Private View Issue 42

Andrew Finkel suspects plans for a third Bosphorus bridge once again spell disaster, looks back on the life and influence of the late Joanne Greenwood, and learns how Orhan Kemal stayed positive in prison.

Fool me once, fool me twice – but three times?

In 1973 Istanbul celebrated the opening of a bridge linking Europe to Asia. Its elegant span became an instant symbol of Turkish modernisation. Istanbul as a bridge between cultures, peoples and civilisation became the favourite metaphor. Before long, however, the bridge acquired a less flattering reputation for generating the very problems it was intended to solve. The bridge opened up the city to urban sprawl and traffic gridlock, which the authorities could not even pretend to control. So in 1988 Istanbul welcomed a second Bosphorus bridge to patch up all the problems created by the first. This bridge was meant to allow inter-city traffic to bypass Istanbul altogether. It would relieve congestion and conserve Istanbul’s greenery. That just didn’t happen. Even before the inaugural ribbon was snipped, there was vast speculative investment on the Asian side of the bridge. Lo and behold, a pledge that, to discourage commuters, there would be no entrances or exits for at least 25 kilometres on either side was instantly broken.

Twenty years on, an infinitesimal (less than 2 per cent) portion of the second bridge’s traffic is inter-city and, while Istanbul has grown exponentially, the pace of urbanisation along the route of the second bridge has been seven times that elsewhere. The satellite view from space reveals that some 4.7 million square metres of forestry have disappeared. It is not surprising that in the past 20 years the average temperature of the city has crept up one degree Celsius.

So what are we to make of promises that Istanbul will be treated to yet a third bridge, further up the Bosphorus, to make up for the deficiencies of the other two? No one can feel confident that such a bridge will not destroy what green spaces Istanbul still enjoys. The area around the Ömerli water reservoir, on the Asian side, is already vulnerable (See Cornucopia 21). A vital watershed, this is also a unique microenvironment, created by moist air blown in from the north encountering warmer fronts from the Marmara Sea. The Directorate of Highways has yet to produce an environmental-impact study demonstrating that such a bridge will not precipitate climate change, and that less rain will not fall on a smaller catchment area. The bridge will cost $4 billion, and its proponents say it will be less polluting than its older cousins by having two of its six lanes dedicated to public transport. Another two lanes should be reserved for lemmings. It will be a conduit for a city marching to its own destruction.

Loyal to the last: The dead watch over the city of Istanbul.

Or at least we should be grateful for the cemeteries that dot the city, remaining green and leafy and making a stand against the trespass of construction and blight. I had sombre reason to rediscover their value recently at the Protestant graveyard in Feriköy while bidding farewell to someone I’ve known for the better part of my life.

Joanne Greenwood first came to Istanbul from America in 1949. She found her niche teaching generation after generation of children in what started as a modest community school, founded to educate the offspring of the foreign faculty attached to the American college and high schools (today’s Boğaziçi University and Robert College). She was not my teacher – I came to Turkey as an adolescent and spent a year in the boys’ lycée – but she was the mother of my classmate and he in turn went on to become a distinguished Ottoman historian and a colleague of my wife, Caroline.

Joanne had a determined loyalty to Istanbul that made an enormous impression on many of her childrens’ friends, who came to regard Istanbul as a place they too could never quite leave. Her husband, Keith Greenwood, a professor of humanities at the university, died suddenly in 1971, at the start of an inhospitable decade in Turkey, of violence and shortages of even the most basic commodities. Istanbul was no expat fantasy of the easy life. I suppose there were many points then, and in the nearly four decades that followed, when Joanne could have found reasons to return to America. Instead, she found better ones to remain.

As long as she was in residence on a hill overlooking the fortress in Rumeli Hisarı, I thought I had in Istanbul a second home. I returned here myself in 1981, a no more cheerful period in Turkish history, and Joanne befriended me during those lean graduate-school days. I looked after her home one summer when she was away, cooking pots of spleen and lights to feed her cats. Caroline and I even had our wedding party in that house one violent, wintry night in January, when the only hurricane warning I’ve ever known in Istanbul kept most of the guests away.

Joanne was a foreigner living in a strange land but, given that the mean age in Turkey is 28.3 years, the odd truth is that she knew Istanbul decades before all but a modest percentage of the population was born. The city I first met, too, has long since disappeared as the population has doubled and doubled and doubled again. But, of course, Istanbul is a city where you learn to forgo nostalgia. You either embrace change or drift away.

While life in Istanbul involves a constant battle not to become sentimental about the past, it is almost impossible not to admit defeat after a visit to Feriköy cemetery. The graveyard, once on the outskirts of town, has long been engulfed by busy streets. It is a stone’s throw from Şişli, no longer the fashionable shopping district I remember. The graveyard is a small United Nations, sectioned off into different nationalities. It is also a secret garden. For some reason, or at least when I’ve been there, the skies are perpetually blue and the weather crisp. It is not too wild, but pleasantly unkempt and, unlike almost anywhere for miles around, preserves a sense of what the land was like before the city came along. “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!” reads the psalmic inscription on the stone of the late, great Hilary Sumner-Boyd, another Robert College professor and cataloguer of Istanbul monuments. He is buried next to friends: Robert Avery, editor of the Redhouse dictionary; Lee Fonger, the college’s chief librarian; David Garwood, another Robert College professor, and his daughter, Ann, who died much too young.

Joanne lies beside her husband. The irony is that she had, after long deliberation, decided to resettle in San Francisco. Her belongings had already been dispatched. Just like Joanne to find one final reason to remain.

Joanne Greenwood, teacher, born Oak Park, Illinois 1928; died Istanbul 2009

Lessons in living in hope

Orhan Kemal’s prison memoirs are compressed into a slim but remarkable volume.

Kemal went on to become one of Turkey’s most popular novelists, justly celebrated for his ability to get under the skin of ordinary life. In an early book, recently (and crisply) translated and annotated by Bengisu Rona, he describes how he acquired the confidence to write. It turns out he shared his cell in a Bursa jail with the great man of Turkish letters, the poet Nazım Hikmet. The book is a pamphlet-sized version of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The First Circle – an account of a privileged corner of hell.

Hikmet spent long years inside on the trumped-up charge of inciting mutiny, and moved through prison like a respected elder statesman. He busied himself with tasks, building wooden boxes or weaving cloth to support his family on the outside, but he also undertook the job of educating Kemal. He stood over the young man as he learned his French verbs and gently steered him away from writing indifferent poetry into writing great prose. Kemal worships Hikmet not by putting him on a pedestal but by recounting his foibles. There is a brief but extraordinarily moving passage when Hikmet, for reasons that are both petty and sad, refuses to see his wife. She had come to visit but disregarded his advice not to stay in a particular hotel. He has to be coaxed by the entire jail to abandon his wounded pride.

Just as the inmates fed themselves from the scraps they could afford, the poet managed to conjure up a life worth living from within prison walls. Many of the characters he sketched with charcoal and oils in jail he also portrayed in his poetry. “How strange it is, there are many people I love whose faces I have not seen, whose voices I have not yet heard,” he writes to Kemal after his friend’s release. In that same correspondence, he chides Kemal for giving in to despair. Great artists write about hopelessness without succumbing to it, he says. “A doctor who believes a man’s fight against disease is in vain has no right to practise as a doctor,” he says.

Another of Orhan Kemal’s books, The Idle Years, has also been translated and contains an introduction by the “other” Orhan, explaining its extraordinary appeal. It derives, Orhan Pamuk writes, from a delight in the intimacy of everyday life and the genuine optimism of those who by rights should be given to despair. Humanity without sentimentality is a skill Orhan Kemal learned from the very best.

‘In Jail with Nazım Hikmet’, by Orhan Kemal, translated by Bengisu Rona (Anatolia Publishing House)

Other Highlights from Cornucopia 42
  • Water Over the Bridge

    For the English-speaking community of Istanbul the suggestion of aqueduct-hunting in Thrace strikes fear into the hearts of all but the foolhardy. Relentlessly cheerful, Prof James Crow of Edinburgh University would laugh off each misadventure and forge onward.

  • Heat and Dust

    Leo Gough grew up in the hothouse atmosphere of Cold War Ankara, where his father was director of the British Institute of Archaeology. He recalls tales of derring-do from the larger-than-life visitors and scholars who passed through the institute’s doors


  • Four Walks in the Kaçkars

    Kate Clow, pioneering waymarker and author of two walking guides to the Taurus Mountains, has now created a guide to trekking in the Kaçkars. Here she describes four breathtaking one-day walks.


  • A Day on Black Rock Pasture

    By whatever name it is known – whether Karataş Yayla (Black Rock Pasture) or ÇaGrankaya (Singing Rock) – this spur of the Kaçkars is full of drama. Andrew Byfield battled rain and fog to reach its riches


  • Wrestling with Life in the Mountains

    High in the apparently empty Kaçkars, the way of life is as old as the hills. Michael Hornsby joins in the fun at a village festival in remote summer pastures. Photographs by Giulio Rubino

  • A Cold, Harsh Reality

    Norman Stone unravels the history of Kars



  • Portrait of the Artists

    Unlocking the door to the private world of Feyhaman and Güzin Duran, by Maureen Freely

  • The Flutterby Ball

    The Kaçkar Mountains are heaven for butterflies, as the butterfly book author and photographer Ahmet Baytaş, economist by trade, ecologist by nature, discovered when he returned to Yaylalar, the village of his birth


  • Mother of the Uighurs

    The Turkic Uighurs of Western China have long chafed under Communist Chinese rule. Christian Tyler meets their formidable figurehead, Rebiya Kadeer, who spent five years in prison for protesting against her people’s treatment and now carries on her fight for their freedom from Washington


  • Gorgeous Georgian

    Robert Ousterhout is agog at the remarkable Georgian churches of the Tao-Klarjeti, the two medieval Georgian principalities between Kars and the Kaçkars


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Issue 42, 2009 Adventures in Anatolia
£8.00 / $11.16 / 45.64 TL