[This is the first in what will be a not-too-regular series loosely called "literature review." I was struck by Spencer Hall's marauding piece on the Istanbul Derby today, and I here expand on some of his observations and offer a sort of aesthetic response to such a fascinating artifact of sports journalism.]
Someone has been killed conspiratorially here, and it was fabulously done.
So begins Spencer Hall's romp through the streets of Istanbul, from inside an elegant, if middling, hotel in downtown. For those perhaps hesitant to dive into #longform just yet, the article's success rests on how perfectly it captures the historical, religious, cultural and literary significance of Istanbul generally, and its frothing populace specifically. The writing is emotive; the posture, sensitive; the narrator, happily nestled in a come-what-may outlook.
Framed as a "day in the life of," Hall's piece transcends the confines of pure sports journalism and crosses into the amoebic sphere of cultural critique qua travel literature. The here-and-now attitude enthralls from the get-go and provides a vivid glimpse of sport fandom very different from our own.
If one could assign a color to The Istanbul Derby saga, it would doubtless be red: a deep-bloody-flaming red, tinged by violent millennia of conquerors and combatants. The essay is, in a word, visceral.
Istanbul sits astride the Bosphorus, a narrow straight separating Europe from Asia, the only means of passage from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. The term originates in Aeschylus' Persians, and translates roughly to "cow-passage" (bos + phoros), since it was here that Io, made bovine by Zeus, crossed into Europe during her wanderings. It is here that ancient and modern grain passes by the ton; here that Xerxes famously whipped the water and proclaimed himself Ruler of Land and Sea only to be shit-kicked at Marathon; here that the Eastern Roman Empire concentrated its ebbing power; here that the Byzantine Empire waxed while the Holy Roman waned; here that Islam found political and intellectual succor in its nascent decades; here that Christian Crusaders spring-boarded into the wilds of Mesopotamia; here that Eric Ambler staged the most influential murder mystery in the English language.
The city thus inhabits liminal territory. To be sure, the name "Istanbul" is a relic of mutation, of change. By accident of dialect and linguistic collision: Constantinople > Stantinople > Stanbul > Istanbul.
[Istanbul] could not die if it wanted to, and will be thrown clear of the earth's wreckage when the sun dies ...
Paradox and contraposition lend Spencer's story especial verve. Like any international hub, Istanbul is a tale of two cities, but in many senses of the aphorism: geographically, sure, but economically and culturally as well. The European mansions of the west glower down upon seething street goers, impervious to, and uncaring for, environmental or construction codes so rigorously held in America. Hall carries no xenophobia, however; just fascination at it all.
The main nerve of The Istanbul Derby examines the pulsing riot that is ever about-to-be on match day. A sinister police presence looms over everything and everyone in a sort of precarious tension test. Peculiar vignettes focusing on the mundane and benign provide stark realism:
A dog sprinted across the park, circling and setting down in the grass to gnaw a bone he'd found somewhere. Two other dogs followed in tow, waiting with all the intensity of a thousand suns for the hound to drop it. He ignored the soldiers and the signs and the other dogs and everyone else, gnawing on a meal at the feet of the father of the nation.
We've entered the land of Cubism, of Vonnegut and Hunter S. Thompson and Picasso. We're looking through the prism and seeing every angle bent back at once. We are on the train watching when "a gentleman missing a finger detonates explosives indoors." The smoke from flares singes our eyes. This is scene construction, goddammit.
And what of the game itself, the story's raison d'être? The Istanbul Derby peppers sublime narrative with history lessons on the import of the Galatasaray-Fenerbahçe rivalry. This conflict is angry. Fenerbahçe's fans, we come to find out, are banned from attendance on the grounds that the game is happening in Galatasaray's stadium. Due to rioting after a wheelchair basketball game earlier this year, the big three Istanbul fan-bases cannot come calling at each others' houses. "The match will be 50,000 on eleven," writes Hall. In this way—and Spencer realizes the fact gradually—Galatasaray's supporters have nowhere to direct their rage; they're somehow impotent by their madness. Who do you fuck up when there's no one available for stomping?
The stadium is chaotic and beautiful. Consider this scene in the stands:
The occasional flare goes off, red smears held up in defiance of attempts to get fans from doing all the things they clearly want to do so very badly: to light off flares, to spend the entire match telling Fenerbahçe to sodomize themselves and their mothers, to find something in their way wearing the wrong colors and to let it know just how much they fucking love their team, and how much hatred they by rule have for you. The sportsmanship and fan conduct announcement appears on the jumbotron hanging from the edge of the stadium roof. It is booed lustily.
Across from our seats a sign reads "WELCOME TO THE JUDGMENT DAY." All is screaming and chanting in a language whose every breath at this volume sounds like a vow of murder.
Here is where Hall is at his best: in the torrent of humanity that we've all seen and heard and smelled. Spencer can raise a simple rivalry in northwest Turkey to the plane of universality. One gets the sense that the author knows he is witnessing a Cultural Event of cosmic proportions. The comedown must have lasted for days.
T.S. Eliot might say that The Istanbul Derby ends not with a bang, but a whimper, and it's impossible to fault Hall for the piece's coda. The reader is still buzzed from the heady fracas of the walk to the train station, the shitty whiskey and beer, the controlled demolitions on the metro, the rocks thrown at Fenerbahçe's buses, the acrid flares, and unfounded panic after the game ends. It's worth a read.
Artwork from "The Istanbul Derby" created by Dylan Lathrop, via SBNation.