Posted 18-April: 2016
2010. My son Devin and I flew to Istanbul in October, two months after my father died. Nearly every connection, though initially obstructed, eventually led us to something even better than we could have hoped for. I confirmed us at Turkish Airlines and found the flight was virtually full; we were relegated to last two available seats, separated and stranded amidst a sea of passengers. But at check-in, the attendant miraculously found us a pair of seats together, at the end of the plane and with huge amounts of leg room, a beggar’s banquet economy coup. On arrival, our bookings had been inexplicably canceled by the credit card company and we arrived to a hotel in Istanbul without rooms for us in a season of no vacancies. But the kindly clerk found us another hotel nearby, Otel Buhara. Though more expensive, and though we were sent to a shabby room with a semi-wretched carpet, the room opened onto a terrace and a sweeping few of the Marmara Straight and half the city. We arrived into splendor.
At Otel Buhara breakfast was served each day on what seemed like our own private patio, up there with the seagulls and magpies. We were hosted by ordinary and elegant men, decent and perhaps magnificent in their genuineness and history, if one had the guts or simple politeness to engage them. Mehmet was the desk clerk. His younger brother, a boy of ten, played video games while Mehmet’s father, a man of nearly eighty years who had squired six daughters and another son besides Mehmet and his brother, sat outside, dressed in black wool, a patriarch indeed, a single line in his deeply lined face carrying more character than the combined faces of a hundred men.
The father was once a farmer from southern Turkey and the lines of his face, not to mention his glance or even his smile, were inscrutable to agricultural neophytes such as ourselves. In Istanbul, agreements and communications such as You Are Welcome are conveyed with a tip of the head, effective in expressing warmth, humility and elegance in a single stroke – the old man’s head tipping was of course exceptional.
Later, on our morning walk, Devin and I were occasionally accosted by rude Turks (or Iranians or Turkistan men or Kurds – the agricultural poor and displaced who have been delivered here daily for decades) and street hustlers, though one of our walks brought us to more sinister encounters, through a series of alleys and onto a street we only gradually recognized for what is was: at first passing tables of gamblers, receiving cold or probing glances and finally walking past two street-side windows, each with a prostitute seated inside them.
After three days our reservation ended and Devin and I went in search of another hotel. In the accident of travel, we were delivered to a dirt cheap penthouse suite, a room with three single beds and three walls of windows; a room without television, toilet paper, towels or a bar of soup, but with a Cinemascope view of Istanbul that showed the city to be what it is, a place that has outgrown it’s Ottoman history and Ataturk history and all other previous epochs, left them as no more than the remains of a mostly eaten picnic lunch and instead been taken over by petroleum, fuel for the automobiles, tractors and bulldozers - and the jumbo jet that brought us here. Petroleum has made the growth possible. It is a growth that impregnates and animates it all, the six-story apartment buildings stretching endlessly, covering hill after hill in a geography of desire, documenting the end of nature, all bent and directed toward the great monotheism, the god we serve, Petroleum.
Dear Readers: I wrote this piece a little over five years ago, just after my father's death. It documents a journey my son Devin and I took to Istanbul. In the wake of the loss of my father (and my mother two years earlier) my son and I took a once-in-a-lifetime trip and found ourselves in rooms with magnificent views of Istanbul, a place I began to feel was (among others) "a center of the world," a place of arch history, and apocalyptic modernity, a place of three empires and thousands of stray cats.