Daily Archives: 1 February 2007

Pamuk on Cihangir, Istanbul

It was in Cihangir [named for Mughal Emperor Jahangir] (where we too would move as our fortunes dwindled) that I first learned Istanbul was not an anonymous multitude of walled-in lives—a jungle of apartments where no one knew who was dead or who was celebrating what—but an archipelago of neighborhoods in which everyone knew one another. When I looked out the window; I didn’t see just the Bosphorus and the ships moving slowly down the familiar channels, I also saw the gardens between the houses, old mansions that had not yet been pulled down, and children playing between their crumbling walls. As with so many houses that look out on the Bosphorus, there was, just in front of the building, a steep and winding cobblestone alley that went all the way down to the sea. On snowy evenings I would stand with my aunt and my cousin and watch from afar with the rest of the neighborhood as noisy, happy children slid down this alley on sleds, chairs, and planks of wood.

The center of the Turkish film industry—which put out seven hundred films a year in those days and was ranked second largest in the world, after India—was in Beyoğlu, on Yeşilçam Street, only ten minutes away, and because many of the actors lived in Cihangir, the neighborhood was full of the “uncles” and tired, heavily made-up “aunties” who played the same character in every film they did. So when children recognized actors they knew only from their hackneyed film personae (for example, Vahi Öz, who always played the fat old card shark who seduced innocent young housemaids), they’d heckle them and chase them down the street. At the top of the steep alley, on rainy days, cars would skid on the wet cobblestones, and trucks had to struggle to get to the top; on sunny days, a minibus would appear from nowhere, and actors, lighting men, and “film crews” would pile out; after shooting a love scene in ten minutes flat, they would disappear again. It was only years later, when I happened to see one of these black-and-white films on television, that I realized the true subject was not the love affair raging in the foreground but the Bosphorus glittering in the distance.

While I was looking at the Bosphorus through the gaps between the apartment buildings of Cihangir, I learned something else about neighborhood life: There must always be a center (usually a shop) where all the gossip is gathered, interpreted, and assessed. In Cihangir this center was the grocery store on the ground floor of our apartment building. The grocer was Greek (like most of the other families living in the apartments above him); if you wanted to buy anything from Ugor, you’d lower a basket from your floor and then shout down your order. Years later, when we moved into the same building, my mother, who found it unbecoming to shout down to the grocer every time she wanted bread or eggs, preferred to write her order down on paper and send it down in a basket much more stylish than those used by our neighbors.

SOURCE: Istanbul: Memories and the City, by Orhan Pamuk (Vintage, 2006), pp. 85-87

UPDATE: This post was noted by the Carpetblogger, who not only comes from a neighborhood neighboring Cihangir, but also offers some useful advice for those who wonder whether they’re fit for expat life, which concludes thus:

The Buddha said the root of all suffering is desire. It’s one of the four noble truths. That dude clearly spent a lot of time abroad.

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