I Am Istanbul

BOOK REVIEW by Willard Manus

I've been to Istanbul innumerable times and thought I knew something about the city and its inhabitants, but when I read I AM ISTANBUL by Buket Uzuner I realized how off the mark I was.

The city is a 2700-year-old mystery and even its residents, the Istanbullu, will never truly be able to comprehend it. Istanbul is simply too vast, ancient and complex for any mere mortal to fathom. Nor can anyone born there ever truly escape it; they will always carry the city in their hearts. As the author observes, "To Istanbul they must return...homesick, pining, missing it to death, their hearts ablaze with an unquenchable love never to be found elsewhere."

Uzuner has constructed a microcosm of Istanbul in her new novel: the arrivals terminal of Ataturk Airport. The time is the present, the protagonist is Belgin Gumus, an Istanbul-born college professor who has given up her cushy job and apartment in New York to go back home and marry an Istanbullu named Ayhan Pozaner, a sculptor "who'd picked himself up by the bootstraps" and fashioned a modestly successful career for himself.

We meet Belgin ("a woman as intelligent as she was beautiful") while she's circling above the airport in a Turkish Airline airbus. Down below, Ayhan ("a dark man with short, blue-black hair and 70s-style sideburns") awaits her in a passenger lounge, killing time by drinking beer and shmoozing with the barman (a Kurdish Turk).

Belgin and Ayhan met in New York and had a tempestuous love affair there (and later in London, Athens and Rome). They are modern, emancipated Turks who have been married before and have had numerous lovers. But both are "relationship casualties," which is why they have now begun to have second thoughts about each other as the book opens. Is it a mistake to think they can make a new life together? Are they truly in love or simply infatuated with each other?

These questions aren't answered until the final chapter of I AM ISTANBUL, but many other things happen to keep the reader involved in the book's sweeping narrative. First the anxious Belgin hides herself in the terminal's ladies' room; then the equally conflicted Ayhan gets drunk on beer. That's followed by a computer failure and a terrorist bomb scare at the airport. Everything shuts down: heavily armed soldiers pile into the airport and turn it into a war zone. Against this backdrop of chaos and terror, the author trots out a rogue's gallery of characters: a Greek-Turkish professor, a rich businessman and his sexy, conniving mistress, a janitor, a policeman, an elegant dowager, and so on. Although these people have their own unique dreams, desires and needs, they also share a common denominator: a psychic link to Istanbul.

Uzuner writes about these Istanbullu knowingly and wittily, bringing them to life in singular fashion. The composite portrait of Istanbul that emerges is remarkable in its breadth and depth. The author not only captures the soul, the essence, of the city (and its populace), but ultimately takes on the city's voice, proclaiming, "Once an Istanbullu, always an Istanbullu. I am the last song on the lips of dying exiles; I am pain and poetry; even to those who imagine they have left me of their own accord, I remain forever the lost home; for I am the smell of earth, the tang of sea, the stuff of dreams. I am Istanbul. City of magic, city of enchantment, object of the world's desire."

(Dalkey Archive, 352 pages, $17.--ppbk. dalkeyarchive.com)