Turkey : Reading List

I love reading books about different cultures and places.  Before I travel, I read about where I’m going- contemporary authors, short stories, non-fiction, and historical fiction.  It’s the best way to learn about a place, then it’s more exciting when you actually get to go there and see it in real life

Turkey has a rich and fascinating history, and some great literature.

Midnight at the Pera Palace is about the making of modern Istanbul, as it transformed from the Ottoman capital to the modern European city.  The Bastard of Istanbul is a portrait of a modern family in Istanbul, and an interesting glimpse into contemporary life there.

Before I went to Istanbul I read the book Istanbul: Memories and the City, by Orhan Pamuk.  I love Orhan Pamuk, his books made me want to visit Turkey- he writes so lovingly about it and describes it so beautifully.   His book Museum of Innocence is another ode to Istanbul, and one of the most touching love stories of all time.  There is an actual Museum of Innocence in Istanbul, a tangible companion to the book.  Tucked away in the hip Çukurcuma neighborhood, it was one of my favorite places in Istanbul.  Even if you haven’t read the book, it’s a fascinating look at Istanbul in the 1970s.

One of the concepts that I loved in Istanbul: Memories of the City was the idea of ‘hüzün’, defined loosely here by Orhan Pamuk:

“We might call this confused, hazy state melancholy, or perhaps we should call it by its Turkish name, hüzün, which denotes a melancholy that is communal, rather than private.”

The shared melancholy of Istanbul is huzun, a Turkish word with an Arabic root that appears five times in the Koran.  For sufis, it is the spiritual anguish of not being close enough to God, for Istanbul it is the feeling of a living in a lost, fallen empire.

“To feel this huzun is to see the scenes, evoke the memories, in which the city itself becomes the very illustration, the very essence of huzun. I am speaking of the evenings when the sun sets early; of fathers under streetlamps in the back streets returning home carrying plastic bags. Of the old Bosphorus ferries moored to deserted stations in the middle of winter,/ of the children who play ball between the cars on cobblestoned streets;/ of teahouses packed to the rafters with unemployed men;/ of ship horns booming through the fog;/ of crowds rushing to catch ferries on winter evenings;/ of the city walls, ruins since the end of the Byzantine Empire; of the markets that empty in evenings;/ of the seagulls perched on rusty barges caked with moss and mussels, unflinching under pelting rain;/ of crowds of men fishing on the sides of the Galata Bridge;/ of the busses packed with passengers;/ of the little children in the streets who try to sell the same packet of tissues to every passerby;/ of the underpasses in the most crowded intersections; of the overpasses in which every step is broken in a different way;/ of beautiful covered women timidly bargaining in street markets;/ of the view of the Golden Horn, looking towards Eyüp from the Galata Bridge; of the simit vendors on the pier who gaze at the view as they wait for customers; of everything being broken, worn out, past its prime;/ I speak of them all.”

-Orhan Pamuk “Istanbul: Memories and the City” Chapter Ten


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