“Citizens” focuses on people born and raised in Istanbul and who are masters of their domains. In this section, described as unsung heroes of Istanbul, we talk about citizens’ Istanbul, profession, yesterday and today.
As we take pictures of director Mehmet Binay at the Şişhane exit in Tünel, we learn that his short trips there in his youth reflected the dream of reaching an utterly different place by passing through the darkness.
Words: Sidni Karavil
Images: Nazlı Erdemirel
I decided to watch the last movie Mehmet Binay directed together with his spouse and partner Caner Alper, “Çekmeceler” (Drawers), as I was lying on my couch one of those evenings. It was a striking movie inspired by true stories. With my heart beating fast in various scenes, I watched this little girl slowly transforming into a bitter young woman because of the environment she was brought in, her true nature and her life conditions. I wondered if the truth effects Mehmet Binay more than dreams do.

“Each person lives her own reality. Our emotional ups and downs tend to form the stories we tell others. My husband, Caner Alper, and I, are in love with the plots that draw their inspiration from true stories. Because they give birth to an endless web of events, just like the cities do on us. There is a different İstanbul for each one of us and we all have a distinct, special relationship with the city.”

It is not a coincidence that we end up talking about Istanbul. He told me before the conversation that he had “abandoned” Istanbul for three times. Germany, Bodrum and now Los Angeles. Why did he choose such a strong word as “abandoning?” I thought of some possible reasons, but I knew it would best to hear it from him.

“I think that each time we ‘abandon’ the city, we somehow try to leave and turn our backs to ourselves. We get bored of the thousand-year-old cultural layer, the identities approved by the state and all the elements that we carry in our DNA although we didn’t choose it. So, we go after the possibility of reconstructing ourselves. The painter Modigliani says, “A person cannot be called a man if he does not reconstruct himself!” I think our effort to leave our lives behind and settle in a different city or a land has a similar motivation behind. Recreating yourself by going over the borders and losing yourself in different cultures, building a new life from scratch and then feeling a certain nostalgia keep you fresh. Ultimately, all these adventures make you go back to your city.”

So how was his relationship with the city in his youth? How did Mehmet Binay use to spend his spare time then?
“I have always lived with a longing for leaving my surroundings. Maybe because I was gay and somehow felt excluded since I was a child, but I always had this idea of migrating to a new Utopia somewhere else. I was brought up in Kadıköy. I would find myself in a literary description, imagining myself in the first moments of a journey, even if I was taking the ferry to cross over to the European side of town. I always wanted to go beyond where I was living, as someone who has multiple ethnicities in his DNA and cultural roots in each one of the three monotheistic religions. I would say my best moments were those five shorts yet incredibly long minutes when I took the Tünel, Istanbul’s first underground, from Karaköy going up to İstiklal Street. During this short journey, I could experience a sense of reaching to a different culture by passing through the darkness.”

We then took photos of how his dreams of reaching to a different place when he was in the Tünel have turned into a reality today. His face was glowing in the middle of all those people who got off the Tünel.

“I used to spend hours in Pera and Galata before weeknight German language classes at Goethe Institute. I would shuffle through the books in the German library and walk the streets inch by inch. I would try to imagine the people who had lived there before me. I would find hope in thinking that I could also move on in my life, just as they achieved this life and migrated from here.”

I couldn’t help thinking the difference between those older days and today, seeing all the people nestled in their cell phones as we were passing through the Tünel, a symbol of old Istanbul. And I asked him how he viewed and felt this difference.

“I think feeling regretful about how the city has changed over time and lost its original face or complaining that it has turned its face to the East resemble a lazy and negatively aging attitude to me. Istanbul is not a city that can be owned; at the very most, you can only witness it. The root of the word “Istanbul” is polis, which means political. I’ve just remembered the movie Politiki Kousina; it was about Istanbul’s Greek cuisine and the people who were expulsed from their homeland to Greece because of political reasons. Here, in this country, there is even politics in the kitchen: ‘my dolma (special stuffing) is different’, ‘we would never add sugar to olive oil dishes’, ‘the Turks know nothing about cooking olive oil dishes’, ‘the Greeks learnt yoghurt from the Turks’... All express an effort to exclude oneself from others and an act of false pride. These differences come to surface rather during hard times of a society. Yet a city like Istanbul should be a place where people lose their identities and feel liberated. The state’s dominating control over the fate of this metropolis tries to impose a certain constructed identity on us. How could one not want to go away?

“Istanbul is not a city that can be owned; at the very most, you can witness this city…” I want to understand this sentence in a deeper way. Having embraced various cultures for centuries and being full of historical artifacts; this city, with its giant culture, does not belong to anyone, maybe just as no other city in the world belongs to anyone. I am watching the water flowing from a fountain with all its beauty, in the midst of a road on a street with cobblestones in Emirgan. I watch it sitting there as a Jewish woman... I guess there is something true about belonging to İstanbul.

“For the last few years, I have been taking walks on Saturdays, with no particular aim, in whichever city I am. As I walk, I try to slow down the time, away from the hectic pace of the weekdays and our mundane efforts. I came to Istanbul to work at the end of January 2019 and found myself in the streets of Galata, again on a Saturday morning. My heart beat faster as I climbed up the slopes. I took a look at the Schneider Tempel, an old Ashkenazi synagogue, which was transformed into an art gallery after renovation works. There was an exhibition by the political cartoonist Tan Oral. Firstly, I studied the cartoons, and then let myself into the magic of the atmosphere in the temple.
I tried to recall the voices of the Jewish tailors who recited the Shema prayer and the modes of cantors who had those incredible voices. I thought about how they tried to reestablish their temple, which collapsed again and again, in various different ways, in distant lands; and how the Jews of Istanbul carried “the temple” in their memory no matter where they migrated. They had all come to Istanbul with great excitement and hopes to build a life. I thought that this city belongs to everyone and that it will never be the property of a particular class or race. Those who reign it will fade away one day, yet the city will always persist and be a host to new hopes.”

How is his relationship with Istanbul today? How does Istanbul turn into an inspiration, or a burden at times, for a creative soul like his, that doesn’t live here but visits the city occasionally?
“The last time I abandoned Istanbul we migrated to Bodrum by liquidating everything we had, which was followed by our decision to settle in the USA as immigrants. I had noticed that I did not like Istanbul back then; I didn’t want to see myself there anymore. After the terror attack at Atatürk Airport and the July 15th coup attempt, I was sure that this country did not want us here anymore, just like it did not welcome other minorities in the past. But the city means multiculturalism. Each time I come back here, I watch small theatre companies performing incredible plays or feel hope when I look at people who want to live life the way they want, protesting against the status quo every single day. And, I see people who have just migrated to this city. An Eritrean or a Syrian is also the citizen of this city, because we all came here as strangers. I salute all people who come to Istanbul, a city that belongs to no one. I try not to be a chauvinist.

What are his dreams and truths about turning back to Istanbul, working and creating here, and the city itself?
There is a love story called “Agunah” that we are currently working on. It starts in Sweden in 1945 right after WWII and ends in a textile workshop in Galata in 2000s. It is a story that reaches to Istanbul from Eastern Europe, about lovers who knew no physical or emotional boundaries.

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