Things whispered and shouted
The first month in a city where you don’t speak the language, unwittingly you become host to a battlefield for competing ideologies and narratives. Of course, we arrived with a few. Ahead of time, the American tech goliaths shot a barrage of information into us: Airbnb has a vision of Istanbul as a playground for affluent, mostly American thirty-somethings who marble frontispieces and learn to cook meze during the day and navigate the edgier, hipper Asian side of the city at night. Prowl the city with a National Geographic photographer (actually, I may sign up for that one).
We took a cocktail tour with the top-rated duo of travel guides. It was the last day of Istanbul’s COVID lockdown. The government gave free rein to tourists during the lockdowns and gave vaccines to government-certified travel agents before almost anyone else.
We wound through the backstreets with our guide, through dying bars and empty music venues; and the guide was glum, business was bad, there were more cats out than people. We asked him for horror stories: too many tourists ask for hookers on the cocktail tour, he said, and the Russians start fights. They were subject to Airbnb’s narrative framing too: to maintain their status as one of Istanbul’s top-rated travel agencies that had all kinds of mandates to stick to, and a single bad review could tank them. He preferred the old city tour, where he could share historical facts about the fratricidal Ottoman empire.
Today the old city is a tourist tangle; this is the Istanbul you’ve seen in postcards, the minarets and domes, and narrow streets and gullies; on the ground, it’s frenetic and crawling with touts and tour buses and mobbed with multitudes of humanity. Armored cars and temporary barricades provide direction and an air of menace. A glimpse of what it might have been like.
During the Empire, the Ottomans held court in utter silence. There were treasures from all over the world. Gold and turquoise and antique tile from the very best eras (they collected antiques even then). A harem guarded by men with frills hanging down so they could never glance up at the balconies. A passage lined with criminals’ heads. But that none of that would have had the effect of stepping out of a city of millions into pure silence.
The music playing in the bars and restaurants here has a byzantine flair, there’s a craze for soft torchlight versions of ’80s and ’90s alternative classics. Familiar lyrics tug at your attention but stew in strange syrup.
Cats have their own wordless story. They squirm in every corner and scurry across the streets and dart out of the way or refusing to budge or leap on tables suddenly. They add to the mad energy of the place, the careening cabs, the manic Vespas zipping against the flow of traffic, or the sudden deadfalls and gullies in the undulating hills and twisted streets. At night you hear the cats howling for attention and battling for territory. There are kitten litters too. I fell into a narrative trap, I began caring about a teenage mother cat and her five kittens in an inaccessible airshaft in our Airbnb, and then one drowned and another was trapped in the wall, and we tried to save them but the community around us didn’t understand what we were doing or have a philosophy of never getting involved with the cats and would come downstairs and physically block our way to the cats. They let us leave food. There are only two kittens left. I can’t bear to look out the window anymore.
It didn’t help that when my first marriage ended, the final act was the removal and presumed destruction of the many cats camping out in the house we’d rented. The night it happened (I was far away in another state) I was awoken by a family of deer running through my garden, triggering the porch light. I came downstairs with my kukri knife ready to lop off an intruder’s head and saw them leaping the fence one after another.
Istanbul isn’t as haunted as you’d think. Too busy, too filled with people and noise at all times; except in our apartment. We got a two-bedroom so I could work in peace (and we could host guests) and at night the extra space seems filled with menace.
The Lonely Planet presents a sober alternative to Airbnb’s offerings. Old alternatives like TimeOut seem to have been squelched. My mom used to write Insight Guides (among other things) and I grew up flipping through them, becoming obsessed with the little symbols indicating things like motor access or breakfasts available and star rankings, and the hierarchies they seemed to represent Lonely Planet speaks for a different era of travel, it’s a retort in some ways, conceived of in a time when it wasn’t as hip to travel, when the preferred attitude as an affluent America was to bit like National Lampoon’s European vacation, you’re supposed to come away thinking the world outside of the states is terrible; and return home appreciating your homeland--the Lonely Planet series is English, I think, (possibly Australian) a retort to the whining, misbehaving, America middle-class tourist brute, was designed for a better class of tourist, not necessarily a richer version, but a more sensitive, brainy type, who wanted to read a 5,000-word essay about Roman history before scurrying all over some ruin.
We selected a starred review hotel on a long weekend in Bodrum, the beginning of the Turkish Riviera, and found ourselves in an overgrown vineyard in a saltwater pool surrounded by middle-aged Germans and Russians sipping daiquiris and watching a kindle of kittens scurry up the vines. The service was to western standards. Our premium sea view was blocked by a hedge and, after I gently complained, a gardener was dispatched to whack it back until we could see a harbor filled with yachts and the vivid azure blue of the Aegean. Fine hotels have lost their imperiousness, and with it a bit of their luster, and now they simper a bit, humbled by Airbnb and Tripadvisor and Yelp ratings.
I know the feeling. Reviews made selling Kindle Singles on Amazon miserable. Giving something a numerical rating quilts it into a hierarchy. It’s hard to buy a $2 Kindle rated 3.5 over a 4.7/5, let alone spend thousand on a hotel with a poor ranking. Somebody once left a bad review during a marketing blitz, complaining that my memoir was a whine of caste privilege. Not necessarily wrong, but there was no indication they’d bought a copy. My rating dipped below the crucial psychological ⅘ stars mark. My sales drooped in real-time. But you can write another book. It must be so much worse when it’s a restaurant or bed and breakfast you’d staked your retirement on.
During the downpour that drowned the orange kitten, I watched a strange display. A young woman with a cheeky Amelie haircut in a bright yellow dress burst out of a cafe and ran into the rain clutching a folded paper boat. She dodged a cab and placed the boat in a gutter and chased down a rivulet as it slid toward the Bosphorous. She filmed the entire thing on her phone and made it about a block and a half before losing it. As she walked back up the hill, drenched, it was clear that she’d faked the enthusiasm and was becoming aware of how much of a silly spectacle she seemed.
The picture hosting social network Instagram (and its mini-video clip archrival Tiktok) is intensely corrosive to self-esteem. It hijacks focus from the moment into competitive status signaling and provides a constant feed of carefully photoshopped images interspersed with ads for plastic surgery and acne cures. Nowadays, every third person leaning over the battlement of a crusader fort is looking away from the view, into a screen and trying to squeeze the perfect combination of cleavage or chest hair and Aegean sparkle into the frame. It’s even affected the urban landscape, especially restaurants and hotels, they’ve become very conscious of how photogenic they are and you’ll find arty but otherwise pointless nooks everywhere. Arbitrary hammocks. Wading pools with pretty views but little do. I don’t mind this aspect of it as much, but it’s strange to see what was a hidden layer of narcissistic display leaching out and garbling the built environment. As a child, I used to feel comforted when I heard English being spoken in rural Spain or saw a German bakery at the top of a mountain in Himachal Pradesh. Maybe it isn’t so bad.
Eventually, the tentacles of American tech slide off a bit. After two months in Istanbul, I can understand a few sentences. I recognize words in ads. The grammar is fiendishly difficult. The language said to be closer to Korean than Arabic or anything I’ve ever tried to speak before.
As we’ve met and spent time with Turkish citizens we’ve become much more conscious of the politics at play. The Turkish government is unpopular in the city, and has done things like keep the subway out of the swank districts that rejected their leader. The Hagia Sophia has been turned into a mosque. There are frightening stories of cruel sentences for minor acts of civil disobedience. There are whispers of another rush of refugees from the Afghan collapse. People are tense. There are fistfights in the streets.
In the old city, I briefly fell into the sway of an aggressive tout. We ran into him twice once on the way into the Blue Mosque. He lied about being a mosque official and offered clothing advice for foreigners. We got rid of him once but he sidled up beside us as we were leaving the complex. He apologized for lying and offered to show us a magnificent view of Istanbul. Naturally, this ended up being his parents’ shop, despite his constant assurances that he was off duty. When we got there we were suddenly surrounded and somewhat menaced by a fairly large group of people insisting that we go in. We did not. Touts are usually playful, and it rarely turns sinister, unless you’re looking for something illegal or get pulled into some seedy nightclub. I mention all this partly as evidence for a bit of rising tension and resentment (this was the day of the American exit in Afghanistan) but also because one of my silly fantasies in Santa Cruz, while I was looking for work, was wondering what it might be like to become a vacation town tout. Come with me, my friend….
I’ve been trying to think of ways to use non-fungible tokens for storytelling and I’m thinking about creating a series of postcards of microstories. (These are electronic files that have a blockchain-based token embedded in them so they are essentially unique.) The only things that really make sense are limited editions of generative artwork, but I’m convinced there’s some way to wind a story around in a way that isn’t completely arbitrary. Maybe it would be interesting as a creative nonfiction writer to have an online souvenir shop selling NFTs describe micro experiences. Maybe aforementioned the girl in yellow with the boat was on to something!
For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been working on a freelance project for one of my Substack subscribers, Cemil Şinasi Türün. He asked Erin and I to help him write the whitepaper for a cryptocurrency project called Defterhane. A whitepaper in the cryptocurrency industry is basically a description of a technical project. I mentioned this a little bit in my last missive. In Turkey, businesses use cheques to provide short-term liquidity to one another. They post-date checks and then use them as letters of credit; you might issue a post-dated check to buy merchandise for your store and then the wholesaler could use your check to buy more… apparently, it’s a forty-year-old system that accounts for a billion dollars worth of, and has a much lower default rate than commercial loans normally do. This check-based system has persisted through several banking crises and has created a shadow banking system beyond the reach of the government. Decentralized finance in paper form. Check out their whitepaper, if you’re interested.
In the States, I’ve been asked to write about decentralized finance for my alumni magazine. I’m trying to find metaphors that can encapsulate the rapid evolution of a kind of new banking system. It’s a bit like the beginning of paperless offices and the introduction of computer networks into the office. It allows thousands of functions to be automated. What’s weird about Vadeli checks and DeFi, in general, is that it really does harken back to the very first forms of transaction, when transactions were made between people and without a centralized authority like a government or central bank issuing a currency or sieving off a fraction of it.
I heard about a really strange crypto concept the other day. Playing to earn is a grim vision of the future I heard explained at a conference. In the Philippines, great swaths of the population are now realizing that they can earn more money from breeding NFT animals than working. At a conference I attended, they were touting this as an evolution of universal basic income, Play to Earn will feed millions of people. The idea doesn’t sit well with me. Partly it’s my distaste for some of the people backing the project (like Mark Cuban) who don’t seem particularly trustworthy or gentle with the public but it living life plugged into a game and playing to live seems like a strange, diffracted way to exist. Maybe it’s inevitable. Maybe we already do: my work communicates using Discord, a channel designed for gamers and peppered with silly glyphs and emoji.