By Luciana Leitão
I usually don’t use the book’s name for my chronicle’s title. Yet, in this particular case, I cannot avoid it. This book is Istanbul, capturing its essence, its people, its heterogeneity, its mixture. Buket Uzuner’s Istanbullu (or I am Istanbul, in English) digs in with all her five senses in the Turkish city, capturing its soul. In a time of political convulsion in Turkey, in which things seem to be changing — for the worse — at a too fast rhythm, Buket Uzuner’s work allows us to pause and think about the magnificent city now apparently turning into an authoritarian regime.
I am Istanbul is one of the author’s best books and taught in several Turkish universities and high schools. And it was recommended to me when I was passing by the city and looking — as I always do — for works written by local authors.
Ataturk International Airport in Istanbul is an amazing place, filled with life and soul. In real life and in the book. In the particular day, in which our story happens, the airport is crowded, filled with people waiting in line, running, shopping or simply using the bathroom — something absolutely common in the daily life of and airport. In this day, a couple is about to be reunite and start a life together — Ayhan, a Kurdish sculptor, and Belgin, a professor of genetics formerly based in New York. Two different people, from two different backgrounds, about to embark in a life together.
This novel explores what it is to be an Istanbullu, someone from the Turkish city. In this immense city, who really belongs? Along with the couple, she features also different characters, some of which are only remotely related to the main plot, allowing the readers to feel the pulse of a simultaneously cosmopolitan and ancient city, and including a wide range of people, from different religions and ethnic groups. Such is Istanbul.
It is an intricate plot that intends to make the reader feel and think about the identity issues at stake in today’s Istanbul. I am Istanbul also does an amazing depiction of the stereotypes people usually have towards different religions or class groups, through internal monologues. And we — the readers — bare witness to how assumptions about others are usually mistaken.
Istanbul has become different in the past days. After a failed military coup, “night after night, thousands of people drive through the city, waving Turkish flags and blaring patriotic songs as they flood into Taksim Square, heeding Mr. Edogan’s call to stay on alert,” says an article published in The Washington Post. Erdogan is now perceived as an authoritarian figure and there are allegations of purges within the country of all of those he believes were involved in the coup.
Istanbul seems now different from the one I met six years ago. And so I prefer to think of it as in Buket Uzuner’s book. “I am Istanbul, city of cities, mistress of metropolises, community of poets, seat of emperors, favorite of sultans, pearl of the world! And of all the world’s cities, I am without a doubt the most magnificent,” she writes. Let’s not forget that.
I Am Istanbul (Istanbullu)
Translated by Kenneth J. Dakan