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Author: Engin Isin

Şehrin Keyfi

Updated Thursday, 12th June 2008

Engin Isin takes us to the banks of the Bosphorus and Istanbul, a city of longing and joy.

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It was the Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk who introduced his non-Turkish readers to the Turkish word hüzün. In his book Istanbul he suggested that hüzün is a peculiarly Turkish word that is untranslatable to any other language. It does not exactly match the meaning of words such as melancholy, nostalgia, somberness, sadness or even blues, which comes closest to it. While referring in part to all of these words hüzün still maintains a distinct feature by identifying an emotional state or mood where one withdraws into oneself but without necessarily feeling down. It is a kind of longing that makes one feel okay about longing. It is perhaps longing to long. It is not surprising then that Leonard Cohen comes closest to hüzün in his Book of Longing. Nor is it a surprise that hüzün makes its appearance in Istanbul. Pamuk tries to explain the peculiarity of this word through its particular association with the city of Istanbul. Being the capital of a disappeared empire, if not culture, Istanbul, or so Pamuk makes us think, is rife with symbols and images of longing. Istanbul, it appears, is a city of longing.

This is rather, well, hüzünlü, if not sad. It gives an image of the city that withdraws into itself longing for its future to come or for its past that’s gone. Istanbul and hüzün are perhaps closely associated. But this city is so vibrant, so creative and so energetic that I feel hüzün is only one of its moods.

Hüzünlü Bosphorus [image by Engin Isin © copyright Engin Isin]
Hüzünlü Bosphorus

Another of its moods that I find so seductive is keyif. Like hüzün this Turkish word is untranslatable into at least English. Also like hüzün it shares meanings with various words such as enjoyment, delight, and pleasure and yet it is not captured fully by any of them. Unlike hüzün, which reaches to the past or future or both, keyif is about the present. It is about being suspended in the present and its intoxicating nothingness. I say ‘intoxicating’ for a reason. One of its meanings is being high. The French word jouissance (enjoyment) especially known for its usage by Jacques Lacan comes closest to keyif. But Lacan associated jouissance with sexual pleasure while keyif is really not about sex. Keyif is sensual but not necessarily sexual. What keyif shares with jouissance is that emotional state or mood as a suspension in the present.

Keyifli Bosphorus
Keyifli Bosphorus

Like hüzün, I think keyif is peculiarly associated with Istanbul. This city is a city of spaces of keyif. These spaces manage to put you in the mood of keyif. That’s why this blog is called şehrin keyfi, which means the city of jouissance. But now that I disassociated keyif from sexual pleasure you should not think of spaces of keyif as including spaces of sexual creativity! Yes, there are plenty of those in Istanbul (as I am writing this I can look out my window to see a transgendered person across the street offering his/her services for the libidinal economy) but the spaces of keyif I have in mind are those spaces of the city that invite its inhabitants to suspend themselves in the present if only for a moment. In a city of intense vitality and energy, this not only means seeking relief from that intensity but also managing it by enjoying it.

There are many spaces of keyif but I think one of their shared orientations is either catching a view of the Bosphorus or being on it. It seems for centuries mosques, churches, synagogs, fountains, parks, cafes, and many other public spaces have had this orientation. It seems every architect and builder in the city has been in competition to catch a view of the Bosphorus (often with disastrous consequences especially in recent decades). Every building, it seems, tries so hard to orient itself to the Bosphorus in order to catch a glimpse of its glorious glisten and glitter. Sipping coffee or tea and catching the view (with a delicious desert) is an indispensable keyif that suspends you in time. It is almost as if when you catch that view you feel you are spared the hustle and bustle of the city and while you are of it you are not in the city just for a moment.

To have keyif means to lose oneself not only in time but space and to catch a view only to find that we are all thrown together in this madness called the city and then say ‘I might as well enjoy it’. Rather than being its opposite perhaps keyif is another side of hüzün.


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