Wednesday 6 July 2016
Istanbul people (and cats)
Please, please, don't think of cancelling a trip to Istanbul, or of not going at all, because of the recent bombing*. It's true that the city has had more than its share of blasts and deaths in the past six months - not least the killing of 10 tourists near the Sultan Ahmet Mosque in January - but if you don't go now, you may regret it when Erdoğan truly turns the screw**.
In the meantime this is still a great city in all its contradictions, different ethnic groups and social diversity. The population has rocketed from around the one and a half million mark when I first Interrailed here and back in 1981 to c. 14 million (the figure fluctuates). The traffic jams are appalling, and without the luxury of a chauffeur-driven car to ferry us around during the Istanbul Music Festival, I would have taken tram and metro or done what I still managed to achieve a lot - simply walk. From which perspective pleasures are limitless.
Last time I was a bit taken aback, in a 15 year gap, by the transformation of the main drag in semi-European Pera, İstiklal Caddesi, back in effect to what it had been in the 19th century when French fashions were aped, much to the disgust of many Istanbullus. This time I saw that the same old life was going on regardless on the streets between the posh shops and offices and the old embassies - now consulates, of course - set back in their lovely gardens. There were still the simit-sellers, the crowds on the street - too large to be dominated by tourists in the way that the centre of old Prague is now - and, of course, the cats. The one-eyed fella sitting on the lap of the old man, pictured up top, with his weighing scales. The ones lazing in shop windows.
One on a motor-bike
another possessing a window-sill
and a blue-eyed kitten with ?mama? in the pleasant grounds of the Mevlana Dervish Lodge/Museum which I once again failed to go and see (in 1986 we were in Konya, the centre of it all, but at the end of Bairam, and no dances were to be had).
I think it was Jan Morris in Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere who wrote (or maybe quoted someone to the effect) that you can gauge the humanity of a citizenry by how it treats its animals - and though there are plenty of stray cats, and actually rather fewer dogs than I remember from curfew time in 1981, they all seemed to be looked after and fed by the Istanbullus. Meanwhile, in Timaru, New Zealand...
Down at the Galata Tower on that first full day, we had a coffee beneath the walls, observing traditionally headscarved mothers proud of their graduating daughters
and a child sitting unselfconsciously by the slightly over-restored 1732 fountain moved here from a nearby mosque in 1950
before I took J on the essential stroll past the restaurants and beneath the busy road of a Galata Bridge not nearly as charming as the one I first saw, but still with those men casting their lines above us,
sometimes flashing a silver catch in front of our very eyes. On the bridge, and indeed on either side, there are still the heavy-laden porters I also remember from 1981. Orhan Pamuk in his Istanbul: Memories and the City, which I was going to write about here but ran out of space to do so, says they've disappeared; not so.
We made, I hope, some firm friends through the festival - chiefly the spirited ladies who run it. Met them for lunch on the roof terrace of the Divan Brasserie on the top floor of a splendid Istiklal building, the Merkez Han. From left to right they are Assistant Director Efruz Çakırkaya, Director Yeşim Gürer Oymak and Elif Obdan Gürkan of International Media.
One of Yeşim and Elif with the Topkapi Palace over the Golden Horn, Sea of Marmara to the left.
Three other ladies on the top floor of the Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic's smart offices and mini concert hall on Istiklal Caddesi: our guide Basana, who's lived in Istanbul since she came her from Albania 10 years ago, the orchestra's Media Relations Manager Sinem Duman Balkan and Zeynep Seyhun, another IMF International Media officer, who had to leave for a wedding in Palermo before we could get to know her.
I went there on my first full morning for an interview with the BIPO's totally inspiring Music Director of the last nine years, Austrian Sascha Goetzel with his piercing blue eyes. I'll need to transcribe that for the orchestra's next visit here, which after their splendid Prom I hope won't have to wait too long. We met on the top floor of the Borusan Centre, complete with glitter-ball for dancing and a mural painted during an inaugural youth festival.
Now, a human interlude at the Süleymaniye Mosque on two very different occasions - elders dozing, young girl with toy or real mobile phone, among the many resting beneath the many trees of the beautifully planted grounds on the loveliest afternoon of the trip
while on another day shortly after a storm had passed over, three Istanbullus leave the courtyard towards the part of the garden with the wonderful view
and another lady snaps the scene beyond.
Picnickers I passed on my way back to cross the new rail bridge back to Pera on the first full afternoon.
Cormorants on the quayside should get a look-in too, oddly turned away from the water with a solitary seagull in their midst.
That evening saw the revelation of nearly 75-year-old İdil Biret playing a massive 20th century programme in the Albert Long Hall of the Bosphorus University. To my amazement my heart's desire as a result, to interview her, was granted by her wonderful husband and manager, Şefik Büyükyüksel, who as a Yale man approved that I had a book published by that eminent university. İdil, who understandably didn't usually like to talk between big concerts - she had two more to go - was guaranteed to say yes, though she might make a paddy about it, he said on the phone. A lady less likely to do that I can't imagine. But before we hit the lovely apartment overlooking the Princes' Island, let's take the ferry over, full of life both on the way out and back (where there was a mini-party to an excellent guitarist and singer of traditional songs). This young accordion player was given something by just about everyone sitting outside.
And so we reached the Asian side of the Bosphorus, but Kadıköy and Moda are more Western than many parts of the old city, staggeringly so since the transformation of the past few years when every artist and cultural mover and shaker apparently aspire to live there. It's İdil's childhood home; she remembers swimming in the Bosphorus when it was safe to do so (no longer, alas, which is such a shame as Moda has the atmosphere of a swish seaside resort). Here she is with Şefik on their balcony,
with the friend I made in Dresden who first alerted me to a western classical-music loving culture in Istanbul as the editor of the beautifully produced magazine Andante, Serhan Bali, who knows İdil well
and showing me an old photograph (photo by Serhan).
I told İdil I thought she must be one of the happiest people I know. 'But it is important not to be comfortable,' she replied. 'I would say I'm an optimist'.
The only faint regret I could possibly have about the two hours we spent in this wonderful couple's company was that Serhan's original plan to show us the area had to be abandoned, though we did manage coffee and cake - yet more after hospitable afternoon tea - opposite the beautifully restored art deco Süreyya Opera House of 1927, where Maria João Pires and Antonio Meneses were giving their recital. The exterior of the building
and the interior with audience, modelled on the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées.
Delighted to hear that the Monday chamber concerts here are attracting a whole new audience. Anyway, it would have been fun to hang out longer in Kadıköy, but there was a ferry to catch and by 11.30pm we were back at Karaköy.
My timescale has become confused - it's hard to believe that on the very same day we crammed in four concerts in venues either side of Istiklal. I've described the experience on The Arts Desk, but the musicians need further imaging, courtesy of the Istanbul Festival's photographer Ali Güler.
This is Cansin Cara, who gave a very inward and spiritual performance of Bach's Fourth Cello Suite in the Armenians’ Surp Yerrotutyun Church next to the famous Çiçek Pasaj.
And these are the viola player Günsu Özkarar, harpist Meriç Dönük and flautist Zeynep Keleşoğlu, taking a bow in the most ornate of the venues, the Greek Orthodox Church of Panayia Isodion (1804).
The Auner Quartet's Schubert 'Rosamunde' took place against a thundery background and beneath the dome recently decorated for the Aramaic-speaking Chaldaeans who gather in the lower church of Catholic St Anthony's (my photo).
Our last destination, having skipped the Dutch Chapel experience in favour of lunch with Canon Ian Sherwood, was in his Anglican place of worship, the Crimea Memorial Church designed by the same architect responsible for London's Law Courts, George Street.
I was completely swept away by the Bach concertos in the impassioned playing under Hakan Şensoy, with whom I've had a very happy correspondence since my return. More about these performances over on The Arts Desk.
As for Ian, he's a remarkable man (if misguided IMO on the Brexit issue, but we'll move on from that and just endorse the view of my friend Tom Pope's journalist brother Hugh, reporting on the salvation of the church in The Independent, that he's 'slightly eccentric'). The Archbishop of Istanbul wanted the church handed back to the city municipality, so Ian camped out in it to ensure its survival. He now tends to Pakistani and other Christian refugees fleeing a now all too familiar religious persecution in the Middle East. He also keeps chickens and some rather manky ducks which wander around the precincts unflapped by human proximity.
Ian's congregation also includes a melancholy Nigerian, a couple of lecturers who told me that the outlook for the left-wing Bosphorus University looks bleak under Erdoğan, and this vivacious spirit, Trici Venola, a fine artist who'd just returned from a trip to Van and around sketching the relatives of the Istanbul restaurant owner who commissioned her as well as some splendid landscapes.
Our last lunch was with Ian (pictured below left), Trici and several other parishioners - a sociable end to another fine experience of a very great city.
On which note, I end with horror not only at an even more catastrophic IS bombing - 250 dead in a single Baghdad attack - but also at our indifference; The Guardian wasn't going to shift its Brexit coverage to give this maximum exposure, and I gather the catastrophe was way down the list on the BBC news, pushed aside by the huge importance of a telly egotist leaving a programme that I wouldn't touch with a bargepole. Top Gear has a wide viewership throughout the world, sadly, and the media thinks it's more important than death and destruction on an ever more shocking scale.
*Update 17/7: now, of course, there's been the ill-fated coup. But that still shouldn't stop you. I await the verdict of my Istanbul friends, but personally I dread what Erdoğan may do now**. The clampdown won't stop, so all the more reason for seeing the city while liberalism hasn't been wiped out completely. Difficult to accept the west's unreserved support for a man who will now become a dictator. Might a successful coup have brought better times? That part of the army's claim to want to restore democracy and human rights might suggest as much.
**Which he has, of course. 27/7: it's bad, worse than we even thought. But they still need your support in Istanbul. In the meantime, sign this petition. Things were never good in Turkish prisons, but Erdoğan can't be allowed to turn the clock back beyond even torture to executions. Please sign Amnesty's petition.