August 01, 2014

Loud, anarchic, quirky: My love affair with Istanbul


Ivan Watson - My love affair with Istanbul began at first sight. The urban romance blossomed moments after I arrived here for the first time 12 years ago, during the taxi ride from the airport into the city. As the yellow cab sped down the coast road, I turned my gaze from the sparkling blue waters of the Marmara Sea on the right, to the crumbling, thousand-year-old fortifications of ancient Constantinople on the left. I was smitten. Never before had I seen such an enchanting combination of geography and history.

Somehow, I instantly realized this would be my home for years to come. Of course, this was far more than a magical city of domes and minarets, Ottoman palaces and Byzantine chapels built along the banks of the Bosphorus Strait. Istanbul was also a simmering cauldron of urban energy: loud, anarchic and quirky as hell. 

Beyoglu, the district on the European side of my adopted home, had once been a neighborhood of embassies and grand houses constructed by Istanbul's once largely non-Muslim bourgeoisie. Discriminatory postwar policies drove out most of the indigenous Greeks, leading to massive demographic change over the last half century. 

By the time I showed up in 2002, the ground floors of many of these old Beyoglu mansions were occupied by an eclectic mix of carpenters, dive bars, used-book stores and secondhand furniture shops. Along Bank Street (Bankalar Caddesi), some of the stately buildings that once housed Ottoman financial institutions now served as depots selling light bulbs and electrical adaptors. 

In the mornings, children in rumpled school uniforms raced down cobblestone streets past vendors who patrolled the alleyways, loudly hawking simit (Turkey's staple sesame breakfast food). 

Elderly women smoked out of their windows, while lowering baskets by rope to wait for deliveries of newspapers, bread and milk from the street below. Herds of well-fed street cats lounged and prowled ... many of them fed by the ladies of the neighbourhood. 

Because Beyoglu has long been Istanbul's main nightlife district, an evening out could easily turn into a voyage of discovery. The neighborhood was a warren of hundreds of tightly packed bars and nightclubs, each one home to its own eclectic subculture. 

For me, a night out could easily migrate from a traditional meyhane restaurant where diners down grilled octopus and eggplant with milky glasses of iced raki, to a grungy metal club where teenage guitar players scream accented Metallica lyrics. 

An Irish saloon full of immigrants from West Africa sat a few minutes' walk from a bar where Turks danced in 9/8 time to the squealing clarinet of the now-deceased Roma clarinetist Selim Sesler. (Rest in peace, maestro.) 

Down one alley, stocky transgender prostitutes could be seen haggling over prices with shy young men. A different turn would find Turkish football fans bellowing at a flatscreen TV over enormous tankards of Efes beer. 

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