In one of the many passages branching off the busy shopping street of Istiklal in central Istanbul is a store selling trendy souvenirs, t-shirts with cheeky slogans and prints of ottoman soldiers taking selfies. A poster sits in the window overlooking the bustling tea house outside, featuring a drawing of a cluster of elastic bands between two hands that hold all of the city’s tourist sites, adorned by the phrase ‘they call it chaos, we call it home’. I stumbled across this refrain when I first moved to Istanbul; little then did I know how much it would ring true for my time here.
It’s been almost a year since I stepped off the plane in Istanbul, the byproduct of waking up one morning, looking on a map and deciding that the bridge between Europe and Asia would be a fun place to whittle away my time until I decided what it is I want to do with my life. I had zero expectations about what life would be like here, a naive twenty-something trying to delay being a responsible adult for a little longer. Much of my time here has been characterized by the words on that poster. Chaos and home. I thought I would get used to life here and in many ways I did, but all these months later there are still times when I am completely and utterly overwhelmed by it all.
It became quickly evident that the poster had something right: Istanbul is a city of terrible, splendid chaos. Being a tourist is romantic, but it dawned on me that the realities of living in a city of Istanbul’s size could be harsher than expected. Every expat has a story of being stuck in traffic for hours on end, or the absurdity that is the Turkish bureaucratic system. But as David Byrne says, hardship is the price one paid for being in the thick of it. You learn to navigate the chaos, not unlike the dolmuş drivers who somehow manage to circumvent the traffic, taking ten minutes when they should really take twenty-five. Sometimes you’d be scared but with knowing looks exchanged between the passengers, you know at least you’re all in it together.
Most days began with being woken up by the call to prayer, the opening notes of the chorus of Istanbul. While I would turn back over and try to get some rest, the city’s many instruments came to life. The myriad of street sellers hawking their wears; eskici, tatlıcı, the simitçi on my street whose call sounded suspiciously like a goat. The banging of the bells from the ice-cream sellers on Istiklal. The boys walking through Sultanahmet Square yelling ‘ÇAY ÇAY ÇAY ÇAY’ at the top of their lungs. The cries of the children playing football in the street, calling to their mothers: ‘Anne, anne!’ The sound of a Bosphorus ship’s lonely foghorn in the night. All the while the silent rhythm of the fisherman on Galata Bridge pulling their rods up and down trying to coax the fish in, the conductors of Istanbul’s symphony.
The pull between east and west is a guide book cliche but things become cliches for a reason. And yes, there are mosques and churches and Prada stores and the streets run with the blood of slaughtered lambs for Kurban Bayram but it’s much deeper than that. The divide believed to occur between east and west cannot be restricted to one strait. It’s in the politics, the literature of the city. Orhan Pamuk, Elif Şafak, Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar; all the authors besotted with Istanbul, translated to English so a western audience can try and rationalize this enigma of a city.
And oh, how I tried! But Istanbul is impossible to pin down; it is a pulsing, heaving thing. A haphazard archipelago of villages, worlds apart but held together by the glue of the Istanbullu within. There is such beauty here, but poverty is always hanging in the wings — a five minute walk from my house near Taksim square into Tarlabaşı would reveal a completely different world. As the artist Esra Ersen put it, “Tarlabaşı is where all the atrocities are, all the grand things, where everything you think of the good and the bad exist”. The government is doing its best to rid Tarlabaşı of its chaotic charm but when Tarlabaşı falls, so will the city. Together with the trendy cafes of Cihangir, the art galleries of Tophane, the historical Fatih, the color of Balat, the hipsters of Kadıköy, the bourgeois of Nişantaşı, the bohemian Beşiktaş, it is the fabric that makes up this patchwork quilt of a city.
And then, without warning, something clicked. The chaos was still there, but somehow it became routine, something more manageable. It started feeling like home.
Despite its size Istanbul can often feel like a village. All of a sudden the girl at the local bakkal started to recognize me, and we would attempt to have conversations in my broken Turkish about our favorite things in the city. Everyone addresses each other as ‘abi’ or ‘abla’ (meaning older brother or sister), and they say ‘we’ as Istanbullus all collectively sharing the same experience. There’s the ubiquitous street cats that make every café feel like your own lounge room, and nowhere else have I seen so many locals wearing t-shirts with their city’s name emblazoned on the front. Whether they were born here or moved from the provinces, there is much to be proud of in Istanbul.
The Bosphorus is Istanbul’s lifeblood and the most enchanting thing about the city. In a place sorely lacking greenery, when the crush of 15 million people becomes too much, the glittering azure of the Bosphorus is its savior. It is what captured the hearts of empires and drew countless artists and writers from Europe. We would whittle away the days drinking at the tea houses that line the shores, watching the dance of the ferries crossing continents, pirouetting around the tankers that silently ply through the currents taking their cargo to faraway lands. Sometimes I wondered where it was they were going, but for once in my life I didn’t desire to follow them. I was content here.
Balmy nights were spent under stormy skies, dancing on terraces while the dilapidated paradise of Beyoğlu slumbered below. The nightlife in Istanbul is famous for good reason but if I never have to drink Turkish beer ever again I will be a happy man. When the weather cooled we retreated into the living rooms of apartments, comparing stories of our hapless attempted conquests of Turkish men, bonding over complaints about being an English teacher and professing that we would ‘do something else if we had the chance’, but secretly being glad that it allowed us the opportunity to live in Istanbul.
Spring came and with it a stirring of the malaise against Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s AK Parti that had been simmering all year. The government that was becoming increasingly authoritarian in the wake of last year’s Gezi Park protests was flexing its muscles. Dodging tear gas became a weekly game, but I struggled to reconcile being in a place that I loved while inherently being an outsider. Should I take part in the protests? Is it my place to be angry when I can just up and leave? When I am just up and leaving? It’s a question I still haven’t quite figured out the answer to just yet.
Seeing this city ruined breaks my heart, as it does to countless others, Turkish and Yabancı alike. But we have a tendency to view the problems Istanbul faces – its woeful traffic, corrupt construction, loss of forest – as existential, a cliff from which the city will fall from, never to return to its glory days. But we are not the first to do this. Countless times in Istanbul’s history the city has been leveled, trashed, looted. It recovers. It will be here long after its residents pass. When it all starts getting me down, it is in this that I rest my hopes.
A lost residency permit while skiing in Uludağ and months of subsequent battles with Turkish bureaucracy means I will in all likelihood be fined and banned when I attempt to leave the country this summer. It will break my heart but life in the city will continue. This beautiful, bewitching city. The government can knock down a thousand Tarlabaşı’s but it cannot rid Istanbul of the chaos that makes it so enchanting. The Turkish language doesn’t distinguish between ‘house’ and ‘home’ like English does, and the life of an expat means that it’s a fluid concept anyway. But Istanbul has been much more than a bunch of concrete buildings where I’ve rested my head. Now that I’m leaving I realized that perhaps that poster knew it all along: home is the knowledge that one day you will be back.