The Bridge, by Geert Mak, trans Sam Garrett
A study of the Istanbul that bridges both East and West
Wednesday 19 March 2008
An unremarkable concrete structure spanning the Golden Horn, the estuary on Istanbul's European shore, Galata Bridge links the two oldest districts of the city. To the south lies historic Sultan Ahmet, which contains Hagia Sophia and Topkapi Palace; on the other shore Pera, with its imposing embassies and merchants' mansions, the heart of European Istanbul. With its traffic-clogged highway, crowds of commuters rushing to catch the ferry, fishermen hanging over the parapets, restaurants affording magical views, and a dingy underpass with stalls selling guns, dancing dolls and counterfeit luxuries, the bridge is a microcosm of the city in all its rich variety.
Geert Mak's thoughtful travelogue sketches out Istanbul's past, and provides a touching portrait of its present inhabitants that explores, and challenges, the clichés of a bridge between East and West. He brings the city's multicultural history to life and introduces us to the inhabitants of the bridge, from the itinerant card sharps, pickpockets and glue-sniffers to the hawkers of cigarettes, condoms, umbrellas, roasted chestnuts and lottery tickets. Mak has the the acuity of a novelist and the sensitivity of an anthropologist.
The young in one another's arms, like the headscarfed girl canoodling with her pierced and tattooed boyfriend, defy our stereotypical expectations; but, as Yeats observed of his Byzantium, this is no country for old men. A 77-year-old porter complains that he's been swindled out of his life savings by a femme fatale pushing 60. Many are lonely divorcees living in shabby boarding-houses. Poverty is a constant in their lives. "I smoke a lot, that always helps to still the hunger," says Ali, an in-sole vendor.
They are outsiders bound by regional loyalties; the cigarette boys are Kurdish, and divided by political allegiances. Some are nationalists, while the umbrella men "form a fledgling socialist enclave". Honour "has value as a social currency", and poverty brings with it a sense of failure and shame.
It is pride, rather than ideological fanaticism, that fuels their anger. "My village is full of people who don't know a thing about the Koran. But ... they're prepared to die for Islam," a waiter tells Mak. His intimate portraits disrupt tidy European prejudices, and this thoughtful, beautifully written book is suffused with a respect for the richness of the inner life of individuals that transcends tired metaphors. The bridge is a city, but is "above all, itself, and we shall leave it at that".
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