Why sightsee where Jamal Khashoggi was murdered?
I could have gone to Berlin for the vibe, or Athens for the ruins, and vice versa. Doesn’t everywhere in Europe have both? But I was reading a book whose narrator was headed to Istanbul, and that was reason enough for me to go there, too. Unlike Rafi Zabor, who describes his peregrination out of New York City in his memoir I, Wabenzi, I was not studying Sufism and had no intention of attending a Dervish ceremony. I could make it sound spiritual that I had a lull to fill, but it was just a few empty days on the calendar.
Before the trip, which I took alone in November 2019, most of what I knew about contemporary Turkey was in context of U.S. politics, most recently that Istanbul was the site of the 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi writer and Washington Post columnist who entered the Saudi consulate with the intention of securing documents for his marriage. He was dismembered by allies of the United States government, who barely protested, a fact that is always worth repeating.
Turkey objected to the assassination on their soil and announced the trial en absentia of 20 Saudis suspected to be involved. Meanwhile, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sits atop a consolidation of power seventeen years in the making, starting when he was Prime Minister, a role nixed in a 2017 referendum granting more authority to the presidency. He has suppressed free speech—even endeavoring to do so abroad, as in the case of the Turkish-born Boston Celtics basketball player Enes Kanter—and thrown members of the press into jail.
I work as an editorial photographer, but I had no story to pursue, and no publication was flying me to Europe. (I was already there, at an artist residency in rural Finland.) The goal was to take my point-and-shoot camera and be a tourist, one of the tens of millions who visit every year. To prepare, I gathered recommendations from friends and dropped pins onto a Google map. I hastily studied Turkish but only achieved the ability to say hello.
• • •
The Beyoglu district is central, dense, and sloping, with streets laid out every which way. From Taksim Square it descends to the Bosphorus Strait, a surprisingly blue body of water and an intercontinental divide between Europe and Asia. I rented a room in Beyoglu from a young Turkish woman who was smoking cigarettes and drinking beer in the twilight of the second-floor balcony the night I arrived. She showed me how the keys work and warned me not to let any of the plentiful street cats into the house.
The Bosphorus was visible from the apartment balcony, and the telescopic effect of the narrow street made the frequent ferries and container ships seem to pass within inches of each other. When I took a sunrise ferry to the Asian side the next day, I saw that inches weren’t far off the mark, at least in the crowded terminals that serve destinations across the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara.
I rode on the top deck to take in the panorama of peninsulas and islands, most of them developed right to the shore. A submarine channel flows within the strait, as invisible to the ferry-goer as the millennia of global powers that fought over this bottleneck of geography above. There were craft from seemingly every decade of the past fifty or sixty years, and suspension bridges reached across narrower points upstream. The sun rose over a horizon packed with the perpendicular lines of broadcast antennas.
On the Asian side, after learning to not kick back the entire cup of unfiltered Turkish coffee because of the grainy finish, I attended a crowded art exhibition in an Ottoman Empire-era mansion that looked as if it had been gently warped by a trip through a time machine. The works were drawn from the Omer Koc Collection, which I assumed was a local cultural organization, but it is much more than that. Omer Koc is chairman of the Turkish business conglomerate Koc Holding, which holds $24 billion in assets, including an automotive manufacturer that builds tanks for the Turkish Armed Forces. That obliterating financial power sponsored one of the most tender scenes in contemporary art: two soft-focus boys sharing the weight of a glass jar in Keith Carter’s 1992 photograph Fireflies.
Most of the other works on display tended toward the uncanny. In Ahmet Doğu İpek and Hakan Demirel’s fairy-tale installation Soupir, dirt mounds broke through floorboards on the second floor of the mansion. There were a number of oversize reproductions of everyday objects, perfect for Instagram, and the exhibition itself seemed geared to the public. Judging by the mix of families, young couples, and arty-looking types who waited hours to attend, it was a popular event in Istanbul, which made me feel I was doing well as a tourist. Still, I thought of Jamal Khashoggi.
• • •
I wandered out the next morning with the intention of finding a simit, a bagel-like bread, for breakfast. I climbed the Beyoglu slope and joined the pedestrian flow along the squat buildings of Sıraselviler Street as the sun broke into the day. I noticed a commotion ahead of me, and, curious, I joined a line of people being patted down by armed men. We filed into a cordoned-off area in Taksim Square, an open area of a few square blocks that has a lightly rural feel compared to the dense development around it.
In 2013, the square was the site of a protest against a planned real estate development in the adjacent Gezi Park. It grew into a national movement against the authoritarian drift of the government, and in a few weeks time there were 22 deaths there and at other sites around the country, most attributed to the government’s aggresive response.
I moved around the perimeter of the crowd in search of a sight-line to the base of a monument, where elaborate wreaths were lined up behind a dais. There was a brassy military band, troops in ceremonial garb holding throwback-looking guns, men with earpieces in tactical gear holding semi-automatic weapons, and gunmen watching from the high vantage point of a large mosque under construction. Speakers in somber tones addressed a few hundred people, most of whom looked to be professional-class types with their families. One shouting protestor was pulled away; everyone else watched the proceedings quietly. No one else looked like a tourist, and I didn’t know how much I looked like one.
After about thirty minutes of speeches, during which VIPs continued to arrive with security details, the wail of air raid sirens flooded the square. Disoriented, I looked for both the source of the sound and what it might be warning against. I later found out the ceremony marked the anniversary of the 1938 death of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the first president of the Republic of Turkey—in other words, it was a benign official event, but the show of armed force stuck with me.
I kept to my plan for the day: seeing Joker. I knew it was a waste of tourism effort to go see an American film—I could see it later, when I wasn’t in a foreign country with famous religious sites like the Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque, neither of which I’d visited yet—but I hadn’t been able to go to the movies in several weeks. Besides, I reasoned, there’s some tourism value in seeing another country’s malls. Against the familiar background of consumerism it’s easy to note differences and start to get a sense of a place. (Granted, I didn’t glean much from the fact that here, too, is a Victoria’s Secret.) The movie theater was above a posh food court in an upscale development near Demokrasi Park.
I watched as Joaquin Phoenix brooded and danced above Turkish subtitles, doing his cartoon version of a different kind of threat from the one I’d seen that morning in Taksim Square. The ceremony for Ataturk was an armed projection of national solidarity, while Phoenix illustrated something maniacally individual, as if to make the point that American exceptionalism reaches right into our psychology. The movie itself, for all its display of cinematic pedigree, seemed to exist alone, moving self-contained among other realities. In that, it was recognizable. I was doing something similar in my essentially unnecessary and solitary trip to Istanbul. Wondering if I was the only American tourist at the ceremony had been both a natural thought and a self-indulgent one: it was as if I’d made an achievement out of being out place. My reward was a carton of popcorn in a dark theater that could have been anywhere.
• • •
If my objective was to be a regular tourist, I'd strayed, but I knew how to get back on course. The Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque, situated on the tip of a peninsula in Istanbul’s old town, are two of the most popular attractions in the world. Construction of the Hagia Sofia was finished in 537, during the Byzantine Empire, and it served for nearly a millennium as a Christian cathedral. When Istanbul (then Constantinople) fell to the Ottomans, it became a mosque for nearly half a millennium. Under Ataturk’s reforms, it was refashioned as a museum and a symbol of the country’s proposed secular future. The fact that it sits across from the Blue Mosque, an iconic 10,000-person capacity place of worship, speaks to the possibilities of plural society—or it did, until Erdogan converted the Hagia Sofia back into a mosque. On July 24 Muslim prayers resumed after a hundred years.
Nonetheless, I decided to make a side-trip first. Jamal Khashoggi was still on my mind, and I was curious to see, up to a point, where he’d gone. In security camera footage from outside the Saudi consulate, Khashoggi is bowed to as he goes into the back entrance of the building, never to step foot outside again. The clip was played over and over on the news, and the door he entered became a representative maw of repression and illiberalism. I calculated that I could go see it without being sucked in myself. After all, it’s a destination you can type right into Google Maps, where the scene of a state-sponsored murder garners less condemnation than a subpar pizzeria.
The surrounding neighborhood was quiet, with gated homes and a small Pilates center on the walk from the metro station. A man polished a Jaguar in an open, partially subterranean garage. I managed a view of the consulate from behind an overpass, but I went closer, coming right up to the back entrance, which was staffed by a few idle-looking guards situated behind a dense path of metal fencing. It faced a school or day care center. A man walked by holding the hand of a child, and then I was alone on the street. I went to the far side of the property, turned, and took a single photo of the yellow, unremarkable building set behind a high tan wall. Immediately, the guards yelled at me. I had no idea if they were speaking in Turkish or Arabic, which I understood to mean that I was being foolish.
But even in the United States taking a picture of a building can elicit an aggressive reaction. In Dallas once, I’d been standing across the street photographing a supermarket for a story on immigration when two men from the store approached and harassed me. They blocked my camera wherever I moved, and when I went back to my car they ridiculed the way I walked. They drove ahead of me, stopping abruptly, apparently to precipitate an accident. I still wonder what they would have used it to justify. In that case I had a clear journalistic purpose and knowledge of my rights. The best I could do in Istanbul was shrug at the guards and walk away, occasionally looking over my shoulder. (Turkish media reported that the Saudis sold the building for a third of its value and would move the consulate within the year.)
The experience was harmless, not so different from a skateboarder being told to leave a parking lot. Still, I felt a dread that crowded out any virtuous thoughts of bearing witness. I felt it while riding the tram over the Galata Bridge, while passing through the metal detectors of the Old City spice market, and while eating a late lunch. It was nearly evening by the time I reached the Hagia Sofia, ready as I’ve ever been to do something sanctioned.
But after trying each entrance, I realized the Hagia Sofia was closed. I crossed the plaza that separates it from the Blue Mosque, listening to a call-to-prayer volley between the two buildings as I went, only to find that the Blue Mosque was also closed. It had shut its doors to visitors a few hours before. I’d planned the day wrong, and I wouldn’t have time to return. Instead of looking into the domes of the Hagia Sofia, with its 13-foot-tall Virgin Mary holding Christ, or admiring the technical grandeur of the Blue Mosque’s 21,043 tiles, I’d stood outside the back door of a government building and gotten yelled at.
I returned to my rented room. The young Turkish woman was absent. Our conversation upon my arrival was the only one I had with anyone while in Istanbul. I scrolled through the news I’d missed during the day and read that James Le Mesurier, a British man instrumental in the Syrian humanitarian response organization White Helmets, had been found dead that morning outside his apartment, also in Beyoglu, after an apparent fall.
It was plausible he had committed suicide, but since his work had earned him the disdain of Russia and the Assad regime there was speculation he had been murdered. It wasn’t a stretch: a mysterious fall is such a Russian-induced fate that last year NPR aired a story titled Why Do Russian Journalists Keep Falling? Presumably, I could have walked to Le Mesurier’s apartment and observed the scene there, too, but it didn’t occur to me. The dread I felt then was not personal, not about something I had done or could have been accused of doing. This was about the city, as if I’d come to a place perfectly situated to catch the broadcast signal of global unease.
• • •
“Newly arrived Westerners are at a loss to understand [Istanbul], and out of this loss they attribute to it a ‘mysterious air,’” writes Orhan Pamuk in his 2005 memoir Istanbul. I’ll admit to being one more in that tradition, if it can be called a tradition. Pamuk recounts Théophile Gautier’s 19th century visit—excusing the French writer’s “occasional arrogance” and “sweeping generalizations”—and celebrates him for identifying in a single thoroughfare a mood to define the city: “I do not believe there exists anywhere on earth more austere and melancholy than this road which runs for more than three miles between ruins on the one hand and a cemetery on the other.”
Joseph Brodsky, writing in the New Yorker in 1985, has no cheerier update to bring with time. He excavates the layers of power that have left sediment over Istanbul and its people “plundered by the intensity of local history.” The layers are clear, though I can't claim to have understood their significance. The best I could do was read other views in an effort to make sense of my own.
Pamuk dedicates an early chapter of his memoir to something he calls the hüzün, a pervasive sadness that makes up part of the basic character of the city. He traces its appearance in the Koran to something specific to Istanbul, where ruins are not set behind velvet ropes, like elsewhere in Europe, but left to mix with the present in ways that are not always uplifting. Beyond summarizing Pamuk, I can’t say I understand the hüzün, but his description of how it manifests in the life of the city is visually rich and unmistakably urban. His compilation of vignettes—“of the overpasses in which every step is broken in a different way; of the man who has been selling postcards in the same spot for the past forty years”—crowds out from a doleful center and reads like a checklist for an enterprising photographer.
In an opinion piece published in January in The New York Times, Pamuk takes up a Leica camera to document the disappearing yellow cast of light bulbs as they are phased out by new technology. His photographs show storefronts and tapering streets, men gathering around sidewalk tables and children playing soccer beneath power lines and drying laundry. Parallel to a new blue light that replaces the old, Pamuk notes in his nighttime walks an increasing nationalism, signaled by religious dress and the subtleties of who is flying the Turkish flag. He seems to be updating his concept of the hüzün for the Erdogan era, appending a sinister edge onto what was once a round melancholy.
If Pamuk, as he writes, only felt the freedom to take pictures “as long as I had my bodyguard with me,” I’m not sure what I was up to. Although he is a known critic of the government and photographed insulated neighborhoods that I did not, the fact that he did not go alone gave me second thoughts about my willingness to embrace my own ignorance. As much as I’d like to believe that what I felt at the end of my trip stemmed from a notion of melancholy—one that can be given a literary flourish by referencing Pamuk’s memoirs—what I felt was merely insecurity. I’d confused the curiosity of tourism with the more demanding curiosity of journalism.
• • •
Before taking my fight out of Istanbul, I went to Starbucks for a simit and an Americano. It felt like a retreat. But what was the final count? I’d still paid for my visa, booked a room, flown into the massive new airport, and supported the local transit. I’d increased the tourist headcount by one. That couldn’t be changed by what news I read or by which historic sites I’d missed. The Turkish tourism bureau doesn’t recommend a visit to the Saudi consulate, where Jamal Khashoggi was dismembered by allies of the United States government, who barely protested, which is always worth repeating. But it’s hard to displace what demands real attention. Some things aren’t attractions in the positive sense of the word. •