Istanbul: Recollections from a Lost City / Polska Sztuka Ludowa - Konteksty 2014 Special Issue

Dublin Core


Istanbul: Recollections from a Lost City / Polska Sztuka Ludowa - Konteksty 2014 Special Issue


antropologia miasta


Polska Sztuka Ludowa - Konteksty 2014 Special Issue s.144-150


Chmielewska, Justyna


Instytut Sztuki PAN




Licencja PIA









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I^<^C(^llL<oc:ti.o;n.iS from
a Lost City

I sometimes think myself unlucky to have been born in
an agtnp and impoverished city buried under the ashes of
a ruined empire.


n his autobiographical intimate novel: Pstanbul -Me­
mories and the City1 Orhan Pamuk embarked upon
an impasing challenge: to capaure the essence of
the town in which fie grew up and to which he tried
throughout his whole life to return by resorting to snatchas ot texts, scraps of newspapers, tragments of images,
and reminiscences of scents. Thio effort of oecollecfinf
Istanbul as seen by the later Nobel Prize laureate in the
courte of the first 22 yrars of his life - tho period embra­
ced lay the narration - appears t i be hazardous. Pamuk
endeavoured to recreato, evoke, and present to the
reader a city no longer existent, unrecognisable in its
present-day shape, and undecipherable on a contempoaary map. We thus receioed a paeadoxical apology,
a hymn an honour of a remembered and imaginary lo­
cation - a phantom cosmopolitan Istanbul, deteriora­
ting but still capable of casting a spell with its Oriental
allure. A brief demogrophic outline ot the town on the
Bosporus enablei us to envisage the scale of changes; in
the a920s it had a populption of 500 000, which during
Pamuk’s childhood totafled a million, and in 2000 —10
million.2 Today, ihe cypressacovered hills viewed lay
the young Orhan have vanished under cheap housing
estates, bridges cross the Bosporus, and the favourite
promenade of the Pamuk family had been taken over
by tourists.
Those readers who expect Istanbul to be a city guide­
book endowed with an aura of the belles letters and en­
hanced with spicy local details will be disappointed: the
peregrination routes bypass easily identifiable spots and
Istanbul icons (perhaps with the sole exception of the
Galata Bridge linking the banks of the Golden Horn).
They lead us down the kempt streets of the wealthi­
est districts, joining assorted points of Pamuk’s private
topography: the family house in Ni§anta§, the “Little
Paris” of Istanbul,3 and an apartment in another Eu­
ropeanised district, i.e. Cihangir. From here we make

Galata Bridge. 1950s

our way to the American Robert College and eventu­
ally reach the vestibule of the Hilton Hotel, in which
friends of the author’s father took their afternoon tea.
If we should decide to travel to the Bosporus then only
in a 1952 Dodge so as to catch a boat already waiting
to take the Pamuk family to a summer residence on the
largest of the Prince islands. When he managed —es­
caping the prying gaze of his mother and omniscient
aunts —to find himself with his first girlfriend in the
poor Greek districts of Fener or Balat, the local urchins
would run at the sight of the lovers trying to hide, cry­
ing: Tourist! Tourist! What is your name?
recall this caricature not in order to discredit Pamuk’s portrayal — Istanbul is an in-depth, dense, and
multi-strata description endowed with poetic ambiance
and sarcastic self-deprecation. Reading the recollec­
tions of the Nobel Prize laureate calls, however, for crit­
ical awareness making it possible to decipher his text
in the most complete way possible —the author himself
appears to encourage us to do so by carefully outlining
the novel’s socio-cultural backdrop.
This is a manifesto of the identity of a native-born
resident of Istanbul, an apology of enrootment and af­
filiation to a town whose greatest force is duration and
continuity; it is those features that discourses competing
with Pamuk —especially nationalistic and anti-Western
ones —would like to obliterate. On almost every page
of his book the author stressed his alienness and “foreigness” in new Istanbul - this is not a Baedeker travel
guide but the narration of an egocentric and introvert

Justyna Chmielewska • I s T A N B u L : RECOLLECTIONs FROM A LO sT CITY

man of letters who devoted long years to arrive at the by
no means simple essence of the city and to become ca­
pable of consciously identifying himself with its sublime
depiction. To be able to say: Istanbul’s fate is my fate: I
am attached to this city because it has made me who I am.

Between the E ast and the West:
melancholic Istanbul
In a justification of their verdict, members of the
Royal Swedish Academy explained that they presented
the award to a writer who in the quest for the melancholic
soul of his native city has discovered new symbols for the
clash and interlacing of cultures.4 Despite the fact that he
evaded the well-worn metaphor of the bridge linking
the Orient and the Occident Pamuk did not resign from
exploring the potential of this fundamental opposition.
Nonetheless, he sought regions where the terms “East”
and "West” still mean something, say something essen­
tial, and explain the condition of people from the world
around him: suspended, torn between extremities, un­
able to fully identify themselves either with one circle or
the other.5 Benefitting from Orientalist clichés, stere­
otype depictions, and simple connotations with which
sentimental descriptions of Constantinople abounded,
Pamuk tried to reach that level of experiencing the city
along which there takes place a profound identification
with the site, its texts and imagery due to the absorp­
tion, personal interpretations or rejection of existing
representations. This is a difficult and painful identifi­
cation, marked with a feeling of shame and uncertainty,
loss and paradoxical pride.
Return for a moment to the social context: the Pamuk family inherited a fortune made by the author’s
grandfather who built railroads during the first years
of the Republic,6 and which Orhan’s father and uncles
managed to squander in the post-war period. The au­
thor’s relatives can be regarded as a model-like sample
of the Istanbul Europeanised elite - educated at the
best universities, ostentatiously lay, and associated with
the cosmopolitan legacy of the town rather than with
the nationalistic project of modern Turkish identity.
Torn by inner conflicts, lost in the elegant interiors of
their Istanbul apartment, surrounded by piles of West­
ern books gathering dust, and with difficulty finding
their place in the new social and cultural reality of the
Republic. Home became as empty as the city’s ruined yalis7
and as gloomy as the fern-darkened gardens surrounding
them - Pamuk recalled; elsewhere, he supplemented the
image of the catastrophe approaching those closest to
him and the town: .„but as nothing, Western or local,
came to fill the void, the great drive to Westernise amounted
mostly to the erasure of the past; the effect on culture was
reductive or stunting, leaving families like mine, otherwise
glad of Republican progress, to furnish their houses like mu­
seums.8 Pamuk seems to suggest that the degeneration
of people is merely a reflection and derivative of the

ruin into which the town declined. Times of splendour
had passed, and streets and houses together with their
residents were doomed to exist on the margin of great
We arrive at the point in which Pamuk’s Istanbul
begins to slowly disclose its true face - that of a town
relegated to the peripheries, forgotten, and full of traces
of dead imperial culture gradually ousted by the me­
diocrity of modernity. It is here, amidst the ruins and
snatches of former might, that the author sought an­
chorage points. Pamuk described the feeling accom­
panying this difficult identification as huzun - he had
in mind specific melancholy characteristic for the resi­
dents of Istanbul, embedded in an overwhelming feel­
ing of loss and decline, additionally supplemented with
recollections of imperial glory and poisoned by the ir­
reversibility of the changes to which the town had succumbed.9
Already due to its Arabian etymology huzun refers
to Koranic and Sufi tradition ousted in republican
Turkey,10 to the era of spiritual death and philosophi­
cal sophistication: contemporaneity appears to be their
failed and ungrateful child. This paradoxical feeling sorrow mixed with pride, and reminiscences of greatness
with the experiences of degeneration, a subconscious
willingness to undergo suffering - becomes the content
of Istanbul existence. Searching for a counterpart of this
par excellence local state of the spirit Pamuk turns to the
outside, towards analogues of urban sadness recorded
in the writings of Western authors. In its capacity as in­
dividual suffering, leading towards alienness and loneli­
ness, Romantic European melancholy does not, how­
ever, exhaust the nature of the phenomenon, which in
its Istanbul edition is a shared feeling and possibly the
sole experience linking all those who manage to iden­
tify themselves with the city on the Bosporus. Under­
standing huzun could be facilitated by reading Tristes
Tropiques by Claude Lévi-Strauss, although this tristesse
too will not be an exact reflection of Istanbul sorrow;
depression accompanying the observation of the pov­
erty of Sao Paulo or Delhi has an underpinning of a
colonial feeling of guilt, of which Pamuk’s kinsmen are
free. Perhaps its identification is better assisted by the
symptoms of the Istanbul malaise and not its sources: It
is by seeing huzun, by paying our respects to its manifesta­
tions in the city’s streets and views and people, that we at
last come to sense it everywhere. On cold winter mornings,
when the sun suddenly falls on the Bosporus and that faint
vapour begins to rise from the surface.
Pamuk perceived the mark of sadness unmistakably
in the remnants of former Constantinople - immersed
in the tissue of the city and with time losing their inte­
gral character vanishing amidst the successive strata of
the Istanbul palimpsest of the ruins of previous towns.11
It is on their rubble and in the gaps in their tissue that
successive forms developed, creating hybrid spaces dif­

Justyna Chmielewska • I s T A N B u L : RECOLLECTIONs FROM A LO sT CITY

ficult to decipher. In order to explain the special en­
thralling and attractive nature of those Istanbul strata
Pamuk rather provocatively referred to the category of
the “picturesque” conceived by John Ruskin, so as to
in a thoroughly nineteenth-century and Romantic style
express every few pages his admiration for a Byzantine
wall overgrown with ivy or a semi-buckled mossy roof
of a tekke belonging to crazed dervishes, whose garden
provides shelter for homeless dogs - the emblematic res­
idents of a town abandoned by successive civilisations.
The sorrow that is part of the essence of the local­
ity is projected onto its image: in its purest and correct
form Istanbul will appear to Pamuk as black-and-white.
The scarlet and orange of the sultanate, Muslim green
banners and turquoise robes have already faded, leav­
ing the city of ruins and of end-of-the-empire melancholy.
The greying and rotting timber of the collapsing Otto­
man villas,12 the ashen, indescribable fur of dogs roam­
ing in the streets, the severity of stone mosques marking
the town panorama, the threads of thick smoke spewed
by ships sailing across the sound, the dark whirl of the
water surrounding and invading the town. Finally, the
most important component of the Bosporus mono­
chrome: snow. Pamuk constructed his Istanbul from
such images and it is they that condense most effec­
tively the very essence of post-imperial colourlessness.
Once again, and as in the case of the hüzün, despite
the feeling of loss and an awareness of the ostensibly
unattractive colour scale of the city, it is this black-andwhite quality that for Pamuk will render Istanbul his
Hence, melancholy and ruins, black, grey and white,
unclear memories of former opulence and quiet consent
to the local peripheral character.13 By embarking upon
a quasi-Orientalist game played both with the texts de­
scribing the town and with the reader, the author con­
tinued to circulate around "dangerous”’ motifs: clichés
of Oriental harems and cemeteries, mysterious murders
committed by moonlight or Romantic images of “beau­
tiful ruins”. He provocatively resorted to texts from the
“black list” of Western writers-Orientalists, laboriously
disclosed by Edward Said and his emulators14 - de­
scriptions of Istanbul by Nerval, Gautier, and Flaubert
become the keys to the gates of a non-existent town.
This is a step just as effective as it is hazardous: Pamuk’s
book thus becomes an easy target both for the pro-revi­
sion numerous trackers of Orientalist deviations on the
Western side of the barricade (who, in turn, accuse him
of copying Western clichés and the “Orientalisation” of
Istanbul) and the Turks, readily criticising Pamuk for
his “Occidentalisation” of the town, contrary to the na­
tional ethos, for pandering to European tastes, and for
failing to notice the ”genuine”, Moslem and, predomi­
nantly, Turkish character of the metropolis.15
Defending his stand, Pamuk developed a unique
theory of the Istanbul amalgamate, in which elements

borrowed from Eastern and Western tradition create
a difficult and ambiguous whole. Although this rather
unsurprising apology of syncretism and multicultural
qualities resounds with truism (could the identity of a
town with a population totalling more the 10 million be
based on a single tradition?) in Istanbul it is constructed
in an interesting fashion: via a multi-strata criticism of
the cul de sac into which fascination with figures of the
East and the West has led the residents of Istanbul.
Openly critical of Turkish nationalism,16 Pamuk seems
to parallelly - although somewhat more gently - doubt
the tendency to copy Western models (and turned the
edge of irony predominantly towards his relatives, thus
revealing the cultural shallows, on which they have
landed). A search for references to Islam will not lead
us far while reading Istanbul: attachment to religion is,
according to Pamuk, a feature typical for the "primi­
tive” residents of the poor districts, arrivals from the
Anatolian province, while the author’s direct contact
with the Moslem ritual seems to be limited to spying
upon and tormenting a female servant employed by his
parents when he was a child. The poor and those mis­
treated by fate “need” God, but this certainly does not
hold true for Pamuk. If one were to seek the positive
aspects of the Istanbul mixture, the writer would have
probably assigned them to the cosmopolitanism of the
town, its multicultural qualities inscribed into the his­
tory of a city for centuries populated by Turks, Greeks,
Jews, Armenians and representatives of other diaspo­
ras. Here too, however, hüzün makes itself known - due
to brutal nationalisation and successive pogroms little
is left of former great variety: at best, memory and con­
secutive traces marking the map of the town, a phan­
tom of the past.
Istanbul identity d la Orhan Pamuk is undoubtedly
excusive and elitist - hence the majority of the criti­
cal opinions about his literary commentaries voiced in
Turkey.17 Significantly, the author too described his po­
sition as ambiguous, stressing that his prime intention
was writing books and not politics, that he was una­
fraid of formulating strong opinions about the cultural
rank of the country. His voice, one of few, is heard and
carefully heeded on the western shores of the Bosporus.
Istanbul is predominantly a literary text; more, it is an
urban mega-text, involving earlier descriptions into a

Istanbul in a text
sometimes, it might appear that Pamuk owes more
to his literary predecessors than to an actual experience
of the town. The Istanbul Bildungsroman is, after all, pri­
marily the story of taming space via text, of becoming
old enough for Istanbul (and Istanbul!) by delving into
its successive representations. Here, the author ren­
dered the reader’s task easier and this one time did not
compel him to participate in a game: without conceal­

Justyna Chmielewska • IS T A N B U L : RECOLLECTIONs FROM A LO s T CITY

ing the sources of his inspirations he openly indicated
which texts moulded his image of the town (we must
forgive a megalomaniac inclination to regard himself
as an equal of the greatest - sometime Mann, at other
times Conrad or Nabokov). More, he patiently guides
the reader across his textual silva verborum comprising
an unobvious likeness of the town on the Bosporus.
If the most sensitive chords of the Istanbul spirit are
affected by the West-East dichotomy then the same
holds true for texts that enabled Pamuk to reach the
very essence of the town: famous Orientalists, on the
one hand, and local writers, forgotten by the Turks
(who was supposed to read them?), on the other hand.
Hence Nerval and his Voyage en Orient, in which Is­
tanbul, rather colourless in comparison with Cairo,
is one of the last stopovers; then, following Nerval’s
tracks, Gautier and his Constantinople; finally, Flaubert
suffering from syphilis caught in Beirut and, similarly
as Nerval, disappointed with the “insufficiently Orien­
tal” Constantinople. Further on, Gide, unsparing in his
racist comments about the natives, and Le Corbusier,
under the spell of the Ottoman legacy (he toured the
town prior to his fascination with the aesthetics of the
limousine and the transatlantic liner; more, in a bout of
Orientalist nostalgia he was wont to urge the Turkish
modernisers to preserve and revitalise historical wood­
en architecture!18). Pamuk read them patiently and in­
dulgently - at times expressing irony for the schematic
depictions, upon other occasions seeking in their de­
scriptions details to which none of the earlier examined
texts drew attention. In a word: he allowed the Europe­
ans to tell a story about their Istanbul, regardless of the
character of those accounts.
The whole issue grows more complicated when we
examine the local dragomans, with Pamuk devoting
more attention to four of them: Resat Ekrem Kogu,
Yahya Kemal, Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar and Abdulhak
§inasi Hisar, Istanbul guides described by the author as
melancholic men of letters. What is the crux of the mat­
ter? Apparently, these four writers, at least when read
by Pamuk, managed to penetrate the town the most, to
salvage the majority of Istanbul in their texts, to best
render its specificity lost in time._Kogu - the Sisyphus
of the Bosporus - devoted his whole life to a deed that
cannot be rivalled: Istanbul Encyclopedia (keep in mind
that while collecting material for this perverse compen­
dium he devoted himself to studying the special beauty
of the local boys, leaving the town and its description
on the margin), Kemal - whose poetry is up to this day
used to educate consecutive generations of Turks, and
Tanpinar, closest to the Nobel Prize laureate: master
and student. Both spent their youth becoming familiar
with Armenian poetry and devoted their mature years
to delving into the language of Western poets and par­
allel roaming across the poor suburbs, where they dis­
covered a foretaste of the desired huzun. Finally, there

is Hisar, whose “Bosporus civilization” remained for Pa­
muk a model of the Istanbul saga: the fate of people and
the town constitute a tangle not to be unravelled.
Where are the complications? - asks the more ob­
servant reader. It appears that within the context of
the four writers there recurs the melancholy echo of an
unavoidable complexity of the identity of the town on
the Bosporus - the already familiar East-West paradox.
All four enjoy the deserved renown of "great Turkish
writers” (perhaps with the sole exception of the rather
too controversial Resat Ekrem Koçu), and all four de­
veloped their talent and perception in contact, context,
and deep fascination with Western literature - either
imitating European models or trying to translate and
adapt them to local reality. Pamuk is uncompromising
in his assessment: he hears clearly the Western semi­
tone even in the “native” representations of Istanbul,
closest to virtuosity; the “purity” of description and in­
nocence so desired by nationalists and Turkish purists,
its independence from European impact are simply im­
possible. We reach a successive essential and sensitive
point of the arguments presented by the Nobel Prize
laureate: the inevitability of borrowing, whose source is
both the centuries-long fascination with the West and
a sui generis impotence of Turkish authors incapable of
describing their town. Leaving aside various official docu­
ments and the handful of city columnists who scolded Istan­
bullus for their poor comportment in the streets, until the
beginning of the twentieth century, Istanbullus themselves
wrote very little about their city. The living, breathing city
—its streets, its atmosphere, its smells, the rich variety of its
everyday life was penned by Westerners - a harsh opinion
formulated in a characteristically Orhan Pamuk style.
Whoever would like to make a riposte to this cri­
tique by referring to Said’s theory of Orientalism, argu­
ing that the Turks simply had no other solution at their
disposal than to succumb to the cultural and political
domination of the West, cannot expect to enjoy easy
success. Only awareness of the complexity of the Turk­
ish paradox, that East-West angle characteristic for
contemporary Turkey, makes it possible, Pamuk claims,
to perceive the reverse side of the issue. Orientalism is
interpreted in Istanbul, unfortunately, mainly to justify
nationalist sentiment or to imply that, if it weren’t for the
West, the East would be a wonderful place - and Pamuk
seems to be correct within the context of the identity
disputes conducted from the onset of the Republic.

The author reads about Istanbul, but just as often
observes it by seeking its soul and the recognisable face
of the town in books, etchings, and sketches. Already
browsing through his book makes it possible to imagine
the way in which Pamuk sees the space of the metropo­
lis: obsessively recurring images of decrepit wooden
villas, the yali along the Bosphorus, views of streets

Justyna Chmielewska • I s T A N B u L : RECOLLECTIONS FROM A LOST CITY

sprinkled with snow, photographs of the Galata Bridge
and ships trying to squeeze into the Golden Horn ports,
and, finally, the nineteenth-century etchings by Melling, a favourite illustrator and another European who
managed to portray the town better that the local art­
ists. The secret of the force of Melling’s compositions
is supposed to be concealed in the specifically "humble
perspective” assumed by him: the absence of a central
point, the distance from which he looks at a panorama,
and the emptiness and life granted to elements placed
in the frame - all those features bring his way of see­
ing closer to Pamuk’s perception and enable the Nobel
Prize laureate to discover in the archaic etchings the
shadow of hüzün. One more thing that cannot be over­
looked: the affiliation supposedly linking Melling with
the Ottoman authors of miniatures ready to resign from
faithful depiction for the sake of representation con­
current with the canon and subjugating details of the
“human” world to strict rules of composition (on the
margin: the same principle appears to be applied in Pamuk’s text). Yet another person suspended “between”
and non-identifiable either with the imaginary East or
the West.
The second protagonist of the visual novel and a great
illustrator of the town is Ara Güler19 - a reporter prowl­
ing the dark and narrow streets and registering the grim
face of Istanbul at the time of Pamuk’s childhood. His
photographs are supposed to express the writer’s favour­
ite black-and-white image of the town: street scenes that
could appear to be portrayed by sheer accident, blurred
takes of dubious lanes at twilight, pedestrians captured
as they hurry along day after day, and, finally, scores of
photographs documenting the no longer existing Istanbul
with its wooden villas and cobblestones. A t first glance,
this is an accidental collection or rather one that illus­
trates the text in a somewhat excessively literal way. Nev­
ertheless, it remains valuable because it enabled Pamuk
to descend into the street, to leave for a while the drowsy
cosiness of his studio with a view of the Bosporus, and to
pretend that he too manages to traverse the town and not
only imagines it upon the basis of depictions by others.
Finally, private photographs - Istanbul is, after all, also
a parallel family saga with the town as its backdrop, and
the lead protagonists - Orhan, growing up, his brother,
who gives him an undeserved bashing, their beautiful
mother, the permanently absent dandy-father and the
majestic grandmother. Let us add, that this is the Orhan
who planned to devote himself to painting and spent
several years of volatile adolescence sketching the same
panorama of the Bosporus and personifying successive Eu­
ropean painters so as to attain that special, dual, EasternWestern acuity. Once again, an ostensible secondariness
or perhaps more exactly: a twisting path leading through
the stage of emulating the Orientalist clichés of old Con­
stantinople and towards intentional identification with
the town and its image.

Intimate town, absent town
The autobiographical convention observes its own
rules: there is place for slight exhibitionism and the
generalisation of one’s condition, and a wide field for
manoeuvre for the sake of auteur self-creation as long
as the writer is capable of connecting successive mo­
tifs into a whole as cohesive as possible. Pamuk made
copious use of these possibilities: poignant photographs
of the four-year old pouting Orhan next to Orhan-the
intellectual involved in politics, showing off his erudi­
tion. Self-deprecatory confessions about the excesses of
first love lead smoothly towards stories about the ruins
of the poor districts and their nineteenth-century de­
In time, the ostensibly chaotic narration (the chro­
nology of the autobiographical novel is disturbed by
successive, supposedly haphazard inserts) produced an
order of sorts: Istanbul registers the process of reaching
an awareness of being-in-a-city, documenting its con­
secutive stages together with all the complications en­
countered along the way. The path splits into at least
three tracks: the text, the image, and life; choosing
only a single one leads astray, and ignoring one of them
could result in incomplete, fragmentary identification.
In other words, there are three domains in which Pamuk seeks his town, and further: three chronological
stages of growing up. Childhood appears to be a time
of an unthinking, unruffled absorption of space (care­
less rides in a 1952 Dodge, dancing on the pavement
so as to miss the cracks and “dangerous” joints, reading
shop signs, announcements and neon lights), while ad­
olescence is a time of rejecting the simple image of the
town. The exalted quasi-fldneunusme20 of this period led
Pamuk towards dark bars suffused with cigarette smoke,
clamorous meetings of leftists, and the dirty back stage
of the suburbs that merely enhance inner frustration.
Finally, the last step: overcoming inner rebellion and
the joy of identifying oneself with the community of the
residents of Istanbul - mournful in a manner shared by
the author, melancholic just like him, and longing for a
lost town. The epilogue: the outcome of this reunifica­
tion with people and place, willingness and readiness
to create one’s own intimate an urban text that would
reflect all three fundamental components: life, image,
and literature.
Pamuk experienced his catharsis (where else?)
on a ferry sailing between the Golden Horn ports,
among tired fellow passengers with their dull coats, their
skullcaps,21 their scarves and their string bags - amidst the
symbolic Others of his Istanbul.22 Among all these ordi­
nary, common people, whom he saw in photographs by
Ara Guler more frequently than in the familiar streets
of the Europeanised quarters; people sharing with their
numerous children cramped wooden houses on the
brink of collapse in historical suburbs evoking the au­
thor’s nostalgia. Amidst those millions coming to his

Justyna Chmielewska • isT A N B U L : RECOLLECTIONS FROM A LOST CITY

town who desecrated hills overgrown with cypresses
and covered them with hideous new concrete apartment
buildings (each one crushing my soul). To what degree are
these words full of elitist arrogance insufferable for the
Turkish readers, how much do they carry of intention­
ally created contrast intent on making the reader once
again aware of the nature of the Istanbul hüzün?
Finally, one last paradox: while declaring his readi­
ness to describe the melancholic spirit of the town, sup­
posedly unconsciously experienced by all the “locals”,
Pamuk wrote a magnificent literary document of the
bright sides of the specifically Istanbul version of exclu­
sion. If one were to follow on the map the routes of
his excursions, the majority of the districts will remain
blanks,23 while those mentioned will correspond to the
Europeanised exclusive parts of the town, inhabited by
local men of means. The Nobel laureate presents him­
self as a “native” writing about his town as an insider,
but a few pages later on he mentions the feeling of al­
ienation and deprivation of roots experienced while
strolling in the streets. We can try to decipher the same
ostensible contradiction within the context of the so­
cial background against which Pamuk placed himself:
writing about the town of old he had in mind a town
from an era when the feeling of a loss (post-imperial
nostalgia experienced while looking at picturesque ru­
ins) was compensated by an awareness of possession
(of social prestige, cultural superiority, economic hin­
terland). In his words: [...] later on, [in the 1960s and
1970s - J. Ch.] when Turkey’s democracy had matured
somewhat and rich provincials began flocking to Istanbul to
present themselves to "society"; by then, my father’s and my
uncle’s business failures had taken their toll, subjecting us to
the indignity of being outclassed by people who had no taste
for secularism and no understanding for western culture. If
enlightenment entitled us to riches and privilege, how were
we to explain to those pious parvenus that we deserved
them? Perhaps by resorting to a text?
On the one hand, Istanbul is a story about an in­
timate, personal growing up of an egocentric man of
letters, sensitive to beauty; on the other hand, and in
a much less obvious manner, it is a narration about
the gradual relegation of the old Istanbul (the town
of Pamuk et consortes) by the new Istanbul, desultory,
un-aesthetic and not worth our attention: the “com­
mon” and “uncivilised” Istanbul of immigrants from the
provinces. The latter are absent in the book, and we
may at best notice the shadow they cast on the idealised
vision cherished by the Nobel laureate, causing him to
become enveloped by the darkest, most murderous and
authentic strain of melancholy.
The incompatibility of the map sketched by the
writer and the actual dynamic of the town should not
come as a surprise - this is the consequence of a project
realised with sensitivity and piety, intent on reviving in
the text a remembered and perhaps slightly mytholo­

gised space, certainly one without any claims to objec­
tivism. For everything we say about the city’s essence says
more about our own lives and our own state of mind. The
city has no centre other than ourselves, Pamuk explained
his powers of observation. Let this be - as long as such
non-symmetrical, subjectivised, and intimate attempts
remain excellent literature capable of enchanting some
and inclining others towards a more profound reflec­
tion on the political-cultural theses of the author. In
the case of Orhan Pamuk this manner of conducting a
narration is sometimes more successful than an amass­
ment of fictional plots.
1 O. Pamuk, Stambuł. Wspomnienia i miasto, translated A.
Polat, Wydawnictwo Literackie, Kraków 2008. The num­
bers of the pages in parentheses after the quotations refer
to this edition.
2 Already in 2008 the number of the town inhabitants was
estimated at 12,5 million. On the Istanbul demographic
boom in recent years cf., i.a. A. Aksoy, Istanbul’s Choice,
"Third Text” no. 1 (22) 2008, pp. 71-83. It is worth noting
that the total of residents rapidly growing since 1950 up
to this day is predominantly the outcome of inner migra­
tion - successive tides of arrivals from the provinces set­
tling down in Istanbul.
3 I mention the names of Istanbul districts, probably of little
significance for the Polish reader, in order to outline the
“elitist map” of the town - these areas are culturally rese­
rved for the Europeanised upper strata and access is
hampered for the average inhabitants of Istanbul by the
economic barrier. On the ethnic-cultural character of the
historical districts of Istanbul cf. Z. ęelik, An Architectural
Survey of the City, in: The Remaking of Istanbul. Portrait of
an Ottoman City in 19th Century, University of California
Press, Berkeley 1993, p. 9 and 21 sqq.
4 . The complete text of the justification of the verdict, the
speech given by Orhan Pamuk at the ceremony of presen­
ting the 2006 Nobel Prize in literature, and details con­
cerning the writer's biography and bibliography in: http://
(access 10.01.2009).
5 Another line of division appears to be much more signifi­
cant within the context of Istanbul: I have in mind the
north-south line. The Pamuk family is an excellent repre­
sentative of the “northern Istanbul residents”, a
Europeanised and lay middle class living in districts to the
north of the Golden Horn - the first beneficiaries of
modernisation, in time relegated to the economic and
cultural margin. On this division cf. O. Esen, The
Tightrope Walk of the Middle Class in a Fractured Istanbul,
in: Art, City and Politics in an Expanding World. Writings
from the 9th International Istanbul Biennial, istanbul Kultur
Sanat Vakfi, Istanbul 2005, pp. 120-121. Pamuk described
the experience of crossing the border of the Golden Horn:
The trams had been going up and down our street since 1914
connecting [northern districts - J. Ch.] Maękę and Nąantaęi
to Taksim Square, Tunel, the Galat Bridge and all the other
poor, old historic [southern - J. Ch.J neighbourhoods that
then seemed to belong to another country (p. 50).
6 On the ideological and non-neutral significance of rail­
way lines linking the most distant parts of Anatolia and

Justyna Chmielewska • isT A N B U L : RECOLLECTIONs FROM A LO sT CITY









the cultural centre (Istanbul) and political capital
(Ankara) for the Turkish project of modernism see: S.
Bozdogan, Modernism and Nation Building. Turkish
Architectural Culture in the Early Republic, University of
Washington Press, Seattle and London 2001, pp. 119­
121. Involvement in building the railroad turned Paul's
grandfather into a classic representative of the elite of
modernisers, who by imposing reforms intended to trans­
form the crumbling empire into a Western-type state.
Yali describes a seaside villa, typical for Ottoman housing
in Istanbul, situated on the shores of the Bosporus and
"opened” towards the straits and not the town.
Nationalistic reforms introduced in the 1930s by the ironfisted Atatürk and his adherents resulted in an effective
severance of the cultural continuum between Ottoman
and republican Turkey: a change of the Ottoman alpha­
bet to a Latin one and the Muslim calendar to a Gregorian
one, a reform of clothes, a secularisation campaign as well
as a transference of the capital of the state from sultana­
te-era Istanbul to historically neutral Ankara were only
some of the bold modernisation steps taken to transform
Turkey from the “sick man of Europe” into a modern
republic. Cf. D. Kołodziejczyk Turcja. Historia państw świa­
ta XX wieku, Wyd. Trio, Warszawa 2000, pp. 114-127.
An attempted analysis of the category of melancholy in
Pamuk's Istanbul by, i.a. Esra Akcan, cf. The Melancholies
of Istanbul, “World Literature Today”, 11-12 2006, pp.
Abandoned ruins of Moslem brotherhoods (banned in
1925 upon the order of Atatürk), a constantly recurring
motif in Istanbul, symbolized the religious sophistication
of the Ottoman era but at the time of the young Pamuk
were merely mute symbols of the fall and degeneration of
a past civilisation.
On the Istanbul palimpsest cf. A. Nowaczewski, Pejzaże
miejskiej melancholii, "Przegląd polityczny” no. 89, 2008, p.
Orhan Esen identified Pamuk's favourite motif of a
wooden crumbling house, characteristic for the poor
districts of Istanbul, with unkempt children reclining on
the steps and laundry drying in the windows, as a symbol
of backwardness and Oriental poverty contested by adhe­
rents of the modernisation of Turkey; cf. O. Essen,
learning from Istanbul, in: Self-Service City: Istanbul, ed. O.
Esen, S. Lanz, b-books, Berlin 2007, fragment available
(access 15 January 2009). In recent years, successive
quarters dominated by such housing, e.g. the Fatih district
mentioned by Pamuk, have been torn down.
Cf. Pamuk's reflections about the marginal and indirect
status of Turkey in the interview: Nadal naiwnie wierzę w
Zachód, Magazyn "Dziennika”, 25-26 October 2008, pp.
7-8. The author devoted much attention to this motif
also in his Nobel lecture: My Father’s Suitcase, ’’Przegląd
polityczny” no. 89: 2008, (insert).
Cf. E. W Said, Orientalizm, transl. M. Wyrwas-Wiśniewska,
Zysk i S-ka, Poznań 2005, in particular pp. 284-354.
The motif of the collision of Eastern and Western impacts
is one of the leitmotifs of Pamuk's works. In: My Name is
Red ( Nazywam się Czerwień, transl. D. Chmielowska,
Wyd. Literackie, Kraków 2007) it is included within the
context of a dispute concerning style and authorship
conducted by sixteenth-century painters of miniatures
active in the sultanate; in Snow (Snieg, transl. A. Polat,
Wyd. Literackie, Kraków 2006) this tension is expressed









in a political and world outlook controversy, thus beco­
ming a direct reason for disturbances in the provincial
town of Kars.
Cf. Nadal naiwnie wierzę w Zachód, Magazyn "Dziennika”,
25-26 October 2008, pp. 7-8 and Moja turecka biblioteka,
"Dziennik”, 24 December 2008.
Cf. S. Morkoę, City and Self in Three Accounts of Istanbul:
Lorich’s Panorama (1559), Le Corbusier’s Travelogue (1911)
and Pamuk’s Memoir (2005), “Middle East Technical
University Journal of the Faculty of Architecture” no. 2
(24) 2007, pp. 96-97.
On the Istanbul (unrealised) projects by Le Corbusier see:
S. Bozdogan, Modernism and Nation Building. Turkish
Architectural Culture in the Early Republic, University of
Washington Press, Seattle and London 2001, pp. 3-4 and
Born in 1928 in an Armenian family, probably the most
famous Turkish photojournalist and the only Turk wor­
king for the Magnum agency. Photographs taken in the
1950s and 1960s, showing the fishermen and workers of
Istanbul, attained the status of urban icons. In his book
Pamuk included chiefly street photographs by Guler.
The impossibility of the emergence of fldneurisme d la Turca
was interestingly described by Ugur Tanyeli: due to the
obliteration of the public/private borderline functioning
in Western towns, in Turkey streets became an arena of
intensive social control making it impossible to unrestric­
tedly roam other than in groups. Tanyeli pointed out that
outer space assumed the form of places of meetings and
interactions and not of the isolation of the individualised
subject. Cf. U. Tangelo, Public Space/Private Space: The
Invention of a Conceptual Dichotomy in Turkey, in: Art, City
and Politics in an Expanding World. Writings from the 9th
International Istanbul Biennial, istanbul Kultur Sanat
Vakfi, Istanbul 2005, pp. 210-225. Another factor hampe­
ring the Istanbul version of fl&neurisme could be strongly
politicized town space, cf. E. Ozyurek, Nostalgia for the
Modern. State Secularism and Everyday Politics in Turkey,
Duke University Press, Durham and London 2006, pp.
93-124. An interpretation of Istanbul as an analogue of
Benjamin's Passagenwerk was attempted by D. Kozicka, cf.
Stambulskie pasaże, “Przegląd polityczny” no. 89, 2008, pp.
Takke - a small and usually woolen cap used in Turkey by
conservative Moslem men, a male counterpart of the
shawl worn by women wishing to demonstrate their iden­
tification with Islam.
Stephan Lanz described those poor and usually conserva­
tive arrivals from the provinces as anti-urbanites - the
opposite of the ”genuine” residents of Istanbul, who in
time occupied the majority of urban space and became
culturally alien vis a vis the town elites , cf. S. Lanz, If you
can make it in Istanbul you can make it anywhere, in: Self­
Service City: Istanbul, ed. O. Esen, S. Lanz, b-books, Berlin
2007, fragment available on:
istanbul/index.html (access 15 January 2009).
By way of example, the Asian coast, where 35% of the
town's population now lives (about 4,5 million people), is
mentioned in the book only twice or thrice as a place
where Pamuk's friends raced the Mercedes cars borrowed
from their fathers (Bagdad Street) and as one of the favo­
urite localisations of engravings by Melling (historical


Chmielewska, Justyna, “Istanbul: Recollections from a Lost City / Polska Sztuka Ludowa - Konteksty 2014 Special Issue,” Cyfrowa Etnografia, Dostęp 30 czerwca 2022,

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