NO 16 SEPTEMBER 2001

Istanbul, the City of Dreams

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No. 16 September 2001

Istanbul really is a strange kind of crucible.  These days, maybe partly because of the abnormal heat we’ve been experiencing, it seems as if every significant interaction, every memorable episode, every intense period of my entire life is surfacing enough for me to reflect on it, savor it, revisit its pain or its joy, and attempt to weave it into the carpet that has been under construction well nigh these past eight years.  Besides that, time has acquired a decidedly peculiar quality.  For one thing, it changes.  Some days (or even hours) it feels as if there is all the time in the world and everything appears to move very, very slowly, whereas on other occasions time speeds up and it feels as if there is almost none left to me at all.  In short, a definite strangeness is being manifested lately.  It’s positively alchemical.

Is it just I? I wonder.  I mean, my friends realize that I am given to almost endless philosophical rumination on this or on that, so perhaps it is just I.  Then again, maybe, just maybe, there is something intrinsic to Istanbul that gives rise to such things.  There is a dreamlike quality about this city, after all, and quite possibly it does derive from the fact of its being forever liminal, situated as it is on the threshold between two continents.  I’ve talked about the qualities of liminality before in connection with Istanbul, (1) but on account of what I’ve just described it’s coming up again.

Do you remember that line in the Wizard of Oz about Kansas?  (Given most of my readers’ ages perhaps I should first ask if you remember the Wizard of Oz at all! (2)) Anyway, at some point the heroine, the indomitable, red-shoed Dorothy, looks around, is struck by the fantastic nature of her surroundings – and it’s true, Oz was an incredible place – and says to her companion Toto:  “We’re not in Kansas any more.”  I am tempted to say something like that now.  Istanbul is definitely not Kansas and perhaps the connection between Istanbul and Oz isn’t so farfetched after all.  I made a remark the other day to an email discussion group I belong to about this not being Kansas anymore and one of its members sent me an email back saying:  “But the guy who wrote The Wizard of Oz was a Theosophist. . .. When Dorothy lands in Oz she also starts off on the spiral path of the golden yellow brick road. And her destination is the Emerald Castle. I'm assuming that's a green emerald like those . . . Sufis talk about.  And how did she get up there? She was carried upward by the wind or pneuma . . .. Somewhere over the rainbow bridge.”

Ponder those threads of connection for a moment, would you?  Oz, of course, that place, “somewhere over the rainbow bridge,” is the symbolic equivalent of Istanbul for those of us who weren’t born here and who “followed the yellow brick road,” as it were, to get here in the first place.  Certainly we were all helped along our way by some form of breath, be it wind or pneuma or the spirit of wanderlust.  Theosophy – well, the connection there is that, among other things, the most well known exponent of Theosophy, the divine Madame Blavatsky, once worked as a rider in a circus in Istanbul!  (Look, everybody has to start somewhere.  I mean, this happened before she became famous.  You know, before the conversations with the Mahatmas from the ‘other world’ began.)  The emerald thing relates to the Tabula Smaragdina (literally, ‘Emerald Tablet’) of Hermes Trismegistus – oh, don’t freak – you know about that – you just don’t know the name of it.  It’s a document dating from between the first and third centuries of the common era that tells us “As above, so below.” See?  You’ve heard of it.  Sufis?  Well, of course there’s a connection between Sufis and Istanbul – they’re still everywhere, notwithstanding the ban on Sufic orders in the early decades of the 20th century.  And rainbow bridge?  That’s easy.  No less than Leonardo da Vinci pondered the problem of how to build a bridge (and poetically speaking, wouldn’t it have been a rainbow bridge? (3)) spanning the two continents.  In the end -- it was 1502 and Beyazit II had commissioned da Vinci to work on this project of designing the bridge but no one believed that his design would work -- they didn’t build it.  (By the way, it turns out that da Vinci’s engineering concept was stunningly viable and at this very moment the city of Oslo, in Norway, is well underway with plans to build the bridge da Vinci intended for us there, in Oslo.  Of course, theirs will be only a scaled down version – a paltry 63 meters, not the 1,555 feet Leonardo envisioned.  Also, Vebjoern Sand, the artist who proposed the project to Norwegian authorities, hopes to construct the bridge of stone, as Leonardo would have, but the guys holding the purse strings want to make it from wood saying they can’t afford stone.  I’ll let you know what comes of this.  Still, the bridge intended for Istanbul is going to be built, 500 years after it was first designed.  Just not here, is all, but there.  I would have wanted it to be here.)

 I said Istanbul was a kind of crucible.  What I meant was that this city somehow functions to cause me to go through so many changes.  You see, there are the bad days here, when I think I will die if I have to teach English one more minute (you see, in California -- in my “other life,” as I am wont to refer to it -- I was a respected, highly-regarded university teacher who taught really exciting, meaningful stuff like women’s studies and mysticism and esotericism and myth and symbol).  I fume about the fact that my Turkish employers almost always and invariably treat me like just another dumb yabanci with a TEOFL certificate who got off the bus in Sultanahmet and don’t see who I really am or respect me or . . . etc., etc., etc.  You get the idea.  But then there are the good days, when I feel positively exhilarated and powerful and walk around feeling like some goddess who has landed here in Istanbul to live out the latest in a long, long line of incarnations.  Those are the days when the following poem (4) is exactly right for a foreign woman with a keen sense of the mythic living in Istanbul:    

I was born in the congo
I walked to the fertile crescent and built
 the sphinx
I designed a pyramid so tough that a star
 that only glows every one hundred years falls
 into the center giving divine perfect light
I am bad

I sat on the throne
 drinking nectar with allah
I got hot and sent an ice age to europe
 to control my thirst
My oldest daughter is nefertiti
 the tears from my birth pains
 created the nile
I am a beautiful woman

I gazed on the forest and burned
 out the sahara desert
 with a packet of goat's meat
      and a change of clothes
I crossed it in two hours
I am a gazelle so swift
      so swift you can't catch me

      For a birthday present when he was three
I gave my son hannibal an elephant
      he gave me rome for mother's day
My strength flows ever on . . .

I sowed diamonds in my back yard
My bowels deliver uranium
      the filings from my fingernails are
      semi-precious jewels
      On a trip north
I caught a cold and blew
My nose giving oil to the arab world
I am so hip even my errors are correct
I sailed west to reach east and had to round off
      the earth as I went
      The hair from my head thinned and gold was laid
      across three continents

I am so perfect so divine so ethereal so surreal
I cannot be comprehended
      except by permission

I mean...I...can fly
      like a bird in the sky....

Well, there.  Having delivered myself of all of the above, I can tell you I’ll definitely be back to normal next month.  My partner has promised to take me on a badly needed vacation.  In the meantime, dear readers, remember that Istanbul has been called the “City of Dreams,” and so you mustn’t forget to dream. 

Notes:

1.  See the September 2000 issue of Istanbull...

2.  The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was a popular children’s book written in 1896 by Frank Baum.  It was made into a movie in 1932 starring Judy Garland as Dorothy.  This was the film that made her song, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” into a much beloved hit.

3.  In fact, it turns out that in 12th century China there actually was a type of bridge called a “rainbow bridge.”  These “were pier free bridges made from 20 ft (6 m) long timbers.”  Without piers because “bridge piers interfered with traffic, were difficult to build, and were frequently swept away by autumn floods, and deforestation meant that timber of longer lengths were rare.”  The way it started, or so we’re told, is that a man “piled large stones on both sides of the river to form abutments and then “tossed” several great beams together, forming what locals called a flying, or rainbow, bridge.”  (See  http://www.pubs.asce.org/ceonline/ceonline00/0500feat.html for the whole story.) 
 

3.  I am extremely grateful to another member of my email discussion group for sending me this powerful poem by Afro-American writer Nikki Giovanni . 

No.1- April 2000 No.11 April 2001 No. 20 July 2002 No 29 April 2003
No.2 June 2000 No.12 May 2001 No. 22 September 2002 NO 30 MAY 2003
No.3 July/August 2000 No. 13 June 2001 No. 23   October 2002  NO 31 JUNE 2003
No.5 October 2000 No.14 July 2001 No 24 November 2002 NO 32 JULY 2003
No.7 December 2000 No.15 August 2001 No 25 DECEMBER  2002 NO 33 August 
No.8 January 2001
(No. 8 Ocak 2001 - Türkçe tercume
NO 16 September 2001 No 26 January 2003 No 34 September 
No.9 February 2001 No. 17 April 2002 No 27 February 2003 No 35 October 
No.10 March 2001 NO 19 JUNE 2002 No 28 March 2003 No 36 January 2004

No 37 February - March 2004 No 38 April 2004

 

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