For the last thirty years I’ve been keeping track of the ships that sail through the Bosporus. Romanian tankers, Soviet cruisers, small single-masted fishing boats from Trabzon, Bulgarian passenger ships, Turkish Maritime’s Black Sea liners, Soviet meteorological survey vessels, snazzy Italian transatlantics, coal freighters, peeling, unkempt and rusty coasters registered in Varna, dark ships with indeterminable flags and ports of origin. I don’t keep an account of all the water traffic. I don’t pay any special attention to the water buses that go back and forth across the Bosporus carrying office workers to their jobs and housewives to the market; I ignore the ferryboats on which dazed and forlorn passengers smoke and drink tea from one end of Istanbul to the other; and the American cruise liners full of apprehensive tourists who sail up the coast to take a quick, wary look at the Black Sea.
I can’t tell you with any certainty why I notice some vessels and discount others. All I know is that I began spotting ships in the early sixties, when my parents and I lived in a small flat in Jihangir that had a view of the sea. I was in my last year at primary school: I must have been eleven. Once a month, before I went to bed, I used to set the alarm clock to wake me several hours before sunrise when it was still dark and quiet. Since I wasn’t yet able to light the stove that had been turned off for the night, I would dive into the spare bed in the spare room where the maid sometimes stayed, where I tried to keep myself from chattering with the cold in the dark of winter. My Turkish textbook in my hand, I would furiously repeat the poem that had to be memorized before going to school.
Flag, oh glorious flag,
Fluttering in the sky!
Anyone who’s had to commit something to memory knows that when we are busy etching the words on our minds, memorizing a text, a prayer or a poem, we pay little attention to what we see. While we’re learning something by heart, our eyes gaze on the world as if entirely for their own pleasure, independent of our minds. On those dark winter mornings, shivering with the cold and memorizing poems, I’d look out the window into the darkness where the Bosporus was barely visible.
Although the water could ordinarily be seen over the roofs and chimneys of old wooden houses and behind the minarets of the Jihangir mosque, it would appear utterly black at this hour, too early even for the ferryboats to start lighting the water with their headlights. Sometimes the pitch darkness would be relieved by the lights from the cranes working at the docks across the water on the Asian shore in Haydarpasha, or the lights on a freighter sailing by quietly, or a solitary powerboat, or the wan light of the moon. But mostly the sea remained dark and mysterious. Even when apartment buildings and graveyard cypresses became visible on the Asian shore, long before the sun rose behind the hills, the Bosporus was still black. Often when my head was busy with mysterious mnemonic games, repeating and memorizing, my eyes would be fixed on something sailing slowly against the current. Although I didn’t pay any mind to what I was observing, my eyes would follow the object out of habit, as if the vessel had permission to pass only after I confirmed that it was routine and unexceptional: Oh, yes, it’s a freighter; a dark fishing vessel; yes, there goes the water bus ferrying the first load of passengers across to Asia; and, yes, there’s a Soviet coaster under way to some remote harbour.
On such a morning, I was curled under the quilt memorizing my poem when my eyes were suddenly riveted in astonishment on something they had never seen before. I remember being transfixed, completely forgetful of the book in my hand. It was as if some sort of giant craft were rising out of the water, growing larger as it approached. An enormous drifting fort that floated out of the fog and darkness as if from a story book. A Soviet warship! The engines were cut way down, but even so their quiet rumble sent small shivers through our house. The window sill and the wooden floors creaked, the fire tongs on the stove and the pots and pans in the kitchen rattled. So the gossip that went around Istanbul was true after all! Soviet warships really did slip through the Bosporus at night.
For a moment I was gripped by a sense that I was the only one who had witnessed the apparition. I felt sure that this terrifying Soviet vessel must be on some sinister mission. It was up to me to wake Istanbul and warn the world! It reminded me of the derring-do in children’s stories, which had boy heroes who roused sleeping cities to save them from floods, fires or enemy invasion. But I also had no intention of leaving the quilt I had warmed with such great difficulty.
I worried. But I solved the dilemma by doing something that became a habit from then on: I impressed each passing Soviet vessel on my mind with all the attentiveness of a boy learning a text by heart. Just like the legendary American spies who supposedly photographed all the communist vessels that passed through the Bosporus, I recorded in my mind the salient features of these ships. By registering a warship in my mind, I fancied that I could domesticate it. I had a notion that whatever could not be recognized, whatever was left unregistered, would be the harbinger of disaster. So I began tracking not only the Soviet navy but all the other water craft ‘worthy of note’, in an effort to keep the world under my supervision. We had been taught all through school that the Bosporus was the key to world domination, which was the reason so many powers, especially the Russians, were always trying to seize our beautiful straits. I began keeping track of the sea lane outside my window, not only to ease my own anxieties, but also for the sake of world peace and order.
More than thirty years later, the Bosporus is still my geographical centre of happiness and disaster. I feel I must stay near it. When I have to go away, I always come back as soon as I can, to stand guard over the channel. I make sure I live on a hill with a view of the Bosporus, even if from a distance and in between domes, tall blocks of offices and flats, and bluffs. Like my fellow Istanbulites, I also like to look out of my window and watch the street and notice maybe an American-make car, or a beribboned little girl on her way to buy bread at the grocery store, or a white horse pulling a produce cart. We look to the street for diversion. We look further off to the water for something larger – to reassure ourselves that all is right with the world. The view, no matter how distant, takes on a spiritual meaning. The window which looks on to the Bosporus becomes an altar (mihrab in mosques, teva in synagogues); the chairs, sofas and dining tables in the living room are all arranged to face the sea. The result is that many thousands of greedy windows cross-watch each other. Windows on the ships watch Istanbul, while windows on the shore watch the ships.
I came to understand that I wasn’t alone in my ship-spotting habit and its accompanying anxiety when I eventually told other Istanbulites about my thirty-three-year-old secret. Quite a few of them turned out to share it. Quite a few also go on glancing out of the window, keeping track of ships on the Bosporus day to day, in an effort to figure out if great reversals, catastrophe and death are at hand. Behind the impulse to keep track of the traffic on the Bosporus there is, of course, the fear and pleasure – and the pleasurable fear – that this narrow, dark and fast-flowing body of water provides for us.
Disaster is the true state of being; joy is the absence of disaster; so let me begin with disaster. I was only eight and hadn’t yet begun keeping track of sea traffic when one night there was a great explosion, and dark smoke obscured the starlit sky; apparently, two oil tankers had collided halfway through the Bosporus. Sometime later, a family friend called with the news that oil storage tanks in the area had also gone up and the Bosporus was on fire. As happens with all great fires, someone in the house had seen the flames and the smoke, then heard a false rumour or two, and despite all the opposition from aunts and mothers, a few of us were unable to resist going to see for ourselves.
My uncle woke us up quickly and piled us into his car and took us to the hills of Tarabya. I remember the excitement and disappointment of seeing police roadblocks where a grand hotel was being built on the shoreway. I was envious to hear the next day in school that one of my classmates had been allowed through, thanks to his father, who had flashed his card with a swagger, announcing himself, ‘Press!’ That night, in the autumn of 1960, hours before daybreak, it was with exuberance that I watched the Bosporus burn, standing in a crowd of curious Istanbulites who were observing the fire in their nightgowns and pyjamas, or in trousers that had been hurriedly pulled on, their feet in slippers, babies in their arms, bags and satchels in their hands. Many years later, during other magnificent Bosporus fires involving waterside mansions, boats, and the sea itself, I observed all kinds of salesmen who appeared out of nowhere and began working the crowd, hawking their wafer candies, rings of crisp sesame simits, bottled water or roasted pumpkin seeds.
As it turned out, a Yugoslavia-bound tanker named Peter Zoranich (according to the papers it was travelling off course through the straits carrying 11,000 tons of oil and 10,000 tons of gas, which it had loaded in the Soviet port of Tuapse) had collided with a Greek oil tanker called World Harmony, which was on its way to the USSR. In a couple of minutes, the oil that spilled from the Yugoslavian tanker caught fire with an explosion that was heard all over Istanbul. The crew on both the tankers had instantly burnt to death even as they tried abandoning ship; without anyone at the helm, both vessels were running around out of control, dragged every which way by the heavy and unfathomable currents and whirlpools of the Bosporus, bursting into fireballs that threatened the suburbs on both shores, the tea gardens of Emirgân, the mansions in Yeniköy, the district of Kanlıca, the oil and gas depots in Çubuklu, and the shores of Beykoz lined with their old weathered-wood houses.
On whichever shore the two burning tankers were drawn towards, people abandoned their homes and, carrying their quilts and children, tried to get away from the sea. The Yugoslavian tanker drifted to the European side and slammed into the passenger ship Tarsus, which soon caught fire. When the burning vessels closed in on Beykoz, people began to flee up the bluffs and into the hills beyond. The sea was ablaze, and the water looked intensely yellow. The ships had turned into infernal masses of metal; the funnels, the masts, the captain’s bridges had melted and collapsed. The sky was lit by a red light that seemed to come from the bowels of the ships. Explosions went off at intervals, and shards of sheet iron the size of blankets fell into the sea like burning sheets of paper; screams and cries rose up from the hills and the beaches; the loud crying of babies could be heard after each eruption.
What can be more instructive than witnessing hills alive with tearful human beings who have escaped their homes in their nightclothes? These hills under an inflamed sky, surrounded by explosions and fire, were the same hills where one took one’s ease smelling the spring flowers and the perfume of Judas trees and honeysuckles, where one treated oneself to heavenly naps under the mulberry trees, and on summer nights, where one entertained metaphysical thoughts while watching the silken light of the moon on the waters of the Bosporus. Disaster had happened here, it came to me later, because I had not stood guard. I had not been keeping track of the passing ships.
The other lesson I learned through this glimpse of catastrophe was the astonishing fact that misery is always more spectacular than happiness. Only an old lady on her last legs would want to witness a contented family leading a paradisical existence in an old wooden seaside mansion on the Bosporus. But should that mansion go up in flames some night, curious crowds would gather on either shore to watch the spectacle, and those who must see everything for themselves would get up close to the inferno in small boats.
In my early youth, my cronies would call each other up to report such fires, and we would pile into cars and go, say, to Emirgân and park alongside each other. Listening to pop music on the tape deck, we would watch in awe and delight as a mansion burnt down on the Asian shore opposite, while we ate toasted cheese sandwiches and had soft drinks brought to us from a tea house nearby. We would tell stories of old Istanbul fires when white-hot nails were known to fly from the walls of blazing buildings and out across the Bosporus, sending a house on the opposite shore up in flames. We would also gossip about who was in love with whom, politics, soccer games, and the stupidity of parents. But the thing was, if a dark tanker happened to pass by the mansion burning on the shore, nobody paid it any attention. Disaster had already struck. When the fire was at its most intense and calamity was upon the place in its most awful guise, my friends in the car would fall silent, which made me sense that by watching the flames each of us was imagining our own private disasters.
Sometimes, in Istanbul, we are awakened between midnight and daybreak by the hooting of a ship, a deep and powerful sound in the still of the night that reverberates around the hills, telling us that the water is under a shroud of fog. In the meantime the foghorn at the Ahırkapı lighthouse also blares out its forlorn sound. Between sleep and wakefulness we picture in our minds the phantom of a great ship trying to find its way in the fog and the strong current. What flag is it sailing under? What freight does it carry? What is troubling the harbour pilot on the bridge and his helpers? Are they caught in a cross current? Have they sensed a dark shadow approaching in the fog? Have they gone off course? Half awake in bed, listening to a horn that seems more plaintive and hopeless each time it sounds, the Istanbulite veers between a bad dream and the dread of a real and awful event out there on the water. Whenever there was a big storm, my mother used to say, ‘God help those who are out at sea in this weather!’
On the other hand, the apprehension of some terrible catastrophe is the best way of going back to sleep. The half-awake Istanbulite falls asleep wrapped in his quilt while keeping track of the blasts of horns, perhaps dreaming of being on the fogged-in boat and close to peril. In the morning, he forgets he was awakened by the foghorns in the night, just as he mostly forgets his dreams when he wakes. Only children remember. Next day, going through our daily routines like waiting in line at the post office or having lunch, we overhear someone say, ‘I was awakened by ship horns last night.’ That’s when we know that six or seven million people who live on the straits of Bosporus had the same dream the night before.
The closer people live to the water, the scarier their dreams. On one particular foggy night, 4 September 1963 to be precise, at four o’clock in the morning, a 5,500 gross ton freighter called Arhangelsk, carrying military equipment from Russia to Cuba, was heading down the straits when it went aground at Balta harbour, destroying two houses and killing three people inside.
‘We woke to a horrifying noise,’ one of the survivors later testified. ‘For a moment we imagined our home had been hit by lightning, but then the building cracked in two. As luck would have it, we were in the wing that didn’t collapse. When we regained our presence of mind enough to see what had happened, we came face to face with a huge freighter sticking its prow into the third-floor living room.’
Along with similar accounts, the papers had printed a photograph of the freighter wedged into the living room. On the wall was a portrait of an ancestor in military uniform; bunches of grapes were sitting in a dish on the sideboard; part of the rug was blowing in the breeze like a curtain because half the floor was gone. The snout of the ship had pushed its way into familiar furniture, the same kind of chairs, tables, sofas we had in our own homes. Looking through the bound newspapers from thirty years ago once again, I remembered that all Istanbul had discussed the mishap for days: how the pretty high-school girl who had died in the accident had recently become engaged; what had been said in the conversations between victims and the survivors, the now dead and the still living, on the night before; how the boy next door had discovered his lovely fiancée dead in the rubble.
Back then, only one million rather than ten million souls lived in the city, and a story could travel around the neighbourhoods by word of mouth and attain the proportions of a legend. At that time, about two dozen ships went through the straits every day. People who keep count report that these days the number of ships averages 120. Many of them are tankers, ten times larger than those in my childhood, carrying oil, petroleum by-products and nuclear waste. Today, accidents on the Bosporus are lost among all the daily disasters of a city teeming with people. When I talk to my friends about such matters, I’m astonished to find that we all cling to the memories of old catastrophes with dewy eyes, as if we are talking with nostalgia about the good old days.
Do I remember, they say, the time when an excursion boat sank somewhere between Yeniköy and Beykoz with the members of the Turkish-German Association on board? Sometime in the July of 1966, I believe. It ran into a barge carrying lumber down the Bosporus to Marmara. Thirteen people were lost. Remember?
Or that time when a Romanian tanker called Ploiesti just barely touched a fishing boat and, in the blink of an eye, the fishing boat went down in two pieces. Remember?