Book Review: Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul

Reflections on the “dark mood” of this ancient Ottoman city, the 2010 European cultural capital as it heads towards democracy

A group of Turkish manual laborers take a break on a sidewalk in Istanbul | Photo: Ara Güler

Istanbul: Between West and East

In his foreword to Ara Güler’s Istanbul, the 2009 retrospective of the great Turkish photographer, author and Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk pays a distinct tribute to Güler’s richly textured black-and-white images by acknowledging how “through these photographs, I learned to look at Istanbul and recognize its essence.”

Pamuk encountered the photographs as an adolescent in the 1960s, while Güler was making his mark in a weekly magazine, capturing Istanbul with his camera at the height of Turkey’s westernization.

“What we see here is modernity set against tradition…” Pamuk writes, “…the ideals of order, discipline and authority set against the disordered helplessness of poverty and technological inadequacy.” And he emphasizes that every time he sees the photographs, he has “a personal struggle to reconnect with my own memories, to convince myself that what I am seeing is not a photographer’s ‘art’ but life itself…” because they remind him of “how much the city has changed – and how much it remains the same.”

In this selection of Güler’s work from the 1950s to the mid-80s, the soul of Istanbul – as the cultural capital of Turkey during those years – is revealed in the rich tapestry of the city’s past and in diverse strands of its woven present: from the Greek and pre-Byzantine periods through its metamorphosis as Constantinople and then through the Ottoman period and Ataturk’s transformation of Turkey into a western-oriented Republic.

Thus, side by side with what Pamuk calls “the ostentatious splendour,” Güler shows glimpses of Istanbul’s “wear and tear” as well as the “fatigue” of a city no longer a capital, but with some 10 million inhabitants, still Turkey’s richest and most populous.

With my own visual sense educated by the cinema rather than still photography, I was surprised how arresting I found the cover of Güler’s book. Vivid impressions of the mystery of Istanbul resurfaced from my previous visits… accompanied by running thoughts.

Is it two men on the rowboat, or a man and a woman in a chador, who are quietly on the move – struggling to make a living among the countless anonymous faces who make the city work? Have they been rowing oblivious to their part in the endless drama? Here by the ferry stations where flowing waters meet, at the confluence of cultures along the Eminönü, the area below the Topkapi complex and the Old Town, commuters board and disembark, commuting between the European and Asian sides of the ancient city?

And, are they moving towards the mosques with the call to prayer from minarets rising in the mist? Or, have they been rowing on the Golden Horn, passing under the Galata Bridge for the Bosphorus, south to the Marmara or further north to the Black Sea?

The cover picture could be a portrait of the duo: Güler taking Pamuk on a boat ride, to share a self-reflecting feeling that bonded them, called the hüzün – which visitors easily mistake for melancholy, but for both, a source of pride in being able to pin down “the black mood” they share with millions about an entire city, whose tones characterize their work. The hüzün particularly infuses Güler’s photographs of a city-at-work, Pamuk writes, set against breathtaking scenery that makes an emotional impact because of the people and animals in it. This is the secret of “their Istanbul,” the images that “evoke the fragility of its people and the poverty of its streets and teahouses and ramshackle workshops.”

Pamuk got to know Güler in 2003 while researching the photographer’s archives of  some 800,000 photographs and selecting items for his own memoir Istanbul.  He felt a keen identity with Güler whose images stirred intimate memories, now instantly projected on a screen, bringing to life a shared history and culture of their beloved city.

Pamuk writes about being concerned about “what foreigners and strangers think of us.”

He speaks for the collective: “My interest in how my city looks to western eyes is – as for most Istanbullus – very troubled.” So a whole chapter is devoted to this love-hate relationship with the western gaze, all the more convoluted “with the drive to westernize and the concurrent rise of nationalism.” Thus, I became equally self-conscious reading through an account of arguments he and other eminent Turkish writers had with travel writers who were obsessed by such themes as the harem, the slave market, the Dervish lodges or stray dogs and cats. Pamuk contends that an outside observer can take things out of proportion by paying excessive attention to certain details that, in their proper perspective, in fact define the city’s nature.

On my first visit to Istanbul during the mid-70s, I stayed in Tarabya, northeast of Istanbul, in one of those hotels Pamuk refers to his book lining the promenade that string  once sleepy Greek fishing villages along the shores of the Bosphorus, including Rumelihisari, transformed into summer places beginning in the eighteenth century by the great Ottoman families. That era produced the famed yalis – the waterside wooden mansions of yore – and an Ottoman culture that Turkish Republicans and nationalists in the 20th century began to see “as models of an obsolete identity and architecture.”

Still, part of the lure of Istanbul as a tourist destination is to see those frescoes and mosaic paintings, despite clear traces of the bash of cultures and the passing of the years. Like many visitors, I was set on confirming what I’d read of what remained of the Byzantine and Ottoman empires, which in the light of Güler’s and Pamuk’s books, I’d seen through a tourist’s lens.

During the 80s and 90s, while managing a UN project on Southern European Entrepreneurship that took me to Ankara and rural Anatolia, I saw Istanbul differently but always took full advantage of offers to must-see-and-tell places. Distinctly, I remember Turkish hosts warning about where to go and what to avoid and how to beware in the Old Bazaar. In retrospect, I admit having been led to experience belly dancing in night clubs and to watch Sufi and Derwish rituals as though imbued, as Pamuk says, with the same “westernized” enthusiasms and hesitations that visitors are supposed to carry in their heads.

On my most recent trip I wanted to experience the final days before Istanbul was to give up its crown as a European Cultural Capital in 2010 – what specific changes might have taken place in a city at the center of the debate on Turkey’s entry into the EU.

Locals grumbled that most of the resources had been allocated for restoration of monuments and landmarks. This time, I indulged in the usual sites –– encountering them rather surrealistically. For while wondering about gaps and quality of the restored Haghia Sophia and Topkapi, Pamuk’s book and the questions he asked while going through his “Dark Museum House” kept creeping through my mind. How many families like his had been claimed by the loss of the Ottoman Empire and the consequent gloom, a mass of people in a forlorn city making do on the ruins of a deliberately forgotten past. I thought of Cairo where I’d just been a few weeks before.

Too late for the literature and film festivals, I wondered which of the many cultural interest groups, like young pop art and innovative performance platforms, had had to be sacrificed in 2010, and why? And was Pamuk likened to Elfriede Jelinek, Austria’s Nobel Literature Laureate, as one who sullies his own nest?

For a reply, locals reminded me that, in 2005, Pamuk had been put on trial for insulting “Turkishness” – a “thought crime” during an interview in Switzerland, when he drew attention to the fate of Ottoman Armenians and Turkish Kurds.

At the time, Pamuk insisted: “We have to talk about the past!” That’s what he does in Istanbul, leaving no one unscathed, brutally exposing the foibles of his own next of kin, to remain true to his chosen vocation: narrating the human need to express oneself freely and to be connected, thus raising cultural, rather than power-oriented or political concerns. The book was published in English that same year to international acclaim, certainly in part due to his translator Maureen Freely.

Artists and writers may not have a monopoly on conscience, but Güler and Pamuk must be free to speak, as this right induces a sense of personal well-being that can spill over into the creative imagination of the collective.

Amidst the raging turmoil in the Middle East following the departure of the Tunisian and Egyptian autocratic rulers, one wonders yet again if Turkey could provide a model for democracy in Arab countries?

Pamuk’s Istanbul seems like an easy enjoyable read but he takes us on a cultural journey into closed chambers and mindsets. The chapters on “Religion” and “The Rich” are enough to take you on a dizzying spin. Drive slowly because the journey is a bumpy ride full of surprising twists and turns. He makes you notice rich provincials presenting themselves o society in Istanbul, which turns into a prism of expanded worlds as he refers to the elite’s tolerance of the military as being: “rooted in the fear that one day the lower classes would combine with the new rich… to abolish the westernized bourgeois way of life under the banner of religion.”

Tackling migrants and minorities, he mentions a childhood pleasure going with his mother to Beyoglu, now the center of modern Istanbul, then a dusty down-and-out zone. There, he happily wandered in and out of Greek shops run as family enterprises even if he was made to understand that the Greeks were not quite “respectable.” And that, not just because they belonged to the city’s poor but additionally because “Mehmet the conqueror had taken the city away from them.”

It is possible, Pamuk notes, to distinguish between those who associate themselves with West or East by their reference to 1453, as the Fall of Constantinople for Westerners or the Conquest of Istanbul for the Easterners. This kind of positioning along a political fault line has parallels elsewhere, obstructing a human worldview of our evolving culture, giving fodder to populists across the political spectrum and to journalists twittering fast food news.


Istanbul: Memories of a City, by Orhan Pamuk
Ara Güler’s Istanbul, Ara Güler (2009)
Available at:
Shakespeare and Company Booksellers
1., Sterngasse 2
(01) 535 5053

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