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Armchair Travel: Istanbul

by Public Service Associate Juliana

When I ask myself what I know about Istanbul, my knowledge appears limited to Turkish cuisine. Baklava, hummus, babaganoush, stuffed grape leaves, tabouli, falafel, kebabs. What I know about Istanbul extends about as far as the library parking lot, across the street to Cafe Istanbul. 

That is until recently. For the last couple months I’ve been exploring novels and essays by renowned Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk, and with the power of reading, I’m beginning to see beyond a Turkish menu to the actual metropolis. Thanks to Pamuk, I can place myself in the city streets, hear car horns, ship horns, buses, and seagulls, feel cats brushing past, see the hills, cypresses, and oleander trees, taste anise-flavored raki, white cheese, olives, and sesame rolls called simits sold by street vendors.

According to his bio, “Apart from three years in New York, Orhan Pamuk has spent all his life in the same streets and district of Istanbul, and he now lives in the building where he was raised.” Istanbul is a place he knows intimately and thoroughly, and he evokes the city with ease on every page. The Bosphorus, the ferries, the melancholy, packs of stray dogs, barbershops, coffeehouses, Ottoman ruins. A self-described graphomaniac, he is the author of many works of fiction and nonfiction, a number of which we have here at Bexley Library.

Orhan Pamuk turns 70 this week, and in honor of the Nobel Prize winner’s birthday, let’s armchair travel to Istanbul utilizing everything the library has to offer!

We’ll start with music. Try something folksy with Putumayo Presents Turkish Groove or Traditional Music from Turkey, or if you want something more contemporary, explore digital options via Hoopla.

Let this soundtrack play while you explore Turkish culture on the reference website CultureGrams. The full report on Turkey provides an insightful overview of the entire region. Click around to glean general information and background, then explore the photo slideshow, video gallery, interviews with locals, a selection of regional recipes, and more. You’ll see photos of mosques, minarets, and markets, and videos of Istanbul streets, call to prayer, carpets, and tattooing. Recipes include biber dolma (stuffed bell peppers), karniyarik (stuffed eggplant), and asure (sweet pudding), among others. 

Now that you’ve established a foundation, read synopses of Pamuk’s various works and see what strikes you. He is most known for My Name Is Red, and that’s often the suggested starting point for getting into his work. If this is your pick, the audiobook, though quite long, is excellent. I personally started my Pamuk reading journey with an ebook copy of  Snow a few months ago when that choice felt seasonally appropriate. If that title feels rather untimely for June, add it to your winter reading list. A number of his titles are currently available as ebook and eaudiobook through Libby.

The suggested starting place for Pamuk’s nonfiction is Istanbul: Memories and the City. My advice would be to read this simultaneously with any of his novels, interspersing a chapter here, a chapter there to better flesh out the fiction you’re reading.

I’m currently working my way through Other Colors and feel like this book of essays would be a perfect plane read. The essays are short and have something in each one that connects to the one before it. This encourages you to keep reading to decipher how he is linking one thing to the next.

When you’re ready to shift your focus from books to screen, there are a handful of international films I highly recommend. My top suggestion is the documentary film Kedi, set in the streets of Istanbul, that follows a select few cats around the city to see what they get up to all day. What ensues makes for a surprisingly compelling watch. If dogs are more your thing, opt for the film Stray. Other notable titles include The Wild Pear Tree, Times and Winds, and Mustang.

To bring this post full circle, let’s loop back to food. Choose a few recipes from Persiana: Recipes from the Middle East & Beyond by Sabrina Ghayour. Make a meal of mezze (small plates), dips, salads, stews, or something on the grill. Ghayour states in the introduction, “…if a dish has a Persian, Turkish, or Arabic name, you might think ‘Well, that must be really hard to make…’ when, in essence, there is little complexity involved in many of the recipes.” So don’t be intimidated to try something.

It’s been a pleasure traveling together. For more, or if you’d like to keep these titles handy for later, stop in for a copy of the accompanying “Armchair Travel: Istanbul” booklist available in the lobby.