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Istanbul 2017

It is an irony of the Istanbul nightclub shooting that virtually all the foreigners who died there were Muslims. For Reina was a favourite venue for all foreign visitors, Americans and Europeans included. But the US and European consulates had warned their citizens in advance of a likely attack on such a venue on just such a night. The Americans had sent all their consular staff’s families back home. So were other countries’ less assiduous in spreading what must have been common knowledge?

The tragedy will affect not just Reina’s business. That whole stretch of Bosphorus coastline around the village of Ortakoy and its elegant mosque was a Mecca (no irony intended) of entertainment. It includes Anjelique and Park Fora and The House Cafe, some of the most famous names in Istanbul nightlife over the past 20 years, venues that until New Year’s Eve considered themselves lucky to be far away from Taksim Square and all the troubles at the centre of this deeply troubled city.

The last time I was in Istanbul, just over a month ago, I headed straight from the airport to a favourite place of mine just along the road from Reina. Called Assk Café, it sort of means Love Café and it used to have the laid-back 1960s cosmopolitan culture one would expect of somewhere with such a name. It has a pretty outdoor heated area where people can smoke and muse on the eternal mysteries of the Bosphorus churning before them. It was a chilly, sunny day and several Arab women dressed head to toe in black had to lift flaps that flopped over their mouths as they tried to take dainty sips of Assk’s delicious tea and cakes. It was not 1960s cosmopolitan; but it was certainly cosmopolitan.

Nowadays there is much talk among the city’s older citizens about how to escape. A friend says that Assk used to be popular with Istanbul’s few remaining Jewish residents. But many of them have gone to Barcelona (‘cos the Spanish are paying guilt money in the form of an EU passport for the sins of Queen Isabella in 1492). Others, with money, are heading for nearby Greece. For those Istanbullus for whom “abroad” is not an option, however, there are places like Bodrum and Datcha in the south of the country for them to flee to. Bodrum’s all-year-round population has exploded in recent years, making it a much more interesting place to spend winter months (even though it has had frosts this year).

Anyway there are, for sure, still plenty of people left in Istanbul. The unmoving traffic is testament to that. The airport, on the other hand, is testament to the fact that fewer and fewer of them are tourists. Our Turkish airlines flight from London was chock-a-block full, but only three and a half of us reconvened at the baggage carousel to collect suitcases. The rest, it seems, were in transit to far-flung parts of Asia and Africa. I should have guessed when I first got on the plane that Istanbul had not suddenly become a red-hot destination for London’s Afro-Caribbean community.

For those tourists who do brave it into the city, take heart. The PKK Kurdish terrorists are fighting the state. They will not intentionally attack innocent citizens. And, in time, ISIS’s deranged foot soldiers will come to acknowledge that it is apostasy to murder their fellow Muslims. Fundamentally (sic), they know they get more brownie points for mass slaughter in the lands of the infidel. The recent political turmoil in Turkey may have taken some of the sting out of the country’s security forces. But they will be back. And when they are, ISIS will want to take its sickness elsewhere.

Meanwhile there are still wonderful things to see and do in the city. One landmark, the Kempinski Ciragan Hotel, seems able to weather all storms and continue on its way. I had its Sunday “brunch” and did not need to eat (or drink!) again for 72 hours, classic fare served with class. And I enjoyed its “Wallnut”, a board hung with colourful doughnuts, entirely frivolous and a great delight for the kids.

There are some exciting new spots in the city too. Kilimanjaro is a restaurant in a complex that has recently emerged from an old brewery in an area known as Bomonti. The complex, run by the Babylon group, includes a music venue for concerts; the wonderful Joss Stone appeared there in the summer. Then there are some small hidden-away places like Aman da Bravo in Reshit Pasha. Run and owned by two young women, it grew out of a catering business. The menu is a variation on traditional Turkish dishes – liver on a bed of finely chopped green herbs, curried cauliflower with minced meat and a poached egg on top. And, by the way, I tried the Gulor wine there – an Aegean red made from the local Okuzgozu grape. When I first tried this wine about ten years ago it was quite undrinkable; now it is winning prizes internationally. Things can change very swiftly – even in Turkey.