Istanbul: my mother’s city

Cem Özdemir
12 February 2004

“I am listening to Istanbul, intent, my eyes closed:
At first there is a gentle breeze
And the leaves on the trees
Softly sway;
Out there, far away,
The bells of water-carriers unceasingly ring;
I am listening to Istanbul, intent, my eyes closed.

I am listening to Istanbul, intent, my eyes closed;
Then suddenly birds fly by,
Flocks of birds, high up, with a hue and cry,
While the nets are drawn in the fishing grounds
And a woman’s feet begin to dabble in the water.
I am listening to Istanbul, intent, my eyes closed.”

Orhan Veli Kanik (1914-50)

The Golden Horn, Istanbul (Copyright 2003 Torbjörn Bergsdal / www.artmixer.com)
The Golden Horn, Istanbul

When I think of my mother’s city, of Istanbul, poems and songs first spring to mind: this declaration of love by Orhan Veli, who treated the city like a beautiful woman, or Bekle bizi Istanbul (Wait for us, Istanbul), after a poem by the screenwriter Vedat Türkali. Whenever the “progressive” singer Edip Akbayram intones the latter in one of his concerts, it instantly becomes a battle-cry against the flawed men in power.

I also think of Melike Demirag, whom I heard in the 1980s giving a concert in German exile (Ah, simdi Istanbulda olmak vardi / “Oh, if only I could be in Istanbul”) – at a time when she would have been imprisoned in Turkey for singing “leftist” songs. Melike took the lyric from a poem written by Nazim Hikmet, who had to flee Istanbul in 1951 because the powerful were afraid of his poems. He was never to see his city again.

I think of my deceased aunt and uncle, who (like my parents) tried their luck in Germany, but decided (unlike my parents) to return for good, in the 1980s; they just wanted to be back in “our city”. They bought a small flat in the Etiler neighbourhood, not far from the second bridge across the Bosphorus, with money they had been able to save in Germany. I recall how they agonised over the question whether it was the right decision to trade Bad Urach in southern Germany for Istanbul, and how tough life actually was in the beloved city they had so much yearned for.

I remember my own explorations through the city as a young adult. I carried several travel guides with me, searching for sights I’d never seen as a child because we always used to just visit relatives. I remember how I walked across the beautifully-situated Boğaziçi University campus down to the Bosphorus, in awe of the old houses there.

If I enter my memories even further, I think of how we would always first head for Istanbul when we went on our Turkish summer holiday. After three days in the car I was looking forward to the noisy and chaotic city, to visiting my mother’s childhood friend and her family. I can still see the two-storey building in the Levent neighbourhood, with its lawn, at the edge of a small wood. Today the family son is an academic and lives in the United States. His parents have died; trees, gardens and the small houses have disappeared.

Hagia Sophia, Istanbul (Copyright 2003 Torbjörn Bergsdal / www.artmixer.com)
Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

I would only later become truly familiar with the Hagia Sophia, the Süleymaniye Mosque and the Topkapi Saray, but even then we never left out the kapali carsi, Istanbul’s great bazaar. Like most children I never liked accompanying my parents on shopping trips, but when they went to the bazaar I never missed the opportunity.

My memory stretches back to the 1:6 exchange rate, one Deutschmark for six Turkish lira. Who would have thought that the merchants in Istanbul would once have to count in millions, even billions of lira – and calculate in euro – to serve their customers?

A time of torment

I can’t quite recall how I arrive at the subject. But somehow I wonder about my mother’s recollection of the events of 6-7 September 1955, the date of the pogrom-like riots against the Greeks, who at the time still lived in Istanbul in large numbers. My mother grew up in Istanbul and later always spoke Greek with her Greek female colleagues in Germany. But she didn’t talk about the atrocities for a long time.

When, finally, she did, she told me how during the night of 5-6 September, Greek residences were marked out by putting Turkish flags in front of Turkish houses. Greeks who were their friends and neighbours, with whom they celebrated Easter and Ramadan, became victims. My mother spoke of Greeks who banged on the doors of their Turkish neighbours, desperately looking for help. She recalled that some Turks protected their neighbours from harm or offered them shelter until the terror stopped.

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk
Mustafa Kemal Atatürk

Later she learned that the incident that allegedly triggered off the events, the alleged desecration of the house where Kemal Atatürk was born in Thessaloniki (Greece), was in fact an invention of the Turkish secret services. The riots did not, after all, originate from popular resentment of Greeks. Criminals and ultra-nationalists bussed to Istanbul turned the proud Istiklal Caddesi, the famous shopping street in the Beyoğlu neighbourhood, into a heap of rubble. Huge bundles of fabric were left lying in the street by the plunderers. When I found out that my mother’s grandmother was herself Greek, and that she had married a Turk out of love, I understood the long silence. You did not talk about “things like that”.

The history lessons I attended in the Turkish afternoon school in Germany evaded this and other chapters of Turkish history – like the varlik vergisi, the poll tax for Jews and Christians during the second world war, in violation of a centuries-old tradition of tolerance between Ottomans and Jews.

The decline of the Ottoman Empire and later the rule of the Young Turks heralded an increasing restriction of minorities on Ottoman and Turkish soil – a process continued under the new, secularist Turkish republic established in 1923. The republic scrapped the old Ottoman millet system, which had given religious communities the right to self-government and juridical autonomy.

After the empire, fear and deep mistrust towards minorities gripped the republic. Their loyalty was doubted.

City of refuge and rage

Kadikoy Synagogue, Istanbul (photo: Sara Liss / www.zeek.net)
Tu B'shevat show at the Kadikoy Synagogue, Istanbul

When I speak with Ishak Alaton, this revered Sephardic Jew and Turkish citizen, he often recalls his ancestors, to whom Sultan Beyazid II generously gave refuge in the Ottoman Empire in 1492 after the “reconquest” of the Iberian peninsula from Moorish, Islamic rule. This pattern continued through later persecutions and pogroms, when Jews found shelter in the Ottoman cities of Saraj Ovas (Sarajevo), Salonica (Thessaloniki), Constantinople (Istanbul) or Smyrna (Izmir). “What is a poll tax that was imposed for a few years compared to centuries-old Christian anti-Semitism and finally the Shoah?”, my Jewish friends in Istanbul would ask when once again we discussed the tribulations of life in Istanbul.

Tilda, the late, Jewish-born wife of the Turkish writer Yaºar Kemal never wanted to set foot on German soil. In her hometown of Istanbul she felt safe from expulsion and annihilation. I would have liked to discuss the impact of the 15 November car bombs with her. Perhaps she would have explained to me that Jews would now resort to security measures that had become the norm for German-Jewish institutions and celebrities a long time ago. But, surely, she would have insisted that Istanbul would survive these latest assaults.

Patriarch Bartholomew I
Patriarch Bartholomew I

On one of my early explorations I came across the historic seat of the Greek-Orthodox patriarch in the Fener neighbourhood. The church had little in common with the bland atmosphere of our Protestant church in Bad Urach. The incense, icons, lighted candles and women deeply engrossed in prayer fascinated me.

Years later, I paid an official visit to Patriarch Bartholomew and received a guided tour through his area of responsibility. He and his flock, reduced to around 3,000 people, can rightfully call themselves Istanbulers, more than many Turkish nationalists. The latter’s slogans, such as Ya sev ya terk et (Love your country or piss off), are ubiquitous even at football games in Istanbul.

I think of my Armenian-born friend Nebil. He told me how, as a small child, he was riding a bus in Istanbul with his mother when a stranger threw at him the words Vatandas Türkce konus! (Citizen, speak Turkish). I feel contempt for the nationalists and fundamentalists because of everything they have done to this city with its colourful mix of peoples. They want a uniform Istanbul in which Jews, Armenians, Assyrians and Greeks appear as a relic – not as partners in a living city.

One city, many voices

And yet I believe that one day, schoolchildren in Istanbul and their teachers will stroll down Istiklal Caddesi to recall the events of 1955 and ask their grandparents what recollections they have of the atrocities. They will learn something in school about the poll tax for Jews and Christians in the 1940s. They will look for traces of the Christian past in their neighbourhood. They will visit the Armenian archive of the Turkish-Armenian weekly, Agos, run by my friend Hrant Dink to learn something about the dark year of 1915 when Armenian intellectuals from Istanbul were sent away to be exterminated.

Just as nationalists could not prevent the abolition of the death penalty, open discussion of torture, and Kurds in the city speaking their own language, this Istanbul too will come.

Wooden houses, Istanbul (Copyright 2003 Torbjörn Bergsdal / www.artmixer.com)
Wooden houses, Istanbul

One former mayor of the city, Bedrettin Dalan, is called “the bulldozer”. Under his rule, entire neighbourhoods were torn down to build broad avenues, churches had to wait for years for a permit for reconstruction, Alevite temples were threatened with destruction; yet the city lives. The few Jews, Armenians, Assyrians and Greeks still present are determined to remain. I can well understand the feelings of people who want to prove, often in vain, that they are loyal citizens of “their” country.

Tyrants, cruel rulers, ultra-nationalists, corrupt politicians and now the terror perpetrated by religious fundamentalists have not been able to destroy this city. Istanbulu dinliyorum, gözlerim kapali – I am listening to Istanbul, my eyes closed.

A version of this article was first published in Der Tagesspiegel, the Berlin-based daily newspaper, on 30 November 2003. It was translated from the original German by Julian Kramer.

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