I have always been an optimist. Life is beautiful, and if it is not, it will be. Born and raised in the prosperous Low Countries, I had nothing to worry about. Europe was a safe haven: all there was, was peace, love and happiness. I attended a decent high school, I got a university education and I decided to enter the dreamy realm of archaeology. My idealistic world view is also reflected by my love for disco and house music: the ultimate music genres that propagate love, happiness and having fun. The world seemed to me as one giant play ground, and in this respect I do not think I am the only one of my generation. In the Netherlands, young people nowadays celebrate their weekends in clubs and at music festivals en masse, of course including the necessary alcoholic beverages and stimulating ‘sweets’. Recently, a supermarket in Amsterdam even opened its doors to provide an alternative space for a genuine ‘disco party’. Conversations with friends generally included issues like ‘where the party at?’, ‘this track is awesome’, or ‘who led the dogs out?’. Can the world be even more beautiful?
Grown up in this positivistic environment, I moved to Istanbul last February. I was thrilled, and how could I not be? I was going to live in what, without a doubt, is one of the most amazing cities on earth, especially when you have an interest in history and archaeology like me.
"Life is beautiful, and if it is not, it will be"
I should have read Istanbul: memories and a city, written by Nobel-prize winner Orhan Pamuk, more carefully. One of the common threads running through his story, is the melancholic nature of the Istanbulu. According to Pamuk, you can find this melancholy, hüzün, anywhere: in the structure and appearance of the city and its monuments, in the way people wander through the streets or gaze upon the waves of the Bosphorus, in their struggle to be modern, but still holding on to their glorious past, the visible remnants of which are deteriorating and disappearing every day. Whereas to me the historical topography and monuments are a reason for astonishment and amazement, Pamuk considers them as the source for a general sense of hüzün in Istanbul, reminding its inhabitants of the lost glory of their city, which is unlikely to return soon. Melancholy is a defining facet of Istanbul, he says.
Beautiful and interesting story, definitely, but it did not enable me to experience this feeling of hüzün Pamuk was talking about. So then the day turned up I was invited to drink some rakı. The national beverage of Turkey, which any tourist in Istanbul wishes to drink after a day of wandering the streets of the city. Not unlike the common tourist, I was up for a drink, a party and possibly some dancing: in short, having some fun. With a blatant optimism, I took a seat at the so-called rakı-table. As is customary, the table was soon full of appetizers (meze) to accompany the drinks. It was in this setting, in a place in the Beşiktaş-district, lit by a bunch of TL-lights and occasionally filled by the sounds of a sitar-player, I did not have the fun I was expecting; on the contrary, I had my first experience of total hüzün. Parties, holiday plans, the hunt for girls or casual chitchat– such a nice weather, don’t you think? – do not feature in the conversations at the rakı-table; instead, the talks covered the destiny of little girls who are not allowed to speak their own language at school, in effect denying them a proper education; the fate of ex-militaries who are locked up in psychiatric institutions due to a Posttraumatic Stress Disorder; or the increasing number of violent attacks on the female inhabitants of Turkey. Meanwhile, the people sang along with the melancholic sounds of Müslüm Gürses (Müslüm Baba, ‘Daddy Müslüm’). I left the place in total agony and with tears in my eyes...
"I left the place in total agony"
Am I telling you that the people of Istanbul, the participants at the rakı-table, are sombre and sad persons? Not at all; in fact, most Istanbulu love these conversations, the saddening songs, and the rakı, which strengthens the melancholic feelings of the evening. The culture of hüzün, as described by Pamuk, therefore reveals a striking difference with my mother-culture: whereas, in my experience, people in the Netherlands tend to refrain from discussing difficult matters and confronting issues (probably the most common topic of social talk is complaining about their job) and to celebrate their weekends as a way to break away from the daily misery, the case of the rakı-table exemplifies how problems of life, unfair situations, and heart-breaking stories are part and parcel of the social discourse of Istanbul.
In short, whilst I have always been accustomed to escape from discomfort, I now was forced to embrace it. It will be a difficult task to get used, and adapt, to this cultural melancholia, but, fortunately, there is always a bottle of rakı to comfort me. Şerefe!