Baldwin, Boğaz, ve Ben
Of all the neighborhoods in the eclectic patchwork that is Istanbul, Rumeli Hisarı is the one I love most. Located in the city’s northernmost district—far from the undulating domes of Süleymaniye Mosque and the Byzantine mosaics of Ayasofya—it’s named after the 15th-century fortress that sits at its center. Built by Mehmed the Conqueror in preparation for the siege of Constantinople, the fortress must have once been terrifying and intimidating. For the Ottomans, a symbol of power and God’s favor. For the Christian Byzantines, a painful reminder of their incredible and violent loss.
But now, all these centuries later, the fortress is more like an ornament. Its walls stretch down the hillside and to the sea, hugging a grove of trees; its towers are smooth and cylindrical, reaching up towards the sky with grace. The rest of the neighborhood is quiet and nostalgic with narrow, tree-lined streets complete with Ottoman-era wooden mansions, the kind that I tell my friends I’d buy if I ever won the lottery.
It’s easy for me to talk about how much I love the city. But the word “love” is more like shorthand—a sanitized and muted way of explaining a feeling that can’t be contained in one word. What I really mean to say is that, in many ways, I’m like one of those trees harbored within the fortress walls. Istanbul has allowed me the privilege of rooting a part of myself within its grounds. Fed and nourished by its soil, I draw from my experiences there and continue to grow from them, forever grateful to the city for what it has gifted me.
Perhaps, I seem a strange match for Istanbul, my love random and out of context. How in the hell did the universe match a Black American girl with an ancient Ottoman city? I’ve asked myself that question for years. If I had to put my finger on why, it’d be that Istanbul is a city of coexisting dichotomies. It’s a predominately Muslim city with deep, tangling roots in Orthodox Christianity. It’s both ancient and modern, with four-lane highways running underneath the arches of fourth-century Roman aqueducts. The Bosphorus Strait, which splits the city into its European and Asian sides, has two currents; one on the surface, flowing from north to south, and an undercurrent that flows in the opposite direction. Over the centuries, the tension created by all those opposing forces has brought about devastating violence and stunning, unforgettable beauty—a bittersweet tension—that I wish everyone could experience and one I feel internally.
I had resigned myself to the idea that there were no other Black people to share my interest with. So when my mother sent me an email with a link to Magdalena Zaborowska’s book, James Bald- win’s Turkish Decade, I was a bit confused. I had to read the title twice because the words didn’t make sense together. “James Bald- win” and “Turkey”? As a voracious reader and someone with a degree in Africana Studies, I knew of Baldwin’s French years, and I had read him, admired him, but like with most legends, I had placed Baldwin on an inaccessible pedestal—far away from his humanity—and even further from mine. Yet with this discovery, the seemingly insurmountable space between Baldwin and myself began to dissipate. Suddenly, it was Baldwın, Boğaz, ve Ben: Baldwin, the Bosphorus, and I.
In 1961, James Baldwin showed up, unannounced, at the home of his close friend Engin Cezzar. The two had met three years earlier in New York City when Cezzar was cast to play Giovanni in the Actor’s Studio production of Baldwin’s second novel, Giovanni’s Room, and they became fast friends. When Cezzar left New York to go back to his home in Istanbul, he extended an open invitation to Baldwin to come and visit whenever he should find the time.
When Baldwin finally decided to take his friend up on the offer, he was spiritually and emotionally in a very dark place. He had barely any money and was suffering from a particularly debilitating bout of writer’s block. The pressure of growing notoriety, his bur- geoning role in the civil rights movement, and the crushing weight of American racism and homophobia were too heavy a burden. He needed an escape—a safe place to bear witness to the turmoil and unrest happening at home—and Istanbul offered him refuge. In the years to follow, Baldwin built a supportive and loving community in Istanbul. His Turkish family included an eclectic cast of characters. He made friends with the novelist and Kurdish activist Yaşar Kemal, both men using the power of the pen to bring attention to the plight and marginalization of their people. Bertice Reading, a Black jazz singer from Pennsylvania and fellow ex-pat, was also a regular. Though based primarily in London, Reading owned property in Istanbul. Throughout the decade, Reading and Baldwin would become close companions, who found comfort and a sense of “home” in each other. Folks like poet Cevat Çapan, journalist Zeynep Oral, and actor Ali Poyrazoğlu were also part of the group that made up Baldwin’s social circle. And of course, Cezzar and his wife Gülriz Sururi were ever-present.
Baldwin’s social life in Istanbul was robust, and by all accounts, he was always the soul of the party. Like his days in Greenwich Village, people from the Turkish art scene would gather around Baldwin to hear him prophesize late into the night. While he spoke on pressing societal issues like the ongoing civil rights movement in America or the Algerian question in France, Baldwin had a talent for mixing gravity with levity—dancing, telling jokes, and drinking lots of whiskey. He was no stranger to Istanbul’s nightlife and frequented the Divan Hotel bar where his friend, Avni Salbaş, served up the city’s best drinks. His uproarious laughter and dazzling smile could light up a room and anyone who may have been intimidated by his commanding presence would be put at ease.
Unfettered by life in the States, Baldwin’s writing practice flourished within the nurturing confines of his new community. He had the habit of working through the night and the early morning. Cezzar and Sururi would just be getting up when Baldwin was finishing his work. All fired up, he’d read what he’d written and ask for their opinions. After workshopping his passages, Baldwin would sleep for half the day before waking up to start the process all over again. With clarity and the space needed to express his ideas on paper, Baldwin wrote some of his most critically acclaimed works. Another Country, The Fire Next Time, and No Name in the Street—Baldwin’s quintessentially American novels and essays—were all birthed in Istanbul.
In 1967, while trying to finish his fourth novel, Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone, Baldwin moved into a red, wooden villa that had once been the personal library of Ahmet Vefik Paşa, a 19th century Ottoman intellectual, credited with having written the first Turkish dictionary. It was the perfect place for a man of words to live and write. Situated on a cliff with panoramic views of the Bosphorus’s Asian shore and a 15th-century fortress below, the home was located in Rumeli Hisarı.
When I left America for Istanbul, unlike Baldwin, I didn’t have a sophisticated sense of self. I was a 22-year-old recent graduate and hadn’t taken the time to consider why I felt the impulse to move halfway across the world, to a place I knew little about. I know now that I was looking to be immersed in something wholly unfamiliar. But at the time, I told myself that working abroad was just an adventure, something fun and interesting I could do while my student loans were in deferment.
Istanbul was so different from anything I experienced back in the States. The view from my apartment balcony was a vast sea of red-tiled roofs, with minarets rising out of the urban landscape like lighthouses. Five times a day, you could hear the call to prayer echoing across the city, each muezzin professing the greatness of God in beautiful euphony. And then there were new scents, which were a delight for the olfactory senses—the savory spice of döner kebab, fresh bread from the bakery, and the sweet smell of salep, a hot winter drink made from the tubers of an orchid, and my personal favorite.
Even my work as an English teacher was new and exciting because it was the first time I’d ever had a full-time job. I taught advanced learners Tuesday through Saturday. My students, many of them close to my own age, were kind and patient with me, always willing to gently coach me through a cultural faux pas or my butchering of their language. On my days off, I’d wake up early and explore the city, taking the train from my neighborhood so that I could reach the historic peninsula. I’d walk down to the Eminönü docks, buy salep to warm me up, and settle in for people watching. I’d see tourists and be delighted that, unlike them, I would get to enjoy Istanbul for more than just a few, fleeting days.
I found friendship in two other teachers at my school, Anika and Darcy. Both were from England but with roots in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Darcy was around my age, had an entertainingly foul mouth, and wit as sharp as a knife. She had come to Istanbul after falling in love with a soft-spoken Kurdish man. Anika, who would later become my roommate, could also charm with her quick wit and astute observations. About ten years my senior, she quickly became more like a sister to me. She’d make me a proper cup of tea when I wasn’t feeling well, take me with her to social gatherings, and scold me when I didn’t do the dishes or take out the trash. She was the closest thing I had to family in Istanbul, and to this day, I call her abla, meaning “big sister” in Turkish. Anika and Darcy were my main support system, my very own Engin and Gülriz. Woven into my first memories of the city, they shaped my experience and helped make Istanbul feel a little bit more like home.
It’s strange to grow up in a country where you’re socialized based on race and then to suddenly find yourself in a place where the color of your skin doesn’t matter as much, or at least in a different way. As Black Americans, we grow up learning to navigate the world by understanding how society perceives us, ever vigilant and hyper-aware that someone always has their eye on you, ready to police your Blackness at any given moment. Moving through white America, you feel that energy—that 400-year-old tension—and try your best to walk that thin line.
If I wear my natural hair to this job interview, will it hurt my chances of getting an offer?
If I express my opinion in this room full of white people, will they take me seriously?
Is my co-worker dismissive of me because I’m Black or because they’re simply an asshole?
If I call the police, will they help me or will they murder me?
The stream of questions that runs through our minds is a perversely natural part of our existence. And at the core of all these thoughts is the question: Do I belong here? It allows us to fall into the trap of othering ourselves—to buy into the idea that being Black means you’re only tangentially American.
It took a while for me to even realize that I was carrying that extra baggage. But after a few weeks, when the novelty of it all had worn down, I started to notice something: Turkish people didn’t really react to my Blackness—at least not in the ways I was accustomed to. When they did, it was almost always in or around Sultanahmet, Istanbul’s tourist center. I’d be amusing myself, perhaps, by walking through Mısır Çarşısı, the old spice market, its energy, lively and chaotic. Throngs of tourists and locals always funneling through long and winding halls. Endless barrels of turmeric, sumac, mint, and rose petals creating a Pollock-like pallet of colors. Shop owners calling out to tourists in all kinds of languages, trying to convince them to buy their wares: “Miss, do you speak English?” or “Noi parliamo Italiano!”
And the one I heard the most: “Oui, oui mademoiselle! Je parle français!” because most shop owners assumed that I was from a francophone West African country.
Around and about Sultanahmet, my Blackness was mostly ac- knowledged by excited and curious little kids. They’d usually run up to me and say, “Çok güzelsin sen.” (“You’re so pretty.”) They’d ask to take a picture with me and their parents, who were often embarrassed that their child had created such a fuss, would usually apologize for the interruption before moving on. And for the most part—save the days where I was in a bad mood or feeling particularly homesick—I took this attention in stride and indulged people in their curiosity because it was infrequent and mostly unobtrusive.
In the residential parts of the city, my Blackness largely went unnoticed. I’d walk into the bakery or butcher shop and prepare myself for the question, “Nerelisiniz?” (“Where are you from?”) But it almost never came. Most shop owners never even registered surprise at my being there, treating me like any other customer.
And that’s how it was. My Blackness was either regarded with genuine curiosity—at times, even deemed beautiful—or it wasn’t regarded at all. This was something that I accepted with relief. Yet always a part of me remained wary, braced for American-variety racism to rear its ugly head.
According to Baldwin biographer James Campbell, Baldwin once told Yaşar Kemal, his friend, and fellow writer, “I feel free in Istanbul,” and he would repeat this sentiment many times over in the public record. Baldwin said that for him, Istanbul was: “A place where I can find out again—where I am—and what I must do. A place where I can stop and do nothing in order to start again.” And I have to say that the way I experienced my Blackness in Istanbul allowed me to feel the same way. Istanbul was a place where I could just stop and be.
This isn’t to say that anti-Black racism and discrimination in Turkey is non-existent or that my American privilege was a non-factor. Afro-Turks—the descendants of enslaved Africans from the Ottoman Empire—and more recent African immigrants living in large urban centers certainly experience this. Microaggressions and individual acts of racial violence occur; stereotypical depictions of Black people surface in popular media and print advertising. And if anything, both groups are victims of systematic invisibility, with their unique, lived experiences and challenges obscured by a mainstream, monolithic cultural narrative. Looking back, I’m sure my nationality was a factor in the way I experienced race in Turkey. But at the time, with my limited global experience, I was just beginning to think about what it meant to move through the world as an American citizen. The weight, the power, the privilege of it. Still, the fact remains that the history and racial dynamics in Turkey are very different than in the United States.
My lived experience as a Black person in America meant that a large part of my identity had been formed within a very particular scope. Most of the baggage I carried and behaviors I learned that helped me navigate everyday American racism didn’t always make sense in Turkey. At times, it was like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. For the first time in my life, I was in a place where I didn’t always have to think of the world in Black and white. And though it felt peculiar, it was also liberating and refreshing. I didn’t have to be consumed with how society might police or stigmatize my identity. I could, from time to time, set my baggage down and just be.
When I think about that feeling, one day stands out most:
I was taking the vapur, or public ferry, from the European side of the city to the Asian side. The vapur functions like any other mode of mass transit. It’s an important part of the city’s rhythm and not just an experience for tourists. Everyday Istanbullites use it to commute to work, visit family and friends, or to go to bars and restaurants. It’s no different than commuting from Manhattan to Brooklyn. But it would be uncommon to see a Black person on the vapur, especially if it wasn’t tourist season.
Though winters there aren’t as harsh as they are back home in New York, that day the air had a bite to it. I ordered hot Turkish tea from the vapur café and sat by a window so that I could watch as we passed by the wooden mansions and Ottoman palaces that dot the city’s shores, an experience that is somehow both quotidian and exciting. After about twenty minutes of losing myself in thought and watching from my window, I looked up and realized that I was the only Black person on the ferry. It may not seem like a lot but in America, it’s damn near impossible to go twenty whole minutes without considering your Blackness. The reminders are constant and ubiquitous. At home, when you walk into a white or non-Black space, you immediately sense your difference. You might scan the room for another Black face in the crowd and if there isn’t one, you resign yourself to the fish-out-of-water discomfort that almost always follows. But that day, I stepped on to the ferry full of Turkish faces dissimilar to mine, and I hadn’t even noticed—and it seemed that they hadn’t either.
I was surrounded by women concerned with their children playing too close to the railing, couples huddled near to each other for warmth, and others who, like me, were looking out and taking in the vastness of the city. With no one staring at me out of curiosity or surveilling me out of some perverse sense of racist vigilantism, I leaned into the relief. Like when you walk into an air-conditioned store on a hot sticky day and your body immediately eases into the comfort of the cool blast. No longer laboring to breathe through thick air, your body loosens and sweat dissipates. You may even mutter a “Thank you, Jesus” because the reprieve is that sweet.
There’s a documentary that gives us a glimpse into Baldwin’s life in Istanbul called From Another Place. Shot in black and white by Sedat Pakay, the film is only twelve-minutes long but it’s remarkably intimate. It starts out with a shot of Baldwin getting out of his bed; he is almost nude, wearing only a pair of white underwear. He walks over to his window, opens the curtain, and looks out over the Bosphorus. He then walks towards the camera and off-screen, to put on a black, thigh-length robe before lighting a cigarette and getting back into bed.
Baldwin, finally ready to begin the day, starts to move about the room while the soundtrack of his voice plays in the background. Cutting in and out for the duration of the film, it’s an extended monologue where he describes his status as an episodic expatriate. “I leave and I go back . . . and then I leave and I go back,” Baldwin says. “The last few years that I’d been in America, I’d really done very little writing. I scarcely even tried to . . . the pressures are too immediate and too great. And once one gets off the plane or the boat, one knows that in two or three weeks, it’s gonna be impossible to close one’s door and to concentrate.”
In classic Baldwin eloquence, he lays out the importance of writing from outside of the States. He’s aware of the criticism he faces, with some saying that he has a responsibility to be physically present in his country. But he defends his absence by asserting that in leaving, he can write about America with a clearer perspective. Liberated from the onus society has heaped on him as a Black man, a gay man, a writer, and an activist, Baldwin could focus on his craft. But more importantly, he could find space and time to just be.
In the film, Baldwin is a pensive yet curious observer of the city. He strolls through Eminönü and Mısır Çarşısı and feeds the pigeons outside of Yeni Camii like a regular tourist. As he browses through Sahaflar Çarşısı, we get a glimpse at the books displayed on one of the stands: Kara Yabancı, the Turkish translation of Another Country; and Düşenin Dostu, the Turkish version of John Herbert’s play Fortune and Men’s Eyes, which Baldwin had just directed for a local Istanbul theater. In Taksim, he finally breaks his pensivity and gifts us with his broad, spectacular smile, and you can’t help but feel endeared to him. The film offers us a few precious moments with Baldwin, the man. Not the literary giant, not the prophet or the voice of the American civil rights movement—but with Jimmy, the Black boy from Harlem.
In my favorite scene, Baldwin headed up the Bosphorus in a small boat. His voice-over monologue has since faded and been replaced with mellow jazz instrumental. You can see only his profile and it looks as if he has returned to his completive mood. Looking out over the side of the boat, Baldwin admires the yalı and old palaces as they pass by, quiet and serene. And though there’s no way I could ever know exactly what he was thinking at that moment, I sense that I’m watching a man who has laid down his burdens and surrendered them to the sea. Because as one who has been on that same journey—traveling up the churning waters of the Bosphorus, watching the cityscape go by, and allowing myself to get lost in thought—that’s how I felt.
My last visit to Turkey was in 2019, just a couple of months before the global COVID-19 pandemic rocked our worlds and halted virtually all international travel. I spent a full week touring the Black Sea Region and another four days in the city of Izmir, visiting with members of the Afro-Turk community. The remain- der of my time, I spent in Istanbul, doing all the things I had missed the most. I wandered through the Mısır Çarşışı, drank a nice hot cup of salep in Eminönü, and treated myself to a morning at the hammam, saving one day so that I could make a special pilgrimage.
Thanks to an English literature professor at Boğaziçi University, I had the exact address of Baldwin’s home in Rumeli Hisarı. That morning, I set out early, making a pit stop to fill up on menemen before continuing. Getting off the train, I followed Google Maps, passing through a crowded bazaar, down a long steep road until I finally came to a quiet cul-de-sac. An old lady was sitting in front of her gate who watched me with amusement before she asked me what I was looking for.
I told her that I was looking for a big red house and she pointed in what I believed was the wrong direction, saying a string of things that I couldn’t understand, my Turkish still basic. I wandered around for a bit more until I found a pathway leading down a steep staircase towards the boardwalk below.
I remembered that the professor had told me that Baldwin’s home, often referred to as the Paşa’s Library, was now a private residence, in part protected by a tall stone gate and that the only way to see it would be from below. I started walking down the staircase and after passing the few trees that were blocking my view, I saw the Paşa’s Library on my right-hand side—lording over the cliff with its grand panoramic windows. Its rich, rusty color making it impossible to miss.
I stopped and stared for a while, satisfied that I’d been able to find the place and allowing myself a moment to take it all in. My “discovery” of Baldwin’s Turkish Decade had validated my love for the city and made me feel seen. And here I was in-person—in Baldwin’s presence—and I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude. I snapped a few pictures, whispered a reverent “thank you” under my breath, and continued down the stairs.
That morning the weather was absolutely perfect, 72 degrees, sunny, with a gentle breeze. People were out at sidewalk cafés, eating a late breakfast and others were taking their Sunday morning strolls. The fortress of Rumeli Hisarı, with its abiding magnificence, at the center of it all. The weather was too beautiful for me to pass up. I couldn’t resist a leisurely walk along the churning Bosphorus, a panorama of Istanbul in view, letting the whole of it pull me forward once again.
In 2013, I moved to Istanbul, Turkey, on a whim. I wanted to experience something new, exciting, different. I wanted an adventure. Over the years, I had sustained my love for Istanbul and Turkey through literature, Turkish language classes, documentaries. Anything I could find that would keep me connected to my time there. Nurturing my interest had been a solitary endeavor until discovering James Baldwin’s “Turkish Decade.”
Here was fellow writer, Black American, and wanderer who, decades earlier, had found a home in the least likely of places—Istanbul. Suddenly, I had someone else with whom I could share my love of the city. And of all the people, it was with Baldwin.
This piece is a love letter to Istanbul and an ode to Baldwin.
May I forever be inspired by his spirit. May Istanbul live eternal in my heart.
Brittany White is an emerging writer with one previously published piece, found in the July 2020 issue of the Bosphorus Review of Books, Turkey’s first English-language online literary magazine. She holds a BA in Africana Studies from Temple University and enjoys writing about identity and belonging across the African Diaspora.