By Azem Bartu Yıldırım
Between the gloomy Black Sea and the jovial Aegean lies an old city. Its aching arms grasp two worlds foreign to one another. Its tired sighs wash over its two shores adorned with the bones of misburied empires. Seawater cuts through its heart.
I was born in this city, in a district called “Fatih” or “Conqueror”, named after Mehmed II the Conqueror who took the city from the Byzantines. I lived in this city for nineteen years. For nineteen years I painted memories, good and bad, on its streets. I painted over the memories of those who came before me. I discovered its seven hills, its hidden alleys and secret places like the millions who had done so before me. Without knowing, I joined a group of people who had come to those places and gone. I didn’t know this then; those were the times when life felt simple. Slowly I matured and the day of departure appeared over the horizon. Even in my last days, I didn’t feel that sentiment you feel when you are about to leave a place.
I didn’t experience a culture shock or homesickness when I came to Menton. To be honest, I was sick of living in my city by the time I left it. It felt like a bloated place to me, rife with corruption. I was happy to move to a small town facing the Mediterranean for two years. The real shock was when I went back for the first time during last year’s fall break. Not only did it feel like going back to a place but also like going back in time. The things that I didn’t like about the city irked me even more than before: The traffic, the noise, and the melancholy that hung heavy in the air. I suddenly remembered why I had wanted to leave so much. After a few meetings with old friends in old places, I left happily.
However, every time I went back I found those old places a bit emptier. More and more friends of mine were going abroad or to other cities to study. Still, I visited the places we used to go but found ghosts instead. Memories haunted our places, and I felt like although I was physically present there, my heart had remained in the past within the confines of those memories. This city of fifteen million people seemed deserted to me. Worse still, when I met with the handful of friends who stayed I saw that we were slowly but steadily growing apart, a natural result of living in different worlds.
When I go there now, I feel like a tourist in my city. There is always a set date that I will leave on, always another place to go back to. When I think about the future, and the fact that I won’t be returning to that city to live in it again anytime soon, it depresses me. Yet what would change if I still lived there? It is not a problem of place but that of time, and there is no way to take that back. Memories, and the people in those memories, even ourselves, stay fixed at the point in which they happened.
Last week, when I was there again, I wanted to visit a rooftop that my friends and me used to frequent during high school. It had a view over the Golden Horn; we would watch the sun set behind the minarets of Fatih. I wanted to go there with a friend and relive that memory. We silently walked up the stairs just like the old days since it is actually forbidden to go there, but when we reached the hatch to the rooftop, we found a big metal lock on it. Just like that, my memories were sealed off.
And I understood. Just like Mehmed II had conquered it from the Byzantines, so did time conquer Istanbul from me.