277 The race across the bridge

An eloquent new essay in what is called contemporary history, a book by the Dutch author Geert Mak on the Galata Bridge in Istanbul, brings back memories of the predecessor of the present bridge, which Schwartz first crossed in August 1961. It was a pontoon bridge that opened every night for shipping to the Golden Horn. Every time it was reopened for land traffic, a race took place that now seems like a clue to the creation of human values.

The Dutch book trade has done a wonderful thing. Taking advantage of the general human (though some call it specifically Dutch) desire to get something for nothing, during the 2007 Week of the Book they presented their paying customers with a free copy of a lovely short book by Geert Mak, The bridge. It is a personal memoir of Mak’s research into and experiences on the Galata Bridge in Istanbul. (I wish I had a guilder for every time a radio announcer or newspaper reviewer said that the bridge connects Asia to Europe. In fact, it bridges the geographically insignificant Golden Horn, an inlet in European Istanbul.)

What makes the gesture so wonderful is that it gave the 900,000 Dutchmen who took advantage of this opportunity something interesting to talk about with each other, something that is also of importance for the discussion in Europe about the relation of Europe to Turkey. That alone is a great good in a society where the immense offering of newspapers, books and media reduces the chance that any random group of people will have read or seen the same recent publication or program.

Mak’s book brought back my own powerful first memories of the Galata Bridge, the predecessor to the present bridge. It was a low bridge, fixed on either shore, but with a middle section on pontoons. This was done to allow shipping traffic into and out of the Golden Horn. That took place once a day for an hour, between four and five in the morning, as I recall.

The Galata Bridge about the time I first saw it. Photograph by Ara Güler.

At the end of August 1961 I was alone in Istanbul for a few days before taking the train to Paris. I could not get enough of the city, and I walked the streets day and night. Twice I found myself on the banks of the Golden Horn at the moment when the pontoons were reconnected and cars and pedestrians could once more move back and forth from Karaköy to Eminönü. Both times I witnessed a strange spectacle.

The moment the road deck was rejoined, a race began. Young men who for whatever reason had to cross the Golden Horn early in the morning would compete with each other to be the first to reach the opposite bank. I would have liked to participate, but I held back with the idea that this was their race, that the two winners would be King for a Day, one on each side of the Golden Horn. It would be meaningless for the title to be borne by a tourist no one in the city knew.

Not until Geert Mak’s book brought back this memory did it occur to me that what I witnessed was not only picturesque but also momentous. Those boys were creating value out of nothing. They had no possessions and no status, and yet were able, by holding a silly little race, to gain a distinction that would otherwise not have existed. It was a daily act of social creation ex nihilo.

Is there that much difference, I wonder, between impressing your fellows by winning a race and by telling a story, singing a song, doing a dance, drawing a picture? Did art begin as a way of making something out of nothing? As the discovery, no different from that of an Istanbul street kid that he can run fast, that you can use your imagination or manual skill or voice to become someone? And if this applies to sport and art, what other value systems came into being that way? All of them perhaps?

© Gary Schwartz 2007. Published in Loekie Schwartz’s Dutch translation in Het Financieele Dagblad, Amsterdam, 7 April 2007

Istanbul is on my mind. Last month Loekie and I visited the exhibition of that name in the Nieuwe Kerk in Amsterdam. It was the Istanbul of the Ottoman court that was presented there. Wonderful displays, but not very exciting or revealing. We did go crazy over the shop they installed in the church, full of articles that you otherwise find only in the Egyptian Bazaar or Grand Bazaar, with the big difference that the salesmen were not those pushy wiseguys who never let you alone but perfectly polite Dutch girls who only came when you called on them. In addition to a bead necklace, we bought two lovely brass faucets, but unfortunately they cannot be installed on Dutch plumbing, so that Loekie had no choice but to bring them back and exchange them for more trinkets.

Our saffran source in the Egyptian Bazaar,
one of the more courteous representatives of the trade

Shopping this way was all the more a pleasure since on our last visit to Istanbul, last December, I was mugged on the street by a gang of street kids. Since it might happen to you as well, I’ll overcome my shame at having been taken so easily and tell you how they did it. Loekie and I were having a wonderful walk in Küçükpazar, making our way to the Zeyrek Mosque, where we wanted to admire the restoration that I wrote about in Schwartzlist 272. We had a bite on an outside table at a börek place on Kible Çeşme Caddesi, where I pulled out my wallet to pay the embarrassingly small bill. That’s the last I ever saw of it, although we think it was spotted at that point by the kids who then took charge of it. That occurred a few minutes later. We had turned the corner into the Hacı Kadın Caddesi when it happened. This kid, about fourteen years old, emerged from nowhere and ran straight into me. A second later a somewhat older kid ran up to him and slapped him on the back with an insult. I wasn’t hurt, and while I was standing there like an idiot thinking about how seldom it happens that you see a fight on the streets, both of them disappeared behind me.

The irresistibly picturesque shop in front of which I was standing when mugged.

At that point a man standing a few feet away from me made some excited gestures in my direction, indicating that the kids might not have been as innocent as they seemed. I checked for my Canon PowerShot and my Mio 710 smartphone and when I found them both, I relaxed and smiled at the man. No, he signalled, slapping his thigh. I put my hand in my right pants pocket and the truth dawned on me. As the man later told Loekie, there was a third kid standing beside me while the fight was being staged; he was the one who lifted my wallet. I ran to the corner, but by the time I got there they were all gone, of course. I was reminded of the immortal exchange from The sting:

Henry: Is Lonnegan after you too?
Johnny: I dunno. I ain’t seen anybody.
Henry: You never do, kid.

We spent the rest of that Saturday afternoon on the phone with Dutch banks and credit-card agencies and in the police station, which we reached in a blood-curdling ride in a squad car driving against the traffic. It’s a good thing we did. With the stamped paper from the police I was able to get a new Dutch driver’s license in a week. Without it, I was told by the police in my town, they would have sent me to the Turkish embassy in The Hague to try get a statement saying that I had been robbed in Turkey. End of long story made short.

At the Nieuwe Kerk shop I also bought a book I had been meaning to read since it came out: Orhan Pamuk, Istanbul, which got me my free copy of Geert Mak’s De brug. I’ve just finished Pamuk’s book, which evokes the city through the writer’s memories and thoughts about literature, visual images, growing up, Pamuk’s family and his aspirations as an artist.  I have not yet decided whether I agree with Pamuk’s insistence that Istanbul is a city in black-and-white, the locus of a special kind of melancholy that descended on it with the fall of the Ottoman Empire and from which it has never recovered. No matter. I lost myself in the book, and that’s a lot.

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