Leaving Istanbul

by Maria Eliades

Maria Eliades is a Greek-American writer who lives in the New York metro area but previously lived in Istanbul, Turkey for six years. She’s written on culture, politics, and literature in Greece in Turkey for places like the Ploughshares blogVersopolis, PRI’s The WorldMuftahGastronomicaEurasiaNetTime Out Istanbul, and Hurriyet Daily News. Her fiction has appeared in Rosetta World Literatura and her essay, “Roots Like Museum Pieces,” is forthcoming in the anthology, Expat Sofra: Recipes of Foreign Life in Turkey.

When the coup attempt happened on July 15th, 2016, I was in Greece. I was sitting on the balcony of a beach-front hotel outside Thessaloniki, in one of those beach villages that makes for an easy weekend if you live in that city. Two fellow Istanbul expats sat with me, and we wondered how the evening would play out. Earlier, we’d swum in the sea, and walked the long sidewalk promenade studded with tavernas, hotels, psisterías with sizzling lamb, chicken, and French fries, past tourist mini marts that sold inflatable beach toys next to ouzo and beer. But we weren’t there to take a vacation; we were volunteering with an organization that helps refugees stuck in the camps of the north—former military storage bunkers, at the edges of since-closed factories. We’d be working the next day, but that Friday night I was bored and homesick and prepared for a quiet night in. I checked Twitter, curious about the state of traffic in Istanbul, wondering what my friends there were up to. There was a tank on the Bosphorus Bridge, several accounts reported, each with the same photo. The military had stopped traffic in one direction. I thought it might be an anti-terror measure.

It’d been a rough year for Turkey, with about two terror attacks a month. The latest had happened only a few weeks before, when gunmen killed 41 people and injured 239 at Atatürk Airport. It all began a year earlier, when two people were killed and 100 injured at a People’s Democratic Party (HDP) Rally in Diyarbakır. Not long after, 33 activists died at the hands of a suicide bomber in Suruç, across the border from the Syrian town of Kobane. This attack was followed by another in which seven civilians and three police officers were injured at a car bombing in outer Istanbul, attacks in the east that killed eight people, and an armed attack on the United States Consulate in Istanbul. All happened within 24 hours of each other. But these events would prove light compared to what came next: close to 100 dead and 200 wounded at a peace rally in Turkey’s capital, Ankara, in October 2015; five injured by a package bomb planted at an Istanbul metro station; a cleaner killed at the Sabiha Gökçen Airport on Istanbul’s Asian side; 10 dead and 15 injured from a suicide attack at the German fountain in Sultanahmet; at least 28 dead and 60 injured by a car bomb in Ankara near a military base; 37 dead and 125 injured by a car bomb at a central bus stop in Ankara; five dead and 36 injured by a suicide bomber on İstiklal Avenue, the main shopping street in Istanbul, close to where I lived during my first two years in the city. This list is not comprehensive, but the İstiklal bombing hit us when we thought we couldn’t take it anymore. The attacks stopped for a little while after that, and then started up again. Over the summer of 2016, there was an uneasy lull as the war in Syria continued and the conflict between Turkey and the Kurds ramped up.

It could be an anti-terror measure, I thought, but then another thought flicked in: What if it is a coup?, and just as quickly: They’ve only stopped traffic into the city. If it was a coup, they would have shut off traffic in both directions. Besides, it couldn’t be a coup. Turkey didn’t have coups anymore, though they had happened often enough since the Republic was founded in 1923. In 1960, 1971, and then again in 1980, coups had functioned as part of Turkey’s system of checks and balances; when the military thought the government had strayed too far from the founding principles of the constitution, they stepped in. But the Ergenekon and Balyoz (Sledgehammer) trials in the first 15 years of the new millennium had knocked out the military’s teeth. We all knew that. Coups didn’t happen in Turkey in 2016.

An hour later, someone on a Whatsapp group chat shouted, “Coup!” I saw that the military had taken over TRT, the national broadcast news station, and declared that they were in charge. Not long after that, President Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan got on CNN Turk to announce on Facetime that there had been an attempt at a coup, and that Turkey’s people needed to take to the streets to resist. The rest of the night became a blur of civilians against the military, gunshots, and sonic booms from jets over the Bosphorus.

“I’m having tsíporo,” I said, pouring myself a glass of the ouzo-variety hard liquor before filling my friends’ glasses. Our balcony was at a back corner of the hotel, where we could see both the sea and the adjacent apartment and hotel buildings. Gusts of sea wind hit our faces, knocking around the hammock when no one was sitting in it. Our coup shiva began then in earnest. When we’d killed the small bottle of tsíporo, we headed downstairs to the hotel’s bar-café in search of more.

“Congratulations,” the Greek hotel owner told me. “You’re having a revolution.” His only thought was that Erdoǧan would go when it was all over.

‘Congratulations,’ the Greek hotel owner told me. ‘You’re having a revolution.’

“You think it’s a good thing,” I told him, “but this—what’s happening tonight—has no good outcome. Whether the government remains in place in the morning or the military takes over, there’s no going back.”

Before morning revealed the victor, I knew what would happen. I’d read too much history, watched Turkey for too long. If the military took over, I imagined mass executions, books seized, institutions seized, the entire ruling party imprisoned and then likely tortured and killed. If the government stayed in power, the country would probably be more stable, but Erdoğan would show no mercy toward the coup plotters or anyone on his bad side.

On the widescreen TV of the psistería next door, the “thriller” of the Turkish coup played in a loop. We retreated to the beach with our tsíporo and beers. Our heads bent over the blue screens of our phones in a circle, the water lapping the shore. We continued to drink. The reports got worse. Jets had bombed Turkish Parliament in Ankara, flown low and fast over Istanbul, shattering windows, creating sonic booms that sounded like bombs.

“I’m going to bed,” I said at 4 a.m. “We won’t know if the government remains or if the military will be in charge until the morning.”

When I left Istanbul six weeks later, after having made my home there for six years, the decision was a direct result of the events of that night—but not because I was politically threatened, facing possible jail time, or even particularly frightened. I had lived in Feriköy during the Gezi Park protests, just one metro stop away from the uprising’s Ground Zero. The tear gas was kept at bay by the valley of Dolapdere, just noticeable on Kurtuluş Avenue. My fears after July 15th largely weren’t for my personal safety. I hadn’t signed the “Academics for Peace” petition, though I had certainly wanted to. I left Istanbul out of love. The man I was engaged to marry said he couldn’t live in the country anymore after that coup attempt. The past year had been one of increasing anxiety from the bombings and attacks, no matter how close or far they had been. As much as I tried to calm him by acknowledging that yes, it was not the country I knew in 2009, and that I wish he had known it then, his fears (for his safety and my own) were amplified by a chorus of family voices in New York that didn’t distinguish between an attack over a thousand kilometers away at the Turkish-Syrian border and a car bomb in outer Istanbul. I pushed back, providing a one-woman defence for the only city that had worked its way into my heart.

 

My relationship with Istanbul didn’t begin when my plane touched down in July 2009, or when I flew in for the first time in 2005, on a tiny biplane from Thessaloniki. Istanbul is in my blood. My father was born there, and my father’s father and mother emigrated there from Asia Minor as children, their families seeking safety and economic prosperity there in the early 20th century following the uncertainties and pogroms that marked the end of the Ottoman Empire. Much of my extended family lived there through the 1960s and 1980s before emigrating to Greece.

It’s common to argue over what exactly makes one an İstanbullu. The term has a myth-like quality; one cannot become an İstanbullu simply by living in the city. Being born there can certainly grant one the status, but it’s no guarantee. I’ve often suspected it of being a classist or ethno-centrist term that excludes the Kurds—and pretty much everyone except for the non-Muslim minorities and White Turks (the old guard, secular Turkish elite who have often lived in Istanbul for five generations or more)—which is to say, pretty much everyone. And yet, I often think that I qualified as an İstanbullu by my fourth if not fifth year of living there, because I was the child of one who had been born there. I knew enough of the city’s ways, hated what the locals hated, loved what they loved, and at the same time knew of the old traditions and ways so much so that when I encountered an older İstanbullu, they felt like distant family. Moreover, at times I knew the city’s streets better than my own body. When I had a nightmare during the Gezi Park protests that I was on İstiklal Avenue, pursued by the police and had turned on a side street, only to find more police, the nightmare was not so much that I would be beaten and tear-gassed, but rather that the maze I knew so well had become closed to me.

My relationship with Istanbul began with my father’s first story about his life in the city. I can’t remember when exactly that was, but I remember from a young age the constant sense that there was more to the world than just the United States, and feeling that, in shuttling to and from Greek School or Sunday School at the same Greek Orthodox church, I straddled two worlds. I didn’t know much of my father’s world, of what it meant to be Rum or a Romiós—that is a Greek from Turkey—until I came to Istanbul. What I did know of his world was that it was full of mischief and possibility; that my uncle once jumped from fishing boat to fishing boat along one of the harbors, had misjudged the distance between two, had fallen in, and that my grandmother had given him a walloping as a result (she who ruled the house “with an iron slipper”). I knew that my father, uncle, and their friends on the Princes Islands (Adalar in Turkish, as if they are the only islands in Turkey or all the world) would raid each other’s fruit gardens at night in the velvety dark of summer when the stars and the moon illuminated their workings, and that on more than one occasion they got sick from eating the stolen fruit on the spot. I know that on one occasion my father and uncle very quickly discovered that unripe fruit passes quickly through one’s body, though I never quite found out if my father and uncle made it to a bathroom quick enough, since my father would laugh so much that he couldn’t say anything else.

I knew that my uncle and father made things: racing carts, toys from old toys. I knew that they took apart the toys they got for their birthday and for Christmas, and often didn’t manage to put them back together again. I knew also that they were allowed to ride a ferry to the islands on their own, to get tutored by my great aunt in French, which was unfathomable to me as child—I had to ask permission to go further than our own yard in suburban New Jersey. I knew that my father was from Istanbul but was not Turkish, and that I was the only one who could identify the Aghia Sophia in a high school textbook at my public school.

To me, Istanbul was the place my family had left, the place where Byzantium ended and something else began.

To me, then, Istanbul was the place my family had left, the place where Byzantium ended and something else began. I went through a long phase where I called it Constantinople, even though my father consistently called it, and still calls it, Istanbul. At that time, I was only interested in what came before the end of the Byzantine Empire. I couldn’t identify with what came after; there was no after. And yet, my family lived in what became the Ottoman Empire, then the Turkish Republic, for centuries. I didn’t know what event had actually precipitated my family’s emigration to the United States and Greece until I was 20. Before then, every time I heard in Greek School (that lovely little bastion of Greek nationalism) that Turks were evil, I wondered why. We weren’t exactly given a detailed account of history then, or even the full story about the idea of Greater Greece—the failure of the Megáli Idéa (“Great Idea”) to re-conquer Anatolia and incorporate it into a new Hellenic empire. Instead, we were fed a patched-together idea of the greatness of Ancient Greece, the rightness of Greek Orthodox Christianity, and the triumph of the martyrs of the revolution of 1821. It was as if there was a perpetual time chute from the glories of 5th century Athens to the rebellion of the 19th century that led to the modern state, with none of the reflections of where the rebellion came from, nor where the Greeks had been in the intervening centuries. It was as if they were slumbering until the right moment to spring forth into history yet again. But that is the exact picture that any nationalist wants one to see: the glories of the past justify the fateful inevitability of the nation of the present, even though nothing is inevitable.

One can see this mythos even now in Athens, a created capital like Ankara; until it took its place as the centre of the Kingdom of Greece, it was just a village—and indeed it remained so until the apartment building boom from 1951-1971 in which the city’s population doubled. Like Ankara, Athens offered the possibility of a blank slate, wherein the image of the nation could be shaped and sculpted. The difference was that in Athens there were visible artifacts like the Parthenon that could be cleaned and sanctified, fortuitously sticking out above the city’s landscape to remind one of the country’s ancient history. Newer buildings, like the University of Athens, were built along the same specifications, further entrenching the idea of Greece as an ancient birthright.

The former home of the author's father, show in Aynalıçeşme, June 2009. Photo: Maria Eliades

The former home of the author’s father (left), Aynalıçeşme, June 2009. Photo: Maria Eliades

But here I am digressing about facts and ideas that I wouldn’t come across until well after I moved to Istanbul in 2009, when my whole sense of my Greek identity started to shift. By the time I was at Oxford pursuing a masters degree in 2011, when the head of the Modern Greek department revealed that the sirtaki—a dance made famous by the film Zorba the Greek—was, in fact, made up by the American actor Anthony Quinn, I didn’t blink. I’d already had my Greek identity shattered and rebuilt many times over, living in Istanbul. Telling me a dance that everyone, Greeks and non-Greeks alike, thought of as being quintessentially Greek was, in fact, a construction of ethnicity merely added to the list of things I had thought were exclusively Greek but later learned were not. There was a whole cluster of words I had come across that changed how I saw things—strange words like karpoúzi (watermelon), papoútsi (shoe), and tzépi (pocket) that in truth had once been and still are karpuz, papuç, and cep in Turkish. There were habits, like spending forever over a cup of coffee, forcing food and drink upon guests, and the contradictory languid nature of time coupled with a need to get everything done in the last minute, that I had first seen in one place now replicated in another. That is to say, what I saw in one culture was revealed to be common to both.

When I heard my German and American classmates say before and after class in English, out of earshot of our teacher, ‘It’s so exotic.’ I thought to myself, It’s not exotic at all.

The same was true in Istanbul. Though I thought when I arrived that I was like anyone else (a Greek-American, enrolled in Turkish classes, looking for an English-teaching job, and doing research on the Greeks of the city), in fact the city was already intimately familiar, through family stories and my own obsessive reading about Turkey and the city in the months leading up to my move. I didn’t realize that perhaps I was different until I heard my German and American classmates say before and after class in English, out of earshot of our teacher, “It’s so exotic.” I thought to myself, It’s not exotic at all.

Istanbul in July 2009 felt like a tune I’d grown up with my whole life that had suddenly been transposed to a different key. It threw me at first, but I knew I would eventually be able to play it with the same ease I had my whole life, if not more, because what was familiar had become strange, and so I paid more attention to it. I had the chance to remake my Greek identity, away from the codified sound that would otherwise tell me how it was supposed to be. There was no case of what Istanbul was supposed to be for me. I had the freedom of what it was in the moment that I encountered it, with none of the baggage of the “Exotic East” or the United States.

 

Things I’ve been called in Istanbul: American, Amerikalı, İstanbullu, Polítissa, yabancı, Rum, Yunan, Amerikanída, Éllino-Amerikanída, orientalist.

Things I’ve called myself in Istanbul: American; Amerikalı; Greek-American; yarısı Rum, yarısı Yunan, hep Amerikalı (half-Greek from Turkey, half-Greek from Greece, entirely American); Amerikanída; Éllino-Amerikanída; occidentalist.

 

When I met the man I would eventually leave Istanbul for, our courtship felt like something out of a novel. We wrote long, involved emails every day we were apart, which included descriptions of our days and what we saw and felt. I wanted to transport him to Istanbul with those letters, to show him what it was really like to be there, how wonderful it was, and how wonderful it could be when he visited. We thought we’d show off those letters someday, that they’d be a part of some published volume, the love letters of two writers, like Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning. Yes, like young writers in love—or, let’s face it, people in love—we thought our story was worthy of preservation. Our emails felt weighty. They made the situation of courting across thousands of miles feel more real, more revealing than the dates one normally has when getting to know someone.

The way we met felt fated, too. It was early in 2010, well into my first year in the city, at a time when I had felt the place had become home. When I cast my mind back to this time, feels like it belongs to a different era, in both Turkey’s history and my own life. I’d been invited to attend a dinner with a group at the Patriarchate, the Orthodox Christian equivalent of the Vatican. My family in New Jersey had changed parishes earlier that year, and one of my sisters got to know the priest who was leading a college-age group on a service project there, and so by this happenstance I was invited to join in on this dinner. Being at the age when I rarely said no to anything, and also of the mindset that if there was a way into the local community, this gathering was surely it, I went. I’d been to the Patriarchate years before, when I first visited Istanbul with my family, and had taken note of the permanently closed front gate where Patriarch Gregory V was hanged in response to the Greek Independence movement in what is now mainland Greece. Under the millet system of the Ottoman Empire, religious leaders were considered to be the heads of their ethno-religious communities.

The Patriarchate isn’t a grand structure. It blends into the street, and if you don’t know to get off at the Fener bus stop, you’re not likely to find it if it isn’t a Sunday morning. Only then, if you follow the Greek and Russian pilgrims and tourists and the row of street vendors hawking Turkish tea sets and glittering weaves of icons set off with Evil Eyes, will you find the complex. Otherwise, the Greek and Russian writing alone—ΑΣΗΜΙΚΑ & ΚΡΥΣΤΑΛΟ ΕΙΔΗ (GOLD & CRYSTAL GOODS)—and the “BYZAΣ CAFE” may not be enough to tip you off that you’re in the right place.

Church of St. George, the seat of the Ecumenical Patriarch in Istanbul. Photo: Klearchos Kapoutsis/Wikimedia Commons

Church of St. George, the seat of the Ecumenical Patriarch in Istanbul. Photo: Klearchos Kapoutsis/Wikimedia Commons

The night I turned up, that street was empty and dark. I turned left, saw the guard booth outside the Patriarchate, the shut door, and passed through the for-show metal detector to be directed through another door in a wooden building; but not before looking on the simple face of the Patriarchal Church of St. George before me, careful not to slip on the worn pale flagstones of the courtyard. Once inside the central building, I passed a red carpeted, weighty staircase and was directed to a room lit by the florescent lights you’d find in a public school classroom and filled to its edges with a darkly lacquered, carved wooden sideboard and three long folding tables beset with folding chairs—the sort you’d find in a church hall in the United States. Most of them were already taken by the college students and the priest. I sat in the middle table, across from someone who, it turned out, had been a scout in a troop my uncle had been in charge of. I did my best to answer questions from the earnest but religiously-fervent students, including a few converts, about the city. Then he came in, and took the seat next to me.

This encounter isn’t a love-at-first-sight story. There was no instant attraction on my part. I remember that he asked me about what I did, and I spoke of the novel I was researching, and I learned he was in a program for creative writing. I remember leaving that night to join my friends at Badehane, a tiny bar in Tünel, to dance to rebetiko music, ambling downhill to my Tophane apartment, and thinking nothing of the young man with the long brown hair and full beard who’d come late to that dinner. One meets people all the time while abroad. I hadn’t thought that I’d see him again, or that we’d keep in touch as much as we did in the years to come.

The first time we kissed was years later, after I had just gotten out of a long-term relationship, in a movie theater in Manhattan. The seats felt as if they surrounded us in a private enclosure. He ended up moving to Istanbul. We exchanged emails and phone calls across the Mediterranean and Atlantic daily for the time in between. Two years before our first kiss, he’d told me in the McNally Jackson Bookstore in New York that he might have to chase me across the world to see me, since I was always in and out of that city. I hadn’t believed him. Now he actually had, and it felt right and true. I knew it was, because I’d always said home was where my suitcases were, but that answer had changed. After five years abroad, home was Istanbul—but home was also where he was, which was what made it so difficult on the night of the coup, when he said he didn’t want to return to Istanbul and I said I didn’t want to leave. I didn’t come around until the morning after the coup, when I told him I’d go back to the United States because I was afraid I’d lose him if I didn’t.

On July 20th or 21st, 2016, five or six days after the coup attempt, I composed a letter to my family explaining why I would be returning to the United States. I never finished it. A week later, the man I loved would start the first of two conversations detailing everything that was wrong with the relationship. By the late afternoon of July 28th, he’d told me that he no longer wanted to get married.

By the late afternoon of July 28th, he’d told me that he no longer wanted to get married.

 

When he broke the engagement, I’d already quit my job at the university. I carried on with my moving preparations. At the end of August, I ended up back in my hometown, keening for the places and community I’d lost, not knowing how I’d reconcile or even put to use the time I’d lived abroad with the isolated reality of the place that had once been home.

I remember the end in pieces: the way I held onto our cat for the last time on that early morning when the sun hadn’t yet risen, scratching the little punk behind the ears one last time, shutting the door on his shrill meows, pressing the hall light to stay on. The hall light, a bare bulb I’d covered with a DIY shade made of an upside-down round white metal cage candle-holder wrapped in a filmy white chiffon, a round crystal scavenged from a necklace dangling at the bottom, something I’d made but never thought I’d leave. My ex lugged my overweight suitcases up the stairs and out onto the street. I waited outside the apartment for the cab, the yellow light of the street lamps and the early hour adding to the sick feeling in my stomach. I’d come back to the building many times before late at night, the same light shining on my exhaustion or relief in reaching home, but that morning, I wanted to cling to the dirty, pock-marked buildings, to the bars on our bedroom windows. The cab came, and we loaded the suitcases into the trunk. As my ex and I hugged a goodbye, we moved into a kiss, and then went back for it. The kisses were long, and flavored with tears so many times that the driver started his engine to signal that I had to leave. Thumbing away my tears, I settled into the cab and watched my world recede.

Karaköy, a month after the coup. Photo: Maria Eliades

Karaköy, a month after the coup. Photo: Maria Eliades

 

Journal entry
July 21st, 2016

My great-aunt liked to hear the pigeons outside her balcony, my aunt said, and she loved the shade of the walnut trees.

From a lower vantage point we see the tree, the unformed walnuts hanging in their soft enclosures like green ornaments. I cannot see what my great-aunt saw, but I sit in the balcony in a different apartment, in the same building and I remember the light, green-tinted, that came into her living room that made me feel that we were in Prinkipos [Büyükada] instead of a suburb of Athens.

 

Journal entry
July 25th, 2016

Yesterday I returned. I waited for over two hours in the passport line to re-enter. By the time I got to the baggage claim my flight wasn’t even on the board. I had to hunt my suitcase down myself.

The metro was free, as it had been in the days before, according to friends. A plethora of men were there and on the streets. It was normal, in a way. I was used to seeing more men than women everywhere, with more women choosing to keep home. Even the metro line from the airport had screens, so an alternating turn of messages—“The people have the rule,” the ripple of a Turkish flag, and a photo of someone who had died during the events flashed in between film trailers, cat videos, and news announcements were all that reminded me of how real it had all been.

[I woke up the day after the coup attempt thinking it had all been a bad dream, and needed to see on my phone to see that it was real, that I had not imagined the night before and those increasingly alcohol-infused hours on the beach that passed by in a snap, the moon above, the dark waves a negligible backdrop to the news feeds glowing on our phone screens, our heads bent as around the circle of the table.]

Outside, flags decked every imaginable surface—not to say that Istanbul had become a giant Turkish flag, but that more unusual surfaces became ensigns. The flag was on minarets, water towers, the hoods of cars and buses. Young men had it draped around their backs like capes. When I alighted at Yenikapı, some nationalistic song piped in through the station’s loudspeakers. Families held rolled-up flags in their hands, their girls in red t-shirts printed with a white star and crescent. The rally must have been over, so I chose to take the train to Haliç. I ended up walking home, buses full, cabs also full. The sounds of the rally—Black Sea music and Erdoğan’s voice—boomed over the banks of the Golden Horn.

The flag was on minarets, water towers, the hoods of cars and buses. Young men had it draped around their backs like capes.

 

Journal entry
July 26th, 2016:

L: You’re the pillar of the community.
Me: Well no, if I was, the whole thing would fall apart every time I left the city. (said through tears)
L: Okay, but you’re a connector.

I finished the bureaucratic signature scavenger hunt today. Went to bowels of the university that I never knew existed. Here and there, the stereotypical middle-aged female civil servant seems to rise out: dowdy, with uncared-for hair pulled back in a ponytail, and an overall hardened, downcast look. Dull, dark colors that seem to belong to the gloom of their basement offices.

I’m thankful to be done, even as the personnel office tried to keep my ikamet [residence and work permit]. I think the whole process today took three hours, and if I count yesterday’s dash from 3:30 to 4:45 p.m., I was at this paper chase for over four hours, so half a work day, if one does not include reclaiming that library book and turning it all in.

I’m not relieved to have officially resigned. I’m living with too much dread, too many goodbyes, and too much to do to feel done. We’re far from it all being done.

 

Journal entry
July 31st, 2016

Going through Beşiktaş yesterday (July 30th), we came upon yet another rally. It was around 9:30 p.m. and nowhere near as large as or as enthused as the rallies at Taksim—though we’d seen that at full force at 1 a.m., with more people than we’d seen in earlier evenings. Regardless, the crowd had its share of enthusiasts, including one man using a plastic broom handle as a flagpole. To see these people at these rallies is to have an awakening: there are people that whole-heartedly believe in the president and in all he represents for the whole nation. Yet one wonders if there are those in the crowd who would otherwise not be there, and would otherwise not be waving the Turkish flag for so many hours and with so much vigour—it has to be that inner nationalism that allows them to hold their arms up for so long!

Gürkan said at Michael’s farewell party that even when offered a fez or a flag for a lira, he heard a guy say to the seller, “No thank you, brother. It’s too much.” There are many who have turned up to these rallies because of the free public transit, people who would otherwise never leave the house. That level of poverty astounds me.

Today in both the BİM and the Şok supermarkets in my neighbourhood, I couldn’t find any chicken fillets, and indeed at the BİM there wasn’t any meat at all. It seems the whole mahalle [neighbourhood] has been picnicking or else our stores have been pillaged by picnickers from other parts of Istanbul to cook on their mangals [grills] by our waterfront. Public transit after all, is still free, and the parks by the waterfront are full of women in headscarves, families, in a way that even on the busiest of days the parks aren’t. It’s as if we’ve been invaded.

 

August 22nd, 2016

At Swedish Point in Cihangir, I hand over my loyalty punch card along with my money. The girl behind the counter stamps it. I’ve got one spot left until a free coffee. I’m only here for another week. By the time I return, this narrow spot may have changed hands and turned into the next version of a hipster iteration. Or it may stay the same. It’s Istanbul, after all, where one can never tell what will endure and what will be written over.

 

August 23rd, 2016

Around 6:30 p.m., I walked through Karaköy. I trailed a happy hipster couple in their late 20s, resplendent in floral shirts, man and woman. They swung their interlinked hands. [I can’t move a foot without bringing up another memory association. How could I know that every step would be thick with my own past, when in the beginning it was all a clean slate of the happy and unhappy ghosts of my family swirling around me?] The streets choke with tables and chairs from all the cafes that have taken over, even at the bottom floor of the dusty building where Derick and I once attended Divine Liturgy at one of the two rooftop Russian Orthodox churches, the last in the city. The other is situated similarly nearby. Both can be discerned from a distance by the petite domes sticking out incongruously from the run-down early 20th, late 19th century apartment buildings. Even Fransız Pasajı is choked with tables and chairs, and while early-comer stores like Kağıthane and Bej remain, there are new cafes and restaurants along the other store fronts. [Perhaps by now those are gone, like so many shops on and around İstiklal.]

I should be glad for all this development. Preserving and using these buildings will in turn preserve the city’s first flowerings of modern urban architecture, but mostly it makes me sad.

Before I even got to Fransız Pasajı and the street of the Russian rooftop churches, I passed the buildings closer to Karaköy Pier. They’re all covered in orange netting, slated to be renovated as part of that infamous Galata Port project that I’ve been hearing about since I arrived in mid-2009. I should be glad for all this development. Preserving and using these buildings will in turn preserve the city’s first flowerings of modern urban architecture, but mostly it makes me sad. These fancy cafes—some of which I have sat in—have now taken over the area like weeds, making the area feel inaccessible. If the economy holds and all of this lives on, but my fortunes do not improve, I’ll be locked out from it all. When the buildings were dirty and unloved, I could imagine them gleaming, their worn marble steps inside leading me to apartment after apartment of high ceilings and crumbling balconies with Art Deco railings. I fantasized then, and even now, of being able to buy a smaller building, like one of those in Karaköy, and renovating it. Today’s visions—and perhaps the realities of being 30 and trying to leave the country, worrying how long my savings will last in the United States before my next job—make me think that such fantasies may never be possible. Fixing up these buildings commercially is the stuff of the rich, rather than the poet-artist dreamers who see such structures as portals into the past.


I loved that city. I could ride the bus from Taksim to Fener and never get tired of looking out onto the coal-washed red tiles on roofs, bouquets of satellite dishes clustered on every building in Kasımpaşa, as the 55T rounded the turn to dip below the old shipyards and roar across the Atatürk Bridge to the Old City, my last place of residence. There were days when, crammed next to school boys or a beleaguered-looking older woman with shopping bags, all I wanted was to be off that bus and home. Then I would feel a little jaded. But from the first time I landed in that city, I never got tired of looking at it, never stopped being surprised by a new vista, wherever I lived, whether it was Harbiye or Tophane or Feriköy or Boğaziçi University’s South Campus, or finally Fener. I moved a lot over the years, but my love for the city never changed—except perhaps in turning from an infatuation to that steadier (and at times grumpier) love that only time and commitment produce.

When I left after the attempted coup, I felt that love torn away from me. “Το τόπο που γεννήθηκες δεν θα τον ξεχάσεις ποτέ” goes the title of a memoir on one Rum’s time in Istanbul: “You never forget the place you were born in.” I repeated this phrase in my head often, thinking about the relationship that many have with Istanbul, a place that is not easily forgotten, a place I was not born in and a place that had the same effect on me that it has on everyone else. A love affair with Istanbul spoils all others that may come after. Some days I wonder if I’ll ever feel as at home somewhere else. For now, I’m in search of some home, any home. Some days, I think this search might lead me right back to Istanbul. On others, I wonder how I got to Istanbul at all—that’s how dream-like it all seems.

By now, it’s hard to remember that I ended up in Istanbul because I had wanted to live in Greece. I had a very simple plan when I finished undergrad: teach English in Greece, write, improve my Greek. That was it. It was simple, except that it never happened. I got the job, in a town off the northwestern coast of Greece (near the island of Ithaca, of all places), and then it was yanked away. I had asked for a week to decide, and by the time the week was up, I was ready to say yes. But an email came into my inbox, telling me they’d found someone else for the position. It’s funny how things work out. What now seems to be inevitable—that I should live in Istanbul for six years, and abroad for a total of seven—was just a turning point in a series of events during a time when my life felt like it wasn’t going anywhere, in an economy that would soon (though I didn’t know it then) tank. The fallout of the 2008 market bubble, and subsequent ripples throughout the world in the debt crisis, has marked my generation as a lost one. Perhaps if I had not left the United States in 2009 I would have been lost, too. Instead, for a long moment, I had the privilege of feeling like I was exactly where I needed to be: Istanbul.

 

Eliades


Maria Eliades is a Greek-American writer who lives in the New York metro area but previously lived in Istanbul, Turkey for six years. She’s written on culture, politics, and literature in Greece in Turkey for places like the Ploughshares blogVersopolis, PRI’s The WorldMuftahGastronomicaEurasiaNetTime Out Istanbul, and Hurriyet Daily News. Her fiction has appeared in Rosetta World Literatura and her essay, “Roots Like Museum Pieces,” is forthcoming in the anthology, Expat Sofra: Recipes of Foreign Life in Turkey.

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