Tag Archives: Istanbul

The Devil Within

One of the tangible results of my summer holiday in Turkey was a big stack of books I bought in various Istanbul bookstores. Some of these books have been already reviewed here during the last weeks, including a (for me) surprisingly good crime novel.

Today I will review another book from my Turkish book pile, the novel The Devil Within by Sabahattin Ali. The book is translated in French and in German, but unfortunately (as it is so frequently the case with good books written in other languages!) not in English – although this novel is considered one of the most important books of modern Turkish literature.

Only 4% of the new books published on the British and American market are translations I read recently – and without some non-profit or non-mainstream publishers it would be even worse ! I am sure readers in these countries are as curious as people in other parts of the world – so why are most publishers failing their costumers so badly? Maybe I should write a bit about this phenomenon and its consequences (together with the fact that native English speakers frequently know no foreign language). But I digress.

The Devil Within is a partly autobiographical novel that was first published in 1940. It is the story of Ömer, a young man from the Western Anatolian province that lives now in Istanbul. He has an uninteresting job at the post office, but he rarely shows up. He got this position through an influential relative and the pittance he earns as a salary requires his presence in the office only rarely.

With much more pleasure is Ömer hanging out with his (former) student colleagues, talking about literature, politics, philosophy – and about Ömer’s theory of the Devil Inside. He is convinced that each person has a demon inside that interferes in the lives of people and prevents them from achieving their aims and real happiness. But as a reader we have the feeling that this is not serious philosophy, just vain talk of some young guys who take their talks in the various meyhane – usually paid by some journalist or writer who like to play the philanthropist and to have a crowd of devoted fans around when they make acerbic remarks about their colleagues and competitors – for something serious and erudite. The Devil Within is a novel mainly about Istanbul intellectuals in the late 1930s.

In the opening chapter, the author takes us on one of the many ferry boats that are until today such a common means of transport in Istanbul. Ömer and his friend Nihat have a discussion about their favorite topics when Ömer is spotting a girl sitting nearby to which he feels immediately attracted. By lucky circumstances, he can make the acquaintance of Macide, who is as it turns out, a distant relative. Macide is living with Aunt Emine and Uncle Garip, an impoverished couple and turns out to be a very gifted musician and a very modern and independently thinking girl.

I don’t want to give too much away of the story, but I liked Sabahattin Ali’s craftsmanship. The novel is well composed, the love story between Ömer and Macide is unfolding rather fast but convincingly. Also the other characters of the book are well developed and have depth. Most of the characters are intellectuals, a kind of elite of the Istanbul circle of writers and journalists, but Mecide (and with her probably also the reader) is not very much impressed. Her sharp intellect realizes that most people in Ömer’s circle are good mainly in three things: talking, drinking, and badmouthing their more talented colleagues. A splinter group of these intellectuals, among them Ömer’s friend Nihat and the shady Professor Hikmet dream of a vague dictatorship in the spirit of the fascist “Pan-Turanism”.

Money plays an extremely important role in this milieu – Ömer and his friends are desperately short of funds all the time. Nihat talks Ömer finally into committing a criminal and ethically disdainful act: he is blackmailing a colleague who was always very friendly to him but who “lent” some money from the cassa in a situation where he saw no other way out of a difficult family situation.

Macide, probably the most interesting character in the novel, is going through a learning process. She becomes more and more disappointed, and when Bedri, the music teacher who years ago recognized her talent as a musician, and who happens to be a long term friend of Ömer, is meeting her and Ömer, she starts to understand what she is missing in her relationship with Ömer.

The book is interesting for various reasons. The novel was a still quite new genre in Turkey when the book appeared in print. But Ali proved in his three novels to be already a master in this craft. Also the subject matter is very interesting. The book shows a generation of young intellectuals who live without a real perspective. The things they learned in university (and the Turkish universities at that time were excellent) or abroad (Ali for example had studied in Germany) prove to be useless. Despite the reforms of the founding father of modern Turkey, the old mindsets of the society were still intact, positions were distributed not according to the qualification a person had, but as a result of nepotism or even open corruption.

Macide and Bedri are rays of hope in this rather bleak picture of the Istanbul of the late 1930s. A modern, self-confident woman, and a loyal and supportive partner who shares her values and interests – that’s almost too good to be true. But I enjoyed the fact that the alleged Devil Within that is frequently just an excuse for personal weakness and laziness seems not to triumph in the end.

Sabahattin Ali was (probably) born in 1907 in Ardino (Bulgaria) and was murdered in 1948 under unclear circumstances near the Turkish-Bulgarian border. There is evidence that the author was killed by the Turkish Secret Police before he could cross the border to Bulgaria. In the last years of his life, Ali had permanent problems with censorship, arsonist attacks on the office of his journal, and he had to serve several prison sentences for his writings. Today he is considered a modern classic – and rightfully so.


Sabahattin Ali: İçimizdeki Şeytan, 1940; Le Diable Qui Est En Nous, Le Serpent á Plumes, 2008; Der Dämon in uns, Unionsverlag, Zürich 2007

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Ara Güler’s Istanbul


Really great artists are frequently very modest, even humble persons, says Orhan Pamuk in the introduction to the photo book Ara Güler’s Istanbul. 

Güler calls himself a photo journalist, but he is much more: a chronicler of his home town Istanbul since the late 1940s, a kind of archaeologist (since Istanbul has changed a lot in the last decades), but definitely also a great artist.


Ara Güler’s Istanbul presents just a small sample of the more than 800,000 photos he took almost exclusively with his Leica, but they give a wonderful opportunity to catch a glimpse of the artist’s most iconic works.

We see fishermen mending their nets, children playing in front of derelict Ottoman structures, ferry boats passing the Golden Horn, street vendors pushing their carts in the cobblestone streets of Kadıköy, a tram waiting for a man with his horse cart passing the rails. It’s usually not the Istanbul tourists know. We see crumbling buildings and people who look tired from their everyday struggle to survive in this glorious city. Istanbul and its buildings are only the backdrop for a big stage: the drama of life with its difficulties, everyday routines and small pleasures.


Güler’s photos breathe a deep humanity. The people we see on his photos, no matter how poor they may be, are never devoid of a certain dignity. And frequently there is a touch of magic there too, which is difficult to describe. Just have a look at these breathtaking photos.

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Ara Güler’s Istanbul, Introduction by Orhan Pamuk, Thames & Hudson 2009

Ara Güler’s website: http://www.araguler.com.tr/

© Ara Güler (photos) 
© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

When Pera Trees Whisper

He had many enemies, and so it seems not surprising that mobster Engin got stabbed on New Year’s Eve on the streets of Istanbul’s dodgy Tarlabaşı neighbourhood in the Beyoğlu (formerly known as Pera) district.

A street war seems to be going on between two local gangsters, ‘Dice’ Ihsan and Black Nizam, whose right-hand man Engin was. But it is not only a fight about the predominance in the (illegal) gambling business – to which some corrupt local policemen turn a blind eye for reasons we can easily guess – there is a much wider area of possible motives and suspects, as Chief Inspector Nevzat and his two assistants Ali and Zeynep find out soon.

Ihsan and Nizam were in love with the same woman, Cilem, and there are rumors that also Engin, who had the reputation of a womanizer, had a relationship with Cilem. Jealousy might be a very strong motif for the murder, but it turns out that Engin also secretly bought some houses in Tarlabaşı with the aim to demolish them and turn the locations in profitable big housing projects (which would have interfered with the intentions of his employer).

The deeper the Chief Inspector and his constantly bickering assistants dig into the case, the more questions come up: what did the street kids that were present on the crime scene really see? Has the giant Suleyman, a once powerful pimp, something to do with the murder (since he has great skills when it comes to using a knife in a fight)? Is Swank Cemal, the inspector’s old friend (and a former mobster himself) trying to mislead the police intentionally? What exactly is the role of Nazli, a lady from a wealthy family who is running a cultural center in the area and who is very strongly opposed to the plans of the local mafia? Are some radical members of the Gezi Park Resistance groups that were fighting against the plans to turn the last remaining park in Beyoğlu into a shopping mall, behind the murder? And why is this rather annoying crime novelist turning up every time when the Chief Inspector is least expecting it? What about the Italian mafia that was also after Engin? And what about the Bulgarian connection that seems to become more important as the story advances? Things are heating up more and more, and Engin will not be the only victim…

Ahmet Ümit, the author of When Pera Trees Whisper, is one of the most successful contemporary Turkish writers. This crime novel is a good example for his skillful handling of this genre. An interesting story, fast dialogues, characters that are described in a way that seems to be taken directly from reality, plenty of local flair for Istanbul connaisseurs, and all is set against the backdrop of contemporary Turkey, with its fast development but also its social and political problems that from time to time explode, as the Gezi Park Resistance has reminded us recently.

When Pera Trees Whisper is a real page turner and especially recommended for all readers that know (or want to get to know) the fascinating city of Istanbul.


Ahmet Ümit: When Pera Trees Whisper, transl. Elke Dixon, Everest Publications, Istanbul 2014


© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Istanbul’s Archipelago


“Prinkipo is an island of peace and forgetfulness. The life of the world arrives here after great delays…It’s a good place to work with the pen, especially in autumn and winter, when the islands are almost completely deserted and the woodpeckers appear in the garden. There’s no theater here; there’s not even a cinema. Cars are forbidden. Are there many such places in the world? We have no telephone in our house. The cries of the donkeys calm the nerves. One cannot for one moment forget that Prinkipo is an island, because the sea lies under every window and there is no point on the island without a sea view. We catch fish a mere ten meters distance from the edge of the quay; at fifty meters, we catch lobster. The sea can be as calm as a lake for weeks at a time.”

Prinkipo is now called Büyükada and a popular destination for mainly Turkish weekend tourists who want to flee from the crowded city of Istanbul for a day or two. Cars are still forbidden, and the main means of transport are the bicycle or the horse carriages called peyton you can hire here for a tour around the island. But the atmosphere of peace and forgetfulness that Leon Trotsky refers to in his essay Farewell to Prinkipo, from which the above quote is taken, is still existing on Büyükada and the other smaller Princes’ Islands. (The name derives from the fact that many princes were exiled here in the time of Byzantium). Trotsky wrote his autobiography and the biggest part of his History of the Russian Revolution on the island. The house in which he lived with his wife, his son, two bodyguards and five Turkish policemen is in a quiet ruinous state, but still standing. Trotsky left the place in 1933 and moved finally to Mexico, where he was murdered by a group of NKWD henchmen (among them Pablo Neruda and the painter David Alfaro Siqueiros).



The glorious times of the Princes Islands were the second half of the 19th and the first half of the 20th century. Greek, Armenian, Jewish businessmen discovered these islands as a perfect summer retreat, established a ferry boat line and built beautiful summer houses and a few hotels. Several Greek monasteries, churches and abandoned fortresses add to the charm of these islands that offer incredible scenic views to the European and Asian coast. Istanbul seems so far away, but it is just a short journey by ferryboat.


A wonderful small book The Princes’ Islands, written by Joachim Sartorius, a German poet, translator and travel writer, can be the perfect companion when you visit these islands during your next trip to Istanbul. Sartorius, who grew up in Tunis and served as a diplomat in the US, Turkey and Cyprus before he became the director of the Goethe Institute, writes a stylistically elegant prose. He takes the reader by the hand and shares his knowledge and feelings, reports the history, explores all interesting places and evokes in the reader the atmosphere of these serene islands. He makes friends with locals who invite him to their homes or to the restaurant, he is rowing to smaller islands with friends, and – we can be thankful for that – he feels inspired by the islands. No wonder that many writers like Orhan Veli Kanik,  Sait Faik,  or Orhan Pamuk lived or live on one of the islands or had or have at least a summer house which they use(d) as a writers’ studio.


During most of the year, there are ferries leaving from Kabatas ferry terminal almost every hour. The trip takes one hour and a half, with short stops on the Asian side and three of the bigger islands before reaching the final destination Büyükada. Don’t miss these islands. You won’t regret it.


Joachim Sartorius: The Princes’ Islands, Armchair Traveller, London 2011, transl. Stephen Brown

Leon Trotsky: Farewell to Prinkipo (1933), in: Writings of Leon Trotsky 1932-1933, Pathfinder Press 1972, pp. 361ff. 

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. © Photos in this blog post Cornelia Awear. 

Raw Material

Let’s start with the title. Raw Material is a correct translation of the German word Rohstoff. But Stoff means in German not only material, it is also a slang word for illegal drugs (dope) such as heroin or in this case raw opium.

The story of Jörg Fauser’s novel starts in Istanbul in the second half of the 1960s. The narrator – although it is a novel we may assume that the book is Fauser’s own life story – is living in the (then) run-down Cağaloğlu district, a bit north of the Blue Mosque.

During the 1960s, Istanbul and here more specifically the neighborhoods of Tophane and Cağaloğlu, were favorite hang-out places for all kind of Western young people: would-be writers and painters, drug addicts, petty criminals, political radicals plotting for a somehow diffuse revolution to come, hippies, beatniks. Together with Ede, a painter friend from Stuttgart, the protagonist, a young man with the strong ambition to become a writer, is sharing a tin structure on the roof of a dubious hotel. Life is cheap and so are the drugs. In an odd way a kind of idyll, even during the cold Istanbul winter:

“One poured some gasoline on the stone floor and lit it, and as long as the flames were giving off some warmth, the other looked for a vein. We took everything we could get, primarily it was raw opium, which we cooked, Nembutal for dozing off and all sorts of uppers to get going. When we were going, we had to get more dope and everything else we needed – we lived predominantly on tea and sweets – and then we lay there, wrapped in our blankets, played with the cat and worked. Ede painted, and I wrote.”

The reader is a bit concerned about the fate of this hero. Chances seem to be rather small that he will not end like so many drug addicts. But his genuine passion for writing and not so much the drugs (which he is replacing mainly by alcohol during the course of the story) keep him going and after his return and the start of a relationship with a girl, his life takes a turn, kind of.

In order to support himself, he is writing articles for a number of mostly short-lived magazines that are popular among young people in Germany. He has an opportunity to travel, even to conduct an interview with the famous beat poet William S. Burroughs. The story of the Burroughs interview is hilarious. After some friendly small talk at the beginning, Burroughs comes out with the one subject that really interests him: dope.

“What kind of stuff did you take?” “Oh, Opium mainly.” “What – raw opium? You didn’t mainline, intravenously?” ”Yup.” “Young man”, Burroughs said with the hint of a smile. “You must have been completely off your rocker.”

The literary cut-up technique for which Burroughs was famous is only a minor topic of this conversation. Burroughs comes again back to the subject of drug addiction, and how he was cured from it with the help of a new, but very strange method called the Apomorphine Formula.

“He disappeared into the next room, came back a second later and handed me a magazine-sized brochure wrapped in brown paper: William S. Burroughs: APO-33 Bulletin. The subtitle read: A Report on the Synthesis of the Apomorphine Formula.

“You can keep it”, he said. “My small contribution to healthcare,” and laughed; his choppy ha-ha-ha came from rather shadowy regions. “The apomorphine formula,” he said and sat down, “is a contribution to the cleansing and detoxification of the planet. Detoxification from what? From illness, addiction, ignorance, prejudice and stupidity. The question is: Are the people now in power interested in this detoxification? You know, young man, what the answer is to that.”

The strangeness and obvious paranoia of Burroughs were maybe never described better as in the last paragraph I quoted above.

In the second half of the story, the protagonist moves to Berlin, later to Frankfurt, starting to embark on a more regular life although he is living in an illegally occupied house. An attempt to work as a part of a film crew fails miserably but gives Fauser again an opportunity to show his self-ironic sense of humor.

As we have the feeling that the hero is a more stable person now, the reader’s attention is probably shifting a bit more to what is going on around our protagonist. Frankfurt in the late 1960s was one of the birth places of the German Student Revolt (and also of the brutal terrorism of the so-called Red Army Faction a.k.a. Baader Meinhof Gang). Fauser’s hero, is living through this time more as an amused spectator than as a real part of that student movement. The fake romanticism and annoying self-congratulation of so many literary or autobiographical books on the student revolt by people who participated in it (or later claimed to have participated in it) is completely missing in Fauser’s novel, and that’s one of it’s many strengths.

Fauser, together with Rolf Dieter Brinkmann, was one of the representatives of the Beat Generation in Germany. But we would not do him justice if we saw him as an epigone of a literary movement that he tried to copy. Fauser had his own voice and style. He was also an experienced journalist, and that is also much to the profit of his works. His stories are written without much fuss or affectation, in a precise, matter-of-fact way, with a lot of self-irony and humor, something that was extremely rare among writers of his time. There is a kind of raw energy about this and the other books of this author which make them very appealing to me. I like Fauser’s books a lot.

Fauser was run over by a truck in 1987, while crossing an Autobahn as a pedestrian in the night after his 43rd birthday. (Rolf Dieter Brinkmann was also run over by a car in 1975.)  Fauser’s work deserves to be discovered. For me one of the best German-language authors.

An English edition of Raw Material will be published in November 2014.

Raw Material



Jörg Fauser: Rohstoff, Alexander Verlag, Berlin 2004; Raw Material (transl. Jamie Bulloch), The Clerkenwell Press/Profile Books (publication date: 13 November 2014) 

(The quotes in this blog are translated by Marc Svetov. © Berlin Verlag 2009)

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.