Interview: Zeynep Aksoy

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Writer Zeynep Aksoy talks about unprententious cafes, black box theaters, and threats to art and freedom in her native Turkey. She contributed to N11.

What is the greatest thing about being a writer in Istanbul?

Istanbul is a city of contradictions. The east and the west, the old and the new, the conservative and the modern, the hip and the outdated, the rich and the poor, the beautiful and the ugly coexist in this city in a not-always -so -harmonious way. These contradictions provide a writer with a lot of material to get inspired by. But also, the craziness of it all. By that I mean not only the schizophrenic identity crisis of the city, stemming from being literally situated between Europe and Asia and all the cultural, historical, political connotations associated with that but also: The history that keeps going back further and further B.C with each new excavation, the sheer magnitude of its population, 17+ million coming from all over Turkey, the cultural and class differences of all these residents… Istanbul is not like New York City or London in the sense that it’s not a multinational city; the majority of the residents are Turkish citizens. But it is multiethnic since it’s the melting pot of so many diverse Anatolian cultures and identities. Kurds, Alawites, Armenians, Istanbul Greeks (although rapidly declining in number), Sefardic Jews, Bosnians, Arabs…The city feels like it still acts as the capital of a great empire where all the different ethnic and religious identities of the greater Anatolia and the former Ottoman Empire are represented. As a writer, I find all the curiosities that are interesting are hidden somewhere; tucked away in an alley in a sleepy Bosphorus neighborhood, or perhaps in a tiny coffeeshop next to a centuries-old graveyard. There is just so much of everything here. It’s an indulgent city. I find inspiration in taking long walks exploring different neighborhoods. So, perhaps the greatest thing about being a writer in Istanbul is, you get to be a flaneur, a traveller in your own city in order to find your material and there is so much, it just never ends.

Where do you go on a Tuesday night when you want to see something amazing?

Tuesday is universally a dull day and night of the week I guess. It’s not the weekend, not the midweek, not the day before the weekend, nor is it Monday. There is even a saying in Turkish, rhyming with the name of the day and pointing to the somewhat curious dullness of it: “Sal? sallan?r”, which means “Tuesdays Shake”, which roughly means, things you do on a Tuesday won’t come to a satisfactory conclusion. Well, a journalist and amateur DJ, Asu Maro, uses this motto as her Tuesday night sessions at the tiny but extraordinary bar Off-Pera where she plays Turkish pop music classics and top hits from around 11.00 p.m ‘till, oh, dawn. So, if I want stir things up a little on a dull Tuesday night, I have dinner with my friends at my mom’s restaurant 9 Ece Aksoy, then go around the corner to Off-Pera bar to “Tuesdays Shake” DJ night with Asu Maro. You literally can’t stop shaking and dancing with those attractive tunes until the crack of dawn if you have enough vodka-tonics in your system.

What is the coolest art gallery, cafe, restaurant and theater in Istanbul?

Art Gallery, definitely Gallery Non. They always find the most interesting Turkish and international contemporary artists. Their space is really cool too, in the midst of a very old and traditional/conservative neighborhood called Tophane. The newest exhibition “Extrastruggle: There is no God on the Sky only Birds” displays exciting new works by the Turkish artist Extrastruggle, who, as a former graphic artist, creates works that are commissioned to him by imaginary clients.

I am a theater critic, and the alternative theater scene in Istanbul got a major revival in the last couple of years. There are so many small theater companies producing alternative work in strange spaces such as a former garage, a flat in an apartment building, etc. The starter of this trend is Dot, which started as a black box on the fourth floor of an apartment building back in the mid 2000’s, dedicated only to the mostly London-Royal Court based “in-yer-face” genre. They moved to a much bigger place with a couple of spaces and expanded their genre somewhat since, but it still is one of the best theaters in Istanbul where you can watch quality productions of contemporary western writers such as Mark Ravenhill, Ali Taylor, Joe Penhall and contemporary projects such as “Theater Uncut.”

I find Kahve Alti to be a very unpretentiously cool café. It’s in the trendy Cihangir neighborhood, but tucked away on a side street, away from all the “hip” cafés nearby, populated by actors, artist types, writers, etc. It has a tiny and cute back-garden. It serves quality, mostly organic and very tasty food for affordable prices. I love their Hindustani, an Indian-based lentil dish served with curry rice and reita. They also have really good breakfasts. Most importantly, you can work quietly on your writing with a cup of coffee without being disturbed for hours.

Istanbul is bursting with restaurants, a new one opening literally every day. They range from extra trendy to mediocre to standard and classical to really unnecessary. I tend to be a bit conservative and find old spaces with a character and history, especially a history I personally can relate to, more interesting. Sevic is such a restaurant in the very touristy Flower Bazaar, off of Istiklal Street. It’s a traditional “meyhane,” similar to a Greek Tavern where you can find fresh and delicious mezes, Turkish appetizers sort of like tapas, fish and grilled meat. You can buy your fish fresh from the fish bazaar next door and they’ll cook it for you to your liking. It used to be the hang out for writers and intellectuals in the 70’s and 80’s. The oldest remaining ones still have a table reserved to them for lunch every Friday. That table’s age range is 70-90. Those who are still healthy enough keep up with the tradition. I like the place because I’ve been going there since age 7 with my parents, and so little has changed ever since.

What are the effects of the demonstrations at Gezi Park mean one year later?

Gezi was a major mind opener. It showed that a significant portion of this city’s population is sick with the city municipality’s and government’s ways of doing things and that that population is willing to risk safety and well-being in order to protect what they believe is theirs. A little park in the middle of the city became the symbol of all that was wrong with the government’s policies and with the urban renewal monster. A year on, we still have the same government despite all the graft accusations and injustices, but the people are enlightened and they have realized their own power to change things. On the anniversary of demonstrations, May 31st, I expect major chaos again, which will be created by the government and their police force. People will want to commemorate that insane June of 2013 peacefully and remember the young lives lost, but the government will provoke it and won’t let it pass peacefully. But the genie is out of the bottle and won’t go back inside. We Istanbulites have a new understanding of what we value in this city now. Nobody can change that.

What is something about the Gezi Park incident no one in the West knows about?

Maybe how wonderful the surreal and utopic atmosphere of the first few weeks felt to us Istanbulites before the government crackdown. We here in Turkey are an oppressed people, culturally and politically. We grow up and live with bans, prohibitions, inhibitions imposed on us by family, government, school; all kinds of authority figures really. Gezi park and the struggle to save it turned into a project for freedom, a model for a utopian society were there were no imposed rules, where everybody lived and shared in solidarity. The park had turned into a small heaven of what humanity, in its best self, could be. Street kids were fed, street animals were rescued and taken care of. There were workshops for children, food got cooked, a vegetable garden was planted, art was made. Everybody cleaned up after themselves, there were concerts and film screenings in the evenings, beer drinking and forum discussions and ideas for a brighter, free future. A future where to live in tents in the middle of an urban park, create, share and be happy collectively was a possibility. It was too much to bear for the authority figures. The possibility and peacefulness of it was unbearable to them. It was that utopian spirit, that beautiful existence which probably got lost in translation, because the foreign press understandably only got interested after everything turned into chaos.

What is the greatest danger to freedom in Turkey right now?

The prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his government. He and his government’s biggest enemies are freedom, freedom of speech, democracy and human rights. In Erdogan’s twisted dictatorial mindset, everybody who doesn’t think like him, whoever criticizes him and his politics should be persecuted. He acts like a deranged Sultan and his cabinet just can’t say no to him.

What is the greatest threat to art in Istanbul right now?

Again, the mindset of the government and the Prime minister. They are not the least bit interested in arts, they see it as unnecessary and even dangerous. They find the state funded opera and theater unnecessary. The art world is not a friend of these conservative Muslims. It’s not on their agenda and they can do any kind of damage to it if they find a chance.

What is the coolest thing you have seen in 2014?

An exhibition in Pera Museum called “Aurora: Contemporary Glass Art”. I am a big fan of glass art and everything Nordic in particular, but I had never seen creativity, coolness, elegance, eloquence and character come together in such harmony.

Zeynep Aksoy was born in Istanbul, Turkey. She studied music and art history at the University of Rochester and did her M.A in Theatre Studies at Brown University. She lived in New York City for a year working as a dramaturg’s assistant in an off-Broadway theater company. Since returning back to Istanbul in 2000, she worked as an arts-culture journalist, co-written and produced a couple of shows with a friend and published her first novel Mermaid. She’s been working as a freelance performing arts critic for five years. She still enjoys music on an amateur level, playing the piano and writing songs and is an avid traveler.

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