Sleepless by the strait: my haunting return to Istanbul


Sleepless by the strait: my haunting return to Istanbul
I love this troubled city, until it suffocates me and I have to run away

In my novel Three Daughters of Eve, a well educated housewife with kids looks at her motherland, Turkey, and thinks: ‘They are not that different. My own life and this land of unfulfilled potentials.’

I wrote this novel in English first. It was then translated into Turkish by a professional translator, after which I rewrote it with my own rhythm and vocabulary. It’s a bit crazy, this constant commute between English and Turkish. There are things I find much easier to express in English — e.g. humour, irony, satire — and others I find easier to say in Turkish — melancholy, loss. The book is published in Turkey this summer before being published in the UK in winter. So I fly from London, where I live, to Turkey for a week long book tour.

My connection with Istanbul is a swinging pendulum. I love the city dearly; I go back to it — her, for Istanbul is a She City — with a pounding heart. We embrace, but it doesn’t take me long to feel suffocated yet again, and I run away from her as fast as I can. Turkey, with its endless conflicts, can be a source of inspiration for artists and writers, though it presents a frustrating challenge for political and international experts. How do you analyse a country that does not fit into categories, that is neither a western democracy nor a typical Middle Eastern dictatorship, a country that constantly falls in between stools, zigzags back and forth, and is, ultimately, neither here nor there.

Before going to Istanbul, I leave my children with their grandmother in Fethiye — a beautiful town on the Turquoise Coast, which has been a favourite of British expats. But this year Fethiye is quiet. The beaches are half empty. ‘People are scared,’ says a local cab driver. ‘I’ve worked so hard to learn English; now I cannot even practise it. Where are the tourists?’

The next day I fly to Istanbul. There will be interviews — radio, TV, newspapers. My publisher sends me a text message: ‘Under these circumstances, it’s amazing that people are still reading novels.’ I know what she means by circumstances. Constant political tension, extreme polarisation, collective depression and the threat of terrorism hovering in the air like an ominous cloud.
Later in the evening I check in at a small boutique hotel by the Bosphorus. Neo Ottoman decorations that verge on kitsch, pictures of dreamy caiques on the walls. It feels weird to stay in a hotel in a city I once considered home. I set the alarm, as I need to wake up early for a schedule packed to the hilt. But I cannot sleep. I wonder what this building used to be in the past. I dial zero and ask the receptionist. Bewildered by the question, he asks the manager, who asks the supreme manager. Nobody knows.  Turkey is a society of collective amnesia. Everything is written in water over here — except the works of architects, which are written in stone, and those of poets, which are written in our hearts.

I open the windows, pull the curtains. A hot breeze wafts into the room. I see couples strolling along the seafront, eating sunflower seeds, spitting out the shells. It is the last days of Ramadan. On impulse, I grab my jacket and walk out of the hotel. This is the place I lived, loved and wrote about for so many years. I am familiar with its darkest corners, its seamy underbelly; I know where not to go, what not to wear, and yet I am also aware that no matter how much you think you know, you can never control this city.

I sit on a bench staring at the sea. Instantly, two young men walk towards me, eyeing me up and down. They are wondering whether I am a prostitute, at this hour all alone, though probably I don’t fit the description in their minds. Maybe I’ve just arrived in Istanbul, escaped from an authoritarian father or an abusive husband, and have nowhere to sleep. They draw close, smirking. I look up at them and scowl. We speak a language devoid of words. Only gestures. Back off. Don’t you dare. I am no foreigner. Nor is my body language. They walk away reluctantly.

Back in my hotel room I read Doris Lessing. In a series of essays aptly titled ‘Going Home’, she tackles what it feels like to return to a place well known but long abandoned. The land she refers to is British colonial Africa and not Istanbul, but there are things in common. She expects a sense of commitment from the artist, a sense of duty. My homeland is Storyland. I want to have portable homelands, several homes, multiple belongings. London and Istanbul.
I turn off the light. In the dark, I listen to the sounds from the room above. Newlyweds on a honeymoon? A one night stand? A couple are having sex in this half empty hotel by the Bosphorus. I fall asleep trying to imagine who they might be and whether they will still be together tomorrow.

The next day over breakfast I read Turkish newspapers, most of which have similar headlines, echoes of the same uniform pro government voice. The tone they use to cover Brexit is the tone of a surly child: ‘The EU didn’t want Turkey all this time. Now the EU is falling apart.’

It is Sunday, the day LGBT Pride March was scheduled to be held before it was banned. I have been openly criticising the ban. My Twitter account is full of hate messages. ‘Stones will rain on our heads because of people like you… Did you not learn anything from Sodom and Gomorrah?’

I go back to Fethiye after the book tour. A day later, there is a horrific Isis attack at the Istanbul airport. The night feels heavy, airless. The death toll rises.
Friends in Britain send me emails. ‘How is the mood over there?’ someone asks. Oddly, the first word that comes to my mind is ‘numbness’.

When the week is over we fly back. Dalaman to Gatwick. I look around at my fellow passengers: British, Cypriots, Turks. On British Airways, the young blond man behind me looks agitated suddenly: ‘Oh my God, there is steam coming out!’ he shouts. The steward assures him it is the air conditioning working. The young man blushes up to his ears, his friends make fun of him, he is ashamed of his panic, but we all know this is the world we are all living in now, the angst of being alive, expecting something to happen at any moment.

In Gatwick, there are three queues for British, EU, non EU nationals. The kids are sleeping by the time a cab driver picks us up. ‘How many days have you been away?’ he asks with a strong Pakistani accent.

‘Eight,’ I say, but it feels longer than that. ‘Well,’ he says smiling in the mirror. ‘Welcome home. While you were away we left the EU.’

Published: http://www.spectator.co.uk/2016/07/sleepless-by-the-strait-my-haunting-return-to-istanbul/

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