Not everyone spent Spring Break in Jamaica. Below, Bwog editor Chris Szabla reports on his visit to cold – and contradictory – Istanbul.

The train from the airport emerges into open air, weaves through tired concrete apartment blocks painted in worn pastels, occasionally grants glimpses between them of an endless, rolling cityscape of similarly dilapidated structures, all suffused in a dull green-blue haze. It halts at a transfer point shrouded in fog and you exit, your face sprinkled with forty-degree rain. That’s when you remember: despite the minarets puncturing the distant horizon, the hijabs, the buzz-buzz-buzz of calls to prayer mediated by electric megaphone, Istanbul is far closer to Bulgaria than Bahrain.

Sure, “East and West”: both are present in this city, which legendarily spans continents and cultures, shores and civilizations. That the two meet here is the cliché that has saddled Istanbul at least since the foundation of the Turkish Republic in the 1920s, when
one Orientalist trope after another was swept away by Atatürk’s steady – some would say overzealous – Westernizing hand. Some dissenters, naturally, have chosen to paint the city one way or another, instead. “This Istanbul is European thing is bullshit,” one grad student told me before my departure. “Most of it is just like Damascus.” In Orhan Pamuk’s Snow, on the other hand, distant Istanbul comes off no less foreign, no less “Western” to ur-Turkish Anatolia as Paris or London.

In his memoir Istanbul: Memories and the City, the Nobel-winning author strikes closer to the truth about this beguiling metropolis. East and West – if, for convenience’s sake, we can collect a variety of stereotypes under these contested categories – do both exist, indeed coexist, in Istanbul. Whether they, in fact, meet – this is another question entirely.

For Pamuk, the neighborhoods on the other side of the Golden Horn from his home in upscale, Westernized Nisantasi are “like another country” – crammed with narrow streets containing every variety of merchandise, teeming with headborne baskets full of bread, sprawling bazaars, and old Turkish baths. In this Istanbul, men far outnumber women on the streets, and those women who are out on the streets appear more often with a group of others than a boyfriend or even husband.

Old IstanbulNone of this is to say that Old Istanbul – for this is where the majority of the city’s historic sites is to be found – is an unwelcoming place for Turks or foreigners clad in the latest European fashions. The province of personal choice is respected in this part of the city, and verbal harassment is suffered by naive tourists alone. But there is a distinct atmospheric contrast between these districts and the northerly quarters Pamuk frequented as a young man. In Beyoglu, where the architecture is dressed in the art nouveau finery of a fin de siècle Spanish or Italian port, groups of kids sporting the latest Eurotrash haircuts mingle with
Istiklal Caddesiconspicuously cuddling young couples along Istiklal Caddesi, a street which translates as “Independence Avenue” but, in truth, testifies to one of the many directions in which the wider world pulls Turkey, as it passes European consulate after Levi’s store after chic cafe. Journalists and travel guides would have you believe this is the place where “headscarves meet hipsters,” but here there are far, far more of the latter.

Zoom out, and quite a bit of Istanbul resembles Istiklal Caddesi, in its social character if not its built environment. The Asian side of the city sprawls in ceaseless chains of high-rise suburbs, and there are miles of neighborhoods in which a muzzein’s call is never
even heard. For all this, though, most of the extraordinary growth the city is experiencing – the newspaper Hürriyet reported that its population may have reached 23 million, though the census bureau has stopped being sure for quite some time – is the direct result of migrants who continue to pour in from the much more conservative Anatoian countryside – and, indeed, parts of the Middle East and Central Asia. In 1955, a pogrom drove out many of the city’s former Greek and Armenian residents, communities that had been living in the region for thousands of years. Now, Istanbul is becoming a new sort of cosmopolis – one which, if it cannot succeed in blending them, at least reflects the different worlds Turkey manages to embrace at the same time.

You can see more of Chris’ photos from Istanbul on his site.