Fleeing anger in America, James Baldwin found solace in 1960s Turkey

By Kareem Fahim for The Washington Post

American writer James Baldwin in Istanbul. (Sedat Pakay)

There is no trace of James Baldwin in the four-story building where he lived for a time, decades ago, on Ebe Hanim street, and where the mention of his name now draws blank stares. The bar where Baldwin drank up the hill from the apartment has vanished, too, lost in the garish renovation of the old Park Hotel.

A plaque in the lobby mentions the hotel’s most notable visitors, including Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish republic, and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. But not Baldwin, who was reaching the height of his international fame when he lived in Turkey but was hardly bothered as he walked the streets of 1960s Istanbul: a star, to be sure, but mostly among a small firmament of dear collaborators and friends.

Baldwin lived in Turkey on and off during the 1960s. (Sedat Pakay)

A new Oscar-nominated documentary by the Haitian director Raoul Peck has tapped into a broader American revival of interest in Baldwin, whose fiction, essays and speeches have taken on added relevance in the era of Black Lives Matter and the fervent debates in the United States over race and identity, diversity and police brutality.

But Baldwin made an impression in Turkey, too, where he lived off and on for a decade or so, beginning in 1961 — though his footprints, these days, can be hard to find. His overlooked sojourn was a period of prodigious creative production and collaboration with Turkish artists, in a place he came to regard as a sanctuary — despite Turkey’s own political turbulence — from the racism, homophobia and scarring civil rights struggle back home.

He could no longer work in the United States, he told his friend, the drama critic Zeynep Oral. “I can’t breathe,” she quoted him as saying. “I have to look from outside.”

Baldwin completed the novel “Another Country” while in Turkey. (Sedat Pakay)

Istanbul, a refuge for exiles, immigrants and wanderers that reminded Baldwin of Harlem, was in many ways an ideal vantage point. “Located on the margin of continents — between Europe and Asia, in the vicinity of Africa and the Middle East — Turkey provided a haven where Baldwin worked on some of his most important, and arguably most American, works,” Magdalena Zaborowska, a professor of African American and immigrant literature at the University of Michigan, wrote in her book “James Baldwin’s Turkish Decade: Erotics of Exile.”

Baldwin completed the novel “Another Country” and wrote the essays that became “No Name in the Street” in Turkey. He directed a play on prison life in Turkey — though he spoke the language haltingly — and supported friends putting on a production of “Hair.” His salon included the jazz singer Bertice Reading, and trumpeter Don Cherry, who played at Baldwin’s legendary parties in Istanbul. Marlon Brando and Alex Haley visited his home on the Bosporus.

He never wrote at any length about Turkey itself, but only, perhaps, because “he was just tremendously busy,” Zaborowska said in an interview. “It was all new to him: Islamic culture, the interesting mix of secularism and religion, the way gender works, the way masculinity works,” she said.

He was “Arab Jimmy” to some in Turkey, a nickname that conveyed the familiar affection of his circle, but also that, as a black man in Turkey — or most anywhere else — he remained apart. And at one point, while visiting a Turkish village, Baldwin was badly beaten by two men who used a racial and anti-gay epithet, according to Baldwin’s biographer and friend, David Leeming. But mostly, Turkey was an escape. In Istanbul, “we had huge parties, great parties at Jimmy’s house,” Oral said. “Jimmy would dance beautifully.”

Baldwin at a typewriter in his Istanbul apartment. (Sedat Pakay)

Istanbul has been transformed in the decades since Baldwin lived here, by political upheaval and stampeding development, concealing his legacy. His novels are difficult to find in bookstores. The Istanbul theater where he staged the play “Fortune and Men’s Eyes” is long gone. In the tony, waterside neighborhood where Baldwin lived for a time, the gardeners and chauffeurs know the house as the library of a noted Ottoman-era intellectual, rather than the onetime residence of the famous American writer. The exiles in his old Istanbul neighborhood these days are Syrian refugees, lined up at the gates of the German Consulate, trying to reach Europe.

Baldwin at a soda stand near the ferry stations along the Bosporus. (Sedat Pakay)

Sedat Pakay, a photographer and friend who chronicled Baldwin’s time in Istanbul, died last summer. The Turkish actor Engin Cezzar, one of Baldwin’s oldest friends and a keeper of his memory, died earlier this month.

A volume of their letters was published in Turkish, but it is available only on special order. The missives convey Baldwin’s endless focus on injustice and strife, at home and abroad. “The entire world is no longer livable,” he wrote in one letter.

In another, he inquired after a friend, the Kurdish leftist writer Yasar Kemal, an outspoken advocate in Turkey for Kurdish rights.

“As far as I can tell from the French press, you are being clamped down by catastrophe,” Baldwin wrote to Cezzar in 1962. “Is Yasar still in Turkey or was he able to escape?”

Baldwin with a friend outside a hotel on the Bosporus. (Sedat Pakay)

Baldwin’s worries echo in Turkey’s current, troubled moment. A conflict between the state and Kurdish militants has flared again, as the government pursues an escalating crackdown on its perceived enemies, including writers, intellectuals and Kurdish activists — the very milieu Baldwin embraced during his time here.

His friend Zeynep Oral writes a column for Cumhuriyet, one of several Turkish media outlets targeted by prosecutors. “We have passed the limits of being afraid,” she said, speaking at the newspaper’s offices on a recent afternoon, where articles about Can Dundar, Cumhuriyet’s former editor, accused of treason by the state and now living in exile, hang on the walls.

But for all of Baldwin’s artistic engagement with Turkey, he was every bit the American expatriate, never mastering Turkish and regarding the country’s politics and debates as mostly a distant concern, compared with the troubles in the United States, according to Oral and Leeming.

In America, Baldwin was “overwhelmed,” said Leeming, who met him one memorable night in Istanbul, as the writer was composing the last words of “Another Country” on a kitchen counter, in the middle of a party.

In Istanbul, Baldwin was freed somewhat, from the constant demands to speak up about American racism, and from the heartache over the killings of black leaders in the United States, Leeming said.

“I suppose many people do blame me for being away from the States as often as I am,” Baldwin says in Pakay’s short film “James Baldwin: From Another Place,” shot in Istanbul in 1970, that shows him wandering like a tourist against the famous cityscape, in a scene that would be familiar today.

But over time, exile formed a crucial part of Baldwin’s identity, influencing his critiques of U.S. foreign policy and his ability to see similarities, across borders, in the plight of marginalized people, Zaborowska said.

“One sees it better, from a distance,” Baldwin says in the voice-over for the film, as he is shown sitting in his Istanbul bedroom, peering out the window at the Bosporus, smoking a cigarette in his bathrobe. “And you can make comparisons,” he said. “From another place, from another country.”

Baldwin stands on a bridge overlooking the Golden Horn. (Sedat Pakay)

Zeynep Karatas contributed to this report.


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