The cat jumped out with a sputter. Perhaps it was getting stuffy inside the basement. The stolid midnight air on the sidewalk arduously stands at its place, choked within a dazzling confusion of serpentine alleys, windows, and crevices beginning somewhere, but mostly ending nowhere. There is a hint of a waning moon; it’s the month of Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr is only a few nights away. A closer look under the signage “Express Laundry”, whereupon the feline emerged, reveals an array of plastic tubs, strewn fabric, clunky machines, and at least five more cats in the dimly lit enclosure meant to serve human needs if and when it would be the latter’s turn; one can never be sure of the next event in this part of the world. Observing the diversity of color and size of the pack, one safely concludes that these cats don’t form a litter, but somehow, they belong together. The rest of old Istanbul, which they seem to own, displays similar characteristics. An emerald green house intercedes a rich mahogany and an azure one, flint colored cobblestones reflect the soft ochre of incandescent bulbs, and a pewter midnight sky interspersed with festively lit charcoal minarets is somehow all coalesced into this city of exquisite contradictions.
The feline of our interest has taken a good look around, stretched, yawned, and started uphill with a haughty gait. It walks in the middle of the street at this hour; during the day it will occupy crannies by the sidewalk, undersides of restaurant tables and parked cars, and even mosques. It is said that old Istanbul is built on seven hills. But this is as inconsequential as saying that the solar system has nine planets. The appropriate thing to say is that there are hills everywhere in Istanbul, since nothing here comes in numbers or measured installments. There are streets everywhere, merging into each other, overlapping, banding together, waving like the ocean, and many a times showing one a tiny postcard-sized glimpse of the sea neatly framed by rows of wood and glass and cement structures descending into the sea itself. There are tram lines crisscrossing everywhere, riding atop waves of streets, allowing modern and slender tram designs to be pulled by a mesh of overhead wires through swarms of people, bursting from and into them. There is smell everywhere, distinct, and yet blending together, changing every ten yards. Smell of flowers; crocus, jasmine, petunia, pansies, and roses. Smell of spices and dry fruits; saffron, pepper, tea, corn, dates, dried apricots, walnuts. Smell of leather, and paper, and soaps, and foliage, and car and boat exhausts. Meat and grills, shawarmas, and fish and shrimp. Attar and colognes. Fruits; ananas, apples, oranges, berries. And sweets and confectionery; baklavas and Turkish delights and kunefes, şerbet and helva, dondurma, even güllaç in this month of Ramadan. Each distinct, plentiful, and exhaustive.
And that’s just the physical world. Istanbul is metaphysical at the same time, that rumination of dervishes – mystical and esoteric.
“Bu dünyada gördüğün her şey görünmeyenin gölgeleridir.”
Everything you see in this world is an apparition of the unseen.
Istanbul smells of purity, devotion and providence when one stands insignificantly in front of the minbar at the Hagia Sophia or the Sultanahmet. It smells of opulence when one observes the vaulted cellars, decorated columns, stone arches, gardens, and the ornate pavilions of Topkapı and Dolmabahçe. It smells of the unparalleled elegance of human enterprise inside the Yerebatan Sarnıcı (the Basilica Cistern), or in the tomb of Sultan Ahmet I with its hand-painted İznik tiles, and window shutters and cabinet doors made of ebony with mother-of-pearl, turtle shell, and ivory. It smells of the sea everywhere, without the salt-laden air reaching the nostrils, because the sea here is not restricted to Bosphorus and Golden Horn, it is everywhere.
It is almost seven in the morning. An entire civilization is waking up. Burly men around Kapalıçarşı (Grand Bazaar) are scurrying from the truck to their shops, smoking, transferring cartons and bottles and papers. Many of them will be fasting through the rest of the day until iftar, but will spend their day calling tourists to feast at restaurants or peddling knick-knacks in street-side shops. Shawarma stands on İstiklal Caddesi and elsewhere are being cleaned up. A vendor is hauling his red-white cart that will sell Kestane Kebabs (roasted chestnuts) well past midnight. A man is still sleeping under a tree at the square besides a cat. Seagulls are flying skillfully in between houses constructed on top of each other and ducks are lazily wandering on the beaches. The sun is well above the horizon; days during this time of the year are long and sultry by Istanbul standards, and the sun is already burning the skin.
By the time sun travels to the other side, a carnival is building up at the squares. Strings of colored lights festoon trees, buildings, and mosques. Iftar tents, ready with pidesi bread, soup, pickled vegetables, olives and other edibles for the faithful are coming to life. Large families arranging their utensils and babies and food on the grass for the feast are visibly joyous with anticipation. The graceful voice of the prayer reverberates across the city from all its minarets, and the bustling life slows down for a few moments. The din is insignificant, so is the human breath, for, this is when humanity bows down to the unknown. And where else could this be any more mystical, if not right here? Rumi must have said something about this too.
Elsewhere in the city, far away from the mosques, a kitten is licking its paws inside a self-service café. There is no sound, except for a coffee machine’s diminishing whirr; someone inside this café, run by an art collective, just brewed a cup. The kitten tries to repeatedly scratch the leg of a chair. After a few attempts, either the purpose of the act, or the results of the effort, or both lose their utility and the kitten moves on to its next crusade. It will chew on a few wires – lose ends of a network cable, phone charger, and numerous other props that must be worked upon by this creature that perhaps comes from the same unknown as the rest of us. It moves around softly, purposefully, but not hurriedly. Life is expected to take its own course, and perhaps the meaning of this elaborate enterprise will emerge only in retrospect, if only one could learn the virtue of patience.
The sea is about a quarter of a mile away. A local ferry is gliding on it with the soft sputter of its old, fatigued engine that billows puffs of smoke just where the sky meets the water. At a distance, a school of dolphins is bobbling in the water. A cool breeze blows across the faces of the men, women, and children riding the boat; their faces display a mélange of expressions – anxious, melancholic, loving, tranquil. A man stands on the lower deck with his back facing the hull and plays a saxophone. The open case of his instrument lies in front him as a collection box. A couple, perhaps in their early 50s, gets up and starts to dance. Some people look away in astonishment, some with indifference, and yet a few others look at these two and smile. Our musician nods at them; perhaps recognizing that no amount of money in his collection box will match the fulfillment of witnessing his act transform into this most treasured moment of life, unfolding right here, out of nowhere, on an inconsequential boat between Asia and Europe.
Some cities are too much for a continent.