Travel: Orhan Pamuk’s Turkey

I wanted to travel to Turkey, and more specifically Istanbul, ever since I picked up a copy of Nobel-Prize-Winning Orhan Pamuk’s novel The Museum of Innocence in an airport years ago on my way home from a particularly rough semester of college.  I used to turn to literature to find parallels to my life, but in Pamuk’s novels I found solace in immersing myself in the world of his characters.  It was really the first time a book was more than simply a distraction from how badly things were going.

I fell in love with the complex and captivating obsessive romance between Kemal and Füsun.  The Museum of Innocence was a perfect example of what can happen when exactly the right book finds you at exactly the right time. By the time I’d completed the novel, I knew I needed to get back into writing and figure out how to make my life look the way I’d always wanted it to. As Orhan wrote in A New Life, “I read a book one day and my whole life was changed.”

I started exploring more of Turkish literature in general: Elif Shafak, Yaşar Kemal, Ayşe Kulin, and Nâzım Hikmet, among many others. I was desperate to visit the places I’d read about, to see how these writers had interpreted and translated the realities of Turkey.  Mostly, I wanted to see the country that had inspired me to start writing again.  So I booked visits to Istanbul, Izmir, Pamukkale, and Cappadocia.  Like anything that’s greatly anticipated, I was also partially terrified to go, not because of the constantly-resurrected Gezi protests, which I’d watched nonstop coverage of the previous summer, but because I was afraid I’d become disillusioned with Istanbul once it became a real place to me, or disappointed that it wouldn’t be as wonderful as some of the most brilliant writers had made it sound.

The mountains of Anatolia
The mountains of Anatolia

But when I arrived in Istanbul, it was almost exactly as I’d expected it to be, and in a strange way, it felt almost familiar.

Orhan’s Museum of Innocence isn’t just a novel, it’s now a real museum in Istanbul.  With the money from his Nobel prize win, Pamuk constructed a display of objects mentioned in the novel, a meticulously catalogued collection of knick-knacks that Kemal collected in relation to his beloved Füsun.  It contains everything from discarded cigarette butts to newspaper clippings of “loose” women who were shamed for their promiscuity by having their photographs printed up and, with a black band over their eyes, ran in the paper.  Though it may not be as interesting to those who haven’t read the book as it is to more rabid fans like me, I think anyone can find the amount of work Orhan put into developing the love story of these two characters impressive, and perhaps even a little obsessive. Like Orhan, I’ll leave it to visitors and readers to decide if they want to believe the events of the novel were fact or fiction.

Funnily enough, while in Istanbul I encountered quite a few Turks who weren’t big fans of Pamuk. “I think he’s getting better,” the cafe owner down the street from our apartment clucked, “But he still has some growing up to do as a writer.  He is almost there. Jack London novels, though … now those are good.”

Orhan even includes free admission to his museum in his novel - I've been waiting for years to get this stamp in my copy.
Orhan even includes free admission to his museum in his novel – I’ve been waiting for years to get this stamp in my copy.

One of the things yabancilar (a slightly insulting term meaning “foreigners” in Turkish, like the way New Yorkers yell “tourists” to people taking up half the sidewalk to snap a group photo) are the most shocked by and excited about in Turkey, are the copious amounts of cats and dogs freely roaming around the streets.  Everywhere you look, they’re sunning themselves on the sidewalks, eagerly sneaking underneath tables hoping for crumbs, and even looking both ways before they cross the street.

Like every American, I’m famous for putting concern for the welfare of cats and dogs before their human counterparts, so in my very broken Turkish, I asked a local, “Road cat, road dog?  Eat how?”

He replied in far better English, “In the Koran, Mohammed says you have to take care of the cats.  The government puts stickers, a different color for every district, on the animals and the government of that place is responsible for their shots, if they’re sick; they take them to the animal nurse.  And everybody here feeds the cats and dogs in the neighborhoods.  We leave out food and water for them.  They are very happy.”  There are, I later learned, several laws in place for action to take if you run over an animal, and you can be heavily fined if you don’t take the animal to get help.

A hopeful cat joining us for kebab lunch on the terrace

So much of the international press surrounding Turkey in the past year has been related to allegations of government corruption, police brutality, and the increasing civil unrest and strain between the country’s leaders and its people.  But because I’ve read that Turkey has the highest rate of imprisoned journalists than any other country, and because I’d like to go back (even Orhan Pamuk had his books burned for speaking out against the government), I won’t say too much about my opinions.  As I stood in a now-silent Gezi Park, I thought about how while the rest of the world was running stories about tear gassing peaceful protestors in Istanbul, CNN Turk was running a documentary about penguins.

YouTube was still banned when I arrived, after a video had surfaced allegedly documenting sensitive military conversations regarding Syria, and though the ban was lifted a day or so before I left, I was eager to get local opinions on the government.  I found that in the few smaller towns where the government had paid for road reconstruction and heavily funded craftsmen and the preservation of historical sites (therefore, obviously, increasing jobs and revenue in the areas) support for Erdoğan and the Turkish government at large was high.  Though preservation and funding of historical sites is still an issue, (many of the cave churches of Cappadocia, where I visited, had been defaced by graffiti) a local of Pamukkale described Erdoğan as “a good man who helped us.”

Several others denounced Gezi protesters as “kids who were just looking for an excuse to be upset about anything, people who made lists of what they didn’t want, not of their ideas for change.”  Though I’d left Istanbul for Izmir at the one-year anniversary of the Gezi protests, I read that fifty water cannons and thousands of riot police had been sent to Taksim Square to stop protests before they had a chance to start.  I also arrived in Istanbul less than a week after the Soma catastrophe happened, and a familiar mixture of grief and outrage palpably permeated the streets.  There were several Soma television spots and makeshift memorials and banners throughout Istanbul, though opinion on responsibility for the mining disaster seemed divided.

While walking through Taksim, I saw a small-scale protest taking place, with protestors darkening their faces with coal to commemorate the miners and demanding the government take responsibly for what happened. When I saw the water cannons, because I’ve watched too many episodes of shows like “Locked Up Abroad” and because my mother was with me, I decided to leave.

Click to enlarge

A sign commemorating the lost workers of the Soma disaster.

Regardless of how anyone feels about the state of political unrest in Turkey, I do think that funding and drawing up laws to protect local artisans and traditional Turkish crafts is a positive thing.  Industries like carpet weaving, pottery, and marbling give women an opportunity to learn a trade that can help them to support themselves and their families.  Workdays are limited to four hours so artists can really focus and put forth the highest quality of work before their eyes and arms get too tired.  While touring a carpet-making factory, I was thrilled to see a very diverse crowd of exclusively women, from a seventy-year-old lady who had been in the industry for several decades to a young pregnant woman who had only been learning for a few years.

It’s best to go to well-known, government-supported shops to get authentically handmade crafts, especially because most of them are more than willing to give you a demonstration and a detailed explanation of the process.


Locals are eager to interact with tourists, both out of curiosity and, if you speak it, to practice their English.  One of my favorite moments on the trip was when a group of young schoolchildren came up out of the blue and nervously introduced themselves and asked us if we liked Turkey and if we wanted to be friends.  Everywhere you look, someone is inviting you in for tea or, telling you about Turkish history–which every single person seemed to have memorized perfectly, no mistakes.  Photographs of Atatürk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey in 1923 and the man responsible for secularizing the country, are everywhere, as if he were still the President.

Despite the famous Turkish hospitality, I’m always surprised at some of the misconceptions I hear about Turkish people. Before I left for my trip, I endured several “well-meaning” but entirely stupid statements from “concerned” parties about what was going to happen to me in Turkey.  If I didn’t “lose an eye” in protest crossfire, I was advised to “dye your hair brown” because “you are going to get so harassed there, all the time.”  I was asked if I’d seen Taken: 2 (no) and warned that I should never, ever, go out alone.

I won’t even get into some of the more outwardly Islamaphobic things I’ve heard said, but suffice it to say my Turkish ex-boyfriend and I endured a particularly painful evening where he was asked where he was on 9/11 (“Um, in Turkey”) and questioned about whether or not he thought terrorism was a problem and where his loyalties lay since he was from a Muslim Country.  People seem eager to forget the all-important adjective “secular” when talking about Turkey in an effort to label it as an “extremist” country; and debates about where Turkey “really” belongs are endless, even among Turks.

Turkey exists at its best when thought of as a bridge between east and west, old and new, secular and religious.  I never experienced any of the “horror stories” people had been so insistent existed.  Everyone was eager to help two women traveling alone, and my pre-elementary Turkish got us further than I’d ever imagined it would.  Except in the Grand Bazaar, where anyone can see that a warm reception is usually just an attempt to sell you something, all the hospitality, which is a huge part of Turkish culture, felt genuine.   

On one of my final mornings in Turkey, I took a balloon ride in Cappadocia.  As we lifted off over the mountains and caves of Anatolia, I thought back to the opening lines of The Museum of Innocence: “It was the happiest moment of my life, though I didn’t know it.  Had I known, had I cherished this gift, would everything have turned out differently?  Yes, if I had recognized this instant of perfect happiness, I would have held it fast and never let it slip away.”  Maybe this was mine.

Sunrise on a balloon-filled skyline in Cappadocia.
Sunrise on a balloon-filled skyline in Cappadocia.
Firinn Asch
Firinn Asch is the pseudonym of a Southern-born, Manhattan-based writer. She is pursuing her Master's in Creative Writing and has a particular interest in cults, extreme religious sects, and translated literature. She also really appreciates a good Bloody Mary.
  • AlexisO

    This was really interesting! I love the compassion for the cats and dogs, that’s amazing.

    • Firinn Asch

      Thanks, Alexis! Yeah, it was great to see – also spotted a goat hanging out under a car, catching some shade

  • Serra

    I am Turkish, born and raised in Istanbul. I enjoyed this article very much. I can’t say I like Orhan Pamuk’s books. I find them slow. But Ayse Kulin is my favorite author. I am glad you enjoyed your trip.
    If you plan to visit Istanbul another time, I can give you tips about best “secret” places. I hope you visited the Prince Islands.

    • Firinn Asch

      Thank you, Serra! Your comment made my day. I hope to return as soon as possible, I would love to hear any advice you have about any hidden gems! Next trip, I’m hoping to see more of Southeast Turkey as well