A Letter From Istanbul

When I first came to live in Istanbul in 2006, I was a serious letter writer. Not serious in that I wrote serious letters, but serious in that I kept myself to a strict regimen of writing and posting one letter per day.  I figured it was my small contribution to keep the post offices of the world open and to force myself to write, which I like to do but rarely do.

I was 22 then, which seems like forever ago although I’m sure I haven’t changed a bit.  I was 22 then and so let’s chalk it up to that: Letter-writing was my project.  My artistic statement even. I kept a listing in a hard cover notebook of the date, recipient, and general topic of each day’s letter. (In practical terms, I didn’t want to write the same thing to the same person; I was, after all, writing something every day and I was bound to repeat myself at some point.)

I came to Istanbul to be an assistant to Josephine Powell, a photographer, ethnographer and textile collector. Josephine was an American in the best sense although she did have her rough edges, to say the least.  I mean American in the hopefully-not-too-old-fashioned sense of worldly but not pushy, knowledgeable but ever curious, erudite after a fashion but also down-to-earth. It’s very self-serving to give Americans so much credit – I should add ‘shamelessly immodest’ to the list.

In any event, by the time I came to Istanbul, Josephine was around 85-years-old and still smoking rollies of Turkish tobacco even when she had oxygen tubes up her nose. She had left New York on the first ship to sail to Europe and never went back.  As she might say, she washed up in Istanbul, and lived there for 20 some years until she died.  Her irascible, rascally side was in full-force when she said that when she died we should just wrap her body up in one of her many kilims and dump her in the Bosphorus.

Although I had come to help Josephine with an exhibition of some of her extensive collection of Turkish kilims – she had fallen for the flat woven rugs when she was taking photos for a Thames & Hudson book about the craft and ended up documenting the process in tens thousands of photos of different patterns and the places they were made and the people who made them, and producing many pages of notes from talking to the women who dyed and spun and wove them, and learning and even rediscovering the recipes for naturally-dyed wool – I ended up doing other tasks for her, too, like slicing her croissants open just so, so she could spread jam on both sides, and making her spaghetti with tomato sauce.

Josephine had two apartments packed to the gills with stuff – one bathroom was totally given over to natural dye materials – dried flowers and dusty roots – in glass jars on shelves from floor to ceiling and the toilet cowered in the corner, totally forgotten.  She, too, lived in a small corner of her upper-level flat, the grand master of all her objects and documentation.  If you went looking for a fork in the kitchen, you were more likely to find some silver Turkmen ornament where the silverware should have been, and the few pieces of cutlery she had were all pinched from airlines and stamped with KLM.  Besides all this material culture she had accumulated over the years, she was also strong in stories and wisdom, although sometimes packaged to disguise it as such.

She knew that I was banging out long letters by the day and so she told me to pull her old typewriter down from the top shelf of the library and give it some exercise.  It was an old Turkish typewriter with the bonus letters we get in Turkish, like ş, ç, and ğ and a few extra vowels.  As I was dusting it off its thick layer of soot and grime, she told me something that someone had once told her. She said it better, but it went something like this:

“If you’ve been in a place a week, you can write pages and pages about it, explain every interesting thing in great detail.  If you’ve been in a place for a year, maybe you’ll manage a page.  And if you’ve been in a place over a year, you’ll struggle even just to write a postcard.”

I find myself thinking more about that now that I’ve been here seven years.  Now that I know more, I know how much more there is to know and how complicated it all is and I feel like I know nothing.   I wonder what I was writing in all those pages I typed out on that typewriter?  I must have been quite the expert.  Back then, I considered the confines of a postcard a cop-out in my letter-writing program.  Now, I can rarely write a postcard to anyone, forget letters.  It’s not that Istanbul isn’t fascinating too me anymore; I love it more than ever, and for more reasons than ever.  But where even to begin? There isn’t a postcard big enough, and every postcard’s big blank back intimidates me: What do I know enough to write?

Clare Frost is an American kimono and fabric designer who lives in Istanbul. She works with an array of talented artists and craftspeople in Afghanistan, India and Turkey to produce quality hand-made goods and original designs. To contact Clare or learn more about her products, please visit her website or Facebook page.


Art courtesy of Cenap Refik Ongan/Shutterstock.com