This coming Thursday, May 3rd, is World Press Freedom Day
The power of writing – the freedom to write – is something that western liberal democracy takes for granted, even if we are living in the days of Fake News.
In Turkey the Press is facing hitherto unknown levels of oppression and censorship, with journalists rounded up and arrested for the most innocuous of criticisms of the Erdogan regime.
Accordingly, I thought I would review Burhan Sonmez‘s magnificent, allegorical, heart-wrenching and ultimately hopeful Istanbul Istanbul.
Hell is not a place where we suffer; it’s place where no one hears us suffering. Mansur Al-Hallaj (ninth century Persian mystic)
The people from Istanbul are losing their faith in the city … but I believe in Istanbul
Istanbul Istanbul by Turkish novelist Burhan Sonmez is a modern-day reworking of Boccaccio’s Decameron, only instead of Italian aristocrats telling each other tales while fleeing the Black Death, four political prisoners in Istanbul share a cramped, freezing cell under the city and tell each other stories and riddles to numb their minds and bodies from the pain they suffer as they are daily taken out and tortured.
The title hints at one of the themes of the novel, which is that there are two Istanbuls, the one above ground and the one below, and each is ‘transformed’ in sense through acts of creation and imagination. The prisoners transform their surroundings through imagination and fantasy, parables and riddles, and likewise the city above is changed by time and love.
Every city desired a conquest and every era created its own conqueror. I was a conqueror of fantasies. I believed in Istanbul and lived by fantasizing about her.
Divided into ten chapters, each narrated by one of the four characters, the novel weaves stories, parables, riddles and jokes in a feat that allows the characters to escape their grim surroundings and to somehow remake Istanbul itself, which exists above-ground in an ever-changing state, oblivious to the underground city of torture beneath its streets; it is no less than an homage to imagination.
Perhaps the first thing that needs to be stated about Istanbul, Istanbul is that, much like the Decameron, it is inhabited by characters who, while still fully realised, exist as something akin to archetypes: a young student, a poet, a doctor, and old man. The four prisoners are:
Demirtay the Student
Kamo the Barber (also a poet, or at least a man with a poetic mind)
Likewise, we never learn the identity of their captors. A revolution is brewing in the streets; revolutionaries arrange secret meetings with people who have code-names, and live in constant fear of spies and arrest, yet we don’t know the nature of the government that they are rebelling against (other than the fact it is obviously some sort of dictatorship, with secret police lifting people from the streets in broad daylight and torturing them – the novel was published first in 2015, predating but predicting the failed coup of summer 2016)
Our four characters are to some extent all accidental rebels. While Kamo the barber is the most politically active (and probably the angriest and most violent) and encouraged political talk and gossip in his shop, he is also someone with, for want of a better description, the heart of a poet, and Love and Poetry are his main passions. His wife, Mahizer, leaves him to pursue the revolutionary cause. “When Mahizer abandoned me and left home, in the beginning it wasn’t her I sought, but the poem of all poems.”
Later, he himself is drawn into the revolution and sees her one day on the street – she is using a fake name; through a little girl that Kamo has befriended at the library, he communicates with her and receives a letter from her affirming that she still loves him but that “our past is our destiny; we cannot escape our past”
She lined up familiar words one after the other, creating a whirlpool in each one. She wrote regret, tears, anger, separation, tears, regret, forgetting, forgiving, destiny, death, loneliness, destiny, regret, tears, and forgetting, over and over again, repeating what she had already said a few sentences later. She used near for far, life for death, union for separation, and vice versa. In another time and place I knew what those words meant, but now I couldn’t understand what Mahizer was saying. Her language was nothing like either my mother’s or my father’s. It made meaning meaningless … She destroyed what had made us what we were in the past, and with it, any chances of opening the door to the future.
As a result Kamo feels his imaginative duty is to fight time (“Time’s a bitch!”) There is a recurring motif of a clock which is always ten minutes fast, and talk of how Istanbul measures time
This is how the Istanbul dwellers divided time,” he said, holding out his hands on either side of him. “They thought the real Istanbul was a city of the past. This tired city had been bursting with energy in the past, had had a glorious sultanate, but had now drifted off to sleep. And perhaps she would never again from that deep sleep … Was there any other time but today’s? Wasn’t this the city where time and all eras convened? Or was that a resource beyond our reach?
The Doctor was never a revolutionary at all – his son, a medical student, was, and the Doctor took his place and identity when the son contracted tuberculosis. He lives in fear of his son’s arrest, and like the other prisoners, will not share his deepest secrets with anyone for fear that he would give something away under torture (later in the novel he in fact does give away his secret when a fifth ‘prisoner’ is brought into the cell – in fact, this is a policeman planted there to get information.
Love is the recurring topic of the novel, and women figure predominantly in many of the prisoners’ stories, whether bawdy or romantic or filled with maternal love.
The city is imagined (along with cigarettes and a delicious feast) by the characters and is often seen shrouded in a thin mist.
If your first view of Istanbul, which your father told you about, had been from a ship’s deck instead of inside this cell, you would understand, Uncle Kuheylan, that this city does not consist of three walls and an iron door. When people arrive by ship from distant places, the first thing they see are the Princes’ Islands on the right, draped in a cloud of mist …as the mist lifts, the colours multiply. You contemplate the domes and the elegant minarets as though you were admiring the wall rugs in your village.
One of the four is taken out daily to be tortured and returned later to the cell barely conscious. The men huddle together for warmth, and stand at the cell door signing to the woman, Zine Sevda in the cell opposite (who had already been captured when Uncle Kuheylan was arrested), who is brutally tortured in front of Kamo the barber in an effort to make him speak out of compassion for her.
The men try never to share secrets for fear that they will not be able to keep those secrets under torture. So the stories they tell each other – about a bride turning into a wolf and devouring her new husband, or about a nun who convinces a would-be rapist to drop his trousers and then lifts her skirts to escape, or about a hermit who comes across a young woman seeking to worship God, and who convinces her that his erect penis is the Devil and that the hermit needs “to put my Devil into your hell” – are bawdy or romantic or funny, and yet each reveals a little something about the teller.
In the meantime, outside the cells, up in the city above, a coup (or would-be coup, we don’t know if it succeeds) is underway. The novel’s closing pages belong to Uncle Kuheylan, alone in the cell imagining he and his fellow prisoners, along with Mahizer and Zine Sevda, gathering on the doctor’s balcony for a feast and admiring the beautiful view of the city
(it’s possible the other three have been taken away and shot or are being tortured or maybe, just maybe taking part in a battle with the guards – there is the sound of gunfire from the hallway outside the cell’s iron door: it’s left to the reader to decide their fate):
The Browning, Beretta, Walther, and Smith and Wesson explosions resounded again. On one hand I wanted to blot out the noise, on the other it gave me hope. As the sound of each bullet came a little louder, I wanted to know what it was that was getting closer all the time. Was it life or death approaching? I raised my head. I looked at the bird of time gliding in the profound darkness. It had spread its broad wings, filling the entire space … I wanted to think of the lace embroidery on the tablecloth, the colour of the toasted bread, the smell of the iced raki.
… Raising my head, I took one last look at the fog opposite. The yellow fog was beautiful. The fog that enclosed time in Istanbul, harbouring both life and death within it, was so beautiful.
Over ten days, through parables, stories and riddles, these men temporarily escape the horrific violence they endure at the hands of their torturers, and in doing so re-imagine their beloved city. Istanbul Istanbul is a testament to the power of imagination and the enduring need for love.