Istanbul song

(The following is an excerpt from a longer work.)

One: The Blind Beggar’s Daughter

I knew the rain would never stop, that second winter in İstanbul, knew I’d be stuck in it till the summer, when I could bake myself dry in the sun. By then, all the colour would be washed out of me, and perhaps that’s the lot of the Englishman abroad, to lose himself bit-by-bit to the elements. I love that city of polyglots and performers here in my head, but hated it that first week of November as I claimed a doorway on İstiklal, that is, Independence Avenue, and stood there giving it five minutes more.

Standing in that doorway, doing nothing except keep out of the rain, I realised that, as long as I stayed there, my life could seem less complicated. All my conflicts and problems were out there, under sheets of water, and they couldn’t reach me.

The blind man who begged outside the shops with his daughter wasn’t there, and I missed him, didn’t know why, wondered how he’d ever make a penny in all that foul weather. The daughter caught my eye once, and I tried to make out it wasn’t touching me, this moment of scrutiny. I had a dream about her soon after, and in it she’d come out of the rain and said it didn’t matter that she’d seen the face I’d put on, that not many people were cut out for deception. I turned my face up into the water falling down into my dream, and she called after me, “Wash your sins, not only your face.” Everything is blurred in the rain, and deception is easy, though the blind man’s daughter would tell me the weather makes no difference, that all acts like that are played out in the head.

I have no such preoccupations now, after learning pragmatism from Turkish mothers, who waddle in and out of the dreams I see. Hung with gold and jewels and comically big-haired, or humbly headscarved, they pass through crowds of men who disdain the west we made back there, or covet it obsessively. I move in the crowds without blending in, avoid the eyes of wise children, run into Americans who drink too much and into deceived men whose eyes show what time and imagination did to them. Citizens of countries beyond the pale speak into my ear, make me picture their homelands with them. In the crowd I find a gift of tongues, make connections and say things I can’t say in the most important language in the world.

A man sells leeches down by the New Mosque at Eminönü, a gold-toothed woman grabs hands and seeks out the future in their lines, children sing and beg, and men with the faces of junkies nod heads as a boy steps over and shows me a bullet on which is inscribed a name that rings a bell. I push him aside and think instead of kisses.

I met a woman from France in the crowd, kidded her into loving me for what she wanted me to be, and I remember her eyes and the way I made them look under the sun of the Aegean, imagine them colouring my own. I met another woman, born under a Turkish moon, and I loved her, and we made a triangle, or so I thought for a long time.

Leaving the crowd, my smile fixed in place, I follow in the footsteps of scholars and listen to the words of tetchy wise men, their voices echoing under the domes of forgotten buildings.

The things I did in İstanbul waver in and out of the chaos of the place, too big to see, too noisy to hear, too sharp to feel till it’s there inside you. Still I’m at home there, here in my head, always on the point of leaving and yet staying and doing those same things, walking from the Taksim bus station across the square and down İstiklal, just to see what’s there.


Two: The Boy from Ararat

In the doorway, a shoeshine boy pulled on my sleeve. I was about to tell him to leave me alone when I recognised him, a kid called Naim. He was thirteenish, had the determined air of a spiv. He gave my hand a stiff shake. Things were all goodness and health with him, even while stricken with the cough of a sick sheep. I told him, when asked, that I was going to the library, and he feigned a mystified admiration for people who did things with books. “School is good?” he asked me, and I told him it was okay. I didn’t want to talk about school to somebody whose childhood had been sacrificed to graft and Oriental capitalism.

I’d first met Naim at the start of autumn, as I waited for Ayşenaz in Taksim Square. I’d shown a dismissing grimace at the preliminaries of the shoeshine ordeal, he’d persisted, then we’d embarked on a half-hearted argument. He had stopped mid-monologue with the amused realisation that we were failing this transaction in not-so-good Turkish, and this had intrigued him into a frown, his potato head on one side, his large eyes thoughtful.

He was from Ağrı, a thousand miles away in Turkish Asia about as far as you can get; cough too vigorously in Ağrı, and you end up in Iran. “Tell me about Ağrı,” I’d said to him, maybe at that initial meeting or at the next, and he’d insisted there was nothing to tell.

What I’d heard, though, was that Ağrı’s shoeshine boys had strong-armed their hold on Taksim Square and monopolised it for their trade, one of İstanbul’s most lucrative spots. I’d never been able to suss out the true story behind it.

“Was there a shoeshine war?” I’d asked, meaning in the manner of the ice cream van and minicab wars they held in British cities from time-to-time.

“Don’t be stupid,” I’d been told politely, or sometimes, “Yes, it was very dramatic, and many heroic deeds were done.”

Most of the shoeshiners went back east for the winter, lived in mud buildings masted with TV aerials, but Naim had decided to become an İstanbullu. Nobody was sure what that entailed anymore but, as a Londoner, I appreciated that if you were one you just knew it, and cheered him with that whenever he doubted his status. Some days he felt like a citizen of İstanbul through and through, and some days his soul belonged completely to Ağrı, and the rough country at the foot of Ağrı Dağı, which is the Turkish name for what we call Mount Ararat.

“Aidan.” The way Naim said my name wasn’t quite right, but was close enough. “How much?”

I took a twist of soggy Deutschmarks from him and counted them, told him, “About thirty thousand lira. So, what – some clown gave you that for a shoeshine?” He told a familiar tale about some hapless out-of-season German. I said, “Good for you.” I thought of the pursuit of the notes crushed in his hand, in his pockets, and the ones he kept in other places against confiscation by parties interested in the same venture. I was depressed that it should send him into the rain we looked out on, and was prompted to say, “Hey, what are you doing out on a day like this?”

He gestured impatiently down at his box of brushes and stuff. “Aidan.” He put fingers to his mouth. “What about a cigarette?” I told him no. I meant, did he want to be four foot five forever, or what? Then we stood there and smoked in silence, hidden by the rain, with me turning into the Englishman abroad, doomed to think about the weather, talk about it, write about it in letters home.



By Nick Sweeney