Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Ghosts Of Istanbul On The Streets Of Singapore

I have been to Singapore many times – but never explored the city properly. Most of the time I was there for work, and of course after work what was there to left doing in Singapore but shopping and eating, naturally.

So when my husband asked if I would like to go to Singapore, just the two of us, on his birthday, I immediately said yes. Well – who would refuse a free trip!. Plus, I thought it would be good to explore the CITY and not only the malls (must admit I also had IKEA hanging at the back of my mind ever since we have finished renovating our coccoon).

Like in any other trips, I always prepared a book to read while waiting for the plane and on the plane. Especially since I had to go on my own, to meet my husband later in the afternoon as I have planned to leave earlier than him. I debated between bringing a collection of Hercule Poirot stories, with a book written by a Turkish writer, Orhan Pamuk. My choice fell with Pamuk’s book: Istanbul – The Memories of A City (or rather the Bahasa translation version of his book).

There were two reasons why I wanted to bring Pamuk’s book – one because I have always wanted to go to Istanbul. Somehow Turkey has always fascinated me – the same way Italy and Egypt have mesmerised me with the stories of the glories of the past. The second reason would be – to me Singapore has always imprinted an image of a sterile city, a fabricated place to live that provides a high level of comfort. The story about Istanbul from Pamuk, I had hoped, would bring a flavour of difference to this trip: a flavour of chaos, though only in a written format.

And so I immersed myself in this book as soon as I found a place to sit waiting for boarding. I was prepared for the melancholy that this book would bring. I once attended a book discussion about it sometime back – where we discussed about a deeply melancholic aura in the book as it talks about the vast cultural change that has rocked Turkey. A melancholy that is communal, that somehow reflects how the society looks at life in Istanbul – with its unending battle between the modern and the receding past.

And the more I flipped the pages of this book, the more I got fascinated by the way the glories of the past seem to sit side by side with modernity that is accepted awkwardly by the society. Somehow the book really got me ‘feel’ what the society feels – not really a part of Europe but not really Asian; once was the biggest Khalifatul of Islam and now left to ruins; wanting to stay true to Islam values as well as wanting to embrace the Western values…so many contradictions and conflicts that the society has faced. And Pamuk described all the ruins of the past so well, he also put a lot of pictures of Istanbul as well as of his family’s, that my imagination just run wild thinking of how life was when the glory was still in the city, and how life is for the people now.

What’s that got to do with our Singapore trip?. To me Singapore is a bubble – a somehow made up life with everything so stable, comfortable, clean, structured, predictable. I never really found a real surprise on the streets of Singapore – no chaos on the street, no litter on the ground, no drunken crazy people walking around at 2am on a Friday night; to name a few that I have found in other cities.

I am not saying that it is bad – I am actually glad that there is a place like Singapore on the face of this earth. Because people need stability and comfort and predictability from time to time. Yet reading Pamuk as a company to this trip, and finally having the opportunity to really look at Singapore as a city, somehow has made me understood why all this time, I never really feel the urge to explore it anyway. Walking around Singapore without shopping as my main interest, I felt that somehow I lost the power of imagining the glories of the past on the streets of the Merlion city. All the colonial buildings and monuments are so nicely preserved – that I lost the urge to stop, reflect and imagine how they would be like in the past. My imagination sort of stopped functioning because all these buildings are so nicely arranged and cleaned and preserved.

I would imagine that if I did have a chance to visit Istanbul one of these days, I would have to call all the faculties in me to imagine how life was. And reading Pamuk’s descriptions – I really cannot wait to do that one day. Reading the pages of Istanbul made me remembered the first time we arrived in Rome – I really felt like we just turned back the time and we were in another dimension of time. The traces of the past were everywhere – and at many places do not seem to be ‘properly cleaned’ and yet, it gives them the personality and flavour. The same feeling I got when we were in Venice, or when I walked around looking at the old palaces in Delhi, or roaming around Kauman area in Yogya, even around the Old Batavia or old part of Jakarta. And these feelings, I did not get at all in Singapore.

We missed visiting some colonial places of Singapore on this trip – but there was nothing in me that said, it was a loss. Well, one because Singapore is close anyway so in a sense, I can go there again easily. But more acutely is this feeling that I am not losing a thing by not visiting them. Because they will be there: clean, preserved, stable – that looking at them will be like looking at a flat, 2 dimensional picture, that will not call upon me the urge of thinking about their past life.

And what I missed also is the soul of the city. Istanbul describes so vividly the profound shared melancholy by the inhabitants of the city. I do not know if that is true in reality or was it just because Pamuk itself was on the verge of depression when he wrote the book, but the book really brings the feeling to life. I did not even get a hint of the city’s emotion in Singapore – or maybe I just have not spent enough time in there.

Yet overall, it was an interesting experience to combine both images – those from the real trip and the ones I received from a book. Each enriches the other – the imagination of Istanbul makes me appreciates the comfort of Singapore; and the sterility of Singapore makes me long for the seemingly chaotic, melancholy and reality of a contradictive life in a city like Istanbul.


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