India in the West (Oh Istanbul!)


From The Guardian:

In the lobby of the cinema in Istanbul’s Nisantasi district, salon-tanned kids stretch out on sofas overlooking the lights of the city, before a blue-lit cocktail bar. It takes me a while to realise that these glamorous teenagers aren’t here to see Public Enemies or Ghosts of Girlfriends Past; they’ve come to the cinema lobby just to make the scene.

I’d heard for years that Istanbul, which was one of the European Capitals of Culture for 2010, calls itself “Europe’s coolest city”. It’s certainly one of the most complex – the centre of a country that is 98% Islamic yet increasingly famous for its watermelon martinis. Here is a place whose Blue Mosque has an LCD screen flashing the time in Paris and Tokyo. Turkey’s most cosmopolitan metropolis has more billionaires than any city other than New York, Moscow and London, and when I went to its Istinye Park mall, it was to see Aston Martin DB9s and Bentleys jammed outside a gilded avenue of fortresses labelled “Armani”, “Gucci”, “Vuitton” and “Dior”. To my friends in business, and to many proud Istanbulians, this city is where the Islamic world meets the global order, serving as a bridge – literal and metaphorical – between Europe and the outer edges of Asia. But still nothing had prepared me for the flash and glitter of it all.

We foreigners like to recall that Istanbul is the only city on earth with one shore in Asia and one in Europe. But its real heart, according to its eloquent son, Orhan Pamuk, in his evocative memoir Istanbul: Memories of a City, lies rather in the division between the old (which is usually the local and the Islamic) and the new (generally the western and the secular). The relation between the two is still tense: I had to walk through a security machine just to go to the movies. And Pamuk himself, though Turkey’s most famous modern citizen, was brought to trial in 2005 simply for mentioning his country’s brutal treatment of Armenians in 1915 (the next year, perhaps in response, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature).

Istanbul today seems as compressed and vital a model of the larger globe as you could find; one morning, when I awoke just before dawn, I could hear the call to Islamic prayer from every minaret, even as I could faintly make out the sound of hip-hop pounding along the streets. I’ve always been something of a global creature: I was born in England to parents from India and I grew up in California, though I now live in Japan – and for much of my life I’ve sought out global places that are trying to piece together, as I am, disparate cultures and identities, to make a stained-glass whole.

“Istanbul: minarets and martinis”, Pico Iyer, The Guardian