Photo: Ahmet Sali, Unsplash

The Two-sided Allure of Istanbul

You could say that all big cities are, by their very multifaceted natures, places of contrast. This holds true about New York, London, Berlin… The list goes on. And yet it appears to me that Istanbul is more than any other place, a city of paradoxes. 

It is at once, European and Asian, rich and poor, old and new, hot and cold, religious and secular. It is more up-to-date than my hometown of Berlin, with strikingly, yes even shockingly, modern architecture and sprawling malls such as which those in Berlin pale in comparison with. And yet a couple streets away you may find fallen-in old köşks (Ottoman-era wooden houses) and gecekondus (neighborhoods of poor, jerry-built, houses literally “built over night”).

Istanbul is also a city that offers people of widely different beliefs and perspectives deep and meaningful experiences – the hedonist in search of all manner of “kicks”, as well as the Muslim seeking spiritual union with Allah’s universe. I know because I was both – or rather – was the one before I became the other.

I first came to Istanbul in 2005, on the last leg of a Balkan tour that took me from Belgrade to Sofia and Plovdiv, where I hopped on the Orient Express, arriving in Istanbul for a week of pounding the pavement, soaking up impressions and visiting mosques. 

Six years later, looking for the key to the Balkans and its endless fascinations, I decided to spend a year in Istanbul, in part inspired by Fatih Akin’s legendary Istanbul music documentary, Crossing the Bridge (which to this day strikes me as the best docu about the music scene or any city, better even than Wim Winders’ Buena Vista Social Club). 

I took digs first in Tarlabaşı, Istanbul’s famous European side slum-quarter, then undergoing drastic gentrification. After some months I moved to the Asian side, to Kozyatağı in Kadıköy, a modern, secular, a hotbed of Kemalist identity. Friday evenings, after teaching English at Berlitz to well-heeled Turkish businesspeople, I took a dolmuş (as Turkey’s minibus share taxis are called) to Taksim square, hitting Istiklal Caddesi, a long pedestrian thoroughfare stretching to Galata Tower in the south – a street, which weekends they said, pulled in an astounding three to four million Istanbulu pleasure seekers and night owls. Simply to be among the thronging mass of people there was electrifying.

Back then Istiklal Caddesi was an adventure and a revelation. Street buskers sat before shuttered shopfronts playing the saz – a Turkish lute – and kemence – a Black Sea upright fiddle, while youths a little the worse for booze, danced impromptu halays (circle dances) around them. Street venders sold simits (Istanbul’s answer to the bagel), mussels on trestle tables, roast chestnuts, corn on the cob, cow’s intestines (a must!), feeding the night clubbers stumbling in and out of Türkü bars (venues for traditional Turkish music), rooftop discos and rock-clubs. Narrow alleyways were crowded with restaurants where you could eat the catch of the day washed down with rakı, while being entertained by Gypsy musicians and belly dancers. Ah, Taksim! What memories, what life, what adventures!

But the death knell had already been sounded the year I arrived. Erdoğan had passed an ordinance restricting the sale of alcohol on Taksim terraces. But somehow the life went on unabated; no one knew the end was near. 

In 2011 I would start the night off with a kebab opposite the Atatürk statue, then moving to Kooperatif, a Taksim cellar-bar famous for its folk—Gypsy-Balkan music and mixed international clientele, where European expats who had done their Berlin thing were talking about how Istanbul was the next stage of the “Moveable Feast” (Hemingway).

Then it was time for Arif, a rooftop club with great Balkan DJs (these were the days when the Balkan wave was still going strong), and Gypsy acts, including clarinetist Selam Sesler, who played here, till he died of a heart attack the year after I left Istanbul (he was sick and no longer playing in 2011).

But then something happened. I felt I was getting sidetracked from my original purpose and reason why I had left Berlin for Istanbul in the first place. Despite my interest in Istanbul’s lively music scene, I had a nagging wish to quit drink, quit smoking, quit clubbing and learn more about Islam. 

I had long been thinking about becoming Muslim, as far back as 2000, and this feeling was augmented by a fascination for things Islamic brought about by trips to the Balkans — Bosnia, Sandžak, Kosovo and Macedonia — and finally Istanbul in 2005.

At Berlitz, my students were mainly secular, Kemalist businesspeople, who flocked to the various vibrant Istanbul restaurants and nightspots weekends. However, I had some religious types among my students with whom we would engage in long discussions revolving around some of the finer points of Islam. My pupils did their utmost to try and put me on the right track. It was then, during my last months in Istanbul, right around Ramadan, that I discovered Fatih.

Fatih is a district on the European side, in between Sultan Ahmet and the Grande Bazaar to the east and the old city walls to the west, which is home to a thriving Muslim subculture. I had been warned about Fatih by fellow teachers. I was to by no means go there; it was a hotbed of conservative Islam; all the women there were covered; non-Muslims who made the mistake of venturing in there were threatened and harassed. And on and on. Well, naturally my first impulse was to go there immediately!

I went on one weekend in the summer for the first time, arriving at the ferry boat landing at Karaköy, walking across Galata Bridge, past Unkapanı – headquarters of Istanbul‘s music industry (now fallen on hard times)-under the aqueduct, up Fevzi Paşa Cd., lined with hajj travel agencies and Islamic clothing boutiques, to Fatih mosque.

It was just like my fellow teachers explained it – and it was great! I had never seen such Muslims, such beards and turbans and şalvar trousers and gowns. These were Istanbulus who had remained true to the city’s five hundred year-long Muslim tradition – a tradition that was far richer and lasting than Istanbul’s admittedly famous and potent culture of hedonism. 

Secretly, I wanted to be like the Muslims of Fatih. I even fasted the first day of Ramadan in 2011, hanging around Fatih mosque, partaking in iftar with Muslims in a local kebab house. Then one of those strange and wonderful Fatih Muslims showed up and sat down with us. He had a long white beard and turban, grey gown, black şalvar trousers and sandals. He looked like a throwback to another era, and to my mind like a radical Wahabist — however, he was a Sufi, not that I knew what that meant then.

After giving me fresh plums, the old man handed me a religious tract, in Turkish and Arabic, the shahada penned in on the flyleaf in English. In the back it said come to Menzil — Which I would later discover was a Sufi place of pilgrimage in Turkey.

It’s been more than ten years since that formative year I spent in Istanbul. The month after I returned to Berlin – the time was now ripe – I performed my shahada at what turned out to be a Sufi dergah in Berlin, Wedding. 

I have since been back to Istanbul numerous times, never staying more than a week, but every time drawn by the beautiful magnetism of Fatih mosque and the surrounding meydan – square – where turbaned men mingle with young mothers and playing children.

Taksim has since fallen on hard times. The nightlife of Istikal Caddesi has given up the ghost and become a high-street like any other, with a particular allure, not only for the Western tourist, but also the tourists of Qatar and other parts of the Arab world. The glamour is off. People who were there during Istiklal’s peak wax nostalgic about the good old days, but I could care less. While the “scene” has moved to Kadıköy, I have found “my” Istanbul, the center of which for me remains to this day in wonderful medieval Fatih and surrounding streets.

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