Istanbul Storytellers

A version of this article was published in Le Monde d’Hermès in Spring 2010


“Would you tell me a story?” I ask the owners of a small portrait studio in Cihangir, a newly bohemian neighborhood on the steep eastern slope of Beyoglu.  It is a naïve question and I brace for dismissal, thinking that in this busy city they will have no time to tell stories to a stranger.  But I know, too, that in Istanbul the monuments may be visible but the human history is held in the hearts of its residents, hidden from me by my reticence in asking them to reveal it.  “We don’t know any stories,” Mehmet says at first, laughing and glancing tenderly at his wife Zeliha.  But soon enough he is telling about the famous actress with the same name as his wife who came in to have her photograph taken and the delightful confusion of calling out for his wife and having this famous actress reply.  Then, turning serious, he holds out a small portrait of himself as a young man and talks about how photographs are a marker of the passage of time.

And so it goes in this city of storytellers.  In Çukurcuma, a nearby neighborhood speckled with antiques shops, I enter a pocket-sized bookstore and ask again.  Serhat, a bearded man with brilliant blue eyes, hesitates at first, perhaps feeling the responsibility of all the finely crafted stories that surround him on the shelves.   But then he tells me that he grew up in the coastal city of Izmir and at age 16 he read a book in which magical things happened in a bookstore in this part of Istanbul, so now he has come and opened this small bookstore so that the magical things will happen to him.  At a café not far away, I see an oversized young man with a hint of Central Asia in his eyes and cheekbones and I ask him for a story.  His name is Can and he holds up the copy of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” that he has just translated into Turkish and tells me, instead, about how difficult it was to tell this story, with its particularly American sense of the liberty of the road, in a country where the road means migration and a struggle for survival.  I leave and climb the hill to Taksim Square, the great crossroads of Istanbul, where I ask Ahmet, a simit vendor, for a story as I try one of the sesame rolls stacked high in his pushcart.  He is quick with a tale of the demimonde that haunts his neighborhood of Tarlabaşi, a twilight Istanbul of transvestites and petty gangsters that thrives in the shadows.  I proceed down the wide boulevard of Istiklal Caddesi, veering off on a narrow alley and up some unmarked stairs to an apartment where Emine, the resident fortune teller, lounges in her armchair and tells of running away to Iran in her youth with a crook who left her penniless; on her return to Istanbul she found a bag of money, which confirmed her special powers.  And her clients, I wonder, what are their stories?  But Emine has understood my thoughts and says that they are mostly older women longing for their husband’s touch and gay men asking her to see if in the future their desires will end in violence on the streets of Tarlabaşi.  A few blocks away, I find Fatoş, a sullen tattoo artist, who tells me of another kind of love, with Turkish men coming to immortalize on their bodies the name of their lovers; sometimes, unsure, they ask for a temporary tattoo and wait to see if the love endures.  Further on, near Tünel, I meet a couple, Ersoy and Didem, awaiting friends at one of the long line of crowded café tables that fill the alley with a festive air.  He is a photographer and she a contemporary dancer, they tell me, and it is not their love that has faltered but rather their hope that their art will ever find an audience that can understand what it has taken for them to produce it; now, they say, their dream is to leave Istanbul for a small town by the sea where they will be content to create for each other.

And, finally, in the district of lapsed elegance known as Pera, I meet Gul, a filmmaker and a native of Istanbul – a rare thing, these days, in this city of new arrivals – who tells of her own return to the city, at age five, after her father’s army posting in Izmit.  The memory brings a look of pure joy to her eyes as she recounts the feeling of walking down the street with her mother and for the first time being old enough to have a conscious sense of place.  The lights, the policemen, the pedestrians rushing by and the feel of the air on her skin – the feeling of Istanbul, as it seemed to a little girl – provoked an awe and excitement that she has been searching for in every city she has visited since.


Click here to see all of Sean’s blog posts about art, literature, Turkey, the Middle East or Europe.


Sean also shot the photographs for this article. Click images below to view the tear sheets or here to see more of Sean’s photographs of Turkey.