Strolling in the heart of Istanbul with Ahmet Ümit



Strolling in the heart of Istanbul with Ahmet ÜmitAlthough the detective novel is not a very popular genre in Turkey, crime writer Ahmet Ümit’s books have proved successful both commercially and critically. Several of his novels have been translated into other languages and published outside of Turkey. One of them, Sis ve Gece (Fog and the Night), was adapted into a movie in 2007. From readers and critics alike, his works have met with appreciation. The reason for this? Ümit’s talent for depicting the darkest sides of Turkish society and history.

Throughout history, people have always been attracted to crime and mystery. Ümit’s latest book, Istanbul Hatirasi or Memories of Istanbul, provides a contemporary Turkish remedy to this ageless human fascination of riddles and mystique. By diving into the most troubling moments of Byzantium, Constantinople and Istanbul, he invites the reader to explore these mythical cities.

Ümit is an expert of Istanbul, and in particular the megalopolis’ central district Taksim. From the windows of his office, located on a narrow street in the area, he can easily observe his favorite neighborhood. “Taksim is the most cosmopolitan district in Istanbul, like a world in miniature”, says the writer. “And since the end of the twentieth century, this is where most of the Western embassies are. It’s a gateway to Europe”.

An acknowledged author, Ümit has the means and possibilities to spend his time in a more quiet and chic location than the somewhat shabby Taksim. But, being in the area is like an addiction to him. “It’s always in Taksim that I have the most fun”, he claims. “It’s a very colorful place where one can find people from any nationality, religion or sexual orientation.”

Taksim is both the cultural centre and nightlife hub of Istanbul: a unique area where tourists, pimps, jobless people, fashionistas and activists pass by the marvelous early twentieth century Art Nouveau buildings that line the streets. It’s to these lively avenues and alluring alleys that Ümit takes us to share his memories.

Taksim Square (blue)
When I arrived to Istanbul in 1978 to start university, I was 18 years old. Back then, Taksim Square was a prominent place for political reasons. On 1 May 1977, 34 people were killed during the Workers’ Day demonstrations. One time, we held a demonstration next to the tramway stop. I gave a speech standing on a car. It was wonderful. When I was on that car, I felt like I was in the sky.

At that time, I was a member of the Turkish Communist Party, which later on got banned. I became involved through friends when I was fifteen, without knowing much about it. Then, I started to read about politics and I realized that I shared the communist ideas. But when I went to study in Moscow in 1985, I changed my mind. There was a big gap between my vision of socialism and what I saw in the Soviet Union. I decided there to become a writer.

AFM Cinemas (red)
Once, we held a demonstration on Istiklal avenue, the main street in Taksim. The police arrived, so I escaped to this cinema. It actually used to be a pornographic movie hall (nowadays, it’s a very modern cinema showing American blockbusters). Soon, everybody from the demonstrations escaped in there to hide. Porn saved our lives!

Afrika Han (yellow)
There are certain buildings that are very representative of Taksim. Afrika Han (The Africa Hotel) is one of them. At the end of the nineteenth century, a pasha named Ragip built this han and two others, Rumeli Han (Europe Hotel) and Anadolu Han (Anatolia/Asia Minor Hotel). At that time, the Ottoman Empire still had a power that extended across the three continents of Africa, Europe and Asia. Looking at these buildings, you can compare the Ottoman era with the Republican period from 1923 and onwards. The hans are true symbols of Istanbul’s past.

Samarkand’s Bookstore (green)
This is where I buy my books. I’ve been coming here for ten years now, and have become friends with the owner. On the walls, you can see articles and interviews with me. From Samarkand, you can order old books that are impossible to find elsewhere. I usually enjoy reading novels, but when I start working on a book, I also read other books related to the topic, all of which you can get from here. I’ve recently read many books about Istanbul in order to prepare for my last novel.

Lades Restaurant (violet)
This is my favorite spot for lunch. The restaurant doesn’t serve alcohol, and that’s why I come here for lunch. For dinner, I prefer going to a venue that serves alcohol. At Lades, the meals are really delicious. They remind me of what my mother used to cook. I’m from Gaziantep in southeastern Turkey, and the cuisine there is great, with a big variety of dishes. Not just the usual kebabs and baklavas. There is a dish called Sarma for instance: vine leaves stuffed with rice and spices. When you start eating them, it’s impossible to stop! Food is really important for me. In my life, there are three essential elements: food, love and art!

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Clément Girardot

This article is published with the courtesy of Mashallah News , partner of Babelmed .

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