Walking in the hilly maze of streets between Istiklal Cadessi and Cihangir in Istanbul in July 2009, Itai and I came across a small shop crammed full of boxes of old photographs, and assorted personal objects, like jewelry, used perfume bottles, souvenirs from trips to other places. It was as if the contents of innumerable Istanbul lives had been dumped into his shop. An old man sat outside of the shop, entirely uninterested in us as we poked around and intruded into the forgotten memories of unknown others. I bought a few photographs from the old man for one lira.
I remembered the walk today when, as I took a book of photographs of the Istanbul bus terminal off the shelf, these photos fell out onto the floor. Picking them up, I felt the bustle and beauty of Istanbul again, its distinguished decay, its fullness and color, its melancholy elegance.
I am not an Istanbullu, and may never be, but I love this city more than I have a right to. In the moment of seeing these black and white photographs I was seized by a longing to return, to know the people in the images, to walk in those places. Despite only visiting once, and for a short time, Istanbul entered my dreams. I search for friends in its hills at night, and always find them, in doorways and courtyards, old friends, good friends. In this way I have never left. What is this longing that infects me, prompting such dreams? Is it for particular people and places? How can these images of strangers and unknown places be as magnetic as friendship?
Orhan Pamuk warns of the dangers of exaggerating his city’s beauty:
Whenever I find myself talking of the beauty and the poetry of Istanbul’s dark streets, a voice inside me warns against exaggeration, a tendency perhaps motivated by a wish not to acknowledge the lack of beauty in my own life. If I see my city as beautiful and bewitching, then my life must be so too. A good many writers of earlier generations fell into this habit when writing about Istanbul: Even as a they extol the city’s beauty, entrancing me with their stories, I am reminded they no longer live the place they describe, preferring the modern comforts of western cities. From these predecessors I learned that the right to heap immoderate lyrical praise on Istanbul’s beauties belongs to those who no longer live there, and not without some guilt: for the writer who talks of the city’s ruins and melancholy is never unaware of the ghostly light that shines down on his life. To be caught in the beauties of the city and the Bosphorus is to be reminded of the difference between one’s own wretched life and the happy triumphs of the past.
– Istanbul: Memories and the City, p.56-57