Six years ago I moved to Istanbul. I had a very vague idea of the place I was to call home. Somehow, Turkey had never previously been in my thoughts, and in no conscious way whatsoever, I had always steered clear of it. My mind was a blank slate, so to speak, and so I was an ideal subject for a natural experiment to investigate the power of literature to shape one’s understanding of a country. Like many first-time visitors to Istanbul, I was spellbound. When I first arrived, I would find a rooftop café and spend all day watching the traffic of ferries, cargo ships, private dinghies, and tourist boats going up and down the Bosporus—the “original History Channel,” as a poster I’d seen in a bar proclaimed—against the skyline of the Old City’s minarets. And then there were the sights, the long queues to get into Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, the Basilica Cistern, the Grand Bazaar, all testifying to a rich, fascinating history. At the Archaeological Museum, I learned about the long list of civilizations that have made Turkey their home: Hittites, Phrygians, Urartians, Lycians, Ionians, Lydians, Persians, Macedonians, Romans, Byzantines, Seljuks, and Ottomans.
Occasionally, when leaving a restaurant after dinner, I would feel the pungent sting of tear gas, a sensory reminder that history had not stopped. The layers kept piling up, one on top of the other. So I started to read. Turkey was (and is) very much in the news—the Gezi Park protests, the repression that followed, and later a string of elections, terrorist attacks, an attempted coup, more repression, more terrorist attacks . . . no, history had definitely not stopped here. It was easy to find long articles trying to explain what was going on: plenty of Turkish writers and journalists had had to move abroad, and the Western media was hungry for their stories. And I was, too. Each new piece I read revealed a new aspect of the country I was living in. First, they helped me understand what I was seeing. Then, almost magically, long-form narratives started showing me what I was not seeing: what was hidden from view, left unsaid, whether intentionally or not, what was not advertised. They filled in the gaps. They made me go out and look for what I’d missed.
Meanwhile, time and work allowing, I was reading novels. Their contribution to my knowledge of Turkey was more nebulous, more indirect, hard to define. They may have been set in the heart of Anatolia, or in the east, near Armenia, or in the mountains along the southern coast. They were stories of love, or banditry, peripheral lives from a forgotten past, utterly different from a modern metropolis like Istanbul. What these novels did, what they are still doing, subtly, slowly, is to break down unconscious barriers erected by language, culture, religion, preconception. They direct my gaze toward commonalities instead of underlining differences. Science tells us that, thanks to so-called mirror neurons, our brains work similarly whether we perform an action ourselves or see that action performed by someone else. We use the same networks when we are reading stories as when we are trying to guess at another person’s feelings. Reading novels shrinks the distance between me and what is around me.
It is one thing, however, to live in a foreign country, with all the time in the world to let mirror neurons do their work, to allow all the knowledge gathered to sink in and then use it to explore and understand; it is another to be on a short holiday, when it is arguable whether these processes are applicable at all. A constant habit of reading international literature—be it in the form of journalism, literary nonfiction, or fiction—can give us a better appreciation of foreign cultures, and the tools to combat stereotypes and clichés. But I would argue that the main beneficiaries of this appreciation are the reader-travelers themselves rather than the cultures at the other end. More practical issues must be considered. In a world of increasing mass tourism, responsible travel means an awareness of the problems of being a tourist in the first place: the environmental stress on major destinations, the rising rents for locals in city centers due to short-term holiday homes, overcrowding at historical and natural monuments. Tourism is of course beneficial to many economies, and many livelihoods depend on it, but overtourism complicates the rosy, romantic picture of responsible international travel as a win-win proposition facilitated by books that brings people and cultures closer together. When we are tourists, constraints of time and money—and the thought that we may never return to this country—play a big role in our decisions and behaviors. No amount of Turkish novels will replace the excitement of entering Hagia Sophia, and yet Hagia Sophia is a fifteen-hundred-year-old building not designed for an influx of over three million people a year. Are we willing to give up visiting the Blue Mosque knowing that it is still very much a place of prayer?
The desire to travel responsibly must come before the desire to learn through literature. First we must decide that we’ll do everything in our power to make sure our trip has a positive net contribution to the place we are visiting. Reading is an indispensable tool for that: not only can reading help us identify the problems and behaviors we should avoid, it can also tell us an infinite number of alternative stories, leading us to that El Dorado of international travel, the place often summed up as “off the beaten path.” After all, if you don’t know where to look or what to look for, chances are you won’t find it.
Incidentally, there is a surer way for international literature to make us better tourists, and I would say that this specific task falls to fiction: imagine picking up a novel in the peace and quiet of your living room, opening the first pages, and, with no air travel or environmental impact whatsoever, being transported to a faraway land . . . Zero-emissions tourism, delivered straight to your home.
© 2020 by Tomaso Biancardi. All rights reserved.