Cat’s Eyes of Istanbul

The cat purred as if it has something to declare in that wide space of fidelity.  Its recurring purring has the scent of ascendant summer.  Its recurring purring has the sprout of history and imperial regret against the once Greek Orthodox Cathedral by Emperor Justinian I built in year 537. It profoundly struck me as melancholic, in that dark backdrop of Byzantine, Ottoman empires and the birth of a modern Turkish republic playing hide and seek in that Hagia Sophia cavernous hall adorned with golden mosaics. A cat that is so handsome as to be suddenly affordable in its unknowingly familiar somnambulist ritual, looked at me with nonchalance. At that instantaneous feeling of exile, I was only able to promise myself a collaboration with time as to make that encounter a trivial ordination of a feline morning against my own itinerant interpretation of my anthropology.  If there was melancholy, there was also disenchantment from the cat’s eyes.  It had experienced death, not once but several times in that day-long litany of passing tourists, and in the past even dignitaries among them Pres. Obama and Prime Minister Erdogan had stroked its matted fur.   It had no explanation, no understanding from a man’s window reference of death.  All it did was to allow the stares and the measured stroking of its generous fur run the course of human heat and sublimity.  It intersected and buoyed grievously against the feline atavistic murmur called touch.  All it did was to confront and stabbed its ego of these predator-prey or prey-predator codes of existence. All it has to remind itself is its belief that even if Arabic culture says it has six lives, one life is all worth it.

Her name is Gli.  “Union of Love” is what her name means.  In her proud stance, her whiskers speak of her engagements and her fate in this city peppered with ancient symbols.  In her many dreams, she had moved around the city, slick and dark and sprightly, sneering and snuggling in the nooks and tin roofs of both old and new marble corners. She had accumulated a thousand scent of different varieties of spices from Anatolian thyme to the indispensable fenugreek, from fragrant and fruity tarragon to astringent sumac and the yellowish Aegean mastic to intense Turkish mint.  Her fur had graciously aged and had rippled mischievously in those years of hunting and being called the muse of speed.

I am a half-hearted cat lover.  My childhood encounters with cats belong to the childish unruly fascination of controlling their libidinous explosion in numbers. Conjured by enchanted filtering of lights from the glass tiles and frescoes, I stroked the cat that houses the history of a civilization on its obese paws. I talked to the cat of Istanbul and waited for the canonical sound of its meow, hoping fervently that its voice would waft across the minarets of thousand mosques across the city that straddles between two continents.

Gli talked to me of Istanbul. A sudden city of mirrors and bridges.  Gli talked to me of Istanbul that is fervently untouchable yet fully embracing of all living beings in their beliefs and solitudes.  Gli talked to me of water that flows through the Bosphorus, the ferries and of course the multi-cultural people borne out of these living waters who carry with them doldrums summers and mysterious anthems.  Gli became my companion in our adventure in this spinning peninsula of changing landscapes.

“Istanbul is divinely alive”, she declared.   “No amount of Nietzschian witticism can declare its death.” 

From that “cathedral-to-mosque-to museum” home of Gli, she brought me to the busy streets and sounds of Istanbul, carrying with her the memory and narrative of a city deeply chronicled by it loyal son, Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk.

Gli brought me to Topkapi Palace, the crowning example of an Ottoman palace that became the nerve center of an empire stretching to the fringes of Europe.  She allowed me to imagine as one of the sultans in that long period of more than 600 years standing atop the Seraglio Point, looking out to the Marmara Sea and the Golden Horn.

“What do you see beyond those lands?”, Gli asked me.

“Hmm, lands, I haven’t conquered”, curtly and spontaneously I answered, ignoring the past opulence that characterized the courtyards and smaller buildings.  The palace I stood was the repository of the unimaginable treasures amassed from the conquests of kingdoms and civilizations and holy relics of the Muslim world.  I answered feeling the power of a sultan at the zenith of his power, hungrier ever more for more lands.  Later on, I was brought to my senses about the depravity and meaninglessness of my response.  Brute power corrupts and the finite limit of its existence is real, as evidenced by the Ottoman collapse.

“That is the Blue Mosque that continued to awe me since I was young. Those layered domes and minarets just amaze me even though I see it almost every day,”  said Gli while we walked across the Hippodrome of Constantinople approaching the Obelisk of Thutmose III.  We walked leisurely, she with her elegant stride, the stride of the empress of Sultan Ahmet Square.  She narrated about the mosque and its story of minarets with me almost missing her excited words about the blue Iznik tiles that covered the interiors of the holy place.

We moved to the subterranean level. “This is my dark labyrinthine playground,” she declared to me with an exultant smile and with a slow wagging of her tail. She showed me the Cistern Basilica built during the 6th century to supply water to the Topkapi Palace.  I marveled at the Corinthian and Ionic columns that filter the interplay of shadows in this dimly lit sanctuary against the perfidious summer heat.

At Karakoy district, I asked her about the cylindrical tower that stands high looming like a medieval star amidst rectangular structures jutting from the hills. “It’s the Galata Tower that remains proud and sturdy even though it is no longer the city’s tallest structure.  It has its own story that stretched back to the time when this place was a colony of Genoa in the mid-1300’s,” she intoned with a whip of sadness of times past and glory, her tail in vertical erect position.

As we went around the city, we came to a bookstore in Istiklal called Turkish-German Bookstore and Cafe.  There, in front of me were several works of  Pamuk and in one of the books, “Istanbul: Memories and the City”,  his words spoke clearly about his beloved city.

“What gives a city its special character is not just its topography or its buildings but rather the sum total of every chance encounter, every memory, letter, color, and image jostling in its inhabitants’ crowded memories,”  wrote Pamuk.

Pamuk in this autobiographical novel paints a city of his birth that is haunted by a deep sense of hüzün, which is a literary concept about the duality of sadness and melancholy, through the clear lens of optimism.  Here he recalls his childhood in the neighborhoods of Istanbul and re-created the underlying thread of a community of people struggling to find a sense of home in the conflicting shadows of past and present.

Gli stood there patiently among the rows of shelves and the murmur of people sipping coffee pouring through books of Selçuk Altun, Elif Shafak, Ayşe Kulin, and Özcan Ozan’s book “The Sultan’s Kitchen: A Turkish Cookbook”.

Finally, Gli surprised me by saying, “we cats inhabit Turkish literature and had inspired poets and writers for centuries.”  Gladly,  she invited me to the district in Kadikoy, and see Tombili.

There, we visited the miniature statue of Tombili, the rotund cat reclining on a bench, as a city’s tribute to this stray cat.  ” Istanboulites need to find someone to pet and express their love and care in a city whose souls have to be constantly reminded of the healing power of touch,” Gli poetically said.

There were other places we moved into, the historic Taksim Square,  the famous Grand Bazaar and small coffee shops that constantly enticed me to drink more of Turkish coffee whose thick and strong brew served in small cups with water and baklava bring me to a unique Turkish experience.   In all those places, she was a gracious host and allowed me to experience the intimacy of the cobblestoned neighborhoods and the poetry that runs through the walls of apartment buildings, the smiles, and metaphors of its language, and babble of a city adding another day to its more than 2000 years of history.

I said goodbye to Gli amidst the muezzin’s call to prayer.  I believed tens of thousands of nomadic cats have also heard it in a city of more than 11 million inhabitants.   I found a friend in Gli and in the future, will introduce her to my children.   She will be back to the Empress Loge, a place she calls home. 

At the back alleys of Hagia Sophia, Istanbul



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