City Scherzos: Istanbul’s Absurdist Heart

The other evening, my wife and I were out in our neighborhood of Koşuyolu feeding the cats as is our evening ritual.

While we were feeding Orange, a lean tabby who lounges near our gate, we heard an uproar at the intersection up the hill. Two men had both gotten out of their cars and were shouting at each other. They swore and made rude gestures, without a doubt verbally defiling each others’ maternal figures.

Meanwhile, behind them the traffic all backed up; horns blared angrily, as tired Istanbullular waited impatiently for these two antagonists to either kill each other or wrap up their dispute and get back in their cars. Fortunately, the two chose the latter course, and they went their separate ways. The backed-up traffic smoothed out, and calm was restored to the neighborhood.

“What the hell were they fighting about anyway?” I asked.

“Who knows?” my wife said. “But still, they backed up all that traffic just so they could shout at each other.”

For anyone who’s lived in Istanbul longer than, oh, twenty minutes, such a scene, with variations, is quite familiar. I myself have seen it countless times and have gotten in lovely shouting matches with a taxi driver or three. (Ha! With my Turkish! I can imagine those drivers’ back at the taxi stand, having tea with their colleagues: “I just had an argument with a retarded person!”)

Yet, when you consider such scenes, they really are absurd. I mean, in a city with roughly 15 million souls, all crowded on top of one another, in the humid summer air, is there really any room for argument? Can’t we all just get along? Personally, I think we are all overlooking the rich opportunities the city offers for explorations into absurdism.

Consider: The two men I mentioned up top. They are at the busy intersection, and an argument ensues. They get out of their cars, an arsenal of insults ready to unload. And then at the last minute, inexplicably, instead of yelling at each other, the two men suddenly embrace, and begin dancing a curious waltz. They dance round and round, slowly, gracefully even, while the car horns toot along to Strauss… that’s better, wouldn’t you say?

And what about those cats, all those cats that dwell in the streets of this great city? We see them, from Bebek to Moda, from Beyoğlu to Kadıköy. They lounge in doorsteps and creep along in the dark. They swish past our legs, and flirt with the people in the cafés. We set out bits of bread, dry cat food and left over chicken for them.

For a surrealist second, let us imagine the tables are turned and the cats are setting out food for us instead! You see the cats, here and there, sitting at the café tables, drinking pints of Efes or glasses of rakı (they would probably prefer fish and rakı, now that I think about it). You hear the cats talking among themselves, saying something like, “What do we do with all the people living in this city? But of course, one has to feed them. It’s the feline thing to do.” At that moment, a human, on all fours, crawls past the table. The cat waiter hisses, tossing a pitcher of water onto the human, who is forced into a hasty retreat.

Simit Vendor
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

What about the street vendors? The guys who pass by shouting “Fresh simit!” or “Domates, biber, patlıcan!” or the eskiciler, with their long flat carts, picking up people’s junk. They are fixtures of Istanbul’s neighborhoods, after all. What if we could bend reality for a second or two and imagine these street sellers as something else … as those watch-checkers in Tanpınar’s Time Regulation Institute? They bustle through the busy streets, checking everyone’s watches, offering a special promotion, a free gift, for every tenth time your watch is off the standard time. No, even better: They appear magically every time someone’s mobile phone rings, and there is a promotional gift of some kind – perhaps a free night’s stay in a cheap hotel in Tarlabaşı (paint thinner not included, unfortunately).

Speaking of the street sellers, how about this: You know how when it’s hot outside, they stand in the road hawking bottled water? Then the minute a drop of rain hits the pavement, they whip out umbrellas from somewhere? Marvelous, for sure. But imagine, just for a day, they switch the routine and do it the other way around. You’re sitting in your car, dripping with sweat, when suddenly this guy selling umbrellas appears at your window? Or it’s raining cats and dogs, when suddenly this same guy appears with a bottle of water! “Need any water?” he asks. Honestly, how could you refuse?

And you know how the shop assistants have this endless obsession with wrapping things? You buy a cup of limonata to go, and the guy spends five minutes putting the limonata in a paper cup, then wraps the whole thing in two or three layers of plastic, then puts the cup in a paper sack, followed by a plastic bag just to be sure? There has to be something we can do with these guys! I know! We could place them like an army alongside the Bosphorus. When tourists come, we see this army of packagers, all busy scooping up water from the Bosphorus with great gusto and handing the bags of water to the tourists as they step off the ferryboats. “Buyrun!” they say.

All of these examples came with just a few minutes’ worth of brainstorming on a bored Tuesday afternoon. If I can think of all of this in such a short time, who knows what a more serious approach could produce. The possibilities are endless, my friend. The point is, if you are planning to spend any length of time in Istanbul, it is worth making an effort to consider the city from such a perspective. Deep down, beneath the stereotypical characterizations — “melancholic”, “like a woman” and so on — this city has an absurdist heart. Take some time to explore it. Otherwise, you’ll end up like those two drivers: stuck in traffic and bitching at each other, while all along you could have been dancing.

James Tressler is a writer whose books include “Letters From Istanbul, Vol. 1 and 2.” He lives in Koşuyolu with his wife, Özge, and their cat Ginger, who may or may not be planning to kill them at this point.

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James Tressler
James Tressler is the author of several books, including Conversations in Prague and The Trumpet Fisherman and Other Istanbul Sketches. He lives in Istanbul.

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