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August 25, 2001
My City (Part VI)
You've sipped your cappucino at Hotel Conrad's surprisingly deserted roof cafe overlooking Besiktas and beyond, and seeing the boats pulling away every 15 minutes you got curious and walked over to the terminal. So now crossing over to the Asian side brings you to Üsküdar, and if you walk south a bit along the Bosphorus, you'll come to the Maiden's Tower (passing a cute little mosque by the sea on the way). It's known in English as Leander's Tower because according to an alternative legend, the man so named tried right here to swim across the strait to join his beloved, Hero. Instead he joined Luca Brasi and the fishes, and he's been there ever since. (A similar story is told in David of Sassoon about Akhtamar Island on Lake Van, far, far from here. Attempting to cross the water to get to his Tamar, the young man ultimately succumbs to the waves (Get it? "Ah! Tamar!" and so on. And of course, we should mention that Tamar's would-be suitors kept moving the beacon fire they'd lit on the beach, the scoundrels.)
The Maiden's legend, better known to Turks, is a common one too. King gets word that daughter will be poisoned by his enemies. Has tower built, puts daughter inside, signs movie deal with Bond franchise, fruit basket arrives with snake in it, don't stand so don't stand so don't stand so close to me... you know the rest.
There must be a moral here somewhere, and that would be... don't try to swim in the Bosphorus. Not only is it polluted, it'll play with you the way it plays with the city, bringing the ferries to a standstill with its thick soup of a fog (the foghorns are music to every child who has to board one to go to school in the morning), or hurling tankers against 200-year old houses with its killer waves.
True story from the Karaköy-Kadiköy line: The ferry captain braves a storm so frightening that while a group of people in the open-air section are living their music video fantasies watching the foam break across the sides, the bulk of the passengers inside are seized by panic, convinced that the ship is about to go down, and they break the wooden slats to get to the lifejackets in a bone-breaking frenzy. Imagine standing outside until the boat pulls in, and when you walk inside on your way to the middle exit you see the crowd of people sitting all rumpled and scuffed.
South of Üsküdar (9 on the map) lies Kadiköy (10). And the story is that it was called Chalcedon (the name must have evolved) because it means the "city of the blind," for no one in his or her right mind would come this far and then instead of sailing across, settle on the Eastern side. I'm not sure that makes a lot of sense, because today Kadiköy definitely has the better view, especially at night, when all the palaces and mosques on the European side are illuminated.
It's true, of course, that there's not much to do; this was always the sleepy quarter, homes set farther apart, homes people only used in the summer, arriving by horse-drawn carriages once the entourage had cleaned the cobwebs and made the house just so. Then, as if an animator had put together a sequence, aparment buildings rose out of yards, gardens, obliterating the landscape within my own lifetime. The old "village" of Erenköy (11), slowly turned into this when I was growing up:
When developers realized the views they could present with these high rises, many of the owners of older homes received offers they couldn't refuse if they had any financial sense. Often, they would get paid for their home (which was either demolished or clumsily renovated and turned into a relic--stripped of context, sitting droopy in a corner of its once-vast property, waiting to crumble) in two or three condominium units. Move into one, rent the others out, and you were set.
This dynamic gradually bred an Asian-side "culture" with a focus on the good, relaxed life; even if you couldn't afford it, you could always pretend. Minimally you had your greener, tree-lined streets and wide sidewalks. You had your "established families." There was the corner grocer with plenty of display space for colorful fruit arrangements, and when you phoned the owner his errand boy would deliver whatever you wanted. None of that medieval "dangle the basket down the balcony and yell for it to be filled" nonsense. Then came the shops, and fancier and fancier shops, armed with names licensed from the mass-production design houses of Europe and America.
As I said, the people look a bit different around here, and it's where I grew up, watching it all, not least the women walking by.
This is where we stole flowers from neighbors' pots, got beat up by older kids, got accosted by crazy old men who called us the "greatest hope of this country" and played ball in the streets. We basically just soaked it up until we were forced to get an adult life.
In the distance a war raged and the hills filled with slums, watching us with despair from their perch (15), and we just coasted along, hopped over to the islands (14) to find peace and quiet, fed the seagulls, admired unapproachable cats, went on photo safaris (5), and counted the days until we got out.
People were no longer drinking tea from traditional tiny glasses and by the 1980s and 1990s things had changed so much I didn't recognize a lot of it when I returned for visits.
But don't get me wrong, it's always a hell of a ride. Let me insert a caveat, though, against taking that tourist-oriented phrase literally by taking a chance on a cab ride in one of Istanbul's Daytona-style taxis. Remember, you can, and should, always offer them money to slow down. Or better yet, take the new shuttle from the airport to your hotel, and walk everywhere else. You'll see much more than I've been able to show you here in six installments.
Good luck, and cat bless.
There's a whole lot more:
All text and images © Aziz Gökdemir's Archive unless otherwise indicated or credited.
Erenköy dawn and Island mist photos by my parents.
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