My two-week visit to this maddening, unforgettable city started here. Blog-wise, it ends on this page.
Go home, work hard, try to be nice to people and plan another trip. What else are you going to do? There is no shame in not scratching the surface of a metropolis like Istanbul. To be fair to those who know the city well and live here, I have not scratched even a scratch on the surface.
The Turkish people are habitually friendly and generous, ready with a smile and free language lesson. But the visitor to Istanbul walks a tightrope. He must be graciously open to new experiences and simultaneously harden his heart to avoid getting ripped off. I was overcharged on the taxi ride from the airport, paying in euros and getting too few liras in return. My landlord contacted the taxi service and had it deliver 10 liras to a nearby travel agency to be held in my name by a fellow named Remzi. I stopped by his office a few times, but he was never in. Elusive, shadowy, slightly nefarious — like the Turkey in the movies. But just a surface scratch.
First, a couple of words about the Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan, a contemporary of Michelangelo and Leonardo. He built or had a hand in more than 40 major structures in Istanbul, including the Haghia Sophia, Topkapi, Sehzade Mehmet, Cafer Aga, Rustem Pasa and this masterpiece — the Suleymaniyeh Mosque.
He recently took over this spot and invested in three nargiles, or water pipes — heady territory for a budding entrepreneur. I pointed to a skewer of eggplant pieces interspersed with lamb, and let him go to work. There is a chemical reaction between amino acids and sugars first described in 1910 by Camille Maillard that describes the difference between bread and toast, between a cooked potato and a tater tot. Maybe Bilal has studied these reactions, maybe not. But he has mastered the flavor compounds that can result.
The side of a fork slices easily through the eggplant, but not before an almost inaudible crack. The first couple microns of its exterior are not simply browned or caramelized, they are the penumbra of the best toasted marshmallow you ever achieved over an open fire. The lamb, too, has an almost biscuity crust that gives way to a marinated interior that made me shake my head with disbelief.
I try to go back the next day, but like every other shop on Fuat Pasa Caddesi, between the Grand Bazaar and the Suleymaniyeh, it is shuttered after sundown. It is for the best. This way my memory cannot be diminished. Bilal’s place could be the Yesilli Et Lokantasi at No. 65. Or it might not be.
After my third night here, my dreams became vividly cinematic, in some cases cautionary and premonitory, at other times simply fantastical. (“My mom’s going to prison … for murder?”) In one dream my pants fall down while I cross a street. The scene is captured by a surveillance camera. (“If you’ve seen this man,” intoned the news reader, “contact local police or 911.”) In another, I complete a long, unaided flight in a gusty wind, climbing far higher than I had intended but landing with feathery lightness in the median of a busy street. (“The boy who can fly!” the headlines shouted.)
What is it about this place? Istanbul defies attempts to contain it, refuses to be bottled like homemade jam.
For one thing, it’s a thousand cities. The Bobs and Carols from Medford, Ore., with their matching Outdoor Research jackets and little daypacks, the busloads of Bahraini and Japanese tourists, and the legions of parasitic worms who feast on us in Sultanahmet make this neighborhood utterly beside the point.
The capillary streets off Istiklal in Beyoglu, with their bookshops and small cinemas, seem European to the core. The market area between the Galata Bridge and Beyazit Square, where the copper workers and spoon makers ply their trade and where you’re more likely to be run over by a wooden cart than a car, is a bottomless source of wonder. I am drawn again and again to the Suleymaniyeh and Fatih areas, deeply religious, no-frills wonderlands of indescribable smells and flavors. To really get to know these locales in 336 hours — well, it’s like trying to fell an elephant with a popgun.
But I have a foothold. I can say “good morning” and “please” and “thank you” (“tea, sugar a dream” — say it fast), even “see you tomorrow” and “fuck off.” I can wield an Istanbulkart with the best of them (think London’s Oyster Card or Paris’ Navigo Decouverte). And I know that a shoeshine shouldn’t cost 8 lira, despite what the guy with the “sick child” tells you.
I wish I were a Marmara sea bird soaring over the rooftops and minarets. What a life! Instead I will climb into an aluminum bird in a few moments, submitting to the folly of being flung across Europe and the Atlantic at 600 miles per hour. Glad tidings, both ways. The same bird, with luck, will bring me back. After all, some guy named Remzi owes me 10 liras.