Some time after James Baldwin arrived in Istanbul he settled in Gumussuyu, a neighbourhood that hangs on the side of one of the city’s many hills, above the Golden Horn, the shores of Asia, and even the Sea of Marmara. Baldwin was a drinker, and one of his favourite neighbourhood spots was the Park Hotel. These days that glamorous meeting place is a terrible hulking carcass of a stunted building project, all grey, barren floors and trash heaps, stray dogs barking at nothing all hours of the day. Both vistas – the fabled view, the hovering skeleton – loom outside the living room windows of the great Turkish actor Engin Cezzar, who was largely responsible for Baldwin’s little-known sojourn in Turkey, where he lived on and off throughout the 1960s.
When I went to visit Cezzar last winter, a collection of letters between Baldwin and Cezzar had just been showcased in an Istanbul bookstore along with Baldwin’s translated works, and I told Cezzar I’d bought them. He scowled: “Don’t read Jimmy Baldwin in Turkish, for Christ’s sake.” Cezzar seemed proud of his book, and his special friendship with “Jimmy,” but he had priorities. He prized Baldwin as one thing above all else: a writer.
Cezzar speaks in an old-school dramatic accent, as if prepared to launch into Shakespeare at any moment. (In fact, in Turkey, he is famous for playing Hamlet for 200 nights straight). His relationship with Baldwin lasted three decades, and he is one of the few people who might understand why one of America’s most iconoclastic thinkers, its most profound preacher-essayist, chose to spend most of the 1960s in a country few Americans ever even think of.
When Baldwin left for Istanbul he was, in some ways, just getting started on his lifelong endeavour to dissect America’s race problem: he was not yet the commercial success – or the prophet of the civil rights movement – that he would become during the tumultuous decade that followed.