Someone recently described Istanbul to me as a city where you can “have the best day of your life, followed by the worst day”, and I have been pondering the near-perfect accuracy of that statement. This city encompasses a wildly manic intensity unlike most other places – where you can sink deep into rapturous reveries walking through the historical old city on Sunday, yet have a public near-meltdown whilst riding a hellish Metro-bus the next Monday morning. Much has been written about the pros and cons of our fair city, which got me to thinking about what kind of Yabangees have lived here over the years, and how Istanbul’s intensity tends to attract similarly intense – often eccentric – people. I have met quite the gamut of wonderfully bizarre and unusual folk in my time here, which has propelled me to write the following list. Here, in no particular order, is an examination of some of Istanbul’s most interesting Yabangees, past and present:
The archetypal Orientalist, Pierre Loti first came to Istanbul in 1876 as a naval officer, and was immediately entranced by all things Ottoman. He was such a fan of the traditional Eyup area that he took up residency there, growing a thick moustache and disguising his Frenchness with baggy trousers and a red fez hat. He wrote many books describing his love of the city and, in particular, those mysterious veiled harem women. A cafe was named after him, near where he used to live at the top of the hill in Eyup, and it is still a great place to spend a spring afternoon, watching young boys parade through in their festive circumcision costumes, whilst you eat your pistachio dondurma.
Peter Murphy rose to prominence as the pasty white, dangerously thin, goth king of the seminal early-80s British rock group, Bauhaus. Over the years -as his cheekbones became less razor sharp- he also softened his musical influences, embraced Sufi mysticism, married a well-known Turkish dancer and settled in Istanbul. He still resides somewhere in the city with his family, though I don’t know the exact location – the teenager in me still hopes for some foggy abandoned mansion up the Bosphorous.
Gerard de Nerval
Extreme French eccentric Gerard de Nerval is infamously known as the writer who once kept a pet lobster on a leash (this was in France – I am not sure what pets he had, if any, during his Istanbul stay). His Journey to the Orient was published in 1851, though never to much financial success, and he eventually committed suicide back in Paris, hanging himself from a sewer grating in the 4th arrondissement. If only he had stayed in Istanbul, perhaps he might have escaped this fate, as our views of the sea are well known to soothe many a fractured and intensely melancholic soul.
Ika Jojua aka Aghnie
Originally hailing from east of Turkey in Kutaisi, Georgia, music-maker/artist Ika Jojua (who goes by the name of Aghnie), resided in Istanbul’s gritty Tarlabasi district for several years. Obsessed with dislocation and mysticism, this period undoubtedly had a lasting influence upon all his creative ventures as head of ‘The Veil Group’ – an umbrella label for his various auditory, visual and performative pursuits. In particular, the mystical traces of Istanbul can be heard on his 2015 mini-album, “Opium Visionz”, a hallucinogenic hybrid of twerky electronic sounds and quasi-devotional hymns, which evokes the minarets and crowded backstreets of Kucukpazar, or walking alone along the crumbling Byzantine city walls on an overcast spring day. He returned to Tbilisi in 2014 and continues to produce music – though I suspect a sizeable chunk of his soul remains here, forever encased in Istanbul’s bewitching layers of history. Check out Aghnies ghetto-goth mystic beats here or follow on Instagram.
The Norwegian Indie pop group Highasakite’s 2013 album Silent Treatment was largely written in Istanbul, as singer Helene Håvik spent six weeks here in solitude, compiling lyrics and roving the streets in search of inspiration. Apparently she felt so isolated from crowds of Turkish speaking strangers that she contemplated randomly hugging people, just to maintain her sanity. If only she had spent more time sandwiched in the metro at rush hour, I’m sure she would have valued her solitary state. Listen to the sublime tracks “The Man on the Ferry”, “Since Last Wednesday” or “Lover Where do you Live?” and feel those majestic Istanbul vibes.
Nomadic Aussie wanderess Olivia is better known as the force behind bohemian jewelry line “Cleopatra’s Bling”. She can often be found clutching a soldering iron in the backstreets of the Kapalıçarşı, or drinking longblack espressos in Balat cafes while taking photos of her bejeweled hands and feet. I first discovered her on Instagram and became instantly obsessed with her beautiful jewelry, delicious recipes and general creative hippie persona. Check her out on Instagram at @cleopatrasbling and get in on the boho gypset revolution.
Fausto Zonaro was born in 1854 to a poor Italian bricklaying family in Padua, but eventually somehow ended up a realist painter in the Ottoman Empire. His fascination with Istanbul propelled him to paint many an Orientalist masterpiece, as he twirled among the aristocratic circles of the Sultan, partied with the Pashas and shmoozed with art greats like Osman Hamdi Bey. He was the last court painter of the Ottoman Empire, and after things began to crumble in 1909, he returned to Italy, where he later died.
Legendary mystery writer Agatha Christie frequented Istanbul throughout the late 1920’s and early 30’s, staying at the glamourous Pera Palace hotel in Beyoglu. The city’s influence on her was so great that not only did she write her famous novel Murder on the Orient Express in the aforementioned hotel’s room 411, it was also revealed 3 years after Christie’s death (during a ghostly seance involving a psychic medium), that Christie’s mysterious 2 week long disappearance in 1926 somehow involved Istanbul. A strange golden key was dug up from under the hotel floorboards, (as the psychic was apparently told of through her sorcery) – a key that Christie, for reasons unknown, had hidden there herself nearly 50 years prior.
Though British writer/archaeologist/spy Gertrude Bell traveled widely throughout the Middle-east (charming men throughout Turkey, Syria, Jordan and Iraq – including Lawrence of Arabia himself), likely spending more time in the desert than in any city, I still like to imagine her in Istanbul, cavorting through the markets in her Victorian dress. It is a shame that Nicole Kidman’s 2015 movie portrayal of her in Queen of the Desert was apparently so awful as to near ruin Werner Herzog’s career, as Ms. Bell is an inspiration to many a solo female traveler the world over, myself included.
Another French writer transfixed with the 19th-century depiction of the Middle-east and Asia as the “exotic Orient”, Flaubert came to Istanbul in 1850, and immediately fell in love with the strong coffee and strong feelings that life here provoked – to say nothing of the prostitutes (both male and female). From his room near Galata Tower, he penned a series of letters home to his mother, one of which states that the artist, as an outsider, must resign themselves to being a freak of nature, outside the norms – or as he puts it, a “monster of sorts”. Of course, that could have just been the syphilis talking: Flaubert had contracted the disease on a previous visit to Beirut.
So there you have it, 10 unusual and perhaps not altogether uninspiring individuals that you can count yourself amongst, as a resident Yabangee of this incredible city.
Did I forget your favourite Yabangee? Think of someone else equally deserving and/or infamous? Comment below!