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Sailing to Byzantium

We smelled it first, hours before we got there, a greasy burnt odor of smoke and spice and sewage. "Are we on fire?" Susan asked when she awoke, but we weren’t. We had sailed all night through the Sea of Marmara and were merely approaching the Istanbul harbor.

 

We docked across from the old town (I was never able to ascertain what part of Istanbul wasn’t old), where the Golden Horn joins the Bosporus, and were carried by bus to our hotel. The Ceylan Inter-Continental is a five-star hotel with a crystal staircase curving through the lobby (even the stair treads are glass) and enough heavy cloth in bedspreads and drapes in our room to uniform a regiment in floral damask. It was perhaps the most luxurious room I’ve ever slept in, an opulent retreat overlooking a city of unmoderated, unregulated bustle. It is a mark of the disparity between striving shanty Istanbul and its luxury hotels that the border between the two is guarded by a metal detector, through which you enter the lobby. Inside is London and Central Park West. Outside is the city of the Silk Road and the Orient Express, emperors and their legions, the sybarite sultan and his murderous janissaries, and Turks.

 

Istanbul is certainly commercial, nothing if not commercial. On the sidewalks, in the street, every sort of merchandise and service is offered. At the economy’s bottom are the waiflike children and tobacco-faced old men and Gypsy women who sell packets of Kleenex, arranged on top of cardboard-box pedestals, or wait beside bathroom scales to sell you your weight. From carts they sell pretzels, from woklike pans, roasted chestnuts. From round trivets suspended by silver chains and packed with shot glasses, couriers run apple tea. In front of the Sleymaniye mosque, the box pedestals hold evil-eye pendants and prayer beads. Across the Galata Bridge, Karaköy Square is lined with elaborate gilded shoeshine shrines, their polishes and creams encased under arrays of gilt-domed lids. In the malls of the pedestrian underpasses are heaps of telephones, radios, cameras, satellite dishes, in a profusion unknown to Radio Shack, piled on sidewalks beside squatting vendors. Muslim women in head scarves twist their heads in circles watching a small toy helicopter gyrate above them, next to a comprehensive exhibit of the world’s known lawnmowers.

 

The trade preys on visitors, of course, unscrupulously when possible. Outside the tourist meccas of the Topkapi Palace and the Hagia Sofia, vendors hawk tours and carpets and post cards. The taxis insist on three times the metered rate, if they can get it. When I said we’d walk on, a cabby put his face in mine — it was getting dark and he knew that I was lost — and hissed, "Really, mister. And where are you going to walk?" Urchins carry shoeshine boxes and will set up willy-nilly in front of anyone susceptible who stops on the street even long enough for the light to change. One whom I had already rejected reached through the legs of another tourist to put a finger dab of black shoe cream on my loafer, which of course would require a shoeshine to remove. I refused to accommodate him, but he and a confederate plagued us through town until Susan paid the little brigands off.

 

But with all that, I minded the merchandising less than I had in the Greek islands we had just toured. It was only incidentally aimed at tourists, for Istanbul is a real city with a commercial existence unpredicated on outsiders, too rampant and headlong to be of much service to the uninitiated.

 

Not only do the Turks sell whatever they can get their hands on, they manufacture. We took to walking from the hotel to whatever appointed tourist round we had set ourselves — which is to say to whichever mosque or palace beckoned in the old town — down the Istiklal Caddesi. Istiklal has long been the city’s main commercial artery and a target of civic disgust. One historian said Istiklal Caddesi was "as narrow as the comprehension of its inhabitants, and as long as the tapeworm of their intrigues." Another anointed it "surely one of the nastiest streets of Europe." But we enjoyed it; it has recently been made a pedestrian thoroughfare, cobblestoned from doorstep to doorstep, with tracks in the center for a two-car trolley that little boys make a game of chasing, so that its stern is usually festooned with children hanging perilously onto every protuberance. The stores sell silks and suits and shoes and books and tapes and every other thing, in conservative storekeeper fashion. But off to each side are alleys, many covered, that are crowded bazaars filled with leather and jewelry and food, such an abundance of food. The Çiçek Pasaji is crammed with flowers and bar tables; nearby, the display stands of the Galasary Fish Bazaar, under dim yellow lamps, are glittering sequined silver cascades punctuated with shocking crimson crescents of gills, pulled open as a proof of freshness.

 

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.