American Writers in Istanbul

Photo by Sedat Pakay

American Writers in Istanbul
By Kim Fortuny
Syracuse University Press, 2010

Read enough books and essays on Istanbul, and they begin to blend into a familiar cacophony of sights and sounds. It becomes hard to distinguish nineteenth-century Italian traveler Edmondo de Amicis’s Constantinople from the latest boutique-hotel dispatch in Travel + Leisure. There’s the requisite huddled hodgepodge of red roofs under a jagged minaret skyline, the hustle-bustle of craggy-faced ware-hawkers pushing rickety wagons over dusty cobblestones, seagulls encircling mysterious dark women shaking out their laundry, and a language that defies characterization or sense. The great messy city is reduced to a squawking theater set, an Oriental pop-up book.

And then there are essays of comic disenchantment with Istanbul — among them Joseph Brodsky’s “Flight from Byzantium,” which occasionally strip the clichés from the city’s anthill streets. Brodksy’s text, written in 1985, when the author was forty-five, may be the best of this genre. For Brodsky, the glorious mosques were “enormous toads,” the myriad surfaces resembled “the color of an upturned grave,” while amid the blue and green splendor of the Bosphorus, “nothing will grow except moustaches.” In fact, “nothing will happen here anymore, apart perhaps from street disorders or an earthquake.” This has the ring of a wish. How could Istanbul not be beguiling to every first-time visitor? For many, it turns out, it hasn’t been, and through their eyes, we can see the city anew.

Brodsky excused himself, albeit feebly, for his hatefulness. “Every observation suffers from the observer’s personal traits,” he admitted, “that is, it too often reflects his psychological state rather than that of the reality under observation.” In this spirit, the Istanbul-based American academic Kim Fortuny has assembled an essay collection, American Writers in Istanbul, that includes Herman Melville, Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, Paul Bowles, Nelson Algren, James Baldwin, and the travel writer Mary Lee Settle.

One might hope that Americans, free of much of the baggage Europeans bring to the idea of the terrible Turk, would be able to regard Istanbul with more clarity than prejudice. Only sometimes has this been the case. Not surprisingly, some of these writers passed through town relatively quickly, merely scribbling down careless impressions, and inevitably those chapters tell us far more about the writers than they do about Turkey. More complicated, and perhaps more interesting, is how Fortuny’s subjects made sense not only of a truly foreign world, but of their own country’s rapidly changing relationship to it. Fortuny writes of Melville, “Like many American writers of the period and after, he seems to have little sense of the political or economic relationship his country might have with the Ottoman Empire, which by the mid–nineteenth century is an empire much less threatening to the West due to power shifts in the world order.” By the time she gets to Baldwin, the tone is markedly different. “The American public’s fear and distrust of the Muslim world are ‘historical and public attitudes,’” Fortuny writes, “though they feel natural and justified in the face of what is called terrorism.” The first American writers washed up quietly on the shores of Sultanahmet — modest, sometimes critical, observers from an indifferent world. The latter ones, emissaries from a young superpower, were riding the crest of a tidal wave.

Initially, the Americans’ detachment from the Ottomans is at once refreshing and disturbing in its innocence and ignorance. “If 19th-century English poets such as Byron demonize the Turks in order to feed a necessary social hunger — a need to project internal cultural insecurities on an available and distant enemy,” Fortuny writes, “or early 20th-century writers such as Yeats romanticize the Levant as an aestheticized alternative to the realities of postwar Europe, Melville assesses the city, its beauty and its desolation, as he would any other city old enough and wise enough to put into question the permanence of human structures.” It’s as if Melville had no ideas about the Ottomans at all. But Melville’s openness quickly gives way to Mark Twain’s revulsion. Fortuny makes the convincing case that Twain’s usually brilliant powers of apprehension utterly failed him on the Golden Horn; he couldn’t make sense of Constantinople, so he desecrated it mercilessly. “If traditional romantic Orientalism finds splendor and luxury in Constantinople,” she writes, “Twain finds filth and decay.” And Twain is not the only one in this collection to have thrown his hands up at the confusion of Turkey.

In some cases, though, Americans have been more clear eyed. Hemingway, then a young correspondent during the Turkish war for independence, was able to recognize that the young Mustafa Kemal Ataturk was not another marauding Turk from an imperial power, but the hero of an emerging national liberation movement. Hemingway could see the Turk both as perpetrator and victim, something his European colleagues — and much of the international community — could not do. John Dos Passos similarly recognized the Turks as victims lost in the imperial struggle of World War I. The two writers’ perceptions, however, blinded them to other suffering — of the Armenians, of the Kurds — so desperate were they to fit the fallen Turks into their larger critique of empire.

The best chapter in the book is Baldwin’s. In 1961, exhausted and sick, Baldwin moved to Istanbul at the behest of a Turkish friend he’d met in New York. He would stay, on and off, for about a decade. He never actually wrote about Istanbul, but it’s clear from interviews that his experience in the Muslim East deeply affected his already devastating view of the Christian West. Fortuny boldly but gracefully draws a connection between Baldwin’s dissection of racial hatred in America and America’s eventual cataclysm with Islam. “Writing from the vantage of a culture peopled with the descendents of the proverbial ‘barbarian horde’ — the Turk mythologized beyond recognition by eight hundred years of Christian theology,” Fortuny writes, “Baldwin exhorts America to look within before it aims its guns without. The lie that leads most directly to war is the one that tells us an enemy, a stranger, the barbarian, threatens our wealth.” Through Baldwin’s ideas, Fortuny can finally connect America to the Ottomans, and the absence of this connection in the rest of the book feels like a curious void. Even these brilliant men and women weren’t entirely conscious of history. Only a writer thoroughly soaked in the language of Christianity could see the dangerous future ahead for Islam and the West.

Still, Baldwin, like almost all of these writers, failed to grasp the complexity of Turkish politics. Only one essay mentioned in the book, Paul Bowles’s “A Man Must Not Be Too Muslim,” was so prescient that its ideas could be ripped from today’s headlines. (Not coincidentally, he was the one writer in the collection with a near-lifelong relationship to the Muslim world.) “Rationalizing words like ‘progress,’ ‘modernization,’ or ‘democracy’ mean nothing because, even if they are used sincerely, the imposition of such concepts by force from above cancels whatever value they otherwise have,” Bowles writes. “There is little doubt that by having been made indifferent Moslems the younger generation in Turkey has become more like our idea of what people living in the 20th century should be. The old helplessness in the face of mektoub (it is written) is gone, and in its place is a passionate belief in man’s ability to alter his destiny. That is the greatest step of all; once it has been made, anything, unfortunately, can happen.”