Saturday, January 26, 2013

Saturday, January 26, 2013 - 1 comment

The Accidental Beauty of Poverty

“To savour Istanbul’s backstreets, to appreciate the vines and trees that endow its ruins with accidental grace, you must, first and foremost, be a stranger to them.  A crumbling wall, a wooden tekke - condemned, abandoned, and now fallen into neglect - a fountain from whose faucets no water pours, a workshop in which nothing has been produced for eighty years, a collapsing building, a row of homes abandoned by Greeks, Armenians, and Jews as a nationalist state bore down on minorities, a house leaning to one side in a way that defies perspective, two houses leaning against each other in the way cartoonists so love to depict, a cascade of domes and rooftops, a row of houses with crooked window casings - these things don’t look beautiful to the people who live among them; they speak instead of squalor, helpless, hopeless neglect.  Those who take pleasure in the accidental beauty of poverty and historical decay, those of us who see the picturesque in ruins - invariably we’re people who come from the outside.”

- Orhan Pamuk in “Istanbul:  Memories and the City”

I’ve always been one to find beauty in what others might consider ordinary or even unsightly, so this quote from Mr. Pamuk resonates with me.  In Istanbul, the poorer neighbourhoods - the ones that have yet to be taken over by shiny office towers and identical cement apartment buildings - are the ones with the most colour and life in them.  The districts of Fener, Balat and Ayvansaray along the Golden Horn, huddled in the shadow of the ancient, crumbling Byzantine walls, have long been my favourite places to explore with my camera.  Formerly the home to Istanbul’s Christian and Jewish minorities, they are now populated mostly by Gypsies and Kurds who have emigrated from the east in hopes of building better lives.

Walls and doors are painted in every hue of the rainbow, with graffiti adding to the decor; huge beyaz peynir (white cheese) and olive oil canisters are creatively arranged as flower pots on window sills; laundry strung back and forth between third story apartments flaps and flutters like bunting; the smoke from thousands of woodstoves fills the air with the homey smell of winter; the narrow, crooked streets ring with the sound of footballs bouncing off of car tires, the laughter and teaspoon-tinkling of women gossiping on front stoops and the call of the simitçi as he makes his way down a steep hill, balancing a pile of sesame rings on his head.

My status as one of Orhan Pamuk’s “outsiders” allows me the luxury of admiring the way the people in these neighbourhoods have “made the most of their humble circumstances.”  I can roam their streets with my camera and enjoy patterns and peeling paint and tipsy headstones as they catch my eye.  I can pretend those old wooden houses aren’t infested with cockroaches and unbearably drafty at night.  I can have my fancy tickled and my lens amused, and then I can hop on a ferry, sip a steaming cup of sahlep while I watch the seagulls dance over the Bosphorus, and head home to my family’s comfortable apartment with insulated windows and natural gas. 

On my trip to Istanbul last week, though, I detected a bit of a shift in my heart.  In contrast to the way Orhan Pamuk, a native Istanbullu, was able to distance himself from his own culture enough to be able to see it from the outside, I, an outsider, have become more of an insider with every passing year.  And as such, I’m starting to find more and more that things that once seemed “charming” and “quaint” to me are finding their way under my skin and unsettling my heart.  

I feel like lately my eyes have been open in a way they haven’t been before.   For example, I’ve been noticing feet a lot lately.  My gaze has been drawn to the feet of the Gypsy kids when they get on the bus - barefoot, wearing tattered plastic sandals in the middle of winter.  And the women at the pazar, wearing knit slippers inside high-heeled “house shoes” two sizes too small.  If they can afford the bags of tomatoes and cucumbers in their hands, surely they can afford some 10 lira shoes that fit, right?  But then again, maybe shoes that fit their growing kids are more important than ones that don’t leave their own heels hanging off the end.

Last week, instead of seeing the people who “give Istanbul its colour” as a part of the grander whole, I saw individuals struggling to put food on the table, save up enough for expensive medicine or avoid a beating from a demanding handler.  

There was the elderly man who got on and off the idling buses at the Kadıköy depot hawking his gum and nane şekeri (mint candies - “good for upset stomachs”); the dirty-faced, messy-haired boy sitting with his chin in his hand as he waited for someone to come weigh themselves on his scale; and the old auntie with her black veil and her crinkled hands, holding out packets of kleenex and asking passersby in a pitiful voice to buy a pack “for the sake of God” (why was she out there and who isn’t looking after her that should be?)  

The Gypsy ladies who set up their flower stand behind the Music Conservatory and yell at passersby to purchase a rose for their beloved are part of what gives the Kadıköy docks their flavour....but wouldn’t those women rather be at home where it’s warm instead of out there shivering by the sea?  And the man in the blue suit coat who sits on a crate on the other side of the building with his saz and his tiny amp....sure his music lifts the spirits of those who rush past him to the ferry, but is that really the life he dreamed of when he first learned to pluck those strings as a boy?

The one that broke my heart the most was the man with one leg, successfully making his way onto the ferry with his crutches only to slip and fall as he tried to make it over the ledge into the boat’s warm salon.  Several men rushed to help him and he thanked them as he sat down to rest a minute....only to jump up as soon as we set sail and begin to hobble up and down the aisles heralding the virtues of the hand cream and hot water bottles he was selling.  Even though I already have one, it was enough to make me want to buy another hot water bottle just for the sake of giving him some business.  In hindsight, I wish I had.

It’s so hard to know what to do with all these people.  My heart wants to show mercy to every single one, but really, how many packs of wet wipes and lemon juicers can a girl use?  And is buying from them just perpetuating the system?  How do I know which kid on the train is telling the truth:  the one holding the sign that says, “I’m deaf, please give me money for school” or the one passing out little cards asking for donations towards her little sister’s cancer treatment?  

So often, I end up just averting my eyes to avoid having to look at them and feel guilty, and then I hate myself for not at least giving them the dignity offered in a smile.  Then again, I’ve handed out plenty of smiles and loaves of bread in the past only to be told that all they’ll accept is money.  What I want more than anything is to give them the reason for the hope that I have, but so often in a ten second encounter, I’m at a loss as to how.  

I have long loved Istanbul for both its seaside tea gardens and its dingy back alleys.  But I think I’ve crossed that line into no longer being able to see what I want to see and pretend the rest doesn’t exist.  The more Istanbul becomes mine, the more it gets inside of me, the more layers it peels back, the less shiny it looks.  And the more I really look at the people who give it its colour, the more I see that they are not so much characters dancing for my entertainment on the stage of a majestic city as they are souls living lives of ordinary, daily desperation.


Thanks for sharing life through both your physical and hearts eyes. You have a beautiful heart and a beautiful perspective Jamie.