Istanbul in slow motion
hmed looks like the Egyptian actor Omar Sharif and he knows it. It’s not the first time people have told him. However, his most interesting feature is not his face, but his hands, which are broad, with enormous fingers and palms like a map of the world. These are the hands that spread the white towel over your head to dry your hair and skin, slowly tracing the contour of your face with his fingertips, during which you close your eyes and drift away to another world. Then he removes the towel, gives you a sharp slap on the back and smiles. Now you’re ready to come back down to earth. Or even go out into the world as if for the first time, feeling like a newborn baby.
In Turkey, they have a word to define those moments when you devote time to yourself: ‘keyif’.
Ahmed works at the Tarihi Galatasaray Turkish bath in Istanbul, in the Beyoglu district. He represents the fourth generation of a family employed in traditional Turkish baths. However, he expresses his disappointment that his children have decided not to follow in his footsteps. He is a man used to living within marble walls at a temperature of almost 50 degrees, where his clients sweat and relax. Meanwhile, outside in Istanbul, with its 15 million inhabitants, its endless traffic, its combination of the past and the present, life goes on.
In Turkey, they have a word to define those moments when you devote time to yourself: ‘keyif’. Don’t look for a translation, because there isn’t one; it’s hard to even define. ‘Keyif’ means serenity, relaxation, even ecstasy. It means enjoying a moment that can last for hours, during which you only think your own thoughts. Practising ‘keyif’ is having a coffee alone after leaving work, or smoking shisha and exhaling the smoke as if you were expelling your inner demons. It’s organising an endless ‘meze’ (Turkish tapas) dinner with friends and raki (the traditional anise-flavoured spirit), that always ends with people talking about politics and setting the world to rights. Or it’s simply sitting in a boat and watching the banks of the Bosphorus pass by. The only essential condition of ‘keyif’ is to have fun and forget that the outside world keeps turning, just like in the sheltered comfort of Ahmed’s baths.
In the Cihangir district, people have breakfast until five o’clock in the afternoon. Social conventions don’t exist in this bohemian neighbourhood, full of people in film and TV and youngsters who work through the Istanbul night. Those who have spent the night drinking, nurse their hangovers at the cafés next to the Firuz Aga Mosque. Those who need to recharge their batteries do so by enjoying the dozen dishes at Van Kahvalti Evi, a principal restaurant in the city. Two hours of Turkish breakfast (memorable for its ‘kisir’ balls served with ‘kaymak’ milk cream) and chatter are vital in reviving you for when the sun begins to set again.
Istanbul is also a ‘keyif’ destination in itself, although this may seem paradoxical. For visitors, it’s a destination of contrasts, from modern Istanbul with its vibrant nightlife in Beyoglu and Taksim to the very traditional, historical district of Sultanahmet. Its inhabitants complain that this city, which is the largest and most well known in Turkey, has grown too quickly in the last two decades. For locals, this is a hub of restlessness and traffic, a city that never sleeps.
However, Istanbul, previously called Byzantium and Constantinople, the former capital of the Roman and Ottoman empires, hides this side from its visitors. Every visitor can choose what he or she wishes to take away from the city. Above all, there are Arab men and women who visit in search of good (and cheap) plastic surgeons to change their noses, enhance their cheeks or replace their hair. There are also those who arrive searching for Istanbul’s historical city of mosques, crowded bazaars and speciality teas. Then there are those who come to escape the past and immerse themselves in the modern side of the city, which in the early hours is teeming with bars, nightclubs and restaurants on terraces or in exclusive shopping centres.
“There’s something here for everyone. From chaos to the clash of two different worlds, the West and the East”, says the journalist Ece Üner, our Passenger6A in Istanbul. So, how do you practise ‘keyif’? Young people know exactly how, when smoking shisha at the Mimar Sinan Café, next to the Süleymaniye Mosque, where the city at its feet looks like a set from a Baz Luhrmann film. As do those who drink colourful cocktails on terrace bars like the 360 in Taksim. The terraces in Ortakoy and Bebek on the west bank of the Bosphorus, former fishing villages now full of cafés, are very ‘keyif’. At night you can escape both the calls to prayer and electro music and loose yourself in the sound of jazz in clubs like Nardis, next to Galata Tower, until the early hours of the morning.
On the other side of the window is the bustling Grand Bazaar of Istanbul. It has 4,000 shops, 10,000 employees and attracts thousands of tourists and local visitors. Edith Piaf sings on this side of the window while Mehmet Öztekin, who is 72 years old and has been surrounded by gramophones for six decades, repairing and maintaining them with the calm of a surgeon, smokes, gazes towards the ground and listens. His shop, Baba Gramophon, is an oasis in the bazaar, in the midst of the noise, the incessant haggling and the sea of smartphones. Its history and that of its gramophones make the perfect snapshot of pure ‘keyif’ as a way of life.
It’s felt during the daytime too, on days that pleasantly stretch on indoors at museums like the Museum of Modern Art, with its immense windows that look like living photographs of the Bosphorus. Far from the city’s hustle and bustle in Eminönü, which is the heart of the old city where everyone rushes by, you can stop and eat roasted chestnuts, corn or sardine baguettes. These are the places where you can escape from the world. And if in the end, the pace of the city swallows you up, you always have hands like Ahmed’s to calm you down! They are enormous and capable of supporting your whole head, holding the world steady so that no one can fall from its surface.