These days what I’m feeling isn’t pride, but sadness. Or perhaps it is melancholy. WorldPride was celebrated in Toronto this year, but I’m not there. I’m in Yerevan where the word “pride” doesn’t have the same meaning. No gay pride parade and not even a march — nothing that is even close to resembling what was happening in Toronto last week and what happened in Istanbul on Sunday.I was lucky this year to be in Istanbul for gay pride. It was my first time in the city that is so close to Yerevan and yet so far. My girlfriend and I, along with a couple of our gay Armenian friends, planned a short, four-day visit not only to see the city, but also to be there for the pride march. Because unlike other cities where I’ve been that celebrate Pride (Toronto, Montréal, New York, Reykjavik, Dublin), it wasn’t a parade but a march. And there’s a clear difference between the two.
It reminded me of the origins of Pride, of what was fought for and what was gained. And it reminded me of how far we still have to go. If you only saw the faces of the people in that march in Istanbul, the plethora of signs and rainbow flags — I can’t remember the last time I saw so many rainbow flags at a Pride parade! I can’t believe Istanbul has been celebrating Pride for 22 years (that’s what I was told, though Wikipedia tells me the first Istanbul Pride was celebrated in 2003). That fact alone is amazing; however, the fact that it is still a struggle, that people still feel the need to shout and chant and hold signs and flags is the other amazing thing. Because Pride celebrated in other cities (at least the ones I’ve been to) are more akin to festivities with feathers and men in tight, short shorts dancing on floats. Music blaring from loudspeakers. Big banks and corporations and political parties with their own floats and representatives. It has almost become fashionable to be gay and “gay-friendly,” to be in the Pride parade, to kiss someone of the same sex on that day even though you’re straight.
And not to say there was none of that in Istanbul: though I didn’t see any political parties or big corporations, I did see some feathers and some men with bare chests; others in outlandish clothing (some in drag and some who were trans*). But no floats. Just thousands and thousands of people of all stripes marching, holding signs in Armenian and Turkish (probably in Kurdish too) and so many rainbow flags. A couple of big banners and a couple of people with bicycles. Some dogs. Only a handful of children. And the music that stayed with me the most was the beat of the drums. Men and woman playing various types of drums at different points in the march. This is the sound of a struggle, and this is how you know that what we saw, what we were swept up in (my gay Armenian friends and I) was a march for human rights.
It was powerful and intense, and probably too overwhelming because my gf and I decided to sit part of it out. To sit on the second floor of one of the döner restaurants along Istiklal and watch the march from above and wait for our friends to join us. To me, the ebb and flow of people (so many people!) was like the waves of the Bosphorous, which was only a few minutes away from us. It is this energy that gives Istanbul life — not only the river, but the people in the city. The people that never stop.
So why melancholy? Before my trip, I began reading Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul: Memories and the City. Pamuk for me, as for so many others around the world, is the eyes through which I see Istanbul. Though I have yet to finish the book, what has struck me most is his use of the word “melancholy” to describe the city. He writes:
“We might call this confused, hazy state melancholy, or perhaps we should call it by its Turkish name, hüzün, which denotes a melancholy that is communal rather than private. Offering no clarity, veiling reality instead, hüzün brings us comfort, softening the view like the condensation on a window when a teakettle has been spouting steam on a winter’s day […] But the view outside can bring its own hüzün. It is time to come to a better understanding of this feeling that the city of Istanbul carries as its fate." (p. 89)
Pamuk mentions the affinity between hüzün and “another form of melancholy, described by Claude Lévi-Strauss in Tristes Tropiques.” He writes:
“Tristesse is not a pain that affects a solitary individual; hüzün and tristesse both suggest a communal feeling, an atmosphere and a culture shared by millions. But the words and feelings they describe are not identical […] The difference lies in the fact that in Istanbul the remains of a glorious past civilization are everywhere visible. No matter how ill-kept, no matter how neglected or hemmed in they are by concrete monstrosities, the great mosques and other monuments of the city, as well as the lesser detritus of empire in every side street and corner […] inflict heartache on all who live among them." (p. 101)
I don’t know if what I felt in Istanbul was hüzün, but it felt very much like what Pamuk describes. However, for me, the underlying tristesse, the communal feeling, comes from being an Armenian in Turkey. The “glorious past civilization" Pamuk refers to, as all Armenians know, includes the Armenians (and not only) who were deported and massacred and whose existence on these lands continues to be denied today. But what I felt, I think, was not only the consciousness of being Armenian in Turkey, but also an awareness of the country’s present-day policies and its ongoing human rights struggles. Turkey is a complex country — almost everyone will tell you that — and it cannot be defined by one four-day visit to Istanbul. But I can’t imagine anyone going to Istanbul and not experiencing something of this complexity and feeling this intense, indescribable emotion.
And yet there’s more. I brought with me to Istanbul the malaise (if it can be called that) that I was feeling in Yerevan. The experience of returning to Yerevan after a year abroad and still not quite fitting back in. A feeling of disconnect, of discordance that after several months does not seem to want to go away. Furthermore, I don’t doubt that there is a communal melancholy, a sort of hüzün, also in Yerevan. So what I was feeling on the micro level was magnified at a macro level (in Yerevan) and taken to Istanbul (you might say to a meta level), resulting in a very overwhelming feeling that I am still processing a week later. Needless to say, Istanbul was a shock to my system.
In itself it is a city of contrasts, of gay pride yet police crackdown, of Twitter and YouTube bans yet women with tattoos and carefree youth drinking beer on the street, of boutique shops and modern cafés in “hipster" Cihangir and the call to prayer from mosques heard throughout the city several times a day. I was a fool to have thought Yerevan (Armenia, or even the South Caucasus) was at the crossroads of East and West. There is no doubt that it is Istanbul that is between Europe and Asia (whereas the South Caucasus feels more like it is between the West and Russia).
However, what I loved most about my trip was being able to spend it with friends, and the opportunity that Istanbul, with its clash of cultures, gave me — to visit Arzu, a friend from Baku and one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet; to meet a Turkish friend of Mika’s who recalled fondly his five-day visit to Yerevan over a year ago and who is convinced Mount Ararat will one day be returned to the Armenians; and to spend such a wonderful time exploring the city with an old Armenian-American friend who spent some time living in Yerevan. Because that is truly the beauty of Istanbul: the clash of cultures is also what allows us Armenians, Azerbaijanis, Turks, and more to meet and talk and create and listen. Istanbul, having its own conflicts to resolve, in my opinion, can never be peaceful, but it can allow you to connect to others, to find common ground, or at the very least look out toward the Bosphorous and be comforted by the hüzün inside all of us.