IT IS SNOWING in Istanbul. Incidentally, it is also snowing in the States, the Northeast having been slammed with what some are calling “Snowmageddon,” a powerful winter storm that has blanketed the region in upwards of two feet of snow. When you couple the inevitable concern that such weather causes for travelers with my last minute efforts to finalize my practical preparations for four months overseas, it is fair to say that I was pretty stressed out today. But everything is actually looking good at this point. I am expecting my flight to depart as scheduled, because it does not leave until 7 Sunday evening. Also, I have recently made contact with someone who is in my program, and we have the same flight plans. So we are going to meet at the airport, and have even been able to choose seats together on the plane. But enough of these practical matters!
As many of you know, my original inspiration to study in Istanbul came from a likely source – a book. Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian is filled with such brilliant descriptions of Istanbul, such fascinating portraits of an ancient and almost timeless city, that in late June of last year, after finishing that book, I began to tear through every piece of writing I could find on Istanbul. And it is now finally just striking my consciousness, I mean it is really starting to set in, that I will be in Istanbul in 48 hours. And I have to say, there is something both wonderful and moderately disorienting about this realization, this sudden awareness of the tenuous but very real connection between literature and life, between the imagined and the lived, between the textual and the physical. I am very happily anticipating the ability to feel the parallels between the texts I have perused and the experiences that I will have.
In The Historian, Kostova writes of the characters’ first impressions of Istanbul: “My amazement increased during the taxi ride to town. I don’t know exactly what I had expected of Istanbul – nothing, maybe, since I had had so little time to anticipate the journey – but the beauty of this city knocked the wind out of me. It had an Arabian Nights quality that no number of honking cars or businessmen in Western suits could dissolve. The first city here, Constantinople, the capital of Byzantium and the first capital of Christian Rome, must have been splendid beyond belief, I thought – a marriage of Roman wealth and early Christian mysticism. By the time we found some rooms in the old quarter of Sultanahmet, I had received a dizzying glimpse of dozens of mosques and minarets, bazaars hung with fine textiles, even a flash of the many-domed, four-horned Hagia Sophia billowing above the peninsula” (255). As I revisit Kostova’s words, I am moved to think that I will have my own first impressions of this ancient cradle of civilization, this old and weathered oculus of conquest and imagination.
Kostova’s text, then, will undoubtedly inform the very way I perceive the city and its peoples. Moreover, my experiences in the city will dynamically color all of my future perspectives on texts, art, society, culture, etc. In his exquisite memoir, Trains of Thought: Memories of a Stateless Youth, scholar Victor Brombert remarks upon these connections: “I find it difficult to tell what takes precedence in the chronologies of bookish and lived experience. Does it really matter? In a sense it does, of course. This undeterminable priority argues against those who would remove art from the activities of living, for whom books are ‘texts’ woven in sublime indifference or even hostile reaction to life, who value literary works as pure constructs of the mind, as games of rhetoric obeying their own rules. Such willful segregation, inviting hermeticism, felt untrue to both the experience of living and that of reading…If eventually, after many a detour, I came to study and teach what is called literature, it is in large part because I realized at some point that what I had seen, felt, or dreamt was diversely reflected in the books I read, making it in turn possible for me to understand my own experiences; and that, conversely, the books I assimilated allowed to to see the world around me, and perhaps even myself, in a new light. Lived life and literary realities seemed to exchange their resources. Between the two was a shuttle of words and restless trains of thought (120-21).
I like to think of my trip to Istanbul as what Brombert calls a “restless train of thought” (120), because it will foster the convergence of the imagined and the lived. Perhaps the link between art and life is not as tenuous as I once thought. Perhaps, even, there is no “link” at all; perhaps art and life are ultimately, necessarily, and indeed passionately and beautifully, one and the same.
One final note before I leave: I want to thank everyone who advised me in any way throughout this process, and especially my parents for making it all possible. I am inexpressibly grateful for the experience, and I intend to take everything from it that I can.
That being said, it is time for me to shuttle east.