Into my hand fits a book. Perfectly. Tiny pink page markers protrude from all sides, poking their heads out from in between pages and waving their arms (“Read me! Read me!”). On the front, a gold, circular Nobel Prize sticker, once proudly pressed onto the cover, is ripped and dirty. And as if they’re tacked to a flagpole on a hill by the sea, groups of pages fold back and forth in messy, swooshing patterns. The yellow-and-blue photograph of a fisherman featured on the front is scratched. Through being beloved, the book has become ancient.
This is fitting, because the book is Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul: Memories and the City. Written by a native rather than by a Westerner, the book does not fall into the trap of bragging about Romans, Byzantines, Ottomans, or other long-gone peoples who have carelessly littered their remains unto criss-crossing, unplanned streets and the poor, disjointed population of Istanbul. The city that Pamuk paints is confused, untidy, twisted, and most of all, sad. With the pride and order of English failing him, Pamuk resorts to using a Turkish word, hüzün, as a framework for understanding the mentality of Istanbulites. He muses that hüzün is not “the melancholy of a single person” but “the black mood shared by millions of people together.”
I am both Turkish and Kurdish, rooted in far-flung provinces called Artvin and Konya. But my homeland is not the same as that of my ancestors. It is not sung of by a man hidden away in a village concealed by lush mountains and the Black Sea, a stone throw’s away from green Georgia. Nor is my homeland a postcard of cave-homes carved into dry steppes in Central Anatolia, surrounded by whirling dervishes. I am of Istanbul. I am her and she is me (Istanbul is decidedly female). I am a city kid, street rat, old soul, and mostly, a cliched mix of East and West.
All of us Istanbullus have seen decay, so the collectivity of hüzün is very real. While tourists take pictures of ruins, feeling like they have found IT (the exotic IT they have traveled thousands of miles to “discover”), we are forced to step behind crumbling walls and tombs with Arabic script just to take out the trash. To all of us, these features are not an array of metropolitan gems set in a hilly, sterling silver landscape, but rather unfortunate reminders of how much we have lost. These were once proof that we were the center of the world and of cultural achievement! Our rolling hills are the subjects of countless paintings, engravings, and poems. There once was a time when Istanbul expressed herself and her residents with beauty, with calligraphy, and with art. Now we are reduced to tensions, poverty, greasy kebabs, weak infrastructure, diseased packs of roaming dogs, and violence, and godlessness, and bad driving.
Both accompanying and contributing to this deterioration are losses in diversity and in self-esteem. Compared to Parisians, Londoners, Hong Kongers, and members of other “global cities”, we hold less economic and geostrategic importance and so are oft ignored. This is even harder for the ethnic minorities of the city, who have been victims not only of a globalized identity crisis but also of their government. In the 19th Century, artists of the Romantic and Orientalist movements continued a legacy of Western obsession with Istanbul, and a huge contributor to such a love for the city was its wealth in a specific regard: culture. Reflecting a common belief of these artists, Théophile Gautier once expressed jealousy that European metropolises were not as multilingual as Istanbul. But even with this year being the centennial of the Ottoman Christian genocide, Armenians, Assyrians, and Greeks struggle to simply be recognized. Kurds and Roma face discrimination. The Adyghe, Bosnians, Albanians, and Arabs have been assimilated. Sefardis have emigrated en masse. Non-Turkish neighborhoods have been emptied and non-Turkish tongues unofficially or officially banned. The pluralistic existence of the average Istanbul resident was ripped away by the establishment of the republic and with Atatürk’s homogenizing, violently erasive reforms. Diversity and richness, the things that made Istanbul great, have mostly been reduced to nostalgic concepts rather than reality. So along with pride and importance, pluralism is a very real aspect of our experience that we have lost.
However, this does not mean hints of this finer past are completely gone. In salty mornings starring orderly lines of elderly fishermen, and in backwoods churches, and in wobbly gold-rimmed glass cups of warm tea, and in purply twilights lit by the changing, multicolored lights on bridges, it still romances me more than any other. After growing up in a post-9/11 New York and a decade of self-denial and self-hatred, I did not know what to expect touching down in Istanbul, for the first time in six years, at age eleven. I was surprised that immediately I found myself surrounded by people with whom I felt totally comfortable. The sing-songy patterns of their speech was welcoming to my ear, the talismans on their necklaces were the same as the ones on mine, and I found myself in their old, knowing eyes. The hüzün was as obvious as it was uniting, and nothing was more inspiring than seeing the utmost hospitality displayed by all for all. The shared sadness strung us to each other and it pushed us to move on, together.
Because of this, in the same way all Istanbullus mourn for forgotten splendor, I mourn for Istanbul. Now I travel there for at least a month a year, and spend the remaining eleven months thoroughly upset. Over the years, lists of countless petty upsets have ultimately paled in comparison to my aching for the city. To endure this hurting, I have almost wallpapered my room with photographs and antique maps of the city, just to surround myself with the familiar shapes of the geography. These maps of melancholy keep me in a blue-and-tan colored bubble, and they also keep me sane.
I need their comfort because just like a grandmother’s, Istanbul’s wrinkly brown hands wrap around the globe and her fingers stretch out towards me, beckoning. And no blood pulsing through my body can feed me like Bosporus strait. It is the great body of water separating continents. Or, for the residents of Istanbul, it is also the casual and necessary route for a daily commute. For most, who have to ride ferries across it every day, the Bosporus is the aorta of the metropolis. Away from the nutrition it provides me, I suffer. Away from the many contradictions of Istanbul, I suffer. Like both colonies of rats on dirty, cracked streets, and like centuries-old curved swords on display in decadent palaces, my sadnesses are eternal. They are as rocky in my body as Anatolian fairy chimneys. To me, hüzün is the most constant and the most tangible aspect of my life. Hüzün is what makes me an Istanbulite whilst living in New York. It is what pounds in my head and reminds me of my difference. In diaspora, hüzün is what dissociates me from the people around me as it connects me with my history, people, and self.
My hüzün (yes, like it is my little pet!) not only is the effect of being away from the city and of being away from feeling whole, but it also is the way I experience all emotions. Pamuk states that “…for the poet, hüzün is the smoky window between him and the world… [It] does not just paralyze the inhabitants of Istanbul; it also gives them poetic license to be paralyzed.” As my own poet, I feel that distinction. For example, there is a sharp difference between the way I experience grief and how my family does. My mother chose to retire her hüzün in 1990 when she quickly up and left, like a whisper, to inhabit the concrete and angles of New York City. She is thoroughly American in her sadness. She is dramatic. Her sadness is about her. When my dad died, she was crippled. She cried out for forgotten God, she routinely fell to the floor, she grasped for my dad where it was empty. The world was her sadness. For me, it was different. Unlike her, I never chose to be American. I had to reach back to find who I really am, which is revealed and reinforced by what my sadness is. So my grief surrounding the death of my father was strikingly different from my mother’s. My sadness had preceded his death by months. I knew it was going to happen the second he had complained to me about the pain and I told him to “go to a fucking hospital”. It was equally poetic and disgusting that through these ill-spirited thoughts, it was I who had made his death written. I had prepared, right? So I was quieter and I retracted. In the same way that Pamuk recalls seeing his city in monochrome in his youth, sometimes literally, I saw the world in black-and-white. Unlike my mother’s, my sadness was not all-consuming. It was all-encompassing. When I lose things, I carry their weight in my body, making it hard to move. I become paralyzed. Like finding it difficult to see through smoke, my eyes falter. My hüzün and my sadness surrounding the loss of my father are intertwined. Neither of them come back in hot flashes. They are simply always there. Similar to my yearning for the mother-like feminine wisdom Istanbul provides me, hüzün is the fashion in which I mourn for my father, too.
To close, I have a secret to tell. I have always felt like there are girls inside of me from other generations, who have lived on the same streets as me, who have been a part of the same family structure, who have seen the world in the same way, and who have loved the same flowers. These girls have many names - Ipek, Sibel, Deniz - and hail from many eras and wear many dresses. My body is so heavy with sadness that it feels as used up and ancient as Pamuk’s worn-out book, always in my pocket or backpack. But the fact that there are other girls like me, or rather, other versions of myself, throughout space and history, has actually made things more bearable. I have been depressed for a long time, but I have never been alone.