Berlin is a swamp: literally, figuratively, and etymologically (Brlo – old Slavic for swamp). It will suck you down if you are not careful – and sometimes you just need to escape to save your soul.
I have been plotting my escape for a while now, even without knowing it. Sometimes I think Belgrade would be a nice place to get away to, other times Budapest and Sarajevo seem appealing. One day in 2005 I watch Fatih Akin’s doku film Crossing the Bridge – the Sound of Istanbul at Kreuzberg’s Moviemento theater. The movie runs the whole year – in deference to the district’s dominant Turkish minority. I am so impressed by what I see – and hear – I watch the movie twice, three times. I decide Istanbul would be a fine place to live.
I pick the brains of Turks in the Berlin music scene, people like DJ Ipek, the Turkish DJane, who divides her time between Berlin and Istanbul, jetting back and forth between engagements in the two capitals. Ipek has for her part crafted a hybrid identity for herself, forged out of the best of both worlds – “Berlinistan” she calls it.
I meet up with Murat Ertel from Baba Zula, Istanbul’s famous underground psych band, tracking him down after a show in Berlin. By then it’s clear in my mind I am moving to Istanbul. I ask Murat if he has any tips for me.
“Don’t concern yourself with the past,” says Murat.
It’s an odd piece of advice. Not only is the past inescapable in Istanbul, but it’s so much a part of Murat himself, garbed as he is in old fashioned Alvi gowns and antique headgear, playing the saz, an ancient Turkic instrument hearkening back to the old Âşıks, or wandering Turkish troubadours, of yore.
I decide to take Murat’s advice with a grain of salt, and sign up to teach English with Berlitz in Istanbul. I figure I will sober up and come to my senses there. Like in that Yeats poem, “Sailing to Byzantium”, I’ll study “monuments of unaging intellect”, contemplating “what is past, or passing, or to come.” I pack up some suits and armed with a Turkish dictionary and Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul in my hand, on the third of January, 2012, I fly to Istanbul with dreams and premonitions of byzantine excitements.
I arrive at ten o’clock at night at Atatürk Havalimani, an entirely characterless edifice and eminently forgettable. I shiver with delight as I step off the plane, my lungs full of new air, elated. A driver from Berlitz – a tall, shock-headed Laz kid from the Black Sea – is there to pick me up.
“Welcome in Istanbul!” he enthuses as he takes my bags. “You will like Istanbul! Istanbul will like you! No doubt about it, man.”
The car smells heavily of a mix of cheap cologne and cigs. A sticker that says “Mashallah” is plastered to the dashboard next to a couple of nazar stickers to ward off the evil eye, and a tesbih – the Muslim prayer beads – hangs from the rear-view mirror, while Zeki Müren issues forth from the radio.
“American, eh?” says Ercüment, for that is the driver’s name. “Nice. I, too, wish to go to America. Empire State building! Statue of Liberty! Land of freedom and democracy! Ahhhh! It is my dream to one day go to your great and significant country. Tell me please, what is the highest mountain in America? How deep is the Grand Canyon? Are there again Red Indians in America?”
Back-twisting, looking at me rather than the road, pointing out sights of historical interest (Please, look, I draw your attention to this moskyoo” – by which Ercüment means mosque – “which is very charactoristical of the Turkish architectural style”).
Ercüment comes from Trabzon on the Black Sea, a region known for its lawless and quick-tempered folk. Perhaps it’s the Laz in him that accounts for his driving style. Ercüment runs red light after red light, blamming his horn at scurrying jaywalkers, often using both horn and car alarm in unison so as to alert all and sundry of our approach. Pedestrians are not heeded as a rule, are often targeted. I stare at the cracked plastic dashboard that says, “mashallah”, as we tear through the streets of Istanbul by night.
“You are interested in culture?” says Ercüment. “That is why you come to Istanbul, no? America is great country, but no culture, eh? Is better in Istanbul, yes? You got it, man! Istanbul is very old city. Four hundred thousand years! Look please, to your right you may see another moskyoo by architect Mimar Sinan, greatest architect of Ottoman Empire! Very wise and great man. All citizens of Turkey you will find very wise and very brave. More wise and brave people you may not find nowhere. Even in America!”
Ercüment fumbles for his cigarettes on the dash, brand Camel: “Mark, Camel,” says Ercüment. “Best mark cigarette in Turkiye.” He takes a Camel for himself and offers me one from his pack, before re-embarking on his rapid fire monologue.
“I just got back from Trabzon, man, three days ago. I met my old friends and spent a lot of time with them. Yes, it was good. Unfortunately, I came back to the arena.”
“Arena?” I say.
“Istanbul is arena for me, unfortunately,” says Ercüment. “There are a lot of cows. I mean, man-cows.”
“Bulls,” I offer.
”Yes, bulls. Chicago Bulls! Michael Jordan! Yes. Yes! Anyway, there are a lot of bulls in Istanbul. And I am a poor matador. Fighting every time.”
Passing under the old Byzantine aqueduct, I roll down the window and let the cold January air in. A palm tree stands on a traffic roundabout, its green fronds swaying in the cold Istanbul night and Galata tower perched on the hill above Pera, all lit up, lures like a beacon.
“This your first time in Istanbul, man?” Ercüment wants to know.
“I was here in 2006. And as a kid,” I say. “I was ten or so. Living in Berlin.”
And I told him how I had been inculcated with various anti-Turkish prejudices, Berlin, of course, being full of Turks – not, admittedly, really in the part of town where we lived, but in the run-down old worker quarters of Kreuzberg, Neukölln and Wedding, pushed up against the Berlin Wall.
The Germans had left these districts in droves at the end of the war, for the brand-new functionalist satellite cities on the outskirts, leaving their empty and dilapidated apartments with coal heating and shared toilets to squatters and Turkish guestworkers who started streaming into Berlin in the sixties.
As kids form the comfortable western suburbs of Wilmersdorf, Zehlendorf and Steglitz, we made jokes about the uncouth Turks; at the same time, we were afraid of them, encountered them mainly at Breitscheid Platz, in the center of old West Berlin, where, back in the eighties, kids from all over the city used to gather, drink, get high, hit on girls, get in fights. It was here that the rich kids from the western districts of Wilmersdorf and Zehlendorf, would rub uneasy shoulders with the kanaken from the eastern working-class districts of Kreuzberg, Neukölln and Wedding.
Though I had never myself engaged in any fights with Turks, I had witnessed numerous brawls at Breitscheid Platz. A single Turk surrounded by a circle of hostile Germans, the Turk shouting that he would take on any one – “aber einzeln! einzeln!” One on one. Tough guys.
But the Turks had to be tough. Why? Because they had to contend with so many prejudices in Berlin, racism, house bans at discos, “Turks Out!” slogans daubed on Berlin walls, fights with skinheads – which I had mostly observed, the Turks generally won.
The Turks wanted their place in the sun and Breitscheid Platz was their proving ground.
It should also be pointed out that we never – or very rarely – entered their territory in the – now extremely hip and fashionable – districts of Kreuzberg and Neukölln.
I can count on one hand the times I visited Kreuzberg, in the company of other classmates, and never alone. When you got off the U-bahn at Kotti – or got off the 29 bus on Oranien Straße – it was like you had landed on another planet. Everything was fucked up and falling apart. There were a few scattered punk record stores and second-hand shops. Otherwise Turkish green-grocers, kebab shops and strange, enigmatic cafes, where men sat playing OK and backgammon under portraits of Atatürk. “Little Istanbul”, they called Kreuzberg.
In my jaundiced opinion back then, the Turks were poor, dirty, scruffy. I don’t know quite where this image came from, but one source was definitely my German class textbook, which was geared at the children of Turkish, Yugo and Greek Gastarbeiter (guestworkers). The boys were inevitably named Murat or Miloš, and they lived with their extended families in cramped, dirty run-down old apartments.
I thought Murat and Miloš were Germans, so that when I went home I asked me mother, “Why are all Germans so dirty?” My mother was perplexed, and wanted to know how such an idea had gotten into my head. Gradually it dawned on me that Murat came from Turkey and Miloš came from Yugoslavia. And that it wasn’t the Germans who were dirty, but rather the kanaken. Dirty and dangerous.
So it was a revelation when we took a family vacation to Istanbul one winter in 1982 – I was ten at the time – and I saw urban Turks in their native clime. Of course, there was the obligatory and cliched cab ride with the Turkish cab driver who had lived for a stint in Germany and knew a smattering of German words, but really surprising to me was the scene in the Hotel Intercontinental overlooking Gezi Park, where we shared a mirror-clad elevator with impossibly posh Turkish women – girls my age – all in mink coats and expensive jewelry – chatting in Turkish. How different they were from the scruffy, scrappy Gastarbeiter kids in Berlin!
We stayed a week or so in Istanbul, hunted for bargains on leather jackets at the Grand Bazaar, bought antique-style nineteenth century dueling guns, ate fish at a seafood restaurant at Sultan Ahmet, were daunted at the prospect of Turkish toilets, took a Bosporus Boat ride to the Black Sea and back.
I tell Ercüment about my impressions of Istanbul as a kid as we drive along. Ercüment is curious about my person, and asks me a number of questions as we cruise through the night.
“Do you mind me asking what religion you are?” says Ercüment.
“Well, I was brought up a Catholic,” I say.
“Catholic, eh? You know what the holy trinity is?”
“Father, Son, Holy Spirit,” I say.
“And who was the first Irish saint?”
“Saint Patrick,” I answer.
“Good man,” says Ercüment. “I see you are really a true-ass Catholic.”
“You asked me some easy questions,” I say.
“And you go to this – what is it called? Confidention?”
“Confession? Yeah, I would go.”
“Confession is very funny.”
“Yeah. And bullshit, unfortunately, in my opinion. And not just my opinion. You are sitting here, and the priest is sitting there, and you say, ‘I wish that God forgive me.’ I did – ha, ha – something wrong. And pfsssh, your sins go away. Where is your sins, man? Up! They, uh, went! Where did they go? Look, I can talk to God in my car, in my home, on the ship crossing the Bosporus. Why do I need another man to bring me closer to God?
“I saw on TV, a guy goes to church to confess his sins, and he says, ‘father, I am sorry, I did this bad thing,’ And the priest says – ha, ha – don’t worry, son, I did it before, too. I understand you very well. Ha, ha. Go home. Trust in God. Everything will be okay. You don’t need no man between you. All you need is the Qu’ran. The book.”
And on that note, we pull into a narrow wash-lined street, turn a corner and stop. Here is home. Ercüment swivels around to me and gives me a grave look.
“Before the die, I have to say, my American friend, you should research the Islam. It’s my poor advice to you. Because you have to do the right things before the die in this world. You will be late and after the die we will be created again.”
“Well, so long Ercüment,” I say, hitching my bags onto my shoulder. “Who knows, maybe we will see each other again. In this world; in Istanbul.”
“Doubtless, man,” says Ercüment.
The apartment, where I have tentative digs, just off of Tarlabaşı Boulevard, is unspectacular, with old wood floors and damp on the ceiling. None of the rooms have heat. But screw it – I don’t intend to spend much time at home anyway. Ten minutes after Ercument drops me I go out to hit the streets of Taksim.
My immediate neighborhood consists of mainly four-to five-story very run-down historic buildings from the late 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, inhabited by a transient population of Kurds and Gypsies, African immigrants – and transsexuals who lean engagingly in doorways, or peer out of windows with their elbows propped on windowsills, asking passerby for cigarettes. Elsewhere people loiter and loaf at street corners like toughs, throwing suspicious glances my way. There is a crumbling fountain that hasn’t worked for centuries and some old decaying wood houses in queer attitudes of collapse. Washing lines the street. I’m thinking, “Couldn’t Berlitz have found me better digs than this?”
I cross heavily trafficked Tarlabaşı Boulevard and then it isn’t long till I am on Istiklal Caddesi, that legendary pedestrian thoroughfare that cuts through Taksim, one and half kms long, from Tünel at the bottom to Taksim square at the top. I know this street from 2006, during my brief Istanbul foray, pulling into Istanbul at daybreak on the Orient Express from Sofia for a frenetic week of pounding the pavement, visiting mosques.
A light fog has crept up from the Bosporus. Street venders sell roast chestnuts, corn on the cob, simits, mussels stuffed with rice, hot salep from brass samovars, while Turkish folk, pop and techno music pounds from the neon-lit Türkü bars and nightclubs tucked away in the side streets.
I walk along Istiklal Caddesi, mingling with the black-headed multitude, so strange and alien-seeming. There is crazy excitement in the air, the muffled roar of the crowds ascending, amplified by the narrow street. Young men walk arm in arm, a girl with a saz slung over her shoulder cuts by, hustlers on the lookout for innocent tourists to cheat and rob lurk in doorways.
The tempo of life has quickened in the wild, mingled, world-swirling Istanbul night. I lose myself in the great electric crowds, in a confusion of humanity. Everything is profuse. Music everywhere. A darbuka session in an all-night drum shop on Galip Dede Caddesi, that street which rises up past Galata tower to Istiklal. Youths gather around a man playing the kemence – an upright fiddle played with a horse-hair bow and the instrument of the Black Sea Laz – clapping their hands. The trolley clatters up Istiklal Cadessi, clanging its bells. I take it all in – “a camera, quite passive, recording”.
It occurs to me I had been longing for this very moment – this move to Istanbul – turning it over in my mind for several years now. And, well here I am! A pleasant feeling rushes through me, a coolness, a newness like new skin. I have the feeling that life is beginning over again.