In 2017, with my life in ruins after leaving my abusive marriage, I returned to Istanbul. I had returned for two reasons – to work and to start the healing process. Istanbul is where the abuse started and where I had lost myself and so to find myself, I had to return. He was no longer living in Istanbul but in London and this meant I would have Istanbul all to myself.
I had applied for and gotten a teaching position at the university. With the help of a colleague I rented a flat in Fener, a district of Istanbul I knew very little about.
She called her old landlord and asked if he had anything available and he said that we were in luck. A tenant had just moved out and we could swing by and have a look. When she pointed out where the place was on the map, all that I could tell was that I would be living on the edge of the Golden Horn, close to Eminönü and Fatih and a short bus ride up from the Halic metro stop.
My landlord was a short jovial man, constantly smiling and very proud of his newly restored Greek house which was painted a deep eggshell blue. The house was divided into several studios occupied by various tenants – all of which were respectful and kind, he assured me. Instead of numbers, each flat had a theme which was indicated by what was painted on the front door. The Turkish architect above me lived in the Lighthouse Flat and the Syrian musician beneath me lived in the Seagull Flat and I was given the keys to the Pomegranate Flat.
My flat was tiny but cosy with wooden floors and a wooden ceiling. On the floor, there was a lovely woven red and pink kilim and on the bed, satin turquoise cushions embroidered with a classic pomegranate pattern. There was also a small alcove with a bench and desk where I could write which looked out on the cobbled street below. Most importantly the flat had a good shower, a soft bed and a sturdy lock on the front door.
On my first morning in the flat, I was awoken by the pecking of a crow on the adjacent rooftop. At first, I wasn’t sure where I was. The bed – with its softness and warmth – swallowed me up whole like the arms of a lover. It was difficult to get up and while I stared at the ceiling, I realised just how tired I had been from the years I had spent trying to please someone who was impossible to please.
For the first time in a long time, I was alone and it was quiet and I could breathe and move at my own pace. I got up, got dressed, made myself a cup of coffee and then I went out to explore this new neighbourhood of mine.
As I wandered through the streets of Fener, I discovered elegant stone houses, wooden mansions, walled gardens and Byzantine ruins in various states of decay and renewal. Having always been attracted to liminal spaces, my curiosity was particularly drawn to the grand derelict houses of which there were many.
Until the 20th century, Fener, named after the lighthouse that once stood here, was a predominantly affluent Greek neighbourhood. Since the 16th century, it had been inhabited by the Feneriotes who were under the protection of the Ottoman Empire and had gained their wealth through commerce and trade. This wealth was then funnelled back into the neighbourhood of Fener where the Feneriotes built magnificent homes and palaces. Most of the original inhabitants of this neighbourhood are now gone. When the Greeks left, so did the money and since the 1950s, with the mass migration from the Black Sea region, these lavish now derelict homes were taken up by those who couldn’t afford their upkeep.
As autumn slipped into winter, my life settled into a rhythm of work and writing. Each weekday morning I awoke around 5 a.m. and while it was still dark, I would make myself a cup of coffee and I would sit down in my tiny alcove, prop my window open and write in my journal, still very much half asleep. And then, as if rising up from deep within the ground, the call to prayer would begin. First the muffled wailing voices of the muezzins would ricochet in the distance across the whole of Istanbul and then our muezzin joined in at a more steady, reserved hypnotic pace.
These were the days I would wake up in the dark, leave for work in the dark and return home from work in the dark. The bus picked me up and dropped me off along the offshore highway. Coming home, once I braved the four-lane crossing and turned the corner on Yildirim Cd., I felt the noise of the world drop off behind me. Hardly seeing anyone else during this time, gave the impression that the neighbourhood was abandoned but not once was I afraid walking these streets with their ruins alone.
What I felt strongly was the absence of truly feeling anything at all. Instead, I felt myself healing, searching, questioning but not feeling. The trauma I had experienced living in an emotionally abusive marriage left a deep emptiness inside that I was now in no quick hurry to fill. The absence of feeling was comforting. The absence of him and all that he had done was comforting.
I felt akin to the ruins – tall and determined to stand in the darkness without answers. What I realised during this time was that I was so much more than just my feelings. My whole life up till now had been shaped by feelings.
The weekend gave me a different impression of the neighbourhood. Throngs of tourist invaded the district eager to hang out at the newly opened cafes and take selfies against the colourful historic buildings made famous by local T.V. shows and instagram. In the warmer weather, the sun brought to life the vibrant colours of the neighbourhood and I took this opportunity to venture into further unknown territory but not alone. I had made a friend. A tall handsome prog metal music loving man from Damascus who was willing to wander with me. He was a colleague and he became my defacto chaperon as I pulled him into places I was told no woman should go alone. Together we explored the Theodosian walls, the side streets of Balat and Eminönü and when we were hungry we headed for the Arabic market in Fatih.
But at night my mind returned to the ruins.
Often, as I walked the streets alone I would find children playing amongst them. Reinventing the spaces into fortresses or houses or whatever their imagination conjured. What I learned from the children is that ruins provide space for the observer to interpret them as she or he likes, to fill the void in-between with their imagination and their own meaning and in this way they can be re-purposed. And so I began to reimagine the ruins of my own life.
But ruins are difficult for adults because they require the ability to process a reality that adults spend our lives avoiding. They are what we don’t like to talk about. Like bones, they remind us of our own transience; the ways in which we’ve failed. They ask questions of us that are difficult to answer in the context of our imagined lives.
I, living in Fener, was no longer living that imagined life moved by feelings alone. My life now came down to my two hands, my mind and the new found space I had created for myself to work together to create a tangible, reality that was able to feed me and put a roof over my head. Whatever emotional feelings were knocking about in me were met with stoicism and mistrust. I was still too bruised to trust them.