“Turkey managed to live through, in 2007, the paradox of an elected party rooted in Islamic tradition stating that it wishes to maintain the secular republic set up by Kemal Ataturk in 1923,” Manoutchehr Eskandari-Qajar, a political science professor in California, told me, and it survived the further paradox of the nation’s military, determined to protect that secularism, refraining from taking over the new government by force. If Turkey could maintain such a balance, my friend, an expert on the Middle East, had said, he had high hopes for it. But, culturally, the whole country seemed to be perched upon a tightrope.
Just three weeks before I arrived, in fact, the city had placed a ban on smoking in its coffeehouses and eating places; this seemed about as plausible as banning red wine in Paris or noodles on the streets of Beijing. By the time I began walking around, angry proprietors were already launching loud protests in the streets, claiming that the ruling had stripped them of up to 80 percent of their business. And for those who love Istanbul, the small change seemed symptomatic of a city that was eager to show how European and modern it was, even though its heart—and character—lie in its very pungency and closeness to its Eastern roots.
“Istanbul has always been about raw life, from the murderous driving and yawning potholes in the roads to the physical street brawls and the smoke-filled teahouses,” Nigel McGilchrist, a sometime resident of Turkey and author of the Blue Guide to the Greek Islands told me of the city he has known for more than 30 years. “It’s not Belgium or suburban Gloucestershire; it’s the nearest thing to India in the West.”
Certainly, even as Turkey cherishes its almost half-century-long wish to become a formal part of Europe, it seems reluctant to leave behind the ancient identity it still so proudly maintains. For centuries Istanbul has taken in Greeks and Armenians and Jews, and in areas like Balat and Fener the echoes of their presence are what give the streets their savor. Yet none of those groups seems to have affected “Turkishness” at the core or colored the city’s sense of itself. After a week visiting every corner, I realized I had not seen a single woman working in hotel or restaurant or café.
“I worry,” McGilchrist went on, “that Turkey wants to become European in all the stale, bureaucratic ways, without truly embracing any of the important, deep-rooted values of Europe, such as respecting the rights of dissenting writers to express their views.”
And as I walked past the Robinson Crusoe bookstore, boasting as good a selection of English-language books as many a counterpart on Sunset Boulevard, as I sat in a little room in the orthodox area of Fatih where a sheikh was leading 50 followers in passionate Sufi chants of “Allah, Allah, Allah,” to the sound of a tambourine, I did begin to feel that the power of the city lay precisely in the fact that its next move could never be anticipated. The true nature of Istanbul seems always in dispute—or in passage, at least, like the boats constantly crisscrossing its waterways.
I had seen more chadors and head scarves here than I had noticed in Syria or Egypt, I thought, as I prepared to leave—but the women with blond ponytails were still sipping $20 cosmopolitans among the trendy cafés of Asmalimescit. There were few signs of the poverty I was used to in places like Jakarta or Marrakech; yet, outside the glamorous areas, Istanbul did not seem a wealthy city, especially for the millions who stream in and end up in drab apartment blocks without the new lives they dreamed of. Statistically, it claims to be one of the safest cities in Europe, but it didn’t strike me as particularly friendly or ebullient. Watchful and guarded, for all its dazzling surfaces and cries of discounts in the bazaar, Istanbul looked to be the place where the age-old reserve of Greece runs into the very different kind of foreignness of Pakistan.
Pamuk had been similarly circumspect in his evocation of the hometown he has been exploring all his life. “This is indeed a city moving westward,” he had written, “but it’s still not changing as fast as it talks.” One day while I was there, phone lines back home to Japan went down for 24 hours. In the Internet cafés I found that Turkish-language keyboards prevented me from typing my password to sign on to AOL. And as I checked out of my fairly fancy hotel in Sultanahmet, a gracious desk clerk asked me to write in a tip (a first, in my 30 years of travel). I did so—but when he gave me back the bill, I saw that he had doubled the amount, on the sly, because my ten percent didn’t strike him as sufficient.
My very last night in Istanbul , I decided to put all my ideas and thoughts of a global future away. I wouldn’t check out another dervish show, I decided; I wouldn’t look in on another dance club. What really excited me about the place, I came to realize, 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 hardand- fast distinctions dissolve more apparent than on the water.
So I stepped onto a ferry in Eminonu, in Europe, and went across to Uskudar, in Asia. On arrival, I passed through the turnstiles, turned around and bought another dollar token for a ferry passing through the Golden Horn, back to Europe. The sun was just beginning to set, and the late-afternoon light turned every face to gold. Lovers were courting shyly on the hard white wooden benches, waiters jounced past us carrying trays holding glasses of orange juice and of apple tea. I watched secretaries in high heels teeter home from the office through the sharpened dusk and giggling schoolgirls try out their French on captive tourists on the boat. From every bridge we passed, men had thrown down fishing lines, as I’d never seen from the ferries of Hong Kong or New York.
As darkness began to fall, the sloping streets and minarets turned into a kind of fairyland, the Istanbul of paintings. I got off at the last stop, near Eyup Sultan Mosque, and bought another jeton to go back to Kadikoy, in Asia. Eighteen boats were crisscrossing the water now, some of them lit up with dinner-cruise dances, others steered by grizzled, stocky men whose hard faces and dark clothes seemed to speak for a truer, less imported Turkey.
To one side of us, the Bosporus 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. I got off in Turkish Asia for the last time and looked across the water to head back. 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.