BOSPORUS BLOG: Pamuk's museum and an Istanbul property tale

By bne IntelliNews May 2, 2012

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Turkish author Orhan Pamuk, the winner of the 2006 Nobel Prize in Literature, opened a museum April 28. Ensconced in Istanbul's Cukurcuma neighbourhood, which is known for artists, expats and antique shops, the museum celebrates the past (and Pamuk); it is likely to put the already charming area more on the map.

Based on his 2008 novel of tragic love, "The Museum of Innocence", Pamuk's museum is located between an old wooden mosque and a hamam, or Turkish bath, in Cukurcuma, a small leafy neighbourhood about 10 minutes walk from the city's central Taksim Square and adjacent to Cihangir, one of the city's most sought after real estate spots.

In a press conference on April 27, Pamuk, who is as much a symbol of Turkey for his once being charged with "insulting Turkishness" after talking about the Armenian genocide as his novels, described how Istanbul had changed in the past 10-15 years. When he first bought the building to house the museum in 1999, Cukurcuma was rundown, with others saying it had a reputation for being unsafe and frequented by wandering drunks. Now, the entire city - especially central neighbourhoods like Cukurcuma, Cihangir, Galata and the port district of Karikoy - are being transformed as the city becomes "richer" and the Istanbul of Pamuk's childhood, which he remembers in his nostalgia-rich novels, disappears. "I cannot keep up with the change," he says, describing himself as a chronicler of Istanbul.

In place of the city that Pamuk knew are high-rises and gentrification. He describes the museum as Istanbul's first city museum, a "modest" one, as a memento to a bygone city. Yet more than a place to remember the past, Istanbul's present is seen in Cukurcuma in striking clarity. There are the antique shops where Pamuk claims to have bought many of the museum's antiquities. Then there is also the rush to build and sell property in one of the most dynamic cities in the region. Anyone aiming to live or invest in even as small a neighbourhood as Cukurcuma will be unable to escape the neighbourhood intrigue and rivalries that arise in the quest for property.

A local dispute

The centre of the city has been cleaned up, but Istanbul's development threatens to become its own worst enemy. In Cukurcuma, this was evident a few weeks ago when Coskun Kilic - a Turkish man with Pamuk's passion and more bluster - walked out onto the roof of his building and began throwing shingles at a group of construction workers below just a few buildings up the street from The Museum of Innocence.

The workers were finishing laying the foundations for a new building next to Kilic's. The previous building had been torn down completely. The police were called, but Kilic moved to the edge of the roof and threatened to jump unless someone from the Istanbul mayor's office came and examined the foundations that were being laid. Yelling loudly, Kilic claimed that the foundations did not comply with local code. In the days before climbing on his room, he had repeatedly requested that someone from the city municipality come and examine the foundations in person. No one came. So, as fire-trucks arrived and a massive inflatable cushion meant to break his fall was laid at the bottom of his building, he teetered at the edge of his roof, drawing a crowd of antique dealers and passersby.

No one except for his immediate family was sure he would not jump. (Even they were worried that he might suffer a heart attack and his wife secretly handed him fruit to eat, thinking it would calm him). In truth, Kilic was enacting a planned protest meant to bring attention to how construction regulations were regularly ignored in the neighbourhood and against local corruption, he later told me. Kilic and I first met two years ago, when I temporarily lived in the building whose roof he protested from. "They never want to make a formal way, or a legal way," he says, adding that when Istanbul's expected earthquake occurs, the building, constructed on poor foundations, would collapse onto his and possibly kill him or some of his tenants.

It took several hours, but an official from the Istanbul municipality eventually did arrive. He measured the depth of the foundations and declared them sufficient. True to his word, Kilic came down from his roof. He scrambled straight down into the pit of building foundations, took an iron pole that his son handed him, plunged it deep into the ground and ran it around the dirt edges of the pit to show how loose the soil was. The dirt fell away effortlessly. "You are living in a graveyard," Kilic told a group of women who reside in a building recently completed by the same man constructing the building next to his.

Even if the municipality declared the foundations to be sufficiently deep, he claimed that private surveying companies working in the neighbourhood collude with construction companies to provide reports that will get buildings constructed as quickly as possible, even if they are unsafe to live in.

Many wonder why an important figure like Pamuk has largely remained silent on the transformation that Turkey is currently undergoing, both the construction boom in his native Istanbul and the new political challenges the country faced. Why does he bury his head in nostalgia?

When Pamuk circulated over to our table following the museum's opening to the press, I asked how he had negotiated the hurdles to establish the museum in Cukurcuma, and also asked about the rumours that his life had at one time been under threat in Turkey. After all, Turkey is a country of red tape and for all his international praise Pamuk is hardly the most popular man in Turkey - a country where statistics show few people read. For all the tourist money it will bring to the neighbourhood, Kilic, for instance, says the museum is not worth it simply because Pamuk is "a liar."

Before Pamuk could answer my question, a young woman in her late 20s swept up and began defending him. He interrupted her, suggesting that I should change my friends and wished me good night.

Whether this is an example of the culture of questions in Turkey, the sensitivity of celebrities, or a journalist ungrateful for dinner, I do not know. As for Kilic, he ended up staging a second protest. This time, according to his daughters, police burst onto the roof when he unlocked the door to give an interview to Turkish journalists. The screaming and thrashing Kilic was dragged down his own staircase and off to the police station for a brief stay.

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