James Baldwin in Turkey

How Istanbul changed his career—and his life

Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi

Sedat Pakay, James Baldwin, Istanbul, 1966. Courtesy Hudson Film Works II

The eleven-minute black and white documentary, James Baldwin: From Another Place, directed by Sedat Pakay and filmed in Istanbul in May 1970, opens with a shot of Baldwin lying supine in a large bed in a sparsely decorated room. The curtains are closed. Baldwin throws back the covers and gets up; he is wearing nothing but a pair of white briefs. He turns his back to the cam­era and opens the curtains. A sharp Mediterranean light floods in. Baldwin scratches the small of his back, and we hear him say in voiceover: “I suppose that many people do blame me for being out of the States as often as I am, but one can’t afford to worry about that because one does, you know, you do what you have to do the way you have to do it. And as someone who is outside of the States you realize that it’s impossible to get out, the American powers are everywhere.” The camera pans over the glittering Bosphorus Strait as American ships glide silently through the passage connecting Asia and Europe.

Pakay’s film has long been almost impossible to see in the United States, aside from a short clip on YouTube. But in February, it began streaming on the Criterion Channel, and its reappearance is a useful occasion to re-examine one of the most important, and yet relatively unknown, aspects of Baldwin’s career: his time in Turkey. At the time Pakay made his film, Baldwin had been living in Istanbul intermittently for almost a decade. He first arrived there in 1961, broke, emotionally spent, and struggling to complete his third novel, Another Country. The Turkish actor Engin Cezzar, who had met Baldwin in New York in 1957 when he was cast as Giovanni in the Actors Studio adaptation of Giovanni’s Room (Baldwin’s sec­ond novel), had given him an open invitation to visit, and follow­ing a demoralizing trip to Israel, Baldwin showed up on Cezzar’s doorstep. He quickly made himself at home, and over the next ten years lived irregularly in Istanbul, Erdek, and Bodrum, socializing with the Turkish intelligentsia and a small circle of Black artists and activists who were living in Turkey or passing through.

Istanbul offered Baldwin a refuge during the tumultuous decade of the 1960s. In a 1970 conversation with Ida Lewis for Essence mag­azine, Baldwin said of his decision to move to the city, “It was very useful for me to go to a place like Istanbul at that point in my life, because it was so far out of the way from what I called home and the pressures.” As the scholar Magdalena Zaborowska shows in her book James Baldwin’s Turkish Decade: Erotics of Exile, which is the essential text about Baldwin’s Turkish sojourn, Baldwin was a pioneer of intersectional thinking and aesthetics, and his survival during the height of the civil rights era depended upon becoming a transatlantic or supranational writer living in transit among differ­ent cultures and languages. Baldwin had first left the United States, for Paris, in 1948, and had lived out of the United States for years prior to his arrival in Istanbul. But the clarity and safety afforded by his time there allowed him to more sharply articulate America’s assaultive realities and to give expression to the connections between his personal wounds and the scars of racialized political history.

What does the warm, vul­nerable, and playful Baldwin captured on film by Pakay tell us about his need to leave America time and again in search of safety?

The works Baldwin generated during the ten years he spent off and on in Istanbul, including seminal texts like Another Country, The Fire Next Time, and No Name In the Street, center place and dis­location, and offer an integrated vision of himself: a queer, Black intellectual who was raised in the church but who became criti­cal of Christianity, a man who respected but did not identify with Black Muslim ideology, and whose identity was baffling to both white liberals and Black radical intellectuals. Istanbul’s architec­tural palimpsest, together with its historical and cultural richness and contradictions, must have only strengthened Baldwin’s resolve to create work that was complex and kaleidoscopic in both form and content. His lability of mood and layered inner landscape mir­ror the city’s multifaceted character, with its refusal of neat distinc­tions between tradition and modernity, East and West, Christianity and Islam.

Istanbul was a liminal space of healing for Baldwin, a writing haven that he saw as having saved his life. As Zaborowska notes, this may explain why the Baldwin we see in Pakay’s documentary is far more relaxed and at ease than the Baldwin we are accustomed to seeing in American media from that era. And yet, Baldwin’s decade in Turkey remains an enigma and a lacuna in our collective imagi­nation. Zaborowska’s is the only book-length treatment of Baldwin’s time there, and even people familiar with Baldwin’s writing are often unaware he ever lived in Istanbul. What can we learn from explor­ing his time there? How does his self-imposed exile speak to our reluctance to relocate American literature within a transnational and internationalist context and to acknowledge the role of Black writers and artists in shaping that literature? And what does the warm, vul­nerable, and playful Baldwin captured on film by Pakay tell us about his need to leave America time and again in search of safety?

the respite turkey offered Baldwin, combined with Istanbul’s vibrancy and the warmth with which he was received, sparked one of the most prolific periods of his artistic life. In 1961, when he first arrived, he was haggard and exhausted. His trip to Israel had deep­ened his disillusionment with Christianity, and he was still mourn­ing Eugene Worth, a Black socialist and dear friend, who, in 1946, had killed himself by jumping off the George Washington Bridge. In addition, Baldwin had been trying without success to complete Another Country, his courageous and groundbreaking exploration of bisexuality and interracial love.

Worth’s death, which Baldwin memorializes in Another Country, had devastated Baldwin for years, and he had tried and failed again and again to finish the novel until he was delivered from the strain of severe writer’s block in Istanbul. Baldwin wrote the book’s final sentence while at a party at Cezzar’s house in what he described as “the city which the people from heaven had made their home.” When he set his pen down and looked up, his eyes met those of David Leeming, an English professor who was in Istanbul on a teaching gig. That encounter remapped the course of both their lives. That night, they left the party and walked across the Galata Bridge to a bar in the neighborhood of Beyoğlu. In Leeming’s essay “James Baldwin, Turkey, and Sedat Pakay,” written in celebration of the Northwest African American Museum’s exhibition of photo­graphs by Pakay, he recalls that the two spent the evening talking about “being black, being gay, being American, and about a mutu­ally favorite author, Henry James—who [Baldwin said] under­stood the failure of America to see through its myths to reality.”

Over the next couple of years, in between trips to Paris and New York City, Baldwin often went back to Istanbul. He and Leeming continued to spend time together there until Leeming started his Ph.D. at New York University in 1963 and Baldwin hired him as his assistant. In 1966, they returned together to Istanbul, where Baldwin hoped to finish his new novel, Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone, just as he had completed Another Country there. With the help of Cezzar, Leeming writes, he and Baldwin found an apartment first in “Ayaz Paşa and, after a time in the little village of Erdek on the Sea of Marmara.” In the summer, they left Erdek and rented a house along the Bosphorus where Baldwin hosted legendary parties. In the fall, they moved to Paa’s Library, “a beau­tiful old house…on a cliff above the Bosphorus in the village of Rumeli Hisari.”

The years Baldwin spent off and on in Turkey coincided with one of the country’s most vibrant and expansive periods. The 1950s in Turkey had been a period of economic decline, ruthless author­itarianism, and iron-fisted censorship, a confluence of negative forces that gave rise to mass mobilization and to student-led pop­ular protests. In 1960, the atmosphere of repression and unrest led the pro-Western Turkish Armed Forces to organize a military coup; they swiftly tried and executed former heads of state. By 1965, free elections had been restored, and liberal constitutional reform had significantly expanded freedom of speech. The nation’s position as a strategic U.S. ally had been salvaged, but its cultural flowering continued, along with anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist move­ments similar to those that were emerging elsewhere around the world. Baldwin’s work and lived experience spoke directly to the political and aesthetic debates of the time. In Turkey, in a context of cultural ferment, Baldwin was revered as a major American and transnational writer, rather than being put in a position of having to prove his legitimacy over and over.

Still, even in Turkey, Baldwin could not fully escape America. During the Cold War, relations between the United States and Turkey were founded on military collaboration and cooperation; the United States sent ships to Turkish waters to counter the threat of Soviet expansion, making Turkey a source of anti-Soviet mil­itary aid. As Baldwin said to Sedat Pakay, “American powers are everywhere.” His feelings fluctuated between entrapment, the sense that no matter how far he traveled from the violence in the United States he could not, existentially speaking, “get out,” and the feelings of transcendence and revival that Cezzar’s warm hos­pitality and Turkey itself afforded him.

These fertile exchanges, which were in stark contrast with the silencing Baldwin had faced in Hollywood, led him to create more aesthetically innovative and politically bold work.

If anything, as Zaborowska writes, “Baldwin’s awareness of the imperial presence of the United States and of global racism increased and sharpened while he was living in Turkey,” and he became even more conscious of America’s moral bankruptcy in the international arena. That led him to increase his efforts to address the gap between the myth of America’s benevolence and its violent reality. He dubbed the mental condition that allowed and perpet­uated this gap “irreality,” argued that the very notion of nation­alism and its associated narratives constituted a global pathology, and denounced the methods by which each of us is socialized to embrace its madness. In the 1970 Essence magazine conversation, Baldwin told Lewis,

During my Istanbul stay I learned a lot about dealing with peo­ple that are neither Western nor Eastern. In a way, Turkey is a satellite on the Russian border. That’s something to watch. You learn about the brutality and the power of the Western world. You’re living with people whom nobody cares about, who are bounced like a tennis ball between the great powers. Not that I wasn’t previously aware of the cynicism of power politics and foreign aid, but it was a revelation to see it functioning every day in that sort of theater.

Lewis pressed him further, asking if the injustices suffered by Turks at the hands of the United States were similar to those that affected Black men in America. No, Baldwin replied, adding that “the peoples of Turkey, Greece, even the peoples in Jamaica have not gone through the fire. They don’t know that the dream which was America is over.” At several points in the interview, Baldwin insisted that he left America in order to write, and that as long as he was writing it did not matter where he was. In any case, he said, he no longer believed in nations.

two years before that conversation, in 1968, Baldwin had gone back to America, and to, of all places, Hollywood, where Columbia Pictures had commissioned him to write a screenplay based on The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Alex Haley. As Leeming notes in his biography of Baldwin, Baldwin saw the screenplay as “a way of becoming directly involved in the liberation movement in its more radical form.” But he was understandably skeptical of the studio’s motives, and questioned whether Hollywood was ready to depict Malcolm in his full complexity, given both the white fear of Black Muslims and of Black power generally and the intrica­cies of Malcolm’s journey from the Nation of Islam to humanism. Baldwin’s skepticism was justified. “Columbia wanted a tempered story, a sanitized Malcolm, but Baldwin was determined to not let the studio interfere with his work,” Leeming writes.

Sedat Pakay, James Baldwin with Water Carrier, Istanbul, 1966. Courtesy Hudson Film Works II.

Baldwin was in Hollywood on April 4, 1968, the day Martin Luther King, Jr., was murdered. In the face of the assassination, which came after the earlier murders of Medgar Evers and Malcolm, Baldwin struggled with despair. Tellingly, his thoughts turned to Istanbul, and he wrote Cezzar, saying that there was nothing left to do but to “pray to those gods that are non-western, non-Christian.” His work on the script took on renewed urgency, and he began to view completing the script as, in Leeming’s words, an “act of love and an act of faith.” But the struggle with Columbia Pictures went from bad to worse. At one point, Baldwin received a memo that said he had to “‘avoid giving any political implications to Malcolm’s trip to Mecca.’” Baldwin was enraged.

Even worse, Columbia attempted to whitewash and neutral­ize Malcolm’s image by hiring Arnold Perl to drastically rework Baldwin’s script; the studio, Leeming writes, objected to Baldwin’s fluid and loosely structured writing. During the weeks of anguish that followed, Pakay flew to Los Angeles from Istanbul to offer support to his exhausted and progressively less stable friend. But Baldwin’s relationship with the studio continued to deterio­rate, and he ended up overdosing on sleeping pills. He survived, promptly quit the film project, and left Hollywood for Turkey, by way of New York and Paris.

In Paris, Baldwin picked up his mentor, the artist Beauford Delaney, who, Baldwin wrote, had first taught him “how to see” and who had, along with Richard Wright, inspired him to leave Greenwich Village to live in exile in Paris. Baldwin and Delaney traveled to Istanbul where Baldwin recovered, as he had done when he first arrived at Cezzar’s house years before.

During this stretch in Istanbul, Baldwin became more deeply engaged in Turkish life. He began to collaborate with local artists and theaters. These fertile exchanges, which were in stark contrast with the silencing he had faced in Hollywood, led him to create more aesthetically innovative and politically bold work. His confi­dence restored, Baldwin returned to his own vision of Malcolm X and completed One Day When I Was Lost: A Scenario Based on Alex Haley’s “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,which would be pub­lished in 1972. But perhaps his more important accomplishment during this time was directing a play for the theater company run by Cezzar and his wife, the actress Gülriz Sururi. The play was John Herbert’s 1967 Fortune and Men’s Eyes, a radical work that explores prison homosexuality. The production left an indelible mark on Turkish theater, while doubling, at least for Baldwin, as a denunciation of the American film and theater industries’ refusal to address systemic homophobia and racism.

According to Zaborowska, Baldwin’s staging of Herbert’s play was a “bravura production [that] took the Turkish theater world by storm.” The play toured rural and urban Turkey, from Istanbul to Ankara and Izmir to a small working-class town on the coast of the Black Sea. Zaborowska points out that Baldwin’s message that the “prison could be anywhere,” together with his background as a “black American activist resonated with the revolutionary cultural moment in Turkey at the end of the 1960s.”

Though the play’s success was in part due to Turkey’s left-leaning political climate and expanding constitutional freedoms in the aftermath of the coup, its explicit exploration of violence, erot­icism, and homosexuality eventually led to a scandal that resulted in a brief ban and an investigation by officially appointed experts. But citing the twenty-first article of the Turkish Republic’s new constitution, the experts’ report ultimately “defended the obliga­tions of artists to critically expose false and immoral perceptions by exhibiting them.” The Turkish defense of the artist’s obliga­tions aligned with Baldwin’s view of the artist as a “disturber of the peace,” morally bound to speak the truth and expose those social ills which, left unseen, would remain unaddressed.

The work Baldwin pro­duced during his Turkish decade reminds us to view the notion of a national literature with critical distance, and to grapple with the boundary-crossing power and potential of novels.

“At home in exile in Turkey,” Zaborowska writes, “he was working with friends who were in the avant-garde of the local experimental art world, who were ready to try new things on their audience and trusted his vision and instinct.” As a result, working on the play provided Baldwin with the space he needed to deepen his reflec­tions on individual freedom and the intersections of racial, gen­dered, and sexual violence that had preoccupied him in Giovanni’s Room and Another Country. And the hybrid, unguarded, and polit­ically radical production he came up with in collaboration with his friends in Istanbul was in direct contrast to the dismal experience of having his work watered down in Hollywood. In that sense, the play, and its explosive reception, serve as prime examples of how contact between local and migrant artists and intellectuals can reframe the national and global dynamics of cultural production.

The Baldwin who emerged in Turkey was inclusive and inte­grated. He eschewed the binaries along which he was repeatedly asked to draw the lines of his identity in America, where he could not be Black and queer, or Black and an intellectual, or queer and Christian. In his life, Baldwin defied the reductive dichotomies of American social life, with its fixations on race and sexuality, just as his work rejected singular or easily essentialized views of the self. It could be said that he wrote in order to understand the American problem beyond national terms, recognizing that the American polity and policies have always been global; his time in Istanbul helped him articulate this with greater clarity. The work he pro­duced during his Turkish decade reminds us to view the notion of a national literature with critical distance, and to grapple with the boundary-crossing power and potential of novels. Doing so, as Zaborowska suggests, “helps us to embrace more fully the transnational dimension of mid-twentieth-century black literary culture.”

Toward the end of Pakay’s documentary, Baldwin speaks of the way many of his American critics and readers ascribed his pres­ence in Turkey to the “Orient’s” reputation as mysterious, infe­rior, unpredictable, and sexually promiscuous. This patronizing and simplistic construction, promulgated by the American media, served to obscure the complexities of Baldwin’s life and work in Turkey, his influence on Turkish artistic expression, and Turkey’s generative effect on him. This valorization of simplified represen­tations over complex ones is symptomatic of the “irreality” that prevents us from understanding America as a layered, hybrid, plu­ral, and global space, and from seeing beyond its myths. Perhaps what is most painfully lost in this misunderstanding—though evi­dent in the warmth and vulnerability of Baldwin’s face as captured by Pakay—is that Baldwin’s exile from America began before he left Harlem.

In the film, we see a close-up of Baldwin’s hands, holding a tespih, the string of beads used in Muslim prayer. We watch him walk, finely dressed, through Istanbul. Passersby turn to look at him as he makes his way through the crowds to Eminonu, Taksim Square, and the antique booksellers in Beyazit, where he plucks from a display the Turkish translations of Another Country and Herbert’s play Fortune and Men’s Eyes. He holds a book titled The FBI Story up to the camera, signaling the pervasive presence of American power and its entrapments. Conversing with Pakay, he says, “One sees [America] better from a distance and you can make comparisons to another place, another country.” While seated at his desk later in the film, his papers and books strewn across the table, he speaks at some length about his sexuality and his love of men and women and says, turning his head away from the camera so that he is in profile, “American men are paranoiac on the sub­ject of homosexuality.” “Love,” he says, “comes in strange packages.” Next, the film moves outdoors. Two stern-faced, tuxedoed waiters stand on either side of Baldwin as he sits drinking tea. He winks at the camera. The final shot is of his face breaking into a warm smile.

Baldwin left Istanbul for Paris not long after. He departed at the height of his fame, sought after by the international press and the Turkish cultural establishment. But he tended to grow restless in any place he stayed for long. And Zaborowska notes that in Paris, Baldwin could more easily “stay in close contact with his American publishers and editors at a time when Turkish telecommunications and postal services did not work very well.” Baldwin returned to Turkey for the last time in the autumn of 1981, twenty years after his first visit. He vacationed at a farmhouse in Bodrum with Cezzar and Sururi. It was, Leeming writes, “an interlude of almost idyllic calm.” Turkey restored him. More than that, as he said over and over, Turkey “saved my life.”

Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi is the author of three novels. She is the winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award, a Whiting Award, and a National Book Foundation “5 Under 35” Award, and the founder of Literatures of Annihilation, Exile, and Resistance.
Originally published:
June 12, 2023

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