Cover story Why did James Baldwin, the most incisive and prophetic observer of the painful complexities of race in America, spend most of the turbulent 1960s in Istanbul? Suzy Hansen charts the writer's unceasing exile.
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Why did James Baldwin, the most incisive and prophetic observer of the painful complexities of race in America, spend most of the turbulent 1960s in Istanbul? Suzy Hansen charts the writer's unceasing exile.
Some time after James Baldwin arrived in Istanbul he settled in Gumussuyu, a neighbourhood that hangs on the side of one of the city's many hills, above the Golden Horn, the shores of Asia, and even the Sea of Marmara. Baldwin was a drinker, and one of his favourite neighbourhood spots was the Park Hotel. These days that glamorous meeting place is a terrible hulking carcass of a stunted building project, all grey, barren floors and trash heaps, stray dogs barking at nothing all hours of the day. Both vistas - the fabled view, the hovering skeleton - loom outside the living room windows of the great Turkish actor Engin Cezzar, who was largely responsible for Baldwin's little-known sojourn in Turkey, where he lived on and off throughout the 1960s. When I went to visit Cezzar last winter, a collection of letters between Baldwin and Cezzar had just been showcased in an Istanbul bookstore along with Baldwin's translated works, and I told Cezzar I'd bought them. He scowled: "Don't read Jimmy Baldwin in Turkish, for Christ's sake." Cezzar seemed proud of his book, and his special friendship with "Jimmy," but he had priorities. He prized Baldwin as one thing above all else: a writer. Cezzar speaks in an old-school dramatic accent, as if prepared to launch into Shakespeare at any moment. (In fact, in Turkey, he is famous for playing Hamlet for 200 nights straight). His relationship with Baldwin lasted three decades, and he is one of the few people who might understand why one of America's most iconoclastic thinkers, its most profound preacher-essayist, chose to spend most of the 1960s in a country few Americans ever even think of. When Baldwin left for Istanbul he was, in some ways, just getting started on his lifelong endeavour to dissect America's race problem: he was not yet the commercial success - or the prophet of the civil rights movement - that he would become during the tumultuous decade that followed. He had enjoyed critical acclaim for his first book, Go Tell It On the Mountain (1953), an autobiographical novel about growing up in Harlem, and his 1955 collection of essays, Notes of a Native Son. There, as Henry Louis Gates Jr would later say, Baldwin "articulated for the first time to white America what it meant to be American and a black American at the same time". Notes didn't sell well, but one reviewer heralded Baldwin's imminent notoriety, calling him "the most eloquent Negro writing today". It was after his arrival in Istanbul, however, that he completed the two books that would change his life: the ominously powerful novel Another Country, which became a bestseller and made Baldwin a household name, and The Fire Next Time, an incendiary pair of essays written with the fire-and-brimstone passion of a sermon, warning of the calamitous consequences that would befall the United States if it did not solve its "race problem", whose publication landed Baldwin on the cover of Time in 1963. Cezzar met Baldwin in New York in 1957, after Baldwin had published the landmark gay novel Giovanni's Room, and was studying playwriting with Elia Kazan. "We were both strangers at the Actor's Studio," Cezzar said. "I was more of a stranger, but he was a nigger, for crissakes. And it was not a very good time for niggers. Actually the worst time perhaps - when the whole thing started. But we never talked about it. There was no other black boy and I was the only - what - stranger. Anyway, so Jimmy and I held onto each other - a very strange, unspoken sympathy." In New York Cezzar was a firsthand witness to Baldwin's woes; the Turk even landed in the hospital after defending Baldwin in a Greenwich Village bar brawl, ignited after a white woman laid her head on Baldwin's shoulder. Baldwin never escaped violence and forever feared it. "He arrived three years after he promised he was coming to Istanbul," Cezzar said. "'Baby, I'm coming,' then 'Sorry, something happened.' Three years later he said:'Baby I'm broke, I'm sick. I need your help.'"
In a 1972 essay in the New York Review of Books called "A Guide to Exiles, Expatriates, and Internal Emigrés," Mary McCarthy distinguished between exiles ("A person who cannot return home without facing death or jail for acts committed against the government") and expatriates ("The expatriate's need is to locate as far as possible from the source of his capital and to be free of the disapprobation of the administrators of the same"). Exile: Eldridge Cleaver; Expat: Henry James. Baldwin walks the line. But McCarthy is careful to note that while Baldwin at first glance seems like an expatriate, his time in Turkey instead constituted one long layover in his even longer exile. "The average expatriate thinks about his own country rarely and with great unwillingness," McCarthy wrote, sealing Baldwin's fate. "He feels he has escaped from it." Baldwin was an American writer who needed to escape America in body, but it was his moral imperative to never even consider the folly or frivolity of trying to escape America in mind. Baldwin landed in Istanbul in 1961, some months after he first met Malcolm X, and one month after the prime minister of Turkey was hung on an island in the Marmara Sea during a military coup. Baldwin wasn't much interested in Turkey, Turkish politics or Turkish violence at the time - he had enough of that to worry about at home - and mostly he desired a quiet place to write. He didn't want to go back to New York, and he hadn't the energy to continue on to Africa, where he was supposed to travel, so he stopped at the world's way station, Istanbul. He arrived, bedraggled and unannounced, at Cezzar's hilltop house in the city that was once the centre of the world, in the middle of a wedding party. Baldwin had fled home once already, leaving the sweltering trap of Harlem and the unromantic poverty of the Village to head to Paris with the rest of the black Americans who found no peace in the 1940s and 1950s. France sufficed for a while, though he never quite escaped poverty or discovered happiness. There, he wrote three books and fell painfully in and out of love, settling into a lifelong forlorn pattern that knew no geographical borders. In 1957 he returned to America out of a sense of responsibility, a need to see the South, where he'd never been. But America always nearly seemed to kill him. The terror with which he describes the South in Nobody Knows My Name - think of his wide, stretched eyes, exercised, expanded, by terror - is one of the many moments that a white reader will feel humbled, embarrassed by their complete inability to understand him. When he peered out his aeroplane window, seeing the state of Georgia for the first time, he "could not suppress the thought that this earth had acquired its colour from the blood that had dripped down from these trees". Once he'd had enough of the United States, he fled again, not to Paris but to Istanbul. The Ottoman Empire's exhausted former capital, once the jewel of the East, had quickly become a no man's land between Europe and Russia and the Arab Middle East, as if someone haphazardly rubbed out a spot on the map with his elbow and called it a country. This lack of definition heightened the city's appeal for Baldwin, even as its transformation from polyglot empire to nationalistic republic had put the Turkish people through hell. "I feel free in Turkey," Baldwin told Yasar Kemal, the country's preeminent man of letters, who replied: "Jimmy, that's because you're an American." Baldwin, ever mindful of American power, must have relished that retort. When he moved to Istanbul, Baldwin, as exhausted as he was, still had reason to be hopeful about his America. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were both alive. The civil rights movement had barely begun. And Baldwin had not yet suffered many of the personal and public heartbreaks that would later destroy him. At that point his central prescription for alleviating the suffering of blacks in America was a surprisingly simple one: love. In Turkey, where there were no white people or black people according to the American paradigm, Baldwin finally managed to accept transience as a permanent condition. "During the Istanbul period and the months in Paris... Baldwin came to a decision," writes his biographer David Leeming. "He could not give up on America, and he could not give up on Europe. He would neither be an expatriate nor a full-time resident. He was doomed to juggle his prophetic mission as an American with his deeply complex and confused state as James Baldwin the individual. He would from now on resign himself to becoming a 'transatlantic commuter … a stranger everywhere.'"
The fact that Baldwin spent significant time outside of New York and Paris comes as a surprise to most people, and Istanbul seems an odd choice for any American writer - never mind a writer so preoccupied with America's destiny - to have spent much of the 1960s. One television documentary about Baldwin features footage of him walking in Istanbul, down dusty "Eastern" streets, between market stalls, with people everywhere around him. I don't remember his exact words, but I was surprised to hear Baldwin say that he felt more comfortable being black and gay in Istanbul than he did in Paris or New York. Magdalena J Zaborowska, a professor at the University of Michigan, takes up the challenge of trying to figure out why in her new book, James Baldwin's Turkish Decade. She scours his works for hints of Istanbul; she visits his stomping grounds and entertainingly interviews various Turkish luminaries. While the demands of academic work lead her into some heavy-handed readings of Baldwin's writing, her reporting reveals as much about Turkey as it does about Baldwin, as well as the connections between this fledgling nation and the growing shadow America had begun to cast across the globe. Baldwin's many exiles - in Turkey and elsewhere - were a far cry from the romantic conception of expat writers, living like Hemingway in cheap European cities or like Paul Bowles, among the natives in North Africa. Paris had made Baldwin sceptical of exile, or at least it had not diminished his superhuman capacity for self-examination. "Havens are high-priced," he wrote in his 1961 essay collection Nobody Knows My Name. "The price exacted of the haven-dweller is that he contrive to delude himself into believing that he has found a haven." Baldwin learnt these lessons of identity during his long stay in Paris, where he became "alchemised, willy-nilly, overnight, into an American", something he'd certainly never been in Harlem or the Village. On the Left Bank, he understood that "the sight of a face from home is not invariably a source of joy, but can also quite easily become a source of embarrassment or rage. The American Negro in Paris is forced at last to exercise an undemocratic discrimination rarely practised by Americans, that of judging his people, duck by duck, and distinguishing them from one another. Through this deliberate isolation, through lack of numbers, and above all through his own overwhelming need to be, as it were, forgotten, the American Negro in Paris, is very nearly the invisible man." Even as an invisible man in Paris he would be thrown in jail, and later, in Switzerland, little kids would run from him in fright. Europe may not have been an adequate reprieve for Baldwin, but according to Leeming, "he was in Istanbul because he was 'left alone' and could work better there. The fact that Turkey was a Muslim country had nothing to do with it, 'except, perhaps, that it's a relief to deal with people who, whatever they are pretending, are not pretending to be Christians,'" as Baldwin explained. Turkey, a fallen, forgotten empire, was a place for comfortable collapse. Baldwin was very sick when he arrived, sick from drinking, smoking and failed romance. He didn't know what an oasis for him would look like, but he knew what didn't look like one. New York, as he wrote in Another Country, was decidedly "a city without oases, run entirely, insofar, at least, as human perception could tell, for money; and its citizens seemed to have lost entirely any sense of their right to renew themselves. Whoever, in New York, attempted to cling to this right, lives in New York in exile - in exile from the life around him; and this, paradoxically, had the effect of placing him in perpetual danger of being forever banished from any real sense of himself."
Istanbul, Zaborowska writes, reminded Baldwin of the rubbed-shoulders humanity of Harlem, but even though he consciously carried his past with him wherever he went, New York no longer appealed to him as a place where he could figure out who he was. "The charge has often been made against American writers that they do not describe society, and have no interest in it," he wrote sympathetically in his essay "The Discovery of What It Means to be an American." "They only describe individuals in opposition to it, or isolated from it. Of course, what the American writer is describing is his own situation." Baldwin, who brilliantly used the pronoun "we" - to include blacks and whites together - in his indictments of American society, conducted his soul-searching on behalf of his nation. Unlike so many writers, whose powers of examination fade at the edges of their own identities, Baldwin's desire to know himself was utterly inextricable from his attempt to know the "American" - and he was forceful and eloquent in his insistence that the problem of his own identity was in fact the paramount challenge facing America. He was also a prophet rather than just an observer, a role he took on in mongrel Greenwich Village and continued among Algerians in Paris and again in Turkey, an expired empire subject to Europe's dismissive border-drawing and under the sway of America's rising post-war world power. Baldwin saw his fate and his country's as one: Turkey served both as another setting for his personal struggles and a new perch from which to regard America's.
"I've gained a little weight here and this is taken, apparently, as an enormous justification for Turkey's existence," Baldwin wrote home a few months after his arrival, already grasping Turkish priorities and humour. At the end of 1961, Baldwin finished Another Country in Istanbul and shortly thereafter became a huge star; the fame he experienced at home both flattered and weakened him. In Turkey, he could enjoy relative anonymity and the warmth of good friends. On the night that he arrived, "Jimmy was literally and figuratively embraced by the entire Istanbul intellectual world," Leeming writes, and was "amazed at the people he met that night" - like the writer Yasar Kemal, the artist Aliye Berger and one of Ataturk's mistresses. Baldwin was delighted, perhaps stunned, to discover a vibrant intellectual and artistic community willing to embrace a black writer, with a measure of literary admiration, and perhaps more so, with their famous Turkish hospitality. He trolled the book bazaar on the Golden Horn, and found a favourite teahouse and small mansion on the Bosphorus. Friends came to visit: Alex Haley, Geoffrey Wolff, his old Actor's Studio friend Marlon Brando. On a practical level, life in Istanbul was simply safer and easier. "He did not have to worry." Zaborowska writes, "about not being served at a restaurant or being attacked by cops while in a 'good' neighbourhood". Turks did not see Baldwin as black, and in any case, Turks had long been used to black people from the Ottoman Empire; black eunuchs were some of the most powerful residents in Topkapi Palace, and yet they never constituted large enough a minority to be considered a problem, like Armenians, Kurds or Greeks (who had all been killed, expelled or officially ignored by the time Baldwin got there). In the 1960s, James Baldwin was called "Arap Jimmy" - an Arab. The great Turkish-Kurdish writer Kemal, who became a close friend of Baldwin's and who Baldwin supported when the government cracked down on leftists, explained: "As far as I was concerned, Baldwin was not black… for there are no 'blacks' in Turkey in that sense. We didn't experience the slave trade; we don't have the category. There are only people with darker skins." Turkey appeared a blissful reprieve from the American "fraternity of white men", Zaborowska notes, that "precludes any real male friendships based on emotional and bodily closeness among themselves. This is the price for keeping alive their outspoken bond of presumed superiority over blacks, gays, and women." Baldwin was transfixed by the sight of Turkish men holding hands, walking with their arms around each other. In his biography of Baldwin, Talking at the Gates, James Campbell explains that in Turkey, "Strangers were naturally sociable; young men had no shame in touching one another; homosexuality was quite common, and, in its underground form, accepted without fuss." "When he first got here," Cezzar told me, "we were walking in front of the Marmara Hotel and in front of us were two soldiers, very ordinary soldiers, and they had linked pinkies - it's very famous. It's not like holding hands, it's more an Anatolian tradition. Jimmy saw this and said, 'My god, look at the way they are walking! They are holding hands! Oh, oh, what a beautiful country, and nobody says anything!' Anatolian soldiers always walk like this when they come to Istanbul because they are afraid of getting lost in the big city. That was very typical in the Sixties, but I never shattered his idea." The Istanbul of that era was a very different place from pre-war Constantinople or the shiny European-leaning city of today. It was a small town that had once been a great world capital, unsure of where it was heading next. A nation ever in turmoil, Turkey had only just endured the trauma of the First World War, the downfall of a glorious Islamic empire, the proud, but bloody establishment of a fledgling "secular" republic and the expulsion and suppression of the last of its many non-Turkish minorities. "The country has turned its back on the East and European concepts," wrote Paul Bowles around the same time, "not with the simple yearning of other Islamic countries to be European or to acquire American techniques, but with a conscious will to transform itself from the core outward - even to destroy itself culturally, if need be." But on some level, in that chaotic, awkward vagueness, "it defied dichotomies of geography, religion and culture," Zaborowska writes. In Orhan Pamuk's view, "Istanbul is a place where, for the past 150 years, no one has been able to feel completely at home," but to Baldwin that uncertainty might have felt very much like home. In Istanbul's confused self-image, Baldwin's own contradictions found a solace that eluded him in imperial cities like Paris and New York. Baldwin also happened to live in Istanbul during what was a special moment in the young republic's history. "The military coup in 1960 and the subsequent liberal constitutional reform," Zaborowska writes, "brought about unprecedented freedom of speech and an opening to the West that led to a vibrant period of experimentation and daring productions in the arts." Baldwin's new friends, actors and writers and artists, weren't experimenting with the lifestyles enjoyed by young people from San Francisco to Prague, but for the first time, as Turkish artists, they suddenly had the freedom to write, play and say what they wanted. It was a moment of freedom that has arguably never been surpassed in Turkey, and Baldwin, who feared that he would be stabbed on the street in the United States for the things he had written, found a refuge in a country that was still determining its new role in the world. "I think that it is difficult to move in some way out of the memory of a very glorious past into whatever is demanded now," he said of Turkey. "I must say that, speaking as an outsider, there is something very moving and very exciting about that, something very affirmative. I sense a kind of energy here which may have tremendous repercussions on this part of the world, and even the disadvantage of having had an empire which is gone may prove to be an advantage in some time to come, because something is left to that, to the way of dealing with the world." From Istanbul, it was as if Baldwin saw the West, or America, on one side, and all of the world's "others" positioning themselves in opposition. "Here," he said in another interview, "one's aware of a certain kind of uneasiness in them, in relation to the western world, a certain kind of anger to their relation to it. Which echoes something in me… because of our own peculiar relationship to the West. It really isn't a good comparison, I suppose, to be a Turk and to be a black, but in both cases I think one is forced to examine some things by oneself, outside the context of which one is born, the context of what one's taught." Zaborowska suggests that Baldwin's time in Turkey sharpened his sense of America's "imperial presence", and he described the country as a "satellite on the Russian border" where one learnt about "brutality and the power of the western world" by "living with people whom nobody cares about, who are bounced like a tennis ball between the great powers." The Turks, spurned by Europe and despised by the Arabs, turned gratefully to America and Nato, sending their soldiers to the Korean War (an event still celebrated in Turkish war museums to this day) and pledging fealty to a generous benefactor terrified of communism. Turkey was becoming a "geopolitical spectacle," Zaborowska writes, and Baldwin later said that it was "a revelation" to see the functioning of "power politics and foreign aid... in that sort of theatre." Today, Turkey has become an independent regional power, but despite the country's close relations with the United States, the Turks themselves express low levels of approval for America and its policies. It is a striking contrast from the Istanbul that Baldwin inhabited, where, he wrote, Turks were somewhat discontented with "American imperialism" and President Lyndon Johnson's "patronising attitude" but had "a real pro-American system of intellectual connections with the US" and still saw America as a benign and benevolent and welcoming safe port, a delusion he sought to cure. "The people of Istanbul … know nothing about what the black man has gone through in America. They still think of America as a promised land … They don't know that the dream which was America is over," Baldwin said in an interview - and that was in 1970.
Baldwin finished his masterpiece, The Fire Next Time, after escaping to Istanbul; it would be impossible to demonstrate how precisely his time in the East influenced this tragic examination of his homeland. But it is easy to imagine that from a great distance, on his Istanbul balcony, Baldwin could see that an America roiled by deeply held hatreds would have terrible ramifications for the rest of the world it was beginning to dominate. In the stunning black and white film made by Sedat Pakay, Baldwin often sits at his desk in front of the window with the view of the Bosphorus, a glass of (most likely) whiskey by the typewriter and a cigarette in hand. He says that America "has dragged itself, and may well have dragged the world, onto the very edge of a kind of unimaginable conflict, which could be the end of all of us, and has done it out of a really weird determination to protect something called the American way of life, which used to be called manifest destiny". Today this statement seems mild by comparison to the pessimism that dominates Baldwin's later works. But Baldwin's version of what he called "real intellectual effort" necessarily meant that exile "saved my life … by making me able and willing to accept my own vision of the world, no matter how radically this vision departs from that of others." His aggressive self-searching was inseparable from his search for America, and the two declined in tandem: Baldwin falling deeper into depression and drinking more and more, while his country became ever more the ignorant and violent monster he feared and prophesied. Baldwin witnessed the collapse of the civil rights movement, the assassinations of Martin, Malcolm and Medgar, the follies of Vietnam and Cambodia. Over and over he wrote that white people were deluded, that they cling to myths, that they can't feel pleasure and have no sense of tragedy, that they are miserable and fake, and most Americans today probably still have no idea what he meant. In America the 1960s are remembered today, with no small measure of self-congratulation, as a decade of liberation and redemption; for Baldwin, something was still fundamentally broken in America, had never been fixed, or even properly acknowledged, and that neglect haunted him. He said: "It is the innocence which constitutes the crime." Baldwin's central theme of love had been the generous view of a young man who saw the emotion as an antidote to ugly, complex things far beyond the intellectual: the fear of the other, the horror of touch, the terror of closeness. When he was older, and it should be said, physically ill and emotionally broken, and when he'd come back to the US before leaving again for a country home in southern France, some of that optimism had died in him. "All of the western nations have been caught in a lie, the lie of their pretended humanism," he wrote in No Name in the Street, "This means that their history has no moral justification, and that the West has no moral authority… the western party is over, and the white man's sun has set." It shouldn't be a mystery which country Baldwin was talking about when he talked about the West, and yet Americans, devoid, as Baldwin said, of a sense of tragedy, may still not understand how deep was his concern about the extraordinary and righteous strength of their most Western of countries. In her review of Zaborowska's book in the New Yorker, Claudia Roth Pierpont wrote that, with the election of Barack Obama, "we have at last the beginnings of a country to which James Baldwin could come home". The existence of a man and writer like Barack Obama would certainly have greatly pleased Baldwin. But Pierpont's conclusion minimises the point of Zaborowska's book: that only 40 years ago this black writer was so devastated by living in America that he needed to escape to Turkey to survive. Baldwin's rage might not have been so easily assuaged. "I remember when the ex-Attorney General, Mr Robert Kennedy, said it was conceivable that in 40 years in America we might have a Negro president," Baldwin wrote in 1965. "That sounded like a very emancipated statement to white people. They were not in Harlem when this statement was first heard. They did not hear the laughter and bitterness and scorn with which this statement was greeted. From the point of view of the man in the Harlem barber shop, Bobby Kennedy only got here yesterday and now he is already on his way to the presidency. We were here for 400 years and now he tells us that maybe in 40 years, if you are good, we may let you become president." Baldwin feared that if white America was not "able, and quickly, to face and begin to eliminate the sources of this discontent in our own country, we will never be able to do it on the great stage of the world." It was in Europe and Istanbul that Baldwin deepened his sense of that vast stage, but like a true exile, Baldwin was never far from the source of his despair.
Suzy Hansen, a regular contributor to The Review, last wrote on Christopher de Bellaigue's Rebel Lands. She lives in Istanbul.