Sunday, November 29, 2009


It's unfortunate timing that I have an assignment, during the long Turkish holiday weekend, to write about the revival of interest in Istanbul's Ottoman bathhouses. Unfortunate, because Istanbul's biggest, toughest martial artists are (like everyone else in Turkey) spending the whole weekend with their big, tough, close, warm, extended and intact Turkish families, where they are slaughtering sheep and squabbling in the insane, non-linear way only big, tough, close, warm, extended and intact Turkish families can -- that is to say, uninterruptedly, constantly, at the tops of their lungs, and over things so idiotic that listening to it makes you want to gnaw your arm off. I know this because I can hear it emanating from every big, tough close, warm extended and intact Turkish family on my street.

The point is, all the martial artists in the city are off bickering with their families, in preparation for giving me a pitying look and intimating that my life must be a vale of alienated Western anomie when next I explain that my entire family lives on another Continent.

I therefore have no chance to overtrain with them and get miserably sore and possibly injured, for which a spell in the hammam would be a nice remedy.

I did, however, while looking for accounts of the hammams in Orientalist travelogues, accidentally come across some wonderful descriptions of Istanbul. Should you be wondering what it's like here, these descriptions really are still absolutely true. If Edward Said thinks the Orientalist perspective on the Orient is somehow lacking, it is only because he thought through this problem while living in Manhattan.

Just imagine a backdrop of non-stop, high-volume bickering in Turkish -- plus the melancholy laughter of a flock of gulls and a lot of car horns -- and voilà, you're in Istanbul.

... The vision of this morning has vanished. The Constantinople of light and beauty has given place to a monstrous city, scattered about over an infinity of hills and valleys; it is a labyrinth of human ant-hills, cemeteries, ruins and solitary places; a confusion of civilisation and barbarity which presents an image of all the cities upon earth, and gathers to itself all the aspects of human life. It is really only the skeleton of a great city –the walls, which form only a small part –while the rest is enormous agglomeration of shacks, an interminable Asiatic encampment swarming with peoples of every race and religion who have never been counted, of people of every race and every religion. It is a great city in the process of transformation, composed of ancient cities that are in decay, new cities which emerged yesterday, and other cities now being born; everything is in confusion; on every side can be seen the vestiges of gigantic works, mountains bored through, hills cut down, entire districts leveled to the ground, great streets laid out; an immense mass of debris and remains of conflagrations upon ground forever tormented by the hand of man. The most incongruous objects are all jumbled together, an endless procession of bizarre and unexpected sights that make your head spin. You walk along a fine residential street to find it end in a gorge; you come out of the theatre and to find yourself surrounded by tombs. ...

... After a few hours spent in this way, should any one suddenly ask what is Constantinople like? You could only strike your hand upon your forehead, and try to still the tempest of thoughts. Constantinople is a Babylon, a world, a chaos. Beautiful? Wonderfully beautiful? Ugly? –It is horrible! –Did you like it? Madly. Would you live in it? How can I tell! – who could say that he would willingly live in another planet? -- Edmondo de Amicis

... I command the whole wide prospect, so pure and peaceful. Beyond the cypresses, I can see the Golden Horn, a gleaming sheet of water, and higher still on the skyline looms the silhouette of an Oriental city, Stamboul itself. The minarets, the lofty cupolas of the mosques, stand out against a star strewn sky, with a slender crescent moon floating in its depths. The horizon is fretted with turrets and minarets, faintly outlined in bluish tints against the wan background of the night. The great shadowy domes, that brood above the mosques, soar one beyond the other as high as the moon itself, and impress the imagination with the sense of gigantic size. -- Pierre Loti

... It was the hour of the evening prayer, when you could no longer distinguish between a black thread and a white one in ordinary light. George pulled the paring knife from his belt and sliced it through the air as he turned. All over Istanbul, muezzins in their minarets threw back their heads and began to chant.

It was a good time to kick a man to death in the street.

The grainy ululations swept in sobbing waves across the Golden Horn, where the Greek oarsmen on the gliding caiques were lighting their lamps. The notes of prayer rolled over the European town at Pera, a few lights wavering against the black ridge of Galata Hill. They skimmed the Bosphorus to Uskudar, a smudge of purple fading back into the blackness of the mountains; and from there, on the Asian side, the mosques on the waterline echoed them back. Yashim shook his head. However long you lived, however well you thought you knew this city, there was always something else to learn. Sometimes he thought that Istanbul was just a mass of codes, as baffling and intricate as its impenetrable alleys: a silent clamor of inherited signs, private languages, veiled gestures. He thought of the soup master and his coriander. So many little rules. So many unknown habits. -- Jason Goodwin

The urge to modernize and rationalize his world was both strong and evident in him, yet that wild, independent and at times irrationally superstitious streak of the insular mountain dweller remained. It was a split that caused some confusion in his life and, at times, some pain too. -- Michael Pearce

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