Photo credit: Ibtisaam Ahmed

A love letter to Istanbul

Merriam Webster (Not Mariam Webster, as I’ve often wished) defines a love letter as ‘a letter expressing a lover’s affection‘. Poetry – and hip hop music – have told me that the best kind of love is the kind that’s transformative. The one that kicks you in the gut, but also allows you the space to be the truest, raw-est and best version of yourself. And while I have had a few loves in my life, the greatest one has not been a man, nor in fact has it been a woman either. It’s a city. And now I write this love letter to you: Istanbul. The chamber of my heart and the place where a part of me will always linger.


Dear Istanbul,

I write this letter from Cape Town – the mother city which herself has many lovers. She will always be special to me. She guards my scraped-kneed tears and my heartbroken sobs. But the love I share with you warrants no comparison.

Many people I know have a complicated relationship with you. It’s a clichéd love-hate/love to hate/hate to love relationship, which I can logically understand but cannot relate to. The word hate and you cannot exist in the same reality. I never hated you, not for one single second. There is too much love for that. After a long day’s work and an uncomfortable bus ride home I would look up and see the Bosporus. My scowl would soften and my heart would be flooded with gratitude and awe. Every damn time. Your historic skyline is imprinted in my mind: a constant reminder of your beauty and history. I imagine the multitude of people over hundreds of years who gazed over that skyline while contemplating the politics of the day, or what they would eat for dinner. I am connected to those unknown hearts purely through our shared love for you.

I think back to how my feet pounded your cobbled streets, hustling against millions of others, trying to skip over puddles while maintaining balance and poise. I recall with fondness running for buses – 72T Bakırköy-Taksim 15ŞN- Üsküdar-Kavacık. I would stand on the metro platform watching the countdown for the metro to arrive, inching closer to the edge, standing wide and nipping through the doors at precisely the right moment, in a desperate attempt to find an open seat, only to give it up when a woman wearing beige stockings that gathered at her ankles and leather loafers, looking older than her age, walked in with her uneven gait.

Within your blue-skied, sunlit embrace I found some of the best women. The women who understood, who challenged, who agitated, and who helped me grow. We all chose you, and that choice alone meant that we were bound together. These women are the women who saw me at my worst and watched me soaring at my best. This is the sisterhood that emanated from a particular and calculated moment. We grabbed that moment and each other and we have not let go. Some of these women have now been flung to every corner of the world, and some of them are still with you. Yet what I shared with them will transcend that. I have always known the power of women, and it was under your watchful eye that we laughed, and cursed and screamed and loved.

Between the alleys of your ancient stone walls I met your sons. The men that were like nothing I’d ever seen before. Liquid eyes and streams of smoke billowing from mouths that tasted of tea and heartbreak. In the narrower, darker, more hidden alleys, I met the lost wandering men, who found themselves in you. With one of these adopted sons I experienced unguarded conversations that left me breathless and exhausted. Ruminations on love, life and Kundera with the profound realization that we are endlessly faceted. If we are open to experience, we find in others the most tensile connections that make no sense and that lead to nothing, other than the shared moments and unspoken words. I am grateful for those moments – they show us how little we know of ourselves and force us to confront our sharpest edges and unknown depths.

I discovered so many parts of myself while exploring your historic streets, and lived so much at your trendy cafes. I witnessed the changing of landscapes and your development into a modern city that was easy to operate through. I watched coffee shops multiply and culture explode. You were a mirror to my unfurling, my extending. I became bolder, I said more, I did more, I thought more. Yours was the space that allowed it. I feel that I have now recoiled but I am slowly remembering who I was there and I’m finding my voice again. I will treasure all that I felt. The taste of sugared eggplant and cream lingers somewhere in my mouth. Eating is one of life’s sensual pleasures. I learnt the art of eating well and gracefully with you.

I have supreme faith that even though we are no longer together, I will have many more loves. You taught me that. I am excited for the unknown and the undiscovered, but my heart will always turn to you as the greatest love thus far. I hope that we meet again, perhaps for a joyous tryst or who knows: perhaps we will reunite forever. Until then dear love, know that I keep you in my heart and that there are pieces of me scattered all around your majestic expanse.

With love and unending gratitude,