Nothing To Lose But Yourself In Istanbul

On the eastern edge of Europe sits a city. Well, half a city, to be precise. The other half is in Asia, or as the locals say, Anatolia. In the old-world order, this was a prime location. A trading crossroads with geopolitical significance for any empire worth its salt. The Byzantines, Ottomans and Romans all took turns running the place. Napoléon even touted it as his hypothetical capital of the world.

On the eastern edge of Europe sits a city. Well, half a city, to be precise. The other half is in Asia, or as the locals say, Anatolia. In the old-world order, this was a prime location. A trading crossroads with geopolitical significance for any empire worth its salt. The Byzantines, Ottomans and Romans all took turns running the place. Napoléon even touted it as his hypothetical capital of the world.

On the eastern edge of Europe sits a city. Well, half a city, to be precise. The other half is in Asia, or as the locals say, Anatolia. In the old-world order, this was a prime location. A trading crossroads with geopolitical significance for any empire worth its salt. The Byzantines, Ottomans and Romans all took turns running the place. Napoléon even touted it as his hypothetical capital of the world.

Arriving at the new Istanbul airport, none of this long and complex history is apparent. Instead, a more modern feature of the city captures the attention. Plastic surgery tourism. Adverts for unnecessary cosmetic procedures scroll away on digital displays as repeat business waits patiently in line at passport control. It’s a scene straight out of the Reytons’ 2023 song, Istanbul, which describes this trend and the pressure on people to “change who they are.”

In certain circles, the phrase “going to Turkey” has become a byword for those who wish to surgically address their insecurities. Cosmetic surgery package deals include flights, transfers, luxury accommodation, aftercare, and even a city tour. Persuaded by social media and the influencer culture pervading our time, lips, hair, nose, and wrinkles can all be fixed for a fraction of the cost in most European countries. What is there to lose?

Wander into residential areas, and more humility prevails. Society feels safe and stable, even if the houses don’t. Abandoned and dilapidated buildings serve as a reminder that Istanbul lies at a tectonic junction. Experts say another earthquake is on the cards sometime soon. But what can you do? Except learn to embrace your imperfections and appreciate what you have.

The neighbourhood of Balat demonstrates this resilient mentality best. With derelict houses on almost every street, the locals have painted the ones good enough to inhabit with bright colours. And created shops with shabby chic décor that sell vintage clothes, antiques, and coffee. It’s given the place a facelift and injected a bohemian charm.

Venture up the hill, and the strongest structures are the mosques, both physically and as a focal point that brings the community together. Traditional gender roles and family values apply and add a sense of harmony. As they do in much of residential Istanbul. It is a refreshing contrast to the Western world where identity politics has fragmented these ideals. For the most part, Istanbul is a safe and peaceful city. But, as always, exceptions exist, sometimes the underworld can be seen at the surface. An altercation on a busy street in broad daylight ends with a gunshot. Nobody was hurt.

It's the summer of 2023, and President Erdogan's recent election runoff win extended his reign into a third decade. And his face graces many walls and buildings. But not everyone is on board with his brand ofIslamic conservatism. As one such wall in Beyoğlu attests. The day after armed police prevented a Pride march from going ahead, activists covered his eyes with stickers promoting their cause. The corner of his poster loosened to reveal his pro-freedom political rival underneath.

Turkey is going through a period of hyper inflation and a devaluing currency. So, it’s dollar days for locals as all spare cash is transferred into USD for safekeeping. But for foreigners, these things makeIstanbul ripe for a long weekend and a shopping spree. One of the favoured destinations is the Grand Bazaar, the world’s oldest market. Once famous for finery from the Silk Road, it now knocks out counterfeit clothes and fake watches to less discerning punters.

These political and economic failings may contribute to the sense of melancholy Orhan Pamuk talks about when he uses the word hüzün. Living in a beautiful city surrounded by the decaying texture of more glamorous times affects the collective psyche. When a society exists on the edge of theEuropean project and watches other countries grow rich while its own gets poorer, it is natural for people to keep their aspirations in check.

But there are signs the melancholic undertone is fading away. Or at least balanced by a cosmopolitan atmosphere. Istanbul is a hub that offers hope and opportunities to many. Whether it is Syrian or Afghanistan refugees or economic migrants from other parts of Turkey, people come looking for a better life. Digital nomads use the city as a convenient stop on their world tours. And international businesspeople, students and tourists do what they do best. It all makes for a complex and welcoming society that is continually evolving.

When a city is born out of the cultural exchange that occurs when East meets West, opposing things can coexist at the same time. Landmarks symbolising a long history are juxtaposed with bandaged tourists who refuse to grow old. Tradition and modernity combine on the tattooed face of a young woman in Islamic attire. And Mother Nature, who put this city on the map by splitting it with the Bosporus, can cause havoc by proving the seismologists right.

Despite these contradictions, or maybe because of them, Istanbul draws people in time and again. And the locals give their blessing. They have a phrase for departing guests, “Su gibi git, su gibi gel", which means, “Go like water, come like water.” And their custom of pouring water on the ground wishes you a smooth journey and a safe return.


Turkey; Istanbul (Jun - Aug 2023)

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