Monday, March 08, 2010

Istanbul (Part 2)

Continuing with The Wild Reed’s series on Istanbul, I share this evening excerpts from the essay “Earthquake Angst in Istanbul” by Nobel Prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk. This particular essay can be found in the 2007 collection Other Colors: Writings on Life, Art, Books and Cities, and was originally written in the aftermath of the İzmit earthquake of August 17, 1999.

Measuring 7.6 on the Richter Scale, this earthquake is believed to be the most powerful to ever hit Turkey. The official death toll is placed at 17,127 killed and 43,959 injured, but many sources suggest the actual figure may have been closer to 40,000 dead and a similar number injured. The epicenter of the quake was in the northwest of the country between İzmit and Bursa, about 55 miles east of Istanbul.


In the old days, I never stopped to wonder whether the towering minaret I can see from my desk might fall on me. The mosque was built in memory of Suleyman the Magnificent’s son, Prince Cihangir, who died at a young age; since 1559 it has stood with its two high minarets at the top of a steep slope overlooking the Bosphorus, serving as a symbol of continuity.

It was my upstairs neighbor who first broached the subject when he came to share his earthquake angst with me. Half in panic and half in jest, he went out to the balcony to estimate the distance. In the space of four months, there had been two major earthquakes in Istanbul and countless aftershocks; these and the death toll of thirty thousand were still very much on our minds. What’s more (and I could read this in the eyes of my engineer neighbor), we both believed what the scientists were telling us: that in the near future, somewhere in the Sea of Marmara and closer to Istanbul, another major earthquake would kill 100,000 people instantaneously.

The crude measurements of the minarets we made with the naked eye did not reassure us. After perusing a few books and encyclopedias, we were reminded that over the past 450 years, the Chihangir Mosque (that “symbol of continuity”) had twice been destroyed by earthquakes and fires, and there was no trace of the original mosque in the dome or the minarets standing across from us. A bit more research, and we discovered that most of Istanbul’s historic mosques and monuments had been destroyed at least once by earthquakes (including Hagia Sophia, whose dome collapsed in an earthquake that struck the city twenty years after it was built) and that quite a few of them had been destroyed more than once and later rebuilt “to withstand more pressure.”

As for minarets, the story was much worse. In all of the worst earthquakes that had struck the city in the past five hundred years – including the “little day of judgment” that hit the city in 1509 and the great earthquakes of 1766 and 1894 – fallen minarets outnumbered collapsed domes. After the two recent quakes, my friend and I had seen countless fallen minarets, not just on television and in the newspaper but during our visits to the earthquake zone. In most cases, they’d fallen onto neighboring buildings: student hostels where sleepy watchmen were playing backgammon late into the night, houses where mothers had risen from their beds to feed their babies, or (in the case of the second big earthquake in Bolu) families that had gathered around a television to watch on the evening news a discussion of the likelihood of another earthquake, only for a minaret to come down like a cake knife, slicing the room in two.

. . . The tremors from the next earthquake were expected to come from the Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmara, as I’ve said. So my neighbor and I set out to calculate the angle at which our minaret would fall, trying to factor in past mishaps: The section just above the balcony had buckled slightly during the August earthquake; an earlier bolt of lightening had struck the stone just beneath the star and crescent, sending it flying into the courtyard below.

All factors considered, it was clear to us that, if the minaret were indeed to fall at the angle we had divined using our hands and a bit of string, it would not hit us: Our building, which looked out on the Bosphorus, was simply too far from the minaret, further than the height of the structure. “So there’s no chance that the minaret would fall on us,” said my neighbor, as he took his leave. “Actually, it’s far more likely that our building will fall onto the minaret.”

. . . At around the same time, I heard that an old friend who worked in the music business had decided, after passing through Gölçük, the town worst hit by the August earthquake, that he could never again set foot in his Istanbul home; he moved into the Hilton Hotel, which he thought to be of sounder construction, until that place no longer seemed safe enough either and he took to spending his days outside, doing all his business on his mobile phone, racing up and down the street as if he were in a great hurry. It was said that while he hurried along, never stopping, he would mutter, “Why aren’t we leaving this city, why aren’t we leaving?”

When it had been impressed on us all that, though the epicenter of the first earthquake was sixty-two miles outside the city, thousands of İstanbullus had died, there was an exodus from the poorer neighborhoods, and that brought down the rents. But most of Istanbul remains in its mostly unsound buildings, taking no precautions. At this point, everything – the importuning of scientists, the credited rumors, the act of forgetting, the deferment of millennium celebrations, the embrace of lovers, the resignation – everything naturalizes the idea of an earthquake and helps us “live with it,” as people now say. The other day, a fresh-faced, recently married, and very cheerful young woman came to my office to discuss a book cover and with great conviction explained her way of coping.

“You know an earthquake is inevitable, and that makes you fearful,” she said, raising her eyebrows. “But you live through each moment by acting as if it’s not going to happen at that exact moment. If you don’t, you can’t do anything. But these two thoughts contradict each other. For example, we all know by now that it is very dangerous to be on a balcony after an earthquake. Even so, I’m stepping out to the balcony,: she told me in a teacher’s voice, and then, opening the door slowing and with care, she stepped out onto the balcony. I stayed where I was, and she stood there looking at the mosque across the street and the view of the Bosphorus behind it. “As I stand here,” she said more volubly, a few moments later through the open door, “I cannot believe that the earthquake will hit at this precise moment. Because if I did believe this, I would be too frightened to stay here.” A while later, she came in from the balcony, shutting the door behind her. “So that’s what I do,” she said, with the faintest of smiles. “ I go out onto the balcony, and while I’m there I manage to score a small victory against the earthquake in my head. It’s with little victories like these that we’ll defeat that big earthquake still to come.”

After she left I went out to the balcony, to admire the minarets and the beauties of Istanbul and the Bosphorus rising from the mist. I’ve lived in this city my entire life. I’ve asked myself the same question as that man pacing the streets, about why a person might not be able to leave.

It’s because I can’t even imagine not living in Istanbul.

– Orhan Pamuk

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Istanbul (Part 1)
“This Light Breeze That Loves Me”

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