By SUZY HANSENPublished: November 27, 2009
"Most tourist trips to Istanbul center on Sultanahmet, the neighborhood of the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sophia and Topkapi Palace. Although visitors may imagine a magical age of sex slaves and tulips, Sultanahmet often feels like a modern Ottoman theme park: Turkish hustlers screaming in precise English, enormous buses disgorging tourists in red fezzes. But Sultanahmet is a center of the city’s religious life and home to many of its most observant citizens. During Ramadan, it is the site of a vast public picnic, where hundreds of Turks break the fast every night. This year I saw conservative ladies sitting cross-legged on the grass with pizza boxes, and nonreligious people munching cheap kebabs and humming to live Turkish bands. It felt so much like an American county fair, I half expected to see face-painting booths. Then I saw a girl with her face painted, a guy selling cotton candy and teenagers who’d clearly used the holiday as an excuse to go on a triple date.
'The Museum of Innocence,' by Orhan Pamuk: Lolita on the Bosporus (November 1, 2009)
Times Topics: Turkey
A typical outsider’s response to this scene might be to rejoice in the miraculous coexistence of the Islamic and the Western. But Turkey unfolds in endlessly confusing layers: it’s true that Turkey generally enjoys its own version of red state-blue state harmony, and it’s also true that the religious and the secular seem destined for a street fight, though sometimes this infighting has nothing to do with Islam at all. “Ugh, you’re going to Sultanahmet for Ramadan?” one well-educated businessman sniffed upon hearing of my plans. That’s the kind of thing you hear from only a handful of Turks, those who frequent neighborhoods like Nisantasi, a leafy enclave of Art Nouveau apartment buildings just up the Bosporus from the Blue Mosque.
Nisantasi is the setting of Orhan Pamuk’s latest novel, “The Museum of Innocence,” a love story detailing the social mores of the Turkish upper class, the so-called White Turks, during the 1970s. Turkey was desperately poor, though a small number of rich Turks aggressively pursued admission to the modern world, to Europe or America. Pamuk grew up in Nisantasi, but his people don’t always come off so well. In the book, a character named Orhan Pamuk, an author, mentions the “widely held impression that my books set in Nisantasi denigrated everyone mercilessly.” This is an obvious reference to Pamuk’s memoir “Istanbul,” which exposed his family’s emotional and financial problems, but also to the many Turks who object that he is hanging out the national laundry. It is precisely this obsession with image that Pamuk meticulously deconstructs.
When Pamuk was growing up there in the 1960s and ’70s, Nisantasi was one of the richest neighborhoods in Istanbul. Today it feels like any of the richest places in the world. The women have all gone exhausting shades of blond, their thin frames weighed down by Marc Jacobs or Gucci bags. The clips in their hair, the gold on their sunglasses, the necklaces, buckles and belts — everything sparkles. There’s a new Prada store opening across from the Louis Vuitton, which is down the street from La Perla. A Ferrari or a Porsche is always parked in front of the Nisantasi Brasserie, whose jaunty patrons sit for hours at sidewalk tables. If you happen to alight upon them after coming from a more conservative part of the city, where good sense and respect for others tell you to cover your arms and legs, the Nisantasi sidewalk scene looks like an otherwordly cornfield of defiantly naked limbs.
These wealthy Turks are still trying very hard to distinguish themselves from their countrymen. I once stopped at a Nisantasi hotel to pick up books some tourist friends had left with the concierge. Officious phone calls were made to multiple employees, papers shuffled and filled out, ID cards photocopied and filed until, finally, the paperbacks were placed in my hands like precious jewels. I should have been impressed, but in fact my friends had complained of the hotel’s snooty service, which suggested the usual warm Turkish hospitality was too peasant-like for the hotel’s aristocratic and cold European ideals.
Pamuk’s novel helps explain how Nisantasi got this way. To counter Europe’s vision of Turkey as sinisterly backward, his characters spend thousands on French handbags and fly to Paris for a trousseau; the women sleep with their fiancés before marriage. Much of the beginning of the novel is spent celebrating the arrival of “Turkey’s first domestic fruit soda.” The ad for the soda features a German model: “What stung hearts most about Inge, with her blue eyes, long and slender legs, fair skin and natural blond hair,” Pamuk writes, “was the merciless reminder to the women of Istanbul society that even as they bleached their hair, plucked their eyebrows and scoured boutiques for outfits that might let them feel more European, their darker skin and fuller figures were never entirely redeemed by such efforts.”