Orhan Pamuk and I

When I ask friends and polite strangers familiar with the region to recommend Turkish authors, they invariably point to Orhan Pamuk, the 2006 Nobel Prize in Literature winner. I have only begun to dig into Pamuk’s work, which is quite extensive (he’s the best-selling writer in all of Turkey), but I can say already that I am most intrigued.

I checked out his Istanbul: Memories and the City from my local library and was able to read through much of it before concentrating my efforts on packing for my trip to the namesake city, where Pamuk was born in 1952. 

The book is a memoir of Pamuk’s experiences as a privileged child in post-imperial Istanbul. What struck me is the many references to Istanbul’s ‘past glory’ as the capital of the dead-and-buried Ottoman Empire. Everything I have heard of the city from locals and internationals alike would suggest that it remains glorious, but Pamuk fills the reader with black-and-white (which he insists are the true colors of the city, as portrayed by European artists) images of wild dogs roaming the back streets, desolate neighborhoods, and neglected imperial ruins alongside modern urban development.

Quite befitting of the black-and-white imagery is Pamuk’s lengthy description of the concept of huzun, which denotes melancholy, but is far more complex, communal, and spiritual than a typical Western understanding of the word. I cannot do it justice but to say that when melancholy becomes a way of life for an entire city, it takes on an entirely different meaning. It’s an expression of the typical sorrow that accompanies the inevitable loss of all worldly attachments and, at the same time, an expression of profound spiritual sorrow that comes from detachment from God/Allah. The second form of huzun is actually a desirable state for Sufi Muslims. 

The brand of melancholy that I am most familiar with — and would much like to discuss with Pamuk if I so happen to meet him in the streets of Istanbul (or perhaps on a weather-beaten bench beside the mighty Bosphorus) — is the yearning for the presence of an alternative world or reality. I associate it with a Bohemian lifestyle because this alternative world need not replace the current one: It can exist within it in small urban enclaves. Before I came to fully appreciate my friends and family in the United States, I saw Turkey (or anywhere exotic) as my ticket to this alternative reality. Now I see it as a breathtaking opportunity to learn and grow.

Rather than melancholy, I hope to experience profound bliss and wonderment — preferably without the loss that Pamuk details in his chapter on his first love. Although I am not a visual artist, Pamuk inspired me to become a painter with his descriptions of the modeling sessions he arranged with his former love in a private apartment when he was 19. I wonder what manner of beauties I could attract if I set aside hours each week to paint my favorites — and was actually good at it. Of course, it could all end tragically as it did for Pamuk: His lover’s father did not want his daughter to marry an artist and sent her away to boarding school in Europe.

Their loss. Pamuk’s the one making fortunes off the story, after all.

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