Ghosts of Istanbul

If I hadn't gone back to Moda, the little neighborhood of my childhood, I would never have thought of Ilan Carmi, a journalist whom I never actually met but his name has been chillingly associated in my mind with oblivion and anonymity.

ISTANBUL, late December - If I hadn't gone back to Moda, the little dream neighborhood of my childhood, on one of those creaky old ferries that have crossed the Straits of Bosphorus between Europe and Asia for time immemorial, I would never have thought of Ilan Carmi (in a totally associative way, because the route of this rickety vessel takes it past a white castle called Leander's Tower that looks like it's growing out of the water, which I always thought was haunted by ghosts). Ilan Carmi was a journalist whom I never actually met. But for many years, his name has been chillingly associated in my mind with oblivion and anonymity.

For a short time in the early 1990s, Carmi was the Haaretz correspondent in Istanbul. He was an Israeli who married a woman from Saloniki, Greece and died young of cancer. Possibly the only thing he left behind in this world was a brown envelope with his name on it in the archives of Haaretz. Inside the envelope were four or five articles which I once read at the recommendation of Haim Bior, also a reporter for Haaretz, who lived in Greece for many years and took a Greek wife.

A few years ago, I went to the book market in Istanbul behind the Beyazit mosque in the old town and saw a little book in French hanging by a clothespin at one of the stalls. It was "Sites Juifs a Istanbul" ("Jewish Sites in Istanbul") by Ilan Carmi. I bought it. Out of self-pity I bought it, because at the time I was writing a novel set in Istanbul, and in my mind's eye I saw my own book dangling like a mutilated corpse over a used book stall some day, wet from the rain or warped by the sun.

So it goes. In the end we'll be anonymous names, too, leaving behind, if we leave anything, a batch, or maybe a few batches of paper, held together by a clothespin. Meanwhile, we're still here, doing things, and the seagulls following the ferry circle overhead like a screeching honor guard, and the timeless tea seller is rattling two plates so that people will notice that he also exists in this world, a world of tea poured into tiny cups and served on a metal tray to passengers curled up in their coats against the wind.

And don't forget that this is happening as we cross the strait that divides two eternally hostile continents - Europe and Asia - which are so close to one another here, close enough for a hug, but one that will never come.

So many subtle attempts have been made to sew up this breach between Asia and Europe, to mend it with artistic tailoring. It hasn't worked, of course, although why should it matter to me? But I keep at it anyway, seized by an infantile whim to walk in boyish steps down the main street of a neighborhood that could have been mine - Moda Street - under the shady arcade leading to the beach where I used to swim with my brother and grandmother on summer days 40 years ago. Days when I would break off a little twig from a bush in some garden and ask in French if it hurt the plants when someone breaks their shoots.

Because the language in which the boughs of the trees here, and the sidewalk and the streets paved with cobblestone rather than asphalt, speak to me, is French. All the ghosts speak it, too: my grandmother and my Aunt Gentille and the ladies who came to play bridge every week, and even Mustafa, my aunt's sprightly servant, who used to say "Ma parole!" ("My word!").

From the Cohen brother's book shop on Pera Street, later renamed Istiklal, children's books in French would be sent to us to Israel: the stories of Countess de Segur, the fables of LaFontaine, the story of a little rabbit named Serpolet, a French alphabet primer with illustrations for each letter - "g" for baGue (ring), "a" for ane (donkey) and so on.

And wasn't it in Istanbul, one summer evening in 1963, that they opened up a big book - a book that was already old back then, its pages loose and faded - and read aloud to me a scene from Racine's "Esther" in which the Jewish queen is so frightened she almost faints as she stands before Ahasuarus and calls her maids to steady her. Aunt Gentille taught me to recite Esther's part and then changed her voice to play Ahasuarus as he points his scepter at Esther, who was me, bidding her to approach without fear.

Ever heard of Moise Albocher? Me neither, until I got to 172 Moda Street, found myself in front of a second-hand bookshop by the name of Dagarcak Shahaf, and went in. With the confidence of someone who knows a parcel has been waiting for him there for 40 years, I walked straight to the French book section and wouldn't you know that sitting there on the shelf was a book of essays on the Jews published in 1936. It opened with "Three Letters on Israel" by the Catholic poet Paul Claudel, which someone once read out to me but the memory was so vague I was under the mistaken impression that it wasn't by Claudel at all.

In these letters, Claudel attacks the rabbis of America for spouting the kind of humanitarian drivel that flowed so freely in Protestant writing. In the third letter, remembering that it is Passover, he writes. "Ah! When will you celebrate it with us, around the sacrificial lamb?" And all of this by way of apology for not being able, and not wanting, to participate in the Zionist Congress, at which the nice Jews had asked him to speak.

And on the shelf was another book from 1912, an anthology of French prose and poetry in an art deco binding. There wasn't a single play by the great tragedian Jean Racine. Instead, the editors saw fit to publish a collection of letters to his son, written when he joined the war effort of King Louis XVI by becoming his royal historiographer. One of the letters is dated July 24, 1698. Racine warns his son not to buy too many books, because an excess of books only induced a person to flit from one type of knowledge to another, most of which was unnecessary in the first place. Racine goes on to quote his theology teacher, Nicolas, who used to cite Cicero: "Non esse emacem vectigal est" ("Not to be fond of buying is a revenue").

Racine, you old miser. If I had listened to your advice, I would never have found Moise Albocher's book on Turkish poetry which was published in Istanbul in French in 1972, and sat waiting for me, surely the very last purchaser of the very last copy of the book in the world. It is dedicated to "My wife Ketty, who has supported me with all her heart throughout my work." The French is, how should I put it, a bit old-fashioned. Sort of flowery. And the proofreading, oh boy. Everywhere you look there are typos, which someone has corrected in pen on the book itself.

Moise Albocher, we learn from the cover, was a journalist who wrote in Turkish and French, who decided to leave behind a token of love for two languages that he embraced with equally desperate and impossible passion. He translated poems by four classic Turkish poets who lived at the turn of the 19th century. The most famous of them was Tevfik Fikret, whose songs of liberation, which recall the prophetic pathos of Victor Hugo, were written at the cost of his own freedom: Throughout most of the reign of Sultan Abdulhamid, he was placed under house arrest.

In those days, Turkish was still written in Arabic script, and one of the poems in the book, by Yahya Kemal, appears in its original format, alongside a transcription into modern Turkish and a translation into French. One of the first lines already went to my heart: "This is the last chapter, oh Life/Hereafter, unfold as you like." How wonderful to approach the last chapter of your life and be indifferent to what happens or doesn't happen. To stop getting excited about books, like Racine. Not to want anything.

Like Istanbul, actually, where the last chapter of life stretches on and on, and life is allowed to play itself out, with Moise Albocher writing a book about its poets, and Ilan Carmi writing a book about its Jewish sites, and me, continuing to poke through a pile of books sent to me from the days when the ghosts spoke French and good old Mustafa twisted the ends of his mustache and exclaimed "Ma parole!"

Today, none of the salespeople in the shop speak French. One of them, I think, was Greek. The price of a book is calculated by the serial number that appears on the title page.

One last word, about an album of photographs entitled "Capa in Turkey, Photographs from Turkey, 1946." The Jewish photographer Robert Capa visited Istanbul in 1946 and took a series of black and white photos there. Capa didn't like Istanbul. His mind at the time was on his love affair with Ingrid Bergman, and he couldn't have cared less about Istanbul. Nevertheless, as I look at his pictures today, of a ferry crossing the Bosphorus, of Galata Bridge crowded with people, of the boat dock, of the fishing boats on the silvery water, I understand my mistake: Anonymity is this city's blessing to its lovers.

In time, it will round them up and organize them in an imaginary archive, each one in a brown envelope. On mine, maybe it will say "Moda," commemorating the place where the land masses of Asia and France sometimes meet, and despite the typos here and there, manage to communicate.