I could have gone to Berlin. I considered Athens and spent an hour looking up Algiers. But I was reading the memoir I, Wabenzi, in which narrator Rafi Zabor heads to Istanbul. It was a good enough reason for me to go there, too. Unlike Zabor, I was not studying Sufism and had no intention of attending a Dervish ceremony to experience the enlightenment brought about by a controlled spin. 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 this past November, most of what I knew about contemporary Turkey was in context of U.S. politics and media. In other words, I associated Istanbul with 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. In the weeks before I went, President Trump pulled troops from Syria, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sent in his own, and observers cringed at Trump’s latest seeming accommodation of a strongman. Erdogan, in the course of a fifteen-year consolidation of power, has suppressed free speech—even endeavoring to 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 on other business.) I would be a tourist with a point-and-shoot camera. As homework, I gathered recommendations from friends and friends of friends and dropped reference darts onto a Google map.
I stayed in a lampless rented bedroom in the Beyoglu district, on a street that slopes down from the civic beacon of Taksim Square and stops short of the Bosphorus, a very blue body of water and an intercontinental divide between Europe and Asia. From my second-floor balcony, 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, I saw that those inches were not that far off the mark, at least in the crowded terminals that serve destinations throughout the region. I rode on the top deck like a proper sightseer, bearing the morning chill to see the panorama of peninsulas and islands that reminded me of the view from the IKEA ferry in New York City.
Another morning, I left my apartment with the intention of finding a simit (a bagel-like bread) for breakfast. I climbed my Beyoglu hill and joined the pedestrian flow along the squat buildings of Sıraselviler Street as the sun elbowed into the day. There was a commotion ahead of me, and, following my ignorance, as photography has trained me to do, I joined a line of people being patted down by armed men. We filed into a cordoned-off section of Taksim Square, an otherwise open area of a few square blocks that has a lightly rural feel compared to the dense web of streets to the west and south. In 2013, it was the site of a protest against a planned real estate development in the adjacent Gezi Park that grew into a national movement against the authoritarian drift of the government. In a few weeks time, there were 22 deaths there and at other sites around the country, most of them attributed to the government’s response.
I moved around the perimeter of the crowd looking for a clear line-of-sight to the base of a tall but not towering monument featuring a crowd of statues under an arch. Around it was a brassy military band, troops in ceremonial garb holding ceremonial 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 who seemed to be professional-class types with their families. With the exception of one shouting protestor outside the barricades who was shuffled away, everyone 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, the wail of air raid sirens flooded the plain of the square, and, 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 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 force stuck with me.
If my objective was to be a regular tourist, I’d strayed. As a remedy, I planned to visit two of the most popular attractions in Istanbul, the Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque (known officially as the Sultan Ahmed Mosque), which are situated across from each other toward the end of a peninsula in Istanbul’s old town.
But I felt compelled to go somewhere else first, and I blocked out the morning of my last day for a side-trip. Jamal Khashoggi had been on my mind since I’d arrived, and I was curious to see where he had gone. Up to a point. In the security camera footage from outside the Saudi consulate, Khashoggi is bowed to as he goes in 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 for the void of 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 popular 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 shiny Jaguar in an open, partially subterranean garage. I could only manage a partial view of the consulate from behind an overpass, so I went closer, coming right up to the back entrance. It was staffed by a few idle guards situated behind a dense path of metal fencing. A school or day care center sat across the narrow street. A man walked by, perhaps with a child, and then I was alone. I went to the far side of the property, turned, and took a single photo of the building, yellow and unremarkable behind a high tan wall. Immediately, the guards yelled at me. I had no idea if they spoke in Turkish or Arabic, which I took as a sign that I was being foolish.
Even in the United States taking a picture of a building can elicit aggressive reactions. In Dallas once, I’d been standing across the street photographing a supermarket for a story on immigration when two men 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. But at least 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 back to the metro station, occasionally looking over my shoulder. (Turkish media has reported that the Saudis sold the building for a third of its value and will move the consulate this year.)
The incident was harmless, not so different from the routine experience of a skateboarder being told to leave the premises. (There are already dozens of pictures of the consulate on the Internet, taken by others who had walked down the same street.) Still, I felt a dread. I carried it back to my rented room, where it crowded out my noble intentions of bearing witness. I felt it while riding the tram over the Galata Bridge, passing through the metal detectors of the Old City spice market, and eating lunch. It was nearly evening by the time I reached the Hagia Sofia, ready as I’ve ever been to do something sanctioned.
But it was closed. I crossed the park that separates it from the Blue Mosque, listening to their call to prayer volley 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 poorly. Instead of looking into the domes of the nearly 1500-year-old Hagia Sofia, with its 13-foot-tall Virgin Mary holding Christ, or admiring the technical grandeur of the Blue Mosque’s 21,043 blue tiles, which together attract millions of visitors a year, I’d stood alone outside of a back door and gotten yelled at.
Back in my Beyoglu bedroom, I chose the dark over the blare of the ceiling light and scrolled through the news I’d missed during the day. I 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, but it did not occur to me to go. The dread I felt then was not personal but something broader. This was not about me, but about where I was. I’d come to a city 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. So I’m one more in that tradition, if it can be called that. (For context, I’m also convinced I don’t understand Los Angeles.) Pamuk recounts Théophile Gautier’s 19th century visit, excusing the French writer’s “occasional arrogance” and “sweeping generalizations” and celebrating 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.”
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, whose ruins were not set behind velvet ropes and whose descriptions by Western writers were absorbed by a country under dictate to Westernize. 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, every bit the meaning of teem. 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 last month in the Times, Pamuk takes up a Leica to document the disappearing yellow cast of light bulbs in the process of being phased out. He captures it in scenes of storefronts and narrow streets, where men gather around sidewalk tables and children play soccer below electrical wires and drying laundry. Parallel to a new white light, Pamuk notes in his nighttime walks an increasing nationalism, as signaled by religious dress and the subtleties of who is flying the Turkish flag and where. He seems to be updating his huzun for the Erdogan era, appending a sinister edge onto what was once a round melancholy.
I was surprised that Pamuk felt the freedom to take pictures only “as long as I had my bodyguard with me.” Although he is a known critic of the government and was photographing in impoverished and insulated neighborhoods that I did not, the fact that he did not go alone gave me second thoughts about my eagerness to embrace my ignorance. As much as I’d like to believe that what I felt at the end of my trip stemmed from a literary notion of melancholy, it was really a basic feeling of insecurity discovered by having confused the curiosity of journalism with the less demanding curiosity of tourism.
Before catching my fight home, I went to Starbucks for a simit, and I bought an Americano instead of the Turkish coffee I’d enjoyed earlier. It felt like a retreat. But who was watching? 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, by which historic sites I’d missed, or by my thoughts looking back: it’s hard to displace what demands real attention. Some things aren’t attractions in the positive sense of the word.