ESSAY // INHERITING MELANCHOLIA: ISTANBUL, CHANGE, AND DEATH

Tearing up at the sight of an Istanbul landscape is a trait that runs in my family. Although I left Istanbul a decade ago for good, I still end up teary-eyed if I see a shot of the Bosporus or the Old Town on TV. My father was the same. He grew up in Istanbul but spent his adult life in another city—it doesn’t matter which one since it was not the city of seven hills. He choked up every single time he heard a song about his childhood city on the radio. His love for a TV series depended on how many Istanbul montages they showed between scenes. He missed Istanbul every single day of his life but never moved back. They always say you become your parents at some point. I am leading a most different life from my father’s, but I wonder if our deaths will be similar—far away from the only city we love. 

 

In Turkey, you live in Istanbul or somewhere else. The discourse is very similar to that of other cities like Paris or New York, with some tweaks of course. We don’t ascend to Istanbul like the French do when they go to Paris (monter à Paris). Istanbulites don’t view the rest of the country like the New Yorkers of Saul Steinberg drawings. However, in Turkey, Istanbul is the city and the rest, to a lot of people’s dismay, is taşra—the country, la campagne. The relationship between Istanbul and taşra is deep and strong, but the hierarchy is also crystal clear. Growing up in İzmir, the third-largest city in Turkey, I heard about Istanbul’s superiority over other cities all the time, even from my father who lived in Izmir with us, and to be honest, I used to get a little offended. How could a city of 3 million be considered country by Istanbulites? We were the great-grandchildren of Alexander the Great, who was said to have founded our beloved Smyrna millennia ago. We had the best of everything: the sandiest beaches, most glorious Greek ruins –of Ephesus and Pergamum to be precise—and the most beautiful girls in the country. We couldn’t be small-town-kind, simple folk, never à la mode. Istanbulites’ hubris was the talk of our town, however. The elders of my family—mostly on my mother’s side, in fact, always on my mother’s side— debated among themselves ferociously at family dinners: Istanbulites are like cockroaches, they flock in, they swarm a place, they consume it to its bones, and then just leave. “They ruined Bodrum,” they would say. “Now they want to ruin us.” Everybody around the table would nod. My father kept his silence.  

 

***

 

I dare anyone from Turkey tell their family history without a migration story. Most of those past journeys pass through Istanbul. My family history is no different. The final years of the Ottoman Empire saw millions of war refugees resettling in Anatolia from the Balkans, and the Turkish republic was founded upon a scorching wave of violence. The Armenian Genocide in 1915, the Greek-Turkish Population Exchange in 1923, the constant clashes with and massacres of Kurds and Alewites in the 1930s, and the unchecked urban assaults towards Jews in almost every decade killed or moved millions of people around. So many communities were stripped of their wealth, culture, networks, and sometimes religion. As if this was not enough forced movement of people, in order to bury the economic ruin inherited from the Ottoman Empire, Turkish elites applied a number of demographic policies that displaced more people. When educating the rural population in situ didn’t work out, supporting massive urbanization became a remedy to keep the population working in the 1960s. From the 1960s to 1980s, Istanbul’s population tripled, from 1.5 million to 4.5 million. As the 20th century ended, Istanbul’s population grew close to 10 million. This was a national trend. The urban-rural population ratio of 1/2 in 1960 had completely flipped by 2000: 65% of the whole country now lived in urban centers.

 

Both sides of my family came to Izmir during one of those massive movements of people. Right before the Balkan Wars, my mother’s paternal grandfather fled Prizren, today’s Kosovo, because an Ottoman officer almost killed him for failing to repair an automobile. He found his way to the city of Aydın, a city adjacent to Izmir, via Athens and Istanbul. My father’s paternal great-grandfather moved west from Erzurum to lead a Sufi order in İzmir. When the Turkish state closed his order in one of the massive secularization attempts of the 1920s, he switched industries and became a grocer. My mother’s maternal grandparents, self-proclaimed devout Muslims, have shabby demographic records in the state archives, and we know today that their customs and traditions differed highly from their Muslim neighbors. I had to go to grad school in America and take Jewish studies classes to realize that my maternal grandmother basically carried a Jewish name, kept Sabbath, and practiced many Sephardic traditions while praying five times a day towards Mecca. My father’s maternal family had so much land in Gümüldür, a village close to İzmir, and they couldn’t (or when I think about it, wouldn’t) explain how they acquired it. Coincidentally, their possession of the lands corresponds with the flight of their Greek neighbors after the War of Independence, right before the subsequent population exchange. This colorful history of migrations came to a halt when two families met in İzmir on the wave of urbanization which has never slowed since.

 

My parents’ story, in contrast, has been a history of non-migration. My father, a vocational school graduate, was employed by the state’s electricity company. Despite being a savvy electrician always a step ahead of his colleagues, he was promoted only to the highest level a high school graduate could reach according to the state employment rules. Late-night calls from engineers consulting with my father to solve huge power crises were a thing in our house. My father would answer their questions politely, and then go into one of those fits of frustration after hanging up: “I can’t believe these dumb people hold engineering degrees.”  This frustration never faded. When asked about his career, my father always said: “I could have had a better career, even without a college degree, if only we could have immigrated abroad. You know, I wouldn’t mind going anywhere, my cousin went and made so much money in Libya. Once, we even almost moved to Brunei.” They were little tirades.

 

“I would have gone,” my mother would chip in, “I said to your father, ‘let’s go.’” Raising one of her eyebrows, every single time this story of non-migration was told: “But your grandmother, your father’s mom, did not allow us. Because she needed your father for everything, we have been stuck here.” This was true: my grandparents were on my father’s state health insurance. But they were also in his car, and on the other end of the phone asking for favors, in our lives inextricably. They were sick, poor, and unwilling to let my father go. My mother loved blaming her in-laws for our family’s non-migration, hence never-realized class mobility, forgetting she was contradicting herself, big-time. After all, she never moved out of the neighborhood she had lived in since middle school, and as a nuclear family, and we could never move out of the 2-square-mile radius she circled on the map whenever we looked for a new apartment. 

 

Frustrated by my mother’s neighborhood preferences but encouraged by our larger family history, my sister and I took a migratory route to class mobility. She first moved to Ankara for school; Antwerp, Amsterdam, London and Geneva followed suit in her story. I also constantly moved in my twenties. I found myself in Augusta, Georgia first, then Istanbul. Paris, Tucson and Tel Aviv followed, and by my thirties, I had made New York my home, or rather, as I still call it, my home for now. She and I both acquired college degrees, and a comfortable life. However, in my case at least, something is still missing. Despite spending years on the road and having been rained on in multiple climates and continents, I feel like Istanbul is still my one, ultimate home. I believe it has something to do with my father.

 

***

 

It is important to talk about different façades of Istanbul when you write across decades. My father lived there in the early 1960s. This is when his city was going through a crazy wave of urbanization. New urban areas needed store signs, and as a painter, my grandfather was at hard work. His painting technique was so revered that, at some point, he was even invited to the team which restored the Harem quarters of the Topkapı Palace. When my father’s family returned to the palace as tourists 20 years later, he stayed outside, saying “I have seen those walls more than anyone alive has, I am good.” For my father, Istanbul meant palaces, boats he rented with his late brother, an ever-glorious Bosporus, and all the vibrancy in the world. “It is so beautiful,” he would say, “Istanbul is so beautiful.” 

 

I got to know Istanbul from my father’s words, Turkish pop songs, and TV. In the 1990s, Turkish pop music exploded because the state finally permitted private radio and TV channels. This came on the heels of a repressive decade dominated by the fear and oppression of the bloody coup d’etat in 1980. Turkish singers started singing about everything, and Istanbul was one of their favorite topics. Turkish pop songs stood on the shoulders of an exquisite literary tradition of writing praises to Istanbul’s beauty and chaos. Some Istanbul songs exploded with happiness: The singer Kayahan declared in “Istanbul memory” that his best loves and memories happened in Istanbul. Erdal called his lover “the Istanbul corner of my life” when he wanted to prove his devotion to her. Some Istanbul songs, like Mirkelam’s “In Istanbul” defined sadness through the city—a decade before Orhan Pamuk plastered “hüzün” on the city’s image in his memoir Istanbul: Memories and the City. Singers described Istanbul as the city where breakups happened, prayers remained unanswered, and hopes were crushed. I loved Istanbul before setting a foot in it. “It must be so beautiful,” I thought.

 

My eventual escape to Istanbul became more likely as my mother’s family’s hold on me started wearing off. One reason was that now I could see their hypocrisy: the whole family came to Izmir from somewhere else, but they hated outsiders. They employed migrant workers in their factories and homes but talked smack behind their backs. “The migrants are ruining our city,” they would shout to each other across the dinner table, eating the food cooked by those very immigrants. Their hatred was fueled by their racism towards Kurds, who were massively displaced by state violence in the East in the 1990s. Istanbul called to me with more force as I discovered my queerness, too. I needed a way out of that suffocating dinner table. Not too long after, I found my way to Istanbul for college after a detour in the United States (Don’t ask, a queer Muslim 18-year-old boy in the American South right at the start of the Iraqi Invasion in 2003 deserves his own essay.) 

 

But before I moved there, I went to Istanbul for the first time in the summer of 2002. The reason was again about borders, as my life has never ceased to be about borders since then. I was invited to attend a youth conference in Prague, but the Czech embassy wasn’t issuing my visa. When I brought up the possibility of going to Istanbul to solve it in person, my father was swift: “Of course we will go. Let’s buy the bus tickets right now.” We took the night bus from Izmir. I couldn’t sleep most of the night but finally fell asleep at sunrise. My father woke me up when the bus was on the Bosporus bridge. The rest was like a movie: I woke up and looked at Istanbul for the first time in my life with my own eyes, and there it was, and with all the glory people have written and sung about. The shiny waters of Bosporus shone into my eyes, blinding me with Istanbul’s piercing looks. Like any proper teenager, I disagreed a lot with my father, but there, I saw with my own eyes, proof that he had always been right.

 

Our first trip to Istanbul was filled with my father telling me how much the city had changed, although some neighborhoods still sustained my father’s childhood memories. He was so happy during our short trip. The fact that we couldn’t solve the visa problem in person did not matter to either of us. While my father relived his memories, I was grappling with reconciling three images of the city. I had three Istanbuls in front of me: the one my father described from his memories, the one I knew from the songs and literature, and the one I was seeing in front of my eyes. My most striking take was that in 2002, Istanbul was no longer my father’s city. He hated admitting it, but it was larger, more crowded, but still weirdly hungry for more change. Istanbul was already changing in songs too: the city was no longer a hüzün-ridden space or a scene for your happiest memories. Pamela now sang about how Istanbul deceived its beloved, and Duman was rocking about Istanbul beating its women. Teoman’s song “Fall in Istanbul” compared the city to a woman aging, getting heavier, tired, crying over and over, with mascara running down her cheeks. These songs painted an Istanbul in decay but local politicians gave it a facelift. The city of seven hills had some ups and downs, but its busses were running, garbage was collected, parks were extremely green. Despite the emotional turmoil, someone seemed to have a good grip over the city. 

 

The Turkish economy collapsed in 2001 after a devastating earthquake in 1999 and years of government crises. Coalition governments run by old politicians crashed the country into a wall, and people wanted something, someone new in the parliament. The political-Islamist AKP came to power in 2002 after long years of successful municipal governance in Ankara, and Istanbul. Singers might think Istanbul was a woman out of shape, but many Istanbulites were happy with the job their young Islamist mayor Recep Tayyip Erdogan had done. They enthusiastically talked about Erdogan’s success to their relatives in the country. I told you, the relationship between Istanbul and taşra was indeed deep and strong, and so many Istanbulites made sure their relatives voted for their favorite mayor, too. AKP won the majority in the parliament with only 34% of the total vote in 2002. İzmir voted against but has been governed by them since then, nevertheless.

 

I lived in Istanbul until 2010, and the city changed like a movie montage—nobody kept up with its pace. Simmering their political Islamist past and agenda on the backburner, AKP championed neoliberal policies and governance in the decade I lived in Istanbul. They looked and behaved pro-European, they even successfully had İstanbul declared the European capital of culture in 2010. AKP supported small businesses, big infrastructure projects, cultural change, and foreign investment. Istanbul bustled with money and spark. Maybe as a spatial metaphor of the tasteless glory they bestowed upon the city, in 2007, AKP put colorful lights on the Bosporus bridge. Although they laid their hands on multiple city landscapes, my father hated the bridge lights the most. “The ugliest thing they have ever done to Istanbul” he scoffed. 

 

My father died two years after the lights went up on the bridge. Eleven years after his death, I am secretly glad that my father never saw what else AKP did to Istanbul. He had only two İstanbuls, the one he lived in as a child and the one he died away from. We, who survived, have seen more change in the last decade.

 

***

 

What did AKP do to Istanbul? What can a central government do to a city the size of a median European country? From 2005 to 2020, Istanbul grew from 10 million to 15 million, a 50% jump in only 15 years. In the same period, the number of shopping malls grew 40 times. Despite anxiously expecting a devastating earthquake, open public spaces designated for disaster relief slipped from 407 to 77. The green space per capita is 7.57 square meters, a whopping 20 square meters less than every New Yorker has, barely meeting the UN standards. The biggest street protests in decades broke over the now-world-famous Gezi Park, and the government’s plans to demolish it and construct a shopping mall in its place. The Park was saved but the loss of green and public spaces continued—the Northern Forests were massacred for a third bridge over the Bosporus. A functional and bustling airport integrated into the city transportation was shut down for a new airport that is 54 kilometers outside the city and only accessible by car and bus. Names of bridges, squares, neighborhoods have changed. Istanbul is no longer the city I lived in a decade ago.    

 

As if this was not enough change in a lifetime, another fundamental change is lurking around the corner for Istanbul. In order to scoff off the multiple crises the country is going through, the government wants to open a canal in the west of the city, connecting the Black Sea to the Marmara Sea. Destined to be a real estate boom while completely obliterating the wildlife in and around the seas surrounding Istanbul, the Canal Istanbul is the death sentence to the city’s natural beauty. According to ecologists, because of the imbalance the Canal will create between the Black Sea and the Marmara Sea, Istanbul will smell rotten eggs. Looks like if I go back, I will have new reminders of my other home cities. The whole city will stink like a Paris metro stop or an East Village street after SantaCon. 

 

***

 

You belong to the city you see yourself dying in. I have two scenarios of my death in my mind, and I film them as I please. They are both set in İstanbul, and resemble the 90s songs about the city: either a fulfilling end to a good story or something unnecessarily tragic. The first scenario is based on facts: my friend Cancan once read my palm in a dim Bastille bar in Paris, and she told me that I was going to have a long, fulfilling life and die teaching. She also gave me a number: I am to die at the glorious age of 82. Since the moment she told me this, I have imagined myself dying in one of the big classrooms of Galatasaray University, my alma mater. I will wake up, knowing that it is the day I will die, and still go to class. I imagine that a stroke takes me out, but heart attacks are notoriously serious in my family, so maybe my heart will have the last word in my lecture. Regardless of how I go, I know that in that momentous awareness of my death, I will smile, and thank Cancan for the heads up. I will be smiling because, see, my alma mater is a perfect Istanbul spot to die in: right by the sea, with a clear view of the Historical Peninsula, and right inside the city. One might tear up at the sight of an Istanbul landscape, but you put on the largest smile when you die inside one. 

 

The second scenario is less possible since it was not read by my friend in my palm, but it still comes up every now and then. When I feel a bump somewhere in my body or a mole starts looking iffy, the wheels of my anxiety start turning. The wheels are impeccably designed, exceptionally maintained, and well-greased. They feel the bump or the mole, and they immediately place me inside an apartment overlooking the Bosporus, dying of cancer. I look sickly, having thrown a large shawl on myself. The room is lit by the light reflected from Bosporus, just like the first time I saw İstanbul from the window of that night bus. I walk towards the big windows of my ridiculously expensive apartment, which I have rented only for three months, while the songs that made İstanbul bearable all those years ago play. Friends come and say goodbye. It is so dramatically tragic you have to love it. I am smiling in this one, too. 

 

My father died of a heart attack on a hellish July afternoon in Izmir, right after coming from work and taking a shower. That hot day he died on still haunts me in many forms. His life of 58 years was cut short even by Turkish standards because he never really retired, he always worked through hardships. After he died, I started taking better care of myself with a gym routine, a better diet, and so on. Doctors always consider his early death as the most important parameter in my family’s health history, and I keep a lifestyle that will hopefully keep those serious heart attacks at bay. However, writing this in New York as 2020, the year of death, is ending, it still feels like I haven’t learnt one important lesson from my father’s death. I still don’t live in Istanbul, but I bank on a fortune telling for my ultimate reunion with the city. Maybe it is because my family’s and the city’s histories have taught me that the city I will return to will never match the city in my mind.

 

Migration skipped a generation with my parents. My sister and I embraced our family history, and made our nests elsewhere. I don’t know about her, but I am reconsidering my choices. I know tearing up at the sight of an Istanbul landscape didn’t skip a generation. I wonder if dying away from it will. 

 

Ilker Hepkaner

 

photo by Hepkaner

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