Istanbul–a Literary Guide to the City of Green-eyed Beauty
By Inka Piegsa-Quischotte
Squish, squish went my shoes as I hurried along Divanyoglu, the thoroughfare of Istanbul’s historical Sultanahmed district, trying to escape a sudden November afternoon downpour.
Before I got completely drenched, I looked for a refuge to wait out the shower. It would soon be over, because behind the dark clouds, the sun was already peeking out and setting the golden tops of the Blue Mosque to my right on fire.
Suddenly, the door to the Kayseri bookshop swung open and a Turkish lady emerged, wearing a white and gold headscarf which also, quite unusual, covered the lower half of her face. She was clutching a carrier bag, apparently full of books. I slipped inside, having found my shelter from the rain.
I cleaned my glasses of a few remaining raindrops and looked around. My eyes were caught by a book cover which bore a striking resemblance to the woman who had just left. Aziyade by Pierre Loti.
Intrigued, I opened the book and started to read. On the second page after the introduction, I came to this description:
‘I thought that I was completely alone, when I suddenly noticed a strange sensation behind me. There, behind a heavily barred window, I saw the top of a human head and two big green eyes which were fixed on mine. The eyebrows were dark and nearly met, the expression of the eyes was a mixture of curiosity and naivety, one could almost say that of a child, full of youth and freshness.
The young woman to whom the eyes belonged, got up and revealed her figure just to the waist. She was clad in a richly embroidered green silk kaftan and her head was swathed in a tightly wound white veil which only revealed her forehead and those big eyes. The iris was very green, of this particular hue of sea green which has been praised by the poets of the Orient.
This woman was Aziyade.
Who these sea green eyes were fixed on, was the author, a 19th century British naval officer. The words which had held my attention promised mystery, romance and, due to the barred windows, a hint of adventure and even danger. All of it playing out in Istanbul, the city which held me in her ban too because of the never ending surprises.
Like the current weather, rain followed by sunshine, head scarved and covered women walk the streets next to those in mini skirts and high heels, ancient mosques and wooden houses stand next to modern high rises, dark and crowded bazaars invite to browsing as much as award winning 21st century shopping malls.
Here, a beggar with no legs stretched his hand out pleadingly from the steps of a mosque, whilst an Armani clad businessman hurried past, shouting into his cell phone, computer bag dangling from his shoulder.
You can eat sushi in elegant waterfront restaurants or lick your fingers of the remains of gözleme, bought from a street stall.
Of course, I wanted to read the rest of the story and bought the book. I also wanted to know who Pierre Loti was, an, up to this moment, unknown writer to me. A biography by Lesley Blanch which sat right next to copies of Aziyade and other novels by the same author, shed light on an extraordinary personality.
A French Naval Officer
Pierre Loti, born Julien Marie Viaud in Rochefort/France, was a 19th century French naval officer with a distinguished army career. But that is where conventionality ends! Officer or not, he wore make up, trained as an acrobat and even performed in a circus.
Due to his service in the navy, he traveled the world and was always driven to exploring new horizons. A romantic and ’in love with love’, he embarked on a sordid love affair with a Turkish harem lady, the subject of Aziyade, although he disguised himself in the book as a British naval officer. Loti started to write travel articles and then highly acclaimed novels which won him a place in the Academie Francaise.
Back in Rochefort, his vast collection of artifacts from all over the world needed a home and he proceeded to convert his non descript French town house into a fairy tale fantasy complete with Turkish mosque, medieval dining hall and an opium den.
Of all the countries Loti has visited, Turkey captivated him most. When in Istanbul, he slipped into Turkish garb, acquired a servant, rented a house and roamed the streets of Eyüp and Sultanahmed on foot or horseback. Daringly, he passed himself off as an Armenian named Arik Ussim Effendi and took Turkish lessons. Not to forget his clandestine affair with Aziyade who managed to slip out at night and visit his house in Eyüp.
Istanbul in the 19th Century
Loti’s description of life in Istanbul in the late 19th century, the Golden Horn and the sacred district of Eyüp, the winding cobbled streets of Balat and the wooden houses along the Bosporus, prompted me, to follow his foot steps and to discover an Istanbul off the beaten track. I wanted to look at the city through the eyes of his green-eyed beauty and to find out what was left of his images today.
The purpose of this book is to take you along on a journey of hills covered with the purple blossoms of the Judas trees, mosques glittering with a dusting of snow and sparkling water ways dotted with islands and teeming with ferries. You will visit a church made of cast iron and see the docks when ships still had sails.
Istanbul is a huge and cosmopolitan city with a population of approx. 12.5 million people. As with all big cities, there is a darker side, the underworld, causing trouble, murder and mayhem. Again, I have to thank the Kayseri bookshop for discovering another writer who got hooked by Istanbul and has made the city the venue of a very different kind of literature: crime novels!
Barbara Nadel is no less multi faceted than Pierre Loti. Born and raised in London’s East End, at a young age she trained as an actress. Always interested in the darker side of the human mind, she worked as a public relations officer for the National Schizophrenia Fellowship’s Good Companions project, was a mental health advocate in a psychiatric hospital, helped sexually abused teenagers and taught psychology in schools and colleges.
Through family ties, she came to Turkey over 20 years ago and created the astute, chain smoking and hard drinking Turkish police inspector Cetin Ikmen. He and his aristocratic sidekick, Mehmet Süleyman, became the stars and center pieces of 13 crime novels which won her several awards, among them CWA Silver Dagger and London Borough of Redbridge, Big Red Read crime fiction of the year.
Barbara’s plots play out in very different parts of Istanbul from those frequented by Loti. In the course of his investigations, Cetin needs to deal with diplomats in the Belgrade forest as well as with the low lives of the old Jewish quarters of Balat and Galata. The brothels of Karaköy figure as much in her books as the yalis, the wooden palaces once summer residences of the Ottoman princes, now slowly decaying in fading splendor along the shores of the Bosporus in Sariyer.
The idea of a ‘Literary Guidebook’ to Istanbul was already forming in my head and Barbara’s views of the city was an obvious addition. Luckily, she is very much alive and, to give authenticity to my enterprise, I asked for an interview. Much to my surprise, and literally by return to my request, she agreed.
Guess, who grabbed tape recorder, camera and notebook and was on the next flight to London? It was the first time ever I had interviewed someone, leave alone an award winning author and I was expecting some reserve or formality.
As it turned out, the tape recorder remained in my pocket and my pen idle, because from the word go, we started to chat as if we had known each other all our lives. The conversation turned around every subject under the sun, including fashion (I kid you not), like two middle aged, chic ladies, having a spot of lunch in a lovely pub near London’s Victoria station do.
I have to admit, I had to complement the ‘interview’ with several emails containing pertinent questions later. But, of course we got around to Istanbul, her books and her background.
Barbara grew up in London’s East End and another series of books is set there. She has a quite international personal background. i.e a French father and a close relative who, about 20 years ago, went to Turkey, married a Turkish lady, invited her along and she has never stopped visiting the country ever since. Apart from the never ending fascination with Istanbul there is her enchantment with Cappadocia and in fact one of her Cetin Ikmen novels,’ Dance with Death’ is set there.
A person who has so many different occupations, talents and interests invites to questions about how she came to do what. Naturally, I asked about her acting career. With charming self deprecation she said: Oh, not a very glittering one. I trained as an actress but only performed when I was a kid. In addition, in the 1970s, I was in the musical version of ‘Great Expectations’ called ‘My Gentleman Pip’ and in an American film called ‘The Haunting of M.’ American film, no less!!! I call that pretty glittering.
My next question concerned her main character, Cetin Ikmen and I wanted to know if there was a real life model for him. ‘No’, she said. ‘As is mostly the case with fictional characters, they are an amalgam of several real people and Cetin is no exception.’
A future book will be firmly placed in Istanbul again, I have the privilege of knowing where and what it is about, but….my lips are sealed. Her work with mentally handicapped persons in a psychiatric hospital necessitated an outlet, a respite, much as police officers or anyone else dealing with violent death, crime or challenging situations needs to cope with the stress.
Hers was writing and in the process, Cetin Ikmen was created, who became so popular. Her interests and topics cover a broad gamut, from homosexuality to the situation of the Jewish community to folklore, fanatic rituals..you name it, she writes about it.
Always written with a very special kind of humor which also shines through in the way she talks. We were discussing Galata and the Kamondo steps, when it, rather loudly, escaped her lips: ‘Oh yes, the steps. I’ve killed someone there too.’ It just so happened, that at that very moment our waitress set down our plates and the look she threw at Barbara was priceless!!
A Famous Crime Writer
I hastened to explain to the poor girl, that she was in the presence of a famous crime writer and better take the opportunity to ask for her autograph rather than contemplate calling the police. Needless to say, that we all had a good laugh.
Like me, Barbara loves the many, many ferries in Istanbul, which she often uses to concoct her riddles and to explore the places the ferries go to as venues for new books. A few great ferry rides are included in this guide book.
Otherwise, it’s walking around and getting carried away by the spirit and the sights of the city of the green eyed beauty and, yes, she loves Pierre Loti too!
Pierre Loti and Barbara Nadel are of course foreigners who have fallen under the spell of Istanbul and explored the many, many facetes of the city to serve as background for their work. What I needed to round out the picture was the perspective of a local. I couldn’t have found a more suitable personality than Orhan Pamuk.
A rather pampered Turkish upper middle class boy, who daydreamed about an alter ego in another district of his home town Istanbul and restlessly roamed the city from end to end. He couldn’t decide whether his vocation was to be a painter, an architect or a writer and proceeded to embark on a distinguished literary career culminating in the award of the Nobel Prize in literature 2006.
The gripping and rather melancholic book ‘Istanbul, Memories and the City’ reveals yet another colorful part of Istanbul, Beyoglu and Nishantasi. In his youth as well as today, both are quite upmarket districts with a wealth of neo classical buildings as opposed to the Byzantine and Ottoman monuments of ‘Old Istanbul’ around Sultanahmed.
For many years, Pamuk lived in his family’s home in Nishantasi and observed the social life as well as explored every nook and cranny. A full chapter is dedicated to the shores of the Bosporus and I have taken many ferry rides up and down, finding fish restaurants in Sariyer, more yalis in Bebek and, of course, walking over the Galata Bridge.
I asked Orhan Pamuk’s publishers for an interview, but although they most kindly wrote back that they had passed on my request, I haven’t heard from him yet.
I have visited Istanbul many times and live part of the year on Turkey’s Aegean coast. After devouring ‘my’ three writers, I was eager to discover the’ out of the way places’ and started to research their history.
Unconventional Guide Book
The idea was born to share these lesser known places in an unconventional guide book which is not of the “what to see, do and where to eat” kind, but combines locations with works of literature.
As far as possible, I have taken my own photographs and tried to capture the spirit of Istanbul during the ever changing seasons.
Lastly, the title is a reference to Aziyade, because, as you have seen, it was a pair of green eyes which first seduced him into a life long love affair not only with a woman but also with the magical city on the Bosporus.
Inka Piegsa-Quischotte is a former attorney turned travel writer, photographer and novelist based in Miami and Istanbul who writes with verve and flair about destinations where it’s warm, particularly the Mediterranean World. Read her blog, Glamour Granny Travels.
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