Return to the Lands of the Morning….
(After an absence of 30+ years)
by Kristina O’Donnelly
The Maiden Tower, perched upon a rock the middle of the blue Marmara Sea and embroidered with many, timeless legends, is my favorite spot in Istanbul, aka Constantinople, the Queen City which has majestically straddled Europe and Asia for almost 2 millennia.
Hello, dear Visitor!
Welcome to our website, which is the virtual child of one Nurdogan Senguler, and his talented, dedicated crew. When they asked me to contribute, I felt privileged, not only as a writer, but also, as a Daughter of Istanbul. Yes, even though it’s been decades since my departure from Istanbul, I’ve never lost the sense of belonging, the sense of almost literally, being “a daughter” of this magnificent city.
How so, did you ask? Well, it’s a rather long-winded, but also somewhat exotic tale of kismet, and I really am glad for the chance to share it with you.
Born in Rome, Italy, classical Roman Empire’s capital which is spread upon 7 hills, I was raised in Istanbul, Turkey, capital of New Rome and later the Ottoman Empire, also spread upon 7 hills. I grew up deeply in love with Istanbul and her people who were formed of a remarkably cosmopolitan coat of many colors. My parents Sami and Geraldine, having met in Vienna, Austria during the raging fires of the 2nd World War, and married in Prague, Czechoslovakia, had settled in Rome, Italy, at the end of the war, and I’d been born 2 years later. A short while after, faced with grinding political persecution due to their human-rights activities, we had to leave Italy and found (like many other, persecuted people before us) sanctuary in Turkey. So, it was quite natural for me to bond with Turkiye and her gallant people. Indeed the Turks were highly civilized yet unassuming, hard-working, cheerful, lovers of art and literature, and remarkably resilient in the face of adversity. One of the groups of sounds that have permeated my youth is the potpourris of Radio Istanbul, comfortably careening between a la turka and a la franka songs. Also, there are the beguiling sounds of the eternal Marmara Sea, or the fast-running stream of the continental divide, Bosporus, their waves lapping, or often, crashing, against the Asian or European shoreline.
We lived on both sides of bi-continental Istanbul, and our friends and neighbors were an easy mix of Turks, Greeks, Albanians, Armenians as well as Germans and Italians. One of my fondest memories involves my daily round-trips on the ferry between Europe and Asia, to attend school (St.Georg Austrian High School, in the European district of Galata, located at the north side of the Golden Horn). Until the 19th century, Galata used to be surrounded by walls, which had been built by the Genoese. The Galata Tower was the northernmost observation tower and the walls snaked down to Tophane. By the way, Galata was the hub of foreign-based education centers, a throwback to the Ottoman days: French, British, Italians, Germans, and Austrians had opened high schools in Galata. Noble Muslim families, along with the Levantines and minorities, had educated their children in those schools, reaping a harvest of Turkish and Ottoman scholars and leaders.
So deeply in love with Istanbul was I that during my teenage years, my dreams and plans for the future involved (in addition to a career as a pen-warrior i.e. journalist) to help preserve her grandeur as a public servant, be it as a mayor, congresswoman, or senator (all possible goals for any woman living in contemporary Turkey). As a child, I’d appeared in three Turkish films, but then drifted to and anchored in, the realm of Hermes, the Messenger. I felt I had a strong calling to be a messenger… or a conduit, I had to read, learn, and disseminate all I’d gathered. A shameless romantic and idealist, imbued with a can-do, will-do spirit, I strove to champion the rights of the down-trodden. I was just seventeen when, on the eve of our departure to America, I defied my parents, eloped and forced them to accept my decision to marry Muzaffer Bekem, a 44-year old Turkish avant-garde artist who had convinced me that he shared my inclinations. Our union produced a much beloved son, Faik. Naturally however, the April-December marriage of an artist and a writer, would soon be confronted by the harshness of reality, and began to sink in stormy seas. Nonetheless, our marriage had its sunny side, too, for I admired Bekem’s art, his melodic brush which could swirl over canvasses and create multi-layered dreams and whispered messages. Neither did he prevent me from thriving as an ingénue writer and poet. Our circle of artist, writer, and journalist friends were warm, interesting, and idealistic. I have iridescent memories of heated discussions accompanied by dervish-like whirling cigarette smoke, the sounds of guitar, oud, drums or violin, the aromas of exotically spiced and grilled meats served upon tables laden with frosty high-ball glasses of raki, plates of beyaz peynir (feta cheese) and kavoun (melon), and we would dance the chiftetelli as easily as we would tackle tango, waltz, and kazaska.
Alas, six years later, I was torn apart from my Queen City in June, 1970, under traumatic circumstances. It could not be helped, yes indeed it was kismet, fate, thus I had to be tossed upon its turbulent winds and crash-land in New York City, United States of America.
For 33 years, an essential part of my soul remained asleep, waiting to be awakened upon my return…..
And on October 17, 2003, I did indeed return.
Welcomed at Ataturk Airport by Kamilla Sezgin, my childhood friend, and Shemsa Yegin, my editor at Epsilon Publishing House in Turkey, as well as HAKAN, a web-designer at Gallery Les Arts Turcs, I touched Her soil, walked (and stumbled!) upon Her cobble-stoned streets, relived Her glorious history and pulse-pounding mysteries, and rejoiced as well as…. wept.
Herewith I endeavor to publicly record what I felt and saw, as truthful as my heart shall allow me to….
Fact is, my soul wants to be truthful, yet my heart, ever so faithful to my first love, wants me to sugarcoat and veil the truth with lame ruminations about time and human nature.
Yes, I laughed and rejoiced, but also, wept. For me, a Child of the romantic, idealistic, ’60s, especially of Istanbul in the late ’60s and early ’70s, my return to Istanbul, and to the Lands of the Morning (Anatolia), was joyful as well as traumatic.
Before I go on spilling my heart out to you, dear Reader, I must caution you that these are my feelings, and based on WHAT WAS, versus WHAT IS. You, on the other hand, especially if you should hail from an overcrowded metropolis like New York City, Detroit, Atlanta, San Francisco, Los Angeles, London, Paris, Rome (especially Rome!), and have the good sense of arming yourself with a decent pair of Nikes or Adidas’, will indeed enjoy and profit (intellectually, culturally) from your visit to Istanbul. In fact I really believe that everyone, EVERYONE, regardless of their race and creed, would benefit from visiting Istanbul at least once in their lifetime. You WILL feel beguiled, intrigued, in love, energized, challenged, educated, and hungry for more. Yes, I mean this literally, hungry for more.
So, Friend, you better HURRY! The good news is: most the original city plan and architecture is still intact. The dangerously narrow streets in the European Old Istanbul, the magnificent historical landmarks, mind-boggling mosques and seraglios, churches and synagogues, a great deal of the Ottoman-era wooden houses, and even the decrepit cobble-stones haphazardly lining the streets, are all there.
To be continued …..