Missing Istanbul

Lately I have been thinking a great deal about if I will be able to go back to Turkey. Knowing a great deal of people who are still there, I understand that it’s possible to exist there for someone like me, but looking at the day by day dynamics, I wonder how much longer until everyone I know there has to make a major lifestyle change, so to speak.

In diaspora intellectual circles, it is extremely fashionable to boast of not missing the “memleket”. One constantly meets people who speak about how glad they are to be away from that “mess”, from the backwardness, the fascism, etc.

It’s not that their complaints are baseless, or that there aren’t nice parts about being somewhere else. But one can’t help but miss one’s own people. One misses Istanbul, one misses the ferry… One misses the dawn call to prayer, not for religious reasons, but simply because it is the first real sign of morning.

One misses the bars and cafes and restaurants, and picking out which organisation is using which one as a front. One misses the real solidarity between the left groups that evaporates when those same groups go abroad, because the struggle begins to feel more abstract and the sense of isolation and alienation feels greater. One misses pouring over newspapers with friends and dissecting the positions of rival groups, knowing they are almost certainly within earshot.

One misses the old Anatolian women with their nasal accents who sell alcohol, although they themselves don’t drink. One misses the drunken Black Sea uncles one meets on late night walks, who could speak any one of a dozen languages but who are all most comfortable in their particular dialect of Turkish. One misses being a “boy” to countless slightly older people, who in the US would never be so unegalitarian, or so familiar.

One misses the young boys who work in various establishments, immigrants from Kurdistan, who are so polite to everyone who comes in that it makes one feel guilty. The real Kurdistani youth, whether in Kurdistan or Istanbul, are painfully kind to outsiders. All the talk of violent Kurdish youth one heard on television growing up is easy to disprove in only a few minutes among them. If such young men are stirred to violence, one is sure it can only be in self-defence.

One misses one’s cousins, who would spare a cigarette in a back room so the uncles and aunts can’t see, who flash a sly victory sign as you bid them good night, behind the door so their neighbours can’t see. One misses the neighbour children, whose parents you can hear whispering bad things about you, but who are too young to understand the ideologies that make their parents fear you. You miss the CHP aunties who still cling to the republic which every day fails them, but who became allies with our rebel youth for a brief and beautiful moment during Gezi.

You miss the countless cats which take over all corners of the city, you miss the people’s love for their feline neighbours. You miss the birds, and you miss how when one of them shits on you, some friend invariably informs you of the good luck which this signifies. You miss looking up at night at the stars, trying in vain to see them, and hearing the older people talk about how in the village, they would count the stars, in their own language, in a different time, before the war reached them.

You miss hearing the stories of why they left their villages, although hearing them fills your eyes with tears. You even miss looking at them through teary eyes, and trying to communicate without using words that we will bring everyone back home, where they belong. We will make it all better. We can’t promise when, but we can promise we won’t give up.


I miss closing my eyes when an Alevi song plays and imagining the new life in the new homeland, where we will enrich our own lives with unity and cooperation, instead of cheapening them with division and exploitation.

I miss walking alongside the water with that comrade, weighing the pros and cons of the statements made by various socialist leaders on dialectics, before the conversation turned to the gift economy of the Māori people, because that’s the sort of comrades I have.

But then I realise the train has arrived at my stop, and it’s back to reality, and a country that feels so alien, but which circumstance has dictated is my home for now.

Then I realise that although many others like me are here in this country with me, it’s less the individuals I miss than the society. When we see one another, we smile coldly and exchange pleasantries that sound more artificial than the worst forced conversation in an English class. They can miss Istanbul too, but they can’t understand how I feel.

I realise that the only people who can understand how I feel when I’m screaming at a protest for that country that is far away are my comrades, many of whom have never been there, but who every day, like me, are trying to grasp the dynamics around them and unite to struggle for a better world.

It’s very hard to miss home. But slowly, one learns to find home in different places in different ways, even from foreign people, just so long as they are the right kind of people.


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