Istanbul, Not Constantinople

Istanbul, Not Constantinople

Not Constantinople; no turkeys here

Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk writes eloquently (as only he can) about the “huzun” or melancholy that afflicts the city in which he’s lived just about all of his life, Istanbul. I’m just recently back from there and while I wouldn’t quibble with Mr. Pamuk — it was, after all, his novel Snow that made me want to visit Turkey — but I didn’t see much melancholy on display. It was Ramadan and a few shopkeepers were, well, not in the best frame of mind for mid-afternoon bargaining, still hours from their breaking-of-the-fast evening meal. But huzun? Not that I could detect. I found the city beautiful, fascinating, arresting in its views of the Marmara Sea and the sounds of the call to prayer, and, despite its long history and slow decline (the cause of Pamuk’s huzun), decidedly modern. A new light rail carried tourists and Istanbullus alike across the city; both old and new “tunels” or funicular railways carried us up steep hills quickly and quietly. And we discovered, thanks to our not always reliable guidebook, a wonderful vegetarian restaurant near the Galata Tower, Parsifal. It’s named both for the Wagner opera and a red-booted, black cat, owner Ayfer Uzunogullari explained.

During a series of terrific lunches and dinners at Parsifal, we discussed with Ayfer the U.S. elections, Orhan Pamuk and his writings (including his latest novel, just out, The Museum of Innocence), and the seeming ubiquity of Istanbul’s cats. Now for the most part, these aren’t ordinary stray cats. Almost all seem to have a human benefactor who’s feeding them or allowing them into their home or shop, even as they continue to live outside. Ayfer explained that Istanbullus like cats, are generally kind to them, especially in the city center, and that many people, including her, do trap, spay/neuter and release.

The cats left me feeling ambivalence, although not huzun. In many ways, they appeared to have decent lives, the shape of which they could determine: kittens tumbling together in brambles not far from the Blue Mosque; cats going in and out of a shop, sleeping, as they like, on the ground or a pile of cushion covers; a lean, young orange tabby visiting table after table in a seaside cafe with a magnificent view on a warm Istanbul afternoon. They aren’t feral: most were very amenable to being stroked and seemed to enjoy human company. And yet, they are out there, if not quite alone, then not quite companioned, either. Some get into scrapes (the sound of cats fighting punctuated the Istanbul evening several times), surely they have shorter lives than house cats, and I did see many young males who had not been neutered and at least one amorous pair in a mosque graveyard . . . meaning thousands of descendents may eventually populate the streets of the city.

The cats of Istanbul made me think of a “herd of cats” I saw a few years back on the grounds of the UN Environment Programme headquarters in Nairobi one evening at dusk. These cats, all white but for one who was black, appeared much more “wild” than their Istanbullus cousins. They seemed like a gang, patrolling their territory — a patch of tall grasses outside an administrative building — hissing at each other and possibly me, too, as they did. Given the fading equatorial light, they almost seemed like ghosts: shimmering, in and out of sight, unplaceable, decidedly feral, slightly spooky. Anxious, too. More so than the cats in Istanbul. Were they, I wonder now, experiencing huzun? They seemed too active for that, energized by the cooling night air. Back in Istanbul, I thought: could it be that the cats, too, are afflicted by huzun, or are they, at least in part, its antidote? Pamuk, for one, doesn’t say. I’m still puzzling over it, even as I recall with pleasure my own interactions with the cats and kittens of Istanbul, and wonder how they’re doing.

A leap now, not across the Bosphorus, but from Turkey to turkeys. The latest issue of Plenty, the environment/lifestyle magazine, has, previewing Thanksgiving, two short pieces about the short, cramped and unpleasant lives of standard American “meat” turkeys. The huge breasts that leave them unable to walk comfortably or even mate naturally; the antibiotics and hormones required to bring them to slaughter weight. How unlike wild turkeys these “Frankenbirds” (their term) are . . . so, what to do on Thanksgiving? Plenty’s advice: choose a “heritage” breed turkey instead. Not no turkey, or Tofurky. Disappointing. Perhaps a trip to Turkey itself would help, and a full course of meals at Parsifal. . . . Not a turkey in sight.

Quick coda: Istanbul was, of course, once Constantinople and before that, Byzantium. For a fun rendition of a mid-20th century song inspired by the city’s changing names click here for a rendition by Brooklyn-based They Might Be Giants.