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Saturday, October 21, 2006

The Memory of Ruins

He walked the Asian side of the Bosphorus promenade every Friday and Sunday morning and at any other days he could find the time, for as long as he could remember.

Uskudar in autumn © Numan GökAs a child his Ottoman nanny would bring him for walks through Üsküdar's morning mist that rolled in from the waterways, cloaking the centenary Judas trees lined across the walk. He used to imagine that the souls of the dead were caught in the dark bark, twisting and shaping the upward branches into strange contortions, worked out into as many imaginings as a young mind could fathom. Now as a middle-aged man death frightened him more than the starkness of trees in autumn. He usually started his walk with the early morning call to prayer, so that he could have the hills of Istanbul to himself and enjoy the glimpses of the beautiful ruins he had called home for so long. At such times, seemingly freed from the pressures of modern urban life, he could easily import himself into the past and pretend that he was walking in the city of his childhood.

He would begin his walk from the bus station at Harem, comparing ancient forts that had seen much fighting in the past but were now a semi-quiet haven for unwilling urbanites whom the density of the European side was too much. Ending his trek further inland, up and around Çamlıca, he would peak at the highest hill that gave way to a breathtaking view of the big city. Some days he would quote his favourite verses from poet Orhan Veli while watching Istanbul prepare for the day ahead, and some days he kept to a lower ridge. It was always tranquil even in late morning, bar the escaping squirrels startled by his appearance, which he would coax back with a few nuts he hoarded in his pockets. From there he would return to the promenade to stop for a cup of bitter coffee and a piece of sugary, rose flavoured lokum, before catching a bus back home. At journey's end he would watch the early morning solitude slowly die; untamed cats woke to hunt in side-streets and gulls squawked overhead at ferries beginning to breach the dirty silver waters, taking commuters from the Asiatic to the European side to wake commerce in Istanbul.

One autumnal morning he started to see another walker. At first he thought the man was homeless or someone sleeping rough since his clothes seemed to be rather threadbare. When the man saw him, he would nod in his direction and then move away and change path so they would not meet. Obviously a man who liked his own company, he had thought initially. However, after a few months of these occasional meetings, he seemed to bump into him more often.

Through the years, as the climb to the hill began to tire him out and the squirrels had become scarce, he had changed his walk slightly so that the half-way point was on the Bosphorus promenade. He would sit on one of the wooden benches and watch the sun rise over the shore. It gave him a strange sense of comfort, that while the city had changed and continued to change, the sunrise was something unchangeable by human hands. It was here that he first spoke to the man; the clothes that he had dismissed as threadbare so long ago, he could now see were all good quality. It reminded him of his father's clothes, and the light-wrinkled face was oddly familiar.

Giving a respectful nod, he had started to get up and move away out of deference to the man's privacy, when he suddenly spoke. The stranger's voice was very quiet and at first he thought he had imagined it.

"Best place in the world for a sunrise," the man said.

"Yes," he replied, his voice sounding very loud in comparison to his. The man's jacket and trousers were grey. They were the exact same colour as the water of the Bosphorus so that it seemed he blended into the scenery; a mere outline, the stranger seemed to fade in and out of view.

He rubbed his eyes and thought to himself that he had better cut down on the evening rakı and was about to ask the stranger's name, when the man was suddenly gone and he found himself alone. He thought he saw a roughly man-shaped patch of silver and grey turn and wave back at him from a cluster of trees in the distance, but he couldn't be sure. He rubbed his eyes again, but thought no more of it and stood up to continue the rest of his walk.

The next time he saw the man, the stranger beckoned to him. Sitting down next to the fellow walker, he noticed a distinct smell that emanated from him. The best way he could describe it was how Istanbul in autumn had smelt to him as a child, odours of morning mist and damp wood or wood smoke with a slight acid edge to it, and the smell of sea water. He assumed the stranger must have slept the night outside, a brave thing since the temperature had been below freezing. Feeling sorry for the man, he offered him a drink of coffee at one of the shops that lined the promenade, and something to eat.

The man declined. Instead, the stranger began to point out the architecture that dotted the European shoreline in the distance, shadowed against the orange of a growing sun, telling him stories about the decadent elegance that he had never heard of before.

"How do you know so much?" he asked his strange companion finally.

"I'm a good listener. If you close your eyes and listen, you can hear Istanbul speak to you."

"And what does Istanbul say now?"

"She says she has hidden all her memories in the ancient ruins, to make them much more interesting." He laughed and pointed at the sun that seemed to shimmer, making the black shapes of mosques and palaces across the water reverberate. He realised his companion had stood up, then, but had done it so noiselessly that he'd hardly noticed. "I am listening to Istanbul with my eyes closed, now," the man said. "You try it, too."

He smiled at the stranger, "That reminds me of an Orhan Veli poem. One of my favourite poets, do you read him?"

But his strange companion had begun to walk away, his outline fading until he was just a man-shaped patch of grey, evaporating like mist in sunlight until he was gone. Nothing remained but the faint musty smell of a damp morning by the shore mingled with the smell of the waterway's sweaty spray, and the faint timbre of his companion's voice ringing in the ears.

Not believing his eyes, or knowing what to feel or think, he ran along the promenade, and reached his usual place for coffee. Breathless, his lungs burning, he needed a stronger drink this time.

After a small shot of the proprietor's own cache of rakı, he started to talk to the man about what had he had just seen. He expected him to laugh at the story or dismiss it as the figment of an overworked imagination. With the alcohol warming his senses, even he was beginning to doubt his memory of events now, but the café owner said:

"You saw Orhan Veli."


"It's true. You're not the first to see him, and I don't expect you'll be the last, either."

"Are you telling me I saw a ghost? Such things don't exist," he replied.

"Well I think you saw a recording that some people can see, etched into places he loved. Some say the part of him that couldn't die stayed walking the city he loved so much. Istanbul is full of ghosts created by the memories of ruins, y'know."

If the city recorded souls in some mystic recorder to play time and time again, it was a better cage than any Judas tree of his youth. "He said something like that - about the memories of ruins."

The café owner shrugged, offering him another small glass of the milky-white beverage. He shook his head, thanked him for his kindness and left.

He stayed away from the promenade for a while, and cut his morning walks short. He wasn't sure what to think, but eventually he returned. He didn't see his strange companion and began to think that he, as with all things, had moved on.

Months passed and autumn came again. On one clear day, for no reason in particular, he was on the promenade later than normal so that there were lots of other walkers. Sitting at the bench where he had spoken with the strange man, a few steps in front of him he noticed a young boy, possibly a student, looking into the pages of a tattered book. The boy seemed strangely familiar, too, those clothes would have been the sort he would have worn so many years ago as a young man. Had fashion really changed so little? But, what drew his attention to him was the book itself. It was a collection of Orhan Veli poems.

Getting up to resume his walk, he suddenly saw the familiar grey man-shaped shimmer of the strange walker. He watched, mouth gaping wide, as the faint figure seemed to step up to the young boy and stand behind him. Too engrossed in the verses, the boy hadn't noticed the grey shimmering, but all at once the boy's expression changed. Up until then he had been sad, sombre even, but now his face lit up; his mouth started to smile as though he had found something in the book. Before the wisp of grey mist passed through the boy, the shadow of his old companion looked across at him and smiled, fading quickly until he was gone. The young boy who had been so sombre was now crying, but with tears of joy.

Not really understanding what he had just witnessed, however, he felt the young man had been at a crossroads in his life and that something in the spirit of what he'd read had brought hope back to him. The boy had called out, and something had heard him.

When he went back to Üsküdar the next day, he found the student's tattered book on the bench, face down and open. He couldn't be sure whether the boy had left it on purpose or it was just a coincidence, but he read the poem the boy had marked.

I am listening to Istanbul, intently, my eyes closed:
At first there is a gentle breeze
And the leaves on the trees
Softly sway;
Out there, far away,
The bells of water-carriers unceasingly ring;
I am listening to Istanbul, intently, my eyes closed.

He never saw his strange companion or the young boy again, but to the memory of that day, he kept the book and remembered. And for some reason, a little less afraid of death than before, on his morning walks he would even catch himself closing his eyes and listening to the Istanbul of old.

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