe just down from Galata tower, right in the middle of the "music han", the section of Beyoğlu devoted to stores that sell musical instruments. It specializes in Black Sea food, and the people that work there speak Laz, a dialect of Georgian. Instruments hang on the walls, kemençes, bağlamas, curas. I enjoyed a glass of red wine as Delal reads the news. Across the street is a bookshop playing old Moody Blues with a rack of art books in Georgian, French, German, Armenian and English. There's a book of fables in Kurdish. A Turkish biopic of the band Jethro Tull took a prominent place on one of the racks.

As the Moody Blues plays, behind us, two blond Americans sit down with an older dark complexioned man. A few seconds of eavesdropping give us the situation. One of the Americans is doing an interview, the other translating from Arabic. The third man is a Syrian refugee. I pick up pieces of his story over street noise, some of it also lost in translation (At one point, a near five minute conversation becomes one sentence when transferred to English.)

He fled the fighting in Syria to Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan, where he'd worked as an accountant and made good money, enough to save several thousand euro. Then, for reasons I couldn't catch, he decided to go to Europe through Turkey. Running from ISIS maybe? So far, he'd made the attempt three times--twice by sea and once by land. Each time he'd been robbed by the men who had agreed to take him. The last time, deeming the sea passage too dangerous, he'd paid 4,500 euros to be taken over the border into Bulgaria. The smugglers had bungled the job, they'd been caught and sent back, and of course, they refused to refund his money.
At Çınaraltı "Under the Sycamore" in Çengelköy

Çengelköy, Asia

I meet Delal down by the water and we walk past the Greek church and up the hill. Two Ottoman köşks lean into each other over the road, the windows of the two cumba touching. On the wall of one is a faded portrait of Tayyip Erdoğan. Turkish flags hang everywhere. A couple of covered women dressed all in black walk by laughing.

We wind up the hill. Cats stare at us from walls. On the cement someone has written in Kurdish, "Biji Amed!"--Long Live Diyarbakır.

Up and up. This doesn't seem like the city we know--too green, too many trees. On the left is a steep swath of weedy wood, filled with fig, chestnut and peach trees and at some points the crumbling ruins of Ottoman mansions. Wild flowers dot the empty lots. At one point, there's a graveyard on the ledge that promises a view of the Bosphorous and the first bridge. We cross through the gate and are stopped by a guy standing outside a white car. It's unclear if he is a caretaker, a guard, just some nosy local.

"You can't go any further," he says. "It's forbidden. This is the President's land now."

He points to an area just up the road surrounded by a tall fence.

"We just wanted to see the view," we explain.

"There's a nice one," he admits almost apologetically, "But it's forbidden to go there."

We trace our way back down. A cat hisses at us from a top a kiremit tile. On the gates to one of the mansions is a knocker shaped like a Chinese dragon. We find a serious of cafes along the cobblestone back streets, one decorated with old furniture and antiques. They serve wine at delicate tables outside on the sidewalk. At a büfe on the corner we spy a bearded man in a turban preaching to a table full of young boys. He's talking about death. We don't stop. We don't want to draw attention but I keep hearing that word. Ölüm ölüm ölüm.

At one point, I ask an old man if he knows where there's a mosque.

"You have to go to the bathroom," he says smiling knowingly.

I nod.

He grabs my elbow and starts to walk me in the direction of the sea.

"There's a public restroom, just down there."

He's so full of sympathy that I think he must have just had some horrible toilet-searching experience. Delal says this area still has the spirit of the old Istanbul. We watch the sunset by the water, sailboats and yachts and fishing boats pull up to the seawall.

We enter one of the cafes and sit at a pretty bay window. I order green tea. It takes a second to see, hanging over the doorway, a pastel drawing of Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian toddler who drowned in the Aegean trying to flee to Greece.

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