DECEMBER 8, 2013
A LITTLE MORE than 500 days has passed since Orhan Pamuk opened the doors of his Museum of Innocence to the public in Istanbul’s Çukurcuma neighborhood. It has been a lively, intense, and dangerous 500 days, during which time Istanbul witnessed frequent outbursts of violence and the destruction of any trace of innocence it might still have possessed. The loss of Istanbul’s innocence had been a gradual process: on May 1, 2013 (four days after Pamuk’s museum celebrated its first anniversary), the city’s governor abruptly canceled the May Day gathering in Taksim square. When the government had opened the square for the May Day gathering in 2010, after a 32-year-long ban by previous administrations, the move was much praised by the country’s leftists and liberals. Four weeks after the cancellation of the May Day gathering a small group of die-hard environmentalists kick-started the events in Gezi park, struggling to protect one of the last green areas in Taksim, where the government wanted to install a kitschy shopping mall. During the early days of protests, when local youths marched to the park, tourists continued to fill Pamuk’s museum. As the violence snowballed and spilled onto the streets I walked past the museum door, looked at the building’s red facade and tried imagining the silence inside. The museum stands at the entrance of a street that connects Karaköy (which is adjacent to Bosporus) to Cihangir (which is close to Gezi Park) — a neighborhood that had its share of tear gas during the events.
I had first visited the museum in mid-April last year before it had even opened its doors to the public. Pamuk had arranged for me to visit the building for a short piece commissioned by a British paper. Early one morning I knocked on the door and was greeted by the museum’s first curator, who showed me around. After her departure I enjoyed, for more than an hour, being alone among the museum’s fictional objects and sound installations, which had been freshly installed in the building’s three stories.
Listening to Turkish contemporary artist Cevdet Erek’s brilliant sound recordings of a stilettoed woman’s walk among the streets of Nişantaşı was a priceless experience. So was the chance to get a close look at the small bed of the book’s protagonist Kemal and at Pamuk’s manuscript, in which I could see, in the writer’s longhand, the early sketches of Kemal’s character. In another installation I heard Istanbul’s birds as they clapped their wings; leaving the building I felt sure I would come back to the place and to its silent innocence.
Before he allowed writers and journalists like me inside, Pamuk had brought another group of people, a group that must have mattered much more — his neighbors, most of whom are antique dealers. I heard stories about how they had explored the objects of the museum with much pleasure. They were proud to have been the first visitors of the place. It made sense since they had been on that street long before the museum was even an idea in Pamuk’s mind.
In the days I passed by the museum I had paid little attention to its neighbors. When The New York Times had listed Istanbul in a “places to visit this summer” article last year, a picture represented the city that showed those neighbors and their families as they visited the museum. “How can those people represent Istanbul?” one user complained on Twitter. He might have preferred seeing smartly dressed Turkish businessmen on the page instead of those not-so-glamorous locals. But then the neighborhood did belong to those people, in whose eyes we must have been little more than visitors. Some of them shared with Pamuk an impressive devotion to the art of collecting. Their shops, around a dozen of them in Çukurcuma, look like miniature museums of innocence themselves. They are similar products of meticulous labor spent collecting objects.
One morning in August I visited those antique shops. They seemed to me to have been placed there as an extension of Pamuk’s artistic vision, so brilliant was his choice of locale. I visited Esra Aysun, the museum’s new curator, in her office adjacent to the building, and she described it as the museum becoming an “organic part” of a neighborhood those shops had defined for so long. “We didn’t change the neighborhood at all,” she said. “Instead we set up an institution that is looking after its objects just like they look after theirs.”
Çukurcuma’s antique shops (antikacılar in Turkish) had long witnessed the life in the neighborhood. They helped make it safe when Taksim was not so safe a place in 1990s — a time when the tension between the city’s Kurds, Roma people, sexual minorities, and the police force was at its peak. This was also a time when torture in police stations was widespread and street violence a basic fact of life.
Mahmut Gezmez, the owner of Yaşam Antik, seemed like a grave character when I first met him in his dimmed shop filled with many objects made of copper. He described how the number of his customers had dropped after the protests this summer. But when asked to talk about his neighborhood he cheered up. “Our customer profile changed dramatically thanks to the museum,” he said. “Young and beautiful people are now frequenting this street. They are not shopping that much, but you know, one can’t expect young people to shop that much. I totally forgive them.” When I asked him whether he approved of the way Pamuk’s curator displayed the museum’s objects, he said he didn’t feel qualified to answer the question. “Professional architects designed those object cabinets in the museum,” he said, “who am I to criticize them? I think the museum is very nice.” In an even more cheerful mood he told me how his fellow antique dealers learned English to better communicate with new customers. “Me? So far I have not managed to master the language,” he said. “My English consists of two words: hello and welcome.” Gezmez, who had traveled to Istanbul from Adana (a city which the country’s other major novelist, Yaşar Kemal, beautifully describes in his epic books), promised to read Pamuk’s books and improve his English before I left his shop.
I then visited Fikret’in Dünyası (“Fikret’s World”) owned by a young collector named Fikret Bilgin Yılmaz. Yılmaz said he had devoted his life to collecting; he focuses on toys and has been collecting them for the last 15 years. “Orhan Bey purchased many of the toys for his museum from my own shop in Cihangir,” he said. (Everyone I spoke to that day referred to Pamuk in this way, as “Mr Orhan.”) “Orhan Bey is not a collector in the classical sense of the word. He collected stuff in order to create this museum and then he seems to have quitted the habit. Another famous Turkish writer, Sunay Akın, is also a frequent visitor.” Akın owns a museum in the city’s Anatolian side named Istanbul Toy Museum (http://www.istanbuloyuncakmuzesi.com/eng/). “I think Pamuk is the better writer and Akın is the better collector,” Yılmaz opined.
Another shop I visited on the street was virtually empty except for its owner, Haydar Tekin, who said he had lately decided to turn his place into a “transportation facility.” “My family had lived here for more than a century,” said Tekin, whose surname means “deserted place” in Turkish. “The grandfather of my grandfather came here first. Our family witnessed the transformation of this neighborhood over many decades. We know who helped Çukurcuma and who did not. Let me tell you,” he said in a passionate voice, “Orhan Bey is a very good fellow. His museum added energy to our neighborhood! If respectable people are now frequenting these streets it is because of his museum.”
Tekin then complained about the coverage of Gezi events by the international media. “They represented this city as if it was a war zone,” he said. “In fact not much had changed here. All the violence took place around the park. It was peaceful in Çukurcuma.”
Ahmet Ok, who runs a leather shop on the other end of the street, begged to differ. Living in an apartment in Cihangir, Ok experienced firsthand how the tear gas used by the police affected even the residential areas that had nothing to do with the events.
Ok told me how things have changed over the last four years as people from the United States and Europe started renting houses in the neighborhood. He said he had been a tourist guide for more than 25 years; when I suggested whether he was bored sitting behind a desk all day long in his shop he said he had lately become an avid reader of books. (He confessed to enjoying My Name is Red, Pamuk’s IMPAC winning novel, more than the Innocence.) “I heard that Pamuk is about to finish a new book and that it is about a boza seller,” he said. “I wonder whether he will build a museum for the boza seller as well.”
Pamuk has frequented the streets of the neighborhood for the last 13 years. When he is in town (which is not always, since Pamuk is lecturing at Columbia University one semester a year) he visits the shops and talks to their owners. In Turkish we call antique dealers antikacılar, which is a neutral word. Antika insan (an antiquated person), on the other hand, is not so neutral: it means a weird kind of person, which the protagonist of Pamuk’s book arguably is. (Following the death of his lover, he collects everything she left behind.) During my childhood, my relatives told me that writers, artists, and such people were antika insanlar, and that I should keep my distance from them. Seeing how much the Nobel laureate, his antique-dealer neighbors, and the thousands of protestors who had wanted to preserve trees in a public park had in common, I feel glad that I have never taken their advice.