By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
The whole district is called the Beyoglu or, formerly, the Pera, which is Greek for the Beyond, because it is beyond the Golden Horn from the central city. It was a suburb allowed by the Byzantine emperors to the Genoese back in the 13th century, a lease renewed by the Ottoman conquerors to all foreigners Christian and Jew. To walk the streets of the Pera, it was said, was to encounter all the races of the world, plus a half-race, that being the Gypsies. "The Beyoglu," a fairly recent writer said, "is a museum of miscegenation, and on the whole a pretty powerful argument against it."
But as with so many other ghettos, it was the place to be. It shone with the activities relegated to it, which in this case exceeded prostitution and tavern keeping to comprise the craftwork that the imperial Turks once disdained and that still goes on in the warren of alley-level ateliers throughout the precipitous tumble of neighborhoods between the Tünel and Karaköy. We climbed from the latter to the former several times; even late at night each open doorway revealed a cubicle cramped with the machinery or material for some particular enterprise: a metal lathe, stacks of exotic veneers, the winding tumbrels for the spinning of electrical cables. Men were bent over a nearly finished display cabinet, or helmeted against the sun-bright spark of an arc welder, though not against its roiling poisonous fumes. On Galip Dede Caddesi, above the Galata Tower, the woodworkers’ benches give way to those of instrument makers, and the rafters are hung with balalaikas. We never walked those blocks without hearing a full-volume hootenanny, as musicians convened in one or another workshop to test the local product.
Turkey, I understand, is in the midst of new battles between the secular and the religious. But on Istiklal Caddesi, as really everywhere in Istanbul, the forces visibly compete or collide: Women robed in traditional Islamic tunics and scarves, with only their faces and hands showing, stand before lingerie shops, stride arm in arm with women wearing miniskirts. Professionals work prayer beads with their fingers. I like this confrontation. It makes both sides bearable, possible. Istanbul is hopelessly confused, nothing is straightened out. And with that, it becomes worth being in, a city laid across continents of all sorts.
The last night in town, as we walked back up the darkening Istiklal, it struck me that the trades and crafts that were consigned to the Pera are no longer the vanguard of bourgeois acquisition the earlier Muslims feared, but a bulwark against universal corporate capitalism. Our appreciation of Istanbul was the pleasure of being in a world still made in little spaces off dark alleys by someone with a lathe or a hammer or a torch, a cottage world where no grand system is yet quite triumphant. The sentiment is deceptive, of course: We were headed for the Ceylan Inter-Continental, after all. But even so, even there on the opulent side of the metal detector, we wouldn’t be in a city whose every societal value, whose cultural suppositions of beauty and taste and deportment, had been surrendered over to the company, or the church. As we walked up the Istiklal Caddesi, the storefront speakers that play music to lure in shoppers were silenced, suddenly, and in the silence the prayers began, rasping out of the only mosque on a street that is otherwise a ghetto of silent, compliant Christian churches.
The next day we were herded out of the hotel at the inhuman hour of 3:30 a.m. to catch a plane. I marveled, looking down at the diminishing world, that it was all possible, to fly like this to such unthought-of places, how we are really the first among so many thousands of human generations to be able to do so, how Odysseus could hardly have boasted of this in the wildest of Homer’s imaginings.
The newspapers we had been forced for weeks to neglect were available in the plane. Their articles said that the hostilities between Turkey and Greece were stalling the European Union talks, and that she-devils in India had disrupted the Miss World contest, threatening to commit suicide to protest the commercialization of beauty. In the Beyoglu, near the Galata Tower, we had seen a coppersmith set in his dingy window, for display, the latest triumph of his craft: Golden Arches, a monogram for a McDonald’s franchise. We were coming from the Hagia Sofia, where we had stood under the great ugly empty dome on the stones where the Muslim conquerors had pursued into the inner sanctum their rapine and slaughter, on the May day they ended a millennial empire and began, perhaps, another, and when we left the grounds a man had come rushing up to us speaking in a confidential and then an urgent tone. "I have a travel agency," he said. "Come with me. We’ll have tea." When we didn’t, he said, "Don’t break my heart. We can be friends for 20 years." We said thank you and walked away, but still he persisted, wouldn’t give up trying to sell, or trying to be.
"Hello!" he yelled after us down the sidewalk. "I am here! Hello!"
Russ Rymer is the author of Genie, A Scientific Tragedy and the forthcoming American Beach, a Saga of Race, Wealth and Poverty.