By: Helen Stuhr-Rommereim

“Do we love each other or the Bosphorus?” –A Mind at Peace


After assessing the evidence, I’ve concluded that the assignment of Crime and Punishment in twelfth grade English was one of the more fateful events of my young life. I can trace a straight line from that book and the Russian books that followed to the fact that I lived for a year in Siberia, and, in a more round-about way, to my current residence in Istanbul. Reading Pasternak and Dostoevsky infected me with what Ian Frazier, in his book Travels in Siberia, refers to as “the dread Russia Love.” I learned Russian and got a BA in Russian literature. I made my way through history courses and literature courses and studied in Moscow. And later, in the months before I found out I would be moving to Siberia, I was studying GULAG memoirs and writing a paper about the intellectual stimulation facilitated by exile and isolation.

While I understand that it is silly to compare my move to Krasnoyarsk on a fellowship to Aleksander Solzhenitsyn’s move to the same region in forced exile, it was impossible for his writing not to inform my thinking about my own life in Siberia. Many things about the place confounded me with their misery: bad weather, limited opportunities, rampant alcoholism. But I was also in awe of the lively and connected city that I was living in, and the vast emptiness surrounding it that for centuries had been used as a naturally-occurring maximum security prison. I was able to start to understand what it was like to live in the middle of so much open space, and to get over or not get over the fact that most people in the world think of your home as a gigantic prison. Reading helped me understand Siberia, and it helped me understand why I was living there. Somewhere in the middle of the most brutal winter I have ever experienced I realized: books literally take you places.

As I moved from Dostoevsky to Bulgakov to Solzhenitsyn, I also moved from Iowa and Ohio to Moscow and to Krasnoyarsk.

And about two months ago, I planted myself in the midst of a mild Istanbul January. I didn’t move on a whim, but this time I moved without a plan, and with very little knowledge of Turkey, Turkish culture, history, or language. A couple novels by Orhan Pamuk constituted the extent of my interaction with Turkey.  Once here, I wanted to find some way to begin to foster the kind of relationship with Istanbul and Turkey that I had developed with Russia. I started reading and trying to use books to guide me through this new city, literally.

* * *

For most people outside of Turkey, there is one man who represents Turkish literature, and that is Orhan Pamuk, literary luminary and winner of the Nobel Prize. Here Pamuk is a source of both pride and resentment. Although I loved the books I read by Orhan Pamuk, it was time to dig deeper, which brought me to Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar.

Tanpınar is one of the most important writers in modern Turkish literature. But despite holding a distinguished position in the literary history of a large and influential country, only one of his two novels is in print in English. That novel, A Mind at Peace, was first published in translation in 2008, almost sixty years after its original publication in 1949.

After World War I and the fall of the Ottomans, when Mustafa Kemal Ataturk came to power and founded the Republic of Turkey, he inherited the confused remnants of an empire and decided to mold a new country. The new republic would be modern and secular, and would align itself more closely with the West than with the crumbled glory of the past. In addition to outlawing traditional dress and overhauling the legal and educational systems, the Ottoman language was among the many elements of Ottoman society that Ataturk relegated to the past. Ottoman was written in Arabic script, and was rich with Arabic and Persian vocabulary. Ataturk purged the language of its foreign elements, and changed the alphabet to a Latin one. As a result, literature written in Turkey before the 1930s can’t be read by most Turkish people.

The main character of A Mind at Peace, Mümtaz, addresses this problem:

This is precisely what I see as the impasse; because, as you’ve said, the past has no legs upon which to stand. Today in Turkey we wouldn’t be able to name five books that consecutive generations read together. Except in rare instances, those who take any pleasure in older authors are increasingly fewer in number. We’re seemingly the last link.

This cultural gulf is one of the major themes of A Mind at Peace, which takes place in the early years of the Republic from 1938-9. Mümtaz, the novel’s young hero, struggles to reconcile his love of Wagner and Baudelaire with his deep enchantment with traditional Turkish music and poetry. He observes his native city through the eyes of one schooled in western literature and philosophy and is at the same time obsessed with the ancient Sufi mysticism that is being excised from mainstream culture.

The novel form itself was a relative late-comer to what is now Turkey, and only in the past century have writers widely embraced it. Poetry has a longer past here, and is much more engrained in Turkish traditions. In A Mind at Peace, the novelists discussed are all Western, and the Turkish writers are all poets.

I was disappointed when I learned about Turkey’s fractured linguistic and literary past. I had hoped I could just move from one country’s canon of novels to another as easily as I moved between geographies. But of course, history is not comprised of countries traveling along independent but parallel cultural trajectories. The novel form doesn’t fit neatly into literary history in Turkey, as it does in Russia. When a Turkish author writes a novel, particularly in Tanpınar’s time, he or she is engaging more with Europe’s literary tradition than Turkey’s. In this way, A Mind at Peace, in content and form, seeks answers to the most pressing questions for Turkey’s future in 1939, questions that have not gone away.

* * *

A Mind at Peace revolves around an intense and relatively brief love affair between Mümtaz and the beautiful Nuran that embodies the conflicts of cultural identity at the heart of the novel. In the twilight of their romance, Mümtaz comes home to find that Nuran has dressed herself in an ornate, traditional Turkish costume, and wound her hair up in an intricate braid. Nuran cannot take her eyes off herself in the mirror, and Mümtaz cannot take his eyes off Nuran. They fall into a mutual reverie on the mysteries of their ancestors, pondering the beauty and seeming simplicity of traditional life, particularly for women:

Nuran… refused to relinquish her phantasy of time past: “Furthermore, their lifestyles were comfortable… They lived with such a sense of safekeeping.”

Mümtaz stared at Nuran’s face remorsefully and said, “It’s true. Despite all the liberties we’ve given to women, we’re tinkering with their minds.”

It is a strange moment of Orientalist fascination coming from the Orientals themselves. Nuran is a recent divorcée with a young and troubled daughter, and Mümtaz is aware that the complications of Nuran’s personal life may very soon lead to the end of their affair. Though they live like modern intellectuals, they want to wrap themselves in the mystical past.

Their relationship is inextricably tied to traditional music and poetry, and Nuran first expresses her love to Mümtaz by singing a makam, a classical song form, while they sit together in a garden. Mümtaz is happiest and most in love when Nuran sings traditional music, and there is one particular song, the “Song of Mahur,” that is tied to her family history. Mümtaz loves the song, and loves even more that Nuran is a part of the song.

In my mind, I have often compared my relationship with Russia to a romantic relationship with a person—the honeymoon phase, the getting-to-know you phase, the commitment to live together, the eventual need to live apart.  Of course Russia is not a boyfriend, it is a country full of people, most of whom would laugh a lot if they heard me say this.

It is possible that Mümtaz, having grown up in Istanbul and unable to separate himself from the city enough to see how much he loves it—as I, as an American, am able to separate myself from Russia—loves Nuran as a stand-in for Istanbul itself. When they first meet, Tanpınar writes,

When [Nuran] declared, ‘One doesn’t easily forgo familiar places, but the Bosphorus does become tedious at times,’ he surmised what she represented. For Mümtaz, there were two fundamental and requisite criteria for feminine beauty: principally to hail from Istanbul; and secondly, to be raised along the Bosphorus.

As the affair nears its end, Mümtaz asks himself, “Do we love each other or the Bosphorus?”

* * *

I think everyone in Istanbul loves the Bosphorus. The peaceful, transcontinental ferry rides, necessary for commuting between the European and Asian sides of the Bosphorus, provide perfect moments of respite and forced stillness for thinking and conversing. Though commuting in this very spread-out city is mostly awful, no one ever complains about the ferry.

I live on the European side of the Bosphorus, and I wanted to visit Üsküdar, on the Asian side. The Üsküdar of A Mind at Peace boasts mosques and old buildings.  It was a favorite area for Nuran and Mümtaz to go for a stroll, to wander and contemplate the ancient beauty of the city. It isn’t a neighborhood famous for its architecture, but I thought that Mümtaz and Nuran might know something the guidebooks didn’t. I wanted to see it for myself, and hoped their bliss might rub off on me a bit. I also wanted an excuse to take the ferry.

On the ferry I watched the seagulls and the little boats that we passed and tried to settle into the ride.  Istanbul’s most beautiful palaces are built to be viewed from the Bosphorus, and from certain vantage points the city looks positively dreamy. But the ferry ride to Üsküdar was short, and when I got off the boat, I was confronted with Soviet-style apartment blocks, and a big road that I was not sure how to get across. I could see one mosque and it wasn’t a very exciting one. I also had a very urgent need to go to the bathroom. I looked around, trying to assess where I might be able to find a toilet and decided that any promising location was on the other side of the big road.

The only viable option seemed to be on the ferry, which was going back to the European side in ten minutes. I ran through the turnstile and back onto the boat. After visiting the women’s room, I settled into a comfortable spot next to a window and headed back to Europe, reviewing the Üsküdar sections of A Mind at Peace. I concluded that it must have been much nicer in 1939, and more importantly, that sitting on the ferry is my favorite Istanbul pastime.

* * *

Mumtaz and Nuran love the ferry. They travel by ferry between the Golden Horn, a couple of neighborhoods in on the Asian side, and Mümtaz’s villa in Emirgan, toward the Black Sea. Their first sustained interaction takes place on a ferry. Mümtaz hangs around the ferry port to run into Nuran. Their time together is most happily spent exploring the city and floating along the Bosphorus. Mümtaz’s question—“Do we love each other or the Bosphorus?”—is justified.

When Mümtaz and Nuran part ways forever, Nuran declares, “the dream is over.” Mümtaz loses his illusions about the city at the same time as he loses his illusions about Nuran. He goes back to wandering but without the dreamy disconnection that he once possessed. While Mümtaz and Nuran were dreaming, Hitler asserted himself on the world stage. As the pages fill with overheard discussions of impending war, the florid detail that ran through Mümtaz’s and Nuran’s relationship suggests in hindsight that the affair may have been just as escapist as it seemed.  Mümtaz and Nuran cannot exist exclusively in the realm of makam songs and transcendental love.

* * *

After I arrived back on the shores of the Golden Horn from Üsküdar on my Mümtaz-guided city tour, I decided to take the tram past the Hagia Sofia, to another of Mümtaz’s favorite locations, the Beyazit Mosque.  On the tram, I realized that I was situated between two people speaking Russian to each other. When I got off the tram, I stopped in at a pharmacy to get some pain-killers. As I tried to communicate what I needed, I realized that one of the cashiers was speaking Russian with a customer.

After I left the pharmacy to explore the neighborhood, every shopkeeper I walked past yelled to me in Russian about what fine purses and shoes he had for sale. What was this place? I was expecting just to see another mosque and the impressive old gates of Istanbul University.

I had tried to walk in what I imagined to be Mümtaz’s footsteps, thinking I could just recreate from scratch an experience very intertwined with the past five or six years of my life. But Mümtaz wanders through A Mind at Peace with his feet barely on the ground. Until Nuran’s departure forces him to rub his nose in the dirt, he observes Istanbul as an undulating scene of people and smells that serves as backdrop for his meandering thoughts. He even chastises himself for being so deeply lost in his daydreams.

Finding myself in the center of the Istanbul post-Soviet immigrant community was not unlike running into an ex-boyfriend while on a walk with someone new. All the old familiar feelings return, and you wonder “why did I ever leave?” As I spastically zigzag around this city that I barely know, trying to understand Turkey, understand this book, and explain to myself why I am here, it is not so surprising to find that Mümtaz and I actually have a lot in common.


Photograph by Helen Stuhr-Rommereim

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