An air of dignified resignation

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Huzun, the Turkish word for melancholy, has an Arabic root; when it appears in the Koran (as huzun in two verses and hazen in three others) it means much the same thing as the contemporary Turkish word. The prophet Muhammad referred to the year in which he lost both his wife Hatice and his uncle, Ebu Talip, as Senettul huzun, the year of melancholy; this confirms that the word is meant to convey a feeling of deep spiritual loss. Huzun stems from the same “black passion” as melancholy, whose etymology refers to a basis first conceived in Aristotle’s day (melaina kole-black bile) and gives us the colouration normally associated with this feeling and the all-occluding pain it implies.

But here we come to the essential difference between the two words.
Robert Burton (the author of The Anatomy of Melancholy), who was proud to be afflicted, believed that melancholy paved the way to a happy solitude; because it strengthened his imaginative powers, it was, from time to time, to be joyfully affirmed. It did not matter if melancholy was the result of solitude or its cause; in both instances, Burton saw solitude as the heart, the very essence, of melancholy.

By contrast, while El Kindi (a Muslim philosopher) saw huzun both as a mystical state (engendered by the frustration of our common aim to be at one with Allah) and as an illness. The central preoccupation, as with all classic Islamic thinkers, was the cemaat, or community of believers. My starting point was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window. Now we begin to understand huzun not as the melancholy of a solitary person but the black mood shared by millions of people together.

What I am trying to explain is the huzun of an entire city: of Istanbul. To feel this huzun is to see the scenes, evoke the memories, in which the city itself becomes the very illustration, the very essence, of huzun. I am speaking of the evenings when the sun sets early, of the fathers under the streetlamps in the back streets returning home carrying plastic bags. Of the old Bosphorus ferries moored to deserted stations in the middle of winter, where sleepy sailors scrub the decks, pail in hand and one eye on the black-and-white television in the distance; of the old booksellers who lurch from one financial crisis to the next and then wait shivering all day for a customer to appear; of the barbers who complain that men don’t shave as much after an economic crisis; of the children who play ball between the cars on cobblestoned streets; of the covered women who stand at remote bus stops clutching plastic shopping bags and speak to no one as they wait for the bus that never arrives; of the empty boathouses of the old Bosphorus villas; of the teahouses packed to the rafters with unemployed men, of the patient pimps striding up and down the city’s greatest square on summer evenings in search of one last drunken tourist; of the crowds rushing to catch ferries on winter evenings; of the wooden buildings whose every board creaked even when they were pashas’ mansions, all the more now that they have become municipal headquarters; of the women peeking through their curtains as they wait for husbands who never manage to come home in the evening; of the old men selling thin religious treatises, prayer beads, and pilgrimage oils in the courtyards of mosques; of the tens of thousands of identical apartment house entrances, their façades discoloured by dirt, rust, soot, and dust; of the broken seesaws in empty parks; of ship horns booming through the fog; of the city walls, ruins since the end of the Byzantine Empire; of the seagulls perched on rusty barges caked with moss and mussels, unflinching under the pelting rain; of the tiny ribbons of smoke rising from the single chimney of a hundred year-old mansion on the coldest day of the year; of the smell of exhaled breath in the movie theatres, once glittering affairs with gilded ceilings, now porn cinemas frequented by shamefaced men; of the avenues where you never see a woman alone after sunset; of the young girls who queue at the doors of establishments selling cut-rate meat; of the holy messages spelled out in lights between the minarets of mosques on holidays that are missing letters where the bulbs have burned out; of the walls covered with frayed and blackened posters; of the tired old dolmuses, 1950s Chevrolets that would be museum pieces in any western city but serve here as shared taxis, huffing and puffing up the city’s narrow alleys and dirty thoroughfares; of the mosques whose lead plates and rain gutters are forever being stolen; of the city cemeteries, which seem like gateways to a second world, and of their cypress trees; of the little children in the streets who try to sell the same packet of tissues to every passerby; of the clock towers no one ever notices; of the history books in which children read about the victories of the Ottoman Empire; of the readers’ letters, squeezed into a corner of the paper and read by no one, announcing that the dome of the neighbourhood mosque, having stood for some 375 years, has begun to cave in and asking why the state has not done something; of the third-rate singers doing their best to imitate American vocalists and Turkish pop stars in cheap nightclubs, and of first-rate singers too; of the bored high school students in never-ending English classes where after six years no one has learned to say anything but “yes” and “no”; of the immigrants waiting on the Galata docks; of marble ruins that were for centuries glorious street fountains but now stand dry, their faucets stolen; of the apartment buildings in the side streets where during my childhood middle-class families-of doctors, lawyers, teachers, and their wives and children-would sit in their apartments listening to the radio in the evenings, and where today the same apartments are packed with knitting and button machines and young girls working all night long for the lowest wages in the city to meet urgent orders; of the crowds of men smoking cigarettes after the national soccer matches, which during my childhood never failed to end in abject defeat: I speak of them all.

In Istanbul the remains of a glorious past civilisation are everywhere visible. No matter how ill-kept, no matter how neglected or hemmed in they are by concrete monstrosities, the great mosques and other monuments of the city, as well as the lesser detritus of empire in every side street and corner – the little arches, fountains, and neighbourhood mosques – inflict heartache on all who live among them.

These are nothing like the remains of great empires to be seen in western cities, preserved like museums of history and proudly displayed. The people of Istanbul simply carry on with their lives amid the ruins. Many western writers and travellers find this charming. But for the city’s more sensitive and attuned residents, these ruins are reminders that the present city is so poor and confused that it can never again dream of rising to its former heights of wealth, power, and culture.

But the fastest flight from the huzun of the ruins is to ignore all historical monuments and pay no attention to the names of buildings or their architectural particularities. For many Istanbul residents, poverty and ignorance have served them well to this end. History becomes a word with no meaning; they take stones from the city walls and add them to modern materials to make new buildings, or they go about restoring old buildings with concrete. But it catches up with them: By neglecting the past and severing their connection with it, the huzun they feel in their mean and hollow efforts is all the greater.

For the poet, huzun is the smoky window between him and the world. The screen he projects over life is painful because life itself is painful. So it is, also, for the residents of Istanbul as they resign themselves to poverty and depression. Imbued still with the honour accorded it in Sufi literature, huzun gives their resignation an air of dignity, but it also explains why it is their choice to embrace failure, indecision, defeat, and poverty so philosophically and with such pride, suggesting that huzun is not the outcome of life’s worries and great losses but their principal cause.

So it was for the heroes of the Turkish films of my childhood and youth, and also for many of my real-life heroes during the same period: they all gave the impression that because of this huzun they’d been carrying around in their hearts since birth they could not appear desirous in the face of money, success, or the women they loved. Huzun does not just paralyse the inhabitants of Istanbul; it also gives them poetic licence to be paralysed.

This is an edited extract from ‘Istanbul: Memories and the City’ by Orhan Pamuk (Translated from the Turkish by Maureen Freely). It was published last month in the US by Alfred A. Knopf and earlier this year in the UK by Faber and Faber. Orhan Pamuk’s novels include ‘My Name is Red’ and ‘Snow’.

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