In Çukurcuma, diagnosed romantic.

Each time a novel is read, it is rewritten in the mind of the reader. And because no two readers are alike, each time a new thread of imagination is born. Following threads will lead you to a different world with characters and events that are similar but not the same. A world which is constantly changing as the reader ponders the events of the book and complements the thread with new ideas and perspectives.

The beauty of a book is in its details. By this, I don’t mean endless, and sometimes pointless, descriptions of mountain tops and trees and rivers (unsurprisingly, I didn’t get past the first ten pages of Gone with the wind) but when moments in the book are embellished with seemingly mundane everyday details.

The sound of mess tins rattling and what that means to a German soldier in the trenches – All Quiet on the Western Front

Blood red stains made by pomegranate juice on the spotless white snow of Kabul in winter – The Kite Runner

The heady whiff of perfume drifting from a beautiful hairstylist in Mumbai as she trims your hair- Arzee the Dwarf

The beauty of details and description is in that they don’t need to be remembered to relive the experience of the story. In most cases, it’s impossible to recollect them all but what we do remember are the feelings they evoke, the scenes they set or the moods they render. And it is these elements that bring a story to life.


In search of the Museum of Innocence

You may think that a building painted in a ‘distinctive red – not plum or cherise but something in between‘ would be easy to find, and you’d be right in most parts of the world, but not in Istanbul, and certainly not in Çukurcuma (pronounced chu-kur-ju-ma).

The internet having failed us in our search for its location, we decided to look for Orhan Pamuk’s Masumiyet Muzesi or The Museum of Innocence the old-fashioned way – no maps, no GPS and absolutely no prior knowledge of the place. Armed with an old restaurant bill with the word ‘Çukurcuma’ scribbled behind it, it took talking to three people – a clueless cashier at an ice cream store, an equally confused but also equally enthusiastic American tourist with a fashion sense and lastly a travel agent- before we were directed to Tophane, a neighbourhood in Beyoğlu of which Çukurcuma was a tiny part. Two tram rides and a 100 metre walk later we found ourselves in the meandering streets the New York Times called a ‘more intimate Grand bazaar’.

When in Istanbul, you visit the Hagia Sophia for the historical mosaics, you walk through Grand Bazaar for the shopping, you go to Çemberlitas Hamami for the Turkish bath, watch belly dancing to be entertained and the Whirling Dervishes to be mystified (perhaps).

But, you go to Çukurcuma for Çukurcuma.

As I found out while doing ‘research’ for this post, the place is a hot favourite with travel writers and bloggers. Stuff has been written about the winding streets, the quaint ruins that line them and the antique shops and flea markets.  I even found a piece on the cats of Çukurcuma!! Strangely, the area doesn’t feature in the standard Istanbul itinerary.

Like in many neighbourhoods in Istanbul, we were surrounded by narrow streets lined with apartments that look like they are being held up merely by each other, we walked past at least three little diners selling doner kebabs and speakeasies with men drinking their Turkish Çay (chai) and puffing on their cigarettes.  But unlike any other street in Istanbul, those of Çukurcuma house more than a 100 antique shops which sell, among other things, wooden objects crafted by skilled workmen who were historically settled in the area. Here, these curiosity shops share space with upscale boutiques and bookshops. Here, the wall of a high end art gallery is lined with local graffiti.

And finally, the Masumiyet Muzesi

A grocer directed us to the wine red building that stood on Çukurcuma Avenue. Even while looking perfectly at home between the others the four-storied building had a strange newness to it. This was simply because the building in fact is new – the once town house had been renovated by Orhan Pamuk to house the latest of his masterpieces – The Museum of Innocence – part museum, part installation art, part shrine, part mirror into the world of his novel and the era and city in which it is set.

The entrance to the museum is located discreetly on Dalgic Street which branched off Çukurcuma Avenue, recognizable only by the tiny cluster of people outside it. A sign above the teller’s window listed the fares.

Students- 10 TL

Adults- 25 TL

Free entry if you have the book with you!

Despite us not carrying  our id’s the teller was only too eager to believe we were students.

“Between you and me”, she said as she handed us the tickets.

The only other visitor was a journalist. Judging by this and the teller’s hospitality, we were one of the few visitors of the day. Well there was also that fact that the teller’s desktop was comfortably logged into Facebook. But it was clear they didn’t get too many people coming in yet. Having been opened to public only on April 28, 2012 the museum hadn’t yet garnered enough publicity to attract crowds of Pamuk fans, I suppose.

Inside the museum, 83 wooden cabinets, each representing a chapter in the book are arranged sequentially around the room. The first words of the book spoken by Kemal Basmaci are imprinted on the wall by the first display:

‘It was the happiest moment of my life, though I didn’t know it.’

Using little objects of memorabilia, lights and sounds, the displays conveyed almost as much as the book might, if not more. At first I was taken aback by the sheer delicacy of each shelf but soon forgot about the little things and was enveloped by the ambience they provided. As I moved past the shelves I could sense, guided by the chapter titles and the contents of the cabinet, the changing moods of Kemal Basmaci as he loved and lost Fusun Keski and the changing pulse of Istanbul as it survived the political turmoil of the era and battled the social conflicts posed by western influence.

There were clothes, shoes, bags, jewellery, hairpins, cigarette stubs, newspaper clippings, old soda bottles, keys, ticket stubs, restaurant menus all put together in a way that evidently cannot be described using words alone.

They say a picture speaks a thousand words so imagine what a four storied house can tell you?

The museum is not a tribute to the book, created as an after –thought following the success of Masumiyet Muzesi –the novel. Pamuk conceived both the novel and the museum together. He bought a house, imagined a family living in it and then told their story, all the while wandering the streets of Istanbul looking for things that could furnish the story.

I should probably mention at this point that as much as I’d have liked to visit the museum after having read the book (imagine how many ‘aha!’ moments that would have made for), I haven’t. I’d like to believe this has its own advantages, the least of which is that I bought my copy of the book at the little bookstore in the basement of the museum.

The books that lined the walls of the store were all Pamuk’s in their many different translations. The man has been translated to about 60 languages and even won awards for some of these. Faced with this, you may be tempted to accuse Pamuk of a certain artistic narcissism – one that becomes more pronounced yet completely justified as you go up the four floors of the museum.

Having read Istanbul; Memories of a City, a book in which he has picked nostalgia as a dominant theme, I know Pamuk to be a romantic who takes time with descriptions but this took romanticism and nostalgia to an obsessive new level. The hand-drawn sketches that Pamuk made while he was personally planning out each display speak for themselves.

Hanging beside them are the original manuscripts of the book, written in Turkish in bright blue ink, complete with notes and doodles. Apparently, between thoughts and words, Pamuk sketched the view from the nearest window. Empty ink cartridges he used to write it were arranged below them, like tally marks. It took him about six years to complete the book which was published in 2008.

Just like a great novel the museum leaves me feeling a strange sense of nostalgia for a time and place that passed long before I was born. Being privy to only as much of the story as the museum gave away I’m left with a sense of ambiguity as far as the story is concerned. And as I cling to the threads that arose from every hairpin and cigarette stub, I ask myself the same question people ask themselves before watching film adaptations of books they love:

Will this version ruin or preserve my memory of the last?

(Follow-up post to come after reading the book)

P.S. Special thanks to Zenobia Imtiaz, Zenusha Hafeez and Zeba Imtiaz for the photographs and company.

Title inspired by ‘In Santa Cruz, diagnosed homesick’ by K.Srilata.

In Çukurcuma, diagnosed romantic.

One thought on “In Çukurcuma, diagnosed romantic.

  1. I like how quaint Çukurcuma sounds. Much like Pamuk’s obsession, I suppose: analog, unfashionable, out of place in a world in a hurry. Obsessed though Pamuk may be with his own efforts, I’m glad – as you said – that the museum isn’t a charade, an “afterthought”. He’s worked hard and, going by your experience through what anywhere else is just a building but in Çukurcuma a poem, it reflects in how evocative each item can be… be it a cigarette stub, an ink cartridge or, simply, the thought of a window. I hope the experience will preserve your memory of the book. 🙂

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