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Home Technology Istanbul Journal: Snow Acts as a Magical Balm in an Anxious Turkey

Istanbul Journal: Snow Acts as a Magical Balm in an Anxious Turkey

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Istanbul Journal

ISTANBUL — The domes of the great mosques, covered in white. The soaring minarets that draw Istanbul’s singular skyline, peeking out behind a gray haze of flurries. The street carts selling roasted chestnuts, the old tram making its way slowly, the street cats huddling around heaters in cafes — all gave the city the feel of an old black-and-white photograph.

Snow in Istanbul always feels magical, but for a few days this week and last, a blizzard — at more than a foot, it was the heaviest snowfall since 2009 — was just what the city needed. It acted as a balm for the chronic fear and anxiety that had taken over amid terrorist attacks, political instability and the deep purges of civil society that began after a failed coup last summer.

“This all blends into a feeling of suspension of normal daily life,” said Orhan Pamuk, a Nobel laureate who coincidentally wrote an acclaimed novel called “Snow.” “And perhaps this time, because of horrors of politics — tens of thousands of professors and people are being fired from their jobs, and journalist and writer friends are being pushed into prisons — at least for five minutes this is a consolation.”

In his many books, Mr. Pamuk, 64, has created a language of Istanbul, its intricacies, its mysteries, its landscapes. For him, a lifelong Istanbul resident, winter is bound up with youth, and as the snow fell this week, he was on the streets, taking photographs and remembering what it was like to be a child in such a big city.

“Snow is highly intertwined with memories of childhood,” he said on a recent afternoon, sitting in his apartment as the snow fell across the Bosporus outside his window.

In “Istanbul: Memories and the City,” he wrote: “It is impossible for me to remember my childhood without this blanket of snow. Some children can’t wait for the summer holiday to begin, but I couldn’t wait for it to snow — not because I would be going outside to play in it but because it made the city look new, not only by covering up the mud, the filth, the ruins, and the neglect, but by producing in every street and every view an element of surprise, a delicious air of impending disaster.”

The snow brought the expected inconveniences to a city that, as Mr. Pamuk wrote in the book, is “always caught unawares, greeting each snowfall as if it were the first.” Hundreds of flights were canceled, ferry services that connect two continents, Europe and Asia, were halted, and streets were impassable.

But there were many more pleasures. The incessant construction and traffic fell silent. Normally gruff policemen engaged in snowball fights with passers-by. Children, off from school, sledded down the narrow streets.

All of this lent itself to a feeling of being stranded, of time standing still. And that is why it all felt so delicious to the city’s residents, who had become accustomed to a disorienting pace of bad news — one attack after another, one political crisis after another.

For a time, even, people seemed to forget that there was a killer on the loose, that the Turkish police had not yet apprehended the gunman in a New Year’s morning attack on a nightclub that left dozens dead.

“The snow landed in Istanbul like a rescuer from the recent traumatizing events,” Aylin Sokmen, a Turkish fiction writer, wrote this week in an email. “Nowadays, watching the snowflakes — for those who are lucky enough to be in a cozy home — gives a sense of security from the troubling events, while it’s still a struggle for survival for some others. Getting a break from our lives evokes deep feelings, such as remembrance of the past, innocence, nostalgia for childhood.”

She added, though, “It will not take long to face the uncontrollable narrative of the city, of the country and of our lives.”

And yes, even amid the bliss of the snowfall, there were intrusions this week: the continuing fall in value of the Turkish lira, a debate in Parliament about expanding the powers of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whom many already regard as an authoritarian leader.

But all that was a sideshow as people enjoyed the snow.

“We come to this park every year when it snows, it’s always so beautiful,” said Sophie, 52, a teacher playing with her children who gave just her first name because, as a civil servant, she was not allowed to speak to a reporter. “It makes me so happy when schools are canceled on snow days, because the work is very demanding, especially at public schools, and children finally get to rest.”

In a city upended by divisions and unrest, the snow showed a gentler side, as city officials and business owners mobilized to care for the thousands of street dogs and cats that are as much a part of urban life here as tea shops and antiques sellers. One photograph that went viral on social media showed dogs bundled up under blankets inside a shopping mall.

And probably for the first time in their lives, Syrian children, among the hundreds of thousands of refugees who have fled civil war to take up uncertain lives in Istanbul, played in the snow.

“What I will remember from this year’s snow is the Syrian children I saw, who had perhaps encountered the first snow of their lives and were laughing in excitement,” said Fatih Demir, 32, a photographer. “They were probably among those lucky enough to be off the streets, and outside shelters, having set up homes in the city with their families.”

Yet even while the snow provided a respite, it was still obvious to some how much the city’s mood had changed in recent times, and how many fewer tourists there are.

“Snow is cleansing,” said Ahmet Koc, 44, who owns a housewares store in Cihangir, a trendy neighborhood where many expatriates live. “It’s so beautiful outside, but when I look at people’s faces, I see sadness.”

While the snowfall interrupted lives for many, others kept to their routines.

Murat Pak, 35, was out there on Monday where he usually is, despite the heavy snowfall: fishing from the Galata Bridge, which connects two of the city’s European quarters across the Golden Horn waterway.

There were only a few other fishermen with him.

“We don’t feel the cold if we’re catching fish,” he said. “Today it’s empty not because of the snow but because this past week there were no fish. They must have gone to warmer, deeper waters.”

As the city began returning to its regular rhythms after the storm, it was left with a feeling of being refreshed, even as the weather report called for more snow in the coming days.

“This, quote, holiday, or sense of freedom, a sense of not doing your regular thing, is heavily intertwined with landscape, beauties of the town, and silence,” Mr. Pamuk said. “I think that is what makes it magical.”

(Why?)

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