Monthly Archives: March 2017

Crisis averted: what to do on the plane!

Since the US and UK banned laptops and tablets from the airplane cabins on flights originating in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia, I’ve read some really daft articles addressing the desperate question: what can I do on the plane?

Here’s one, from Bloomberg: Hacks to Survive a Twenty Hour Flight – without a laptop or tablet!

One answer might be: read a book. Revolutionary? Perhaps all first class travel could look like this?

Here’s my list for travellers coming out of Turkey:

Three Daughters of Eve by Elif Shafak

The latest novel by the wonderful Elif Shafak, who first burst onto the scene with her punchy, funny and tragic novel, The Bastard of Istanbul. Elif writes about women negotiating their power and their position in a man’s world, and she does it with sly humour, tenderness, and a wonderful feel for historical time and place. The action kicks off when a beggar snatches the handbag of a wealthy Turkish housewife on her way to a smart Istanbul dinner party. Out drops an old photo… and with it, a life and love that Peri has tried to forget.

Istanbul: Poetry of Place, edited by Ates Orga

Packed with poetry and a little prose, all set in the former capital of the Byzantine and the Ottoman empires, Istanbul: Poetry of Place brings you the voices of the city’s inhabitants, from sultans to modern-day feminists.

Snow by Orhan Pamuk

Complex, fragmentary, unreliable and poetic, this thoroughly postmodern novel abounds with puns, ironies, double-takes and imponderable conflicts of love, faith and social justice, reflecting not only aspects of the human condition but also of 20th-century Turkey’s preoccupations with secularism, religious freedom and revolution. In the city of Kars, a young journalist, Ka, comes to investigate a spate of suicides relating to the wearing of headscarves – and opens up a kaleidoscopic world of claims, counter-claims and conflicting priorities.

Turkey: a Short History by Norman Stone

A fanfare for modern Turkey and a vivid, provocative, often funny, always insightful account of how it came about. Stone pulls together his accomplishments as a philoturk, a philologist, controversialist and narrative historian to sweep his readers along a short crash course in Turkish origins, their history and current challenges. If you don’t really know why a portrait of Ataturk hangs in almost every shop in Turkey, read this book.

Constantinople: City of the World’s Desire by Philip Mansel

The definitive history of the city from 1453, by one of our finest historians, also explains how a multi-ethnic, polyglot empire was controlled by a single dynasty for more than 600 years. Mansel mines a vast range of sources to bring the fashions, pomp and politics of this ancient world capital to life.

Birds without Wings by Louis de Bernières

I keep picking this up – and putting it down again, because I can’t quite face the onrushing tragedy. Needless to say, it’s the story of a doomed love affair between Philotei and Ibrahim, as relations between Greece and Turkey collapse in the First World War; prelude to the massive population exchange of 1923, which ended Greek settlement of Asia Minor. Gallipoli is in it; so is Ataturk; so are some characters from Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. De Bernières insists this is the better book and I believe him.

Eothen by AW Kinglake

The title, which means “from the east” is, as the author points out, the hardest thing in the book, a sly travel account purporting to be written by a Victorian hooray which makes for spectacularly funny reading. Jonathan Raban has described the narrator as having the “sensibility of someone who is a close blood-relative of Flashman”: witness his thoroughly waspish account of a meeting with Lady Hester Stanhope. Typical, too, is his insouciance towards the plague in Cairo, which claims his heroic doctor while the narrator survives unmoved.

A Short History of Byzantium by John Julius Norwich

The three volumes of his magisterial history, boiled down into one, may seem too condensed at times, but Norwich deftly and entertainingly outlines the often outrageous story of an empire that lasted 1,123 years and 18 days. It is as good on Byzantine art and church matters as on the peccadilloes of the emperors – and their triumphs.

Rebel Land by Christopher de Bellaigue

Caught up in a journalistic furore after his mention of the Armenian massacres that occurred in the dying days of the Ottoman empire, de Bellaigue decided to find out for himself what may have happened. He settled on – and in – the town of Varto, which once had a huge Armenian population. Without delivering any final answers, de Bellaigue’s beautifully written account of his experiences with locals, secret policemen and even exiles still sheds light on this intractable issue, if only to illuminate the complexity of the situation both then and now.

The Sultan’s Seal by Jenny White

The first of the Kamil Pasha detective stories, set in the dying days of the Ottoman Empire, kicks off with a body on the beach. Kamil Pasha, the Anglophile Ottoman detective, must draw together the threads of this murder and of an older, unsolved crime, sifting through the murky waters of late Ottoman politics and society. Sequels are The Abyssinian Proof and The Winter Thief.

Yashim: Don’t forget that all five Yashim novels are available as a set from and from – and in dozens of languages, too. Meanwhile The Janissary Tree and The Snake Stone are published in Turkey by Pegasus as Yeniceri Agaci  and Yılanlı Sütun

Istanbul, mon amour

Cumhuriyet Kitap, Turkey’s answer to the TLS or The New York Review of Books, recently ran an essay I wrote on Istanbul. It was translated and introduced by Selçuk Altun, whose novels include The Sultan of Byzantium. Here’s the English version, with a few illustrations added:


It was an Irishman who introduced me to Istanbul, the great Irish poet W.B. Yeats. He had never been, himself: he never got further east than Ravenna. But he thought of Constantinople as the Holy City where, for a moment in the early days of Byzantium, art and action, feeling and intellect, had been fused into a single, graspable Truth.

That is no country for old men...Yeats wrote, in ‘Sailing to Byzantium’.

His belief had nothing to do with Istanbul; yet the outsider’s view cannot be disqualified. Istanbul has always been, in part, a figment of the imagination. The emperor Constantine, who founded the city in 330 AD, envisioned it as the New Rome; and it was as Romans, Romanoii, that the Greek-speaking rulers of the city faced their nemesis 1100 years later. The rough Frankish knights who turned the energies of the Fourth Crusade against Constantinople in 1204 saw the city as a painted harlot; the Venetians, meanwhile, as their California. The Vikings called it Micklegard, the Great City. The Muslims, who first attacked it in 668 AD, called it the Red Apple. Osman, whose descendants were to capture it in 1453, saw the city in his dreams, and even today, on the walls of old mosques and mansions throughout the Balkans and the Middle East, you may find it wistfully represented, a city of hills and kiosks, trees and minarets rising gracefully from the water: a glimpse of an earthly paradise.Some of these illusions may even survive an encounter with the physical city, too.

The young in one another’s arms…

I first came to Istanbul on a wave of youthful romanticism, making my own Haj across eastern Europe, on foot, treading woodland paths from the Baltic to the Bosphorus. I was 26 years old. I stood beneath the dome of Aya Sofia like those ambassadors of old who said: ‘We did not know whether we were in heaven or on earth.’ Outside, old men waved us to share their café chairs. The bread was dazzlingly fresh, the mackerel came off the boats, and in the Grand Bazaar a concoction of mint and chicken blew away months of dreary, Soviet-style meals. Walking across Europe was like a fairy-tale adventure; Topkapi was a fairytale palace; and the streets of Istanbul seemed tinged with gold. Of course I fell in love.

I married the girl who shared the journey: and in a way, I married Istanbul.

It was a city where you could bump your shins on history, eat well, take a ferry, ride a tram, and travel from one civilisation to another in ten steps. It took me a while to get to know Istanbul. I began like a jealous husband, raking up the past, combing through the stories people had told about her over the years. It helped that I had decided to write a book on that very subject: Lords of the Horizons, A History of the Ottoman Empire.

I wrote it to explain the Ottomans to myself. In Cracow, we saw some of the war tents captured at Vienna in 1683. In Hungary, we walked past a beautiful minaret, in a dusty town square. Who were those Ottomans? Where had they gone? I discovered there were many answers to those simple questions. For four years I immersed myself in books. There was something in the Ottoman style I liked – a gracefulness, a grandeur. As the former Yugoslavia tore itself apart, the old Ottoman settlement seemed less arbitrary, perhaps more merciful. My source for many stories was not in Istanbul, but at a private circulating library in the heart of what was once fashionable London, near Piccadilly. Among millions of books, all cloth-bound in library bindings, with stamped titles, I fell on the dusty memoirs and reminiscences of travellers and diplomats.

Some were fools. Some were wits. Charles White collaborated with Ahmet Vefik Pasha to write a three-volume description of the city in 1846. Eduardo de Amicis spent only six weeks in Istanbul, to write Constantinople (1878). They described the texture of daily life, which Istanbullu of the period seldom bothered to record. Everyone knows London, from Dickens or Sherlock Holmes: Istanbul never had that sort of chronicler. Those foreigners, amazed by everything they saw, wrote for posterity, creating prose pictures for their friends at home in an age before photography. They wrote down the mundane details of Ottoman life, and that is how I got to know Istanbul.

In time, of course, I discovered my city, not through the eyes of other lovers, but through my own. I came back three, four times every year, making new friends, visiting new places, tramping the streets of the city. My friends took me to places I might never have guessed existed, like Sinan’s bents in the Belgrade Forest. I liked ferries; forgotten parts of the old Genoese walls in Pera; hammam towels (but not hammams); mouldering hans; Istanbul Modern; smoking in taxis; and the certainty that there would be something extraordinary, memorable, perhaps invisible, within ten metres of anywhere I stood.

I liked Istanbul’s energy.

Perhaps it infected me: I started to write novels set in the city I knew from books. My detective hero Yashim investigated a coup attempt in the reign of Mahmud II, and a murder in Topkapi. Fiction gave me another way of telling an Ottoman story, another way of looking at Istanbul. The Janissary Tree won the Edgar Allen Poe Award for Best Novel, and I felt encouraged to write more, trying to bring Ottoman Istanbul alive for readers all over the world.

One way was through the food. When Yashim wants to be quiet, and think, he goes home and cooks simple Ottoman-inspired dishes. Soon my readers were asking for recipes, and now I have collected and improved them, and added more, to make an Istanbul detective’s cookbook: Yashim Cooks Istanbul. So even when I am not in Istanbul, I can taste the city, and dream. It always was, partly, a figment of the imagination.