Week 19: Up front and personal with hüzün

Pat O’Hara

Turkish writer and 2006 Nobel Prize recipient Orhan Pamuk has commented about a psychological state of general melancholy or sadness that he names hüzün that he says pervades Istanbul’s inhabitants.

Pamuk identifies with the city, and diagnoses its predominant mood as the melancholy of a city in a state of decrepitude. Istanbul in his account is a humanised city suffering from chronic, even pathological, sadness, which transmits its mood to its inhabitants. Pamuk uses a Turkish word, hüzün, denoting a medley of melancholy, sadness and tristesse, to unite the city, its past and its present within a timeless as well as transnational feeling. Esra Amus

For the first time since we have arrived in Istanbul, this generalized feeling of sadness and gloom – this hüzün – has taken root in me. I can understand intellectually where it is coming from: it was tough to say good-bye to the girls knowing we would likely not see them for another half a year, our time in Istanbul is drawing to a close way too soon and we feel we’ve only scratched the surface and only started making connections with people whose stories we have only begun to hear.  Perhaps most immediately, the weather has been gray and gloomy – our charming Ottoman wooden home drafty and dark. Knowing why I’m melancholy doesn’t make it go away. We are also working very hard: grades need to be submitted by Tuesday, we’d like to finish our harvest visit newsletters by Thursday, we have one more scholarly talk to give in Izmir the following Tuesday and we have hopes of each of us writing a sample chapter of our collaborative “Olive Oil Primer” textbook. But we want to be simultaneously out in the city seeing some of the famous churches and mosques we have not yet made it to, spending time with friends and colleagues we will be sad to leave, and curling up with a down comforter and taking another nap.

Daily life seems to drag.  While I was once mesmerized by the exotic “otherness” and liveliness of the street vendors – now I feel their loneliness and bone-chilling weariness.

Boza vendor in the old days

Boza vendor in the old days

One rainy night this past week, in the pitch dark, we heard a new voice hawking some product we couldn’t quite understand. It was bitter cold outside and cold inside; curiosity led me to part the drapes and open the window to stop him and try to discover what he was selling at this hour. He reached a dipper into a metal jug he was carrying and showed me something that looked like milk, but his words were not “süt” (milk) but “Boza”. This did not make any more sense to me but I bought some – mostly out of pity for the poor guy who had raindrops dripping from his nose. I imagined him walking past dark shuttered windows, having one or two – like mine – open to him and his glimpsing the warm(er) interiors with families while he was out by himself on the street. The internet later told me that I had purchased Boza, an ancient Ottoman fermented wheat drink that Wikipedia said used to be sold on the streets of Istanbul in the winter.  I cannot drink very “earthy” drink without thinking of the hüzün that brought it to my window.

And then there’s South Africa to prepare for. It still isn’t clear whose lab I will be settle in. There a few intriguing possibilities, but I’m a bit reluctant to start new projects when the old ones are still not finished. We also have yet to be in touch with olive growers directly and don’t know if we should reach out on our own or wait till we get there and work through someone. We have an invite to visit olive growers in Australia and New Zealand and don’t know if/how that will work. We do have a house in Stellenbosch, plans to rent a car, and at least a clear project for Rich to work on.  I know we’ll be OK but still, there’s hüzün associated with starting all over again.

Perhaps I can look to Pamuk’s further Istanbul comments for a cure, “If the city speaks of defeat, destruction, deprivation, melancholy and poverty, the Bosphorus sings of life, pleasure and happiness” (p61 Istanbul, Pamuk). The beauty of the Bosphorus is that you are simultaneously traveling through the middle of a great city – Europe on one side, Asia on the other – and “feeling the freedom of the open sea.” Perhaps a daily jolt of Bosphorus from now until we leave, will inoculate me with the anti- hüzün vaccine that I need to stop with all my whining and gloom and get on with it.  I’ll show you how the Bosphorus transformed the winter storm into the pastels and sunlight this past week.


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3 Responses to Week 19: Up front and personal with hüzün

  1. cab552014 says:

    I am sorry you have been gripped by the huzun. I suspect that often happens when you are away from home and separated from family for a significant period of time. Having the girls with you for a while probably made it worse. Enjoy your wonderful adventure….all too soon it will be over. But my friend, we will be so glad to have you back. We are missing you horribly. I will be praying that the huzun is banished quickly and that the sun returns soon.


  2. pbohara says:

    Change is hard. But being away puts into relief those things you treasure most dearly. Certainly the fellowship and worship in the choir is one of those treasures, and Cathy, you are the treasure keeper that keeps it all together. Rich and I miss you so much!


  3. Sheila says:

    You guys are doing all of this so gracefully, even recognizing and admitting to the huzun (understandably) gripping you right now… I think letting yourself feel and move through as you can is probably all you can do. Hugs!


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