It is being published in different languages: Gallimard (France), OrBooks (USA), btb Random House (Germany), Turbine (Denmark), Nottetempo (Italy), Polirom (Romania), Klimaty (Poland), Dituria (Albania), Antares (Armenia), Thaqafa (Arabic), Opus (Croatia), Hohe (Ethiopia), Joshua Könyvek (Hungary), Jumhoori (Pakistan), Nepko (Mongolia).
It is the story of four prisoners in the underground cells of a center for torture in Istanbul. When they are not being subjected to torture, the four tell one another stories about Istanbul to pass the time. The underground narrative gradually turns into the narrative of the above ground. Initially centered around persons, the novel comes to focus on the city of Istanbul. There is as much suffering or hope in the Istanbul above ground as there is in the cells underground.
Like the Decameron tales, the novel is comprised of ten chapters. Each chapter is narrated by one of the occupants of the cell respectively.
About Istanbul Istanbul
- “Istanbul is a city of a million cells and every cell is an Istanbul unto itself.” In every piece, person and event, the novel evokes Istanbul as a city in its entirety.
- A novel that appears political but in reality is about love. That appears to focus on the stories of individuals but in reality is about the city of Istanbul.
- Whereas conventional novels about Istanbul divide time into past and future tenses, Burhan Sönmez’s novel divides it into “time below ground and time above ground.” In the tradition of the modern novel, it draws strength from the conjunction of and tension between time and space.
- Turkish literature’s historical perception has divided time into two: the past and the present. Space, too, has been divided. Burhan Sönmez now unites time and space in Istanbul Istanbul. Undivided time becomes undivided space.
- Each chapter opens on a story. As the novel nears the end, the various stories and inner monologues relayed can be observed to overlap.
- The stories are generally humorous. Laughter is a balm in the face of pain and fear.
- In the setting of rampant torture and death, very little torture is overtly described. The mood rather than the display of suffering is sensed. The aim is to make manifest the power of human imagination and desires.
- Rather than capital production, the focus is on the city’s spatial and spiritual reproduction in the direction implicated by Althusser and Manuel Castells… the city of Istanbul is the reproduction site of pain and misery and melancholy and hope.
- There are two Istanbuls, one below ground and one above. Yet in reality both are one and the same.
Sins and Innocents was published in 2011 and granted the 2011 Sedat Simavi Literature Prize –which Sönmez is the youngest-ever author to win. It also received the Izmir St. Joseph Best Novel Award the same year.
Sins and Innocents has been translated into several languages including English, Italian, Serbian, Macedonian. It got nominated for the "Writing for Love" Literary Prize in Italy in 2014.
About Sins and Innocents
Two young people from foreign lands meet in a shop in Cambridge: Brani Tawo, a Kurdish political refugee from Turkey, and Feruzeh, who had fled to the UK from revolutionary Iran. Slowly, their love begins to grow, fed by stories, a shared love of literature and a subtle recognition of their mutual displacement.
Brani Tawo narrates vignettes from his family history, vivid tales that evoke old legends: shepherds struck by lightning, soldiers returning home with war trauma, blood feuds that destroy families, bears mauling villagers in search of stolen cubs and a photographer who carries news to the villages in the form of the portraits he takes.
These dark, inherited memories, combined with his own melancholy nature and chronic insomnia, weigh on Brani Tawo, who often seeks contemplative solace in graveyards. Over time, however, drawn by Feruzeh’s quiet radiance, he begins to reach a freer place within himself. Feruzeh also harbours grim family secrets, and when she suddenly returns to Iran to attend to an emergency, Brani Tawo knows what he must do …
Sins and Innocents is a warm, intimate love story redolent with the (often harsh) music of Central Anatolian village society as well as the Cambridge sophistication of Wittgenstein, Brooke, Grantchester Meadows, colleges, churches and cafés.
Burhan Sönmez’s first novel, North, is the story of a young man whose father leaves when the protagonist is two years old, and returns twenty years later as a corpse. In his attempts to resolve the mystery of his father’s death, our hero embarks on a journey to the North in search of his father’s identity, which at times becomes his own.
North could be described as a philosophical fairy tale. It tells the myths and legends of the East in a realistic fashion, and is based around philosophical debates on existence and love that have a central importance in solving the mystery.
It is a novel about this enchanted world we live in.
"Burhan Sönmez has the air of timid philosophers with a determination that breaks the stones." Igiaba Scego, Corriere Delle Migrazioni (Italy)
“Istanbul Istanbul is a harrowing, riveting novel, as unforgettable as it is inescapable.” Dale Peck, author of Visions and Revisions (USA)
“Classical in structure and profoundly moving, this novel will, I predict, itself become a classic.” Rosie Goldsmith, eurolitnetwork.com (UK)
“A wrenching love poem to Istanbul told between torture sessions by four prisoners in their cell beneath the city. An ode to pain in which Dostoevsky meets The Decameron.” John Ralston Saul, former president, PEN International (Canada)
“Sönmez believes in the liberating power of literature.” Joshua Bruce Allen, the Guide Istanbul, (Turkey)
“Istanbul Istanbul presents one of the best example of urban philosophy. Burhan Sönmez is an urban story-teller. He carries dreams, stories and fairy tales in his bag. He writes: ‘Cinderella is asked why she fell in love with the Prince. The tale did not give me another destiny, she says.’ But we know that another destiny is possible. And another Istanbul too!” Serap Çakır, Varlik Literary Magazine (Turkey)
“Istanbul Istanbul looks like a political novel but has nothing to do with the actual politics. We can feel the Decameron by Boccaccio in the novel’s texture, but we can follow footsteps of the Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino in its substance. ‘Cities,’ says Calvino, ‘are the places of exchange, as it is told in the history books, it is not only commercial exchange rather exchanging words, desires and memories.’ The characters in Istanbul Istanbul exchange words, desires and memories.” Ömer Türkeş, SabitFikir News (Turkey)
"Sonmez’s words are conquering the whole world." ADNKronos (Italy)
“The characters in Istanbul Istanbul are like the flaneurs who turned the streets of Paris into reality by pacing it up and down. As the streets are transformed into passages, as described by Walter Benjamin with the inspiration of Baudelaire, the prisons and the cells are transformed into streets of Istanbul by Burhan Sönmez.” Emrah Tuncer, DemokratHaber News (Turkey)
“Istanbul Istanbul is creating a space of its own both in urban culture and in philosophical depth with its multilayered structure and multiple meaning like classical works. It will have its unique place in the history of literature as a work of intertextuality, and a novel of new-ages. I can heartily say that he is the ‘expected author’ who will be rising the flag.” Hayri K. Yetik, Mesele Literary Magazine (Turkey)
“Burhan Sönmez brings the Eastern narrative and the Western form together by adding parables, riddles, and, of course, mysterious stories of Istanbul into his novel. And he never leaves the hope out of reach for the readers like me who completed the ten days of stories in tears.” Banu Yıldıran Genç, Agos KitapKirk Literary Magazine (Turkey)
“Yes, our country is turning into hell and it is getting more and more difficult to find any light here. That’s why you should leave this novel in the public places, forget it in the cafes, read it out loud on the ferries. Let everyone hear Burhan Sönmez’s voice, and get everyone to resist pain and sorrow.” Ümran Küçükislamoğlu, T24 News (Turkey)
"Around Sönmez can be seen a constellation of literary worlds that includes Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Tatar the Photographer in Sins and Innocents reminds me of Melquiades in One Hundred Years of Solitude), the Turkish author Tanpinar, Tolstoy (two authors also dear to Orhan Pamuk), Wittgenstein, the Iranian poet Forough Farrokhzad." Fabio de Propris, il Manifesto (Italy)
"Haymana of Sins and Innocents is a sort of Anatolian Macondo." Tommaso Giartosio, Radio 3 Fahrenheit (Italy)
"Burhan Sonmez is a silent revolutionary in our literature. Sins and Innocents has a limpid and pure language, a core-language. Sorrow and sadness get a poetic character through Sins and Innocents. It is a literary black-hole in a positive way. It swallows readers, and gets them through a black-hole, and transforms them into an emotion-man and a truth-seeking-man." Pakize Barista, Taraf (Turkey)
"You may think that the place in the novel is not Haymana of Anatolian Plains but Macondo of One Hundred Years of Solitude. The parts in Sins and Innocents that take place in Cambridge whisper us a style of Ernest Hemingway's." Erdinc Akkoyunlu, Star (Turkey)
"Burhan Sonmez opens the door of wounded memory of Kurds. He doesn't have a proclivity for questions of ‘Who am I?’ or ‘What am I?’ He asks: Where am I?" Dervis Aydin Akkoc, Ozgur Gundem (Turkey)
"The more a book forces us to dig deeper within ourselves the more it is important. Sins and Innocents has this power." Senzaudio (Italy)
The PEN Ten is PEN America's weekly interview series. This week, we speak to Burhan Sönmez. Born in Turkey, Sönmez worked as a laywer in Istanbul and was a founder of the social-activist culture organization TAKSAV (Foundation for Social Research, Culture and Art). After a 1996 incident with the Turkish police in which he was assaulted and badly hurt, Sönmez left for rehabilitation in Britain with help from the Freedom from Torture foundation, and he continued to live in political exile in Britain. He is the youngest recipient of the Sedat Simavi Literature Prize for his second novel, Sins and Innocents. A member of both English PEN and Turkish PEN, Sönmez's latest novel, Istanbul, Istanbul, debuts this spring from OR Books.
When did being a writer begin to inform your sense of identity?
By the time I decided to write a novel, I felt that it had already begun to form my sense of identity. Before becoming a writer, I was a human rights lawyer. Everything changed during this time in my life. Sudden physical problems, caused by an assault from the Turkish security forces, carried me to the brink of death. Luckily, I survived, but I was confined to a bed for months. The only thing I could do was watch TV and write notes about anything I could imagine. Some time later, I noticed that these notes were the branches of long, entangled stories. I realized that I must write, just write. Since then, I have believed in writing more than anything else and in the good things that can come out of bad incidents.
Whose work would you like to steal without attribution or consequences?
The work of Dostoyevsky and Marquez. Since they are no longer in this world, they cannot knock on my door in the middle of a dark night and tell me off for eating their bread. Or can they?
Obsessions are influences—what are yours?
In the beginning, I dreamed of being a poet, believing that poetry is the most superior of all arts. But I happened to turn my hand to fiction and became a novelist. We may think we leave our obsessions behind, but our obsessions don’t leave us. Lately, I've noticed that I've been keeping my dream alive by putting poems in every novel I write.
What’s the most daring thing you’ve ever put into words?
Writing about certain delicate issues still seems daring. Once, I got involved with a written statement criticizing the military forces for murdering people and mutilating their bodies in Kurdish cities in Turkey. Apparently, the Court found our words so daring that it sentenced us to six months in prison. Luckily, it was a suspended sentence.
When, if ever, is censorship acceptable?
As people get more and more scared under conditions of poverty, war, emigration, and authoritarian regimes, I cannot think of any reason for accepting any kind of censorship. We don’t have to think of limiting our freedom. Instead, we need to find ways to cross the borderlines of restrictions and, when it happens, be ready to pay the price for it. Words are not up for negotiation. We have known that since the time of Socrates.
What is the responsibility of the writer?
The writer’s only responsibility is to listen to his or her inner voice. He or she should not listen to any other voice except the voices of those who are in emotional or physical pain.
While the notion of the public intellectual has fallen out of fashion, do you believe writers have a collective purpose?
In a world of fragmentation and alienation, writers still wish to create an intact world of their own. It is an illusion and, of course, a promise. Writers write about illusions and promises by refusing and, paradoxically, reproducing them. As long as there is human suffering, there will always be a desire for collective purpose. Writers will have a common purpose, even if it takes on different forms depending on the time and place.
Have you ever been arrested? Care to discuss?
Yes. Being arrested is not unusual in some parts of the world—moreover, people are being tortured and killed extensively. Instead of speaking about myself, I prefer to speak about those people. When I speak about them, I am speaking about myself at the same time.
What book would you send to the leader of a government that imprisons writers?
King Lear by Shakespeare would be a good choice. The leader might be able to learn what it is like to be disgraced and shed tears. Another option would be The Divine Comedy by Dante, but it is so long that such a leader wouldn’t finish it.
Where is the line between observation and surveillance?
Observation is a desire to see something beautiful or good, while surveillance represents the desire to find something dreadful and stigmatize it. Writers believe in observation, while governments trust in surveillance. And we writers observe everything, including governments, while goverments keep us under surveillance.
For a novelist to bring to life and define the city he-or-she loves is nowadays a banal occurrence. From Elena Ferrante’s Naples to Zadie Smith’s London, and counting Lawrence Durrell’s inimitable Alexandria—”the great winepress of love; those who emerged from it were the sick men, the solitaries, the prophets”—it’s been a positively raging trend, at least ever since a certain Irishman decided to transpose an ancient Greek epic to his native Dublin. Bless him.
As its title suggests, Burhan Sönmez’s third novel Istanbul Istanbul follows a similar idea, albeit with a noticeable difference: Unlike, say, in NW or Justine, the book’s characters do not get to live, love, and intrigue from within their city—they are prisoners of conscience stuck in a cell three levels under it. Demirtay the student, Kamo the barber, uncle Küheylan, and the doctor pass their time telling each other stories, posing riddles, and reminiscing about their Istanbul in the long dull moments between torture sessions. The city that emerges isn’t wholly real, but a blend of myth and mundanity set to a background of raw political violence.
When I mention to Sönmez the apparent oddity of using darkness and pessimism to conjure up the Istanbul he loves, he explains that he wanted to capture the contradictions animating it. We meet in a café in central London, where soft-spoken and wrapped in the Left Bank intellectual’s winter uniform (read: long gray trenchcoat and thick scarf) he describes what he calls “the schism of Istanbul”: the fact that on the one hand “Istanbulites always complain about life there—they say ‘oh traffic is bad, and the prices only go up’—and usually aren’t happy,” and on the other they “admire the city, they say it’s wonderful, and talk about it with nostalgia and the desire to return to olden, golden days.” His book therefore attempts to depict this combination; it is set “three floors underground, in an interrogation cell where people are in pain, but they have the dream and the idea of the Istanbul aboveground. They are always talking about it in a beautiful way.”
Reminding me of something Edward Said once wrote about his beloved Cairo (“it is at least as historically rich as Athens or Rome, but you never get the sense of history carefully preserved”), Sönmez makes notably few references to the capital’s real history. Its presence is only hinted at via tales adapted from other works, and taken from the Decameron to Moby Dick. Unlike with Said’s Cairo, however, that isn’t because of the city itself. Rather, it is as a remedy to what he sees as a certain failure of the “literature of Istanbul”—that “it divided the city into two different parts. The Istanbul of the past which was glorious, beautiful, and the Istanbul of the present, a megapolis of modernism which is very ugly and hard-working [sic]. But that’s an illusion.”
“I wanted to unite those times in the novel,” he tells me, “if you are underground, you don’t have the usual directions—east or west, south or north—you only have one, upwards. Time itself doesn’t move forward or back, it moves upwards, too, from underground to overground, or vice versa. So, by changing the direction of time I managed to unite, in a single cell, the whole time of the past into today… in the pain that’s suffered by people today.”
One cannot escape politics when writing about modern Turkey, especially considering recent events, and while Sönmez does populate his work with political prisoners he remains staunchly against mentioning its issues directly—“I didn’t want to be didactic, to teach people and to show them the right direction of the future.” He later clarifies: “When I began to write the novel, everybody around me thought it was going to be a political history of Turkey. Of course, once they read the book they realized it didn’t have any actual political discussion, or information about torture (apart from a couple of minor exceptions). I pretended, in the opening, to write a political book, but when the readers get in, they suddenly find themselves seeing that no, it’s not about politics, it’s about love, laughter, pain, hope, dreams… you know, everything.”
This is a work more concerned with capturing the feel of the thing rather than simply relaying a few ideological points—it is also, in that sense, a lot more personal. Sönmez is of Kurdish origin and worked for a time as a human rights lawyer, that is until he was taken by the police from a non-violent demonstration in Istanbul in 1996, beaten, and left to die. When I hint at the possibility of Istanbul Istanbul being informed by experience, he is quick to disagree: “I put a lot of my arrest in it, but it’s not something individual. In Turkey, being arrested, being tortured is a social event. Just to give you some numbers: when I was a teenager there was a military coup [in 1980], the official figures say that in the first two years 500,000 were arrested and tortured. Can you imagine? Half a million people… mostly youngsters, trade unionists, intellectuals. And now look at the current situation: since the 15 July coup attempt, more than 30,000 people have been arrested. In Turkey, in every family, in every corner, you can come across someone being detained, tortured… so when you are talking about that kind of detention, it’s not a personal story anymore, it’s just a common theme.”
In that regard the title to Turkish writer and journalist Ece Temelkuran’s recent non-fiction work, The Insane and the Melancholy, would appear to fit this novel as well. Yet there is more to it than that. If humor makes a few distinguished appearances from within the stories prisoners share with one another, it is beauty the reader is most likely to find central to Istanbul Istanbul—coming from the evoked city, as a sublimation of the inmates’ experiences, and in random little moments. Sönmez is interested in “giving a sensation of the beauty of politics and individuals in the shade of the city”… it is, it seems, what gives his world unity.
Good was moralistic. Right was calculating. Whereas beauty was infinite. Beauty was in a word, a face, in the carvings on a wall soaked by rain. It was in someone’s daydreams in the absence of an image, and in an unknown meaning.
“When we talk about beauty, we can apply it everywhere in the world,” he says, “beauty is not a noticeable aesthetic term anymore, it’s also a political term. When we defended, saved Taksim Gezi Park from being turned into a shopping mall it wasn’t just saving the beautiful part of the city, it was also a political act. Nowadays you cannot separate those kinds of terms, the beauty, the rightness, the fairness, the good and bad things… everything is now in the same pot.”
When questioned as to whether this muddle is indeed a welcome development, Sönmez, offers an unexpected show of hopefulness: “It gives an opportunity to remind us that mankind, society, is a totality. In the last few centuries, the Western capitalist system always told us that we needed division—you just do your own job and do not get involved with other things. That was wrong. Man is a total being. We can be a simple thing on the street, yet at the same time imagine a star in our mind, a galaxy, beauty… So why separate different parts of this existence?”
In the end, Sönmez unites all those disparate strands (politics and beauty, a city underground and aboveground, past and present) to portray a more complete Istanbul, one free—counterintuitively, perhaps—of illusions. “We are not individuals of the past, we are individuals of today. If people would like to have a good future then they should fight for it. That’s why the end of the book gives different possibilities to the reader. And people ask: ‘which option is more possible?’ It depends on who’s reading… whatever you do in the city, then you will change your own fate, your own destiny, but also the destiny of other people who live in the same city with you.”
"Our society should not be left to anti-democratic politics"
Turkish human rights activist, journalist and novelist Burhan Sönmez has been tortured by the police, but stays committed to freedom of expression. He tells DW why he is hopeful for his country after the attempted coup.
Were you surprised by the attempted coup in Turkey? I was very surprised and I believe the majority of society was surprised with this coup attempt, because the army and the government had been getting along very well with each other on almost every issue. No one expected this.
So how do you explain it suddenly happening then? That's the nature of Turkey. There is no stability in politics and in social life, so you can expect anything to happen at any time in society with the army and the government. This unexpected occurrence is just a result of it.
How are you reacting to the aftermath of the events? What's worrying is that two evil forces collided with each other last Friday. By evil force, I mean that both parties are bad. One of them is the army, the coup plotters, and the other side is the government, which is not good at applying democratic politics either. The collision of these two forces will not bring democracy to Turkey - so we are very worried.
Now, we have saved the parliamentary system, but that doesn't mean we have saved the democratic system, because Erdogan is using this to escalate his politics, his personal ambition and his pro-Islam regime. That is worrying for us.
There's an increasing polarization in the country. Do you think this could lead to civil war? I don't think so, because the democratic opposition is not on the streets. They don't like to fight with these people. Last time we took to the streets all together, three years ago, during the Gezi Park protests, we were very peaceful. Even though the police and the army killed more than 10 people and 10,000 protesters were harmed, we stayed very peaceful.
Who are the thousands of people now being arrested after the attempted coup? Erdogan is using the attempted coup to get rid of the whole opposition because he doesn't like to be criticized. Within one day, 10,000 people were arrested; 2,745 judges and prosecutors were expelled from their position - can you believe that? Were they all part of that coup? No, it's unbelievable. They're just using the coup as an excuse. That's the first step and the second step will come later on.
What would be the second step? On social media accounts, they are discussing the names of journalists to be arrested, mostly pro-Fethullah Gülen Islam conservative journalists or liberal left-wing journalists. So the next step will target all left-wing critics of the government, left-wing student organizations, and human rights organizations. For now, they are untouched, but they could turn to these institutions next.
As a contributor to the independent left-wing newspaper "BirGün" do you feel threatened personally? In Turkey, people like me who defend human rights and who are very active in daily politics can be targeted by the government anytime. It could be yesterday or before yesterday or it will be tomorrow or after tomorrow. It's not good to start thinking or guessing about this when you live in Turkey because it is part of the country, unfortunately. They don't let you get bored. There is no boredom here! There is always fear and danger - but you get used to it. We keep fighting for our principles.
You are the founder of the social-activist organization TAKSAV, you were a member of the Human Rights Society and you're also a member of the PEN organization for writers. How will the current developments affect your commitment to freedom of expression and human rights? I will carry on; I have been talking to the international press these days. People like me should continue to express their democratic values. Our society should not be left to anti-democratic politics.
You have experienced police violence firsthand. Now, just after the coup, more attention is given to the way Erdogan is dealing with his opponents, but the situation has been difficult for many years already. Was there a particular moment when you realized that things were becoming more threatening for freedom of expression in the country? It is a slow-motion change. For years and years, social media platforms like Twitter have been blocked every now and then. Yesterday, 10 news websites were blocked. They were not even affiliated with Fethullah Gülen. They were left-wing or social democratic news sites. This censorship is not something that will stop at a certain point. It will carry on for years and years. But we will carry on in favor of freedom of speech and democracy.
Your 2015 novel "Istanbul, Istanbul" is about prisoners who try to find relief from the pain of torture through storytelling. Can storytelling inspire us for the future of Turkey? In that novel, you can see that people are in pain, but they keep their faith in the future, they still have their dreams.
People like me, we've believed in this country for years and years. If you ask me if I've had a good year in this country, I will tell you, no. Every year has been worse than the previous one. But that means that our hopes are getting bigger than the previous year - otherwise you cannot survive here.
I will tell you something very unrealistic: I am very hopeful for the future of my country, otherwise I would have left. I'm still here; people like me are still standing here. We will carry on our calls for freedom, equality, solidarity, tolerance and also peace. We need these more than ever before.
The Last Station: Gentrification, Fire and Protest in Istanbul
Burhan Sönmez Examines the Changing Face of Turkey’s Capital
I was seventeen years old when I arrived at Haydar Pasha Station in Istanbul. I got off the train and walked down the marble steps where the Station met the sea. Instead of admiring the Station’s magnificent facade, I stared at the old city across the Bosphorus. I saw Istanbul for the first time then.
I had taken the Blue Train the night before at eleven o’clocks and reached the last stop at eight in the morning. Haydar Pasha Station was the end of the railway line on the Asian continent. There began the sea, then Europe. I came to Istanbul to study law but I was more excited with the city itself than studying at the university. It was a warm day. I could see historical buildings through a thin fog: the city walls, the roofs of Topkapi Palace, the dome of Hagia Sophia Church and the minarets of the Blue Mosque.
Whenever I recall that moment I think of what Herman Melville wrote about his visit to Istanbul in 1856. It was a few years after the publication of Moby-Dick. He was an unsuccessful writer despite his great books and was still floating from one sea to another. He wrote in his diary:
“The fog lifted from about the skirts of the city. It was a coy disclosure, a kind of coquetting, leaving room for the imagination and heightening the scene.”
I sensed on the first day that Istanbul would always embrace me with a light curtain of fog. Any time I would return to Haydar Pasha after school holidays I would meet Istanbul through that curtain. As the years roll on I now realise that my past has become more distant, the fog of my old days are denser, and the Station’s vivid times are vague.
Haydar Pasha Station was designed as the beginning point of a railway line towards Asia-minor and improved to accommodate the northern terminus of the Baghdad Railway line in 1904. Because of increased traffic, a larger building was needed, and two German architects, Otto Ritter and Helmut Conu, were appointed to carry out the job. They chose a neo-classical style to build the new station. The origin of the Station’s name is not certain but it is assumed that it was given in honor of a high ranking Ottoman officer, Haydar Pasha, who had served to the Sultan Selim III.
It is rather a gate opening to a great city than a mere station. As you come out of it you see a few steps going down to the pier where a ferry takes you to the city. It is the spot where Istanbul and the rest of the country unite. Trains carry people from small towns in the provinces to that picturesque spot by the Bosphorus.
The poetry book of Human Landscapes From My Country by Nazım Hikmet begins there, in front of the Station:
“Haydar Pasha Station, spring 1941, 3 p.m. On the steps, sun fatigue and confusion. A man stops on the steps, thinking about something. Thin. Scared.”
It is not a coincidence that Nazım Hikmet picked Haydar Pasha Station for the opening of his grand book. It is a kind of verse-novel: 17,000 lines describing different people, through whom a whole picture of a country can be seen. Hikmet (1902–1963) is regarded as the greatest poet of modern Turkish literature. He began to write Human Landscapes during the Second World War, while in prison, serving a twenty-eight-year sentence for his communist beliefs. He gave the stories of the people on the train — in its cars, its restaurant, in the locomotive — and talked about their past and their dreams. He used his pen in a cinematographic way and presented the collective memory of a nation, alongside its fears and hopes, in an epic style.
If you are an author in Turkey you are destined to write about Istanbul sooner or later. I have come to that point in my third novel, Istanbul Istanbul. When I was working on it, my mother — my lifelong advisor — asked me what I was writing about. “About Istanbul,” I said. There was a pause on the other end of the telephone line. “The train station,” she said with a tender and confident voice, “you should not forget to mention the train station.” I scanned my mind to recollect what I had been covering in my novel. Writing about Istanbul required plenty of work. I had done my research, taken notes down and formed stories. But on hearing my mother’s words, I realized that I didn’t have a story taking place around Haydar Pasha Station. She, an illiterate Kurdish woman from rural Anatolia, opened a crack in my mind, as she had always done with her fairytales when I was a little child. She had fed me not only with milk but also with stories about rascal jinnies, faraway seas and invisible cities. And now she once again blew her breath into my chest and led me to put some ornaments of her mind into my novel. InIstanbul Istanbul there are some pages, like the opening story of chapter nine, written and designed in line with her wish. It is a story that takes place on the steps of Haydar Pasha Station, where helpless lovers fall in despair and at the same time find a glimpse of light. They are the same steps where Hikmet’s Human Landscapes began.
There are some cities you don’t need to see in order to fall in love with. Istanbul is one of them. I had fallen for her before I arrived at Haydar Pasha Station. I knew her through stories, novels, paintings and songs. But meeting her was not easy for a boy of seventeen like me. The speed, the enormity, the finely tuned chaos of the city was a world away from where I grew up, a small town in the middle of the plains. And the times were not easy for the people of Turkey either. There had been a military coup a couple of years before, in 1980. A heavy atmosphere was hanging over the city. Curfews, prohibitions, tortures, and book burnings were part of daily life. But despite all this, we had dreams in our hearts. We had an imagination of another way of life. We knew Istanbul was not a calm city to live in. The cost of living was high, and there were unemployment, traffic, crime, and intolerance. But it has always left room for the imagination as Herman Melville wrote: “The fog lifted… leaving room for the imagination.”
In France they say, “All poets are born in the countryside but die in Paris.” Istanbul has the same essence. Our poets and writers pen shady lines or lively scenes and indicate through them where they should be buried. Some acknowledge Istanbul as the junction of historical geographies, the meeting point of East and West. Some see it as a land of desire and mysticism and relate it to past eras. The Turkish poet Yahya Kemal, the short-story writer Sait Faik, and the novelists Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar and Orhan Pamuk have approached Istanbul from different perspectives. Each of them has created his own city, unlike the others in its literature.
When you are underground there is only one direction that matters: upwards, toward the sky.
In Istanbul Istanbul, I wanted to portray the city as the unification point of time and space and the melting pot of opposing tendencies in life. I preferred not to talk about past golden ages. That approach has already been used up in our literature. In my novel, space and time converge on a prison cell three floors underground. When you are underground there is only one direction that matters: upwards, toward the sky. Time moves differently underground. On the surface, time is linear — past and future eclipse all else, and what matters is less where are you than where you’re going. Underground, past and future mean nothing. There is only the eternal, often agonising, now. By focusing my novel on prisoners in a subterranean cell, discussing the city above, I wanted to unite time and space, hope and hopelessness, darkness and brightness. They are all together and one. Istanbul is the name of that wholeness. Wherever you were born, you come to Istanbul to be part of its wholeness.
Istanbul is too real and at the same time too ambiguous. It makes possible both good and bad. When I was in one of those interrogation cells I felt the underground was the place for evil, while aboveground seemed to be the place for good. But instead of writing about good and evil, I wanted to explore the shades between them and to show how they exchange places.
Istanbul as a metropolis is not only the heart of this country but also the future of it. The beautiful and the ugly in Istanbul reflect the future of our people. That’s why it is now also the heart of our politics.
The Conservative bodies believe in the past. They think the best days are behind us. With passed utopias before their eyes, they don’t hesitate to ruin the present. They are wiping out the city’s green areas and constructing tall buildings. They call it progress. That’s why people feel obliged to defend this city against greediness. And now the word ‘beauty’ is not only an aesthetic word but a political word, too. When people call for beauty in Istanbul, the responses they get are police, tear-gas and the rise of construction firms in the stock market.
And now the word ‘beauty’ is not only an aesthetic word but a political word, too.
In the tales of my childhood there was always a place for heroes to suffer and then emancipate. Istanbul is now the place of both suffering and emancipation in our contemporary writing. We write about Istanbul with the hope that its beauty will shape our future.
After having witnessed two world wars, the invasion of the British army and the exile of Armenian intellectuals, the Haydar Pasha Station met its latest disaster on 28 November 2010, when a fire began on top of the roof. The fire was stopped before it was too late, but following the fire the station was closed down.
It was a suspicious fire. It came about the same time as legal debates were being held regarding Haydar Pasha Station and its surroundings. The government wanted a new development in the area, turning Haydar Pasha’s castle-like building into a fancy hotel. But the public opposed it and the legislative charter for the development was suspended by the court. Various international institutions, like the New York-based World Monument Fund, have added Haydar Pasha to their agenda, emphasising the uncertain future of the railway.
Local authorities promised to renew railway lines and resume train journeys again by the end of 2015. But not a single rail line has been renewed so far, nor has there been any sign of reopening the Station. Istanbul dwellers are aware that Haydar Pasha might be another victim of urban gentrification. That’s why they have formed a new civic organization under the name “Haydar Pasha Solidarity” and launched an effort to save the Station, organizing concerts, exhibitions, and demonstrations. They also read out some lines from Human Landscapes, where Nazım Hikmet, many years ago, pointed out the merciless face of urban gentrification, which tears apart past and present:
“Concrete villas. Lined up all the way to Pendik. The trees are mere saplings, the grapevines just greening. The 3:45 train goes screaming past. Concrete villas. The Secretary Pasha’s summer house, a forty-room marvel, has been torn down. Now it’s concrete villas, concrete villas all the way to Pendik.”