On the last day that belonged to me—alone from early morning till late night—I set out to search for the soul of Istanbul, through the eyes of its artists. First stop, Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence. When new to a place, I don’t like to fill my head with other people’s impressions of what I might find there. I like to walk in wide-eyed and innocent, so all I knew was this: a museum based on a novel. A novel written by a Nobel Prize winning author who deeply thinks about what life is all about and who is clear what should be first and foremost on everyone’s agenda.
From my apartment to the museum is at most a ten minute walk. We share a neighbourhood. Whenever I walk this neighbourhood, I wonder how Pamuk would view what I see around me.
The museum opens at ten. By the time I got there it was still early and I was ready for tea. A tiny coffee shop two houses from the museum, in the narrow street with it’s closed-in feeling of the tall narrow houses that line it, was all I found. The museum is housed in a mainly residential neighbourhood that has a run-down look and feel to it. In one side street, I spotted walls of corrugated steel and runaway weeds. The museum is painted in what my colour illiterate eyes would call a burgundy. Everything feels small, unglamorous.
Please, let it not be closed down.
Then it was ten. Still nothing looked as if anything had changed at the museum. The couple across from me hadn’t moved and the front door with the poster remained closed.
A family walked by the museum. An outsider look to them. Cultural tourists, I told myself. They looked at the door and poster. Then they disappeared around the corner. They never came back. Then a lone woman. Oriental from appearance. Camera hanging from her shoulder.
After I paid for my tea, I gingerly walked the small distance to the burgundy house. I peeped around the corner and sure enough, at the side of the house, a window with bars. And it was open.
I felt as if I had stepped back into my childhood. In Belgium, back then, wickets of institutions that served the public where often intimidating with their bars as security measure. But the nice looking young man behind the wicket was sweet as can be, unlike the sour-faced bureaucrats of my childhood. When I told him—I had done that much homework ahead—I wanted to buy the book and use the ticket in the book for my entrance, a door appeared out of the burgundy wall and a security guard let me in. This man seemed oddly out of place in this museum that didn’t look like a museum because it looked like the ordinary house it still is, in many ways.
He pointed to the basement. First thing I saw in the two paces it took me to get from the desk to the stairs was a display case as large as the wall. It was filled with cigarette stubs that had little pieces of paper stuck next to them.
But down the stairs I went to a crowded basement full of books. I was glad to have done that part of my homework because for the price of the book, which is the same as the price of the entrance ticket, I got both.
25 TL or $12.50. This city is generous with its displays of culture.
The first thing I did after I had the ticket in my book stamped was to spend some time in front of the cigarette stubs caught like butterflies against cork board. Each cigarette stub a memory of Füsun, the girl so loved by the protagonist. On the second floor, a parade of small glass cases. Each small case displaying objects of a chapter of the novel that holds the life of a man obsessed by objects that are connected to the woman who dominated his every thought.
Walking through the museum is like walking through the writer’s mind as he is writing his novel. The narrow three-storied house is the house where the protagonist of the novel spent his last days and where Pamuk supposedly sat with him as he recorded this story. As you walk by the display cases, you get an overwhelming sense of the importance of objects that create our world as different from the world of others. There a cup of petrified coffee, a decapitated doll, a purse, a satin pump, photographs, movie reels, a glass of tea never finished.
The book is an account of an unremarkable life of a man born rich in a poor country, who fell in love with a shopgirl, a poor distant relative, and how his life from then on is shaped by this troubled love. Yet the book is so much more. It talks of an era when the bourgeois class of Istanbul embraced ennui in the second half of last century, while outside their circle people where fighting in the streets to change the country. The museum doesn’t show this explicitly, nor does the book take you there but as you embark on this adventure you get a sense of a life in a chaotic world, cushioned by privilege but forever changed.
Out on the street again, I walked by a shopkeeper and saw the loves that evaporated from his life. I also saw how the shoeshine man’s brush might be the only thing that never let him down. I saw the graffiti on the walls and understood some of the longing of the person who held the spray can. I saw an abandoned shoe on the street and a cigarette stub near it and I stopped in my tracks when I understood there was a story to be told. When I walked on, the faces of the people I passed prompted me with an overwhelming urge to write.
I had to simply stop again, to collect myself. I contemplated Pamuk’s words when he said that instead of the epic story, we need novels; that instead of monuments, we need homes; that instead of large and expensive, we need small and cheap. That instead of large museums that glorify the acts of the powerful, we need small museums that celebrate ordinary daily life.
Instead of nations, he says, we need persons.
As I walked on, though, I found I could no longer look at each person that passed by me without becoming overwhelmed. It occurred to me then that maybe we build monuments to hide from ourselves. To be constantly present in each personal life as I walked up to Istiklal and down again at the Tünel, was shutting me down. There was too much to hold. So, I was glad when I reached the Galata Tower. As I rested in its robust strength, I thought of the heroes we revere and I knew then that we hide in their stories of bravado to hide from our own lives.
In the afternoon I finally made it to the Istanbul Modern. I was still caught inside Orhan Pamuk’s vision and I was curious to test his statement against this government run institution. Would I be able to hide there in the greatness of others, or would simple lives tear me open even further?
For starters, I was feeling rather sheepish when I finally figured out, on one of these last days of my time here, how to find the entrance. The Modern is housed in an old building at the end of a parking lot belonging to the harbour, where the huge cruise ships dock and behind the unremarkable entrance to the American Bazar that is tucked behind the Nusretuye mosque.
A bargain, I thought.
A true bargain, I knew three hours later.
As I started to walk from one display to the next, I soon wondered if people at the Modern might have been listening to their revered novelist. Where the older paintings still talk of a time when we built it big, the newer displays, most notably the audio-visual displays, talk of the ordinary and not so ordinary lives of regular and not always such regular people. But still, they talk of the lives of the “little people,” the “man and woman in the street.”
Take Dermet Demir. A transvestite become transgender she/he was active in the nineteen eighties, the time when the protagonist of The Museum of Innocence could only think of his love and attempted to live as if times were not changing. I gingerly entered the long room with benches on one side and four screens on the opposite wall. I had no idea how I could absorb all that came at me because each screen showed a documentary consisting of an interview with a person who had, at one time or other, worn a wig. The first one a woman who did so to hide from the police, the second a woman who had cancer. The third screen was black but had audio. The fourth screen showed Dermet Demir.
Mesmerized, I sank down in front of this interview and listened how Dermet had been brutalized and raped over and over again by the police because, he/she lived openly. Out in the street, out about his/her orientation. And still both male and female at that time. Now she is woman and still speaks freely. Now she is part of the face Turkey shows to the world at the Istanbul Modern.
As I was listening to Dermet, I was also listening to the woman in the blackened screen. This woman wore a wig to hide her hair so that she would be allowed to go to school. Wearing the scarf in Turkey, at that time, got you banned from many things. School one of them. While Dermet donned a wig to look like a woman after her hair was shaven off in prison, this woman donned a wig to look like a Western woman so she could get a degree. Sometimes she would even keep her scarf on underneath the wig but that proved not easy. The only time she would feel herself again was when she was home and could take off the wig and put on her veil.
In another audio-visual display, Undressing, by Nilbar Gures I watched a silent yet dramatic display of a woman draped in veils and taking them off one by one. Each time she took off a veil, she named a woman she loves. Her mother, her grandmother, an aunt. A friend. In the end, she only had one cloth draped over her face. It was wet with perspiration. I felt profoundly moved when she pulled of the last veil. It revealed the laughing face of a beautiful young woman. As I was leaving the viewing room, two pretty young girls with headscarfs took my place. I wondered how they would experience this video. When I got home, I googled Nilbar Gures and found the video on You Tube and I watched it again.
A third video that captured my imagination was a cartoon depicting the life of a woman from childhood to old age, through the secularization phase of Turkey. When she is a young woman her mother tells her to take off the veil and conform so that she will be successful in life. In another scene men have their pants pulled down and their clothes shredded because they are traditional garb, while their women look on and giggle behind their hands. A small moment for women that is soon deflated because their men are not only shamed by soldiers, they also don’t have the means to buy Western clothing.
Eventually, this young woman gets married. She has a son, who is then molested by the father.
As I walked home I was profoundly moved. When I first came to this country I had expected people to be guarded in their opinions, but the more I got to know the place, the more I started to realize this wasn’t the case. The Istanbul I got to know, over the weeks, is a place where people of all walks of life might very well figure out how to live together without tearing one another apart.
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