words thalia dergham | illustrations yao xiao
I went to Istanbul as a child, where I promptly demanded to move there.
“But you love New York, Thalia, New York is where you always said you wanted to live,” my mother replied.
“We can Scotch-tape the two cities together,” I responded, placing one finger on top of the other and pressing them close together near my chest.
I returned to Istanbul at age sixteen, and Istanbul is where Mama and I ran through the souks looking for and tasting illegal caviar, where a shopkeeper gave me my very first over-sized scarf. He said it was becoming, and those woven fabrics became a staple of my wardrobe. I wrote my college essay about it, left the essay at a party, and spent weeks recovering it. In Istanbul I became a muse to two drunken film writers, in an anachronistic hotel lobby. Each evening I would climb into my bed on the Bosphorus reeking of cigarettes and the scent of oud.
They say where I’m standing is the best view in the city. Everyone has a different conception of the best view. Some say it’s the view from the Northern area of Tarabya, where you can look down the Bosphorus from the city’s most quiet district and watch the city’s catastrophic traffic. Others insist it is from the fish market at Karakoy, one of the city’s most underdeveloped districts, throwing Turkish Simit bread to the seagulls while minarets loom low over your head.
Mine is on a roof in Taksim, Istanbul’s equivalent to Times Square (less hated by its natives), where I stand nearly directly above the Bosphorus. If you look right, you have a perfect view across to the old city, studded with the minarets of the beloved Haghia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, and Topkapi Palace. Directly across, Asia, and to the left, the Bosphorus Bridge whose lights sparkle at night. Below me, one of my favorite contrasts: a decrepit and downtrodden building project, deserted before it looked like anything more than a multilevel parking lot. Standing next to it, the German Embassy, which looks exactly like Columbia University’s Hamilton Hall.
It is from this place that I can capture, in distinct moments, everything Istanbul has meant to me. While living in Istanbul, I was geographically displaced, incessantly happy, and decidedly disillusioned. When I returned to Istanbul to study abroad five years later, it was for an isolated period of six months. Isolated because I would live alone for the very first time. Isolated because the time frame itself would be a premeditated sectioning off of my real life and any trajectory I had previously followed. But here there is no trajectory — nothing connects the defunct building to its German aggressor, nothing unifies the Quranic Plaques of the Haghia Sophia with it’s Christian counterparts.