Istanbul Wedges

I find myself in a most elemental space, a warehouse of sorts, repurposed and upcycled comme il faut. I find myself facing a wall to my left, and to my right a sheet of glass, the Bosphorus, and Asia.

And in the distance covered by just a flicker of the eye, I find myself looking straight into someone else’s hell.

Istanbul Modern, the contemporary art gallery, shares with the Beyoğlu district this most matter-of-fact way of emulsifying things that don’t naturally go together, like oil and water, or casual brutalism with lite kindness. It’s in the structure and the infrastructure, countless concrete gray walls softened by one or two or several things organic and humane, and also almost always a cat.

So it is with Middle Eastern princesses and abstract expressionism.

Fahrelnissa Zeid, My Hell

Princess Fahrelnissa Zeid’s My Hell is placed a few meters away from a set of constantly clanking chains holding up iron steps that lead to a lower level, where all sorts of things get constructed and deconstructed in photographic tales of power and the giant hanging flags of long gone countries and landmines made of hard plastic and so on, the usual fare of Every Art Place. Me, I just kept revisiting Fahrelnissa’s Hell, clanking chains notwithstanding, and thinking without meaning to, thinking how does an early-century Turkish girl marry into the royal family of Iraq and heads East and paints this and calls it Hell.

Such voyages just don’t happen anymore – how could they, you know, I think and I look at the ferries and the Bosphorus bridge, which is now my favourite thing in town and why should it be any other way, here in this city of wedges that jams Europe into Asia and works Asia into Europe, with dashes of bright red over grey concrete blocks. Wedges here and there. And so it goes with the Princess’ hell – who knew there was such a thing, but if there was it stands to reason that it should be hung here in Istanbul.

In Sirkeci, my 120-hour home, the gleaming T1 trams cut through old streets so narrow that passers-by press themselves against the wall.

My bewi-fied café in Bebek, the kind of area guidebooks enjoy describing as ‘chic’, comes with resident street cat. Resident street cat is not used to taking no for an answer and camps on my lap for a late afternoon siesta and the long-haired goateed barista does not want to talk about football. This is a first. Outside the window, men are fishing. Istanbul has that thing that my own city also has, so like Madrid it’s a little village that got big all of a sudden, and its little village people are all at once big city people but they don’t really think so, so they are both small and big at the same time and more than slightly bemused.

They work so well, these Istanbul wedges. It is no boiler plate CNN Travel ‘land of contrasts’ blah blah bollocks. It’s just… what shows up, if you are like me and you like that sort of thing.