At 9:05 A.M. on the 10th of November, a hush fell over the leaden turbulence of the Bosporus. All activity on the strait ceased. Coast Guard ships, ferries and caiques, like the younger members of a tribe of large marine mammals, drew close in a circle. Behind them, a Turkish destroyer kept vigil, the blue of its gunmetal merging with the strait’s frigid waters. A red-bottomed freighter marked with the words “Iraqi line” hulked in the background. That cityscape of sea-blackened buildings, broad panes glazed silver in the daytime darkness, was no ordinary Left Bank, no mere farther shore. The silhouette of low domes and pencil-thin minarets piercing a nimbus of pale sky above was the continent of Asia. The wonder of looking at it, with my feet still planted on the shores of Europe, was not lost on me. I had been in Istanbul for less than 72 hours. The air grew heavy with anticipation and then, low and deep and melancholy as whale song, came the first moan of a ship’s horn.
Everyone froze. The uniformed figure of an old sea captain snapped to salute. A stout woman in a long black coat with a blue head scarf drew her toddler near. Even the sea gulls, whose cawing and mewling were so much a part of the commotion of the Bosporus, fell in line with this solemn tableau. The air was soon resounding with ship horns and sirens. The moment of remembrance stretched out. Its object, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, founder of the Turkish Republic, stared out at me from the backs of two young Turks, where his youthful likeness was emblazoned on the red ground of the Turkish flags the pair wore as superhero capes around their necks. The Father of Turks, blue-eyed and visionary, with a touch of the derring-do of the old Omar Sharif about him, had died 82 years ago at exactly 9:05 a.m. in Dolmabahçe Palace behind me — an overcooked 19th-century confection of pilasters and sleeping columns. We stood on its manicured grounds, speckled with magnolia and spruce, remembering the fierce secularist who in the 1920s had fought off European incursions on all sides and founded a modern republic from the wreckage of the Ottoman Empire.
It was 2020 and I was engaged in a remembrance of my own. As 9:06 rolled around and people stirred again, I awoke to the fact that I had seen all this before. Fifteen years earlier, I had stood at the edge of this very same waterway, witnessing this very same scene. Practically all my adult life lay between the time when I had come to this city, as an aspiring writer of 25, ready to travel seriously through the Muslim world for a book I had yet to write — from Istanbul to Mecca, and from Mecca to Lahore — and now, when, a few weeks away from 40, I had returned to Istanbul.
Why? Was it to look again at what had become of the world I had travelled through in 2005? Was it to look again at what had become of me? Was it to use the idea of returning to a place one has known intimately as the means to travel not merely through space but also through time — to revisit a former self, perhaps even to confront him? I couldn’t say. What I knew, walking back through plane-lined boulevards draped with Turkish flags, Atatürk’s speeches blaring out of rows of free-standing speakers on the pavement, was what I felt: paralysis.
“You can go back many times to the same place,” says a character in V.S. Naipaul’s 1979 novel, “A Bend in the River,” “and something strange happens if you go back often enough. You stop grieving for the past. You see that the past is something in your mind alone, that it doesn’t exist in real life. You trample on the past, you crush it. In the beginning it is like trampling on a garden. In the end you are just walking on ground.”
Istanbul was not flat ground for me. It was still very much a garden, the perfectly preserved repository of the hopes, ambitions and confusions of my 25-year-old self. That first morning, I was so nervous about disturbing the overlay of memory that I entertained fantasies of not venturing out into the city at all. I imagined spending whole days in the sanitised security of my room at the Swissôtel, where I had paid $45 extra per night for a view of the Bosporus, gazing out at the sunlit splendour of the most beautiful body of water in the world. I would live on room service, swim 50 lengths a day in the hotel’s indoor pool and return a week later to New York City with my memories of Istanbul intact. The anxiety I was experiencing was akin to what one feels after a big snow when one fears nothing so much as the sight of those first tracks on its surface, knowing they will ensure the destruction of what until that moment had been pristine.
The city I had returned to was bathed in rare November sunshine. The Bosporus, which, by way of the Dardanelles, connects the Black Sea with the empyrean blue of the Aegean, with what the travel writer Jan Morris has called “waters of Homeric myth and yearning,” was in a bright, inviting mood. I used to think it was the geography of Istanbul that was special, that extraordinary location of old Byzantium — the Greek colony that would form the nucleus of the future city — peering out at the confluence of three waterways: the Bosporus, the Sea of Marmara and the estuary that is the Golden Horn. Antiquity had regarded those who built their city on the eastern side of the strait — the poor inhabitants of Chalcedon, the town on the facing shore — as blind for failing to see the superiority of the site for Byzantium. Now, of course, it was all Istanbul, a seething megalopolis of 15 million set over hills of dark, furrowed pine.
As far as I know, only three cities through history — Rome, Istanbul and New York — have been referred to as “the city.” The word “Istanbul” itself is a contraction of the Greek phrase “eis ten polin”: “into the city.” One imagines it as the superior reply to a question from someone in the outer boroughs. “Where are you going?” “I’m going into the city, of course!”
Grand as it was, even this city of cities paled before the glory of the Bosporus. As the 16th-century French topographer Pierre Gilles observed, the Bosporus “is the first creator of Byzantium, greater and more important than Byzas,” the founder of Byzantium. There is nothing on earth quite like it. Imagine the splendour of the Grand Canal in Venice married to the international shipping glamour of the Suez or Panama Canals. Then, as if being one of the world’s busiest maritime passages were not enough — over 40,000 vessels pass through the strait annually, about two and three times the traffic, respectively, of Suez and Panama — imagine a single body of water, scarcely half a mile wide at its narrowest, on whose two shores the grand, seemingly incompatible binaries of Islam and Christendom, Asia and Europe, East and West, are casually flung together. The strait itself remains as neutral as the sky, ever-changing, ever-unreliable, like some people-pleasing friend aware of the pressures of having to be everything to everyone.
On my first morning, it was decidedly Greek. With the sun exposing deep veins of aquamarine and boats of every size tracing foamy zigzags over its surface, it seemed to flow inexorably south. To look at Istanbul then was to feel oneself on the edge of a maritime culture of fresh fish and shrub-covered islands, where goats with metal bells pick their way around whitewashed churches. The hulking mass of the Hagia Sophia, the sixth-century church that became the enduring symbol of Christendom, seemed like a basilica to me again, surrounded by a copse of slim, tapered minarets. But scarcely two days later, the clouds were racing and the water had darkened. Now the Bosporus seemed to flow north to that cold lakelike sea of villages of blackened wood, sloping muddy streets and red-bearded men with bright blue eyes. All of a sudden, Istanbul had become a Balkan city of lowering skies.
The Bosporus dramatised dualities. It did not resolve them. Here, one lived in a state of cultural whiplash. The perturbation one felt in Istanbul came from having to carry the city’s myriad selves in mind at once. Protean city! It could change on a dime, and one had to be ready to change with it, as the city itself had so many times through history — from Constantine’s New Rome of A.D. 330 to the premier city of Islam after its capture by the Ottomans in 1453 — or be left nursing a sense of betrayal.
The jagged, unresolved character of Istanbul fit the mood of my arrival in 2005. I was living then with what felt like irreconcilable differences: I was Indian but three years before had met my Pakistani father for the first time, a man whose absence had overwhelmed my younger years. I was gay but dating a woman. I was living in London but was on my way home to India, by land, via Syria, Iran and Pakistan. I wanted to be a writer but had just quit my job as a reporter at Time magazine. The journey I was to make, which was a reckoning with my father’s absence in my life — but also with Islam and the legacy of India and Pakistan’s 1947 Partition — was to provide me with the material for a first book, “Stranger to History,” which would be published in 2009.
I can say all this now in easy declarative sentences, but it has taken me half a lifetime to work through the tangled mass in which these competing identities existed in me at the age of 25. Then, I was full of rage. I was drinking a lot. I was ready to reckon with one side of myself, the political and historical, but I was running from the other: the sexual. “A man whose desire is to be something separate from himself … invariably succeeds in being what he wants to be,” writes Oscar Wilde in “De Profundis” (1905). “That is his punishment. Those who want a mask have to wear it.”
I certainly was wearing a mask when I arrived then, but I did not want to be separate from myself. The eight months of travel that lay ahead, in stripping away the edifice of habit, into which all enduring lies insinuate themselves, would bring me to a truer self. But only after much pain — mine, of course, but also that of those around me.
At the time, my girlfriend and I were having an extraordinary journey. We had dropped south from Venice through the ghost lands of the old Ottoman Empire. My girlfriend was of a grand family; her parents were minor English royals. In Bulgaria, at a hunting lodge outside Sofia called Vrana, we stayed with her cousin. He was a tall, elegant figure in his late 60s, and he had been both the king and the prime minister of Bulgaria. Arriving late by overnight train from Budapest, we were greeted by him at the door of his palace, which was all dark wood and deep eaves. It had been taken over by the Communists for half a century, he explained, but when he returned to it in 1996 after the fall of Communism, he found it exactly as he had left it as a child. “They stole the silver,” he joked, but every other piece of furniture, which had been put into a vault, was meticulously restored. Sitting under a Klimt light, eating lamb chops that he had prepared, we listened to stories of the great figures of the 20th century: Wallis Simpson and Edward VIII, the Shah of Iran and Lillibet, his name for the queen. In my notebook I wrote: “One of the funniest stories he told us the other night was of Lillibet welcoming the president of Portugal after Salazar. They were watching a display of the queen’s horses and a couple of them farted loudly. After this happened several times, Lillibet whispered to the Portuguese president, ‘I’m sorry.’ To this, the president of Portugal replied, ‘Oh, I thought it was the horse!’”
It was exciting to travel like this. There was an air of the innocence of prewar Europe about the journey. It reminded me of the opening stanza of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” (1922): “And when we were children, staying at the arch-duke’s, / My cousin’s, he took me out on a sled, / And I was frightened.” In Istanbul, thanks again to my girlfriend’s connections, we were put up in a hotel, owned by one of Turkey’s richest families, on Taksim Square.
I am standing in that square now. I am with Eyüp Özer. In 2005, this young Marxist student, whom I had met by chance at a book launch, had acted as my guide and translator. This is the first time we have set eyes on each other since I left Istanbul 15 years ago. Eyüp, too, is almost 40 now, with much less hair, the lines of his rugged features more deeply etched. Still a Marxist, he is employed by a metalworkers’ union. It is strangely moving to be reunited with him. Through Eyüp, I had seen firsthand the rising wave of Islamism sweeping Turkey. In 2005, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had been recently elected and seemed like the bright new hope of liberal Islamist democracy. He had aspirations of Turkey joining the European Union. But 15 years on, dealing in a combustible mixture of historical nostalgia and nationalism that had swept the world from New Delhi to Washington, Erdoğan had turned nakedly authoritarian. Under him, Turkey consistently set global records for jailing journalists. “Our country has become much more conservative,” Eyüp said, “but young people are much more skeptical.”
On Taksim Square, now cut through with tunnels and underpasses, Eyüp pointed out the scene of a violent confrontation in 2013 between Erdoğan’s regime and its critics, many of whom were university students. Every inch of this city had been fought over. In Gezi Park, protests against its development were put down with brute force and, three years later, in 2016, when sections of Turkey’s military, traditionally the protector of its secular state culture, attempted a coup against the regime and failed, Erdoğan was handed the perfect opportunity to purge every aspect of public life, from the army to academia, of his political opponents.
Even as we spoke of politics, Eyüp and I were circling around changes nearer to home. At a coffee shop on İstiklal, a major pedestrian thoroughfare, which had lost its wonderful air of political foment and beer-drinking students in side alleys — it now possessed a McDonald’s, a Starbucks and a Sunglass Hut — Eyüp said, “Personal things have changed a lot, too. You never stay as you are when you’re 23.”
Here was an opening to confront the elephant that had accompanied us on our walk through Istanbul. In 2005, I had a girlfriend. Today, as Eyüp knew from my Instagram, I was married to a tall white man from Tennessee. I felt I needed to catch Eyüp up on that tiny cataclysm in my personal life, but I had a built-in reluctance to speak of my sexuality outside the safety of cities like New York. I was habitually discreet about it when traveling, but my hesitations around Eyüp had more to do with what a mess I had been, sexually speaking, at the age of 25. Sex with men, even then, had always been part of my life, forming an unbroken arc from preadolescence into adulthood. But at that age, I lacked the means to connect desire with love, and I had never been with anyone who identified as gay.
In Istanbul, when I had last encountered Eyüp, I had found a gay life that was much closer to what I had grown up with in India. Though still deeply closeted, on that visit I was a regular at the Firuzağa hammam, set among the winding cobblestone streets of the Çukurcuma neighbourhood. It was nice to come in from the cold, stash one’s clothes in a locker and wander through the squalid warren of marble-floored rooms, the domes pierced with tiny oculi, which allowed in a frosted, ethereal light. In the main room, scalloped with marble basins, there was a semblance of decorum, but in the side rooms, the men were young and frisky. We touched each other freely under our peshtemal, the small Turkish towels we were given. If things got too hot, we peeled off in twos and threes to more private alcoves. I remember a lot of laughter and playfulness, and then I remember walking back to Taksim Square, through the dark, winding streets, afraid of disease, afraid the wet hair around my ears would give me away to my girlfriend. I was at once deeply gratified and wretched with guilt.
The call to prayer sounded, jolting me out of this memory from 15 years ago. Eyüp sat in front of me, framed against a background of flower sellers and A.T.M.s, a mnemonic in the flesh. I wanted to use this moment to unite the person I had been then with the person I was now. Biting the bullet, I said, “I’m married to a man now.”
“I know,” he said. “And that’s great.”
It was done. I felt instantly lighter. It was as if a past self had come to stand behind who I was now and, in doing so, had surrendered his claim on the real estate of memory, allowing me to unite divided realities.
My younger self had been uneasy with the gay rights movement as it had continued to play out in the West. For a long time, I didn’t know why. I rationalised it to myself, feeling that we in the East had more urgent questions to deal with than sexuality. I told myself that we in places like India were in the grip of great human convulsions surrounding questions of history, religion and politics. Sexuality felt like the kind of fine-tuning that only rich Western societies could indulge in once the bigger issues had been put to rest. India, which would soon find itself in the throes of a majoritarian religious populism akin to Turkey’s, felt unsafe for so many groups of people — liberals, women, lower castes, its Muslim minority of about 200 million — that perhaps I believed, in 2005, that freedom functioned like a queue, and sexual orientation came last, some final frontier that only people in near-perfect societies could afford to deal with.
As Eyüp and I walked on, the Bosporus appearing down cambered streets in corridors of molten platinum, I was aware of a tendency we in countries like India and Turkey had of putting grand abstractions before concrete ideas of personal freedom and happiness. At the Hagia Sophia, the call to prayer was sounding for the first time in some 85 years. In July of 2020, Erdoğan had turned what had been a basilica for over 900 years, a mosque for almost 500 and a museum in the modern era back into a mosque. The change embodied the mixture of historical nostalgia and abstract passion that energised his authoritarian rule. Watching the throng outside, washing for prayer in the golden sunshine, I asked Eyüp if people supported its reversion to a mosque. The answer he gave me stood as a perfect encapsulation of what I had been telling him earlier, of the fervour the demagogue provides when he cannot provide a daily wage and a good job. “Before, even hard-line Islamists did not care about it,” Eyüp said, “but once Erdoğan raised it, everybody loved it and they jumped on the bandwagon.”
We stopped short at the entrance. A green-and-gold mosaic of the Madonna with child looked down on a constant stream of devotees in head scarves and heavily veiled women in black. “That’s a strange choice of entrance for a mosque,” Eyüp said with a grin. He didn’t want to go in. The pandemic was raging in the city. Numbers were spiking, but because the Turkish lira was in free fall, the authorities were resisting the economic hardship of another lockdown.
This return to Istanbul, bridging the chasm of years, felt like a return to self. But in more concrete ways, the theme of exile was all around me, too. On the Galata Bridge, with its permanent fixture of anglers, rods hovering over the silver water of the Golden Horn like so many tiny tower cranes, Eyüp, glimpsing the traffic of Uzbeks, Syrians, Afghans and Africans, said, “It has become a refugee city.”
Of the close to 3.8 million Syrians in Turkey, at least 540,000 lived in Istanbul. “There is huge racism against them,” Eyüp said. After my time in Turkey in 2005, I had taken the overnight train from Istanbul to Aleppo and spent almost three months in Syria’s capital of Damascus. I was haunted by the fate of that country.
It was why I now sought out Ibrahim M., who asked that I not use his surname in order to protect his family. He was a 30-year-old from the northwestern Syrian city of Idlib. He had been arrested twice, first by the Assad regime, which imprisoned and tortured him, and then by the Islamists who had taken over his region of the now Balkanized country. Ibrahim had come to Istanbul via the southern Turkish province of Hatay, and he was one of at least hundreds of thousands who now lived in a partial state of limbo in Turkey. He came to me through a Syrian acquaintance living in New York, who had been part of the volunteer organisation known as the Syria Civil Defense, or the White Helmets.
He met me at my hotel. He was dressed in closefitting jeans, wore aviators and appeared muscular under his thick maroon sweater. The reddish tint of his beard, his hazel eyes and pale skin gave him the air of someone from the Black Sea or the Caucasus. In the taxi over to one of the many Syrian enclaves that had appeared in Istanbul, Ibrahim was quick to tell me that, though he could barely afford it, he lived with his wife and 6-year-old daughter in Galata, where people were kinder to foreigners. “I cannot say that people are racist,” he said, choosing his words carefully, “but I cannot say they are not.” When I asked him a political question about Syria, he froze, indicating that we should not speak of these things in the taxi. He later explained that while he had some basic papers that allowed him to be in Istanbul, his wife had none. His application for Turkish citizenship (which was granted in September 2021) had been held up owing to security concerns. His parents had gotten theirs, but they were in Hatay. Ibrahim had not seen them in three years.
The neighbourhood of Fatih, with its beautiful 15th-century Ottoman mosque of low domes and pointed minarets sheathed in bluish lead, and its delicate linden and plane trees, had turned into a little Syria. Eyüp and I had spent a fair amount of time here in 2005, but it was unrecognisable now. Ibrahim led me through street after street abounding with Syrian sweet shops, supermarkets, perfumeries and restaurants. At Buuzecedi, a famous Damascene restaurant, men in bomber jackets sat at small, close-set tables, hunched over tea and falafel. “It’s just like Damascus inside,” Ibrahim said. We stopped at supermarkets packed with cheese and dates and fava beans, which were used to cook foul, a cumin-seasoned stew. Ibrahim had me taste freshly made pastries such as knafeh and hulwa, which the baker pressed into a bed of fragranced pistachio before handing it to me. Ibrahim said he came to this neighbourhood once a month to get all his rations.
His nerves had abated while we were in the Syrian enclave, but as we wandered down a sloping street that culminated in a ministry for foreigners and immigrants with a long line outside, his fears returned.
“It was full of harsh,” he said of his 54 days in Assad’s prison, where he had been sent for participating in the demonstrations that followed the Arab Spring. “These are not my real teeth. I lost my hair. I lost my mind.”
Ibrahim could not afford to take Turkey for granted. It was all he had. Outside the ministry, he had seen two men in uniforms whom he referred to as “the red police.” They were vigilantes, known locally as “Erdoğan’s sons,” who could haul him in at any time and question him. They could separate him from his wife and their daughter. In that moment, I felt all the precariousness of his life in Turkey, the closeness of the trauma in Syria and the uncertainty of being practically stateless. Like a man reflecting on the spent passion of youth, he said, “I must stay and remain quiet.”
Ibrahim spoke more directly to me than he might have imagined. I could no more return to India than he could return to Syria. In 2019, the government of Narendra Modi, which had modelled itself on Erdoğan’s ethnonationalism, had, in retaliation for a cover story I had written for Time about Modi’s re-election, stripped me of a crucial citizenship document and blacklisted me from the country I grew up in. (Modi’s government did not respond to T’s request for comment.) I had been living with the dull pain of exile these many months but hadn’t realised, until that moment, how much my need to meet someone like Ibrahim and my grief over what had happened in Syria were a sublimated version of my own for India. What we thought was home no longer existed.
“If one loses [one’s own country],” writes the German journalist Sebastian Haffner in his memoir, “Defying Hitler” (1939), as translated by Oliver Pretzel, “one almost loses the right to love any other country.” Without that delightful game of give and take, of receiving and offering hospitality, of discovering new places out of the security of having one’s own, Haffner continues, one becomes “a man without a shadow, without a background, at best tolerated somewhere.”
Ibrahim and I stood that afternoon on a precipice overlooking a city of terra-cotta roofs. Behind us, the domes of the 16th-century Süleymaniye Mosque, the masterpiece of the greatest of all Ottoman architects, Sinan, loomed. Ahead, under wheeling flights of gulls, cloud shadows had appeared on the Bosporus, inky blots that gave an illusion of stillness, even as they raced over the quicksilver face of the strait. Ibrahim, who was determined to turn his back on Syria and look only to the future, said he wanted eventually, as his brother already had, to go to Europe. “But I don’t want to go in the illegal way,” he said. “I can’t risk my daughter.”
As my time in Istanbul drew to an end, my past in the city lost its special edge. I was able to restore truer ways of feeling to certain memories that a younger, more fearful self had falsified and that the passage of time had made inviolate.
In 2005, I had left this city in a fever dream of bottled-up desire. A gay couple I had been staying with after my girlfriend went back to England for Christmas had taken me on my last night to a club called Love. There, in a dark room bathed in black light, man-smelling, stale with sweat and cologne, a show was about to begin. On a stage were four men in white briefs, their shaved bodies taut and sinewy. They held great globs of neon green and orange paint in their hands. The music began. A hush fell over the crowd. In the purple shade, the men danced closer together, their thighs brushing against one another’s. The first green gash of paint across the torso of one of the men sent the crowd into a frenzy. The paint changed hands, the tempo rose, the men pawed each other freely, using touch and colour to shake off their invisibility.
Arousal gave way to fulfilment. Beautiful young Turkish men paired off. I felt devastated about the lie that stopped me from joining them. I wrote about that night in my book, giving it a political cast, but not about how I had truly felt. Life is full of unanswered desires, but there is a special regret about those weaknesses that prevent us from being more fully ourselves. The next morning, as snow began to fall over Istanbul, I boarded the Taurus Express for Aleppo, brimming with unconfessed yearning.
“I can’t compete with the other intimacies in your life,” my girlfriend told me the following year, 2006, once we were back in London. Love and sex by then had ceased to be disconnected for me, and I was deep in the middle of an intense but toxic love affair with a young man who also had a girlfriend and who was also ostensibly straight. It was a horrible, painful quadrangle in which deceit fed passion, and it was a relief to be released from it. But I was to spend many more years in India in a state of sexual limbo, trying desperately to compartmentalise my desire for men, before I could come to a true place of transparency, a place where the inner and outer lives were one.
“Look, men have been sleeping with men for thousands of years,” James Baldwin tells Richard Goldstein in 1988 in “The Last Interview,” “and raising tribes. This is a Western sickness, it really is. It’s an artificial division. Men will be sleeping with each other when the trumpet sounds. It’s only this infantile culture which has made such a big deal of it.” At 25, though I disliked secrecy, nothing seemed more natural to me than dating women and occasionally having sex with men.
I had been thinking about Baldwin a lot on this second trip to Istanbul. From 1961, for about 10 years on and off, this city had been a refuge to him. Quoting Baldwin’s biographer Fern Marja Eckman, Magdalena J. Zaborowska writes in “James Baldwin’s Turkish Decade: Erotics of Exile” (2009), “whenever closer hideaways fail to immunize him against his own social susceptibility,” he came to Istanbul, adding that the city served him “as a neither-here-nor-there liminal space.”
The writer had been with me all this while in Istanbul. If he had shown me why I was justified in feeling as I had about sexual identity at the age of 25, he also showed me how I was wrong. For one, societies do not deal comprehensively with a single area of human freedom — be it gender, race or religion — before moving on to another. As Baldwin himself saw, “The sexual question and the racial question have always been intertwined,” and a society must fight for justice on many fronts at once. Two — and more important — I owed my entire happiness to the gay rights movement that had made it possible for me to live in safety with my husband in New York.
Looking out now on the mirrored face of Istanbul, this city of sky and water with its many moods, I was happy to have exchanged grander narratives for feeling easier in my skin. Sexuality was not everything, but nor was it so imperfect a barometer of our quest to be more truly ourselves. It was good to return to New York, having acted on what Baldwin had felt was not so much advice as a mere observation: “If you don’t live the only life you have, you won’t live some other life, you won’t live any life at all.”