Sailing to Byzantium, Part II

Why did I come here? Oh, yes - to interview Jewish writer Mario Levi. I've known about him for years and have read his work, but no one has heard of him in Israel.

ISTANBUL (end of December 2009) - Most of my plans of things to do and see here evaporated into thin air upon arrival, so I let myself be carried away with the flow of the new, strange things I encountered while wandering the city's streets. For example, the music blaring from a record shop on the popular Istiklal Avenue pedestrian mall was enough to draw me inside and plunge me into a flurry of names of singers and bands, as well as rare recordings. This is how I became acquainted, for the first time, with Wojciech Bobowski's music. He was one of the great European composers of the generation that preceded Bach - if you consider Istanbul a part of the Continent, which to my regret, is not usually the case.

Bobowski was born in Lwow, then part of Poland, 400 years ago. After the Tatars captured him and sold him, as a slave, to the Turks, he reached Istanbul, where his talents were recognized and he was warmly welcomed in the Topkapi Palace court. He converted to Islam, changed his name to Ali Ufki and was the first to translate the Bible into Turkish. Another ambitious undertaking was his adaptation of the melodies of Calvinist prayers into Turkish musical modes. At the same time, he wrote hundreds of pieces for the sultans' entertainment; unlike earlier Ottoman composers, he also transcribed the music in European notation. Thus we have today some 600 works - by him and by other court composers of his day - in two collections preserved in the British Library and in the National Library of France in Paris. Two years ago, after they were rediscovered, a recording containing a selection of Ali Ufki's works was produced. The pieces were played by a band from Izmir, and the disc also included some Baroque music of the same period, originally written in Venice and performed by an Italian band called La Turchesca.

But, what's happening to me? I'm sinking into a mire of minor details and not getting to the real reason for my trip to Istanbul. Why did I come here? Oh, yes - to interview the Jewish writer Mario Levi. I have known about him for years, and have seen his books in Turkish stores, but no one has heard of him in Israel.

But the city made me lazy, and until I found him and we set a time for an interview, my interest in literature spilled over into other areas.

Again time dragged on, and hours and days passed. I entered the beautiful temple of books, Pandora, located in an alley that juts out of Istiklal Avenue, to buy Orhan Pamuk's new novel. Instead I discovered a thriller called "The Kiss Murder," by a young Turkish author named Mehmet Murat Somer.

The victim in the book (which has been published in English by the British firm Serpent's Tail) is a male transvestite who works as a prostitute in a nightclub, and the person who sets out to solve his murder is a colleague, who tells the story in the first person. And we've been told that Turkey has become more conservative and Islamic than ever! What an ability Somer has to describe this city's day and night life. The character of the macho taxi driver who is secretly in love with the main protagonist, but eventually rejected by him, is just one example of the author's expert psychological insight. Somer tries to shatter stereotypes since Istanbul, like Venice, is a city of carnivals, of masquerading: Seemingly tough guys seen on the street may actually turn out to be women, while people who appear to be women at night can be very manly during the day.

I almost felt as if I knew the book's characters personally.

One night, on one of my earlier trips to Turkey, with the photographer Nir Kafri, we happened upon an Istanbul transvestite club. The woman who managed it was a man with definite liberal and secular views. Each one of the beautiful girls at the bar waiting for customers had a life story similar to that of the people in the transvestite club described in Somer's novel: They were young, good-looking gay men from the provinces who had come to the big city with dreams of making some money in this profession before returning to a normal life.

Later the place filled up with male clients who danced or had a drink with the "girls." The proprietor's role was to warn the clients and workers whenever he saw any attempts at intimacy. Open sex is forbidden. Maybe one of the clients is the murderer from "The Kiss Murder"?

Shared mother tongue

The time for the much-awaited interview with Mario Levi had come. When he opened the door to his house, a petite young woman (his second wife) stood behind him, and they were joined by a big dog. I noticed a shiny earring in the author's left earlobe. In the living room, whose window overlooks the old city and its minarets, stood a big Christmas tree decorated with shiny colorful balls ("My wife wanted it").

We started conversing in English, but I realized that in order to really understand him, we had to remove our cosmopolitan "uniforms" and use our shared mother tongue - the language we spoke at home: French. And I felt at home. Especially when, in the middle of the interview, the phone rang and the caller turned out to be Levi's mother, who apparently had something urgent to tell him. He tried to explain, "I am in the middle of a meeting," but she insisted. O, Jewish mothers! Wherever you may be, you find a way to remove all the makeup from your children's faces. A famous writer - my son? Ha-ha.

He complained that Istanbul's Jewish community has never supported him ("Except for giving advice"), and in order to become known outside Turkey as a writer, he had to cover his own travel expenses. Now, thank God, his books are being translated into 11 languages and in two years' time, he added, his most well-known work, "Istanbul Was a Fairy Tale," might appear in Hebrew.

When I mentioned the name Orhan Pamuk, Levi got up to get a drink, which, he had forewarned me, signaled annoyance.

"I oppose anyone who opposes Orhan Pamuk," he said gallantly. "He is a very good writer and I, as a Turkish writer, am proud he received the Nobel Prize for Literature. Did he deserve the prize? That is a different matter. The main thing is that it helps promote Turkish literature around the world.

"People who criticize him did not really read him, and they think he received the prize for political reasons. Even if that were true, one needed courage to make the political statements he has made [i.e., when he criticized Turkey's refusal to recognize its responsibility for the Armenian massacre]. We used to be good friends and he encouraged me when my novel 'Istanbul Was a Fairy Tale' appeared. He said it was a great novel. In practice, he did not really help me."

Levi notes that Pamuk has serious problems with his command of the Turkish language, although, the writer added, "he knows how a novel is built and is a skilled writer."

I asked whether Levi thought that, in terms of worldwide recognition, he has been relegated to Pamuk's shadow because the latter is so outspoken in his views. Levi answered that this is not the situation in Germany, where readers have gained an intimate understanding of Turkish literature. Elsewhere in the West, however, people clearly prefer to publish the works of dissidents - and Mario Levi is no dissident.

"I am one of the victims of the commercialization of literature," he explained.

Now came the story of the other Mario Levi, who is not "other" just because he is Jewish, but also because he was a leftist and an intellectual in 1970s Turkey, when the government persecuted leftists. Indeed, some of his friends were jailed because of their political activities, although Levi was never incarcerated. He did not belong to any party or faction. Furthermore, some of his friends were killed. He saw this happening and wrote about it in his novel "Where Were You When Darkness Fell?"

Levi said he had visited Israel twice; the first time was in 1975 when he was 18 years old, and the second was in 1988.

"I have a good friend who lives in Haifa. He was a communist firebrand when he was in Istanbul. We lost touch with one another. When I started writing my last novel, I decided one of the characters would be [modeled on] my friend, Yehuda. I sent him an e-mail and he agreed. We met after a 15-year separation, when he came on vacation to Princes' Islands, and now he's a character in my novel."

What is his real name?

"Yehuda Siliki ... He was active in [the left-wing party] Meretz and turned me into a Meretz fan. He translated some of Nasim Hikmet's poems into Hebrew."

Does it ever occur to you that under different circumstances, you might have found yourself living in Israel, just like your friend Yehuda?

"If I were to live in Israel, I would be a doctor. Not a writer. The language in which I write is fundamental for me. This is where I belong. The Turkish language is my real country. True, I chose it for practical reasons. I could have chosen French, Ladino."

He continued with sentimental declarations about his ties to the language: "I could have been a French writer, but my first love was a Turkish woman, I lived with a woman in Turkish, in the streets around me they speak Turkish, and when I curse, I curse in Turkish."

How does nostalgia affect you?

"I will never be able to avoid nostalgia. Anyone who was born in Istanbul loves nostalgia. This is the city's principal feeling. You can summarize it in a word that cannot be translated into any other language - huzun. Sadness with a touch of optimism and a bitter smile. This is the feeling that accompanies people who left Istanbul on voyages and never returned, who were forcibly brought to live here or were forcibly deported. The last 100 years, since the Ottoman Empire disintegrated, have been an era of unending deportation, of everybody to everywhere. All I want is to remain in my own home."

P.S.: I checked on Google: Mario Levi's friend in Haifa, Yehuda Siliki, is a musician, an actor and one of the people who founded the Jewish-Arab band Bustan Avraham.