A POLITICAL TOUR OF ISTANBUL: ‘The Book of Istanbul’, edited by Jim Hinks and Gül Turner

This piece is part of our Life in the 21st Century City thread, an occasional series of reviews, essays and travelogues. It seeks to explore the felt reality of world cities today and the experience of living in them on both large and small scales. The series’ remit is necessarily and intentionally broad; it makes no claims of completeness. Rather, in gathering together a thematically diverse collection of documents, it aims to explore and interrogate the varieties of city life around the world. 

Jim Hinks and Gül Turner (eds.), The Book of Istanbul (Comma Press, 2010)

By Defne Çizakça

Comma Press has been aiming to create literary collages of contemporary dwellings since 2006. They have collected short stories from Leeds, Liverpool, European centres as divergent as Zagreb and Reykjavik. Other volumes focus on Middle Eastern medinas, and the metropolises of China. These compact collections perform two challenging tasks at once: they question the nature of place through the writing produced in it, and they utilize cities as interpretive lenses for contemporary literature.

The idea of curating urbanity in such manner is infinitely seductive. After all, every book is first and foremost a threshold, and to have a door that opens up to an unknown city is an invitation few readers can refuse. As I leaf through the pages of The Book of Istanbul, it is clear such compiling involves a delicate editorial process too. How does one summarize a city at the end of the day? What criteria must be used if the place under scrutiny contains 15 million people and a 2500 year-old history?

It is not the first time Istanbul has been the object of such charming, Borgesian caveats. There is a long tradition of travellers, orientalists, and armchair philosophers constructing and deconstructing its narrow streets. Edmondo de Amicis, Gérard de Nerval, Gustave Flaubert, and André Gide are some of the European literary figures who have tried to summarize the seven hilled city, each of them finding a different façade to be enchanted with or disgusted by. In a letter he wrote to his mother, Flaubert identified the Orient as the place that surpassed his dreams; in his Constantinople, Amicis defined the Turks as glassy-eyed people who jointly concealed a mortal inertia of the intellect; and Roland Barthes wrote an essay on the seduction of the void one encounters in Istanbul mosques.[1] The kernel of a city – that romantic and cursory idea – is different for all.

Perhaps the only common thread in these diverse depictions of Istanbul is their being steeped in emotion. The exoticism of the foreign author is matched only by the melancholy of the local. Thus it is that Turkish has gifted the word hüzün to the English language through the works of Orhan Pamuk. The sentiment can best be described as a communal longing for an unidentified past. The Nobel Laureate has defined it as the natural mood of all Istanbulites who share a vague nostalgia for the many empires the city once housed.

Book of IstanbulThe Book of Istanbul refuses to build on this rich tradition of Istanbul writing, and in doing so manages to sidestep some of its clichés. The Bosphorus appears in these stories, as it is wont to do, but not as a strait which straddles East and West. It is rather a convoluted river in Sema Kaygusuz’s story ‘A Couple of People,’ a shimmering body of water where locals go to breathe during humid summer days, and where unsociable strangers sit side by side without having much of a choice in the matter. The class struggle that is a given in any Istanbul narrative is represented here by Gönül Kıvılcım’s ‘Out of Reach,’ but instead of depicting an abusive love story between poor girl and rich boy, Kıvılcım gives us a heroine who triumphs on her own terms, through small deeds of stalking that morph into art. 

The authors featured in The Book of Istanbul may sidestep the symbolism of the Bosphorus, but editor Jim Hinks cannot resist the temptation in his introductory notes. “One might either regard Istanbul as uniting the two continents,” he says, “or torn, irreconcilably, between them.” He then carries this tension over into the domain of language, suggesting some stories in the volume are influenced by the West, while others partake of Eastern traditions such as verbosity, playfulness, the “Arabic tradition that favours elevating the voice, spinning a tale and incorporating mystical allusions.” The European effects on the selected stories are not detailed, assuming the readers’ familiarity with the West. Presenting differing notions of Western and Eastern narrative techniques may be poetic, but it is nonetheless a generalization that only scratches the surface. Turkish literature has a complex amount of antecedents, a thorough understanding of which requires research into its cosmopolitan and Ottoman past.

Hinks’ comments on verbosity bring forth questions regarding the nature of translation from Turkish into English, but the introduction does not make mention of the process. Is the wordiness Hinks highlights caused by the source language or the source text? Perhaps more words are needed to express a Turkish sentiment in English, making some of the long sentences in this volume the result of careful deliberation? Or is expansiveness a matter of style, whether it be the author’s or the translator’s? A foreword regarding the idiosyncrasies of translation might have shed light on these questions and would have benefited readers unfamiliar with Turkish, especially since The Book of Istanbul brings together practitioners with an impressive array of experience such as Aron R. Aji and Ruth Christie. Aji received the 2004 National Translation Award for his English translation of Bilge Karasu’s Göçmüş Kediler Bahçesi [The Garden of Departed Cats, New Directions, 2003] and is the current director of the MFA for Literary Translation at the University of Iowa, while Christie has translated book length editions of Nazım Hikmet’s, Oktay Rıfat’s and Bejan Matur’s poetry.

While the translation process might have been rendered more visible in this anthology, the particular vision of the metropolis speaks for itself. Jim Hinks and Gül Turner have selected ten stories that see Istanbul through a political lens. Hinks summarizes Turkey’s recent history, and notes that two of the authors in the volume – Nedim Gürsel and Özen Yula – have been prosecuted for their writing in the past. Gürsel was forced to flee the country during the military dictatorship of the 80’s due to his Marxist ideology, and faced trial in 2009 for “denigrating religious values,” while Yula’s play ‘Lick But Don’t Swallow’ was subject to a fierce press campaign instigated by a fundamentalist newspaper. The play depicted an angel as a porn star, and prostitutes with hearts of gold. It was performed only once in Turkey, though it toured the United States and Europe.

But even when such a political niche has been found, there are eliminations to be made. Whose politics? Which era? How far back, and how detailed? The Book of Istanbul settles on recent history and takes us on a literary tour starting with the capital tax of 1946, moving on to the nationalist riots held against the minorities in 1955, the military takeovers of 1960, 1971 and 1980, as well as the civil war between the left and right, the ban of the headscarf from public institutions throughout the 1990’s and the traumas these events have left in their wake. This is no small feat in such a slim volume but if the aim is political overview, I fear The Book of Istanbul falls short of target.

The collection does not include the more daring approaches to power struggle that have emerged from Turkish magical realism and creative non-fiction. Latife Tekin’s novels and short stories about the slums of Istanbul come to mind, as well as Bejan Matur’s poetic writing on the Kurds, alongside Hrant Dink’s and Ece Temelkuran’s journalistic pieces on the Armenian community, Kutluğ Ataman’s interviews with marginalized women and Murathan Mungan’s work on homosexuality. In short, the volume is not polyphonic enough to offer a full political portrait of the labyrinth that is Istanbul, even if it serves beautifully as an introduction.

While it may not convey the full spectrum of the recent past, as if by kismet, The Book of Istanbul predicts the city’s future struggles. Published in 2010, it contains two stories that foreshadow the Gezi Park protests which took the city by storm in the summer of 2013. Mehmet Zaman Saçlıoğlu’s ‘The Intersection,’ is a tale about a self-appointed traffic officer at a busy Istanbul junction. Time and again, the clean-shaven polite man with the glasses blows his whistle, and directs traffic as a state officer must, except that he receives no salary for the job, nor does he carry a gun. The onlookers conclude he must be a fool. This does not stop them from obeying his instructions, however, because the jester fashions order despite a lack of official titles. Saçlıoğlu depicts the grassroots attempts at creating harmony out of chaos through communal solidarity and tolerance, which is exactly what would happen in May 2013 when some 50 environmentalists decided to pull together for the only public garden left in Taksim Square.

The peaceful sit-in aimed to oppose the government’s plans to construct military barracks and a shopping mall in Gezi Park, but the police would soon burn down the tents of the activists and spray them with tear gas before continuing to bulldoze trees. The group stayed put despite state brutality, and were soon joined by the liberals, Marxists, the LGBT community, secularists and feminists, Kurds and Islamists – a colourful and normally disjointed political front. The Gezi resistance grew into a country-wide protest movement, with members organizing workshops and setting up libraries in parks, planting trees and flowers, teaching crafts and dance, creating volunteer run medical centres, distributing food, and establishing their own media.

If Saçlıoğlu’s writing charts the ethos of the Gezi movement, Özen Yula’s ‘A Panther,’ predicts its end. The story is about a black leopard locked up in an Istanbul zoo. It escapes its cage and begins wandering a city covered in snow until the police corner it at the pedestrian street of Istiklal – the same spot where many Gezi protestors were blocked by water tanks. The animal is shot just as it breaks through a shop window where a TV screen projects images of a far away jungle. Yula’s story seems to herald the violence that curbed the Gezi movement. 11 people were killed, 8.000 injured, and 3.000 arrested in Turkey during that eventful summer.

The Gezi protests dimmed in time, but not without crafting a new political ethos. The heterogeneous demonstrators morphed into an equally varied electorate. In the 2015 general elections, they united to cast a vote for The People’s Democratic Party [Halkların Demokratik Partisi, established in 2012]. The PDP had hitherto represented the Kurds, but expanded to stand for the LGBT community, environmentalists, feminists, and other religious and ethnic minorities. It spoke strongly in favor of the Gezi Park protests and formulated its campaign trail in the same spirit, promising to end all religious, gender and racial discriminations in the country. These inclusive policies bred success and the PDP managed to become the first minority faction to pass the 10 % electoral threshold, ushering 32 women, one ethnic Armenian, one Assyrian, two Yezidis, and the first openly gay candidate into parliament.

The Book of Istanbul is a valuable addition to the libraries of Istanbul enthusiasts, and to those travellers who want to learn about Turkey’s recent political past through literature. These stories highlight a tumultuous past, and predict an equally eventful present. Curating cities is an idea that pays off, but keep in mind that there is only so much 110 pages can tell about an ancient metropolis, and that there are many more gems in Turkish literature patiently awaiting their translators.


[1] Quoted in Edward Said, Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient (London: Penguin Group, 1995), 185, Edmondo de Amicis, Constantinople (New York: Putnam’s Sons, 1878), 304-305, and Roland Barthes, New Critical Essays (California: University of California Press, 1980), 111.

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