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Travel and Places (2)

The old wooden houses in the Suleymaniye district of Istanbul

Drama in the backstreets
The old wooden houses in the Suleymaniye district close to the Bosphorus

Istanbul: So, Ataturk airport at midnight got things going; five aircraft had arrived at once and there were huge queues waiting to get past the immigration-control men. The new Russian girls – all blondie and flash-branded – had no scruples about queue jumping: ‘They’re always like this,’ said a fed-up Canadian. Then a scuffle broke out in another queue between an Armenian and a Turk and that set everything back because all the immigration-control men left their booths, got involved and then the police came…

After a while, I realised that I could never quite grasp Istanbul: I could never get a map of it in my head or remember who had done what to whom and when …

But the clothes shops bordering the avenues near to the Grand Bazaar are the biz. The wedding dresses steal the show – mainly because of the hugeness of their puffy sleeves and the various add-ons – all designed to mean that most of a wedding day has to be spent getting dressed.

In the bar of an old hotel (just like the one in the film, Head on) I listened to a man who loved Turkey almost as much as he loved the two tumbling pigeons that he’d brought back with him in a cardboard box from the Cappadoce. (“They’re my children,” he said.) His heart and mind were back in the times of the sixties; he knew all about Turkish politics, read Hurriyet and liked Orhan Pamuk. We drank Raki until I didn’t care anymore. We talked about the city, its architecture, its sounds and its people …

– The old wooden houses: You don’t have to walk far in the Suleymaniye district to find the old wooden houses. These houses are wonderful constructions. Most are falling apart and look like alternative film sets. Some architectural historians have been trying to get the world to pay more attention to them: as the houses fall into decay ‘a unique form of vernacular architecture is being lost’, and that ‘although some may argue that it is energy misplaced to save the wooden houses of Istanbul, considering the host of urban ills facing the city, these structures are of irreplaceable significance. They are the only remaining examples of Istanbul’s own domestic architecture, and represent building forms known from at least the 16th century.’ So, they are direct links with the Turkish past.

– The music: I asked the young man at a CD stall in Beyoglu what was the best music in the whole of Turkey. “That depends,” he replied. “Well, I mean music that sums up the country…”. “Then you’ll need this …” He rummaged around and offered me the soundtrack to Fatih Akin’s film ‘Crossing the bridge – the music of Istanbul’. It turned out to be a perfect summary – a perfect choice. I’m listening to one of the tracks,  ‘Ehemedo’ by Aynur Dogan, as I type.  One of the reviews summarised the music as: ‘a broad spectrum ranging from modern electronic, rock and hip-hop to classical “Arabesque”.’ (There’s even music by a psychedelic underground band.) The CD stall man also produced some Turkish Sufi music, some Anatolian folk music and some Turkish blues. Those blues aren’t like anything I’ve ever heard before.

– The people: I think they have a certain look on their faces; rugged, enduring, unyielding. In truth, you’d want them on your side. In December when the wind smacks down from the Bosphorus they just turn up their collars and plod on. Or they warm their hands over a brazier adjacent to the market stalls – stalls that sell old shoes by the million, roll after roll of fabric, lanterns, jumble and bric a brac, endless imitation antiques… A friend of mine bought a richly decorated head-dress only to discover she could have bought the same for much less in a poorer quarter of the city. A girl who makes her living as a belly dancer insisted that the Topkapi Palace was unmissable and how I ‘had’ to go there; And she was right. I loved the rooms devoted to jewellery and the rooms that had metalwork and silver and a beautiful model of a steamship. I took a photograph of that boat …

Boats … and Istanbul: When you start to leave the city you can see hundreds of freighters and cargo ships in the sea of Marmara. For a moment they look like huge living sepulchres – or great monuments to trade and ingenuity. There they are, dignified and docile, silently waiting to load or unload the fruits of a hundred cultures.  And as you leave the city – pushing further into Europe – there are hundreds of new apartment blocks going up… And as you leave the city going into Asia – there are huge industrial complexes and cement works and then the road opens up and you suddenly realise you want to start visiting Istanbul all over again. In the meantime, I’m watching the fabulous film, ‘Crossing the Bridge’. It’s Istanbul 1:26 a.m.

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