Orhan Pamuk’s A Strangeness in My Mind: the streets of Istanbul transformed

Orhan Pamuk’s <em>A Strangeness in My Mind</em>: the streets of Istanbul transformed

In a city, you can be alone in a crowd, and in fact what makes the city a city is that it lets you hide the strangeness in your mind inside its teeming multitudes.
― Orhan Pamuk, A Strangeness in My Mind

Writing in a recent post about Jim Jarmusch’s film Paterson, with its central character a bus-driving amateur poet who closely observes the special in the mundane details of the city he inhabits, reminded me that I ought to write something about Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk’s latest, The Strangeness In My Mind. Read in December, it has as its central character an Istanbul street vendor through whom Pamuk weaves the tumultuous history of that city in the last half-century. Indeed, it carries the lengthy subtitle, ‘Being the Adventures and Dreams of Mevlut Karatas, a Seller of Boza, and of His Friends, and Also a Portrait of Life in Istanbul Between 1969 and 2012 From Many Different Points of View’.  Continue reading “Orhan Pamuk’s A Strangeness in My Mind: the streets of Istanbul transformed”


The Innocence of Memories: a story of love, obsession and a city

<em>The Innocence of Memories</em>: a story of love, obsession and a city

A city, Orhan Pamuk once told me, would be a museum for our memories if we live in it long enough.
Narration, ‘The Innocence of Memories’

Director Grant Gee’s last film was Patience (After Sebald), a film in which passages read from Sebald’s book The Rings of Saturn complemented images of the Suffolk landscape with absolute perfection. Now he has done something similar with Orhan Pamuk’s novel The Museum of Innocence, taking the viewer on atmospheric journeys, drifting through the deserted streets and alleyways of Istanbul at night, accompanied by readings from the novel and extra material also written by Pamuk. It’s a stunning film, perhaps the best invocation of the spirit of a work of literature that I’ve seen.  It also provides a guided tour of the Museum of Innocence itself, established by Pamuk in Istanbul to house real objects that trace the fictional love affair described in the novel. Continue reading The Innocence of Memories: a story of love, obsession and a city”

The Bridge: poverty and pride

‘Without the bridge you cannot know the city. The bridge is, in fact, a city, though one must not take that too literally; the bridge is not the city and the city is not the country, not by a long shot.  The bridge is, above all, itself, and we shall leave it at that.’

Several years ago I read and enjoyed In Europe by the Dutch writer Geert Mak. Now I’ve been reading his latest short book, The Bridge, which powerfully evokes the atmosphere of Istanbul through vignettes of the traders who eke out a bare existence selling improbable items such as insoles on the Galata bridge straddling the Golden Horn, the inlet of the Bosphorus that divides the city. It was Mak’s eye for the personal stories that illuminated Europe’s 20th century that made In Europe a rewarding read, and here he achieves the same effect: interweaving stories based on encounters on the bridge with an account of the city’s long history from Byzantium, by way of Constantinople to the days of the Ottomans and down to the present.

In 2006, Geert Mak spent weeks on the Galata bridge, one of Istanbul’s busiest, getting to know the pavement merchants: the tea vendor, the book salesman, the peddler of orthopedic soles and the boys who trade in illegal cigarettes.  Most of them are from villages in Turkey’s far east and are desperately poor, barely able to their keep their heads above water; they live from one day, one hour, to the next. And they all have their own worries, their strategies for survival, their hopes, their own stories. The result is ‘a travelogue covering 490 metres’, in the author’s words.

Galata Bridge around 1900

Mak spends day after day with those who frequent the bridge, listening to what they have to say: about free speech, about Islam and the West, about headscarves and honour. Together, these stories paint the portrait of a complex society, of the city of Istanbul, a melting pot that is home to ten million people: Muslims, Armenians, Jews, Greeks and Westerners; liberal urbanites and migrants from remote villages; the secular and the deeply religious.

Mak weaves together the stories of the street traders with the history of the bridge, and so with that of Istanbul itself. This city that was once the heart of a vast and powerful empire. In the twentieth century, however, that traditional, multiethnic, multi-religious Ottoman Empire was transformed into a modern, secular state, and Istanbul was transformed along with it. Today, in Mak’s words, it is a metropolis ‘largely cut off from its own history’.

Before the 19th century, there was no bridge on the Golden Horn connecting both sides of the natural harbour around Istanbul. Small boats and ferries were the only means of transportation between the two shores. The first Galata Bridge over the Golden Horn was constructed in the mid-19th century. It was replaced successively by newer structures in 1863, 1875, 1912 and most recently in 1994.

Galata bridge 1880-1900

While Mak is on the bridge he writes that ‘a mad controversy arose between East and West’.  It’s the time when a Danish newspaper printed cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed, when people across the Muslim world rose up in outrage and anger, and when the Dutch film-maker Theo Van Gogh was murdered.

Mak is excellent here at challenging preconceptions, just as he did in his 2005 pamphlet, Doomed to Vulnerability, in which he challenged the view that the Netherlands was ‘at war’, a statement attributed by one journalist to the deputy-prime minister at the time.  In that pamphlet Mak insisted that the murder of Van Gogh was the work of a single religious fanatic, a disturbed individual; it did not constitute the implosion of a multi-ethnic society. Mak countered the hysterical tone of many politicians and journalists with calm statistics and a lesson in Dutch sociology. In late 2004, he stated, there were some 900,000 Muslims living in the Netherlands, most of them Turkish and Moroccan. Of all these Dutch Muslims, Mak wrote, no more than twenty percent ever visited a mosque on a regular basis. Most of them were familiar with Islam only from a distance. The widespread adoption of fundamentalist beliefs, a fear evoked by many at the time, was a complete myth.

In The Bridge, Mak explores the reaction to these events of those on the bridge. He certainly finds anger: ‘They have no right, this is our faith, and they have to respect that’…the insole vendor said.  ‘I’m a human being, you’re a human being.  God gave us the Koran and the Bible, and we have to respect each other like that.’ But he also comes to realise that this is not, as one might suspect at first, a question of religious enmity.  ‘During those weeks I never heard a bad word about Christians or other non-Muslims’.   What he realises is that the anger is about wounded pride: ‘and when you are as poor as a church mouse, honour is one of the last assets you have left….Anyone who mocks their god, therefore, is not insulting an institution or even a religious feeling; no, he is dealing a blow to their deepest sense of personal worth, the last bastion against total humiliation’.

Geert Mak is a Dutch journalist and a non-fiction writer in the field of history who contributes actively to Dutch public debate, as a staunch defender of the values of an open and tolerant society. He first became known to the general public with his book Jorwerd: the Death of the Village in the Late 20th Century (1996; to be published in the UK later this year) on the changing culture of a farming community in the 20th century, based on an account of a village in Friesland and the people who lived there. In Amsterdam: A brief life of a city (1995), he gave an account of the people of Amsterdam and their city down the centuries. My father’s century (1999), a history of the Netherlands in the 20th century, based on letters and memories from Mak’s own family, became immensely popular, selling over half a million copies. His best-known work, In Europe, a combination of a travelogue through the continent of Europe and a history of the 20th century, has appeared in over a dozen languages and has been turned into a 35-part Dutch TV series.

This was the review in the Independent:

An unremarkable concrete structure spanning the Golden Horn, the estuary on Istanbul’s European shore, Galata Bridge links the two oldest districts of the city. To the south lies historic Sultan Ahmet, which contains Hagia Sophia and Topkapi Palace; on the other shore Pera, with its imposing embassies and merchants’ mansions, the heart of European Istanbul. With its traffic-clogged highway, crowds of commuters rushing to catch the ferry, fishermen hanging over the parapets, restaurants affording magical views, and a dingy underpass with stalls selling guns, dancing dolls and counterfeit luxuries, the bridge is a microcosm of the city in all its rich variety.

Geert Mak’s thoughtful travelogue sketches out Istanbul’s past, and provides a touching portrait of its present inhabitants that explores, and challenges, the clichés of a bridge between East and West. He brings the city’s multicultural history to life and introduces us to the inhabitants of the bridge, from the itinerant card sharps, pickpockets and glue-sniffers to the hawkers of cigarettes, condoms, umbrellas, roasted chestnuts and lottery tickets. Mak has the the acuity of a novelist and the sensitivity of an anthropologist.

The young in one another’s arms, like the headscarfed girl canoodling with her pierced and tattooed boyfriend, defy our stereotypical expectations; but, as Yeats observed of his Byzantium, this is no country for old men. A 77-year-old porter complains that he’s been swindled out of his life savings by a femme fatale pushing 60. Many are lonely divorcees living in shabby boarding-houses. Poverty is a constant in their lives. “I smoke a lot, that always helps to still the hunger,” says Ali, an in-sole vendor.

They are outsiders bound by regional loyalties; the cigarette boys are Kurdish, and divided by political allegiances. Some are nationalists, while the umbrella men “form a fledgling socialist enclave”. Honour “has value as a social currency”, and poverty brings with it a sense of failure and shame.

It is pride, rather than ideological fanaticism, that fuels their anger. “My village is full of people who don’t know a thing about the Koran. But … they’re prepared to die for Islam,” a waiter tells Mak. His intimate portraits disrupt tidy European prejudices, and this thoughtful, beautifully written book is suffused with a respect for the richness of the inner life of individuals that transcends tired metaphors. The bridge is a city, but is “above all, itself, and we shall leave it at that”.

Birds without wings: the lost cities of the Levant

Birds without wings: the lost cities of the Levant

Last Friday’s World on 3 with Charlie Gillett was one of the best music shows I’ve listened to in a long while. As his studio guest, Charlie welcomed Yasmin Levy, whose music is a fusion of Flamenco and the Judeo-Spanish Ladino style. As well as performing songs from her forthcoming album, Yasmin also discussed her work and participated in Charlie’s radio ping-pong. Their choice of music, and the discussion – which ranged from Yasmin’s views on what makes for truly expressive singing to the challenges of translating Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ (one of the songs on her new album) into Spanish and the revelation of singing the song in the Hebrew style of the synagogue and the cantor – made engrossing listening. Continue reading “Birds without wings: the lost cities of the Levant”

Nuri Bilge Ceylan: Turkey Cinemascope

Writing about the photography of Iranian film director Abbas Kiarostami reminded me of another film-maker whose photography I greatly admire – Turkey’s Nuri Bilge Ceylan. He’s exhibited two series – Turkey Cinemascope and For My Father. Those who have seen his films – Distant (Uzak), Three Monkeys and particularly Climates (Iklimler) will instantly recognise the parallels with his cinematography. In both films and photography, Ceylan reveals the influence of Andrei Tarkovsky.

On location trips for his film, Climates, Ceylan took a panoramic camera, but only in retrospect did he acknowledge the landscapes, city views and portraits as photographs not just reference pieces. The overwhelmingly monochrome scenes were mostly shot at dusk, in snowy conditions.

He possesses an exceptional sense of composition, and often shot where an arcing road gives views in two directions: Curved Street in Winter, Istanbul, opening onto a hill framed with old houses, and Baker Boy in Urfa, posed between the receding arms of a cobbled alley.

In contrast, the winter scenes in Istanbul are about the exquisitely faded city. Ceylan exploits the blizzards in timeless pieces such as Trams in Beyoglu, where hunched-up pedestrians recall traditional Japanese painting.

The painterliness of Ceylan’s photographs derives from his use of absorbent cotton-rag paper and archival pigment to add depth to detail. Vignettes from the bleak plains of Anatolia invite comparisons with Breughel: their white backgrounds and miniaturised, bundledup figures going about daily chores at dusk.

This shot of Ishakpasa palace, in the region of eastern Turkey around Mount Ararat, appears in the final sequence of his film Climates.

In each of the images in the series For My Father, Ceylan’s elderly father, Emin, is photographed in various locations, in compositions designed to draw as much emotional power from the natural surroundings as possible. In A Winter Day on the Galata Bridge, the elder Ceylan leans over a set of railings next to the open sea as a flock of seagulls hovers above. In Winter Light, the man stands close to the camera, staring at the lens, but it’s the stormy sky behind him that grabs the attention and defines the shot.

The series also features very intimate shots, such as this one.

See also

Three Monkeys: Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s latest

Nuri Bilge Ceylan Three Monkeys

A man stands on a balcony in Istanbul as a storm breaks over the Bosporus: a still from the stunning final sequence of Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s latest film, Three Monkeys, seen tonight. This is another atmospheric film from the director of Climates and Distant, two of the greatest films of the last decade. Once again, his background as a photographer infuses results in painterly compositions that resonate in the mind long after the film has ended. Istanbul locations such as the apartment block where the three main protagonists live are as dramatically rendered as his panoramic photos of the city, and the final sequence is beautifully photographed with shafts of light breaking from an overcast sky and rain illuminated as the storm breaks over Istanbul.

Nuri Bilge Ceylan deservedly won Best Director award at Cannes in 2008 for Three Monkeys. It’s  psychologically-intense, with convincing performances and excellent sound and cinematography. Certain passages – particularly the ghost sequences –  recall Tarkovsky. Ceylan made his international mark with the 2002 feature Uzak (Distant), about a disillusioned Istanbul photographer; his follow-up, Climates (2006), was a painfully intimate drama about a couple splitting up, all the more uncomfortable because the leads were played by Ceylan and his wife, Ebru Ceylan.

Nuri Bilge Ceylan is quietly becoming a major force in European cinema.
– Independent

Three Monkeys trailer

Nuri Bilge Ceylan: filmography

With only four feature films to his credit, Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan has emerged as one of the masters of contemporary cinema. Trained as a photographer, Ceylan has gained international acclaim (including citations at the Cannes Film Festival for both Distant and Climates) for intent, observational works which beautifully capture the details of everyday life in exquisitely composed shots. Working in a minimalist style, Ceylan often relies on nonprofessional actors-including members of his own family-to perform in his films, which have been praised for their naturalistic qualities.
Source: Harvard Film Archive

Cocoon (Koza) 1995: 20 min, no dialogue. An older couple (played by Ceylan’s parents) live separately as a result of their painful past. When they reunite, their meeting does not go as planned. Extra feature on the Uzak DVD.

The Small Town (Kasaba) 1997: With Mehmet Emin Toprak, Fatma Ceylan, Mehmet Emin Ceylan. Turkish with English subtitles. Told from the perspective of two children, and in four parts which run parallel to the seasons, The Small Town describes relationships between members of a Turkish family as brother and sister encounter the darkness and mysteries of social life, nature, and the adult world. Based on an autobiographical story by the director’s sister Emine Ceylan, The Small Town is “a remarkable first feature. . . a strikingly original, vibrantly sensitive portrait of an extended family living in a remote Aegean village” (Variety).

Clouds of May (Mayis Sikintisi) 1999: With Mehmet Emin Ceylan, Muzzafer özdemir, Fatma Ceylan. Turkish with English subtitles.  Clouds of May tells the story of Muzaffer, who returns to his native town to make a movie and sets about recruiting family and friends to work in the film. Meanwhile his father is bent on saving the small forest on his property from confiscation and his cousin, a young town dweller whose efforts seem doomed to failure, dreams of going to Istanbul. Clouds of May is told with subtle comedy and charm, and inscribed with beauty and a reverence for the lives of its characters.

Distant (Uzak) 2003: With Muzaffer Özdemir, Mehmet Emin Toprak, Zuhal Gencer Turkish with English subtitles. Mahmut is a commercial photographer who has been struggling to come to terms with the growing gap between his artistic ideals and his professional obligations.

As he clings to the melancholic and obsessive routines of his solitary life, Mahmut’s distant relative arrives in Istanbul. As the two men struggle to make a connection, the film’s elegant cinematography and deeply pensive tone confirm “the emerging talent of Turkish auteur Nuri Bilge Ceylan” (Variety).

Climates (Iklimler) 2006: 97 min. With Ebru Ceylan, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Nazan Kesal. Turkish with English subtitles. Hailed as “the only masterpiece of the [2006 Cannes] festival” by the New York Foundation for the Arts, Climates is the story of a searing relationship between a man and a woman (played by the director and his wife, Ebru Ceylan) that becomes a psychological portrait of an insecure man.

At the close of her rave review, New York Times critic Manohla Dargis compares Ceylan to Michelangelo Antonioni, commenting that “while [Ceylan’s] films are similarly personal, they’re more accessible… The mysteries of his work are those of the heart, the head, the soul.”


The Edge of Heaven

Saw an excellent film tonight  – The Edge of Heaven, the latest from Turkish-German director, Fatih Akın, whose Crossing The Bridge, about the music scene in Istanbul, was one of last year’s best films.

The film is presented in three sections, Death of Yeter, Death of Lotte and the Edge of Heaven. Each of the two deaths is sudden and unexpected, even when you already know the title of the section. At the centre of all these stories is Nejat, a second generation Turk in Germany, a professor of German. Nejat’s father Ali, one day brings home Yeter, a middle-aged Turkish prostitute, with the intention of living with her. Though disapproving at first, Nejat accepts Yeter – the two form a kind bond which is looked upon suspiciously by Ali. In a fit of anger, Ali hits Yeter which leads to her death.

Nejat flies to Turkey to attend the funeral and sets out to look for Yeter’s missing daughter Ayten. On an impulse, he decides to buy a German bookstore in Istanbul, settles there and continues his search. Meanwhile, we meet Ayten, who is involved in an armed rebellion against the government and escapes police to seek refuge in Germany. She meets a fiery, idealistic girl called Lotte, the two embark on a passionate relationship which is frowned upon by Lotte’s mother Sussane. Ayten is eventually caught by the police, which leads to series of tragic events. But these events also bring together these unconnected people in an unusual companionship and inter-dependence, which appears natural and perfectly believable.

“I don’t feel comfortable with the immigration cinema label at all,” says Akin. “Globalisation, I think, explains it more. It’s a continental dialogue.”

The complex plot coalesced in Akın’s mind on a long road trip in 2005 to the Black sea with his father and a friend. He had read in Bob Dylan’s Chronicles that the singer’s grandmother was from Trabzon, toward the Georgian border, “and I said, ‘Get out of here – my grandparents are from there.’ So if Dylan was from there, I had to go there and see what was going on.”

Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian:

This is an intriguing, complex, beautifully acted and directed piece of work, partly a realist drama of elaborate coincidences, near-misses and near-hits, further tangled with shifts in the timeline – and partly an almost dreamlike meditation with visual symmetries and narrative rhymes. It is about the tension between Germany and Turkey, to whom postwar West Germany opened its doors for “guest-worker” labourers, thereby getting an economic boost but creating for itself an unacknowledged quasi-imperial legacy of guilt and cultural division. And it is about the gulf between the first- and second-generation Turkish-Germans, conflicted about their identity and their relation with the old country, itself conflicted as it prepares to join the European Union.

Postscript: later saw on DVD Fatih Akin’s earlier Head-On, another very good film which lives up to its title in its opening minutes, as angry alcoholic Cahit (Birol Unel) deliberately drives his car into a wall. This failed suicide attempt brings him together with Sibel (Sibel Kekilli), the equally desperate daughter of strict Muslim Turks, who begs Cahit to join her in a marriage of convenience.

Edge of Heaven trailer

Fatih Akin talks about Edge of Heaven

Head-On trailer

Crossing the Bridge trailer

Crossing the Bridge clip