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Hedonism & Hospitality

Istanbul is full of eye candy and other Turkish delights

Yes, I know.  A T-shirt emblazoned with “Beyo ˘glu” is more likely to attract bewilderment than envy. But that’s only because not enough of the world has visited Istanbul’s most seductive district.

Fatih district, across the Haliç Hattı inlet, is certainly the more famous one. Fatih boasts the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque and the Grand Bazaar, attractions that have made Istanbul one of the world’s most visited cities. But travellers who have done their touristic duties filling their cameras’ memory cards with ancient architecture might eventually crave some fun.

Beyo ˘glu’s of-the-moment galleries, flashy clubs, friendly bars, steamy hamams, au courant cafés and trendy shopping means they might never have to cross the Galata Bridge.

At Beyo ˘glu’s heart is Taksim Square and before I continue gushing, I should offer a short political orientation. Taksim Square, for all the time it spends in the news, is surprisingly small, as is adjacent Gezi Park, where last spring and summer police cracked down on people protesting a mall development. It’s a strange place for a mammoth concrete and steel structure, unless one presumes the mall is intended to scatter the park’s existing user base—gay men, secular intellectual types, joggers and drunken partiers staggering home from nightclubs. Then it all makes perfect sense. And it makes sense that many of the protesters were LGBT people.

The clashes in Taksim/Gezi express a national tension in Turkey between secularism and religiosity, liberalism and conservatism, diversity and conformity, where the progressive people of Istanbul represent the former and the police, deployed by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo ˘gan, whose voter base lies mostly beyond the city limits of Turkey’s biggest city, represent the latter. This fall’s ban on the gay hookup app Grindr, which is used by an estimated 125,000 Turkish men, is also meant to put a symbolic squeeze on the secular permissiveness.

Ugly as it is, Erdo˘gan’s tactics demonstrate the difference between what’s happening in Turkey and, say, in Russia. While Vladimir Putin seems to be trying to eradicate gay identity, the best Erdo ˘gan can do is throw symbolic inconveniences at Istanbul’s LGBT population and the rest of its cosmopolitan citizens. The Grindr ban? One of the first things any gay guy in Istanbul will tell you is how to bypass government internet censorship mechanisms. Gay apps that are more popular have not been banned. Despite encroachments from on high, Istanbul remains a city where rainbow flags flap proudly outside gay cafés, straight patrons respectfully line up for their nightclub next to gay patrons going into theirs and women in miniskirts walk abreast of women in veils.

So we’ll now head south from Taksim onto Beyo˘glu’s broad main street, Istiklal Caddesi. Pedestrian-only,  except for the cute red trolley that runs its length, the street takes us away from politics and towards Istanbul’s intoxicating brand of hedonism and hospitality. Packed day and night, Istiklal Caddesi is a colossal artery of shopping, dining and entertainment running through Beyo˘glu. For the first few days I assumed the crowds were coming or going from sporting events, but gradually realized it was a popular Istanbul pasttime—seeing and being seen.

The neon signs on the side streets lure visitors to bars both chic and divey, as well as overpriced nightclubs stacked in gorgeous historic buildings. Smaller streets wind downhill toward the Bosphorus River, offering glimpses of the waterways and the city’s Asian side. At markets and in the streets, delivery boys scoot around with trays of tea, the small curvy glasses sitting delicately on patterned saucers. There are streets full of cafés—squares full of cafés. A visitor wonders if anybody works. The business district, with its tall modern buildings, is hidden out of sight.

There are moments in Beyo˘glu—when you see nightclubs setting off fireworks to attract patrons or gangs of young people buying beer at convenience stores or men loitering outside the city’s oldest (straight) brothel—when Istanbul feels like the Las Vegas of the Muslim world. East? West? Modern? Ancient? These questions shrink before Istanbul’s capacity to deliver pleasure. The place is all these things and more.

Iam inside an exhibit at Istanbul Modern (Liman l‚sletmeleri Sahası Antrepo 4, istanbulmodern.org/en) when the lights go out. The soaring classical music stops. It is really, really dark. I had to pass through a thick curtain of feather boas to see artist Hale Tenger’s Strange Fruit, two rotating globes lit by a projected constellation of stars, and I am alone in the room.

“Over here,” calls out the security guard. But I decide to stand for a moment and enjoy the silence. The image of one of the glowing globes—which has the South Pole at the top, though the labelling is right-side up—has burnt into my brain. Born in the western city of Izmir, Tenger’s playful and poetic politics seem particularly Turkish—tough-minded but sophisticated and beautiful. Her piece Turkish Delight features a cartoony terra cotta figure with a massive phallus, tattooed with an Ottoman-era blue pattern, a wink and a slap at the slow pace of change in the country. Her Dancing Queen installation from 2005 invited the viewer to dance to ABBA under a glass umbrella—pop music as a protection from the elements.

Speaking of music, it’s everywhere in Istanbul. In my week there, I never once heard the Muslim call to prayer, but couldn’t escape the galloping beats of pop hits. Simultaneously mournful and campy, Turkish pop is taken very seriously. At Chianti Bar (Istiklal Caddesi, Balo Sokak 31, second floor), young bearded men in jeans take turns singing karaoke, though everyone in the bar sings passionately along to each song, including the bartenders. The place is small, narrow and full of easygoing locals who joke with each other mercilessly. A couple of blocks away, the crowd at Frappe (Istiklal Caddesi, Zambak Sokak 10A, frappeistanbul.com) is artier and more fashionable, but even here patrons can’t help singing along to the music videos playing over the bar. At Club Tekyön (Siraselviler Caddesi 63/1, clubtekyon.com), one of the most reliable gay clubs in an ever-changing roster, the DJ does add some

Western songs to the mix, perhaps to please the tourists. The Tekyön crowd is older and, since it’s Turkey, hairier than the average North American crowd. This is not a country where twinks rule and not just hipsters have beards.

Ferzan Ozpetek’s 1997 classic, Steam: The Turkish Bath, about an uptight Italian who inherits a dilapidated Istanbul bathhouse from an eccentric aunt, is essentially a commercial for the city’s hamams, a sales pitch I couldn’t resist. Though these fancy bathhouses were historically hangouts for men of all orientations, the current selection serves, from what I can tell, two niches: tourists and men who really, really like to hang around in pestamas (a Turkish sarong) with other men in pestamas. A friend of mine went to a touristy one and found himself getting an aggressive massage in front of a room of men and women—including his mother. The ones with a predominately gay clientele don’t advertise the fact (hamams are required by law to offer women-only hours).

I thought I had chosen a touristy hamam on a small Beyo˘glu street known for its antique stores. The place was built in the early 1800s and featured a wooden stove in the rustic dry area and opulent marble in the wet areas. Then a muscular show-off arrived in the steam room, setting off a buzz of excitement. Ah, I was among family. After a perfunctory massage, I chatted with a few locals who complained about their government when they weren’t teasing me and each other. Though the hamam was certainly a gay space, it was not an entirely sexual one, more bar than traditional bathhouse. Upon departure, patrons are wrapped in heavy warm towels, while they sip tea by the stove and make plans to go clubbing later. What could be more civilized?

 

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