February 28, 2011

Istanbul: Minarets and Martinis

Istanbul straddles Europe and Asia, has a population of 13m and manages to be both lavishly ancient and vibrantly modern. But how do you pin down such a restless, dynamic city?


In the lobby of the cinema in Istanbul's Nisantasi district, salon-tanned kids stretch out on sofas overlooking the lights of the city, before a blue-lit cocktail bar. It takes me a while to realise that these glamorous teenagers aren't here to see Public Enemies or Ghosts of Girlfriends Past; they've come to the cinema lobby just to make the scene.

I'd heard for years that Istanbul, which was one of the European Capitals of Culture for 2010, calls itself "Europe's coolest city". It's certainly one of the most complex – the centre of a country that is 98% Islamic yet increasingly famous for its watermelon martinis. Here is a place whose Blue Mosque has an LCD screen flashing the time in Paris and Tokyo. Turkey's most cosmopolitan metropolis has more billionaires than any city other than New York, Moscow and London, and when I went to its Istinye Park mall, it was to see Aston Martin DB9s and Bentleys jammed outside a gilded avenue of fortresses labelled "Armani", "Gucci", "Vuitton" and "Dior". To my friends in business, and to many proud Istanbulians, this city is where the Islamic world meets the global order, serving as a bridge – literal and metaphorical – between Europe and the outer edges of Asia. But still nothing had prepared me for the flash and glitter of it all.

We foreigners like to recall that Istanbul is the only city on earth with one shore in Asia and one in Europe. But its real heart, according to its eloquent son, Orhan Pamuk, in his evocative memoir Istanbul: Memories of a City, lies rather in the division between the old (which is usually the local and the Islamic) and the new (generally the western and the secular).

What really excited me about the place, I came to realise, was simply the sense of ceaseless movement, the way the energies of an Asian metropolis pulsed through largely European streets, so that the whole place seemed, intoxicatingly, a work in perpetual progress. And nowhere was the habit of making hard-and-fast distinctions dissolve more apparent than on the water.

So I stepped on to a ferry in Eminönü, in Europe, and went across to Üsküdar, in Asia. On arrival, I passed through the turnstiles, turned around and bought another token for a ferry passing through the Golden Horn, back to Europe. The sun was starting to set, and the late-afternoon light turned every face to gold. Lovers were courting on the white wooden benches, waiters jounced past us carrying trays holding glasses of orange juice and apple tea. I watched secretaries in high heels teeter home through the sharpened dusk and giggling schoolgirls trying out their French on captive tourists on the boat. From every bridge we passed, men had thrown down fishing lines, which I'd never seen from the ferries of Hong Kong or New York.

To one side of us, the Bosphorus Bridge was turning red and blue and yellow again; to the other, the minarets and mosques of Sultanahmet looked more unearthly than ever, illuminated against a blue-black sky. As soon as you begin to know a place, I thought, all talk of "old" and "new" or "east" and "west" becomes redundant. Just the movements inside it, the way it comes closer and then slips away: that's all the excitement you need.

Read more on the Guardian: Istanbul: Minarets and Martinis

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