Sailing to Byzantium

In each cell of the Turkish capital, a different species of bee produces its own sad honey.

ISTANBUL (late December 2009) - I did not travel here "in remembrance of things past," to quote the title of Marcel Proust's novel, but rather to sink, with my eyes closed, into the aroma of its closets. There the future awaited me - that tyrant of time that crooks its finger and beckons me to approach. That's why I was now standing, drunk with the smell of mothballs, in a bizarre lingerie shop on the Istiqlal Street pedestrian mall. I never paid any attention to the existence of this shop, although it had always been there, adjacent (store window to store window) to the antiques shop run by our family, where I used to sit for long hours as a child and from which I was sent out on errands to nearby shops.

I don't think I was ever sent on an errand to the lingerie shop, which was founded in 1936 and whose furnishings apparently have never changed; the rapidly developing world of interior design was apparently not allowed entry into that shop. Its name appears on the awning: Kelebek, a Turkish word that was associated - in my home, where French, garnished with a few local words, was spoken - with the moths that frightened me whenever they flew from their dark hiding places toward the bright chandeliers. There was eternal enmity between those moths and the mothballs.

Behind the counter in this shop, illuminated by the pale light of a fluorescent bulb, stood Elia Cohen. He is a Karaite, one of the last dozen or so members of this Jewish sect, which believes in the total religious authority of the Hebrew Scriptures (as opposed to the Oral Law, including the Mishnah and Talmud), still living in the city. His father and grandfather had managed the store before him. Cohen says that, because there were no other options, he married a Sephardi woman, and the couple spent their honeymoon in one of Israel's most dismal cities, Ramle, whereupon they returned to Istanbul.

"Life here is much harder than it once was," he tells me (after all, how would I know that he was Jewish if he didn't complain about something?), opening boxes of lingerie of various sizes with the same non-erotic interest that he probably inherited from his father and grandfather. These intimate items of clothing are intended to sculpt a woman's body, to create an attractive figure, which means that Elia Cohen is somewhat of an artist. An artist of fetching female figures.

The antiques shop adjacent to his has become a municipal art gallery and there is no one left from my family in this city. I do not say this with sadness - quite the contrary: Certain places have remained and they are simply inhabited by new residents.

When you study Istanbul, you realize that it is not really one city; instead, it is a mass of autonomous cells of human activity, in each of which a different species of bee produces its own sad honey. Especially in the winter, when the heavy rains - which turn the streets into foaming rivers and obliterate the distinction between sea and land - force the city's residents to remain indoors more than they usually do. When you cross the Bosphorus from Europe into the city's Asian neighborhoods, the water and the sky seem to draw closer together. The crosswinds blowing in from the Black Sea and the oceans smash umbrellas. The only sensible thing is to remain indoors.

My old home on Asian soil awaited me. Actually, it has not been our home for a long time. My mother was born there, as was her brother Benjamin, who was killed in Israel's War of Independence. This was the home of my grandmother and my grandfather, who suffered a stroke after his son's death broke his heart. The house still goes by its old name, Taranto, and it is located on Sagizgul Street, which branches off from Moda Street. The latter, in turn, leads from the ferryboat wharf down to what was once the Moda beach of the Kadikoy neighborhood; that beach is now closed because of water pollution.

On the first floor of the family house is a pub, Cafe Guitar, which features a wide variety of performances: jazz, classical Turkish music and folk songs. We ordered tea and I told the waitress, "Years ago, when I was a child, my grandmother's neighbor, a Mrs. Belkis, used to live in this very apartment. She was Belgian and had converted to Islam. She lived alone here with her cat. When there was a lot of noise in the street, and when we would run about on the wooden floor above her apartment, she would tap loudly on the ceiling with a broomstick to give us the message that we should be less boisterous."

We once traveled with Mrs. Belkis - the Catholic woman who had become a devout Muslim - to the tomb of a Muslim saint, Eyup. It was hot, and from time to time she would use her handkerchief to mop the sweat from her brow, and would then immediately tie it up again.

Now young people were crowding around tables in what was once Mrs. Belkis' living room, where the lighting is deliberately dim. They were drinking beer served to them from the refrigerator in what was her kitchen. If she had witnessed this scene, she would have gone totally mad.

To top it off - voice lessons are given in Mrs. Belkis' bedroom once a week by the cafe's manager, Sumru Agiryuruyen. She is a world-famous singer and mandolin player, who has been the star of numerous festivals and is a ball of energy. Last year, she put out an album, "Issiz" (Solitude). Here, in her own territory, she emerged from the back room, entering the living room and walking along the corridor where, when I was a child, Mrs. Belkis' large refrigerator once stood (because she had no room in the kitchen for it).

It was quite crowded in the apartment, as it was Friday evening and many young people who love good music like to hang out here. The stage where the singers perform is located on the very spot where Mrs. Belkis' sideboard and heavy dining-room table once stood.

Filled with sighs

A musician named Emin Igus was singing on stage, accompanying himself with a saz, a traditional Turkish stringed instrument. He is perpetuating the tradition of protest singers who performed at a time when it was dangerous to speak out. Igus is a student of the greatest exemplar of this genre, the gifted baritone Ruhi Su, who served a long prison term and sacrificed an operatic career to devote his life to Anatolian folk music; he also accompanied himself on the saz. You could sense Su's style in Igus' performance, although Igus does not have the same kind of hoarseness in his voice.

Igus' most famous song is "The World is a Window," which is a well-known Turkish folk song. This was also the title of this evening's event. The songs were filled with sighs, and the audience sometimes joined in with Igus. I tried to compose a few short stories about the members of the audience. Were those two young girls on the sofa lesbians? Who was that mature woman sitting by herself and moving her head and tapping lightly on the table?

There were a few groups of boisterous customers who had already drunk a huge quantity of beer. When I went over to the singer during intermission, some of the patrons whispered among themselves because they thought I might be an irate tenant. I felt like a stranger, yet I also felt very much at home.

About two years ago, I interviewed Mehmet Eyuboglu, whose parents are considered modern Turkey's greatest painters . Apparently, I unintentionally embarrassed him when I revealed to the general public the family's secret: that his mother, Erna Leibowitz, was born in Romania, was Jewish and had many relatives in Israel. Mehmet passed away a few months ago; his widow, Hughette, continues to preserve the family tradition and is trying to carry on the work of her late husband and late mother-in-law, utilizing a unique technique for making traditional Anatolian prints on fabric. The stylized patterns are all taken from her mother-in-law's paintings, which are part of the family estate and bear her signature in Arabic letters.

Hughette is also a writer and translates from Turkish to French and English. In our conversation about the irretrievable past - about Bohemian art, about the artistic salons, and the literary feuds - she told me about a friend, an idealist who, in her youth, resolved that she would join a Tolstoyan project that was begun in the 1940s and was intended to eliminate illiteracy in Anatolia. Although Jews were unwelcome participants in this effort, her friend was persistent and was finally granted permission to work as an itinerant teacher in Anatolian villages.

When Hughette mentioned her friend's name, Bella Ashkenazi, I felt as if my late parents were suddenly sitting beside me in the room, and were loudly teasing each other in my presence about Bella. She was my father's first love; they met when he was studying in Istanbul. Bella was a beautiful girl from a poor family, and the only one of three sisters who decided not to move to Israel but to remain in Turkey. It was never a good idea to mention her name in my mother's presence.

Meeting Bella

I had come to Istanbul, as I noted, not in remembrance of things past. But, Hughette phoned Bella and arranged a meeting in Bella's home in the Bebek neighborhood. This affluent part of Istanbul is located on the banks of the Bosphorus and includes the hill where Robert College, an American educational institution that was nationalized and is today a Turkish university, once stood.

Said Hughette: "You will see - although Bella is nearly 90, she is still an attractive woman."

We arrived in a thunderstorm that was wildly stirring up the waters of the Bosphorus. In these secular, modern, affluent neighborhoods, there are checkpoints and security guards who monitor all incoming vehicles - tangible proof that secular idealism needs tight security. However, that is an issue for another day.

Bella was waiting for us. She was as bright and lively as a young girl and, instead of tea, served us whiskey. But she did have one complaint: She has problems reading the screen of her laptop.

In her absent-mindedness, she recounted, she had misplaced a precious letter that she had received from Orhan Veli, the great poet and a close friend; every sentence in the letter began with a B, the first letter in her name. In her search for it, she told us, she had discovered an envelope she had hidden years earlier, and whose existence she had completely forgotten. It had turned out to contain some money, which she used to buy herself a laptop.

Family photographs in silver frames were crowded onto a small table. There were photos of her late husband; of her sisters, who were no longer alive; of her cousin, Rafi Ginai, who, in his youth, had been a member of the Israel Navy's singing troupe and had sung the hit song "Hasake" in Hebrew as well as the song "Yiddishe piraten" in Yiddish. Ginai also had a small role in the Israeli cult picture "Halfon Hill Doesn't Answer." He died under mysterious circumstances.

"Ever since I can remember," this last survivor recalled, "I have been hearing that Turkey is on the brink of disaster. And, every time, the crisis has been overcome." In Istanbul, apparently, sad developments have been transformed into happy ones.

Indeed, villains, as Bella called them, cut off her view of the Bosphorus with a row of cottages. She commissioned some carpenters to build her an elevated wooden stage, and now she can sit there, drinking her coffee and enjoying her view once again.