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New Europe

Day Thirty-nine: Istanbul

Ara Güler 
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Breakfast with Ara Güler, the internationally renowned photographer, so famous they named this place after him, Kafe Ara.
Michael Palin - New EuropeOpposite Galatasaray School, at a fashionable, very westernized café named after him, I meet Ara Güler, one of the most experienced documentary photographers in the world. He looks and sounds wise, with a big strong grizzled head, bald at the top and heavily bearded at the bottom. He is still digesting the news that has rocked the country of the assassination, two days ago, of the Armenian Hrant Dink, a liberal writer and publisher. Güler knew him well, had played poker with him a few days before.

'I took rather a lot of money off him,' he says, with a rueful grin, as if he was saying what his friend would have expected him to say in the circumstances.

The news coming through is that his killer was a young man from Trabzon, on the Black Sea, an extreme nationalist who regarded people like Dink and Nobel Prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk as bringing the country into disrepute by, among other things, daring to mention Turkish genocide of the Armenians ninety years earlier. Before dismissing the assassin as a madman, it's worth remembering that this same attitude is enshrined in law here. Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code makes 'denigrating Turkishness' an offence.

Ara, a Jew and also an Armenian, is shocked but not altogether surprised. He lived through the trauma of a few years ago when four bombs went off near here, two one day, two the next, aimed at synagogues and British interests in the city. Two years before that sixty-four people were killed when a local synagogue was bombed.

There are threats to the Republic from both sides, from religious extremists and nationalists, and though the authorities are anxious to appear on top of the situation it is having an effect. Visitor numbers from Europe were down by eleven per cent last year though they're now climbing again. But Ara Güler, for all his fame and his international connections, has Istanbul in his blood and would never consider moving. He's just got himself a digital camera and he sets off to show me his favourite part of the city.

'Every day I discover a new Istanbul,' he tells me as we clamber up some steep steps in the Jewish quarter where once fine old buildings now seem old and neglected, unsteady and unloved, leaning on each other for support. He takes pictures of these old neighbourhoods because he fears that much of what he loves about the city will soon be gone for ever.

'We are walking in the dead body of Istanbul,' he declares, adding, 'the smiling dead body.'

'Smiling?' I query.

'No, no! Smelling. The smelling dead body.'

His friend Orhan Pamuk has said that Ara Güler's photographs show an Istanbul 'where there is as much melancholy in the faces of the city's people as in its views'.

Pamuk seems to think that melancholy is the prevailing mood of the city, a mood he clearly approves of, and which he feels is in danger of being threatened by money and materialism. Istanbul has certainly boomed since I was last here on my way from Pole to Pole in 1991, with two new bridges over the Bosphorus and a number of dull but unavoidable modern towers muscling in on a skyline that was once dominated by domes and minarets.
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  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day Thirty-nine: Istanbul
  • Country/sea: Turkey
  • Place: Istanbul
  • Book page no: 97

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  • Sightseeing
  • Day 5 
  • Around the World in 80 Days
  • Day 18 
  • Full Circle
  • Day 16 
  • Pole to Pole