Kaleidoscopic Istanbul

by Matthew Asprey

28 July 2011

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

A Backpacker Fiesta

The summer had beckoned backpackers from all over Europe and beyond. It was a backpacker fiesta in Beyoğlu. I hardly felt like I’d returned to the grim city I’d seen two years earlier. By day the backpackers cooled off at the shaded tables outside the World House. Down Yüksek Kaldırım Caddesi were fresh orange juice stalls and hole-in-the-wall kebap shops and cafes. Among many others I talked to two beer-swilling tubby German girls with flawless complexions, a deeply-tanned fellow from Spain who had cycled to Turkey from Valencia, and two gay English hitchhikers.

One night a bunch of us went to Atölye Kuledibi, a music bar near the Galata Tower. A trio played Turkish folk music as hard-swinging jazz, and hard-swinging jazz as Turkish folk music. They played the strangest version of ‘Now’s the Time’ I’ve ever heard.

The next morning I woke up when the dawn ezan (call to prayer) crackled through speakers on a minaret about ten metres from the open dorm window. The Aya Sofya was visible across the Golden Horn. My fellow backpackers lay in their respective bunks, sheetless and parched. The breeze that dawn was hot and dry and I felt like a baked potato.

Saturday night in Beyoğlu was a joyous occasion. The restaurants and bars and cafes with outdoor dining were at capacity seating. I had dinner with two fellow backpackers: Jerry, a brown-bearded New York musician who’d just toured Israel, and Annie, a politics major at Oxford. Jerry was disenchanted with Obama and his compromised health care legislation, although his leftism did not extend to outrage over the death of activists on the Mavi Marmara, one of the Turkish ships attempting to deliver aid to Gaza in May. Annie raged about the Liberal Democrats who had betrayed her in the recent UK election by forming a working coalition with the Tories. I decided to complain about Australian politics, too. Why not? There was plenty to complain about.

We had trouble finding a place to eat. Eventually we secured the corner of a table in a crowded rooftop bar. We had to climb seven or eight flights of stairs to get there. It was worth it for the view across the Golden Horn. The well-lit Sultanahmet presided at the crest of the cityscape. The breeze was warm. We ordered a round of Efes beer and a bowl of potato wedges. Jerry went off to chat to a girl with red hair. Over a pervasive endless generic house beat, Annie and I tried to talk.

A number of the Western European backpackers we’d met in Istanbul were openly opposed to the rising Muslim populations in their respective countries. They raised the issue of freedom of speech and the Danish cartoons of 2005. Others criticised Islamic culture from a feminist position. Several spoke about immigrant enclaves in Western European cities that had little connection to the rest of society.

“You don’t see a rigid segregation between ethnic groups in Sydney,” I said. “Everybody seems to mix together in relative peace. I mean, I’ve lived in share houses with both Pakistanis and Israelis.”

“Really?” said Annie.

“Well, not at the same time,” I admitted. “But things are pretty tranquil. When there was a race riot a few years ago on a Sydney beach, surfers fighting non-whites, most people were just dumbfounded.”

“I want to go to Australia so much,” said Annie. “It’s my dream destination.”

“Don’t imagine that Australians are any more politically enlightened than Europeans. Maybe we just have a New World mentality. Despite the official jingoism, we’re very insecure. We’re still inventing what it means to be Australian. Whereas the French, for example, are pretty confident they know what it means to be French. And what being French excludes.”

The summer backpacker fiesta continued but I had to leave the Beyoğlu Crew in Istanbul to continue to Ankara, the Canberra of the Orient.

Spring 2011—Anzac Day in Taksim

Back to the present global prowl…Clare and I had been on the road for five months when we flew into Istanbul on the night of 25 April.

“Welcome!” said Erhan, a grey-bearded hippie who managed our new hostel a few blocks north of Taksim Square. “You have just come from Gallipoli, yes?”


We’d inadvertently arrived on Anzac Day, Australia’s day of remembrance on the anniversary of the start of the 1915 Battle of Gallipoli. I’d wanted to stay again at the World House in Beyoğlu but there were no vacant beds. Now I realised why—the city was full of Australian pilgrims. Going to Gallipoli Cove has become the Australian equivalent of going to Hajj.

“Many Australians in Turkey for Anzac,” said Erhan approvingly. “Many.”

“This only became really popular in the nineties,” I said. “It’s a John Howard-era phenomenon. It coincided with flag-waving and Southern Cross tattoos and spouting idiocies about ‘mateship’.”


“A uniquely Australian type of friendship that is somehow superior to the friendship you find in the rest of the world. Our politicians swear by it.”

Erhan clapped me on the shoulder and laughed. “In Turkey you will also find the best of friendship.”

I did not doubt that.

The next day Clare and I decided to take a Bosphorus Cruise. On İstiklâl Caddesi there was a noisy anti-nuke protest (Nükleeri durdurun!) inspired by the recent disaster in Japan. I got distracted by a shop selling books in many languages. I dug through piles of ex-library books, paperbacks which had been bundled three or four together and rebound in a single buckram volume. I found a set of Eric Ambler novels. I wanted to read The Light of Day, the book which inspired the 1964 movie Topkapi. I probably should have been reading Orhan Pamuk or Yaşar Kemal on Istanbul, not Eric Ambler. But Ambler’s pretty good, too.

Under the Galata Tower workers had torn up Yüksek Kaldırım Caddesi. Pavers were piled either side of the street, mud was everywhere, red tape barred passage (the barriers were ignored), open drains stank of sewage. Clare and I paid for a river cruise in Eminönü but had to wait for an hour on deck for the ferry to fill up. A German family became increasingly irate over the captain’s deceptions. “Five more minutes!” he claimed. “Five more minutes!” From the deck he spruiked over a loudspeaker: “Bosphorus! Bosphorus! Bosphorus!” For some reason he pretended to be a call on a speaker phone: “Hello? Hello? I am sorry….Bosphorus! Bosphorus! Bosphorus!” It was bitterly cold sitting on the deck. The German children wailed in impatience. I went downstairs to buy a cup of Nescafé. Finally we cruised. We passed Yıldız Park, the Ortaköy Mosque, under the Bosphorus Bridge…

The next day we went to Topkapı Palace. Orange tulips bloomed in the gardens. We checked out the jewels and Ottoman miniatures of the Imperial Treasury. I saw the Topkapı dagger with three emeralds in its golden hilt. It was commissioned in 1747 by the Sultan Mahmud I. It was the prize stolen in the movie Topkapi. A good replica at the Topkapı gift shop cost about $4,000.

In the Privy Chamber Clare and I paraded by a series of relics. A man sung Qur’an passages over a loudspeaker. Topkapı sure has some rare items. I mean, the still-white Turban of Joseph, circa 13th century B.C.? The Staff of Moses? King David’s Sword?

“The authenticity of some of these relics seems a little dubious,” I said. “Why not the Holy Grail? Or Eve’s apple?”

It wasn’t exactly the right place to get sarcastic.

There was one more thing to do in Istanbul before we moved on.

I spied Aykut eating his lunch—a kebap with a bottle of Pepsi Max—on a chair in the middle of his now very cluttered gift shop. He’d filled the space with revolving displays, extra shelving, ceramic figures ranked on the floor. The place was full of customers.

“Be careful,”  I said to Clare. “We may discover we’ve accidentally bought a rug.”

“We don’t even have a place to live,” she said.

We stepped into the shop. I squeezed past several customers and shook hands with Aykut.

“I’ve brought my girlfriend with me,” I said.

“Is this the old one or the new one?”

“The same one.”

He laughed. I tottered between the displays of trinkets and accidently knocked over Aykut’s bottle of Pepsi Max. The shop was smaller than ever—and the entrance to the carpet display room was now boarded up.

“I’m renovating the hotel,” Aykut said. Then he raised an interested eyebrow. “You need a place to stay?”

His wife smiled. More customers gushed into the store.

Aykut shook my hand. “You come back later and we’ll have tea.”

I didn’t have time to return to see Aykut that Spring—but there’ll surely be another time for friends in Istanbul.

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