Fear of Blogging

As Udemy has immediately posted on my behalf on Facebook, I have now signed up for a program called SUM-it-UP, created by my dear friends Anastasia Ashman and Tara Agacayak. The purpose of it is to streamline your presence on the web so that you make the most of it. ‘Mine yourself for purpose and profit’ is the motto.

I had been intending to keep this step to myself. In fact, I’ve been resisting it for a long time. I’m fully aware that there is much one can do to polish up one’s web presence, so I latch on to many a miracle cure that winks at me from my screen. For a while now, Anastasia and Tara have been gently prodding me and generously sharing all their knowledge and good advice. Each time I read another article they post I know that, yes, if only I could take all the steps prescribed, I too might make social media work for me. Full of new enthusiasm each time, I throw myself at the task, only to meet total blockage. I suddenly feel paralysed, unable to blog or post one more word on Facebook, Twitter or Linkedin. I slump back in my seat, convinced it isn’t worth my while anyway, and wait until this latest bout of utter negativity dissipates.

It’s not writer’s block, no. Because in the meantime I did write a number of books, three of which have been published and one that is coming out in September 2013. And I’m not particularly shy either, having worked as a TV correspondent for many years and feeling quite at ease with public speaking. But when SUM-it-UP came along, and my cursor was once again hovering over the ‘sign up’ button, there was that sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach, a sensation of floating in a vacuum where anything I do seems doomed to remain pointless and without impact. I was about to surf away from the page, when I suddenly remembered something.

Recently I’ve rediscovered a process called Emotion Code, invented by the Californian Dr. Bradley Nelson. The principle behind it is that strong experiences create an energy charge, also called an emotion. Sometimes this charge can get trapped in the body and eventually start causing problems, whether they be physical or mental. What, I thought, if this paralysis of mine is due to such a trapped emotion?

I went through the steps and uncovered an event from when I was ten. I was in a huge crowd on a market square. The south of the Netherlands, my home country, was celebrating Easter Carnival. This medieval tradition dictates that for the four days that the festivities last, a ‘Prince of Carnival’ becomes the mayor of the town and spreads laughter and fun. Everyone dresses up in mad costumes and can basically do whatever they want. The idea is to collectively let go, to pop the balloon of stringent conventions.

The crowd surrounding me was craning their necks to cheer the Prince of the Carnival on the stage. I too stood on my tiptoes, delighted. For this Prince was also my dad.

Of course, I was immensely proud of that. As my costume I had made a cape, not quite as splendid as the one my father was wearing, but I had painstakingly decorated it with drawings and hand-written bits of information about myself. Naturally, I also shared my relation to the Prince. It was – if you will – my first blog.


That’s him, the tall and princely guy!

Soon enough I heard a snigger behind me. A handful of children were holding up my cape and reading the texts out loud. From their mouths my proud words suddenly sounded stupid and pompous. They made fun of my drawings, and, adding insult to injury, they refused to believe that I was really the daughter of the Prince.

I stood there in horror, feeling totally alone and defenseless. In my stomach was that same, powerless feeling that has, without my conscious knowledge, been haunting me ever since, whenever I was about to expose my inner self again.

Now that I have released the various negative charges of that memory from my system, I am curious to see what effect it will have. Who knows, I might start blogging properly. Meanwhile, I put my trust in Anastasia and Tara’s SUM-it-UP.

Museum of Innocence

‘Help!’ That’s what I thought when I saw a whole wall of cigarette butts, every single one of them pricked up on a pin, with a hand-written line by Orhan Pamuk underneath it. ‘keserken mutfakta, çook mutluyduk, çok…’ (while cutting in the kitchen we were very happy, very…) for example. Or: ‘saate bakiyor musunuz?’ (are you looking at the clock?) I have a compulsive side to me, and worried that I’d have to read all of the comments ánd make sense of them. 

ImageSuch obsessive collecting in an attempt to give meaning is what the Museum of Innocence is all about. To stay with the cigarettes: red lipstick on the filter ends suggests that all of the 4,213 cigarettes on the wall were smoked by Füsun, the heroin of Pamuks 600-page novel to which the museum is dedicated. And presumably all of them were lovingly collected by Kemal, son of a wealthy, bourgeois family in 1970s Istanbul, who is infatuated with her, a simple shopgirl.

But the museum is not just an illustration of the book, Pamuk stressed at the opening of the museum. The wall and the little videos next to it of female hands holding a cigarette, gesticulating above a cup of tea, are an installation around the meaning of smoking. ‘In a society where direct communication is difficult, a lot is being said through gestures. What do you smoke, and how? You communicate by raising your eyebrows, by sighing, by how long you make your beloved wait.’

 ImageClimbing the staircase next to the wall of cigarettes, the visitor is confronted with cabinets full of beautifully displayed curiosities. All of them were collected by Kemal (or was it Orhan?) in worship of Füsun. Every cabinet corresponds to a chapter of the book. One  immediately gets drawn in and starts looking for meaning. The yellow shoe of Füsun, a doll, her dress, many different bottles of cologne, all the pictures… This is a monument to Füsun, and through her, to love. Or? ‘Our daily lives are honorable,’ says Pamuk. ‘Their objects are worthy of being preserved. Later these will seem interesting. That is the role of literature: to make normal things seem strange.’ Pamuk stresses one doesn’t need to have read the book to enjoy the place. He wants us to let our minds wander and discover the museum’s own narrative.

From the beginning, the book and the museum were linked in his mind. Already in 1999 he bought the building. As he wrote he collected, or rather vice versa: as he collected little objects from junk shops in its neighborhood, from family and friends, he put them in his novel. ‘It wasn’t difficult to find lotto tickets, or bottle caps, or match boxes, because people collect these,’ Pamuk told us. ‘But who collected the toothbrushes the people of Istanbul used in those days? I complained about this in an interview and then a dear reader sent his collection to me.’

Pamuk is the man of the back streets, where, he believes, one can feel the melancholic pulse of a city. Not surprisingly, he bought the building that houses his museum in a small street of the then still poor district of Çukurcuma. Through gentrification the neighborhood has drastically changed. Inside, Pamuk wanted to cling to the atmosphere of bygone days. Yet, it is fiction.

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Meticulously Pamuk has fretted over every single detail of every single display cabinet. ‘There is a painter in me,’ he says, ‘and every box is a painting with Kemal’s objects. […] Paintings and art make me happy, but when I write I feel more intelligent. I don’t know why I do it, just, that there’s a jinn inside me who forces me.’

I often wonder why I write, but I do know why I like the Museum of Innocence. To me, more than anything else, it offers a glimpse into a great mind. Strangely enough, rather than being overwhelmed by all its detail, it helped me see a bigger picture.

Model staan

Onlangs kreeg ik een mailtje van een oude bekende dat hij voor een bliksem-werkbezoek naar Istanbul kwam. ‘Het lijkt me heel erg leuk om te kijken of we elkaar ergens kunnen treffen voor een kop koffie of iets dergelijks,’ schreef hij.

Ik kneep in mijn handjes. Wat een prachtig toeval. Dit moest wel het werk zijn van de voorzienigheid, van het universum, the force, de muze, of hoe je de magische krachten om ons heen dan ook wilt noemen. Ik schreef terug: ‘Je staat model voor een personage in mijn boek, dus alleen daarom al zou ik je graag ‘debriefen’.’

Hij reageerde verrast, maar, precies zoals ik hem ken, een beetje de boot afhoudend. In ons telefoongesprek, waarin hij helaas zei dat hij toch geen tijd had voor een ontmoeting, vertelde ik hem dat ‘hij’ in mijn boek een cruciale rol speelt. En toch vroeg hij niet door: vertel, waar gaat het over, wie ben ik er in? Nee, niets van dat alles. Zo is hij. En dat terughoudende –is het verlegenheid?- dat heeft mijn personage ook.

Misschien heeft de muze mij behoedt. Misschien had ik, als we wel samen waren gaan eten, al te dwangmatig het personage naar hem willen vormen. Onze interactie was genoeg om me hem weer levendig voor de geest te halen. En op deze manier kan ik mijn fantasie toch de vrije loop laten nemen.

Dat neemt niet weg dat ik een kapstok nodig heb voor mijn personages. Als ik ze –hoe losjes ook- baseer op iemand die ik ken, kan ik makkelijker voorspellen wat ze gaan doen in de situaties die ik voor ze bedenk. Lange tijd heb ik een blinde vlek gehad voor mijn hoofdpersoon. Ik wist eigenlijk niet wie ze was. Daardoor was ze in mijn tekst nu weer eens voortvarend en dapper, dan weer timide en onzeker. Die eigenschappen kunnen wellicht best in één persoon verenigd zijn, maar in haar geval klopte het niet. Daar moest ik echter op gewezen worden door degene die bereid was de eerste 100 paginas van mijn onvoltooide manuscript te lezen. (Dank, Fleur!!) Het kwam –dat wist ik- omdat ik geen model had gekozen.

ImageNu staat ze me duidelijk voor ogen en ineens vlot het schrijven ook beter. Ik zit niet meer te peinzen over wat ik haar zal laten doen, nee, ze doet het gewoon en ik ben de verslaggever die haar daden optekent. Die rol is me vertrouwd. Ik ben benieuwd hoe andere schrijvers dit aanpakken.

Open Letter from Young Academicians to Prime Minister Erdogan

The letter below speaks for itself. It was signed by over 3.000 people.

Dear Mr. Prime Minister,

We, as the youth and academics of this country, of Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Zoroastrian, Alawite, Shafi’i, religious and nonreligious, atheist and agnostic backgrounds, all joined with a firm belief in secularism, find your recent remarks about raising a religious and conservative youth most alarming and dangerous. 

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The assassination of Turan Dursun because of his beliefs and ideas, attempts to lynch Aziz Nesin, massacres of Maraş and Sivas, and most recently the assassinations of Father Santoro and the workers of Zirve Publishing house, are still fresh in our memories. It is against this background of events that a speech which only serves to divide people on the basis of religious affiliation, and targets atheism, to which hundreds of thousands of Turkish nationals adhere, as the root of all evil, is all the more unacceptable. We would therefore like to remind you that it is your primary duty, as the Prime Minister, to be impartial to all segments of the society, and that this is the fundamental rule of democracy.

We further condemn your speech which served only to hurt and humiliate the children that live on the streets in Turkey (stigmatised with the media-catchphrase of ‘thinner-addicted children’), who already live under harsh conditions and who are subject to abuse. The plight of these children is not due to a lack of spirituality, as you have implied, but is caused by the deep-rooted social and economic problems of our country, to which you have served as Prime Minister for a decade.

Dear Mr. Prime Minister,
Your foremost duty and responsibility is to make sure that all citizens have equal access to a system of education that is essential in bringing up future generations capable of critical thinking, who prioritise love for humanity and nature; and to make sure that conditions required for a dignified and honourable life are accessible to all.

Finally, we, as signatories to this petition, would like to express our concern for over hundred journalists, thousands of politicians, Busra Ersanli and more than five hundred students, who are imprisoned as of this writing. We sign this petition to break through this sphere of fear, and we are ready to face the consequences.

With all our respect,
SIGNATORIES

Hrant Dink, in memoriam

After five years finally some people have been convicted for the murder on Hrant Dink. Yet, liberal newspaper columns are filled with outrage at the verdict, which rules out that any organisation –let alone with links to the state- has planned the murder.

Like yesterday I remember being in a different court, trying to fend off the blows of a bunch of furious ultra-nationalists. They push me into the arms of Hrant Dink, their real target. They want to jump on him and punch him, but a court guard stops them and pushes them to the other end of the waiting room. From there they shake their fists. I don’t mind ending up in a clumsy embrace with Hrant, because I’m very fond of him, but both of us get a good scare. The case we’re both attending is targeted against Orhan Pamuk who hasn’t won the Nobel Prize yet, but has had the nerve to declare to a Swiss newspaper that one and a half million Armenians and thirty thousand Kurds were killed in his fatherland. Breaking such taboos, especially in a foreign publication, is not appreciated, as Hrant knows only too well.

I met Hrant for the first time during yet another court case in 1994, against my friends Ragip and Ayse Zarakolu. They ran an publishing house near the Blue Mosque and were the first ones to publish a book on the Armenian Question, translated from French. Ragip told me once he started caring for the Armenian cause after hearing the story of his mother. She hadn’t been allowed out when she was a child in 1915, but shed bitter tears while she had to listen how all her Armenian neighbours and friends were being forced to leave their homes for the gruesome death march to the Syrian desert.

Ragip and Ayse published everything which was controversial, be it on the Armenian, Kurdish or Greek Questions, just because they believed in freedom of expression. Because the content of these books did not match the sanctioned version of history, the Turkish State considered them dangerous. Ayse had the dubious honor to be the first Turkish publisher who was jailed for the offense of publishing such books. As I write, nearly two decades later, Ragip and his son are in jail, accused of being members of a dangerous organisation, because they continued to uphold the same publishing principles.

Back in 1994 Hrant was bubbling with indignation. He wanted to do something. The Armenian community did not support him. Every day young Turkish conscripts were dying in the war against the Kurdish PKK. The Turkish reflex was to put Kurds and Armenians in one basket: all traitors. The best thing to do in such times was to duck and remain silent. But Hrant didn’t want to shut up anymore, exactly because of the growing tension and all the false accusations. It was time, he believed, that his country looked in the mirror and recognized that the Armenians belong here too, no matter what had happened in the past.

Two years later he was at my door, proudly waving the first edition of AGOS, the newspaper he lead until his death. The articles were both in Turkish and Armenian, and aimed to open the eyes of both sides. There were columns of copy on the senseless restrictions on all things Armenian, but also reviews of Armenian books, and stories about Armenia, the country that had only recently become independent after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

‘If only I could go there,’ Hrant often sighed when we had tea together. ‘But I’m not getting my passport.’ It took a while before he realized this was how the authorities kept him in check. Never he was told a definite ‘no’, only that his case was ‘being handled’ eternally. He was one of the gentlest people I knew, but he could rage about this treatment. Because his country was so dear to him. s

After years of insisting, he did get a passport, but traveling didn’t make him happy. He now also had to confront the radical attitude of the Armenian diaspora. The Armenians in the U.S., in France and elsewhere hated Turkey, and nourished that hatred. They did everything in their might to turn the world against the country that spat them out a century ago. Hrant couldn’t hate his country.

He traveled everywhere to preach tolerance and mutual understanding. He became a busy man, so busy that I’d have to make an appointment to see him. He got bags under his eyes and more and more hate-mail. ‘I’m afraid, Jessica,’ he said one of the last times I saw him, very briefly between interviews. ‘I’m not sure how much longer I can keep this up.’ His face looked tense. He had taken upon him such an enormous task.

Radical-minded folk were sending these emails. They believed Turkey belongs to the Turks only, and anyone who wants to call himself something else is a traitor. There was a lawyer, a creepy, slippery man, who made it his life’s work to persecute people like Hrant under article 301, which made it a crime to insult Türklük, the Turkish identity, or Turkishness. Hrant was never more hurt than by this accusation. But he was the first one to be actually convicted for it.

Members of parliament reacted with indignant condemnations when Hrant was murdered. But one wonders what they were really thinking. Some two years earlier Abdullah Gül, who hadn’t become the president yet, but was the Foreign Minister, held a small, informal meeting with the foreign press in Istanbul. He told us the Armenian government had turned down a Turkish proposal to establish a joint committee of historians who should investigate the archives of Turkey, Armenia, Russia and the U.K. to determine once and for all what happened in 1915.

‘Could Turkey not, regardless of what we call it which happened, say sorry to the Armenians for all the sorrow they’ve had to go through?’ I asked.
Astonished, Mr. Gül stared at me.
‘As a gesture,’ I added, ‘to help make the past discussable.’
‘To say sorry?’ he asked, incredulously. ‘They betrayed ús! They stabbed us in the back. We were attacked by Russia and they helped the enemy. Armenian militia murdered countless Muslim villages. Who has to say sorry?’
‘But hundreds of thousands of Armenian women and children got deported too,’ I said. ‘They weren’t fighting, were they?’
‘The Ottoman government ordered to move the civilian population because they were in the middle of the fighting. To protect them. It was 1915, in an undeveloped region. There was no communication, nothing. Istanbul didn’t know what was going on. It’s very sad that so many perished, but most people died because of disease or bad circumstances, not intentionally.’
‘And what about all the possessions they left behind?’ I asked. ‘Their houses and farms that were taken by the local population? Do you think those will ever be discussed?’
The minister snorted. ‘Such things happen in wars. We can’t turn back history.’

If only we could.

In the afternoon of January 19, 2007, my telephone rings. It’s the Dutch National Broadcasting, NOS, whose correspondent I am. ‘Jessica, we just get a news flash. Somebody got shot near you. Hrant Dink. Does that name mean anything to you?’
Swallowing my tears I’m on air half an hour later. That evening I’m pressing my fingernails into my palms while I stand in front of the camera, just a few yards away from where he fell forward, his gentle face on the pavement, the worn hole in the sole of his shoe visible for all. He was shot in his back, cowardly, by a young man from Trabzon who claims he didn’t know more about him than that he –according to a friend- had insulted the Turks. Later this wretch poses with the policemen who arrested him. They move each other around in front of the Turkish flag to get the best pose. You can hear someone say: ‘make sure that text about the indivisibility of the fatherland can be seen.’ In football stadiums supporters wear the hat of the murderer. And on Youtube a song appears with the images that a security camera took of the killer and a menacing text about ‘Armenian games’.

Fortunately also hundreds of thousands of people participate in the funeral, holding placards that say ‘we are all Armenians.’ Prime Minister Erdogan objects. ‘It’s noble that so many people feel in solidarity with our fellow citizens,’ he says. ‘But calling oneself an Armenian goes a little far.’

The day he gets killed, Hrant describes in his column in AGOS how his court case went. He writes about the evidence that acquitted him, time and again. About how this reassured him. Even in appeal the prosecutor did not want to prosecute him. And yet, the judge declared him guilty. He is strongly aware of the fact that many people now see him as someone who insulted the Turks to their core. The stigma is a yoke for him. He calls it dirty and wrong.
‘For me the real and unbearable threat is the psychological torture I apply to myself,’ he continues. ‘What do all these people think of me? That’s the question that churns over in my brain. Unfortunately I’m much more famous than I used to be and when people cast me a glance of ‘hey, isn’t that the Armenian guy?’ I feel it stronger than ever. As a reflex I start torturing myself. Partly because of curiosity, partly out of anxiousness. Partly out of alertness, partly from worry.
I’m like a dove.
Just like a dove my eyes dart left and right, back and forth. My head is just as agile. It’s so fast it can turn immediately.
That’s what I call a price.
What did the Foreign Minister, Abdullah Gül, say again? What did the Justice Minister, Cemil Çicek say? “Man, no need to exaggerate this article 301. Did anyone ever go to jail for it?”
As if the only price to pay is a jail sentence.
Do you know what price it is to be condemned to be as skittish as a dove, hey, Ministers, do you know? Have you ever observed a dove?’
The column continues to describe how he has considered leaving the country, but he can’t bring himself to do so.
‘Yes, I feel skittish like a dove,’ he concludes. ‘But I know that in this country nobody does any harm to a dove.’

Not to a dove, no.

(translated and adapted from my book ‘Gezichten van Istanbul’ –Faces of Istanbul, Conserve 2008)

Great Start of the New Year!

First this email:

Then, an envelope of Harper Collins on my doorstep, in it THE book.

I can assure you that it’s a fascinating collection of life changing stories. You can check it out on its facebook page. Listening to editor Larry Smith on NPR will make your mouth water. So if you want to buy it, click here.

I hope you have a great 2012! Mine couldn’t have had a better start.

P.S. You can read my Moment here.

Finding my voice

Two years ago I quit journalism to pursue an old dream and find a new voice as a novelist. I had just published my first novel called Happy Hour, for which my Dutch publisher was and is full of praise. I love a thread of suspense in a book, so I had hesitantly called it a ‘suspense novel’, but for the publisher it was clear: this was a thriller. So that’s what it says on the cover.

Whenever I explained to someone what the book was about, however, I’d find myself saying it wasn’t really a thriller. Yes, there was a criminal aspect to it, but really, it was about the darker sides of human nature. I was much more interested in the psychology of the people involved than in car chases or the like. After a while it struck me: obviously Happy Hour was a psychological thriller. That, therefore had to be my genre.

Happy to have found my voice, I set out to finish the next book, set in Turkey, unlike Happy Hour, which was set in Holland. This time I was on much more familiar ground, having lived in Turkey, not Holland, for the last two decades. The topic too was more up my street. The main character is a woman journalist, not like the protagonist of Happy Hour, a bored bureaucrat whose downward spiral starts when he stumbles into having sex with an underage girl.

And yet, I struggled.

I struggled, but I finished. ‘Luctor et emergo,’ goes our national motto (I struggle and emerge). I started sending the manuscript around. I was lucky to be introduced to a number of fine agents by fellow writers. Every single one of them wrote me back a personal letter, as did some agents to whom I sent it to unsolicited. Thank you to them all! But alas, no bidding war emerged.

Just a few reactions:
“I read it with great interest. Besides being an interesting storyline, I’ve personally always wanted to go to Turkey. […] Your story was very successful in immersing me in this time and place. It was visceral and vivid. However…”
“Pilgrims offers a tense story and I like Kim. That said, I’m currently taking on a very limited number…”
“There are lots of things about it that we liked – the setting, the issues, the intertwined stories, etc – but in the end…”

It hurts to get these rejections, true, and it is discouraging. A friend who is a famous American novelist put me out of my misery. Drop it, he said, and get writing your next book. Reluctantly I put it behind me, and started on a fresh page.

Meanwhile, however, one agent was willing to engage in a little more discussion of what she didn’t like about ‘Pilgrims’. Several of the agents had referred to the main character as being the problem, and this agent did too. More specifically she said that for her the protagonist didn’t fit in the thriller genre, but much more in ‘women’s fiction’.

I felt little sparks of recognition fly around my head. She’d hit the nail on the head! I’m not a thriller writer. I want to write about normal people who may get into trouble as they plod through life, but whom the reader should feel could be a friend, or a neighbour. As was the case with Happy Hour.

As soon as I dropped the straitjacket of the thriller template, suddenly the new book that I’m working on started to flow. Of course there will be suspense, and lots of it too. But if women’s fiction means writing about real life, that’s what I’ll stick to. And when my new book comes out, this time I’ll make sure it’s called a ‘suspense novel.’

Welcome Harry!

Many years ago I lived in a lovely, small apartment overlooking the Bosporus. One day when I came home from a reporting trip to Turkey’s troubled Kurdish regions, I noticed a round hole in the wooden floor, the size of a tangerine, right in front of the kitchen door.
Puzzled, but tired I dropped my bags, went to the living room and sat down on the sofa with a beer. Home at last.
After a while something made my hair stand up on end –you know that funny sense you get at the back of your neck when someone is looking at you from behind. Cautiously, I turned my head. There, in the doorway, sat a big, brown rat on his haunches, and he was staring at me as if I was the one -and not he- not belonging there.
I’m not afraid of rats, but I don’t want them in my house either. I got up and waved my hands, hoping he’d disappear through the hole he had gnawed in my floor. Alas. Either he had forgotten where it was, or he didn’t feel like leaving.
For days I chased him around the house, closing the doors behind him of the rooms he had left, stuffing clothes in the gap underneath the doors after I saw him disappear through a slit I thought too narrow for his body. I hunted him, madly waving a broom stick after having tucked my trousers in my boots, because I read that when they panick rats might shoot up that safe-looking opening around your feet.
One day I managed to chase him through the wide open front door, but as soon as he realised his mistake, he turned around in mid-air and was back inside before I could slam the door behind him. Then, finally, I did it. He was really gone.
That evening I was reading in my bed. Just before I switched off the bedside light, I saw a shadow on the wall. His back hunched, the rat was tiptoeing towards the chest of drawers right by my bed. I heard him sneak into the bottom drawer where I kept my scarfs.
What to do?
I decided I couldn’t be bothered to get dressed again and start chasing him around the house again. I reckoned he just wanted to go to sleep, just like me. We both happily snored away in our soft beds. The next morning I got serious, however.
I got him out. He gnawed a hole through my window frame and got back in. In the end I did manage to chase him out of my house, but not out of my life. For the fictional character of Harry the Rat was born. He traveled with me often, and the children I met were fascinated by him. Now his first book is out –in German, as a special, limited edition for the German School in Istanbul. (The help of Levent Ozcelik was indispensible. Thank you, Levent!) You can see it here. When you click on the picture gallery, you can read a preview in German.
I hope I’ll find a way to publish it in English too. If you want to get to know Harry, look here.

The Sultan’s Gardner

In ancient times the hyacinth was a straggly, insignificant flower, which pales in comparison to the hyacinth of today. Yet, in 1579 Sultan Murat I ordered half a million of its bulbs to be uprooted from the mountains between Maraş and Aleppo. A caravan of charts, pulled by donkeys, I imagine, brought them all the way to Istanbul, where they were planted in the gardens of the Topkapi Palace. The Sultan was addicted to their sweet fragrange. Soon enough the flower became a metaphor for the curls of the beloved, and the black eunuchs of the Palace were often called “Sümbül Ağası”, Lord of the Hyacinths.
This, at least, is what Hans Theunissen recently told a small audience when he gave a lecture in the Historical Institute of the Netherlands in Istanbul. He is a talented turkologist and art historian who has a gift for making old Istanbul come alive.
Most people know how Dutch explorers brought back tulip bulbs from the Ottoman Empire in app. 1560. In fact, they collected many different flowers -some hyacinth bulbs too- and started propagating them. Nobody liked the hyacinth much. Especially annoying was a variation that would not bear seeds. Since you couldn’t propagate it, the Dutch flower growers rooted up the nasty thing immediately when they spotted it. It was easy to recognize, because it was taller than usual.
One day in 1690, Pieter Voorhelm, a flower grower in the town of Haarlem, north of Amsterdam, overlooked one of these infertile hybrids, and it managed to bloom. It was magnificent. Struck by its beauty, Voorhelm started looking into a way to propagate it. And he succeeded. The double hyacinth was born. It became such a hit, that already in 1702 one single bulb was sold for 1.000 guilders. Back then, that would be a year’s wage for many people. It compares to app. 15.000euro today.
Three decades later other growers discovered an easier way to propagate the double hyacinth and the price dropped considerably. Surely it was no coincidence that around that same time a good friend of the Dutch ambassador to the Ottoman Porte suggested to offer a gift to the Sultan. Soon enough Ambassador Cornelis Calkoen wrote in the embassy’s log that “vases full of double hyacinths” were presented to the court. The next present was presumably a sales catalogue. This is likely, says Theunissen, because the palace library contains a “Sümbülname” from those days, a Hyacinth Book that looks remarkably like a Dutch catalogue of the time. Even the Ottoman names for the different types of flowers are translations of the Dutch names. So it’s conceivable that the Sultan just ordered the catalogue to be copied.
Even though it took some years –things moved slowly those days- the investment paid off. In 1737 the Sultan placed his first order of 150 bulbs of double hyacinths. Already the Dutch merchants supplied the Court steadily with tulip bulbs. A historian of the time wrote: “The King of the Netherlands is the gardner of the Sultan.”
Two and a half Century later, in 1990 when I was the first Cultural Attaché of the Netherlands, history kind of repeated itstelf. In honor of a big exhibition, celebrating four Centuries of friendly relations, the Dutch flower merchants offered another gift of bulbs to the Topkapi Palace. (There is a funny story to that, which Dutch readers can read in my book Faces of Istanbul.) Like in the old days the investment paid off. The tulip was reintroduced to Istanbul. Every year 11.5 million bulbs are planted, and until last year most of these were imported from Holland. The Turks have reclaimed their flower, however. In Konya a huge tulip farm was set up and in Yalova the Turkish Ministry of Agriculture founded “the biggest horticultural center in the world” to cultivate Turkey’s original flower bulbs. This year production was meant to start. I’m confident the Dutch merchants will find another way in, one day.

Sketch of a Spring Day

Seagulls bounce up and down the choppy waves of the Golden Horn. My hair blows in my face as I sit down at a table with a brown-checkered cloth firmly clipped to it. A scruffy kitten positions itself exactly opposite me on the tamped-down earth, scrunching up its little face as it meows without a sound. I squeeze my eyes back at it, and it gets up and pushes its head against my leg. It doesn’t mind my dog, and the dog doesn’t mind it. Because of its features I call it Leo during our brief acquaintance. Its soft, furry head fits precisely the cup of my hand.

A man dusts off the once-white plastic chairs around me with studious, short pushes. From a big black garbage bag another conjures up flowery cushions with dainty frills and slaps them on each seat that has been wiped. Here and there a chair tumbles with a snappy sound, blown over by the wind. On a bare branch above my head a bird twitters with urgent squeaks.

Down the path of broken pavement a stocky man pushes a cart piled up with oranges, grape fruit and pomegranates. It’s as if the fruit itself is radiating light, not the sun. With a sway and a pull he brings it to a halt by the waterfront, and sits down for a cup of tea at one of the tables. A fisherman starts chatting with him, opening his arms wide to underline his point. The roar of an approaching ferry silences them. When it’s tied up to the quayside, they resume their conversation.

A big aeroplane, bright white in the blue sky, flies over slowly on its flight path to Atatürk Airport. Across the water, turrets seem to appear among minarets and the mumble jumble of buildings. On the Galata Bridge the silhouettes of heads bend over the railing, gazing at their fishing lines. My dog is eating some grass, under a table two cats hiss at each other, ears flat, noses protruding. I’ve had two cups of tea and I’m freezing, but I definitely think spring is here.