Istanbul: keep moving, slowly

While planning this trip, I didn’t notice that its east-west span covered almost the same territory as the former Ottoman Empire. I didn’t notice because I didn’t know. In school, we didn’t learn much about it—some ancient realm, it seemed. But the Ottoman Empire officially dissolved only about a hundred years ago.

Once you’re in this part of the world, you can feel, you can understand. There’s the presence of Islam, of course, the food, the languages, museums, and ruins, but there’s also an absence, a sense of where you’re not: this is someplace else.

But where? A gap remains. We didn’t go to Turkey proper. We spent four days in Istanbul, and none at all in the rest of the vast country, which is bigger than Texas. I imagine that is like going to New York City and nowhere else in America, or Venice/Italy—something like that. I saw the heart and the limbs of the old empire, but not what connects them. And barely the heart. You have not seen New York City after spending four days in it, and Istanbul is bigger than New York. We saw but a sliver.

The famous Blue Mosque was undergoing significant work, so we didn’t go. “I’m not a sight-bagger,” said our friend, whom we met and shared a rental with in Istanbul. It was a relief to hear someone so fully endorse this position, as when a skeptic encounters an atheist. In Istanbul I mostly wandered, slowly. That was how I found the mackerel. Baba Jim Lee used to live in Istanbul, and he once told me about the place down by the water where you picked your mackerel from the fishermen’s catch and it would be cooked for you on the spot. Quite by accident, I happened on this same part of the wharf, and you can still do nearly the same thing, although the mackerel has already been selected and filleted. I watched the man grill it, arrange it into a sandwich with garnishes and seasonings, and hand it to me sticking out of a plastic bag, which catches the juices that run as you eat.

We did go to Topkapı, the famous old palace. You’ll notice there’s no dot over the “ı”. It’s a different character, with a different pronunciation. I find this very appealing. Just outside, before entering, I was overtaken by a Turkish military band, which proceeded to a circular formation and played for a while. It was quite an orchestra: dozens of singers, horn players, percussionists, and a regal conductor. But I was most taken by the non-musician who stood virtually still the entire time. Just before each song, he made one very simple chest-crossing move with his rapier, then reassumed his motionless stance. The look on his face was almost existentially flat, as though the single gesture it was his to perform in life had reduced him to this affectless stare.

We spent half a day inside Topkapı, which was enough time to see perhaps half of it, even with the temporary closure of the Treasury, which houses the famous Spoonmaker’s Diamond (86 karats). Topkapı is vast and crowded. You can only move slowly. You wait. We spent forty-five minutes in line for the room of sacred relics. In there are Abraham’s saucepan, Joseph’s turban, Moses’s staff, David’s sword, John’s scrolls, and Mohammed’s footprint. Are any of these objects genuine? Does it matter? How many Buddha’s hairs are there in pagodas around Asia? All of them? Is there a word for the fetishization of objects that belonged to the great and the holy? Last year, when we went to the American Art Museum, part of the Smithsonian, people crowded around Lincoln’s top hat and took pictures. Photos of the sacred relics and much else in Topkapı aren’t allowed, but people were taking photographs anyway. The guards kept bellowing at them to stop.

Keep moving, yes, but not always at the same speed. In Istanbul I walked at an old man’s pace. I did this not deliberately but instinctually. I had to slow the place down to a near-shuffle. (“The game speeds up on you,” Triple-A ballplayers would tell me after returning from stints in the majors.) Still, I grew tired. At regular intervals, I would sit myself down at one of the thousands of places where you can drink a three-ounce glass of strong tea for about fifty cents. The glasses themselves, hourglass-shaped, are beautiful. I always put sugar in the tea, which in real life I virtually never do. In Istanbul, I would scarcely have thought of doing otherwise.

The tea is brewed in huge samovars. Each purveyor seems to supply entire blocks, bazaars, neighborhoods. People go around toting trays of glasses—these trays are wonderful to watch as they are carried off across a street—and you wonder where they got them: there seems to be no tea around anywhere. But there must be. Finally, at one of the places where I sat and had tea, I saw one person after another come up and then leave with a tray of full glasses. As soon as I was finished, around nine o’clock at night, the proprietor asked me to pay him, and then closed up.

Çay is their word for it, like the Indian chai. They call it çay in Albania and Azerbaijan, too. (The best Turkish tea we had was in Azerbaijan.) In Albania—I meant to note this in my Albania posts—what they called çay was more often a tisane made of a dried plant that research revealed to be ironwort. Evidently it’s good for the health, but has there ever been a plant steeped in boiling water that people didn’t say was good for the health? Ironwort tea tastes good. Albanians drink a lot of coffee, too, Turkish style: ground into powder and stirred into boiling water, usually very sweet, always leaving sludge at the bottom. The Greeks also drink it this way, but they call it Greek coffee. In Tbilisi, I saw it on menus as “Asian coffee.” In Albania, when I told people I was bound for Istanbul, they smiled and corrected me: Constantinople. I read somewhere that the city’s name change from Constantinople to Istanbul didn’t take hold until postal workers were ordered to stop delivering mail addressed “Constantinople.” It had to say “Istanbul.”

The generally accepted etymology of Istanbul is actually Greek: “into the city,” more or less. Turkish folk etymology gives Islam bol: “plenty of Islam.” Albanians do not call their country “Albania.” To them, it’s Shqipëria, a name with three possible roots: either it derives from a word meaning “to talk”; or from Skopje, the capital of neighboring North Macedonia; or from shqiponjë, “eagle,” which is the etymology Albanians tend to prefer.

Names are the most important thing. I had lunch in a hole-in-the-wall homestyle restaurant where the fare was mostly slow-cooked vegetables and grains. You chose from different steam trays: stewed eggplant, pole beans, rice, etc. The proprietor ladled these out onto your plate. He was a pleasant man, and so was his food: mild, soft, comforting, some of it almost suitable for babies. I expressed gratitude and probably mild surprise at the food. His gentle demeanor became firmer, even slightly stern. This is Turkishfood, he insisted; grilled meat is Arab. When I paid, I thanked him: teşekkür ederim. Also Arabic, he said. The Turkish word for thank you was sağol. This word, too, like the man’s food, is easy in the mouth, the way it gently wraps two vowels around the soft, wide ğ.

That lunch was after I went to the Mosaic Museum, little visited and tiny compared to Topkapı, and hidden in plain sight. The mosaics appear to date from the sixth century, during the reign of Justinian, before Mohammed was born, or perhaps slightly later, during Mohammed’s lifetime. Istanbul was Constantinople then, the eastern reach of Rome. Islam was unknown to it, and nothing about the mosaics looks like any other heritage art I was aware of in Istanbul. They show scenes of hunting and game playing, virtually nothing religious—just life as it was lived. They are beautiful, their survival incredible. The mosaics were discovered less than a hundred years ago, in deteriorated condition. A team of Austrian conservators lifted them out, carefully restored and protected them against further damage, and then put them right back.

After I went through the museum, I went all the way through it again.

All the markets, all the bazaars, hundreds of them: you would finally emerge from one after what seemed like miles of stalls, and then another would begin. Endless opulent mounds of spices, candies, dried fruit, clothing, ceramics, textiles, silver and gold. Who buys all of this? And who sells it? How is anyone making a living? Then I thought, no, a living is what Americans make. In Istanbul, they are making something else. To buy and sell is an art form. It is not a compulsion, a glum inescapable addiction, as it is in America; and it is not survival, as it is where there is no abundance.

I’m not saying how it is, because I don’t know. I’m saying how it feels. Istanbul feels so vast, self-perpetuating, self-fulfilling, and unlike everywhere else that it does not need to know anything of the rest of the world. The comparison to New York City is inaccurate, because New York survives partly on its awareness, cultivation, and promotion of its global influence. If the rest of the world ceased to exist, New York would have no reason to go on. If the rest of the world ceased to exist, Istanbul might not even notice.

For more than two weeks I’d been needing my boots cleaned, polished, and shined. In Istanbul, a tiny man—not a little person, but a very small full-sized man—did this for seven lira, less than two dollars. This was in one of the markets, right in the middle of the market. I sat on a plastic stool. To help me pass the time while he worked, he went and got me a glass of tea (for which he didn’t charge me—I upped my tip) But I was in no hurry. I wanted him to go more slowly. I would have sat on that stool all afternoon, having my boots shined, my feet massaged through the leather, drinking tea.

I spent time in mosques. I sat cross-legged on the floor, closed my eyes and took a hundred breaths, maybe moved my arms and hands a little, as I do in the morning. I know this is not how Muslims visit mosques. I watched them worship, kneeling and bowing heads to the floor. But no one made any moves to correct or stop me. No one appeared to notice me at all.

This was true everywhere I went in Istanbul. I could sit sipping the same three-ounce glass of tea for forty-five minutes and be left entirely alone. Albanians often regarded me with curiosity, sometimes with deference, often with interest, but nearly always regarded me in any case, aware of my foreign presence. In Istanbul, I was seldom regarded at all. The most notice anyone took of me was when I happened on a game of Three-Card Monte underway on the Galata Bridge. A small but fanatical crowd of men had gathered. I added myself. One player, actually a shill, tried to interest me with the bent-corner ruse, although I was not going to play. I continued watching for a few moments until another man came up to me and pushed me bodily out of the way, muttering at me. I resisted. I am by nature agreeable but am atavistic heir to my grandfather’s sudden stubbornness and irascibility when denied access. I kept resisting, kept watching, and the man kept forcing me away, each of us snarling in our language, mutually unintelligible. I moved to another side of the circle. The man apprehended me yet again. He was almost certainly another shill, protecting the con in case I should expose it, or more likely simply pegging me for a non-player (since I didn’t speak the language) and therefore dead weight. I gave up and left.

Around Topkapı, we heard the muezzin’s voice over the loudspeakers, calling believers to prayer, then reading the scripture. We thought this was a recording, but passing through one room on the way to another—perhaps it was just after the room of sacred relics, although I don’t remember—there was the muezzin himself, reading aloud into a microphone. I stayed there for quite some time, watching his eyes take in the text and tell him how to intone it. His scholarly brow furrowed with it, the angle of his head changed with each new inflection: down with concentration, to the side with subtlety, up toward the heavens when the moment called for it. I left the room and then went back in, because this was all I wanted to see: not the sacred relics or the bejeweled weaponry or even Topkapı’s extraordinary collection of Ming-era Chinese celadon, which is one of my favorite forms of pottery. The inscrutable transmission from the characters on the page to the sound of the muezzin’s voice seemed miraculous to me, and unlike the Topkapı relics it was verifiably sacred, not a dubious inert artifact of history but a living timebound treasure.

I didn’t know what he was saying or reading, and was glad not to know: just the pure melody of his rich, slightly nasal voice. I imagine it was scripture. I don’t know. I don’t know anything. No doubt it was ordinary midday prayer. I became aware again of how little I know, how vast the world is and I just a tiny interruption in it. I was standing in a spot I thought was out of the way but apparently impeded the flow of tourists, most of whom did not stay for more than a few seconds to watch the muezzin; many appeared not even to notice him at all. He looked up from his verses, caught my eye, and, without breaking his chant even for a moment, politely waved me to another point in the room.

I stayed until he finished, collected his scripture and his things, and left. A little later, while I was crossing the Topkapı grounds, still in a state of transport, he passed right by me. He was small of stature and dressed like an ordinary person, waddling off like any clerk going on his lunch break. We made brief eye contact, but he did not show any signs of recognizing me.

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1 thought on “Istanbul: keep moving, slowly

  1. I appreciate the sharp observations, the slow pace, the humility but steadfastness of the narrator, and the wonderful photographs. All I lacked was a recording of the muezzin! Thanks for traveling so well and sharing so much!

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