Mustafa Ziyalan


The more we, the editors, talked to the potential writers of İstanbul Noir, the more it became the story of a book, the story of a city, perhaps even the story of İstanbul, I thought: One writer was pregnant, another was depressed, another was dying, another was in prison, another writer had long forgotten the city. That was like İstanbul too; the city was moving, or perhaps moving ahead so fast it had difficulty retaining the recollections of itself. And one writer bluntly said: “We are simply noired out. Life in İstanbul, as it is, outnoired the noir. Any attempt to distill a noir story from it would be in vain.”

Maybe so. Where do you begin? For example, I still remember how life in İstanbul was before and after 1980, when the military staged a coup for the third time in recent memory, this time under the pretext of calming “the anarchy”, ongoing street fights and killings by opposing political factions. (One coup was in 1960 and another was in 1971.) Our houses were riddled with bullets. We survived bomb blasts and panic situations. Then, our apartments were raided and searched; possession of “illegal” books was reason to be detained, questioned, and tortured. Scores were accused of “plotting to change the constitutional regime” and hanged.

The outnoired writer was referring to much more recent events including the assassination of Hrant Dink, an intrepid Armenian journalist, who was convicted of “insulting Turkishness.” (Orhan Pamuk, the first Nobel Laureate from Turkey, was accused of the same and taken to court.) Horace McCoy could have created Dink if he were a fictional character.

Well, again, where do you begin? İstanbul, the City of Seven Hills, has been around since thousands of years. Surrounded by seas, separated by Bosporus, it extends both into Asia and Europe and is stitched back together by two bridges. Golden Horn (not so golden, mind you), a sea inlet, carves into the European part of the city. Capital of Roman and Latin Empires, then Byzantine Empire, it was captured by the Ottomans in 1453. (Parts of its once formidable walls still stand.) Many Greeks remained. Jewish people running from the Spanish inquisition sought refuge in the city. (Legend has it that the Ottomans introduced Vienna to coffee –most likely from İstanbul- while laying siege to the city during their farthest incursion into Europe in late 17th Century.) Armenians, mostly routed and killed elsewhere later, were able to survive in İstanbul, too.

Now, Turks were a minority, in fact a rather lowly minority in the increasingly diverse Ottoman Empire. Republic of Turkey was founded in 1923 and efforts were made to forge a more uniformly Turkish identity. That was unfolding in tandem with the emergence of a Turkish ruling class. Atatürk died in 1938. Efforts to galvanize the Turkish identity and bourgeoisie were expressed in seismic convulsions like “Wealth Tax”, the discriminatory capital tax imposed on non-Muslims in 1942, in many cases with disastrous results, and “Incidents of September 6-7” in 1955, during which Greek as well as other non-Muslim civilian populations and their property in İstanbul suffered widespread attacks. (Sadık Yemni's story in “İstanbul Noir” refers to those "incidents".) Much more recently, in 1999, an earthquake with an epicenter breathtakingly close to İstanbul claimed 18.000 lives. In 2000, the Turkish police rolled up an organization after a four hour fire fight in a district of İstanbul. It called itself Hizbollah, “Party of God.” (Jessica Lutz’s story in “İstanbul Noir” is told from the viewpoint of a henchman of this organization.)  And just this year a secret organization called Ergenekon, named after a valley in Central Asia, where according to legend Turks originate from, made of rogue elements of the official government apparatus, was uncovered. It was allegedly planning for a fascistic uprising in 2009. Coming full circle, Ergenekon may have something to do with the assassination of that intrepid Armenian journalist. Again this year, the country’s governing party with roots in a staunch version of Islam, defied Atatürk’s reforms and their staunch guardian, the country’s military, and pleading for more freedom, changed the constitution to allow females to wear a headscarves in the universities.

Almost a blur, isn’t it? Maybe so. And not only historically or geographically, demographically, too: inner migration has swelled İstanbul’s population by almost twenty-fold since 1950’s or so. Now, İstanbul seems to represent, like a hall of mirrors, not only the country’s endless facets, but also its endless contradictions.

Okay, maybe that outnoired writer had a point. Still, “İstanbul Noir” tries to distill İstanbul’s own brew of noir. Considering what desires, frustrations and crimes run through it, it was a worthwhile effort. It was fun, too.

And talking about seismic convulsions: it is said that the next big one will hit the city before 2025.

We’ll see.

February 2008, İstanbul-New York-İstanbul

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Alternate Entry to the "Black Palace"}@--

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