James Tressler, Contributor
In the days of the Ottoman Empire, the streets of Istanbul were plagued by dogs (in some parts of the city this hasn’t changed) — street dogs who wandered alone and, at night, in packs. They were generally cared for well; any dog that lingered outside the door of a cafe would be given some morsel from the kitchen.
In Kadiköy, what strikes you immediately are not dogs, but cats. You rarely see roaming dogs in this seaside district on Istanbul’s Asian side, but there are cats aplenty. In the evenings after the fish markets close, the pavements freshly sprayed and the metal doors pulled down, the cats will congregate — peering, sniffing, and licking the last traces of the fish sold that day.
Kadiköy is like that; a visitor, too, finds himself, like those cats, lurking in the street at twilight, roaming, waiting for something or someone to materialize in the dusk (exactly who or what you don’t know). Anyway, there is that anticipation, that eagerness, that regret, lingering like the phosphorous gleam on the skin of passing faces: Kadiköy, a cat looking for fish in the dusk.
The men who sit in doorways of barbershops, or who water down the fish in the markets to keep them fresh, or the grocers presiding over vegetables reposing in the lingering heat; the endless stream of taxis and buses and dolmuş honking desperately against the congested, humid air; the muezzin marking the end of the day, releasing a prayer over the yawls of overheated felines, over the mocking warble of sea birds.
It is at the waterfront where you finally find release. Here on the waterfront, with the churning waters of the Bosphorus, looking out toward the Sea of Marmara, where ships dot the horizon, people sit and order fish sandwiches and lemonade or tea while the ferries from the European side come in and out. A gentle evening breeze lifts your gaze outward, past the minarets of the Aya Sofia and Sultanahmet mosques, and out toward the final release of the sea.
For the eternally restless or whimsical heart, Kadiköy can seem a notch down from its rival, Taksim, over on the European side. But it’s not without its charms. There is the Bosphorus, a cradle rocking back and forth between two continents, the assurance of escape that the sea offers, the markets and their endless goods. The women, in mostly modern dress, but with headscarves here and there, their skin glowing with faint perspiration in the fragrant air; the street musicians, as well as those in the cafes, offering an endlessly syncopated, melismatic counterpoint to the warm evenings. Beneath canopies of cool ivy, people sit at cafe tables drinking Efes beer or raki, a kind of Turkish absinthe, and talking, playing backgammon or watching football (Fenerbahçe is the local favorite, the stadium just 10 minutes away).
Up the hill from the market, through a maze of streets, is what is colloquially known as “Bar Street,” for anyone looking to get in a pub crawl. Bar Street is exactly that, a slender avenue packed with indoor and outdoor pubs. A night out drinking in Istanbul isn’t cheap, though not outlandish either; generally, though, it is just as well to stick to the cafes near the market, for the prices are about the same, but there is usually more live music.
Anyway, Kadiköy sways to a slightly different rhythm than its rivals across the Bosphorus — riotous, noisy Taksim; atmospheric Galata with its stone tower gazing out proudly at the beginning of the Muslim world; steep, commercial Beyolğu. There’s less foot traffic, a detached, slightly provincial aesthetic and fewer tourists.
Speaking of cats; I’m thinking of Burcu. That’s not her real name, just one I’ve randomly given her. In our building there is a kind of no-man’s land that I can see outside my bedroom window. An expanse of overgrown bushes, trash and unfinished-looking walls serves as the courtyard and connects the other buildings. From the window you look out and see the other apartments, with laundry hung out to dry on the balconies. Also from the windows, looking down into the no-man’s land, you see cats. I’ve never counted them, but there are at least a half-dozen — most of them caramel-colored, dingy and wild. High above, on the tops of the buildings, are sea birds with their grisly, mocking laughter.
Because of the heat it’s best to keep the windows open. It was because of this that I met Burcu. She was a calico cat, with wide green eyes, that I discovered in my room one evening. As soon as I entered, she popped back out the window, her calico tail swishing as she disappeared. I didn’t at all like the idea of one of these neighborhood cats hanging out in my room, so I was quick to discourage her any time she got near the window. Then one day she went into heat, and her yowling, wandering and hovering became intolerable. It was a hot Sunday afternoon, I had the windows open and was reading in bed. Then I saw her nose poking in the room. Incensed, I got up, she darted back, but remained on the sill. Moved by a sudden evil impulse, I picked her up and flicked her (she had just enough time to utter a shriek of surprise) down into the no-man’s land. She fell, turning over in the air, and landed in a bush.
I watched to see if Burcu would be able to climb back up. For several minutes, she peered and sniffed around, disoriented, looking up at me in feline surprise. Pitilessly, I enjoyed being a spectator to her predicament. I forgot my reading and waited to see what would happen. She found a barred window, crawled through it and disappeared into a dark area. Just then, three or four cats, the caramel-colored ones, having scented Burcu, came prancing from hidden places and assumed positions near the window. The biggest one of them went into the dark area and for a few minutes it was quiet. Then suddenly there was a shriek and Burcu came bounding out the window, streaking past, followed closely by her new admirer.
A stand-off ensued and went on for the next several hours. The big cat would make an advance, Burcu would hiss and shriek and swipe her claws at him, then run, pursued by the other cats.
Later, when it got dark, I was watching football with my flatmate, Nizam. I mentioned the afternoon’s drama. As he listened to my description of the cat, Nizam suddenly started. “That wasn’t a street cat,” he said. “That was our neighbor’s cat!”
The neighbor, it seemed, was out of town that weekend. Nizam, who was studying to be a vet and natural animal lover, rose to investigate. We went out to the balcony and flipped on a light.
“Do you see her?” I asked.
Then we both saw her. Directly across, on top of the wall, we could see Burcu, mounted by the big cat while the other cats looked on. There was no way we could get to where she was, so Nizam said we would just have to wait until the owner got back and explain how his cat was getting raped and all because I’d thought she was a street cat.
The next day, after I got home from work, Nizam told me he’d talked to the neighbor, who naturally wasn’t very happy about what happened. I asked if they’d managed to rescue Burcu. He said they’d tried, but she didn’t want to come back.
At night sometimes I hear her, out in the no-man’s land. I’ve learned to recognize her voice, a shriek — a long, drawn-out shriek — like a wild cat. I wonder if the neighbor will take her back, or if she’ll just remain with the other cats in the no-man’s land, her litter soon to join the others roaming the streets of Kadiköy.