A dog barks, a seagull mews

A mosque in the evening light on the Bosphorus
You can't tell the story of Istanbul without talking about the animals in this city on the Bosphorus, the cats and dogs, the seagulls and pigeons, the horses and dolphins, photo: Givaga/Shotshop via picture alliance

Istanbul's kings and queens are its seagulls, the cats and dogs in its alleyways, the pigeons on Taksim Square. The city's animals are also an essential component of its literature. A new anthology of short stories by Turkish-language authors offers up a narrative tribute to the city's non-human inhabitants

By Gerrit Wustmann

You can't tell the story of Istanbul without talking about the animals in this city on the Bosphorus, the cats and dogs, the seagulls and pigeons, the horses and dolphins. Istanbul's street dogs are in the spotlight again as the Turkish government is eyeing the possibility of rounding up the city's strays and putting them to sleep, supposedly because the animals pose a risk to humans. 

This isn't true, but occasional stories of pedestrians hunted and injured or killed by packs of dogs serve to stoke public outrage.

Those familiar with Istanbul's dogs will know how harmless they are. Even the starving ones in parts of the city where hardly anyone tends to them are not aggressive, and neither are the impressive packs that roam the streets at night. 

On the contrary, if you offer them a little attention, a scratch behind the ears and give them some food, you'll soon find you have a new friend and protector, one who will never leave your side (the author can attest to this from personal experience). 

The infrequent tales of canine aggression can normally be put down to rough and bad behaviour on the parts of human beings, or abandoned fighting dogs – and here, too, the problem lies at the other end of the leash. In his short story, 'Brutality was Circulating', Emrah Polat writes, "These kinds of dogs would make headlines years later, they were always attacking someone, and people would say it was dangerous letting them run around unmuzzled.” Yet when it comes to brutality, it is humans, first and foremost, who are the culprits, not dogs

People who think themselves seagulls

Polat's story is part of a collection, Von Tieren, Menschen und der Stadt: Geschichten aus Istanbul (literally: 'Stories from Istanbul: on animals, people and the city'), edited by Tugce Isiyel and translated into German by Sara Heigl (Dagyeli, June 2024). In eighteen stories, we meet mistreated dogs, seagulls, people who think themselves seagulls, pigeons that have travelled many miles, and, of course, cats, which filmmaker Ceyda Torun paid cinematic tribute to with her 2016 film, Kedi. 

The writers, among them Mario Levi, Omur Iklim Demir, Melike İlgun, Haydar Ergulen and Ethem Baran do not just write about animals, they also assume their perspectives from time to time. In Irmak Zileli's 'Odours of Istanbul', we experience the city from the perspective of a dog pack accompanying a rubbish collector on his way through the alleyways, knowing exactly where and when a little food is likely to make an appearance. 

The current attempt to rid Istanbul of its dogs is not the first of its kind. In 1910, the Ottomans transferred thousands of dogs to an uninhabited island, one of the Prince's Islands in the Sea of Marmara, where they could not find anything to eat and ultimately slaughtered each other. It did not take long. In more recent decades, attempts by government and city administrations to remove the dogs have failed due to massive public protests – which are now stirring once again.

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"Seagulls have no awareness of history; well, perhaps they do, but not to the same extent as crows," writes Omur Iklim Demir (whose brilliant story collection, The Book of Expendable Thoughts, has been available in German since 2018, published by binooki, a press specialising in contemporary Turkish literature in German translation, which sadly is no longer in operation). 

His macabre story, 'The Old Story of the Seagulls' sees a seagull try to emulate a crow who tells her how one of her fellow crows filled its belly with three meals a day for a whole week during the Russian-Ottoman war, just by plucking out the eyes of corpses. However, the seagull telling the story happens to also be a history teacher who has become a serial killer, as well as believing himself to be a seagull.

Haydar Ergulen also contributes his story '10 Good Reasons to Love Cats'. One such reason, for instance, is that cats "make you a better person". Other stories in the collection tell of the unusually shaped seagull on the statue of Orhan Veli, or the adventure of the pigeon that explored the world from the roofs of Istanbul, while human beings looked on enviously. 

The approach adopted by this anthology is so natural that you have to wonder why no one happened upon the idea sooner. Either way, it is a success, a chorus of voices from contemporary Turkish literature, approaching its topic on gentle wings and soft paws. If you know the city, you will immediately feel at home in this book, and gain some new perspectives, too. 

And if you don't know the city, reading this collection will make you want to change that as soon as you can. Excepting, perhaps, those human beasts who want to put the city's dogs to sleep – but hope remains that any such attempts will ultimately come to nothing. 

Gerrit Wustmann

© Qantara.de

Translated from the German by Ayca Turkoglu