Saturday, August 20, 2011

hüzün in Istanbul

For twelve months, I studied the Ottoman Empire in hopes of one day referring to myself by the boastful title of Ottomanist. I spent many sleepless nights learning the mosques of Istanbul (and Bursa, and Edirne) with absolute devotion. One evening in March I decided to miss class for sleep and was awakened by a phone call from my classmate. She told me that my essay scored the highest in our class. I almost fell off my single bed. I rushed to share the great news with my flatmates - or rather lined the five of them up to have them watch me dance around in a few moments of transient happiness. This was nearly half a decade ago.

However, this fascination for, particularly, the mosques of this period never escaped me. I always imagined that one day I would find myself in the presence of such magnificence as the Süleymaniye or the Selimiye or the NuruOsmaniye or the Fatih or the Sultanahmet. And that they would cause my heart to stop beating. Indeed, for a few seconds.

Below her skyline of domes, minarets and towers, Istanbul is a city that overwhelms the onlooker. With all her colors, textures, smells, sounds, and flavors. Sometimes my head would become overfilled with all things Istanbul. I would often escape into silence on the balcony of my hotel. I would sit in the early evening on my own and watch the Bosphorus in peace - away from all the noise, the hustle and bustle, the people. 

When I walk through the streets and bazaars of Istanbul, my companion has been Orhan Pamuk's Istanbul: Memories and the City. At moments, such as when the sun is setting and the sky is an orange hue, I would look for "hüzün". Or melancholy. In his memoir, Orhan Pamuk devotes a whole chapter to the "hüzün of an entire city", which he explains is shared amongst the inhabitants of Istanbul. 

"To feel this hüzün is to see the scenes, evoke the memories, in which the city becomes the very illustration, the very essence, of hüzün." 

This "hüzün" is a collective melancholy that is rather poetic than just sad, just dispirited, just despondent.

Perhaps I have felt this "hüzün" in the few places I have been. In London, the winds of late September arrive, the paths are covered with fallen leaves, a palette of crimson and gold washes across the oaks and chestnuts, wayfarers rush to escape the imminent frost, the sky is grey and veiled with clouds, the sun goes into hiding, sometimes emerging only to take leave moments later, red double deckers whir down the streets, followed by black cabs, and hurried bicycles, and as the day ages, the air grows progressively colder.
And many miles away in another city, I sit on this bus as it drives by the Bosphorus. I lay the book on the empty seat next to me, and I stop to look from the window. Red wooden summerhouses and baroque palaces line the waterside, ferryboats are travelling across and their reflection on the waters are outlines of crimson, amber, emerald and azure and people are walking before this perpetual tableau. How could I capture such that is only felt? And only passing? One day I shall look back on this fleeting moment of "hüzün" and I shall wonder if ever I were here. 

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