"On the waterfront of the Golden Horn at Constantinople From the windows of the old Pashas palaces that fronted on this shore undesirable persons and harems that had become too large were reduced by being sewed in a sack and droped [sic] onto the Bosphorus." 1920.

For ten days I kept notes (after ten days we fast became ignorant habitués), with the idea of later being able to reconstruct my first impressions of Istanbul.
            The reconstruction was not so simple as it might have been. Political violence, including the massacre at Maras, had forced Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit to declare a state of siege in thirteen of the provinces.
            Why describe the tiles of the Rustan [sic] Pasa mosque—their deep red and green lost in an even deeper blue—in a city where martial law has just been declared?

In Turkish, the Bosphorus is called the straits of the throat, the place of the stranglehold. It has featured for millennia in every global strategy. In 1947 Truman claimed an essential strategic interest in Turkey, just as, after the First World War, Britain and France had done. But whereas the Turks fought and won their war of independence (1918-23) against the first claim, they were powerless against the second.

American intervention in Turkish politics has been constant ever since. Nobody in Turkey doubts that the destabilizing programme of the right is backed by the CIA. The United States probably fears two things: the repercussions in Turkey of the fall of the Shah in Iran, unless there is a ‘strong’ government in Ankara; and Ecevit’s reform programme which, though moderate, is not compliant with western interests, and revives some of the promise of Ataturk’s independence movement. Among many other consequences, if Ecevit is ousted, the American-trained torturers will return to thier prison posts.

When the ferry leaves Kadikoy on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, on your right you see the massive block of the Selemiye barracks, with its four towers, sentinels at each corner. In 1971—the last time there was martial law in Istanbul—many political prisoners (nearly all of the left) were interrogated there. If you look the other way, you see the railway station of Hayderpasa and the buffers, only a few yards from the water, stopping in the lines which come from Baghdad, Calcutta and Goa. Nazim Hikmet, who spent thirteen years in Turkish prisons, wrote many lines about this railway station:

A Smell of fish in the sea
bugs on every seat
            spring has come to the station
Baskets and bags
            descend the station steps
            go up the station steps
            stop on the steps
Beside a policeman a boy
—of five, perhaps less—
            goes down the steps.
He has never had any papers
but he is called Kemal.
A bag
A carpet bag climbs the steps.
Kemal descending the steps
            barefoot and shirtless
                        is quite alone
                                    in this beautiful world
He has no memories except of hunger
            and then vaguely   
                        of a women in a dark room

Across the water, in the early morning sunlight, the mosques are the colour of ripe honeydew melons. The Blue Mosque with is six piercing minarets. Santa Sophia, taking advantage of its hill, immense, dominating its minarets so that they look no more than guardians of a breast. The so-called New Mosque, finished in 1660. On overcast days the same buildings across the straits look dull and grey, like the skin of cooked carp. I glance back now at the bleak towers of the Selemiye barracks.

Thousands of jellyfish of all sizes, as large as dishes, as small as eggcups, contract and distend in the current. They are milky and half-transparent. The local pollution has killed off the mackerel who used to eat the jellyfish. Hence their profusion in hundreds of thousands. Popularly they are called water cunts.

Hundreds of people crowd the boat. Most of them commute every day. A few, who stand out because of their clothes and the amazement to be read on their faces, are crossing into Europe for the first time, and have come from distant parts of Anatolia. A woman of thirty-five, wearing a scarf over her hair and baggy cotton trousers, sits on the uppermost deck in the sunshine which dazzles off the surface of the water.

The plain of central Anatolia, surrounded by mountains, with deep snow in the winter and the dust of rocks in the summer, was one of the first sites of neolithic agriculture, and the communities were peace-loving and matriarchal. Today, eroded, it risks becoming a desert. The villages are dominated by the aghas, thieving officials who are also landowners. There has been no effective land reform, and the average annual income in 1977 was £10-£20.

Deliberately the woman holds her husband’s hand. He is all that remains of the familiar. Together they look across at the famous skyline which is the breathtaking, incandescent, perfumed half-truth of the city. The hand which she holds is like many of the hands resting on laps on the deck. The idiom of the popular male Turkish hand: broad, heavy, plumper than you would guess (even when the body is emaciated), calloused, strong. Hands which do not look as if they have grown out of the earth like vines—the hands of old Spanish peasants, for example—but nomad hands which travel across the earth.

Speaking of his narrative poems, Hikmet once said he wanted to make poetry like a material for shirts, very fine, half silk, half cotton: silks which are also democratic because they absorb the sweat.

A beggar woman stands by the door to the saloon on the lower deck. In contrast to the heaviness of the male hands, the woman’s hands are light. Hands which make cakes of dried cow dung for burning in central Anatolia, hand which plait the daughter’s hair into strands. On her arm, the beggar woman carries a basket of sick cats: an emblem of pity, off which she scrapes a living. Most of those who pass place a coin in her outstretched hand.

Sometimes first impressions gather up some of the residue of the centuries. The nomadic hand is not just an image; it has a history. Meanwhile, the tourturers are capable, within a few days, of breaking entire nervous systems. The hell of politics—which is why politics compulsively seeks utopias—is that it has to straddle both times: millennia and a few days. I picture the face of friend perhaps to be imprisoned again, his wife, his children. Since the foundation of the republic, this is the ninth time that martial law has been declared to deal with internal dissent. I see his clothes sill hanging neatly in the wardrobe.

When the ferry passes the headland, eleven minarets become visible, and you can see clearly the camel chimneys of the kitchens of the Sultan’s palace. This palace of Topkapi housed luxury and indulgence on such a scale that they percolated into the very dreams of the West; but in reality, as you can see today, it was no more than a labyrinthine monument to dynastic paranoia.

Turning now against the current, black diesel smoke belches from the ship’s funnel, obliterating Topkapi. Forty per cent of the population of Istanbul live in shanty towns which are invisible from the centre of the city. These shanty towns—each one with a population of at least 25,000—are insanitary overcrowded and desperate. They are also sites of super-exploitation (a shack may be sold for as much as £5,000).

Yet the decision to migrate to the city is not a stupid one. About a quarter of the men who live in the shanty towns are unemployed. The other three quarters work for a further which be by illusory, but which was totally inconceivable in the village. The average wage in the city is between £20 and £30 a week.

The massacre at Maras was planned by fascists backed by the CIA. Yet to know this is to know little. Eric Hobsbawm wrote recently that it has taken left-win intellectuals a long time to condemn terrorism. Today left-wing terrorism in Turkey plays into the hands of those who want to re-establish a right-wing police state such as existed between 1950 and 1960—to the enormous benefit of the aghas.

Yet however much one condemns terrorism, one must recognize that its popular (minority) appeal derives from experience which is bound to remain totally untouched by such tactical, or ethical, considerations. Popular violence is as arbitrary as the labour market, not more so. The violent outbreak, whether encouraged by the right or the left, is fed by the suppressed violence of countless initiatives not taken. Such outbreaks are the ferment of stagnation, kept at the right temperature by broken promises. For more than fifty years, since Ataturk’s republic succeed the sultanate, the peasants of central Anatolia, who fought for their independence, have been promised land and the means to cultivate it. Bush such changes as there have been have led to more suffering.

In the lower-deck saloon a salesman, who has bribed the stewards to let him sell, is holding up, high for all to see, a paper folder of needles. His patter is leisurely and soft-voiced. Those who sit or stand around him are mostly men. On the folder, which holds fifteen needles of different sizes, is printed in English HAPPY HOME NEEDLE BOOK, and round this title an illustration of three young white women wearing hats and ribbons in their hair. Both needles and folder were made in Japan.

The salesman is asking 20p. Slowly, one after another, the men buy. It is a bargain, a present and an injunction. Carefully they slip the folder into one of the pockets of their thin jackets. Tonight they will give them to their wives, as if the needles were seeds for a garden.

In Istanbul the domestic interior, in both the shanty towns and elsewhere, is a place of repose, in profound opposition to what lies outside the door. Cramped, badly roofed, crooked, cherished, these interiors are spaces like prayers, both because they oppose the traffic of the world as it is, and because they are a metaphor for the Garden of Eden or Paradise.

Interiors symbolically offer the same thing as Paradise: repose, flowers, fruit, quiet, soft materials, sweetmeats, cleanliness, femininity. The offer can be as imposing (and vulgar) as one of the Sultan’s rooms in the harem, or it can be as modest as the printed patterns on a square of cheap cotton, draped over a cushion on the floor of a shack.

It is clear that Ecevit will try to maintain control over the initiatives of the generals who are now responsible for the rule of each province. They politico-military tradition of imprisonment, assassination and execution is still a strong one in Turkey. When considering the power and decadence of the Ottoman empire, the West conveniently overlooks the fact that this empire is what protected Turkey from the the first inroads of capitalism, western colonization and the supremacy of money over every other form of power. Capital assumes within itself all earlier forms of ruthlessness, and makes the old forms obsolete. This obsolescence permit the West a basis for its global hypocrisies, of which the latest is the ‘human rights’ issue.

An man stands by the ship’s rail, staring down at the flashing water and the ghostly water cunts. The ship, seventeen years old, was built by the Fairfield Shipbuilding and Engineering Company, Govan, Glasgow. Until five years ago, he was a shoemaker in a village not far from Bolu. It took him two days to make a pair of shows. Then factory-made shoes began to arrive in the village, and were sold cheaper than his. The cheaper, factory-made shoes meant that some children in some villages no longer went barefoot. No longer able to sell his shoes, he went to the state factory to ask for work. They told him he could hire a stamping machine for cutting out pieces of leather.

A pair of shoes consists of twenty-eight pieces. If he wanter to hire the machine, he must cut the necessary pieces of leather for 50,000 pairs a year. The machine was delivered to his shop. There was only room for him to sit on his stool by the machine.

The next year he was told that, if he wanted ot keep the machine, he must now cut enough pieces for 100,000 pairs of shoes. It was impossible, he said. Yet it proved possible. He worked twelve hours during the day, and his brother-in-law worked twelve hours during the night. In the room above, which was a metaphor for Paradise, the sound of the stamping machine never stopped day or night. In a year, the two men cut nearly three million pieces.

One evening he smashed his left hand, and the noise of the machine stopped. There was quiet beneath the carpet of the room above. The machine was loaded on to a lorry, and taken back to the factory. It was after that that he came to Istanbul for work. The expression in his eyes, as he tells his story, is familiar. You see it in the eyes of countless men in Istanbul. These men are no longer young; yet their look is not one of resignation, it is too intense for that. Each one is looking at his own life with the same knowingness, protectiveness and indulgence as he would look on a son. A calm Islamic irony.

The subjective opposites of Istanbul are not reason and unreason, nor virtue and sin, nor believer and infidel, nor wealth and poverty—colossal as the objective contrasts are. They are, or so it seemed to me, purity and foulness.

This polarity covers that of interior/exterior, but it is nor confined to it. For example, as well as separating carpet from earth, it separates milk and cow, perfume and stench, pleasure and ache. The popular luxuries—honey-sweet to the tooth, shiny to they eye, silken to the touch, fresh to the nose—offer amends for the natural foulness of the world. Many Turkish popular expressions and insults play across the polarity. ‘He thinks,’ they say about someone who is conceited, ‘they he’s the parsley in everyone’s shit.’

Applied to class distinction, this same polarity of purity/foulness becomes vicious. The faces of the rich bourgeois women of Istanbul, sick with idleness, fat with sweetmeats, are among the most pitiless I have seen.

When friends of mine were prisoners in the Selemiye barracks, their wives took them attar of roses and essence of lemons.

They ferry also carries lorries. On the tailboard of a lorry from Konya is written: ’The money I make I earn with my own hands, so may Allah bless me.’ The driver, with grey hair, is leaning against the bonnet, drinking tea out of a small, gilt-rimmed glass. On every deck there are vendors of tea with such glasses and bowls of sugar on brilliant copper trays. The tea drinkers sip, relax, and look at the shining water of the Bosphorus. Despite the thousands of passengers carried daily, the ferry boats are almost as clean as interiors. There are not streets to compare with their decks.

On each side of the lorry from Konya, the driver has had a small landscape painted. Both show a lake surrounded by hills. Above the all-seeing eye, almond-shaped with long lashes, like a bridegroom’s. The painted water of the lakes suggests peace and stillness. As he sips his tea, the driver talk to three small, dark-skinned men with passionate eyes. The passion may be personal, but it also the passion you can see all over the world in the eyes of proud and oppressed minorities. The three men are Kurds.

Both in the main streets of Istanbul, and in the back streets where there are chickens and sheep, you see porters carrying bales of cloth, sheets of metal, carpets, machine parts, sacks of grain, furniture, packing cases. Most of these porters are Kurds from eastern Anatolia, on the borders of Iraq and Iran. They carry everything where the lorries cannot. And because the industrial part of the city is full of small workshops in streets too narrow for lorries, there is a great deal to carry from workplace to workplace.

Fixed to their backs is a kind of saddle, on which the load is piled and corded high above their heads. This way of carrying, and the weight of the loads, obliges them to stoop. They walk, when loaded, like jack knives half-shut. The three now listening to the lorry driver are sitting on their own saddles, sipping tea, gazing at the water and the approach to the Golden Horn. The cords with which they fasten their loads lie loos between their feet and the deck. 

Altogether, the crossing takes twenty minutes (about the time needed to read this article). Beside the landing stage rowing boats rock in the choppy water. In some of them fires burn, the flames dancing to the rhythm of the slapping water. Over the fires, men are frying fish to sell to those on their way to work.

Beyond those pans—almost as wide as the boat—of frying fish lie all the energies and torpor of the city: the workshops, the markets, the mafia, the Galata Bridge on which the crowd walking across is invariably twenty abreast (the bridge is a floating one and incessantly, almost imperceptibly, quivers like a horse’s flank), the schools, the newspaper offices, the shanty towns, the abattoir, the headquarters of the political parties, the gunsmiths, the merchants, soldiers, beggars.

These are the last moments of peace before the driver starts up the engine of his lorry, and the porters hurry to the stern of the ship to be among the first to jump ashore. The tea vendors are collecting the empty glasses. It is as if, during the crossing, the Bosphorus induces the same mood as the painted lakes: as if the ferry boat, built in Glasgow in 1961, becomes an immense floating carpet, suspended in time above the shining water, between home and work, between effort and effort, between two continents. And this suspension, which I remember so vividly, corresponds now to the destiny of the country.

John Berger, “On the Bosphorus,” in Geoff Dyer, ed. Selected Essays (New York: Vintage, 2003). Originally published in 1979 in the journal New Society.  

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