Karen-Claire Voss No. 22 September 2002

The Sounds of Istanbul


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I’ve been thinking about sound. How sound is important and full of meaning. A recent example happened the afternoon of 25 August, when I was sitting alone at home. The sky was very blue, with lots of white clouds, and there was a wind that blew through the trees making the leaves rustle. I remembered another afternoon on another 25 August that had the same blue skies, the same white clouds, and the same sound of the wind blowing through the trees. It is forty-one years ago now, but this summer I relived every emotion associated with the sound I had heard on that long ago afternoon. August 25 is the day that my father died suddenly of a heart attack, the day that I was thrust out of the paradisiacal garden that was my childhood. Nothing has been the same since. All of what I experienced that day was evoked by sound.

Sound is a very powerful thing. In his recent article, Mercan Dede (aka) Arkin Allen Takes Istanbul by Storm, (1) after noting that the ezan (call to prayer) was "a live human voice" and not a recording, my friend and colleague, James Snow, went on to observe that "(L)ike many of the world’s original musical cultures, the music of Islam is based on the human voice and the music of Mercan Dede is intimately related to Islam," a phenomenon which is especially true in the case of its mystical forms; i.e., Sufism. From other religious traditions we even have creation myths that tell of how the world itself was created through sound, that it was sound that "broke" the formlessness of the beginnings and resulted in the forms of the created world. In fact, the word ‘myth,’ which is now generally used to refer to something that is not real, a falsehood, comes from a Greek word ‘mu’ meaning to make a sound with the mouth. The word ‘mu’ was also used to refer to the sound made by a divinity, that is, to the voice of the divine. Sound is considered an integral part of all religious traditions. Latin, Arabic, Sanskrit and Hebrew are regarded as sacred languages, and when they form part of a religious ritual, they are undeniably powerful to listen to. In the Middle Ages in Europe, the sound of the bells tolling high up in the towers of cathedrals apparently, at least according to some first hand accounts, induced a condition of heightened consciousness. In Judaism, chanting verses from the Torah is very important and we have similar accounts of heightened awareness apparently brought on by listening. The ezan in Islam that echoes five times a day is also based on the idea that sound can have a physiological effect that can function to open people up to levels other than that of the ordinary.

However, when considering the importance of sound, we needn’t be esoteric. We can instead consider some very down-to-earth, every day examples. Have you ever listened to children playing in a school playground? The young ones, I mean. Now, aren’t those sounds the very same as those you remember from your own childhood when you played at school? I remember the day I visited my old grammar school (a very proper, private Catholic girl’s academy in Jersey City, New Jersey) after an absence of twenty years. After going inside and introducing myself, with not a little trepidation, to the nun who was the principal, we chatted for a few minutes and talked about the teachers I had known, who was still alive, and who was dead. At an appropriate moment, I excused myself, bade farewell, and went to the park that is just outside the school. As I sat on a bench outside the fenced in school playground for fifteen minutes or so, listening to the sounds of recess, all kinds of things I had forgotten about my childhood and my experiences at that school came flooding back. And just the other day I was in the garden listening to the sounds made by the young boys on the street above when I realized that their voices were different from the voices I had heard six years ago when we first moved into this apartment. Why, I wondered? Then it dawned on me. These voices belonged to a second generation. Those other young boys were grown now, and away at university or off working at jobs. That realization occasioned some serious contemplation of my own mortality.

Once, I lived in Lincoln, Nebraska. Sometimes late at night, after midnight, when I was tucked safely in my bed, I would hear the sound of a train and a whistle blowing. The sound carried over the night air from the railway tracks that were a couple of miles away. When I think of this now, I not only remember the sound, but I relive the accompanying feeling of being safe from all harm that was evoked by the contrast between those far off train sounds and my warm, comfortable bed in a room tucked under the eaves of an old, but solid wooden house. During this same period in my life, I remember driving through the wide, flat plains of Kansas once, late on a hot, summer night, when the sky was a clear as I’ve ever seen it, and there were stars and a full moon. I stopped the car on the side of the deserted road in the middle of nowhere, turned off the engine, and got out just to stand there and look. I was drawn to walk out a ways into a field and lie down on my back. Feeling the earth under my back, looking up at that stunningly beautiful night sky, I listened. What I heard is something I shall never, ever forget. It was the unique sound of wind blowing softly through hundreds of miles of absolutely flat plains. An experience like this can turn even the most hardened skeptic into a kind of mystic.

Still later, I remember the incredibly exotic sound of the birds I heard when I lived in Australia. I had never heard birds like that until moving there. And when I came to Istanbul and heard the sound of fog horns from ferries on the Bosphorus it catapulted me back to a time decades ago when I had journeyed to Nova Scotia and heard that sound for the first time in my life. Sometimes when I hear those foghorns I am, just for a moment, poised at a "place" that is Nova Scotia and Istanbul at the same time. Impossible? Certainly impossible on one level of Reality, but on another level, simply something to be expected. Different laws apply to different levels, that’s all.

I had the great good fortune to be invited to two concerts this summer that were held in the fabulous performance space in the fort at Rumeli Hisarı. The first was a concert by Sami Savni Özer, an acclaimed master of tasavvuf music (the music of mystical Islam). The exquisite sounds of this concert filled the night, but the most powerful piece was a sema (a sacred dance) whose name I do not know. How can I explain the affect this piece had on the atmosphere and on the audience? It was as though the music was opening up a space that was otherwise closed and inaccessible. I can say only that this music created a change in energy that was quite literally palpable. The second concert was given by the world-renowned pianist, Fazıl Say. In the first half of the program, he played a selection by Bach and another by Liszt. Franz Liszt has always seemed to me to be too involved with showing off, but Bach was another matter entirely. Bach always deals with eternal verities, and the music was so sublime that at one point tears started streaming down my face. The second half of the program had Say playing and Güvenç Dağüstün singing. There were four poems of Nazim Hikmet, two by Orhan Veli, including Istanbul’u Dinliyorum (I am Listening to Istanbul), one by Can Yücel, one by Ahmet Arrif, and another by Muhyiddin Abdal, all set to music with singing. It was glorious. And, at a certain point, Fazıl Say played a brilliant piano solo, his own interpretation of Aşik Veysel’s Kara Toprak. So energized was I that I left feeling that anything was possible; not only that, but that it was possible right here, in Istanbul.

Sound. Listening to sound.

Many readers will be familiar with Orhan Veli Kanik’s poem, Listening to Istanbul and I want to leave you with this. It is more beautiful in the original Turkish, but here is a very good English translation by Talat Sait Halman. (2)

I am Listening to Istanbul

I am listening to Istanbul, intent, 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, intent, my eyes closed.


I am listening to Istanbul, intent, my eyes closed;

Then suddenly birds fly by,

Flocks of birds, high up, with a hue and cry,

While the nets are drawn in the fishing grounds

And a woman's feet begin to dabble in the water.

I am Iistening to Istanbul, intent, my eyes closed.

I am listening to Istanbul, intent, my eyes closed.

The Grand Bazaar's serene and cool,

An uproar at the hub of the Market,

Mosque yards are full of pigeons.

While hammers bang and clang at the docks

Spring winds bear the smell of sweat;

I am listening to Istanbul, intent, my eyes closed.


I am listening to Istanbul, intetnt, my eyes closed;

Still giddy from the revelries of the past,

A seaside mansion with dingy boathouses is fast asleep.

Amid the din and drone of southern winds, reposed,

I am listening to Istanbul, intent, my eyes closed.


I am listening to Istanbul, intent, my eyes closed.

A pretty girl walks by on the sidewalk:

Four-letter words, whistles and songs, rude remarks;

Something falls out of her hand

It is a rose, I guess.

I am listening to Istanbul, intent, my eyes closed.


I am listening to Istanbul, intent, my eyes closed.

A bird flutters round your skirt;

On your brow, is there sweat? Or not? I know.

Are your lips wet? Or not? I know.

A silver moon rises beyond the pine trees:

I can sense it all in your heart's throbbing.

I am listening to Istanbul, intent, my eyes closed.

So, the moral of this month’s column is: Remember to listen. And since you just happen to be here, and not somewhere else, remember to listen in particular to Istanbul. She has much to tell you.


1. James Snow, Mercan Dede (aka) Arkin Allen Takes Istanbul by Storm. Forthcoming, Expat Life magazine.

2. Talat Sait Halman, 111 Poems by Orhan Veli Kanik. Istanbul, 1997.




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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