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Istanbul's Seductive Allure

John Huba A view of the Mavi Ev, or Blue House, a hotel in the Old City.

Photo: John Huba

For me the Grand Bazaar was a blur—"Are you Turkish?" the standard come-on, posed at first in Turkish and then repeated in English, although it might as well have been spoken in Mandarin for all the physical resemblance I bear to a local. Yet the place drew me back and it was only by returning, abandoning efforts at following a plan, that I began to move more easily and to take pleasure in the great welter of fabulous colors and thick aromas and dinning commerce, and to flow into the overlapping realities arranged like archaeological strata.

I wandered up crooked stairs to discover, unexpectedly, a balcony teahouse. I turned a corner on a narrow lane and happened upon a tiny room where a craftsman was hunched at a workbench drilling holes in baroque black South Sea pearls. For no particular reason, I made a random inventory of the myriad goods on offer: gramophone parts and meerschaum pipes and mosque lamps and counterfeit versions of Grand Theft Auto and felt slippers and brass cauldrons and betel boxes and backgammon sets and old marble fountains (SHIPMENT DOOR TO DOOR AROUND THE WORLD read the questionable promise in a window) and trucker hats and sterling cups inscribed in German and battery-operated statuettes of dervishes that whirled when a switch was flipped and also the fine, thick Turkish towels sold at Abdulla's shop, which my friend Ann suggested I buy in bulk and then ship home. "You may not get what you ordered," she said, "but you'll still love what you get."

Istanbul is a "very complicated idea, and we suffer a bit from this," I was told one afternoon by Kasif Gundogdu, whose store, Sofa, located a short walk from the Grand Bazaar's main entrance, some friends swear by and others write off as an overpriced junk shop. I tend to side with the former, since I found there fine primitive turquoise-glazed Kutahya pottery much like the stuff on view at the brand-new Pera Museum in Beyoglu. There, too, I began to find a way toward understanding a city undergoing phenomenal change, a place whose population has grown from 450,000 to 15 million in slightly more than 50 years. "Foreigners still think of Istanbul as carpets, coffee, earthquakes, and shish kebab," Gundogdu said. Locals, he adds, are hardly less susceptible to cliché. Anyhow, few native Istanbullus exist these days, since most residents of the city came lately, in the post-independence wave of migration from neighboring regions and the vast Turkish countryside. "They don't have the slightest idea of where they are living," Gundogdu said.

This may be true, and if so, these people are likely to be spared the distress felt by some old-timers at the offhand way the local government commits vandalism on great monuments—situating a tour bus park outside sublime Hagia Sophia, putting portable ATM machines in the middle of a cobbled plaza in Sultanahmet Square, installing an ugly tram line that snakes right through Sultanahmet (the Old City) like the welt of a surgical scar. "City planning—zero," as Gundogdu told me.

Yet, if the government's attempts at Western-style civic improvement strike a visitor as misguided, then local advances in the hsospitality business already bid fair to put some European Union countries to shame. My lodgings for the first two nights were in a converted wooden Ottoman-era yali that was clean and simple and where I occupied a room with a bay window framing a view of the Blue Mosque and the Sea of Marmara that was close to stereoscopic. Were it not for the dervish lounge act at a restaurant across the street—he whirled monotonously from seven to nine nightly, accompanied by the whine of  Turkish headache music—I would probably never have left.

Instead I switched to a vast and well-appointed room at the nearby Four Seasons, built in what was once the infamous Sultanahmet Murder Jail. In the rooms near mine were the inventor of MTV, traveling with his family and staff; a big-time movie producer; a group of Spanish nobles; and the former executive editor of the New York Times. All of these people have presumably done time in various tourist prisons, but it is fair to assume that nothing in anyone's past approaches this hotel's atmosphere of cloistered privilege. There is the location in the Old City, for starters, with views from a variety of roof terraces of the ship traffic on the Sea of Marmara or of the Sultan Ahmet and the monumental dome of Hagia Sophia. There is the sense, too, that one is indulging in an updated variant of the scene at the famous Pera Palas Hotel, run-down now but once the social center of the bustling cosmopolis Istanbul was in the 1950's, when Orhan Pamuk began to develop symptoms of the hüzün, or melancholy nostalgia, that is the theme of his memoir.

That city will never be reconstituted, of course, primarily because Istanbul is driven not by old money but by an energetic internationalized nouveau riche. Examples of these glossy types can be found on any given evening at places like the nightclub Reina, a multilevel terraced dining complex that houses a group of restaurants where the food tends to be secondary to views across the river toward Asia and where the selfsame views are generally ignored.

As at any of the "hot" restaurants in the Meatpacking District of Manhattan, Reina was jammed to overflowing when I visited one mild evening, and there was something pleasurable about being a voyeur observing members of the local beau monde disporting themselves. There was no discernible air of hüzün—far from it. Rather, the place was buzzing with that particular excitement ornamental people generate when they feel certain they have fetched up in the right place.

A variant of this same crowd also flocks to the terrace of 360 Istanbul, a fine penthouse restaurant set atop a grand 19th-century apartment house on pedestrian Istiklal Caddesi, along what once was the grand embassy row. For now, at least, 360 is where the fickle sophisticates that the restaurant's South African proprietor, Michael Norman, terms "grasshoppers" have lately chosen to alight. From a table there, two friends and I got merrily loaded on Turkish wine as the sun set over the Galata Tower, built by Genoese traders in the 14th century, and the DJ played thumping house music picked up on his most recent Miami gig. At one banquette nearby was a chattering group that bore more than a passing resemblance to the cast of Entourage. At another was a family group whose patriarch looked like Jabba the Hutt.

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