Kaleidoscopic Istanbul

by Matthew Asprey

28 July 2011

The Sultanahmet Camii (Blue Mosque) in Winter 2008. Photo: Matthew Asprey. 

Strolling Amongst the Day Trippers

“I can’t afford a carpet,” I said. “And I live in a tiny flat. Not much floor space.”

“Are you married?” he said.


“Lady friend?”

“No. I’m backpacking alone. Free as a bird.”

“You should get a wife,” he said. “If you bring her here I’ll give you a good price on a rug.”

After my meal Aykut asked his wife to bring us coffee and Turkish delights. We waited for the grounds to settle in the cups.

“How’s the restaurant business?” I asked.

Aykut shrugged. “This is not a busy time of year. But perhaps the problem is that I will not serve alcohol in my restaurant. It’s against my religion.” He chewed a piece of Turkish delight. “I can see you are a gentleman, Matthew. But many Australians pass through here, especially to go to Gallipoli. In Istanbul they drink and…what can I say? They [urination gesture] on the street. Is this dignified? They say they are here to honour the dead soldiers of the First World War.”

I took Aykut’s business card with a promise to look at his carpets next time in town. I put on my gloves and beanie and wandered back to my hotel. On the way I passed two strangers with curly blonde hair wearing shorts and sandals. They were slugging beer from cans on the steps of a backpackers’.

“G’day, guys,” I said. “How’s the hostel?”

“Too many fuckin’ rules, mate. Won’t let you drink in the fuckin’ rooms.” The speaker crushed his can and smiled at me. “But it’s all good, hey? You from Sydney, too?”

There weren’t many other backpackers in town. I chatted to a middle-aged hippie from Adelaide who was taking a break from an Indian ashram. She approved of my vegan diet but suggested I improve the positivity of my aura. I met an elderly American who walked around town in loafers, no socks, his ankles mottled purple. He told me he lived in Cairo most of the time. Didn’t much like Istanbul. “Too fucking expensive,” he said. “Ugly City. Ugly people.” When an American tourist couple walked by—fanny packs and crepe tracksuits and red state haircuts—he said with no discretion, “Look how fat those two are. Jesus fucking Christ. Jesus fucking Christ in hell. They’re really fat!”

I found Istanbul in winter a little too sedate. I decided to fly out. I’d heard from a fellow backpacker that one Athens travel agent had refused to sell her an air ticket to Istanbul. He acted as though he’d never heard of the place. Where? This confused her for some time.

“Then I finally realised that he would sell me a ticket to ‘Constantinople.’ And why not?” she said. “It’s only been called Istanbul for half a millennium.”

Fortunately it’s easier to get a ticket the other way. I grabbed my backpack and skedaddled to Greece.

August 2010—Summer Fiesta with the Beyoğlu Crew

A few months before this global prowl properly began, I left Sydney to make a brief business trip to summery Turkey. It’s only a 20-hour series of flights to Istanbul. You get used to that kind of travel time when you live in Australia. I left Clare knee-deep in winter mud on an archeological dig in rural New South Wales.

This time I’d booked a bed in a hostel in Beyoğlu on the northern side of the Golden Horn. I arrived at Atatürk Airport at 7AM under blinding sun, took the metro to Aksaray, then hailed a cab to take me to Taksim Square, figuring I’d walk the rest of the way. The problem was that the World House Hostel was a long way from Taksim. I finally got my bearings after interrogating hotel doormen and re-checking Google Maps at a number of internet kiosks. I realised I had to walk three kilometres down İstiklâl Caddesi, Istanbul’s main shopping thoroughfare, then downhill towards the Galata Tower.

It was nudging towards forty degrees celsius. Wandering around Istanbul in summer is like an endless StairMaster session in a sauna. Most young women in the centre of Istanbul wear the same summer clothing worn in Sydney or New York—tank tops, mini skirts, sandals. Lots of bare skin. This is normal. Perhaps one in ten women I saw on İstiklâl wore a hijab. Only occasionally did I see a woman in a burqa.

On İstiklâl the ice-cream stalls were making money. The sellers, who wear red vests laced with gold thread, are basically street performers. They have metre-long scoops which they use to hit bells (it sounds like shattering glass) and they play all kinds of jokes on kids trying desperately to take possession of their ice cream cones.

I turned downhill on Yüksek Kaldırım Caddesi, a steep and narrow pedestrian walkway. A car crawled behind me, blaring its horn for free passage. A man sprinkled water on the pavement outside his bike shop. Music came from every direction (Yüksek Kaldırım is the street in Istanbul to buy musical instruments). Above the shop fronts were appealing old apartment buildings of dark stone and crumbling pink plaster. When the roller doors on the shops came down you saw they were tagged with wild graffiti – balloons like eyes tied by string to clenched fists.

By the time I dropped my backpack in the hostel reception area I had aching muscles, a sunburned neck, and sopping clothes. I wanted to take a shower, but I hadn’t packed a bath towel and the hostel didn’t rent them out. So I hiked back up to İstiklâl to look for a towel. I spent half an hour searching. In a steamy and labyrinthine clothing market I finally bought a cheap t-shirt.

I showered at the hostel, dried myself with the t-shirt, and stepped outside only a little weary from the long flights and the heat. I walked downhill to the waterfront. On the way I bought a tan trilby, what Clare would call a ‘jazz hat’, to keep the sun off. I crossed the Galata Bridge as fishermen in sweaty vests fanned themselves with their hats. I went on uphill with the crowd towards the Sultanahmet. Five minutes later a shoe shiner tried the old drop-the-brush-so-the-dumb-tourist-will-pick-it-up-for-me routine. I laughed. Not this time, motherfucker!

My old friend Aykut was sitting outside his guesthouse under a tree and sipping mint tea.

“Nice hat!” Aykut called to me. “Are you married yet?”

“No. I have a girlfriend back home and she’d get jealous if I got married. We may come through here next year when we go backpacking.”

We drank tea together in the shade. Aykut’s wife, wearing a yellow and white hijab, brought us pieces of Turkish delight. She smiled when she recognised me, but still didn’t speak a word of English.

“How’s business?” I asked Aykut.

“No more restaurant. I have now only the guest rooms and the gift shop. Come inside and see my carpets,” said Aykut. “I’m very proud of my wares. I sell only the best.”

“Thanks, but I don’t need a carpet. And I can’t afford one.”

He chuckled and patted my belly. “I have air conditioning, my friend.”

So I entered the carpet emporium. It was dark and cool, quite like the nearby 6th century Basilica Cistern which was full of wilting tourists in search of relief from the sun. Aykut’s wife flicked on a set of overhead halogen lights and sat me down on a low couch. The walls were hidden behind tapestries. One by one Aykut unrolled each carpet with a flourish across the polished floorboards.

By the end he was panting. With pride he said, “How much you think you’d pay for these in euros?”

“I have no idea.”


“They’re very beautiful, but I really have no need for any of them.”

“For your mother,” he said with a grin. “We must look after our mothers.”

True. Back at the hostel I folded my new table throw and stowed it in my backpack.

The next day I caught a ferry from the Kabataş wharf to the Princes’ Islands. On board I wrote a story for my Stolchlickoff Scrapbooks, read Eric Ambler’s Istanbul-set Coffin for Dimitrios, and then stood in the stern. The white spume in the convulsing river looked like stringy fat in a raw black steak. We passed the other main Princes’ Islands: Kınalıada, Burgazada, and Heybeliada. These islands were once used for the exile of out-of-favour royalty. At first glance they seem just like Greek Islands, although the Sea of Marmara does not match the limpid purity of Aegean water. Not even close.

I got off the ferry at Büyükada. The numerous day trippers (most of them Turkish) went to eat fish or kebaps at the waterfront restaurants. The kids were taking photos of each other. Bookstalls lined up in the square under umbrellas with Coca-Cola logos. A fat white-haired woman, a local, sat on a first floor balcony and looked out at the crowd. She didn’t look happy.

There are no cars or motorbikes allowed on Büyükada—it’s a bicycle and fayton-and-horse sort of place. I hired a bike and skirted the coast. The bicycle chain jumped its thread and my front tyre blew out within minutes. I fixed the chain and rolled the bike back to the shop with grease-black hands. I got a replacement bike but had to argue against paying extra for tyre repairs. Sheez.

The roads of the island were smeared with horse droppings. I pedalled to the crest of a hill and scanned the horizon. Teenage girls sold flowers at a roadside stall. Donkeys were tethered to the trees. I coasted a long way down green avenues past stately Victorian villas and waterfront holiday resorts.

When I got back to the marina I sat down to a meal of white bean and onion salad, French fries, and Efes beer. I caught the busy last ferry. The sunburned teenagers of Istanbul dozed in each others’ arms. My jazz hat blew into the Bosphorus.

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