Tuesday, 29 November 2011

city of contrasts

Istanbul is a city of sharp contrast. 
The end of summer, bright sunlight streaming in streaks from between apartment buildings, two women in traditional dress, bend over hunks of cotton wadding, pulling them apart to air out .  The cotton is from their winter duvets.  By the end of the year the cotton tends to clump in large patches and sometimes starts to mildew.

Two large sheets are spread on the ground next to the solo “fart tree,” branches reaching desperately up in a vain attempt to capture a ray or two of sunshine.  The women wear flowered shalwar (low-crotched, baggy trousers), head scarves, and vests.  The scene looks like one that takes place regularly in villages all over Anatolia.

But here, in Tepebasi, we’re three minutes from the Pera Palace Hotel, where last week paparazzi took photos of Istanbul’s elite: movie stars, entertainers, journalists, all dressed in the latest western fashions.  Slim femme fatales in rocket-high-heels, mini-skirts, breast-revealing-bodices. Men in stone-washed jeans with hand-made rips, Prada sunglasses. Hip hop, trip hop blaring from speakers.

And I remember watching a mustachioed man seated on a low-to-the-ground, thatch stool in one of Istanbul’s old stone hans.  Hunched over a pair of jeans, holding a one-sided razor, he scraped away at the thigh of the jeans, creating a carefully crafted rip.  Next to him, on the floor, a pile of neatly folded, razor-ripped jeans lay stacked.  On the other side, a black plastic bag filled with un-scarred jeans.  A slim young boy with a silver tray filled with tiny tulip-shaped glasses of strong bitter black tea slid past, placed a fresh glass of tea next to the jean-slasher, picked up the used glass with the traces of tea leaves at the bottom, put it on his tray and scuttled away.

Inside our apartment, my house-mate Nefle and I stop talking.  Voices like the serenade of angels come from outside.  We rush to the doors of the tiny balcony, pull them open, and see two traditionally-built (like oblong bowling balls) long, tan-coated women in headscarves walking through the street singing and raising their hands up to the people who look down on them from their windows, listening.  The singers evoke the name of “Allah” and ask for donations.  Turkish paper liras flutter down to the street from balconies.  Coins hit the cobblestones and bounce. They finish their song, bend and pick up the money.  Continue on their way singing.

And still every evening, every night the blind singer and baglama player sits on his plastic stool somewhere on Istiklal.  His patient son sits next to him holding a microphone.  The son has sat like this for the last 8 years.  From a small boy to an adolescent with first traces of upper lip stubble.  He sits next to his singing, strumming father in summer and winter.  At the end of the day, they each pick up their plastic stools and the son leads his blind father home. 

Fifteen minutes from here there is a bar called “Kooperativ.”  Every Wednesday evening musicians from Turkey, Greece, the Balkans, Iran, France, all over Europe meet and jam.  Dreadlocks and beards.  Earrings and nose rings.  Klezmer music.  Persian music. A gathering without nationalism or religion.

Above French Street, one of the most fashionable and trendy places to drink an overpriced cocktail, an exhibition takes place in an art gallery.  The exhibition was created by a South African woman.  It’s about the trans-gender people of Istanbul.

And last month the air filled with waving red flags.  Turkish flags.  A small star and a large sickle blazing against a background of blood red. Istiklal Cadessi a sea of fluttering red flags.  Voices chanting over and over.  Voices shrieking against the PKK. 

As the sun sets the two women in shalwar gather up the cotton, sit together on the sheets laid on the ground next to the “fart tree,” and stuff cotton back into their winter sheaths, preparing for the inevitable Istanbul winter.  From the building next door comes the drone of an old Turkish folk song.  From the building on the other side a teenager blasts heavy metal.