“Notes from Constantinople” (original title “Kostantiniyye Notlari”) by Cüneyt Ayral, is a sort of logbook of life in that city, as seen by the most seasoned of its inhabitants. It is also a singular analysis of current events and of social and economical developments. We chat with him about his “Notes from Constantinople”.
Nedim Gürsel: In your most recent book “Notes from Constantinople”, you have gathered together a number of diverse articles which speak of Paris as well as of Istanbul. Among them, one particularly held my attention. In it you describe two statues in the park of the Château of Rambouillet, the summer residence of French Presidents, one of which represents a man and a woman, and the other, two men embracing. I should like to know more about these two statues and their sculptors. (2)
Cüneyt Ayral: I have been travelling for years to the four corners of the world, and people’s daily lives everywhere interest me far more than museums. I like to make friends and learn of their lives in their homes. In reply to your question, it does not matter to me who painted a picture, or who was the sculptor of a statue. I am only interested in the existence of a work of art as an integral part of life. My childhood friend, Derya Tutumel who was press attaché in Paris at that time, took me to visit the Château of Rambouillet. He knew all the châteaux around Paris and further afield. He took me there because it was the summer residence of the French Presidents. Just imagine ! I am from Turkey. I have lived here for a number of years, but the fact that I am from Turkey is firmly anchored in me….. Could you imagine our (Turkish) presidents or Prime Ministers welcoming the King of Saudi Arabia or of, say, Malaysia, to a park like this? I certainly cannot. Yet in this château and its park only a short while before, international conferences had been taking place, with the presence of a number of foreign statesmen and women. So, let us say that these two statues in the park, which represent “men and women embracing”, simply evoked for me the pleasure that could be felt just through contemplating the immense forest of Rambouillet which had suffered so terribly in the storms of December 1999 (3), and also the respect which the French have for Humankind and for liberty.
I WOULD NOT CALL PARIS A FEMALE CITY BUT A HERMAPHRODITE CITY
For a number of years you published th newspaper “Constantinople News” (original title “Kostantiniyye Haberleri”), and because of this you became the target of the right-wing groups. Yet Mehmet the Conqueror knew and loved Istanbul under that name. What would you like to say now about these reactions and about the banning of the newspaper?
It was an honour for me to publish that paper for five years. I am now nearly sixty and have done many things in my life,, but among all my diverse activities, that publication is the one which has the highest value for me. “Constantinople News”, containing all the rich contributions of my friends, was the mirror of Istanbul, and at times, of the whole of Turkey. They banned the title of the paper because it evoked Byzantium. I was denounced by a well known poet friend, who wrote in the daily paper “Zaman” whose title was printed in red. I won my case against the State at the Council of State, and it is noteworthy that the State did not appeal, thus recognising its mistake, which has some importance. I was present with my lawyer at all the hearings. Nobody from the newspaper accompanied me except my friend Melih Ziya Sezer, owner of the pharmacy “Yeni Moda”, a reader of our publication who was beside me on the day that the verdict was pronounced. I should like to create a digital version of the newspaper which is already present in the archives of several universities in different countries. Hilmi Yavuz and the late Orhan Duru, two collaborators of the paper have published books regrouping their articles. Hulki Aktunç unfortunately died before he was able to do so. In an interview which we did together for the columns of the paper, you made an important statement – “Istanbul is no longer the city to which I return, bu the city to which I go”. It was your first step towards “world citizenship”. Unless I am mistaken there was an article about a year previously in another Turkish daily, entitled “Names of Istanbul”. I had cut it out, meaning to reply but omitted to do so through negligence. Many people referred to my paper as “Konstantiniyye”, whereas in fact its name was “Kostantiniyye”, as Cüneyt Olçer writes in his book on ancient coins. A coin minted during the reign of Sultan Mehmet II bears this name.
You described Paris and Istanbul as “female cities”. You do not try to hide your idea of” feminine” or “masculine” places. How about” hermaphrodite cities”?
If I had written that article today, I would have described Paris as hermaphrodite. In my novel “Zaman Bitti” (“Time is over”) and then again in “Gümüs Gölge” (“Silver Shadow”) I often come back to these aspects of places. Night life in Paris, the hidden side of Istanbul, the amorous aspects of Milan, the prostitutes of Rome, the very remarkable “hermaphrodite” side of New York not forgetting what Hong Kong reveals behind its façade of conservatism and its modesty, among them. In the novel on which I am working at present, “Son Darbe” (“The Final Blow” or “The Final Coup”) the reader will get to know the unusual places in these cities. In my book “Notes from Paris”, I describe some “hermaphrodite” places. And finally, I am pleased to say that I have also found some “male” cities among those I have known. The world has escaped male domination, at least as far as its cities are concerned.
In your book you also write about politics. What is your opinion, as a journalist and writer, of the present situation in Turkey?
Turkey is trying to come to terms with itself, but is finding it difficult because of the predominance of nomadic traditions. It is very frightened. People are having difficulty in understanding their century. Those who lead the country are far from possessing the necessary” qualities” of statesmen, but this is the case the world over; the penury, not to say the absence, of wise and cultivated statesemen is a world problem. Turkey is no exception. Turkey’s leading politicians are aiming for “dictatorship”. They travel all over the world but lack the knowledge which would allow them to understand it. I see a difference between people who are”clever” and those who are “intelligent”. Turkey has many clever leaders but one cannot see them as intelligent. For example, some of them become friendly with the head of state in Russia, would like to imitate him, but are totally ignorant concerning Russia, its history and the behavious patterns od the Russian people. They see these things but cannot understand them, because that would necessitate wider knowledge of literature, music and art, not to mention sociology and anthropology. In Turkey, people continually confuse the sheep with the goats. We are moving further and further away from a principled State with its head firmly on its shoulders, having a clear vision of its objectives. We are engaged in settling accounts without knowing with whom and for what reason. If this goes on it will be a great pity for Turkey as it will take a long time to set things right. The time has come to understand that everything does not depend on the increase of national revenue. Also it is necessary to understand neo-colonialism in order to avoid any further steps in that direction. You know the Turkish proverb, “Stick the needle into yourself before knifing somebody else” Our leaders have not felt the needle but are attacking left and right with a knife in their hand. It is a dead end because it is difficult to fight against this sort of person. One needs an intelligent enemy.
I NO LONGER HAVE ANY TIES WITH ISTANBUL
Orhan Duru told you the name of the first known mayor of Istanbul He was called Proclus. What do you think of the actions of the last mayor, the urbanisation of the city and principally of the project of a big mosque, dear to the Prime Minister?
A lot of water has flowed under the bridges since the time of Proclus. In my reply to your previous question I spoke of the incompetence of Turkey’s statesman. The present mayor of Istanbul is the owner of the best known cake shop in the city, the “Saray cake shop “, and he cannot even do that job properly. He accepted the removal of his shop to another place in order to build a shopping mall. There is also the example of the famous “Inci” cake shop which has been obliged to close and move away. And what has happened nowadays to the famous “Marquise” cake shop? What is it that makes a place famous? What is it that nourishes its existence? You and I no longer frequent the “Café de Flore” which has become too expensive, but it continues to attract the tourists who only have to look at the menus to see the names of all the famous people who ate there, and this enhances their knowledge of Paris. Cafés and cake shops should not be under-estimated. Obviously, those who did nothing but kick a ball on a muddy field during their youth, who never had the opportunity to appreciate middle-class pleasures in their cities will not be able to understand a colossus such as IstanbuL. For them a few political images will suffice, such as the restructuring of Taksim Square, or the construction of a giant mosque. It’s a question of cultural origins other than ours and which are dominant now in Turkey. What do they say: “If you don’t like it, lump it!” So we lumped it. I feel that I have done all I could for Istanbul. For example, my book “The songs of Istanbul”, the exhibition “40 years of art” with the art photographer Cizgen, the newspaper “Kostantiniyye Haberleri” and finally the exhibition “Istanbul is an Adventure”. All of these things have their place in History, and Istanbul can no longer be angry with me.
You were the curator of the exhibition entitled “Istanbul is an adventure” What impression did it make? Who visited it? What comments were made? Does your attachment to Istanbul not have its roots in the fact that you have been living in France for so long?
First of all, I must say, very frankly that I no longer have any attachment for Istanbul. If one day I decide to go back to live in Turkey, I shall choose to go to Izmir. It is a city which for a very long time was home to different minorities and has a rich culture. My interest for France and my links to this country go back nearly thirty-five years. I have been living here for sixteen years, longer than in Istanbul and as long as I lived in Ankara. What is more, I am very happy to be here. My interest and my links with Turkey have their roots in the fact that I write in Turkish and work for a Turkish newspaper. When one have been a journalist for over forty years, one is obviously a specialist.
When I look at events in Turkey over the last few years, I increasingly feel myself to be part of a minority. I do not think of myself as an intellectual, simply as a poet and a writer. You must have noticed that in my novels I take the characters all over the world. In my latest novel “Son Darbe” (“The Final Blow”), on which I am now working, I am trying to give some insight into Turkish minorities, those who, like me, find themselves relegated into minority situations.
Who visited and understood the meaning of the exhibition? More or less nobody…. This exhibition which took place under the archways in the inner courtyard of Topkapi Palace was the vehicle for a certain number of messages. Unless I am mistaken, the first known exhibition in history, that of Alexandria, was also held under archways. Bronze representations of Istanbul monuments were aligned in a certain order which had a meaning. Thirteen poems of thirteen lines each, written by thirteen poets were offered to History. These poems are included in my book “Notes from Constantinople”, and their translations into English and French were included in the brochure of the exhibition. Beside each bronze picture were lines from my book “The songs of Istanbul”. In this context, I am very grateful for the translations by Tarik Günersel and Beverly Barbey.The bronze work was done by Semra and Birol Ecer and it was a serious and lengthy undertaking. Alas, Birol Ecer, who was responsible for the technical work turned out to be a difficult person. To be perfectly honest, the whole business was beyond his imaginative capacities, and once it was operational he allowed himself to be carried away by its success. I immediately retired from the whole affair. I had arranged for the exhibition to travel to Moscow, Paris and Milan. Later I organised exhibitions for other artists in those places. Erdem Helvacioglu, a very talented young electronic music artist, had composed a thirteen-minute piece on the theme of Istanbul. At the inaugural ceremony it was not possible to ensure thirteen minutes of silence in order to play it – the guests were more interested in the refreshments. Unfortunately…
So, the exhibition “Istanbul is an adventure” really was an adventure. It was seen by a large number of tourists, but not one art critic deigned to write about it or praise it. What more can I say? It was just an adventure.
(1) After the fall of Byzantium, the name Constantinopolis (Constantinople), meaning the city of Constantine, became Kostantiniyye in the Ottoman era. The present name of Istanbul only became official a few years after the proclamation of the Republic in 1923.
(2) The statur representing two men “Charité Fraternelle” was sculpted in
1865 by Julien Edouard Conny. The other –” The death of Procris”, a
work by Jean Escoula, from 1898 represents Procris in the arms of her
(3) In December 1999 the forest of Rambouillet was severely damaged by the
exceptionally violent wind storms.
Translation from the French