I was in Istanbul last week for the Black Week Crime Fiction Festival. It was my first time in Turkey and it was absolutely extraordinary. I’m back to my day job now, and I’m battening down the hatches for the imminent birth of my daughter, but I thought it would be worth jotting down some of the most memorable moments in a roughly chronological order:

 

Airport

I was greeted off the plane by someone holding a sign saying “Sam Wilson”. Some other passengers pointed out the sign to each other, hoping to see the Falcon from the Marvel movies. They were disappointed.

I was put on one of those eight-seat electric vehicles and driven, by myself, through the crowds and to the priority passport line. I gave an embarrassed wave to all the other exhausted passengers.

 

Pera Palace Hotel





If you hadn’t been told that Agatha Christie, Mata Hari and Jackie Onassis had stayed there, you’d guess it from the lobby alone. Many ridiculously famous people have stayed there before embarking on the Orient Express. The hotel was hosting the Black Week Festival, putting up all the international writers and looking after us extremely well. I have since discovered that you can visit the hotel in a virtual reality experience, which is great because I need to go back immediately.

They also have:

 

The Oldest Elevator In Turkey

 

Not hyperbole. This is the actual one.


The Call To Prayer

Of course I had heard this before – but there are thousands of mosques in Istanbul. Hearing them all simultaneously was powerfully different from a lonely voice calling through a tinny speaker in Cape Town.

 

Denizbank 




The main sponsors of the festival were Denizbank, one of the largest banks in Turkey. They were sponsoring the book festival with the same enthusiasm that South African banks sponsor sport. We were invited to their headquarters on the first day, and treated to a meal while live musicians played the theme tunes to James Bond, The Pink Panther, Rocky, and Pirates of the Caribbean. I sat opposite the owner of the bank, who was fiercely proud of it. The building holds so many employees that it has its own supermarket, laundry, hospital, spa, gym, book shop and television station, all built into the underground levels, and we were given a guided tour.

 

Generosity


Everyone showing us around insisted on paying for everything. The writers didn’t successfully split the bill once. We were given beautiful books on the history of Istanbul and the Pera Palace Hotel, music albums, and so much food. This is me and David being shown around the Pera district by our editors Aslı Perker and Nazlı Berivan Ak.

 

Culture

 People read in Turkey. They absorb and enjoy books, and have strong opinions.

 

Politics

Times are hard. Some of the people I talked to had writer friends who were arrested in the aftermath of the coup attempt. There was a certain level of gallows humour. But people talk about politics, they connect, they convince, they stand up for the people that can’t stand up for themselves. And they get on with living life.

 

The View

My fellow international jet-setting author David Walton was teased for taking an admiring photo of Istanbul out of his hotel window. “Those buildings are hideous!” said our hosts. Yes, but to us, everything is new. I hope the chaos of our own countries looks as good from the outside.

 

The Talks

 

We had translators at the back of the auditorium working live to translate between Turkish and English, so I got to enjoy many different talks. The topics and arguments were familiar, but made special by sudden, very different perspectives. And David Walton gave an excellent TED-style talk on crime literature and quantum physics.

 

The Interviews

 

I was interviewed by a newspaper:

 

“What do you think about coups?”

 

“What about coups?”

 

“Oh just… you know… your intellectual response to coups.”

 

I have never been so sure that I was being set up in my life.

 

For the record, I am generally against coups.

 

The Publishing House






Destek. The Best.

 

Aslı and MK Perker



Aslı Perker is the editor of the Turkish edition of Zodiac, and author of five internationally-published novels so far. MK is her husband, and an illustrator for Vertigo, Image Comics, The New Yorker and much more.

They are also, emphatically, The Best.

 

Street life

 


Which felt very like France or Spain. Don’t stay on the main roads – the back-alleys are where it’s at.

 

Diversity

The line dividing Asia from Europe runs through Istanbul, and you can sense it – the city is at an intersection of cultures and traditions. It has a population of 20 million citizens in dozens of different districts, each with it’s own character. A week isn’t enough, not by a long shot.

 

Dogs and Cats

Everywhere. Just hanging out.

 

Food

Infinitely good.

 

Brains

 

David Walton and I were served brains. We tried them. They had the texture of paté and, strangely enough, tasted exactly like I expected brains to taste. Both of us said “Ah! Hmmm,” and politely put down our forks. So now we know.

It made me concerned, though. I thought back to every time I ever hit my head: If brains are generally that soft, mine is plastered across the inside of my skull by now.

 

The Writers




Most of the writers at the festival were Turkish. Besides David Walton, the international authors I saw the most were Philip Kerr and Tibor Fischer, who were sardonic and full of stories. 

Hagia Sophia

 



It was extraordinary to see – the scale and beauty of it, and that it has survived so long, and that it has been both a church and a mosque and still has evidence of both. But what I responded to most were the little things – the dents in the marble floor next to the entrance made by centuries of soldiers marching on the spot, for example, or the half-hearted way that the crosses were chipped off the walls when the building was converted to a mosque, as if whoever was doing it promised the supervisor they’d get back to it eventually… It’s not history, it’s human life that just happens to have been happening for centuries. The whole of Istanbul is like that – houses built on ancient city walls, freeways built under aqueducts, layer built on layer, constantly adapting.
 

The Future 


David and Tibor’s editor Nazlı Berivan Ak took us all out for our final dinner in Istanbul. We talked about language – Turkish has many more past tenses than English, but only two future tenses, and we joked that they were for “Bad things that were going to happen” and “Bad things that would continue to happen”. After dinner I had a final Turkish coffee, and Nazlı read the future in the coffee grounds. My daughter will do well, apparently, although the coffee did run with a single tear. History isn’t over. It may be hard, but there is a future.

And until then, the present is interesting.