Palimpsest Istanbul

In Sahaflar Old Book Bazaar, in Istanbul, the miniature painting seller saw me pause for a displayed piece, and walked out of his modest shop to offer assistance. Like the other merchandise mosaicking the walls behind him, the miniature, now in my hand, was a yellowed page sustaining vivid colors, seemingly torn from an old book to be sheathed by a sheet protector of A4 size. A mother (maid?), in a blue amira hijab and a purple robe, was propping up a boy, his head resting on her lap, his orange garment rolled up to the waist. A circumciser, in a white turban and a turquoise robe, was approaching the boy’s exposed genitals, his pair of black scissors ready to lance. Above, seven tools for such a situation were pictured, golden in color and lined-up straight. On the reverse of the page, Ottoman script in black and red inks crawled like rows of water striders, vaulting forward as if animated by some fierce, dynamic energy.

“What’s the text about?” I asked, assuming it depicted a medical procedure or a historical event. Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red had taught me: miniatures were illustrations of book texts.

“King David the prophet,” the seller said, after scanning the page with a mumble. “This page probably dates back to the 17th or 18th century.” He was a short man, with a pointy chin that reminded me of a fox.

“How do you know?” I asked.

“Experience,” he said, his face all serious. “The painting itself is only 20- or 30-years-old, but the miniaturist reproduced an image from an Ottoman-era medical book.”

“Ah,” I said, trusting him more upon his admission of the recent vintage. “Why did the artist paint on such an old piece of paper?”

“It sells better this way,” he told me, matter-of-factly.

“I see,” I nodded, pulling out enough lira bills per the price tag.

This was my first vacation in Istanbul, as the circumcision scene was my first ever miniature. Holding it against the August sun, I could see the age-old text underneath the fresher hues. Palimpsest: the term came to me at that moment. I knew the Greeks had coined the term to denote the scraping or washing off old texts from a page—be it parchment, papyrus, or vellum—for reuse, as I knew the word could now be, and is, used figuratively for situations of overwriting or layered meanings. But it was only when I saw the buried texts that I realized my latest purchase was in fact one itself, the same time I understood the concept’s usefulness as a trope to characterize my whole trip.

Indeed, probably nowhere else in the world offered a more fitting example, a city-sized palimpsest that had its layers of life erased, modified, and covered up, continuously and for millennia, as the city changed hands from Eastern Romans to Turks, then transformed under 36 sultans’ reigns and 12 presidents’ administrations. At its heart, Hagia Sophia itself was a mosque converted from the original church, its Byzantian past silently attested to by the soffits and cornices scattered around it. Eastward, Divanyolu Avenue’s tramway ran along the same route that the Ottoman grandees took to the Imperial Council (the Divan), its metal clangs echoing the hubbub of Constantinople’s main thoroughfare, the Mese. The Divan was in Topkapi, once an Ottoman palace but now a museum, where visitors lined up in the vertical sun, waiting to be awe-struck by its grandeur. Across the Golden Horn, the Galata Tower built by the Genoese colonists still stood prominently, its previous incarnations of a lighthouse, a dungeon, and a fire watchtower hidden between its wall stones and perched on visitors’ minds like a mirage. When I visited a traditional bathhouse called Cağaloğlu Hamam, I had to descend a stairway to enter its marble halls. I did not think much about this until later, when I read that the entrance was once at street level when it first opened its doors in 1741. Centuries of sediments of city life (likely tracked-mud and fire and earthquake debris) had elevated the streets, sinking the hamam and many other roadside fountains (dating back to Süleyman the Magnificent’s reign) in the shadow of elevated street lives.

Sometimes, due to the unsoundness of the washing or scraping, the old layers were not gone completely, so recovery or reconstitution was a possibility and, often, an actuality. Some other times, in artistic situations particularly, different layers were intentionally left in juxtaposition, old and new interwoven into a heteroglossia that was both confusing and generative of new meanings. During my stay in Istanbul, I felt such effects the most at the Museum of Innocence. Coming into existence only in 2012, the small museum was linked to Orhan Pamuk’s same-titled novel, which told an on-and-off-and-back-on love story from the point-of-view of Kemal, a member of Istanbul’s elite circles. He was engaged to Sibel but loved Füsun, obsessively so, as he broke the engagement, visited her every day for decades, and devoted a museum to housing her personal items. And in real life such a museum was indeed built, with ceiling-high display cases lined up on its walls, each corresponding to a novel chapter and showcasing everyday objects—bags, photos, garments, etc.—that supposedly bore some relationship with Füsun. Kemal’s own bedroom occupied the third floor, where he had avowedly lived his final years and trusted his stories with Pamuk. He had made the right bet, to say the least, as Pamuk dutifully transcribed and published the story, and then funded the museum into existence with his Nobel Prize.

In this underlit, dreamy space, fiction and life cross-referenced each other. The fiction was represented by the museum’s display cases as if it were a real-life tale, objectifiable to the minutest detail like the displayed cigarette butts that Füsun had smoked. But the simple décor of Kemal’s bedroom belied its factual quality (not to mention the bed itself fitted only a ten-year-old). Circling around in the narrowness of the museum, I was forced to shift back-and-forth between the truth claimed by the displays and the cues suggesting otherwise. I came to realize this confusion was what Pamuk wished to create—by his interlaying of two layers of meaning, a state of uncertainty was, in fact, enjoyable because of the cerebral energy it enticed, balanced by the minimal real-life consequence it could possibly bring.

I felt like standing at the crest of this dizzying realization, when I actually found a sign marking “Pamuk Apartment” on the map displayed for Chapter 31 of the novel. Elsewhere, in the author’s memoir, I had read that his family had indeed owned an apartment building, and he himself was still living there. Betting on the mark’s truthfulness, I embarked on a 40-minute walk under the scorching sun. When I finally got to Teşvikiye Avenue, drenched in sweat and finding myself in a bustling shopping district, I imagined, more poignantly than anything, a smirk on the face of Orhan Pamuk the trickster, his successful playing of another prank. But then, between the gaudy shopfronts, there indeed sat a nondescript, six-story cement building, its lintel lettering indeed pronouncing “Pamuk Apartments”! How overjoyed I was. Like a traveler finding his oasis. The temptation arose to press on the doorbell but I let it pass; the joy of knowing the map belonged to the truth layer was already enough solace.

Later that day, I began wondering whether the concept of palimpsest could be applied still elsewhere, repurposed as a trope for, say, relationship and memory. When old ties are reconnected or a bygone event recalled, how could the past and the future take shape in the present? There was an acquaintance I had met long ago, in a summer program in Poland when we both were college students. Santiago was his name, and Barcelona was his hometown. While we had seldom chatted since, through Facebook newsfeeds I had gathered that he had married a Turkish girl and made Istanbul his adoptive home. I decided to reach out to him, saying that I hoped he still remembered me, that I was in town, and that I would like to catch up in person.

“Hi, Hantian, nice to hear from you!” he said, his reply coming soon.

We met at Monkey Istanbul, a rooftop bar overseeing the Gold Horn. It was dusk and the city’s mosque-dominated skyline was half-dissolving behind a golden-gray layer, either fog or smog. We drank raki, munched snacks, and talked about life, mine in the US since our departure from Poland, his here as the head architect of a German hotel company. We discussed work, family, things to see and to do in Istanbul and San Francisco.  Our college-age hopes and worries had dissipated, shapeshifting into work obligations, adult responsibilities, and more mellowed perceptions of what life might be. Without the substratum of that past, we would simply be strangers in the city, but here we talked more about the present and the future than of that past.

On the afternoon before I left, I took a ferry to cross the Bosporus. The sea was a surface of vaulting peaks, dark at the crests and golden at the troughs, its ridges all turquoise. A breeze stripped away the heat, so I sat into a more comfortable position, feeling pretty good about everything I’d done: reconnecting to Santi, buying the miniature, thinking about palimpsest. I imagined a future day when I revisit the city, and I wondered what new meanings, events, and people I could encounter then, how the old experiences, fresh now but inevitably fading with time, might look underneath or blended in.

The Night Had Claws

As our shapes re-emerge from the thinning steam, Sheila pushes the button and once more we disappear. She repeats this ritual in silence until my hands and the soles of my feet are wrinkled. I don’t want to leave this white hard shell. I want to stay here forever, tucked away from the world. Invisible. Safe.

In Search of Touch

First dates are meant to be flirtatious and giggly. In another time, we would be meeting inside a dark downtown bar. Music playing. The stench of sour liquor pinching my nose. He’d ask what I like and order me something smooth. After half a drink, the conversation would begin to flow. I’d ask him a crucial question, “What’s your favorite kind of fry?” He’d say tater tots. “What? That’s not even a fry!” I’d say shoestring dipped in blue cheese because ranch is so over. Later, because he’d be too shy to make a move, I’d ask him to kiss me. This seems to be my move in any time. And we’d make out sitting side by side on barstools all limbs and tongues.

Surface Tension

My mother has what you might call a tradition. Each summer, when the Connecticut heat slides towards 90 and the humidity makes it feel like you're breathing through cotton balls, my mother goes outside to her car, rolls up all the windows, closes the door, and sits in it for as long as she can manage. She alerts no one. Seven to eight minutes later, she throws open the front door, gasping, eyes squinting from the sweat that could no longer be held back by her eyelashes. She smiles as sweat pools inside her shoes and eventually spills out of them, leaving two watery footprints on the floor when she walks to her bathroom for a shower. I wonder for a second what Yemaya would have to say about the oceans at her feet.