World-renowned author Orhan Pamuk’s letter titled “When the Bosphorus Dries Up” for the fifth issue of New City Reader.
When the Bosphorus Dries Up
“Nothing can ever be as shocking as life. Except writing.” Ibn Zerhani
Did you know that the Bosphorus is drying up? I don’t think so. Naturally, we’re all preoccupied with this frenzied killing spree going on in our streets, and since we seem to enjoy it as much as fireworks, who has time to read or to find out what’s going on in the world? It’s hard even to keep abreast of our columnists – we read them as we struggle across our mangled ferry landings, as we huddle together at our overcrowded bus stops, as we sit yawning in those dolmuş seats that make every letter tremble. I found this story in a French geological journal.
The Black Sea, we are told, is getting warmer, the Mediterranean colder. As their waters continue to empty into the great caves whose gaping holes lie in wait under the seabed, the same tectonic movements have caused Gibraltar, the Dardanelles, and the Bosphorus to rise. After one of the last remaining Bosphorus fishermen told me how his boat had run aground in a place he had once had to throw in an anchor on a chain as long as a minaret, he asked, Isn’t our prime minister at all interested in knowing why?
I didn’t have an answer for him. All I know is that the water is drying up faster than ever, and soon no water will be left. What is beyond doubt is that the heavenly place we once knew as the Bosphorus will soon become a pitch-black bog, glistening with muddy shipwrecks baring their shiny teeth like ghosts. But at the end of a hot summer, it’s not hard to imagine this bog drying up in some parts while remaining muddy in others, like the bed of a humble river that waters a small town in the middle of nowhere. Nor is it difficult to foresee daisies and green grass growing on slopes irrigated by thousands of leaking sewage pipes. Leander’s Tower will at last become worthy of its name, terrifying us from its giddy heights; in the wild terrain beneath, a new life will begin.
I am speaking now of the new neighborhoods that will take root on this muddy wasteland that we once knew as the Bosphorus, even as city councilors rush here and there waving penalty notices: I speak of shantytowns and shacks, bars, nightclubs, and amusement arcades, of rusty horsedrawn Lunaparks, of brothels, mosques, and dervish lodges, of nests where Marxist splinter groups go to hatch their young and rogue plastics factories turn out nylon stockings for the black market. Amid the doomsday chaos, among toppled wrecks of old City Line ferries will stretch vast fields of bottle caps and seaweed. Adorning the mossy masts of American transatlantic lines that ran aground when the last of the water receded overnight, we shall find skeletons of Celts and Ligurians, their mouths gaping open in deference to the unknown gods of prehistory. As this new civilization grows up amid mussel-encrusted Byzantine treasures, tin and silver knives and forks, thousand-year-old wine corks and soda bottles, and the sharp-nosed wrecks of galleons, I can also imagine its denizens drawing fuel for their lamps and stoves from a dilapidated Romanian oil tanker whose propeller has become lodged in the mud. But that is not the worst of it, for in this accursed cesspool watered by the dark green spray of every sewage pipe in Istanbul, we can be sure that new epidemics will break out among the armies of rats as they explore their new heaven, this drying seabed strewn with turbot and swordfish skeletons and polluted with the mysterious gases that have been bubbling beneath the surface since long before the birth of history. This I know; and this I must impress upon you: The authorities will seek to contain the epidemic behind barbed wire, but it will touch us all.
As we sit on the balconies from which we once watched the moon glitter silver on the silken waters of the Bosphorus, we’ll watch instead the blue smoke rising from the corpses we’ve had to burn in a hurry – leisurely burials having become a thing of the past. As we sit along what once was the shore, at tables where once we drank rakı amid the perfume of the Judas and honeysuckle blossoms, we will struggle to accustom ourselves to the acrid stink of rotting flesh. No longer will we soothe our souls with songs about the birds of spring, the fast-flowing waters of the Bosphorus, or the fishermen lining its shores; the air will ring instead with the anguished cries of men whose fear of death has driven them to smite their foes with the knives, daggers, bullets, and rusting scimitars that their forefathers, hoping to fend off the usual thousand-year inquiries, tossed into the sea. As for the İstanbullus who once lived on the edge of the water, when they return to their homes exhausted of an evening they will no longer open bus windows to drink in the sea air; instead, they’ll stuff newspaper and cloth in the cracks to keep the stink of rotting flesh and mud from seeping in; they’ll sit there staring through the glass at the flames that rise from the fearsome black chasm gaping below. Those seaside cafés where balloon and wafer halvah vendors once wandered among us? No longer shall we sit there of an evening to feast our eyes on naval fireworks, instead, we’ll watch the blood-red fireballs of exploding mines that carry with them the shattered remains of the curious children who set them off. Those man who once earned their keep by combing the sands for the Byzantine and empty tin cans washed in by stormy seas? They’ll take to collecting the coffee grinders, the moss-covered cuckoo clocks, the black mussel-encrusted pianos that a long-ago flood plucked from the wooden houses that once lined the shore.
A night will come in this new hell when I slip through the barbed wire in search of a certain Black Cadillac. This Cadillac was the prize possession of a Beyoğlu bandit (I cannot bring myself to dignify him with the word gangster) whose exploits I followed some thirty years ago, when I was an apprentice reporter; I recall that in the entrance to the den of iniquity from which he ran his operations there were two paintings of Istanbul I greatly admired. There were only two other Cadillacs like it in Istanbul at the time, one owned by Dağdelen, who had made his fortune in highways, and the other by Maruf, the tobacco king. It could be said that we journalists were the ones who turned our bandit into an urban legend, for we recounted his last hours in a serial that ran for an entire week. The climax was a police chase that tended with the Cadillac leaving the road at Akıntı Point and flying into the black waters of the Bosphorus According to some witnesses, the bandit was high on hashish; others claimed that he’d freely chosen death for himself and the mistress at his side, racing toward the point like a doomed highwayman driving his horse over a precipice. Divers spent days hunting for the Cadillac, to no avail. It wasn’t long before the newspaper-reading public had forgotten it ever existed, but I have already pinpointed what I am certain will turn out to be its exact location.
It is there, at the very bottom of the new valley we once knew as the Bosphorus, below a muddy cliff littered with camel bones, bottles bearing mysterious messages for nameless lovers, lone boots that lost their mates seven hundred years ago, shoes where crabs now lay their eggs. There, behind the slopes where mussel and sponge forests still sparkle with diamonds, earrings, bottle caps, and gold bracelets, past the heroin laboratory set up so hastily in the rotting shell of a barge, just beyond the sandbar where the oysters and whelks feed on the buckets of blood gushing from the donkeys and packhorses as they’re ground into black-market sausages.
As I plunge into this silent darkness and make my way through the stench of rotting corpses, I shall listen to the horns of the cars passing above me – on what we once knew as the Shore Road, though it now looks more like a lane snaking through a mountain pass. I’ll stumble across the palace intriguers of yesteryear, still doubled over in the sacks in which they drowned, and the long-lost skeletons of Orthodox priests. Still clutching their staffs and their crosses, their ankles still weighed down by balls and chains. I shall see bluish smoke rising from what it seems at first to be stovepipe but which turns out to be the old periscope from the submarine that tried to torpedo the S.S. Gülcemal as it was carrying troops from Tophane Wharf to Gallipoli, only to sink to the sea floor after its propeller got tangled up in fishermen’s nets and rammed into some mossy rocks; it will be immediately apparent that our own citizens are drinking tea out of Chinese porcelain cups in their new home (built so many years ago in Liverpool) as they sit in velvet officer’s chairs once occupied by English skeletons gasping for air. In the darkness just beyond, there will be the rusting anchor from a warship that once belonged to Kaiser Wilhelm; here a pearly white television screen will blink at me. I shall see the remains of a looted Genoese treasure; a short-barreled cannon caked with mud, the mussel-caked idols and images of lost forgotten peoples, and the shattered bulbs of an overturned brass chandelier. As I descend into the lower depths, watching my step, weaving my way through mud and rock, I shall see galley slaves still chained to their oars as they gaze up at the stars with a patience that seems infinite. I may not notice the necklaces, eyeglasses, and umbrellas hanging from the trees of moss, but I shall certainly pause in fearful respect before the armored Crusaders, mounted on horses whose magnificent skeletons are still stubbornly standing. As I stand before these fearsome statues to study their mussel-studded weapons and the standards they brandish in their might hands, I shall note with horror that it is the Black Cadillac they are guarding.
So I shall approach it slowly and respectfully, almost seeking their permission, and as I move forward a blinking light of unknown origin will cast the Cadillac in a phosphorescent glow. I shall try to turn the door handles, but the car, cakes as it is with mussels and sea urchins will not permit me to enter; neither will I manage to pry open the green-tinted windows. This is when I shall take out my ballpoint pen from my pocket and use its tip to scrape the pistachio-colored moss off the glass.
Gripped though I am by the enchanted terror of midnight, I shall light a match; in the flickering gray glow I shall see the steering wheel, the nickel-plated dials, needles, and clocks still glistening as brightly as knights in shining armor – and there, still kissing in the front seat, the skeletons of the bandit and his mistress, her bony wrists still gleaming with bracelets, her ring-clad fingers still intertwined with his. Not only are their jaws conjoined, their very skulls are locked in an eternal embrace.
Then, without pausing first to strike a second match, I shall turn around to gaze upon the lights of the city and to dwell on what I have just seen: When catastrophe strikes, there can be no happier way of facing death. So let me cry out in anguish to a distant love: My darling, my beauty, my long-suffering sweet, the disaster is fast approaching, so come to me, come to me now; wherever you happen to be at this moment – a smoke-filled office, a messy blue bedroom, an onion-scented kitchen in a house steaming with laundry – know that the time has come, so come to me; let us draw the curtains against the disaster pressing upon us; as darkness encroaches, let us lock ourselves in a last embrace and silently await the hour of our death.