The Changing Colors of Istanbul

A street in Balat neighborhood of Istanbul, August 2018. Credit Orhan Pamuk
A street in Balat neighborhood of Istanbul, August 2018. Credit Orhan Pamuk

When did I first notice that the color of streetlamps and interior lights in Istanbul had slowly changed from yellow to white over the past ten years? It has transformed the nighttime landscape of the city I have lived in for 66 years, and yet it is always difficult to recall — as with aging, or with political or climate change — the precise moment in which one first becomes aware of this kind of thing.

During my boyhood and youth, white light was something cold that issued from fluorescent lamps. White light filled hospitals, warehouses, factories, waiting rooms and refrigerators. Like wickedness, it was to be avoided. It could grieve and mislead us. When my mother went to the draper’s back in the 1960s and ’70s, she would have the shop boy take her chosen roll of curtain fabric outside to evade the deceptive gleam of fluorescent lamps and see the fabric’s true color in natural light.

One day, as the surreptitious spread of white light and the decline of orange light had been weighing on my mind for some time, I went to the old convenience store around the corner and asked for a 75-watt bulb. I saw the writing on the box the elderly shopkeeper picked out for me.

“But this is white!” I said. “Why?”

“It is the only kind anyone buys these days,” said the shopkeeper. “They’re cheaper.”

I grudgingly accepted that very soon the way Istanbul looked at night would be completely transformed. I decided to photograph the neighborhoods and streets of my city while they were still bathed in orange light. I was going to work to preserve the fading image of Istanbul.

In the winter of 2016 I started with the familiar streets of Cihangir, Nisantasi and Sisli — areas on the European side of Istanbul where I had so often walked, and which had brought me such joy over the years. White light proliferated in coffeehouses, department store windows and construction sites.

The more I observed the slow retreat of yellow light, and the way the city streets were acquiring a whole new character, the more photographs I took, animated by anger at all my acquaintances and relatives who seemed altogether indifferent to the issue. My friends, most of them approaching old age and living in relatively wealthy neighborhoods, were not interested in the white light. They remarked that thanks to these photographs they had noticed for the first time the degree to which certain streets and neighborhoods of Istanbul had changed over the past few years.

Some streets had been remolded by the arrival of Arab immigrants from Syria, while other streets bore the signs of a new nationalist fury and hostility toward foreigners and newcomers. And the third aspect of this change was that across the Golden Horn, many neighborhoods had come under the influence of political Islam and fundamentalist sects. It pained and angered me to discover that my friends had failed to notice these social transformations, and that they had become so quickly accustomed and indifferent to them.

In the evenings, I began roaming streets and alleyways I hadn’t visited for years with a missionary zeal. I was better off walking the alleyways rather than spending yet another evening sitting at home, watching the endless stream of lies being propagated on television by the government.

The nightscape of Istanbul always had an enigmatic, beguiling effect on me, reminding me I belonged here. A long, winding, brisk walk always seemed a way of getting closer to the source of that curious energy.

While 30 years ago I might have walked around Istanbul more frequently, I suspect I saw fewer things than I do now.

Between 1974 and 1980, when I was trying to write my first novel, there was a sinister atmosphere hanging over Istanbul: Communist militants and right-wing nationalists ruthlessly and routinely gunned each other down in the streets.

In the late 1980s, when there was a shortage of fuel and energy, and the early 1990s, when the economy was slow, the city was darker at night. Shops did not leave their lights on to advertise their wares, and at home, people switched the lights off when they left a room.

I would write in my office until three or four in the morning, and on the way home I would take a roundabout route, basking in the mysterious poetry of barred windows and crumbling, unplastered oriels lit up by the orange light of streetlamps. On these long walks I would always encounter at least one pack of street dogs growling at anyone who happened to pass by, standing in your way or rifling savagely through rubbish bins. I would run into drunks and boza sellers and shopkeepers closing up for the night.

The provincial Istanbul of my youth, where everyone knew each other, changed radically in after the Justice and Development Party was elected in 2002. The liberal and pro-European politics of early A.K.P. years, and an infusion of new money from the West, gave us a sense of Istanbul transforming into a cosmopolitan megalopolis, where we thought the days of shooting writers and journalists in the streets or throwing them into prisons were over.

But on Jan. 19, 2007, my friend Hrant Dink, a journalist, was killed outside the offices of his newspaper, shot three times in the back of the head for speaking bravely and openly about the Armenian genocide. A few days after his assassination, one of his killers, who had been arrested, said on camera that I was the next target.

I had spoken about the same taboo subjects as my slain friend. I too had lamented a lack of freedom of thought in our country. Some nationalists had filed lawsuits against me, accusing me of insulting Turkishness.

And then, the Turkish government assigned me with some bodyguards. It is partly to my bodyguards that I owe my nighttime street photography expeditions. In the beginning, I was assigned three bodyguards. Going anywhere with the three veritable giants following me was difficult, and a little embarrassing.

In the late 2000s, I was not spending much time in Turkey, and when I did return home, I mostly avoided venturing outside. A few years later the threats began to fade away, and three bodyguards were reduced to one. I got used to walking around with a bodyguard. I would wonder what my bodyguard thought as he followed me through the same orange-hued streets at night. Sometimes, after he’d been following me at a relative distance, I would realize from the sound of his footsteps that he had edged closer, and I would know then that we must be approaching one of the more dangerous parts of the city.

Having a single bodyguard had completely altered my relationship with Istanbul. I would simply slip on a baseball cap, pull the visor low over my face and venture into Istanbul’s most disreputable districts without anybody recognizing or stopping me. Eventually I started taking a digital Leica with me to photograph these mysterious and distant neighborhoods. There was something enormously appealing in the knowledge that I could document the whole city now, for as long as I had my bodyguard with me.

Whenever I would take photographs in neighborhoods of Istanbul that lay beyond the purview of tourists, someone would always interrupt me and ask what there was to photograph in their ordinary, impoverished streets. Mostly they didn’t want me taking pictures at all, or they would demand that I obtain their permission first, as if to acknowledge their authority over those streets.

People came out to tell me I wasn’t allowed to walk into a particular courtyard or step through a particular door. In the evenings when the weather was good, people treated the streets like their own living rooms. I could understand why some of them might want to stop me, feeling uncomfortable with the intimate details of their lives, spilled out onto the streets, being photographed by a stranger.

In those moments my bodyguard would quickly come to my aid, emerging from somewhere in the shadows to show his police badge, and allowing us to beat a quiet and somewhat guilty retreat while the residents recovered from their shock.

Between 2008 and 2014 I was writing a novel about street vendors, set in the city’s poorer neighborhoods, and I spent a lot of time walking around at night and taking photographs in places like Tarlabasi, Kasimpasa and Ferikoy. Looking at these images in my archives now, I am reminded of how little attention I was paying a decade ago to the advance of white light, but how obviously troubled I was by the growing nationalist fury.

Recently, as I walked around the same streets at night with my camera and my bodyguard, I could still detect the signs of a nationalist fervor, but it seemed to me a more subdued, more cautious kind of nationalism. The flags that hung on every street corner for no discernible reason were indicators of a nation turning inward. Previously, nationalist rage had been fueled by anger toward Kurds, Armenians and other minorities.

But now — as I could also gather from what I read in the newspapers — these flags were mostly an expression of a turning away from the West. I could feel this atmosphere of nationalism more clearly in the quieter, conservative neighborhoods, whereas in places like Besiktas and Kartal, which tended to vote overwhelmingly against the government, the same flags appeared to be a way of whispering “we’re here too!” in a city that allowed no other form of political dissent.

Friends who saw my photographs were concerned about the increase in the number of people walking around in skullcaps and turbans and other traditional religious garb in conservative neighborhoods like Aksaray, Fatih and Carsamba. As recently as 30 or even 20 years ago, they told me, the police would have arrested someone walking around in Istanbul in those clothes for being in breach of the laws mandating the adoption of secular, European dress.

But I delighted in photographing all of this humanity just as it was. The greatest pleasure of all was looking into people’s faces as I passed them on the street! I loved the world of mothers and fathers carrying their children in their arms as they hurried back home, of young men and women strolling arm in arm, of weary old men and women trailing behind, quiet and meek.

I loved the surprise of walking through the utter silence of a totally empty street and emerging at the other end to find a crowded, vibrant square with tables laid out and families sitting and talking. And it could be just as wonderful to go from a street teeming with families and children playing football to the white and freezing street where I would find myself walking alone with no sound other than that of my own footsteps and those of the bodyguard behind me.

Walking down the half-lit orange streets with the bodyguard following behind set my imagination in motion, and I kept finding new reasons to go out and capture the landscape of Istanbul at night.

Orhan Pamuk, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2006, is the author of many books, including the forthcoming Orange, from which this essay is adapted. It was translated by Ekin Oklap from the Turkish.

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