There are two ways to the Pierre Loti Café. Either follow the winding road up through some scruffy housing as I did on a very warm October afternoon in Ramadan, late in the afternoon when the stress of no food, no water, no cigarettes was beginning to get many down. Or go up past the mosque, one of the most sacred in Istanbul, founded by the companion of Mohammed, after whom the district of Eyüp is named, which is now a prime site to be visited for many, especially for a picnic to break fast during Ramazan. Don’t take the cable car but walk up the path next to the cemetery, which contains the graves of some of Istanbul’s most illustrious, as you can see from the turbans on top of the gravestones, a sign of distinction. Then you reach a tea shop on the site of the house where Pierre Loti (1850-1923) lived from August 1876 to March 1877. Look inside shop and you see photos of Loti the poseur dressed in Turkish costume in his Turkish den in his house in Rochefort, dressed as the Egyptian God Osiris, and smoking a narghile next to his manservant Chucru.
Loti is given short shrift in Edward Said’s Orientalism, but it is probably Loti, real name Julian Viaud, French naval officer, through his best-selling stories and novels on Istanbul, who is most responsible for much of the popular exotic image of hidden veiled women and mysterious dervishes that even remains today. His most famous work is Aziyadé (1877), the fictionalization of the affair he had with a young woman from a harem, Hatıdjé. They meet, or rather they exchange looks as Aziyadé spies on the dashing mariner and peeps over an iron gate when Loti is in Salonika, then part of the Ottoman Empire. Through bribes, the help of his valet Samuel, his own skill in disguise as a Turk, the English officer (for Loti did not want to offend the French naval authorities) manages a meeting with Aziyadé, the youngest member of the harem of a wealthy merchant, Abeddin Efendi. He is in luck as she returns to Istanbul and he is posted there. Loti takes advantage of the repressed sensuality of the woman brought up in the harem.
“Turkish women, in particular the more sophisticated, hold fidelity to their husbands very cheap. The savage surveillance and terror of punishment alone holds them in check. Always idle, eaten up with ennui, physically obsessed by the monotony and solitude of harem life, they are capable of giving themselves to the first come – to a slave who is at hand, or the boatman who rows them about – if he is handsome and pleases them… My knowledge of their language and my hidden house were both propitious for such enterprises. Had I wished, no doubt my hide-out could have been propitious for many such idle inmates.”
Loti’s Istanbul is that of the mysterious dervishes, the veiled women, the hidden assignments, the smell of the narghile water-pipe through which he can escape the confines of Europe. He foresees that he will have to leave:
“Who will give me back my Oriental life, my free life Wandering without any set purpose… to make a round of the mosques, chapelet in hand, stopping at the cafes or Turkish baths to drowse in the smoke of the narghile; to talk with the dervishes or passers-by; to be, myself, part of this scene, and to be sure that the beloved will be waiting for you, at night…”
But Aziyadé herself is something of a cipher. Her main occupations are combing her hair and tending to her nails. “She is lazy, like all women brought up in Turkey; but she knows how to sew, make rose water and write her name. She has written it everywhere on walls, making it appear to be a serious exercise, and has used up all my pencils doing this”.
Finally Loti has to leave Istanbul. He knows he will never see Aziyadé again. Communication would not be so easy, especially with the address of the go-between, and the fact she could only write her name: “ To Achment, son of Ibrahim, who lives in Yedi-Houlé, in a road which comes out on ther Arabahdjilar-Malessi, near the mosque. It is the third house after a tutundji, and at its side there is an old Armenian who sells medicine, and in front, a dervish”. It seems the real life Aziyadé died of a broken heart just a few years after. In Istanbul: Le Regard de Pierre Loti, ed. Alain Quella-Villéger, we see the pictures Loti took when he, now a famous writer, returned to Istanbul from September 1904 to March 1905. Dapper in fez, waxed moustaches and frock coat, beside the grave of his beloved, in front of a cluster of cypresses, he sadly looks into the camera. Just to relieve his ennui he found/ contracted/ hired three veiled young ladies, his mock harem, with whom he took coffee.
Many are those who see in Aziyadé a male lover in disguise. When Loti was elected to the Academie Francaise in 1892, Eduard de Goncourt referred to Aziyadé being in fact a “Monsieur”. Loti enjoyed dressing up and the company of brawny sailors, as we see in brother Yves, and he also enjoyed drawing them. But in In Love with a Handsome Sailor Richard M. Berrong finds now proof Loti was gay. Much was obliterated from his notebooks and diaries by his sons and grandchildren.
The wistfulness he feels for Aziyade is that which he feels for Istanbul:
“…in the hazy distance a gigantic form can be just made out, the incomparable outline of a city. At its feet a sea which is endlessly furrowed by thousand of ships and boats, from which there comes the din of Babel, in all the languages of the Levant. Like a long horizontal cloud, the smoke floats over the masses of black steamers and golder kayaks, and the gaudy crowd which shouts out its business and goods. The veil of smoke covers everything. But the huge city seems to be floating on this sea of smoke. In the clear sky lance-sharp minarets rise from domes which seem to be piled on top of each other like stone bells. The still mosques, which for centuries have crowned Stamboul with their giant cupolas, giving it its unique shape, more grandiose than that of any other city on earth (Constantinople en 1890).”
Gone is much of the smoke, but the view is still the same.