Rebecca Coulson is a freelance classical musician and writer, and was Parliamentary Candidate for the City of Durham at the 2015 General Election.
As well as the usual hazelnuts, drinks in the bar above the Ottoman Bank Museum in Beyoğlu are served with home-pickled greengages.
The size of golf balls, they’re mistakable for Cerignola olives (a twist on the classic childhood grape confusion), but their skin squeaks against your teeth, the same as any under-ripe supermarket plum.
Beforehand, you can make it round the museum’s single exhibition in forty-five minutes. The history of the Turkish national bank, which was set up with British and French help, is indexed by clipped banknote corners, customer deposit books, and huge Chatwood’s patent safes.
So focused is the display, it’s like walking into a chapter by Ian McEwan.
The bar is one of those rooftop jobs, overlooking the Golden Horn estuary. Straightaway, this makes it so nice that you don’t mind the piped 90s English club music, and the old songs sung by old guys being fools for love.
As well as cocktails, there’s rakı to drink, if you’re into the Ouzo Effect, and Turkish wine – with familiar grapes, if not names. The good restaurants have long lists of these bottles; the right research or waiter might find you a winner. But they don’t offer as much by the glass.
‘It’s hard,’ someone in an enoteca-style bar said, when I asked why there were so few places like it, ‘Because of the taxes on alcohol sellers… You know what I mean?’ He mentions Erdoğan.
It’s a long time since the Ottoman Bank kicked out the Europeans, and Atatürk (a big drinker, himself, of course) banned the veil. The city’s uneasy affair with self-sufficient modernity continues, for now.
The Museum of Innocence is nearby. If its creator, Orhan Pamuk, weren’t pretty much my favourite living writer, I might have thought it (a small townhouse, cataloguing fictional lives from his novel of the same name) a gimmick. But he is, and it’s not.
Rather, it’s a material synopsis of twentieth-century Turkish life.
Four open-plan floors of obsessively packed cabinets, numbered to match the book’s chapters. One, next to the front door, is pinned full of machine-smoked cigarettes, supposedly enjoyed between 1976-84 by a character Pamuk created on publication some thirty years later.
But there are genuine state curios, too: bleached posters for ‘Meltem, Turkey’s first fruit soda!’, and, even better, ‘Parison, for all your aches and pains!’ with an amusing anatomy diagram mapping the physical spread of heartbreak.
There’s documentary in the yellow photographs and newspaper clips, too.
Most of the objects are ordinary, though: the everyday things that families also had here in England throughout the decades: colourful medicine bottles, tin toy cars, the newest alarm clocks, boxes of matches with pictures on, and nasty ceramic dogs.
Western stuff, you hear people think. Yet, it’s the crossovers that are typical Pamuk. The half-eaten simit and the mass-produced ice-cream cone; the double-sided pocket watch, swinging, one face Arabic, the other Roman.
This is where Pamuk excels: in his novels, and, most explicitly, in the autobiographical Istanbul: Memories and the City. The meeting of East and West, old and new.
Not that he approves of these simplifying terms. But their contradiction is relevant, now, more than ever. ‘You’re just going to Istanbul?’ passport control ask, peering. ‘Yes…’ and then, oh, I see. Probably inappropriate to tweet #notajihadibride.
Brilliant blue bottles of mineral water at competitively cheap prices, except ‘Ten euros!’ yells the American-sounding boy in the hidden streets where no-one else speaks English. Amongst tight multi-coloured houses, women are hosing steep tiled roads, and men are sitting listless, almost begging.
The girl outside the shopping mall, selling something, with a tiny live chicken in a wet cardboard carton. And the guy playing tunes on a set of pipes made from a dead dog.
Fluorescent orange juice, as bright as the jetons for the tram. And liquidised apples. Candyfloss ephemera of dated spirographs, shoe shines, bubble blowers, and plastic selfie sticks. Loose seeds touted in cellophane packets, near a makeshift shooting range at the Seraglio Point.
‘Escape!’ said Mozart. Good plan. But – when I was there the other week – those were the only visible guns in this region of recent violence. Apart from the ones displayed in the jammed outlets under the Galata Bridge. And held by the occasional security guard.
Sugary watermelon. Semolina puddings with honeyed pistachios, and breakfast pides with sucuk; the Western obesity endemic is, somehow, yet to hit.
In Istanbul, the young Pamuk counts night-time ships on the Bosphorus, half fearing, half dreaming of crashes, and the cars he’s seen flying into it, suicidally, from cliff-top bends. He talks of a peculiar societal excitement in the face of disaster, and hüzün – the Istanbullus’ embrace of melancholy, following the collapse of their city’s prosperity.
The river is at the heart of this, and the place: alongside its gulls and traffic, a constant. Pungent (ok, imported) mackerel sandwiches in every cafe. Caramelised bass with apricots and bitter chard. Tangy lovely ceviche. Lightly-grilled squid, and aioli the texture of bread sauce.
Or courgette fritters, with the yoghurt that also cakes the little manti raviolos. Then soft lamb, on something that’s almost pappa al pomodoro, and pink köfte, more reminiscent of haché. The New Yorker’s meze choice, a boat ride across to Asia – they’re right about the kısır. And the meat with sour cherries, and the tomato thing bursting with rice: they’re great, too.
A guy in a singlet in touristy Sultanahmet, eating a big plate of charred chicken, whilst his partner opposite plays on an iPhone, sipping water through a straw – in her niqab.
So few men in such obvious hijab, even in the mosques. A couple in hats, a couple in tunics. Many with beards, yes. (But then, so had the chap I saw flirting with a burka-clad woman on the tube, here, the other day: his beard and belted skinny trousers more hipster than devout.)
The girls in headscarves and lowish-cut tops, kissing Western-dressed boys on Kadıköy benches, and drinking tea together near Taksim, legs interlocked, sharing cigarettes. The paradox is easier there, maybe.
Girls in tight under-scarves giggling with girls in short dresses. Women lifting their floor-length skirts to show off high-end shoes: we’re fashionable. We love it. We choose it.
Freedom is harder when it’s negative. But a short scarf isn’t a full veil; it isn’t an easy one. It’s a cultural liberal anachronistic secular enforced historic religious patriarchal feminist polemical incomprehensible difficult difficult thing.
Two video installations at Istanbul Modern offer supposedly lighthearted comment.
First, BurcuYağcıoğlu’s I Would Swallow You Whole, in which she uses a professional-looking comb, lots of hairspray, and some clips, to transform her long hair into a neat brown headscarf, so clever it looks real. Her expression intent and a little sad, though the description card next to it calls the endeavour ‘playfully humorous’.
And, second, Undressing, with artist Nilbar Güreş removing endless layers of scarves to reveal that the skin showing through the gap in her niqab is but another scarf. A pinky flesh-coloured scarf over her eyes, over her face, over her head. And, finally – when you’ve given up hope that she will – she sheds this last one, laughing in valediction, throwing back her hair.
The youngest girls – except for a few hanging around those poorer streets – still have ponytails, plaits, and bobs. The primary schools haven’t lifted the ban, yet. But one small boy is veiled by his Spiderman outfit, running, posing unaware, amongst darkly-covered women in the park.