By Myrna Kostash | July 4, 2013

We might call this confused, hazy state melancholy, or perhaps should call it by its Turkish name, hüzün, which denotes a melancholy that is communal rather than private. Offering no clarity; veiling reality instead, hüzün brings us comfort, softening the view like the condensation on a window when a tea kettle has been spouting steam on a winter’s day.

                      — Orhan Pamuk, Istanbul: Memories of a City


In 2001 Taner Aydin was a 20-year-old Turkish student studying to become a teacher of English language and literature. He had a part-time job at the Reception desk of the small hotel where I was staying in Istanbul, and so we chatted congenially a number of times. He even skipped a lecture on the short story to accompany me for a day’s trip to Iznik (better known in the West as Nicaea, the site of the Church Council of bishops in 325 that produced the so-called Nicene Creed), and was tolerant of my enthusiasm for its relics of early Christianity, admittedly in a poor state, as I was relaxed about his vanishing three times into a mosque at the call of the muezzin. It was in Iznik that he explained the meaning of his postures at prayer – bending at the waist, crouching on the haunches – that he performed them in imitation of the postures of the angels, from all the ascending levels of heaven, who once greeted the Prophet when he was taken up to meet God. So, with a swoop and a bend of our human form we can be like the angels.

Ten years later I was back in Istanbul, and Taner was now a 30-year-old teacher of English in a girls’ school. Weeks ahead of my arrival he had invited me to visit the school, and sent the Internet links that described the history and nature of this remarkable institution, Kandilli Kiz Anadolu Lesesi [Kandilli Girls’ Anatolian High School]. It was built as a palace in the 1860s by the sultan Abdülaziz (1830-1876), whose other achievements included the Istanbul Archaeology Museum, the world’s third largest navy after Britain’s and France’s, the first issue of Turkish postage stamps and musical compositions in the style of Ottoman court music. He was part-French and part-Vlach as well as Turkish, and bore a physical resemblance – a certain bushy burliness about the jaw – to members of that extended family of cousins known as Romanovs, Hohenzollerns and Windsors, and ended as badly as some of them, a suicide but likely murdered.

But what attracted me to him was that the palace had been a gift to his beloved sister, Adile Sultan (1825-1898), a celebrated poet and a philanthropist who I had never heard of. But there was that Internet link straight to Wikipedia, with the erroneous information about her education, according to Taner. Yes, she was educated to a “high standard” but not within Topkapi Palace, as I had assumed. “The palace where she was educated,” Taner informed me, “might be Dolmabahçe Palace or Yildiz Palace, which were being used by the dynasty at that time, not the Topkapi, which wasn’t.” At the age of 20 she was married to the commander of the fleet, bore four children who died young, was widowed at 43, entered the ancient Sufi order of Naqshbandi and kept on writing poetry while devoting herself to works of charity. Her own efforts brought about the printing of a collection, or Divan, of the writings of Suleiman the Magnificent (1494-1566) but a Divan of her own work had to wait until 1996.

Students of Kandilli School beamed with pride as they told me that not any old poet is honoured with a Divan, but only those poets – and rarely women – who are deemed to have written a significant body of work worth preserving for posterity. They thrust an English-language brochure into my hand: “She was loved by people of Istanbul because of her charity and love of people, also she leadership the woman to become expand out of harem. By repairing school and poor houses, efforting for kids’ education, providing a dowry for marriageable girls, she remembered with praise and appreciation even after her death from the society.”

At Kandilli girls' school.

At Kandilli girls’ school.

Taner fetched me at my hotel for the trip to the school, to the Asian side of Istanbul. A tram, a ferry, and then a bus trip along the shoreline with its exhilarating views to the other side – of the long banks of the waterway lined with sumptuous Ottoman villas and summer houses – brought us to the school’s driveway that wended up a hill to a headland and the panoramic view over gardens and the Bosphorus. Here I was met by a small group of the students, unscarved but in school uniform, who whisked me away for a tour of the palace (rebuilt after a 1986 fire), chattering at me in bursts of credible English, excited, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, spiritual daughters of Adile Sultan who had lost all of her own but who had gifted her palace at her death to be a residential high school for girls, daughters too of the reformist movements in education and women’s rights of the new Turkish Republic (after 1920). In 2008 the school was granted the status of an “Anatolian high school,” within the public system but with English-based education, admission by achievement test. There are some 650 students, and 45-odd teachers among whose number Taner considers himself to be favoured by fortune: “Excellent students. And what a view!”

Taner, my escorts and I then paid a visit to the Headmaster, Dr.Abdurrahman Memiş, who, Taner informed me, is a scholar of Islamic theology, and I assumed that the green book open on his desk under his folded hands was a copy of the Qur’an. Dr. Memiş does not speak English but through Taner’s translation we managed a conversation of sorts, which I opened with what I hoped was a benign enough question, “In your view, do you think there is a possibility of mutual understanding among the three Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam?” It appeared that the Headmaster’s reply coincided with Taner’s own convictions for he translated with enthusiastic approbation the fact that “correct Islam teaches that any Muslim who does not honour the Hebrew and Christian prophets, Mary and Jesus included, cannot call himself a Muslim.”

As I mulled over the likelihood of some Christians on the wilder shores of the faith honouring the prophets of other people’s faiths, Dr. Memiş continued, with the grave and unsmiling countenance he kept throughout our short visit: “However, Islam is the final Revelation, Hebrew and Christian scripture having been changed by human agency over the ages. The Qur’an, on the other hand, remains exactly as it was revealed, uncreated,” that is verbally by God through the angel Gabriel to prophet Mohammed over the course of 23 years, and compiled as a single text shortly after his death. (I can see that any discussion of translations of the Qur’an from the “miraculous” original in Arabic could be a provocation.) I tried to argue that Christians also believe that their Holy Scripture, especially the New Testament, is the last word on God’s message about human salvation, but, as Taner and Dr. Memiş vigorously pursued their line of argument about the “changes” effected by “human interference, human creation” in the composition of Christian scripture, I rapidly reviewed in my mind the several centuries of the cultural task of consolidation of texts, canons, apocrypha, and translations across Councils, Bulls, decrees, editions and standard authorized/revised/new translations, across bishops, emperors, popes, heretics and scholars, and agreed they had a point.

On to the Assembly hall and my introduction to the rest of the student body and faculty – standing room only – the stage festooned with balloons and large cut-out letters spelling my name. I was presented an enormous bouquet of flowers, then for an hour I responded to the questions volleyed at me from two students onstage with me, in particular Binazir, with her laptop open and running and her excellent command of English (and Russian, as she was born in Kazakhstan). The questions were terrific (the girls had done their Google-work). “You wrote a book about teenage girls in Canada. How would you compare your teenagehood and that of those girls?” “You wrote a book about the Sixties in Canada. When we think of the Sixties, we think of the assassination of John Kennedy, the war in Vietnam, Che Guevara, the Beatles – but Canada?” “Which is your favourite book of the ones you’ve written?” “How did you get your name?”


Hagia Sophia.

Hagia Sophia.

These questions gave me the opening to speak at length and passionately about feminism, Canadian cultural nationalism, Vive le Québec libre!, draftdodgers, hippies, multiculturalism, Ukrainian-Canadians, and, because the day before I had spent hours inside Hagia Sophia, the great sixth-century treasury of Byzantine art and spirituality that was for a thousand years the largest cathedral in the Christian world, I talked about the reason for my repeated visits to Turkey and the former Ottoman lands known as the Balkans, namely the literary project that resulted in my latest book (Prodigal Daughter: A Journey to Byzantium) and my return to the Orthodox church and faith.

The audience was attentive and responsive enough by this point that I felt I could spend some time on the rather emotionally-charged subject of how an Orthodox Christian from the west might feel about the monuments of Byzantium, not to mention the very memory of it, disappearing under Ottoman/Turkish triumphalism. Take the very name, Istanbul. From the fourth century of its founding by Roman Emperor, Constantine, it was called Constantinople, a name not officially changed to Istanbul until 1930; even the Ottomans had kept the Byzantine name. The name Istanbul itself lightly conceals its origins in the Greek phrase,eis ten polin,” in the city, there being only one city worth mentioning.

Take Hagia Sophia, converted to a mosque in 1453 then to a museum in 1935. I explained to the assembly that my spiritual heritage is Orthodox because, back in the tenth century, Prince Volodymyr of Kyiv, according to legend, determined to turn his people away from idolatry. He sent emissaries out to neighbouring lands to survey their religions, and when they reached Constantinople and entered Hagia Sophia, “they knew not whether they had entered Paradise.” As Procopius, historian of Emperor Justinian’s’ buildings, had already testified in the sixth century, “The visitor’s mind is lifted up to God and floats aloft, thinking that He cannot be far away, but must love to dwell in this place which He himself has chosen.”

Their ecstatic report convinced the Prince to baptize the people of Rus into the faith of the Eastern Christian church, and so, many generations later among the Ukrainian immigration to the Canadian prairies, I was duly baptized as an infant into the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada. And now I had come to the city of Constantine, Emperor and Saint, to Constantinople, to a church, at the very centre of the world.

I invited the girls to imagine how I had felt entering the stupendous cathedral, the Hagia Sophia, queen of churches in the Byzantine cosmos, the church dedicated to Divine Wisdom/Logos, the epicentre of Christian Empire for a thousand years, the source of my own faith – to imagine the power, of its vast cosmic space and its light and shadows, to move a visitor like me. (By comparison I invited them to think about the wanton destruction of Turkish monuments in the Christian Balkans after the wars of liberation from the Ottomans.) Yes, I said, I am grateful that the great dome, “suspended from heaven,” (as described by Procopius) has finally been freed from its scaffolding but I wince at the enormous oval medallions still hanging on the columns and inscribed in Arabic calligraphy, elegant though it may be, with the names of Allah, the Prophet Muhammad, the first four caliphs and the two grandchildren of Mohammed. Or perhaps, as my guidebook has it, “Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth. The similitude of His light is a niche wherein is a lamp. The lamp is in glass. The glass is as it were a shining star.”


Fatih Sultan Mehmet.

Fatih Sultan Mehmet.

The other day, I went on, I had taken a photograph of a bright, new monument erected just off a main thoroughfare, a statue of Fatih Sultan Mehmet in a simple cloak and turban and posed with his left hand held peaceably across his chest. Fatih means Conqueror, the Conqueror, the Ottoman leader who in 1453 entered Constantinople through its shattered gates and claimed it for Islam once his soldiers were done with their days of looting, pillaging and rapine. “You conquered Constantinople,” I said, “but for us it fell, and great were our lamentations.”

A teacher shot up her hand. “Wouldn’t you say that this so-called Conquest of Constantinople was not a destruction: that was the accomplishment of the Crusaders?” Ah, yes, the Fourth Crusade of 1204: an unparalleled assault by a Christian army on a Christian city, days of savage destruction, desecration, bestial vulgarities, rape, murder, and the looting of treasures eventually distributed across western Europe, especially in Venice. I was horrified, I confessed, to find an inscription inside Hagia Sophia marking the tomb of Enrico Dandolo, the 97-year-old Doge of Venice who commanded the Sack of Constantinople and died a year later at the site of his triumph. Byzantium never recovered.

Yes, the teacher had a point.

Then it was my turn to ask a question. “How many of you students think Turkey should join the European Union?” About half the hands went up. I asked for a representative of each side of the question to give her reason. “Yes,” said the first, “because then we wouldn’t need visas to travel.” “No,” said the second girl, “because Europeans think they’re superior to us.”

A few days after my visit, I picked up a booklet advertising the “Panorama 1453 History Museum.” In his Foreword, the mayor of Istanbul writes that the museum has been opened “in order to bring to life the images of those bewitching moments [of the Conquest]”. The booklet reproduces some of those images, Mehmet front and centre on a noble steed gesturing toward the walls of Constantinople, images of the feats of engineering that blasted open the walls that had stood impenetrable for a thousand years, a scene of Janissaries raising the Ottoman flag on the devastated ramparts. “You shall hear the shouting of Taqbir (‘God is great!’) by Fatih Sultan Mehmet’s thousands of soldiers and the victory marches played by his janissary band.” And so opened the 450-year-long history of a new empire governed from the banks of the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn.

There are images, and images. Some weeks after my return to Edmonton Taner sent me a file of pictures that the students had prepared as a way to welcome me to the school. Unfortunately, the power point technology hadn’t worked, but now I could view the production on my computer screen. And so I clicked through the sequence of images they had chosen for the occasion: photos of well-known Ukrainian-Canadians, photos of Mao, Brezhnev and Che, a Soviet-era poster of a Ukrainian woman in traditional costume, a psychedelic poster, a photo of an anti-war demonstration, both sides of the Canadian nickel…and on it went, a scrapbook of the dreamlines of my biography as recreated by seventeen-year-old schoolgirls in the city at the centre of our two worlds.


When I heard the news at the end of May 2013 of the first peaceful protests in Istanbul’s Taksim Square and the occupation of Gezi Park (threatened by commercial development to make way for a mall), I immediately thought of Taner and the students of Kandilli school: were they all right? Were they able to get to school without trouble? I didn’t presume to ask whether any of them were joining the occupation, and in any case, as I learned from Binazir, she and her fellow students were in the midst of writing final exams, “the most stressful time in my life,” she wrote me. “I was worried about everything, college, faculty, which profession I should choose…” Now she was nervous about waiting for the results (I’ve not received any further news from her as of end of June) but she had finally made up her mind about university studies – Theology! I am not altogether surprised as, of the small group of her fellow students who took me to lunch in the school cafeteria, she was the only one to admit that she was uncomfortable about not wearing the hijab at school where she mingled with males (teachers, support staff) who were not relatives. For the moment, at least, head coverings are prohibited at public schools.

Taner replied immediately to reassure me that there was nothing to worry about re the safety of the students, and that he was busy getting ready to leave for Tennessee, of all places, accompanying a “folk dance troupe” from the school; from there he was going to the UK as he does annually. “As for the protests you watch on tv,” he continued, “I don’t approve of them at all.” He argues that the protests are unwarranted as the government has embarked on an ambitious tree-planting program “in more suitable places” than Gezi Park; and that the protestors are organized by the “opposition party.” There is a silent majority (I assume he includes himself among them) who support the government’s policies, he argues. “Anyway I hope they stop it soon.”

Edmonton, Alberta


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