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Travelers: “Here” and “Now” People

I have my backpack. In it, I have spare undies, biscuits and several colored books… I am three years old. And I am traveling with my father. On a train, bound for Europe. It’s the 70s… They say I adapted well to traveling which lasted for weeks. It is also said that when I was back home, I was telling everyone incessantly about my travel memoirs until everyone was bored to death. Following such a good start, it would have been great if I were to become a traveler. Alas, no, I have evolved into someone who’s stuck to her domestic every day routine. So, not everyone can be a traveler. You need an inner motive, an urge to leave… or perhaps you need a dream!

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 Leaving your nest is surprising, enchanting, frightening, tempting, inspiring and sometimes infuriating. If lost, you can find yourself; or just when you find yourself, you can lose yourself. I am not a traveler, yet I have traveled enough to know for sure that if you are a real traveler, you can discover a weird side of yourself or a new species from the wild. The people I am about to talk about have put traveling right into the center of their lives. Furthermore they record their travels with writing, illustrations and photographs, and share it with people interested in it. Let’s start with pioneering travelers and their travels before meeting the contemporary ones.

Forgiveness or Travel?

Our first stop will be a dream in the 17th century. The dreamer is a Turk, a peculiar character of the world travel literature: Evliya Çelebi. Despite his father who does not condone his thirst for travel, he recounts that he received his much needed approval from the Prophet Mohammed in a dream. We gather from his writing that Evliya Çelebi is a bit puckish: In his dream, instead of asking for forgiveness from the Prophet like everyone does, with a slip of the tongue he asked for traveling, (Instead of saying “Şefaat,” forgiveness, he says “Seyahat”, travel!) Prophet of his dreams tells him to travel to his heart’s content.

 Evliya Çelebi first limited his travels with the Istanbul countryside, later he traveled to distant lands. Despite the traveling conditions of the 17th century, he went to Europe, Asia, Africa, and thankfully, he wrote about his travels as well. His writing is quite exceptional, deviating from the courtly literary tradition of the period: it is prosaic in style, without rhythm or rhyme, as if talking. Though one can find many elements of fantasy in his travelogues, the famous Turkish author, Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar, in his book BeşŞehir (Five Cities) regards his work as “on its own, a mirror to the country.” His Seyahatname (Book of Travels) is of 10 volumes, and throughout centuries, it has been scattered, censored, sometimes forgotten and sometimes regarded as worthless. Finally, the entire collection has been published by Yapı Kredi Publishing House in contemporary Turkish. It is now an accessible treasure.

First Travelers

Evliya Çelebi is not the first traveler, of course. He has many predecessors. In the Neolithic Age, pilgrims would visit Göbeklitepe in Urfa, now called the City of Prophets. So, before urbanization, there was belief tourism. In Antiquity, visitors rushed to Athens from neighbor cities during Olympic Games. Egyptian priests are considered to be the first guides. And the first known travel writer is Herodotus, who left his hometown Bodrum (Halicarnassus) to witness the lives of the people in various geographies and to hear out their stories. The conquests of Alexander the Great and the later Crusades cannot be considered travels, yet either the soldiers of those armies turned out to be travelers, or they paved the way for other travelers.

Departing to Arrive at Depression

For 24 years, Venetian Marco Polo lived with his merchant uncle and father in Asia, and the moment he arrived at his hometown, he was thrown into prison. It must have been a quite fast transition into depression for him. Fortunately for us, he did his time by dictating his travel memoirs to his cell-mate. Marco Polo introduced the East to Westerners and to Easterners, the West. He also traveled to Constantinople. It was his book that inspired Christopher Columbus. It is known that Columbus read Marco Polo’s book during his travels and took side-notes.

Isabelle Eberhardt

Finally, a woman traveler… Before Isabelle Eberhardt, sure enough, there were other women who wrote in their memoirs and letters about their travels, and told of distant lands that they’ve been or that they resided temporarily. Yet, they did not travel for the sake of it or on their own. Isabelle Eberhardt lived in the last quarter of the 1800s, just before the progress in women rights. Thankfully, she did not care much about the morals of the 19th century Europe. Eberhardt traveled first with her family, later on she even disguised herself as a man to travel as she wished in Northern Africa. Eberhardt does justice to travelling; she is one of those who do not return as the same person. She wrote “The farther behind I leave the past, the closer I am to forging my own character,” and also “By advancing into unknown territories, I entered into my life.”

During her journeys, Isabelle Eberhardt joins a Sufi order and converts into Islam. She also acts as a war correspondent for journals of the time and marries an Algerian soldier. When she died at the ripe age of 27 due to a sudden flood in the desert (yes, you read it right, a sudden flood in the desert,) she left behind 10 short stories and a novella. Her short adventurous life, her travels and her transformation that she recounts in her diaries and newspaper articles gave inspiration to movies, opera, pop songs and novels. Isabella Eberhardt was one of earth’s daring daughters.

 I did not have the chance to meet Isabella Eberhardt, yet I personally know one of the earth’s daughters, and soon I am going to introduce her to you. Know that this traveler girl from Istanbul is the reason why I am writing on travelers.

And the tourism booms

In the 19th century, the travel culture and practice underwent an important transformation with the construction of railroads and the steam trains. Following the Industrial Revolution, workers won their right to a paid leave, which in turn helped the rise of the mass tourism. Traveling to distant lands was no longer a privilege of the extremely wealthy and the aristocrats. Although real travelers surely benefit from the development of new transportation methods, they do not prefer the tours that serve the mass tourism.

New Media for Travel Literature

Master authors like Dostoyevsky, Flaubert, Charles Dickens, D.H. Lawrence and John Steinbeck and many others wrote in the travel genre along with their novels, helping the genre improve. One must also mention Che Guevara, who kept diaries throughout his travel that became the turning point of his life. He is also one of those who did not return as the same person.

 In Turkey, Buket Uzuner is one of the literary figures who tempted the minds of many with her travel writing. Mina Urgan’s Bir Dinozorun Anıları (Memoirs of a Dinosaur) is another captivating example. So are the humorous travel writings of İzzeddin Çalışlar. It is great to read about Latin America by Oya Ayman. And I love İzel Rozental’s observations on Far East through the eyes of a cartoonist. Aydın Cıngı’s book’s name was enough to win my heart: Gezipduru (Traveling Still). I guess all Istanbul-lovers are deeply grateful to the writing of Jak Deleon. Atlas journal is also a turning point in travel literature of Turkey. Of course, this list can be extended.

With the advent of the Internet, the travelers need not publish a book to share their experiences. Also, this media offers the activities of many organizations that can answer the needs of a traveler. You can find fellow travelers who share the same destination, find a couch to sleep in someone’s house, and if you are a woman traveling on your own, you can receive help from support groups.

 Earth’s Daughter from Istanbul

There is someone who has been travelling from one place to another with wanderlust since the time I have known her: Nihan Vural. 

When I am too lazy to travel from one coast of the city to the other, she might have gone back and fro to Prague or Bombay. I try not getting surprised and finding consolation in just asking for photos. I imagine myself in a parallel universe in which I am able to travel like her. As the daughter of a mother who split hairs drawing maps of Istanbul at Municipality’s Directorate of Cartography, the fitting diagnosis would be “normal.” Nihan remembers as a small child she used to fall into daydreams while curiously examining his father’s Polaroids from his travels in Europe. All the photographs in these pages are captured by Nihan from her various travels in and out of Istanbul.

With time, I noticed that while travelling, Nihan could look both outside and inside, like all real travelers. She is aware that the things on the surface of earth –not just the structures, but also humanity’s all life-habits can be quickly wiped out and so shifted into the category of “the archeological.” Thus, she attempts documenting the things that relate to the present by photographing and writing of the transformations. You can observe the results of this remarkable attempt at a Nihan Vural exhibit or in her blog, Istanbul Travelogue.

Speaking of blogs, there are so many great blogs. So great that one feels crushed beneath their weight. For example, Erik Gauger’s…

 Erik Gauger’s Notes from the Road

A man traveling with his little son, going uphill and down dale, from one country to the other, shooting great photographs, and drawing awesome illustrations…

 Erik Gauger says you don’t need money or time to travel. And he shoots his photographs with old, much used cameras. He does not neglect writing as well. In his travel writing, one can easily come across geography, history, art, sociology, biology and zoology. Adventure, sports and food culture also appear in his travel literature, along with international politics and humor.

 In his impressive website named Notes from the Road, Erik includes the struggle to protect the environment, which is commonly neglected by many travel writers, since it is not that much fun. Erik can easily shape his perspective or subjects since he is totally free and does not have to answer anyone. These marvelous drawings you see on this page are his sketches on his Moleskin notebook, using few materials. Erik considers drawing is sometimes better than photography in representing the spirit of travel.

 C’mon, Let’s Travel…

My memories from the weeks-long train travel to Europe with my father when I was 3 years old is now just blurry images that I can find no counterparts in life. When I visited Paris many many years later, I walked around like a dog, my nose sticked to the ground, rushing to trace the source of a scent. Surely the Eiffel Tower, and all those bridges were intact and at the same place, just as they were in our old photographs… But I could not come across that little girl with a backpack and her father. This was for sure: Paris did not care about me. Desperately, I gave in. Then I realized this was not that bad, to my surprise I had noticed it opened up room for freedom. I lifted up my nose. The “now” of Paris was mine. I liked that fresh strength that came with being “Here” and “Now”.

 Hurray, Now, hurray, Here! Hurray! Have fun, traveling. And reading!


Good Travelers and Good Authors for Good Reads

Great book recommendations from Nihan Vural, founder of Istanbul Travelogue blog…

-Ryszard Kapuscinski: The Other; The Shadow of the Sun; Travels with Herodotus

-Geert Mak: The Bridge

-Bill Bryson: I am a Stranger Here Myself

-Elizabeth Gilbert: Eat, Love and Pray

-Paul Theroux: Ghost Train to the Eastern Star; The Tao of Travel

-Alain de Botton: The Art of Travel

-Edmondo de Amicis: Constantinople

-Suketa Mehta: Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found


Notes to the Curious

-Nihan Vural’s impressive blog on Istanbul: www.istanbultravelogue.com

-Erik Gauger’s site that embraces the world: www.notesfromtheroad.com

-Barış Akkiriş’s world travel blog: www.barisakkiris.blogs.com

-Online travel resource for women: www.journeywoman.com

-A website for those who seek travel partners: www.travelbuddies.com

-A reference site to be a guest at someone’s home or to host a traveler: www.couchsurfing.org


Translated by K. Yiğit Us

Photo credit #1: Elliot Roth

Photo credit #2: Nihan Vural

Image credit #3-4: Erik Gauger


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Istanbul Travelogue: “Revisiting the City” 

“For years, I have been treading the streets of my home city to expand my ‘compartmentalized’ living space, and meanwhile, try to relate to the way Istanbul sheds its skin so that I could tell its story. This is not an easy thing to do. Indeed, it is quite difficult to do in a 2500-year-old city cruelly being destroyed right before my eyes.”

Nihan Vural expresses herself and her works with these words. She told us about her photography exhibit “Revisiting the City,” and also about the details of Istanbul that are hard to discern for an untrained eye. We walked through her exhibit of precious pieces and listened to the stories of each and every photograph. Here is our pleasant interview:

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Nihan, I guess this is your first photography exhibit. Can you tell of the story of how you got into photography and the story of this exhibit?

While I was an instructor at Bilgi University, I noticed the Life-long Training programs there. They gave courses on various disciplines such as literature and fine arts. One day, I decided to return to painting, which I had neglected since I began to study literature at university. So I enrolled into the art courses of Balkan Naci İslimyeli. We were well-versed both in material and technique and also in art history and composition within two short years, and in time, it was him who guided me towards photography. Thus began my journey in photography.

For many years, I guided my foreign guests and friends only to notice how drastic the change the city has gone through, so I began to archive the streets and buildings of Istanbul. When what I wanted to show and say began to pile up, I became convinced that it’s best to record all in a blog. Two years ago, I opened up my blog, Istanbul Travelogue, composed of up-to-date photographs and short writings on Istanbul. Rather than weekly listings, I attempted to offer content that embraces its hidden treasures, its legends and its magic. My degree in Western Languages and Literatures accounts for my writing ambition and habit: for me, it is the story that matters, not the medium; one can use either images or words. Yet, while a part of me is addicted to images, the other is to words. So, even the photographs are able to tell stories on their own, I can’t help but write.

This exhibition was born out of Istanbul Travelogue. Both the stories and the images could no longer be contained and overflowed into this exhibition. This exhibition is as professional as it gets without being a part of a gallery system. A part of me, my control freak side, desires to do everything on my own, yet the other part desires to trust in professionals in other fields and work with them. Thankfully, the scales were tipped in the direction of working with a professional team.

Why did you choose a cafe in Nişantaşı to exhibit your photographs?

Juno Cafe may not be a gallery, yet it is a place I frequent. Some mornings, I work here while sipping my coffee. And this is the district where I was born, the place where I belong – my habitat. And I wanted to carry every corner of Istanbul to the place I belong. I wanted to help meet different corners of the city, just as we, the inhabitants of every corner of Istanbul, met at the Gezi Park protests.

During the photo walks I conduct in this district, I try to draw attention to the architecture of the district from the last period of the Ottoman Empire and from the early period of the newly founded Republic. In a sense, especially when compared with the historical peninsula, this is a relatively new district. However, from another perspective, it is quite old, having a history of 150 years. This place became a residency preferred by the Ottoman bureaucracy and dynasty. Since settlement in this district was encouraged by Sultan Abdülmecid I, it was named Teşvikiye, which translates as The Encouragement. The Maçka Park, part of Teşvikiye, was once where the circumcision ceremonies of Sultan’s sons and the wedding ceremonies of Sultanas were held for days and on end. At the beginning of the former century, following the Balkan Wars, this neighborhood received immigrants, most of who were from Thessaloniki.

Few know much about the history of this district, many think it is all about shopping here. In fact, the textile ateliers that manufactured exports were opened here in 1970s. Big shopping mall concept is a recent one.

During the Gezi Park protests, I noticed this place was heavily marginalized as well. However, “even the well-off Nişantaşı people joined the protests” implicates this marginalization. Surely enough, Gezi Park Protests was an awakening for them as it was for everyone. While the comfort zones were gradually shrinking, everybody had to take some risks and demand the right to speak up.

In my opinion, the titles of the photographs in the exhibition are really striking. The design of the brochures is really elegant and professional. Especially “the Dust on the Chandelier” drew my attention. This reminded me of how a title can add so much to the meaning of a photograph indeed.

The title was offered by an artist friend of mine, John Dew. His writings, along with the editor, Berna Gençalp and Dr. İnci Bilgin’s essays on the exhibition are present in the brochure. The name “The Dust on the Chandelier” strengthened the gothic and the mystic atmosphere of the exhibition. I wanted the exhibition brochure to be a design object as well. So I entrusted the design to Alp Gökalp, and the brochure itself became an art object in line with my style. The background map is important to me, too. My mother used to work at the Istanbul Municipality before her marriage, so at home we have very beautiful colored map sections of Istanbul. My mother and father used to tell me stories of old Istanbul traced on these maps. All of these were my sources of inspiration. Of course, we are right now witnessing that Istanbul is experiencing a make-over. The reverberations of this transformation has its place in my exhibit Istanbul, Revisited.

Then, let’s begin talking about your photography, starting with the title of the exhibit, “Revisiting the City.” What does it tell us?

Some consider the title very ambitious. How can one revisit Istanbul? It is possible; one can take a fresh look at Istanbul, challenge the official history, and come to terms with its haunted legacy and many other things that we deem to be a danger to our lives. Before and after the Gezi Protests, we, indeed, had to take a fresh look at the city.

And what do we see? Very critical urban transformation. These three photographs are from the time when demolitions began at Tarlabaşı. As you know, this district is where Greeks lived before 1955. Following the September 6-7 events that forced many Greeks of Turkey to live in exile, the city lost her cosmopolitan spirit. Following the departure of the Greek populace, the vacuum was filled by the migrations from the Anatolia. One must also remember the zoning process of the Menderes government of the time, thus we must admit that Istanbul had been through a critical transformation. Tarlabaşı then became the temporary residence to the immigrants.

The immigrants felt they did not belong to Istanbul, and they were not able to turn back either. They were stuck. Their anguish is echoed in our lives with wailing Arabesque music. One of the photographs that represent best this heart-felt cry is dubbed “Arabesque at Heart“. No matter how hard we deny, Arabesque is in our hearts, and it has a definite appeal. Here, we can see an Art Nouveau buildings with Bagdadi (lathe and plaster) style. I guess these buildings that I photographed last year are already demolished.

This photo that you see now was shot at the mosque of Sultan Selim, behind the screen of the women’s mahfil –the gathering place. As you can see in this photo, in this city and in these lands women and men are divided with invisible walls, or sometimes with visible screens. This is also a reference to our walls that divide classes. In places like these, some of us feel vulnerable. Vulnerability and integration are the keywords of this exhibit. I feel that integration can be possible by being manifest in these spaces of vulnerability, and also by making an opening in our spaces for those who feel vulnerable. In Gezi Protests, we saw that we can do it.

What is the story of this building with broken window glasses?

From my childhood, I remember many empty, derelict houses in Istanbul. Abandoned, with broken window glasses… especially on the Islands, the Bosphorus and in Taksim. I always wondered who lived in those abandoned houses, and where they were. Later, I understood it was the Greeks who were absent. Hence the title, “The Greeks of Istanbul are not at home.”

How does it feel to observe and record these details?

It was thrilling to discover them. I shot 15 or 20 similar photographs a day, not knowing where to put or who to show them, but when I returned home, I had this feeling of having lived full 24 hours of dilated time. My blog came into being out of such necessity: how was I to deal with this feeling, how was I going to tell what was going on in the background of this city?

Here we see a man and woman dancing…

This is from a Milonga night. Do you know there is one every night in Istanbul? I had no idea until my friends from USA who were into tango came here for the Tango Festival. The photographs are from the time we attended a Milonga night. They seem to not to be in keeping with the rest of the exhibit, yet to me, they represent our coming together despite the divided genders and classes, to meet again, to fall in love again, and to communicate once again. Men and women being united… Perhaps we need more color in our lives, perhaps we need to be a bit flamboyant, a bit lighter. We need these since I feel deep down that this city is heavy with history, and her heavy load of karma is hanging above our heads all the time.

Here, we see the interiors of a building. Where is it from?

The Grand Post Office at Sirkeci, built by Vedat Tek from the era of 1st National Architecture. This movement in architecture was a response to the questions on the Turkish identity, in a sense to the question of who are we –much needed at a time following the downfall of the multi-ethnic Ottoman Empire, when many ethnic groups began constructing their nation state. It is a re-interpretation of the Ottoman-Seljuk legacy in public buildings. Observe closely the ferry terminals of Istanbul, and you will see its traces.

Now we see the Atatürk Culture Center building. Incredible details…

Thanks. I like it very much since it is abstract. I noticed the irons that protrude from the gaps after I shot the photo. Like many other Istanbullites, this is the place where I went to a theatre, opera or a concert for the first time. It is a precious reference point: This building is the symbol of the secular Turkey; not just because it bears the name of Ataturk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey, but also because it is a portal through which the vision of Istanbul and Turkey expands. It is important because it does not stand for sterile reproduction of Western values; its purpose was to embrace the west as well as the east. I think we have an emotional connection with buildings like these. I have to admit I am a bit conservative in this sense. Despite the fact that the building is rendered unable to fulfill its function, the connection is there intact.

Are there any new projects?

I plan a second exhibit. This time, it will encompass the cities of the World. Istanbul is my home, true, but the world that we live in is my home, too. Many photographs at home wait for being unearthed. Another project of mine is to gather my blog writings in a book. Along with an electronic formatted book, I dream of a special edition. As Paulo Coelho says “When you dream of something, the whole universe conspires in helping you to achieve it”, and I feel this to be true. 


Translated by K. Yiğit Us

Photo credit #1: Fatih Öztürk

Photo credit #2-19: Nihan Vural

Limited edition of ten prints only. Print on demand is available.



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