Photo by Ara Güler

Istanbul to Cairo, our struggle to grip onto our cities

Albert Berk Toledo
5 min readOct 18, 2018

It’s Wednesday evening in New York City. I am at work, just finishing up some coding for the day. The lyrics of the song playing in my headphones go: “What keeps me in this city is not its Bosphorus, it’s my own past. How can you be leaving, I’ve always been wondering.”

A photo I took of a tram in November 2017, Istiklal Caddesi, Istanbul

I take a look at Twitter before I leave. As I am staring at the flood on my feed, I can feel tears going backwards into my eyes. My phone buzzes with a Whatsapp message from my sister. “I just saw it” I respond, “I was just reading it”. I send a picture of my screen where the article from Agos is open, reporting the death of Ara Güler. Why am I so saddened by the passing of a 90 year old photojournalist? Because it’s a reminder. Reminder of a reality that is the source of an urge and frustration many of us share.

See, Ara Güler with his unique sense of humor always complained about the massive transformation Istanbul was going through. In 2014 he said he didn’t recognize the city anymore while calling it an ‘ugly mess’. He captured “his” Istanbul with his camera, trying to grip onto it while time didn’t care to pause.

As I am walking down Broadway and through the Washington Square Park, I am thinking of my early high school years when I used to wander around Istanbul taking photographs of the fishermen in the Golden Horn with the inspiration and motivation I got from Ara Güler who was probably sitting a short walk away in Ara Cafe in those same moments, eating a cup of yogurt, watching people.

I am headed to the Kevorkian Center for the Near Eastern Studies at NYU. There is a screening of a movie called “In The Last Days Of The City” by Tamer El Said.

Poster of In The Last Days Of The City

The name of the film describes the feeling Tamer, Ara and I share. We feel like our cities that we grew up in, the cities that shaped us are slipping through our fingers. We feel an urge to hold onto them. It is the same nostalgia and melancholy that Orhan Pamuk talks about in his book “Istanbul: Memories and the City”. We want to capture what we can of them while knowing there is no perfect frame we can fit them into. Tamer started filming for his film before the Tahrir Square protests that led to the revolution in Egypt. He felt the change ahead, walls closing in and he had to do something about it even though he didn’t know what was coming.

I feel the same about Istanbul. I take photos and videos of ordinary things, cars and people passing by. I record the ferries on the Bosphorus and the Marmara Sea, not knowing when the newer uglier versions will replace the “real” ones altogether. They are my favorite objects in the world, a beautiful design. I take videos riding the dolmuş and minibüs… As I live the city, I feel a claustrophobic frustration of losing it to time, and the only remedy is trying to capture as much as I can.

A photo of a ferry I took in August 2018, Prince Islands, Istanbul
Another photo of a ferry I took in December 2017, Golden Horn, Istanbul

After the movie, Tamer mentioned he never thought he would one day live in a city other than Cairo, but he did. When I came to the U.S. for college, I thought I would be back to Istanbul after graduation. In Tamer’s film, a group of friends discusses their reasons for staying in their city versus leaving home in the wake of conflicts. Arguments on all sides are very convincing.

The idea of moving back to Istanbul is on my mind every night when I go to bed and every morning when I wake up although living in New York City is a deal most of my friends in Istanbul would take without thinking twice. Do I not like NYC? I love NYC. I enjoy every second I spend here. My reason is the fear of never again having the chance to experience the city that made me who I am. It is the fear that by the time I am back, I may not find what I left behind. The wise advise: “Go, become a global citizen, Istanbul will always be here for when you return”. But I can assure you that it sure as hell doesn’t feel like it.

A photo of the Galata Tower I took in September 2018, Istanbul

The transformation of Istanbul, or Cairo will never stop. For the better or worse this urge to grip onto them will be part of our lives forever. Reflecting on the life and work of Ara Güler as well as getting to know Tamer El Said by watching his masterpiece film and his priceless elaboration on it afterwards, today I feel more motivated and determined than ever to grip onto my own Istanbul myself.