When Your City Breaks Your Heart

By Abak Hussain

Orhan Pamuk in the Istanbul of misery

East meets West! – the travel brochures always say. Istanbul is the city – as we have heard often in those jolly adverts – of ice cream and Hamams, romantic cruises down the Bosphorus, of Nasiruddin Hojja and Suleiman the Magnificent.

It is overflowing with ancient history and old buildings and heritage sites that exist side by side with the daily life of its residents. It is also home to one of the world’s busiest airports, an ultramodern transport infrastructure, and all sorts of cutting edge architecture, art, and fine dining signalling it to be a city of the future, not just the past. Istanbul – the city of confluences. Istanbul – where past meets future.

Then there is the Istanbul of Orhan Pamuk: The city of misery and filth, contradiction and chaos, alienation and lost hope. It is city of huzun. The Turkish word for melancholy has far deeper implications for Pamuk than just that sad feeling we all get sometimes; it is a beautiful anguish woven into the fabric of his hometown. “Istanbul does not carry its huzun as ‘an illness for which there is a cure’ or ‘an unbidden pain from which we need to be delivered’: it carries its huzun by choice,” Pamuk writes. Now try putting that on your tourism promo.

But being the city of huzun does not stop Istanbul from being the city that endlessly fires the imagination – no one ever said your muse had to be pretty.

Writers have often been inextricably associated with their cities: Joyce and his Dublin, Dickens and his London. Their experiences of growing up in a certain city shaped them deeply, changing them on an almost molecular level, perhaps to the point where loving a city or hating a city is entirely beside the point. Quite simply, the memories of the city become indistinguishable from autobiography.

It is easy to be misled at first. Indeed, Pamuk’s masterpiece essay collection Istanbul: Memories and the City (2005), through its black and white cover photo of a city landmark on a snowy day evoking a sort of Woody Allen-style nostalgic charm, could very well fool the unsuspecting reader browsing through shelves in a bookstore, hoping for an uplifting tour of the city before perhaps planning a trip there.

My copy of the book carries a quote from Sunday Times on the cover: “A declaration of love.” Perhaps that line was taken out of context, but it feels a bit misleading nevertheless. If there is love for Istanbul to be found in this book, that love is certainly not in the form of any standard dictionary definition, but more a love for that very painful thing which we have lived with for so long that we cannot imagine who we are without it.


Unlike Pamuk, my own relationship to my city, Dhaka, cannot be called love-hate, even by the most creative definitions of the word love. My city is a drain on the soul, and an assault on mind and body, its air the most polluted in the world, its noise level makes a moment of peace impossible.

This metropolis is a monster of perpetual ugliness, construction sights gobbling up any last bits of greenery or natural waterbodies, traffic congestion choking the city to death. Plenty of writers from plenty of cities have been hyperbolic and scathing in their criticisms of their cities, and seeing a place as a version of hell is probably only a matter of perspective … but not in the case of Dhaka. For us, the misery, the huzun, is objective, measurable, as sure as the fact that two plus two is four.

My city, unlike Pamuk’s, lacks the redeeming qualities, architectural marvels, and cosmopolitanism that could have made life more bearable. It is not a competition of course, we are simply born and raised in a place and we spend the rest of our lives making sense of it.

Dhaka for me, just like Istanbul for Pamuk, is part of my DNA – it provides the undeniable creative, intellectual, and emotional foundation for just about every little thing that I do. This city of mine crushes dreams, but there is alchemy in that destruction, and so I wonder: Had I been from somewhere else, somewhere nicer, cleaner, safer, maybe Vancouver, Rekyjavik, or Singapore, would I have still been me?

Would I only have been slightly different with the core things the same (maybe thriving amidst better opportunities and a disposition a little smoother around the edges) or would I have been so fundamentally different down to the core that I would bear no resemblance to the person I am today? I lean towards the latter.

Whatever I may feel about Dhaka, then, I have no choice to see the city as my foundation, my emotional center – without it, I am not me who is writing these words. And since I cannot separate my city from myself, can I perhaps formulate that to hate my city is to hate myself?

Or, to put it in Pamuk’s words, we have the title of chapter 34 (page 286 of the paperback edition, Faber and Faber) of Istanbul: “To be unhappy is to hate oneself and one’s city.” Pamuk paints a portrait here of what it feels like for him to be an Istanbullu that is so vivid and so specific that I found myself shuddering at the feeling of kinship, as though Pamuk’s ghost had sucked the unspoken unease out of my soul and put them on the page.

But is that not what a truly great writer does? That is, make us a feel a connection, a sense of recognition, even while separated by geography, age, language? Orhan Pamuk is indeed that greatest of writers, and his Nobel prize is richly deserved. They say only an Istanbullu can truly understand another Istanbullu. Ironically, Pamuk has, by being brutally, beautifully, and tragically honest about the city that made him what he is, transcended his city and reached out to readers all over the world.

I, for one, am not an Istanbullu by any stretch of imagination, but at no point in his writing did I find myself lost in translation.

Abak Hussain is a journalist and Contributing Editor at MW Bangladesh

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