Life Is the Cat, We Are the Mice

A bomb killed 11 people in Vezneciler, central Istanbul, the morning after I arrived. It is about 7 miles southwest from where I slept and woke to find a notification on my phone that, indeed, this was the Istanbul my mother left at 18, an Istanbul of terror and grief. I rushed into a robe and slippers, still bleary, to find my aunt in front of CNN working on her laptop. She nonchalantly greeted me, günaydın, and told me about the coffee machine. I said, “But the bomb, what’s going on,” and she said, “Oh yes.”

I wondered on my flight yesterday about the tourists I saw with their backpacks and sandals, their window-seat amazement as we approached the city below, their accents. I questioned why they eagerly entered the chaos so removed from their own realities, if they were either ignorant or arrogant or, worse, if they calculated that soon they wouldn’t be able marvel at this city at all.

I used to associate this country singularly with my mother. Now, I increasingly conjure it up as my own. I have histories here; I have left parts of my self by its roads and waters, to be swept up by easterly winds and straw brooms at the end of workers’ arms. I’ve picked other parts up. It has been this action of shifting my weight, losing and gaining, that has been my small challenge and triumph. This summer, I pursue a story of some kind, a story which has yet no beginning and certainly no end.

I’m in Cihangir — in many ways the beat of this city. It is cool and loud and I like the way it feels, like everything and nothing is happening at once, like life is the cat and we are the mice. If violence has any effect on a people, a place, it is most notably the lack of its effect. One senses her vulnerability, her sheer mortality, but fear as we know it and expect it ceases to haunt us. No, we do not have great control, but we continue. Istanbul changes and is always the same. It is eternally the city on the water, of battle and empires, conquerors and the devout, an artery east to west. But it moves now, and quickly, so that none of us can see where it is going and so that none of us wonders why. This is a terror. This is the terror.

The old men look older than they are. They sit under the fountains and smoke. They cross the narrow and smoggy street and then cross back; they wash their feet from the golden spouts; they finger their beads mindlessly it would seem, at once calm, antsy. The street dogs amble between them, swollen and scarred as if picked at by the blue-backed crow’s fine claw or black beak. They are thirsty. I see a covered woman in a lab coat, a covered old woman in a trenchcoat, a sunglassed lady with her newspaper in the shade of the cami and a mustached man beside her. Leather jackets in June and Syrians begging for change, their children or maybe siblings at their hip, dirt on their faces and below their toenails, threadbare and with a depth in their eyes like the kind you see in a sea dive toward a glimmering object at the bottom — flickering, unreachable. They’ve learned enough English to beg. They are thirsty.

Who here is fearful, I want to know. Who here is distressed inside to exude equanimity? A grayed man pushes a three-wheel barrel up the stone street and stops to rest under the shade of the turquoise tiled fountain. A piled-on motorbike flashes by and backfires — no movement. Suddenly, the imam calls out, loud and crackling. Allah u akbar. The air fills with the consuming tremble of his voice. Where else in this city, in this world, is this song heard at this moment?

I have been reading Gellhorn (again) and she is an articulate witness. I think, so what? What can we do but witness, how can we act, so it is worthwhile. How must we act? I’ve chosen a life of documentation so the question is rather self-serving and altogether existentially dubious. Maybe this documentation will serve a person or perhaps two later when they find it useful. It has yet to be useful to me.

Patti Smith, on the other hand, has been particularly useful to me these days. It seems I finally get some of what she is on about. I was spurred to revisit her writing after seeing poster after poster of Mapplethorpe-era Smith, 25-years-old, grungy. She is performing in the old city on the 28th. Tickets sold out but I will scalp. How could one miss Patti Smith performing in Istanbul?

Discovery. I’m meant to be writing about discovery. I suppose this is how I usually begin. I read, and listen, I get swept up by the tide of posters and concerts and even the inimitable hum of the month of Ramadan. I’m orienting myself, taking in then, ideally, working.

Now I sit on the terrace of the Adahan hotel. The view of the Golden Horn and Ayasofya is spectacular. Distant clusters of rooftops swallow the hillsides opposite as the traffic silently traverses, glimmering like my dad’s favorite jewel box analogy. It is quiet from here but for the bellow of seagulls…reminding me of home. The minarets, on perspective, are the tallest points of the skyline and they stand solitary and unmoved unlike the memories they inevitably color in people come and gone, lost. In the distance, the birds hover in concentric circles creating a nearly invisible movement amongst the clay colored backdrop of the buildings. But if one watches closely, if one waits for those small white dots to pass before her stationary eye, she will see that they animate the stillness almost aimlessly, but with grace.