You might know Ceren Salman from her neighbourhood guides featured in Istanbul Life magazine. Her devotion for Istanbul is one thing for me to welcome her in my blog. Her connection to people and nature is quite another. She cares… She cares not only for the city eternally transforming right before our very eyes, but also for those who have been driven away from here and those who have taken refuge here.
I’d love you to view the residents of Istanbul through her lens and to perceive the drastic changes sweeping the city through her words. Because in a world, where we fall blind, deaf and numb to each other’s predicaments, she dares to listen and communicate. Fener being one of the oldest neighbourhoods in the historical peninsula seemed to be eligible for our walk and the interview for it becomes visible only to those who cares to look for them.
Who is Ceren Salman?
I was born and raised in the city of Istanbul, of which I am a devout admirer. Yet, somehow I happened to spend a great deal of my life in NYC. I studied Photography at Parsons School of Design. I established my own studio at Body Wrappers/Angelio Luzio and completed many projects. New York is the place where I learnt how to be grounded and how to focus on my goals, whereas Istanbul is the bridge between my past and the future. Since I am back to my home city, I have been looking for ways to lead a happy and peaceful life here and trying to get adjusted to the new order in this ever-evolving city. I have been working free-lance for magazines like Monocle, Istanbul Life, Vogue Türkiye, Tempo and Atlas. I carry out photo assignments such as portraits, lifestyle and write neighbourhood guides and reviews for venues.
Why did you prefer the district of Fener for this interview?
Fener has been undergoing a drastic change in the past 4 years. Many new places have mushroomed. I was surprised to see the change when I came to the neighbourhood after 2 years. For all its popularity, the neighbourhood of Fener will not turn into Cihangir or Asmalımescit. The presence of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate (the Ecumenical Patriarchate) and the Phanar Greek Orthodox College make this place so mystical. It gives one peace and hope to see the coexistence of diverse cultures here.
How about recommending a short walking route in Fener?
I’d suggest starting the day with a coffee at Byzas cafe. Dropping in and out of shops could follow a visit to the Patriarchal Church of St. George. Then, you should slowly walk up to the Phanar Greek Orthodox College. Walking behind the school will leave you in the streets lined with old houses, where children play. After mingling with the residents of the neighbourhood, head to the Church of St. Mary of the Mongols. End the day back at the main street with shops and cafes to wear off your exhaustion.
I wonder if we are just too much of a romantic when it comes to Istanbul?
My memory is not that good at all; I forget things so easily. Nowadays, I ask myself if I picked writing and photography to recall my life or to record it. Interestingly enough, both have coincidentally become a part of my life. And, yes to your question, the yearning for the past never ceases.
What are your earlier memories of Istanbul?
I was born in Akatlar, but my earliest memories are from the Günaydın condos close to the Bosphorus University. I remember the area between the university and the shopping mall, Akmerkez. All of the restaurants that are lined up on the main street of Etiler were once upon a time two-storey town houses with gardens. Those once beautiful buildings are now anything but aesthetically pleasing; these properties they have changed hands so many times that I have difficulty remembering what they were before. The area, where Akmerkez stands today, was once a big empty field, where we flew our kites. The circus would pitch there, too. We the children of our neighbours, of the building janitor, and of local tradesmen all grew up playing in the streets together. Big fields were everywhere. I remember the kids of the next neighbourhood sneaking in and stealing our new born puppies. We had a tree, upon which we made a house. A couple of years ago, I went there to look out for that tree. I realized it was not big as I remembered it to be. The perception of a child was probably misleading. I’d go fishing with my brother in Bebek. These are hardly the things our children could do today.
We the children of our neighbours, of the building janitor, and of local tradesmen all grew up playing in the streets together.
I went to private Bilgi kindergarten and primary school, which provided me with a multicultural environment through my non-muslim classmates. There was a Mother Mary icon in the niche of the court yard. I remember the nuns, as well. The land belonged to the Georgian Notre Dame de Lourdes church foundation; that must have been the reason. Thanks to Bomonti, my homogeneous life in Etiler was partially fractured.
Then you spent your teenage years in Nişantaşı district, as far as I know. You studied at Işık High School in Teşvikiye notorious for its discipline. How do you remember the school?
Even though I was a quiet student who just minded her own business, I was being told off for unreasonable things. It was said to be a school with a good but strict and disciplined education. The Thessaloniki-based school, was the primary school where Atatürk was educated. It moved to Istanbul in 1924 after the Balkan Wars, and it was granted the name “Işık” by Atatürk on its 50th anniversary. I believe its military discipline, to some extent, has to do with its being a Kemalist school. My heart still pounds when I pass by the school today. I am not sure if I have been totally recovered from my school traumas. If I am to have a child, would I send her/him to Işık? On the other hand, I try not to miss annual get-togethers in December. This must be what we call a love and hate relationship.
What was Teşvikiye like back in the 90s?
Both Nişantaşı and Teşvikiye were quiet neighborhoods. They were not crowded or popular as they are now. We would do our yearly shopping twice a year- once in summer and once in winter from the shops in Nişantaşı and Osmanbey. There were no shopping malls back then. Where today stands City’s shopping mall was Şişli Terakki High School, which was in a competition with Feyziye Işık High School. The boys from both schools would challenge each other at the court yard of Teşvikiye Mosque.
At the weekends, we would always go to the Bosphorus.When it was bed time for kids, the chairs would be arranged and we would fall asleep on them.
How about our family rituals in the city?
We would go and eat fish at Kavak on Sundays. At the weekends, we would always go to the Bosphorus. In Tarabya, there was Gemi Restaurant, which was a ship landed on shore. Kebab or fish, in any case meyhane (Tavern) atmosphere prevailed. When it was bed time for kids, the chairs would be arranged and we would fall asleep on them. I used to love both mussels and raw almond served at these restaurants, but I can no longer eat any of them. Eating mussels in Istanbul is no different than drinking water from the sewage. Istanbul is famous for its blue fish but I used to love red mullet. Now you need to pay attention to where the fish is coming from- the sea or the fisheries. Because of the threat of overfishing, you also need to check out the size of bluefish -and others.
Then you moved to NYC to study. If you would compare NYC with Istanbul?
Being cosmopolitan in population, both cities are at the heart of the capitalism. In both of them, daily life runs in between work and home. The main difference between the two cities -i.e. two cultures- is the level of civilization. NYC is not only the centre of finance, but arts and culture as well. Hundreds of art galleries and dozens of museums, concerts and cultural activities that run all year around nourish New Yorkers culturally and help them widen their horizons. It is as if the global economy is trying to make up for its ruthlessness here. It is rare to see someone who is not reading their book or carrying a digital book like Kindle. The huge Central Park is the lungs of the city. It is a pedestrian-friendly city with rules, which is abided by -most often. We could even say pedestrians have the upper hand over cars. The metro network is more than 100 years old. You can get anywhere by public transportation; it is up to the people to drive to work or not. Here, we live in the city centre, but many families have more than one car. If we emphasize public transportation rather than private ownership, we will need cars less, too. You know Penn Station? Did you ever see how amazing it was once upon a time? On the other hand, New York is a city capable of demolishing such a beauty like Penn Station.
Meanwhile, the demolition of the historic Penn station was a turning point in NYC, as far as I know. It is said to have raised awareness for preserving history. It can be considered like a milestone in urban history, like our Gezi Park protests, right?
Skyscrapers are said to be one of the things that make New York City charming. If we play it backwards, we see a totally different city skyline. New York has also failed to preserve its history. Beautiful old buildings were replaced by skyscrapers. Yet, the destruction inflicted on centuries-old Istanbul, the capital of three empires, cannot be compared with that of NYC. What replaced the old definitely lacks aesthetics and architectural value here. We are even sacrificing the small left-over green spaces to concrete and asphalt.
Yet, the destruction inflicted on centuries-old Istanbul, the capital of three empires, cannot be compared with that of NYC.
It was about 10 years ago; they were planning to erect a building near the famous Chrysler building. The construction site is also close to the Empire States building, which was once the tallest building in the city. The residents of the city did not allow the building to be higher than a certain height limit. So, it remained at a lower height than the originally planned height.
You mean, the residents have a say there?
The residents of Istanbul have a say too, but the thing is rules are not abided by. Corruption, speculation, crony carve-outs have become the norm here. What is being implemented in the past 5-10 years is a crime under the cover of urban development projects. Is it possible to look for justice in such a corrupted environment?
Penn Station, NYC
Anything that has changed your relationship with the city?
Being away for 17 years, for sure. I went to NYC in 1994. I was planning to study there for 4 years and then come back, but it did not happen to be so. I stayed there in the hope of coming back one day. I never felt I belonged there. To tell you the truth, I never thought I would live there for so long. And when I was back, I found Istanbul so changed. That might be the reason for my nostalgia on many levels. The city I have got to know has vanished both culturally and physically. There is no firm cultural foundation; the migration from all around is going on. Urban sprawling has become the city’s destiny. People still believe the streets of Istanbul are paved with gold.
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What kind of urbanites do you think the city has turned us into?
We grew up believing Istanbul was indeed very much like Turkey. As a result of the migration from Anatolia, we get to realise that there is more to Turkey than Istanbul. As a matter of fact, we knew it for long. That’s why, we are now oscillating between coming to terms with the past, having a grasp of today’s reality, and the nostalgia for the past. People used to respect each other. There was a sense of community. If one family made ashure, it would be delivered to all the neighbors. Of course, there are still neighbourhoods and people who managed to preserve these values and customs. Last year, for the first time in my life, I made ashure. I delivered it, if not my neighbours, to my friends. I will do it again this year.
Stay tuned for the second part!
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Istanbulites: Ceren Salman and the city part: 2
We discussed the city’s ephemeral past while walking in the streets of Fener, one of the oldest neighbourhoods in the historical peninsula. Read more…