Cultural encounters in Istanbul
"In Istanbul, we have a pastime that westerners don't share," says Arzu Tutuk, a guide in the city. "You could call it our secret." That secret is keyif: the art of quiet relaxation. "Keyif is all about that moment," Arzu explains. "Essentially it's about sitting still, and doing nothing. Most people, when they pause, they do something else, too - read a magazine, check their email, think about the future, or the past. But keyif is about stopping, and just enjoying now." Everyone's keyif is different, but Arzu finds hers on the shores of the Bosphorus, the sea strait that cuts Istanbul in two. "For me, it's about being somewhere that's not crowded, and watching the water."
Sunday brunch at the House Cafe, in the Istanbul suburb of Ortaköy, gives the opportunity to do just that. My table is on the waterfront, so close to the sea I can trail my fingers in it while gazing at the commuter ferries making their along the strait. Shirtless men in pairs sit fishing in little rowing boats, which bob and tilt in the backwash of large passing ships. With its white walls, mirrored panels and oversized table umbrellas, the House Cafe's brand of chic is west European. But it sits face to face with another continent - across the water is Asia.
I return to the old city by ferry, passing waterfront Ottoman Era palaces either repurposed as luxury hotels, or left to lie empty and sink into gradual decay. All along the shoreline, I see Istanbullus in pursuit of keyif. In a stretch of parkland, four elderly men sit on garden chairs in an intimate circle, playing backgammon. On a nearby bench a man presents a veiled woman with a single red rose. At Galata Bridge, a web of lines stretch down to the water, as throngs of people stand and fish. Others fill the city's nargileh cafes: quiet gardens where people come to sit, talk and smoke water pipes.
Erenler Çay Bahçesi is an old city nargileh cafe tucked away in a former medrese (Islamic school building) near the Grand Bazaar. Merchandise from the stalls of the covered market spills into the peaceful courtyard; the walls are hung with rugs, archways are lit with clusters of twinkling lanterns. As customers relax in small groups on red upholstered chairs and benches, men in uniform hurry from table to table with trays of tea glasses and shovels full of hot coals to stoke the nargileh pipes.
A waiter pauses to set down cups of thick Turkish coffee at the table of Emre Delidere and his friend, Nur Erol, regulars at Erenler. "I've been coming here with my father since I was about five years old," says Emre, "but he'd only let me smoke with him when I was 17." He passes the pipe to Nur, who disappears briefly into an apple and aniseed-scented cloud as Emre exhales. Is this his keyif? "Oh yes, absolutely," he agrees. "I get the same feeling doing this as I do sitting on the grass, barefoot on a summer's day."
- The House Cafe Ortaköy, Salhane Sokak 1, Ortaköy
- To get to Ortaköy by ferry on the Bosphorus, take a boat from Eminönü to Beşiktaş, then walk 15 minutes north along the shore
- Erenler Çay Bahçesi, Yeniçeriler Caddesi 36/28, Çemberlitaş
The 550-year-old Grand Bazaar is warm, and smells of spices. The sound of the ezan, call to prayer, summoning the faithful to the nearby Süleymaniye Mosque, filters down its warren-like avenues. As though carried by its notes men rush along, carrying boxes filled with everything from scarves to plums. Others hover in shop doorways, inviting every passing customer to look inside.