The gender of your city, or an ode to Istanbul

‘Essentially the great question remains: Who will hold Constantinople?’ Napoleon

Some languages express it quite transparently: Moscow (Moskva) is essentially a female city and Saint-Petersburg is a real 18th century gentleman. Russian language distinguishes between grammatical genders, so we can have feminine and masculine cities on the geographical map of Russia… as well as some odd neutral ones.

Sometimes you doubt whether the whole city is for real or just a mere reflection of alternative universe.

“Another thing I am certain about: in Petersburg many people talk to themselves while they walk. The citizens here are half-crazy. If we had science, then all these doctors and lawyers and philosophers could hold a big research on Petersburg, each one within their own science. Where else in the world would you find such a grim, dramatic and peculiar impact on human soul? Take the horrible climate for instance! And after all, it’s the administrative center of Russia, and its character must spread over the entire country.”

Italian language, however, has a different logic. Some cities end with an -a (feminine ending) and some of them end with -o (masculine ending) but both will be referred to as feminine entities, simply because the word città – ‘city’, is feminine.

“Images of memory, once captured in words, are lost,” – said [Marco] Polo. – “Probably Venice – I am afraid to lose her entirely if I dare speaking about her. Or maybe I have lost her already, piece by piece, while talking of other cities.”

Venice. Piazza San Marco. Upper angle.

Looks like Italy is a total matriarchy, and each traveller must pick the woman he likes most – for her architectural style, fashion, beaches, dialect and sort of pizza. I’ve got a soft spot for Genoa and Venice, by the way.

“Looking, he thought that to come to Venice by the station is like entering a palace by the back door. No one should approach, save by the high seas as he was doing now, this most improbable of cities.”

Unfortunately, nowadays Trenitalia delivers us in packs.

Other languages just do not distinguish feminine and masculine nouns, and in this case we can only use our own impressions and imagination to determine the gender of the city we’re visiting. For me personally, Dublin is a not-always-sober male buddy who is glad to hang out together at any time and dance crazy dances on the banks of the Liffey river (and in Irish language the word for ‘town’, baile – is masculine, while the word for ‘city’, cathair – is feminine).

When the sun is setting down and all freaks and zombies are going for a drink, I stand on O’Connell’s bridge and snap photos.

“It is axiomatic that the pattern of no novel, however formless, can ever be as formless as life as we see it, for even Ulysses is less confusing than Dublin.”

One of those funky decorated buildings in Barcelona – this one is a squat

Edinburgh is a long-distance relationship I’ve been having for a while. Venice is an old childhood female friend. Barcelona… it must be a girl as well, but seems more like a hermaphrodite, always stoned and partying psychedelic friend you’d prefer to hide from your parents.

He was just standing there, in his coffee suit, under the rain, with an umbrella, next to the ruins of a 12th century church down the hill from Arthur’s seat. He came from the pages of some novel.

Lahore is the heart of Middle Eastern Asia, in the eyes of its inhabitants and Pakistanis who live overseas and remember the smell of spices and cows along the bazaars lanes, the noise of all kinds of transport – bicycles, tricycles, cars, trucks, minivans, buses, wheelbarrows, trolleys full of livestock and motorbikes with a family of 5 mounted on it.

“You will have noticed that the newer districts of Lahore are poorly suited to the needs of those who must walk. In their spaciousness – with their public parks and wide, tree-lined boulevards – they enforce an ancient hierarchy that comes to us from the countryside: the superiority of the mounted man over the man on foot. But here, where we sit, and in the even older districts taht lie between us and the River Ravi – the congested, mazelike heart of this city – Lahore is more democratically urban. Indeed, in these places it is the man with four wheels who is forced to dismount and become part of the crowd.”

The full Moon cut through by the spire of the Palace in Lahore.

But now I wish to talk about Istanbul. My Russian linguistic approach tells me that Istanbul is a masculine noun, and the Turkish language does not have genders to attribute one to Istanbul. However, all the inhabitants show no doubt at all: Istanbul is a she, and a specific She.

Your regular morning in Istanbul

They say, Istanbul is a whore who sleeps with every man but remains virgin. Indeed, Freud would call her a woman just after a brief glance on the city map: two sides of the city, Asia and Europe, are divided by the long strait of Bosphorus – is there any more obvious symbols of pure feminine structure of Istanbul’s body? During the ages of history, Constantinople had been taken so many times, and so many great men fought for her hand, that her female nature would be confirmed by all her previous lovers. Also because the Greek name Constantinopolous is feminine.

“Because Istanbul is not a city,” the cook remarked, his face lighting up with the importance of the statement he was about to make. “It looks like a city but it is not. It is a city-boat. We live in a vessel! <…> We are all passengers here, we come and go in clusters, Jews go, Russians come, my brother’s neighborhood is full of Moldovans… Tomorrow they will go, others will arrive. That’s how it is…”

Wall painting of hundreds of hands.

Talking from my personal experience, She is a professional. In fact, I met as many women as men who came to Istanbul on their way elsewhere for just a couple of days… and stayed for months or years. I was not an exception: she held me captive for over a month, swinging me in a hurricane of Turkish delight at the Grand Bazaar and waffles in Moda, waltzing with me along Istiklal street and sparkling at night with her lights, like a pile of gold unguarded and untouched, as I watched her from a hill on my Big Island, Büyükada.

Legends, legends. One tells about a Sultan who fell in love with his daughter but realising the wrongness of this situation decided to lock her up. Another legend says that the prophecy was for the daughter to die of a snake bite, so the father locked her up in a tower in the middle of the Bosphorus. Either way, a snake crawled into a fruit basket and so it all ended.

“Doubtless, you too have experienced what I’m about to describe: At times, while walking through the infinite and winding streets of Istanbul, while spooning a bite of vegetable stew into my mouth at a public kitchen or squinting with fixed attention on the curved design of a reed-style border illumination, I feel I’m living the present as if it were the past. That is, when I’m walking down a street whitewashed with snow, I’ll have the urge to say that I was walking down it.”

Istanbul does not have history. It is history.

She sleeps probably only one hour per day – between 5 and 6am, when all party people have gone home or snore collapsed under tables and the shopkeepers haven’t woken up yet. During this particular hour you can feel lonely, because she’s sleeping and she is not with you.

At night from Buyukada island Istanbul looks like a pile of gold.

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