where the writers are
In Istanbul: a 5-star jail and other wonders

Istanbul, 6/11/ 2011 – We love this city, and since we had already seen the top 3-day tourist attractions on previous visits (Hagia Sophia, Topkapı, etc.) and since we're spending more than a week here (of the 3 we're devoting to exploring Turkey) we feel free to stroll around, take the feribot up the Halıç (the "Golden Horn") and take in some  of the museum exhibitions aimed mainly at a Turkish public.

Thursday evening was my talk about my book A Gift for the Sultan before a gathering sponsored jointly by the Harvard and MIT alumni organizations where, fortunately, everybody could understand my English —though I started out with a couple of sentences that I had prepared in Türkçe. My accent is probably all wrong, but they were tolerant. Thanks to Şeyma Yavuz (president of the Harvard Club of Turkey) for organizing it and to all those who came out on this rather inconvenient evening, as it was close to the eve of the Kurban Bayramı (Eid al-Adha in Arabic countries) or festival of the sacrifice which is the beginning of a week-long holiday.

The event was held in the Blue Room of the Sultanahmet Four Seasons Hotel, which is the former Sultanahmet Jail, which from 1919 to 1969  "served mostly as a prison reserved for writers, journalists, artists as intellectual dissidents sentenced," according to Wikipedia. After years of abandonment (the prisoners had been transferred to another jail),  it was converted into this luxury hotel that opened in 1996. What was then the exercise courtyard is now an open-air restaurant, and unless you knew this history you would never guess that the penthouse rooms at each of the four corners had been the guard towers. It was the best jail I had ever visited, and I've visited several, a couple of times (in a Venezuela mix-up and in Chicago after a civil rights sit-in) as an unwilling guest. None of the others offered such a splendid array of olives and cheeses along with the wine. One thing did continue from the old days: the people gathered around me on Thursday were indeed writers and intellectuals, and posed very interesting questions and new thoughts regarding my book and other things. I hope and plan to see them all again on future visits.

On Friday, we spent almost all of the day at two exhibitions at the İstanbul Modern art museum. One was the biennial featuring works inspired by the Cuban-American artist Félix González Torres (check out the links for more detail). González-Torres' own works were not presented but were described and alluded to, for art from many countries aimed at making us painfully aware of violence and censorship. Many women are included amont the artists, but the other big show in the main building was exclusively of women with explicitly feminist themes. A good way to celebrate a Muslim holiday, it seemed to us. The pieces by Turkish women were especially interesting to us. One by Asıl Sungu is a pair of videos, featuring her first with her father and then with her mother, asking opinions on what to wear — pretty funny, the differences between the way her father and her mother wanted her to look: he, favoring a more professional, businesslike style that might be more protective of her, and she (the mother) urging a sort of little-girl costume. But on the whole the works that impressed us most were the old ones: Tina Modotti's marvelous photographs in Mexico, and Martha Rossler's more satiric portraits combining scenes of the Vietnam war (occurring at the time of these works) with consumer paradise images from the US.

Well, that was exhausting. Hours on our feet at two big exhibitions requiring a lot of attention. So next day, yesterday, we took the feribot up the Halıç to Bilgi Üniversitesi, near Sülüce on the far shore of the Halıç. The ferry is large, with two interior decks and and an upper exposed deck, a coffee and snacks stand, comfortable seats, and the fare is the same as for other public transportation, a mere 2 TL (less than 1 euro). Susana was interested in Bilgi for its setting and its architecture, and also for an exhibition on LeCorbusier. It has a good, kind of funky (colorful and intentionally inelegant) restaurant, Otto Santral. And from there we took a taxi to the huge Eyüp mosque complex. "Eyüp" is the Turkish version of "Abu Ayyub al-Ansari, the companion and standard bearer of the Prophet Muhammad",who is said to be buried there. (Wikipedia). From there, we took the teleferik up to the Pierre Loti Cafe, where the French novelist is said to have hung out. Great views, good Turkish coffee. I bought a couple of Loti's boks there. I'll let you know more after I read them. He was a very curious character, whose Turkish experience I hadn't known much about. I'd only read his Pecheur d'Islande, about a very different part of the world, when I was in high school.

Now we're off to Edirne. Talk to you again soon.