John Freely: A Tribute – The Imaginary Interview

Disclaimer: This interview is a work of fiction. Several months ago I had the idea to try and contact the legendary John Freely, about his decades in Istanbul, his love of old “Stamboul”, his books describing near every nook and cranny of the old town, his wanderings and what exactly it means to live a life of self-imposed exile. The contact info I had proved fruitless however, my emails bounced back and as life progressed as usual, the idea got shelved.

John Freely: A Tribute - The Imaginary Interview

On April 20 I received news of his passing at the age of 90. There now exists a John Freely shaped hole in this city – certainly no other expat can claim to know Istanbul as well as him, having written some 50 books, most about our glorious city. Beloved physics professor at Boğaziçi University, friend and colleague to undoubtedly many, John Freely will always remain the person who wrote the infinitely detailed “Strolling through Istanbul” and introduced me to the meditation of walking and exploring our extraordinary city. I write this imagined interview in respect and to give those who aren’t familiar with his writing, a taste that will perhaps inspire them to pick up one of this many books. All answers have been taken (out of context and re-appropriated) from his books “Stamboul Sketches”, “Strolling through Istanbul: The Classic guide to the city”, and “The Art of Exile: A Vagabond life”. This tribute was a joy to write, as it let me revisit his wonderful writing and imagine all the Istanbul places he had known and loved over the years.

RIP Mr. Freely.

For someone who cant even locate Istanbul on a map, how would you describe it?
Istanbul is the only city in the world which stands upon two continents. The main part of the city, which is located at the South-astern tip of Europe, is separated from its suburbs in Asia by the incomparable Bosphorus. The Golden horn then divides the European city into two parts, the old imperial town of ‘Stamboul on the right bank, and the port quarter of Galata on the left, with the more modern residential districts on the hills above Galata and along the European shore of the lower Bosphorus.

You first moved to Istanbul in 1960 with your wife and children. What are some of your earliest memories of living here?
Early in the Autumn of 1960, Toots and I had begun going into Istanbul with the children virtually every Saturday, taking the ferry from either Rumeli Hisarı or Bebek at eight in the morning and returning on the express boat that left Galata Bridge at five in the afternoon. Our first walk took us up the Golden Horn, through the ancient market district and the old Greek, Armenian and Jewish quarters out to the Theodosian walls, visiting ancient mosques, churches, synagogues, tombs, graveyards, and holy wells, stopping for lunch at a little hole-in-the-wall eating place frequented by workmen. Subsequent walks took us to Byzantine and Ottoman monuments on all seven of the historic peninsulas hills.

John Freely: A Tribute - The Imaginary Interview

What do you think is the best place for a visitor to appreciate their first tastes of the city?
I would advise to stroll the Galata Bridge… there are other places in Istanbul with perhaps more panoramic views but none where one can better sense the intimacy which this city has with the sea… sit at a teahouse or cafe on the lower level of the bridge, enjoy a cup of tea or glass of raki and look out the Golden Horn to where it meets the Bosphorous… notice how the late afternoon sun tints the Golden horn in soft pastels, giving its filthy waters a brief and spurious beauty.

Tea and Raki are perhaps the two most well known Turkish beverages, I can’t imagine life here without them. Any other personal favourite quintessential Turkish foods or experiences?
The Turkish meal is a long and unhurried ceremony; a procession of delicacies carried by platoons of staggering waiters; irrigated with raki, that soul satisfying, intellect deadening, national anise drink, and above all accompanied by talk… continuous, loud and passionate; emphasized and punctuated by ritual hand gestures, illustrated by dramatic facial expressions… roars of laughter and followed by a glass clinking toast.

Sounds like a perfect Saturday night if you ask me. Any other ideal ways to spend a weekend?
Most of us spend our spare hours quite happily resting our eyes on the Bosphous’ beauty… Everyone has their favourite spot… our own is Nazmi’s, a venerable waterfront cafe near the village of Bebek. For more than a century Nazmi’s has been a gathering place for the local fisherman and students and intellectuals and would-be intellectuals of Stamboul… especially those whose thought and talk require the stimulation provided by cognac and Raki in a seaside setting.

You’re really starting to make me thirsty. Perhaps time for a walk? What do you consider to be the heart of the city? Where is a good place for a newbie wanderer to begin strolling?
If ‘Stamboul can be said to have a center then it is probably Beyazit Square. Bordered on one side by the various institutions of Istanbul University, and on the other side by the covered Bazaar, it is thus at the hub of the old cities daily life. Not so very long ago this was one of the liveliest and most picturesque squares in the city, shaded by venerable trees and lined with teahouse and cafes and market stalls… filled with colourful throngs passing to and fro… now one can only find vestiges of its former charm, nevertheless it is still as lively as it ever was, if not as beautiful.

I love walking from the bazaar down towards Eminönü through all the little backstreets. In fact it was thanks to your book that I first discovered my favourite rooftop, on the Büyük Valide Han!
Although the Valide Han is still grand and impressive, it is badly battered and bears the scars of its long and active commercial career. At first sight it has the appearance of a walled medieval town in a state of siege…

John Freely: A Tribute - The Imaginary Interview

Well that’s all part of the charm isn’t it? How do you feel about all the construction and modernization of the city? It must look so different now from when you first arrived in 1960. I have read about areas like Sulukule, the ancient Gypsy camp, and sometimes I wish I had a time machine.
The Gypsy village in Sulukule was only about two hundred yards long; just a crazy one sided street consisting of a row of brightly-painted ramshackle houses propped up against the city walls. This was the gayest, noisiest, dirtiest, most colourful and disreputable street in all of ‘Stamboul, and although there were never more than a few hundred people living there at any one time, they seemed to generate more turbulent, joyous, boisterous life than the rest of the town taken together… But that is all in the past, for just last year the police drove the Gypsies from Sulukule and smashed their shacks to pieces. Today if you walk along the city walls near the Edirne Gate you will no longer be set upon by mobs of spirited Gypsy gamins nor will you be accosted by… old women wearing golden coins on their ears.

Wow. What a fantastic, surreal scene you have described. I’m sad its gone. Any other places you miss?
Ramazan nights… In the old days the coffeehouses in town were lavishly decorated during the month of Ramazan and featured special nocturnal entertainments. These included special performances of Karagoz – the shadow puppets, Orta Oyunu, the old Turkish folk-theater, recitals of music and poetry… performances by Gypsy dancers… exhibitions by mimics, magicians, conjurers, fire eaters, sword swallowers and other tricksters, freaks, prodigies and marvels…

You are really making me feel like a square with my weekends spent in Taksim. Any last words or summations of your experience of living the vagabond life abroad over the past decades? 
I live alone in the House of Memory, in one or another of the suites known as Youth, War, Love, Age and Dreams, where I spend most of my time these days, moving along the interface between remembered Past and fleeting Present. The many rooms in my house are inhabited by the people whom I loved and are no longer with me; the places where I’ve lived, worked, fought and visited; a voyage through tumultuous and uncharted seas; an odyssey which has taken me beyond the Pillars of Hercules in search of the Golden Apples of the Hesperides together with my Penelope, who now dwells in the Country of Dreams, waiting for me.

All images courtesy of the author.

Julia Totino

Originally from Canada, Julia has spent the past several years in and out of the Middle East, living in both Cairo and Istanbul , a city she affectionately refers to as her “Achilles heel” (whatever that means). Passionate about a variety of creative pursuits, she can often be found wandering alone in the more decrepit parts of the city, digging for inspiration while drinking coffees and talking to the cats. She is currently writing her first book.


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