If you are an author in Turkey you are destined to write about Istanbul sooner or later. I have come to that point in my third novel, Istanbul Istanbul. When I was working on it, my mother — my lifelong advisor — asked me what I was writing about. “About Istanbul,” I said. There was a pause on the other end of the telephone line. “The train station,” she said with a tender and confident voice, “you should not forget to mention the train station.” I scanned my mind to recollect what I had been covering in my novel. Writing about Istanbul required plenty of work. I had done my research, taken notes down and formed stories. But on hearing my mother’s words, I realised that I didn’t have a story taking place around Haydar Pasha Station. She, an illiterate Kurdish woman from rural Anatolia, opened a crack in my mind, as she had always done with her fairytales when I was a little child. She had fed me not only with milk but also with stories about rascal jinnies, faraway seas and invisible cities. And now she once again blew her breath into my chest and led me to put some ornaments of her mind into my novel. In Istanbul Istanbulthere are some pages, like the opening story of chapter nine, written and designed in line with her wish. It is a story that takes place on the steps of Haydar Pasha Station, where helpless lovers fall in despair and at the same time find a glimpse of light. They are the same steps where Hikmet’s Human Landscapes began.
There are some cities you don’t need to see in order to fall in love with. Istanbul is one of them. I had fallen for her before I arrived at Haydar Pasha Station. I knew her through stories, novels, paintings and songs. But meeting her was not easy for a boy of 17, like me. The speed, the enormity, the finely tuned chaos of the city was a world away from where I grew up, a small town in the middle of the plains. And the times were not easy for the people of Turkey either. There had been a military coup a couple of years before, in 1980. A heavy atmosphere was hanging over the city. Curfews, prohibitions, tortures, and book burnings were part of daily life. But despite all this, we had dreams in our hearts. We had an imagination of another way of life. We knew Istanbul was not a calm city to live in. The cost of living was high, and there were unemployment, traffic, crime, and intolerance. But it has always left room for the imagination as Herman Melville wrote: “The fog lifted… leaving room for the imagination.”
In France they say, “All poets are born in the countryside but die in Paris.” Istanbul has the same essence. Our poets and writers pen shady lines or lively scenes and indicate through them where they should be buried. Some acknowledge Istanbul as the junction of historical geographies, the meeting point of East and West. Some see it as a land of desire and mysticism and relate it to past eras. The Turkish poet Yahya Kemal, the short-story writer Sait Faik, and the novelists Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar and Orhan Pamuk have approached Istanbul from different perspectives. Each of them has created his own city, unlike the others in its literature.
In Istanbul Istanbul, I wanted to portray the city as the unification point of time and space and the melting pot of opposing tendencies in life. I preferred not to talk about past golden ages. That approach has already been used up in our literature. In my novel, space and time converge on a prison cell three floors underground. When you are underground there is only one direction that matters: upwards, toward the sky. Time moves differently underground. On the surface, time is linear — past and future eclipse all else, and what matters is less where are you than where you’re going. Underground, past and future mean nothing. There is only the eternal, often agonising, now. By focusing my novel on prisoners in a subterranean cell, discussing the city above, I wanted to unite time and space, hope and hopelessness, darkness and brightness. They are all together and one. Istanbul is the name of that wholeness. Wherever you were born, you come to Istanbul to be part of its wholeness.
Istanbul is too real and at the same time too ambiguous. It makes possible both good and bad. When I was in one of those interrogation cells I felt the underground was the place for evil, while aboveground seemed to be the place for good. But instead of writing about good and evil, I wanted to explore the shades between them and to show how they exchange places.
Istanbul as a metropolis is not only the heart of this country but also the future of it. The beautiful and the ugly in Istanbul reflect the future of our people. That’s why it is now also the heart of our politics.