I spent last week in Istanbul! I was invited to come as a guest of the Black Week Festival, a literary convention specifically focused on crime fiction. I gave a speech, TED-Talk style, talked to journalists, signed hundreds of books, and appeared on national Turkish television. The Turkish version of Superposition came out there two months ago, and it’s now a bestseller. Apparently they love quantum physics murder mysteries in Turkey!
I stayed at the Pera Palace Hotel, a luxury hotel in the Beyoğlu district of Istanbul that was once a stop on the famed Orient Express. The hotel was not only beautiful, but also reknown for its literary history, since authors like Agatha Christie and Ernest Hemingway have stayed there, along with other celebrities like Greta Garbo, Alfred Hitchcock, Jackie Onassis, and Bill Clinton. Everything was paid for by my gracious hosts, and I was treated like royalty.
Even more than the celebrity treatment, however, I enjoyed the cross-cultural connections I made with other authors, editors, and members of the Turkish literary scene. We stayed up late drinking raki (mostly they drank raki — I’m not much of a drinker) and talking about books, politics, and religion. My impression of the Turkish people (granting, of course, that this was a literary convention!) is that they are readers and thinkers, with a lot of important and interesting things to say.
The Beyoğlu district of Istanbul, where we were walking, eating, and hanging out, has been the site of multiple recent bombs, and where tanks rolled through the square during the recent coup attempt. This political turmoil is personal to the people who live there. It’s their streets being bombed, their windows being blown out by the sonic boom from low-flying F-16s. In some cases, it’s their friends who are in prison for saying unpopular things against the government. Turkey doesn’t enjoy the freedom of speech and press that we currently do in the United States, and those with something to say feel the lack.
Istanbul is a beautiful city. There are, of course, the sites of the historical district: the Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, the Blue Mosque, the Suleimani Mosque. There’s the Bosporus and the Golden Horn, and the views from Istanbul’s high hills. But I think the city is also beautiful for its chaotic layers of history. I took a picture from my hotel window on the first day, and posted it on Twitter, saying how beautiful the view was. Locals were a bit astonished, since the view was a cascade of ordinary buildings, many of them old and rundown. But the age of Istanbul is part of its character. You can wander the mazelike cobblestone streets, and run into walls and ruins more than a millennium old. There are structures from Constantine’s reign, Roman buildings, Genovese buildings, a mix of European and Asian influences, a mix of Christianity and Islam. It’s a city built on history.
It was an intense and very enjoyable trip for me, and I hope for the chance to return someday!