Burhan Sönmez wins the first European Bank Literature Prize for Istanbul Istanbul

Istanbul Istanbul turns on the tension between the confines of a prison cell and the vastness of the imagination; between the vulnerable borders of the body and the unassailable depths of the mind. This is a harrowing, riveting novel, as unforgettable as it is inescapable” (Dale Peck). Read an excerpt of this award-winning novel below, and, for a limited time, take 40% off Istanbul Istanbul with coupon code EBRD.


© Moyan Brenn


“Uncle Küheylan, did you think this cell was Istanbul? Right now we’re underground, everywhere above us there are streets and buildings. The city stretches from one end of the horizon to the other, even the sky finds it hard to cover its totality. Underground, there’s no difference between east and west, but if you observe the wind above ground it meets the waters of the Bosphorus and you can gaze at the sapphire-colored waves from a hill. If your first view of Istanbul, which your father told you so much about, had been from a ship’s deck instead of inside this cell, you would understand, Uncle Küheylan, that this city does not consist of three walls and an iron door. When people arrive by ship from distance places, the first thing they see are the Princes’ Islands on the right, draped in a cloud of mist. You think those silhouettes are flocks of birds that have landed there to rest. The city walls on the left, which snake along the entire length of the coastline, eventually meet with a lighthouse. As the mist lifts, the colors multiply. You contemplate the domes and the elegant minarets as though you were admiring the wall rugs in your village. When you are engrossed in the picture on a wall rug you imagine a life that you know nothing about is weaving its course without you in another world; well, now a ship is transporting you to the heart of that life. A person consists of the breath he takes during a sigh. Life is not enough, you tell yourself. You think the expanding city, with its city walls on the horizon, its towers and its domes, is a new sky.

“On the deck, the wind snatches up a woman’s red shawl and carries it to the shore ahead of the ship. You dissolve into the crowd and wander through the cobbled streets, just like the shawl. When you arrive at Galata Square in the midst of the cries of street vendors you take a packet of tobacco out of your pocket and roll a cigarette. You watch an old woman advancing slowly along the road, holding a sheep by a lead. A young boy calls out to her, old woman, where are you going with that lead around that dog’s neck? The old woman turns and looks first at the sheep, then at the young boy. You blind boy, you think this sheep is a dog, she says. You walk behind the old woman. A youth walking the opposite direction says the same thing: Old Woman, are you taking your dog for a walk? The old woman turns and looks at her sheep again, grumbling, it’s not a dog, it’s a sheep, have you been drinking this early in the day? A little further ahead someone else calls out, why have you got a lead around that mangy dog’s neck? Then the street becomes deserted and the voices fall silent. When the hunchbacked old woman notices you she asks you, have I lost my mind, Old Man? Have I mistaken a dog for a sheep? Once my mind cleared, the whole world cleared too, all that’s left are you, me, and this poor animal. As the old woman talks you look at the animal on the end of the lead. Do you see a sheep or a dog? You’re afraid that your day in Istanbul that began with doubt will pledge you a lifetime of doubt.

“The old woman slowly walks away, tugging at her lead. You look not at her but at the things around you, at the things created by mankind. Men have built towers, statues, squares, walls that could never have sprouted out of the earth of their own accord. The sea and the earth existed before men, whereas the world of the city was created by men. You understand that the city was born of men, and that it is reliant on them, like water-dependent flowers. As with the beauty of nature, the beauty of cities lies in their existence. Irregular stones become a temple door, broken marble a dignified statue. You think this is why in the city you mustn&rsuqo;t be surprised by sheep being dogs.”

istanbul istanbul cover

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