Books: Istanbul, Memories of A City

I found Orhan Pamuk’s ‘Istanbul: Memories of a City’ at a bookshop on my last day in Istanbul. This is a joke, I thought, as I turned the book over in my hands. A cruel joke. I’m leaving tomorrow, and I find this today.

When you fall hopelessly in love with a city and rely on your intuition and two feet to get around, you will remember every step you take, months after you leave.

I can still recall the route I took every day to get to town. Straight out of the hotel, turn left and stop and chat with the guys at the Rumist Cafe. Turn right at the grocer’s with the apricots and pomegranates which I kept telling myself to buy, but never did. Go past the ceramics shopkeeper who always said hello to me every single day.Walk up that slope where the cobblestones begin until I see that shop with ‘Urartu Carpets’ in the window, which is when I would look to my left because that would be where I’ll catch my first glimpse of the Blue  Mosque, glimmering in the morning light.

I see these images in my head right now and I’m not sure whether it’s my brain that’s remembering, or my feet.

But there’s more to my story than being able to recall how I got around. In his book, Pamuk, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006, confesses that he’s never left Istanbul since the day he was born. “I’ve never left Istanbul, never left the houses, streets, and neighbourhoods of my childhood,” he says.

He writes of growing up in a large apartment block where his entire extended family lived, of walks along the Bosphorus and long drives with his family into the countryside.

He also talks about an emotional state called hüzün, a combination of melancholy, nostalgia, loss and sadness. Hüzün has spiritual roots – Pamuk states that for the Sufis, hüzün is the spiritual anguish one feels from not being close enough to God- but he posits that everyone in Istanbul suffers from a melancholy which stems from the city’s decline. 

Pamuk sees Istanbul as a shadow of its former self, a city which has fallen into decay after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire but especially so after Turkey became a republic. Istanbul, he says, used to be “the centre of the world, the brightest star in Europe,” something which Istanbullus (the city’s residents) are constantly reminded of.

It’s from being besieged by these reminders- seeing old Ottoman villas by the Bosphorus, defaced centuries-old fountains with missing gold taps and clock towers in ruins – that this melancholy, this hüzün creeps in. ‘We used to be such a great city. What has happened to us?’ a modern-day Istanbullu might ask himself in despair.

This book is essentially a story of a man who loves Istanbul and what it represents but it’s only right at the end when you realise why he does- it was because of Istanbul that Pamuk became a writer. And his love for the city draws you in- when he mentions street names, landmarks or little things like bread, olives and goat’s cheese for breakfast, people who have been to Istanbul begin to remember and find themselves yearning to return.

One thing though- reading in depth about a place after you’ve left it can have serious side effects. Now that I’ve been to Istanbul and left, I think I understand what hüzün feels like.

© 2011 – 2014, Anis. All rights reserved.

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1 Response

  1. nisha says:

    Nice one Anis. YOU make me yearn to go there.