Words and Photography by Engin Beri
I moved from Istanbul to the US on May 2, 2000. I was 25. I moved for a better life – a life where I wasn’t forced to serve in the army, and where I wasn’t oppressed for being gay. This move meant that I wasn’t going back home for a long, unknown amount of time, due to citizenship and army service issues.
Eleven years later, Turkey passed a law that allowed payment in exchange of army service and I was finally free to return! In these eleven years, I missed many weddings of my nieces and friends, and births of my grand-nephews and my friends’ babies… It was finally time to make up for all those years away from Home.
From the moment I got in the car at the Istanbul airport, I began to see how things had changed in the last eleven years. I saw electronic road signs, metro-buses, and passed by too many stores with non-Turkish names - in order to attract tourists I presume, but obviously not authentic. And shopping malls! Malls everywhere! When did the Turkish become so addicted to shopping? When I left there were three malls I knew of. Now they are everywhere. It wasn’t a pretty sight. And the biggest one was constructed right in front of my Mom’s building. The only good news was the subway system they finally built. You don’t want to get stuck in traffic in Istanbul, trust me.
When I finally reached my Mom’s house, I was welcomed with a big table full of food I loved and missed, and my uncle, my sister, and my nieces. I was at my happiest at that moment.
After a restful night, it was time to get re-acquainted with my hometown; to rediscover its old streets, the streets that took me from home to school, the streets where I cut class to go to bookstores, music stores, and the British Council to read poems by Walt Whitman and W.H. Auden. In fact, these poems were what helped me come to terms with my sexuality, originally ignited after reading Shirley McLaine’s Out on a Limb, which was recommended to me by my English teacher after I lent her Michael Jackson’s Dancing the Dream.
These streets, the same streets I once couldn’t wait to leave, now felt brand new. They were begging me to discover and explore them, to remind me that they had helped me grow up. So I did. I visited streets I never knew existed, streets that I had not cared to know, and I introduced myself to them. I took their photographs, and they were kind enough to let me. The cats, the dogs, the kids, the people. All were game.
In the evenings, I’d meet up with my old friends, meet their wives or husbands or children for the first time. They’d take me to amazing restaurants where they served the best authentic Turkish food. And the service, how I missed being treated like a true ‘guest’ at a restaurant. The waiters are some of my favorite people in Istanbul.
I had never cared for the Spice Bazaar or Grand Bazaar, the Blue Mosque or Hagia Sophia, but now I was in tourist mode, so I was certainly going to check them out. The smell of spices, the colors of the mosaics, the sparkle of copper coffee cups and trays. How had I never appreciated these?
On some nights, a best friend would pick me up and we’d venture by boat or car to far away places in the city to take photographs. We’d bring our cameras and tripods and shoot the sunset and the night sky.
And, as I looked out to the Sea of Marmara on some of these adventures, I was reminded of the summers I used to spend at Princes’ Islands, where my aunts and my sister had summer homes. I had a specific group of friends there, I remember falling in love with a girl, and then with a boy…then another boy.
By the time my trip was over, I was in love with my old home. It had so much to give, I just could not get enough of it.
And just like that, it was time to go back to my new home, New York City. Istanbul will forever have my heart, my soul, and my past, and New York my present and my future. I’m grateful that
I have two cities in this world that I can call home.