Worlds and words collide

JAMIE LAFFERTY
Last updated 05:00 18/12/2013

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It has always been a city of stories. Before it was Istanbul, before it was Constantinople, before it was part of the Ottoman Empire, or even Byzantine, legends were sculpting Turkey's largest city.

So the story goes anyway. Greek god and notorious gigolo Zeus always had a problem keeping it in his toga.

Understandably, his wife Hera wasn't best pleased by his philandering and came thundering down from Mount Olympus to see what he was up to with the beautiful Io.

Zeus panicked and turned Io into a white ox but Hera wasn't fooled so easily and had the anaemic beast chased hither and yon by a plague of biting flies.

Poor bovine Io was driven half-mad by the swarm and in her desperation to escape it, tore a great swathe through the earth, the vast cut between the Black Sea and Sea of Marmara.

Today it's known as the Bosphorus - or "the ox crossing" in ancient Greek.

Perhaps that's Istanbul's first story but there have been countless more since.

Thanks to a new tour organised by the Pera Palace hotel, a number of them have been gathered for tourists. The 121-year-old hotel is in a rare position to offer such a tour having hosted a number of influential literary figures over the years.

Today it's possible to book the room Agatha Christie used in 1928 en route to Syria. She took the Orient Express to get here, the whole experience contributing to perhaps her most famous work, Murder on the Orient Express.

Her room has been preserved almost exactly as it was when she was here, but with the addition of her entire back catalogue of books and an old typewriter.

A few years earlier, a young Ernest Hemingway came to Constantinople, as it was in 1922, to cover the Greco-Turkish conflict and the final demise of the Ottoman Empire.

When Papa wasn't propping up the Orient Bar on the ground floor of the Pera Palace, he was setting an atmospheric scene for readers of the Toronto Star: "In the morning when you wake and see a mist over the Golden Horn with the minarets rising out of it, slim and clean toward the sun and the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer in a voice that soars and dips like an aria from a Russian opera, you have the magic of the East."

The rest of the organised tour takes in some of the city's ancient libraries, the weird and wonderful Museum of Innocence and concludes with a visit to the manic Grand Bazaar.

I decide to head to the Asian side of the city to talk to Turkish literary agent Nermin Mollaoglu. Crossing the Bosphorus on a ferry, I get off in the bustling Kadikoy neighbourhood.

Fewer foreign tourists come over here - there aren't so many historic buildings, less Chinese-made tat is sold in the markets. Amid the crowds of commuters running for ferries, it doesn't take long to spot Mollaoglu's chosen meeting point: Alkim, a three-storey book shop that looks out across the storied waters.

Mollaoglu isn't too interested in talking about Nobel Prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk, or the equally famous Elif Sharak - they seem to have attained a level of fame that requires no further promotion.

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Instead she'd rather talk about Sait Faik, the godfather of the Turkish short story, and Tanpinar, who she describes as the "door opener for the modern Turkish novel".

The former spent time on the car-free island of Burgazada, about an hour by boat from Istanbul where his old house has been turned into a museum, while Mollaoglu is involved in organising a literary festival in honour of the latter.

Of course she's also keen to talk about her own writers and the state of modern Turkish literature. It's in rude health: "I've been in the publishing business 10 years and in that time the market has grown so fast - it's really amazing," she says. "In 2008, when all the foreign publishers were talking about the recession and an economic crisis, Turkey was absolutely fine."

But why? I hazard a guess that Istanbul's geographical location must be important. "It's a bit of a cliche to talk about the East meets West thing, but it's true," says Mollaoglu.

"Also, the history meeting the future, the poor and the rich, the isolation and being huge ... If you want to be part of the city you can, or you can live in your own little island. There are lots of twin subjects meeting here."

I head back to the European side of the city to follow up on a couple of her recommendations, including visiting the now infamous Taksim Square.

Earlier this summer, Sharak wrote in the British Daily Telegraph: "We, Turks - particularly Istanbulites - are a bit like passengers on a boat. We live with a dizzying feeling that the ground beneath our feet is constantly changing."

The summer of 2013 put them in particularly tumultuous waters. Taksim is calm when I visit but it was here that a series of violent protests and mass arrests took place in protest of the government's development of Gezi Park.

The park was the catalyst for the unrest but the problems ran much deeper. Today battalions of riot police hang around, bored in the late summer sun, but ready in case things get out of hand again.

The chaos of summer will no doubt inspire writers too - Mollaoglu had earlier told me that one of her writers, normally a children's author, had already been in touch with a book relating to the Taksim protests.

Istiklal Street leads away from the square, a 1.4 km-long retail artery that rolls away through the Pera neighbourhood.

Along here I find Lebon and Markiz, both former cafes and hangouts of choice for writers, poets and intellectuals. But Istanbul is developing all the time and such bohemian pursuits aren't well matched to the biggest shopping arcade in the country. Markiz now pumps out fast food.

However, the scribes haven't been chased too far - they now take up residence in Asmalimescit Street, which neatly leads from Istiklal to the Pera Palace.

It's a tight, atmospheric alley, primarily filled with meyhanes, small taverns serving mezze dishes and the Turkish national drink of raki, late into the night.

"Go there any night and I can guarantee you'll find at least 10 writers, journalists or publishers," Mollaoglu had said. She especially recommended Yakup and Cavit.

I take a seat at Cavit and order a raki with water, then settle down to guess which literary figures may or may not be nearby. Perhaps the man in the corduroy jacket is a poet?

The woman with the thick glasses looks like she reads too much. If the man with the hirsute moustache isn't a writer, I'll be very disappointed.

Though I can't understand a word, the conversations run long and deep but to a man, these strangers seem happy. Like any large city, Istanbul has its problems but there's a vibrancy here, a barely controlled chaos that becomes quickly addictive.

As Mollaoglu said in the comparatively sedate coffee shop earlier: "I've never imagined living anywhere else. This is my city - I'm sure my writers feel the same. It's OK to live outside for a while, but you always come back to Istanbul, that's the thing."

The writer was a guest of the Pera Palace and the Turkish Tourist Board.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE Return airfares from New Zealand to Istanbul start at $2000. New Zealand citizens visiting Turkey as tourists for up to 90 days should not need a visa.

 

STAYING THERE The newly opened Shangri-La is literally on the shores of the Bosphorus, with views across to the Asian side and the constant bustle of boats making their way between the Black and Marmaras seas.

Thankfully, inside is much calmer with an excellent spa, gym and restaurant facilities. Doubles start from $600, see shangri-la.com.

TOURING THERE The Pera Palace's new tour launched this year - relatively late considering its long association with writers. Acquired by the Jumeirah Hotel Group last year, its former glory has been restored.

Known as the "first European hotel in Istanbul", today it operates to the highest international standards. See jumeirah.com.

MORE INFORMATION goturkey.com.

- FFX Aus

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