Constantinople, Dirty and White, Not Glistening and Sinister

Ernest Hemingway

Toronto Daily Star/October 18, 1922

Constantinople.-Constantinople doesn’t look like the movies. It does not look like the pictures, or the paintings, or anything.

First your train comes winding like a snake down the sun-baked, tree­less, rolling plain to the sea. It rocks along the shore where kids are bath­ing and out across the blue water you see a big brown island and faintly beyond it bulks the brown coast of Asia. Then it roars in between high stone walls and when you come out you are passing crazy, ramshackle, wooden tenements.

“Stamboul,” the Frenchman who is standing looking out of the window with you, says.
From all I had ever seen in the movies Stamboul ought to have been white and glistening and sinister. Instead the houses look like Heath Robinson drawings, dry as tinder, the color of old weather-beaten fence rails, and filled with little windows. Scattered through the town rise minarets. They look like dirty, white candles sticking up for no apparent reason.

The train passes the old, reddish Byzantine wall and goes into a culvert again. It comes out and you get flashes of squatting, mushroom-like mosques always with their dirty-white minarets rising from the corners. Everything white in Constantinople is dirty white. When you see the color a white shirt gets in twelve hours you appreciate the color a white minaret gets in four hundred years.

In the station are a jam of porters, hotel runners, and Anglo-Levantine gentlemen in slightly soiled collars, badly soiled white trousers, garlicized breaths and hopeful manners who hope to be hired as interpreters. There is a little something wrong with their passports, just enough to keep them from leaving Constantinople, and they turn their cuffs, clean their white shoes and hope that soon there will be tourists coming to town again. Meantime they will do anything for a price, and their price is very low.

I called a porter, gave him my bags, and told him, “Hotel de Londres,” a hotel the Frenchman had recommended. We started for the cab and the white-trousered one came up. He was contorted with a smile.

“Ah. You are going to the Hotel de Londres. I am from there. I will ride up with you and take care of your baggage”

“Get in,” I said.

We drove in a mass of traffic onto a long bridge. White Pants gave the Turkish gendarme a dirty, crumpled note, and we crossed a tangle of shipping on both sides. You can only see patches of the water because of the way the boats were packed.

“What’s that? The Golden Horn?” I asked. It looked more like the Chicago River.

“Yes,” White Pants answered. “Those boats on the left go to the Bosporus and the Black Sea, and those on the right are excursion boats for the Isle of Princes.”

We clattered up a steep street, past shop windows, banks, restaurants, saloons with their· signs printed in four languages, scraped by jangling tramcars, were honked at by motorcars filled with British officers, were nearly run down by motors filled with French officers, passed a constant stream of men in business clothes, wearing either fezzes or straw hats, and climbed all the time.

We passed the square building of the American Embassy, looking like a Carnegie library, the square yellow building of the Allied police com­mission, also looking like a Carnegie library, and the square yellow build­ing of the British Embassy, looking even more like a Carnegie library than the other. We were now in Pera.

Pera is the European quarter. It is higher on the hill than Galata, the business quarter, and is all strung along one narrow, dirty, steep, cobbled, tramcar-filled street. All the public buildings of Pera are uniform in their resemblance to the square, packing-case-shaped Carnegie library, and would make anybody from the States feel at home instantly as they are exact reproductions of the type of post office U.S. small-town congressmen get for their native city in order to assure their perpetual re-election.

The Rumanian and Armenian consulates can be distinguished from the others, however, by the long lines of their citizens, stretched out like the ticket line waiting to get into a big hockey match at the Arena, who are trying to get passports or visas. The Armenian Jews and Rumanians are clearing out of Constantinople. They are selling their property at any sacrifice and getting out. The government issues statements urging them not to be foolish, assuring them that all measures of protection for the inhabitants will be taken, that patrols are being reinforced, that there is no danger. But the Armenians and Jews and the Jewish Rumanians have heard all that before. It is probably all true, they reason, but we aren’t going to take chances. Sooner or later the Kemal troops are going to enter Constantinople, or else there is going to be war and the Armenians, Jews and Greeks cannot forget Smyrna. So they go. With a history of a thousand years of massacre behind them, it is hard for the racial fear to be quieted, no matter who makes the promises.

The Greeks are in a different position. They have a guilty national conscience. It is an uncontested fact that the Greek army in its retreat across Anatolia laid waste and burned the Turkish villages, burnt the crops in the fields, the grain on the threshing floors and committed atrocities. These facts are testified to by American relief workers and Christians who were in the country before, during and after the Greek retreat.

I will take up the question of Greek atrocities later when I have the evidence and testimony of both Christians and Turks and will try and give a complete presentation of the matter to the Star readers. That is not the point now. The fact is that atrocities are always followed by counter­-atrocities in these countries and have been since the siege of Troy. And it is the innocent who suffer. The victim of the revenge is rarely the perpe­trater of the original outrage. It is this that is emptying Constantinople of Greeks.

I stood on the dusty, rubbish-strewn hillside of Pera, after I had cleaned up at the hotel, and looked down at the harbor, forested with masts and grimy with smoky funnels and across at the dust-colored hills on the other side where the Turkish town sprawled in square mud-colored houses, ramshackle tenements with the dirty-white fingers of the minarets rising like gray-white, slim lighthouses out of the muddled houses. With my glasses I could see an Italian steamer leaving the port, crowded to the rails with Greek refugees seen curiously clearly through the powerful lenses.

It all looked unreal and impossible. But it was very real to the people who were looking back at the city where they were leaving their homes and businesses, all their associations and their livelihoods, because they were afraid to wait and see what would happen when the brown-faced men in fezzes, their carbines strapped on their backs, riding their shaggy, short, mountain horses should come ashore from the ferry from Scutari just across the narrow harbor.

(Source: Dateline: Toronto. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1985)

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