Review: Stamboul Ghosts, John Freely 

By Luke Frostick

I feel free in Istanbul. 

James Baldwin

That’s because you are an American.

Yasar Kemal


You don’t read or write about Istanbul without running into John Freely’s work at some point or another. He was a prolific writer with around forty books to his name. Istanbul was a subject which he was one of the definitive experts on. Most of the interesting anecdotes I tell visiting relatives about street X, mosque Y or han Z have been shamelessly plagiarised from one or more of his books. John Freely died last year at a grand old age and the last book he wrote before his death is now out. Stamboul Ghosts is a deeply personal work about Istanbul as it was and the people that made their lives here. 

It is quite a short book. Stamboul Ghosts is organised, rather than chronologically or geographically, around the people that were important to John Freely while he lived in istnabul. Although it touches on other dates, it is mostly focused on the first period he and his wife lived in Istanbul in the 1960s and 1970s. Interspersed with John Freely’s text are black and white photographs of Ara Güler, who Freely knew, which are as eye-catching as always. It is then finished with a particularly moving afterword by Maureen Freely, his daughter, a great translator and famous Turcophile in her own right. 

This isn’t really a book for people who don't know about John Freely. Each chapter is dedicated to a friend of his that he knew in this period; his ghosts. It details their lives, the way they intersected with his and his families’ with a mix of humour and tragedy that is mostly effecting despite some slightly wooden prose and repeated homeric references that don't really add anything. Mixed in with these personal anecdotes is his seemingly endless well of glorious tid bits about the history of the city. Quite frankly it wouldn’t be a John Freely book without me saying something like “huh I didn’t know that Trotsky lived on Büyükada.” At this point I feel if one of his books said that pack of velociraptors ran amok in Balat on April 5th 1975, I don’t know who would have the authority to challenge that claim. I particularly enjoyed the chapter about his friend Hilary Sumner-Boyd with whom he wrote Strolling Through Istanbul, probably his most famous book on the city. Through the stories in the book he also touches on the life of the city, politics of the time, history of Robert College and a few particularly interesting glimpses into the gay community. 

However, as I said above, Stamboul Ghosts, unlike a lot of his bibliography, isn’t about the city really, nor is it about notables like James Baldwin or Yasar Kemal who make appearances then gracefully bow out. It is more about an idea of Istanbul in the 60s and 70s and its  small clique of bohemians, alcoholics, artists and “Odd men out” (the euphemism for gay men). Just like the lost generation of Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Stein in Paris, Istanbul became a sort of shelter for oddballs like Freely and that is the feeling that he successfully captures. 

Freely isn’t without his detractors. From the current generation of lost expats, there is sometimes the sentiment that ‘Freely was a dull writer who knew interesting things.’ Others point out that it is unfortunate that the authoritative figure on Istanbul history is an American and not of Turkish origin. I don’t find either argument particularly convincing,though I can see where people are coming from with the second one. However, that there aren’t more books on Istanbul by Turkish writers available to international audiences is on the publishing industry, not him. His depth of knowledge when it comes to Istanbul always makes his books worthwhile.  

Istanbul is a constant state of reinventing itself. As Freely says himself, “This book exists so that the exceptional people I had known, and the lost city in which they lived, would not be forgotten.” That’s important. In The Insane and the Melancholy, Ece Temelkuran says “Turkey has the memory of a goldfish.” She is making the point that in the political and social life of Turkey, there is a tendency to forget, or not dwell on the past. You see it in the physical city of Istanbul and in the collective memory. Where the Greek, Armenian and Jewish buildings of the past get turned into cheap hotels and third wave coffee shops, no mention is made of where the Greeks, Jews and Armenians themselves have gone. Buildings like Sansaryan Han, where the state imprisoned and tortured dissidents, get spruced up without any reference to the crimes committed there. Reading this book, I found myself feeling incredibly grateful to John Freely. Through the time I have lived in Istanbul, he has cut through the sometimes hazy collective memory of the city, informed me and pushed me on to discover more.