N.B. This article was originally published as part of my weekly ‘Island Living’ series for the Today’s Zaman national newspaper in Turkey. Unfortunately in a move to clamp down on press freedom in Turkey, the AKP took over the Zaman Newspaper, shutting down the English version and deleting its entire archive.
Exiled by the Lodos
By Rhiannon J Davies
In ‘Istanbul: Memories and the City’ Orhan Pamuk writes of the melancholic feeling experienced in Istanbul: “Hüzün does not just paralyze the inhabitants of Istanbul, it also gives them poetic license to be paralyzed.” If, as some believe, hüzün blows in on the southwesterly Lodos wind, I think it gives Princes Island dwellers an even greater right.
I had my first experience of being stuck on the island this week… and my second, and then my third. Although I’m enjoying spending the majority of my time on Büyükada, I do look forward to the occasions when I have to make the trip to the mainland. Heading off to a meeting in the bright lights of Beyoğlu with a spring in my step, I was stopped short when I reached the ferry port and read the ŞEFERLER İPTAL EDİLİ (the ferries are cancelled) on the LED sign. It felt a bit like I’d been granted a ‘snow day’ at school. I called the prospective client I was due to meet with and, trying to keep the excitement out of my voice, told her that we couldn’t possibly meet today and there was simply nothing I could do about it.
The reason for the cancellation is the Lodos, the word of everyone’s lips at the moment. Turkish people are so familiar with the winds that buffet them throughout the year, that they’re on first name terms with most of them. Lodos is the wind that blows up the Aegean from the Sahara Desert, whooshes across the Marmara and blasts its way up the Bosphorus to the Black Sea. Carrying both the sands and the warmth of its origin, it is welcomed and feared in equal measure.
On Büyükada it lifts up the sea, crashing it down on the jetties, promenades, and rocky outcrops that encircle the island. Children run amok unable to reach their mainland schools, playing chicken with the waves, as they dare each other to run into and out of the water’s path before it soaks them through. The ferries that haven’t been cancelled rock from side to side at alarming angles, whilst intrepid passengers sit closer to the exits than usual, eyeing the lifejackets with resolute expressions set onto queasy faces.
It’s not just the children that enjoy a day of estrangement from the mainland, the brightly lit and bleakly decorated gaming cafes populated solely by men on the vintage side of life hum with the click-clack of Okey pieces and the roll of dice on backgammon boards. The working horses get a day off, but still uncomfortably stamp their feet and chew their bits, backed up in the queue of the fayton rank. Their owners while away the hours in the afore mentioned cafes, drinking endless tea and playing endless games.
There are some benefits however. With the forceful winds comes an unseasonable lift in the temperature. At the weekend when the wind dropped, I climbed through the woods to the islands peak and then down to the terrace of the Eski Bağ restaurant that sits up high and faces away from city. With the sun on my face and a view of the blue sea and crashing waves, I was transported to the coastline of the Aegean or the Mediterranean, leaving the city behind completely. The wind had also cleared the air enough that I could see the snowy peaks of the Uludağ mountain range to the south.
The island’s streets are quieter when the ferries aren’t running, without the excited chatter of boatloads of tourists. In the mornings barely a soul walks the streets. On a grey day, there’s a particular melancholy to the islands, it’s the hüzün of Istanbul alright, but one that’s more noticeable on these traffic-free streets, lined with abandoned houses. In the city, hüzün gets lost in the hustle and bustle of metropolitan life. Here it permeates the air, seeping into the bones of the island’s inhabitants, pattering onto the ground with the drip drip drip of overflowing, gutters. Piles of leaves blow across empty tennis courts, wooden shutters bang in the wind, and bicycles sit under plastic covers, destined to go unused until the spring.
Down by the docks at first light one chilly morning, I noticed a large flock of pigeons feasting on some scattered breadcrumbs. A small white cat, barely out of kittenhood was practicing his stalking skills, occasionally making a fruitless charge into their midst. I looked away amused by his bravado. But then a commotion brought my head back around. He’d got one. With large grey wings sticking out from either side of his head, like some bizarre creature of Greek mythology, he darted awkwardly for the cover of the trees. Above him the air was a swirling mass of grey, white, and black as the gulls and crows took to the skies to join the pigeons squawking as they pleaded for the return of their feathered comrade. But it was too late; the cat was gone. The birds gave up and settled back into their morning pursuits, but with a more subdued air; it seemed the hüzün had got them too.
The Lodos comes in the afternoons. The mornings are calm, sleepy even. In the afternoons it picks up, then at night time it tears around the island, howling to announce its presence. On nights like these, cut off from the mainland, you feel the fragility of living on an island. It brings to mind how those that were exiled here must have felt. Long before Trotsky famously wrote his History of the Russian Revolution when exiled here, back before the steamliners began taking 19th Century leisure seekers of the Ottoman Empire on island cruises, a string of ‘dangerous’ women were some of the islands earlier inhabitants.
During the Byzantine Empire, the islands were a convenient spot to maroon one’s political enemies, deemed too dangerous to keep around. It cut off lines of communication (although some letters were still allowed) and reduced the risk of conspiracies. Enemies were also exiled to border regions and further away, but as it was believed women would never make it that far, it was usually their lot to live out their days on the islands. Some of Büyükada’s most famous exiled women include Empress Zoë, whose exile to the islands by her adopted son Michael V caused such an uprising by the people of Constantinople that he was forced to bring her back. Another Empress, Irene of Athens, famous for having her own son (Constantine VI)’s eyes gorged out and being the only female ruler to have reigned alone on the Byzantine throne, was exiled to the woman’s monastery she built here before being secretly exiled to Lesbos. Yet despite these circumstances, her dying wish was to be buried on Prinkipos Island, as Büyükada was known then.
Forced to fend for themselves, abandoned and outcast by their own families, these women (and many others) underwent a psychological trauma that really puts my missed meeting into perspective. Rather than being forced to eke out a sorry existence and stave off madness, I simply returned to the dock two days later, boarded a ferry, and an hour and a half later was at my rescheduled meeting sipping a flat white in one of Cihangir’s urbane coffee shops. Exile was fun for a day or two, but in the long term, I think it’s not for me.