Burhan Sönmez: Istanbul Istanbul & Labyrinth

“The beauty of a book, says the book dealer, lies in the fact that no other book can arouse the same feelings in you. That’s why you can’t compare good books.” — Burhan Sönmez, Labyrinth

When your desire to forget certain things mingles with a character’s desire to remember, and the words from the book and those unsaid in your heart cross paths, the sensation stays with you, the way your first sip of raki does — like drinking smooth, liquid embers as your insides become drenched with that distinctive Turkish melancholy.


One ends tragically, the other ambiguously, but the influential power of Istanbul that takes hold of writers is exquisitely manifested in this pair. Despite Istanbul being a bazaar of a thousand and one stories, Burhan Sönmez has his own approach to storytelling and his own approach to this alluring, Janus-faced city that readers who are just as enamored with it as I am will hold in esteem. As a certain character says, “Just as you can’t bathe in the same river twice, neither can you tell the same story twice in Istanbul.”

The interesting thing you’ll discover about these two books is that, despite being two entirely different novels by the same author, their titles are interchangeable. Both are about labyrinths, and both are about Istanbul; both can either be about the labyrinths of the mind and memory or the labyrinths of the city; and I find both to be best read successively.


The past — or the land of our birth — can be a burden from which we sometimes wish to be free, but who are we without it?

Ben Hopkins: Cathedral

Through previous readings, this reader has encountered provocative theories that suggest that it was religious reformation that freed human thought from church dogma thus giving rise to individualism, which subsequently paved the way for the Renaissance; and also theories of the aftermath of the Black Death setting the scene for capitalism by overthrowing social systems including feudalism.

The Protestant Reformation erupted in the 1500s, the Black Death in the 1300s. Ben Hopkins’ novel of six hundred and twenty four pages begins in the 1200s, but through its characters, we already witness the gradual ascent of mercantile capitalism and individualism challenging the hegemony of the Catholic Church.

But thankfully, these big words and the sophisticated ideas that are attached to them are not heaped too heavily on the reader’s shoulders. The author seems to have employed his filmmaking expertise by creating a well-paced and entertaining book with a handful of dramatic imagery and contrasting characters across the broad spectrum of society, but which also carries so much understanding of the religious and socioeconomic landscape of a particular European period.

In the midst of it all, the Cathedral — or more accurately, the construction of the Cathedral — that remains unfinished and continues to be built even by the end of this novel. This novel that begins in 1229 and ends in 1351. This Cathedral that symbolizes a number of things. 

In this story there is clearly the aspect of the historical, or the architectural, but which should always lead one to contemplate on the personal — the edifices that we build for ourselves. And because we already know how certain it is that we can carry nothing out, what do we leave behind?

To quote a cherished character who passed away by the the shores of Constantinople, “A man can die anywhere. It’s all the same. The only important thing is how he lives.”

Containers for the Human Music

It is little known outside Ex Libris Philippines that this book club was founded by music and architecture majors during their university years at UP Diliman. 

On a trip to the capital last month, the music section of Ex Libris was able to convene whilst the architecture section was excellently acknowledged through the venue — The Library Cafe at the Ramon Magsaysay Center, an architectural icon in the Philippines named after our seventh president. 

I took this photo on our way in and it made me reflect on how architecture, literature, and music are the same spirit taking distinct forms and harnessing different planes of space in our lives. 

Although, through the years, I have come across books in which literature and architecture occupy the same space, and it is nothing short of fascinating when they do: Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame, Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian, Boris Pekić’s Houses, Ivo Andrić’s Bridge on the Drina, Alain de Botton’s Architecture of Happiness, Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics of Space, Mathias Énard’s Tell Them of Battles, Kings & Elephants, Elif Shafak’s Architect’s Apprentice, and my current read, Ben Hopkins’ Cathedral. And as we can see, when these two meet, sumptuous covers are a given.

In an interview on his book, Apeirogon, Colum McCann likened novelists to architects who create a structure aspiring that it will house the best of human endeavor and hope for it to endure, and for people to enter and be changed by it… so that it becomes “a container for the human music”. 

The idea and the verity of books as containers for the human music… Isn’t that beautiful?

Borislav Pekic: Houses

I hadn’t built anything, I’d demolished myself. Here, look!

In that sublime realm where literature and architecture meet, Hugo’s Notre Dame and Calvino’s Invisible Cities occupy the high throne. I nominate Pekić’s Houses to sit with them.

One would expect this book to be political, Borislav Pekić being a founding member of the Democratic Party in Serbia. And indeed, it is.

Belgrade’s turbulent history of clashing ideologies is not an undertone in this novel but a counterpoint to an unusual but brilliant motif that is architecture — which is, of course, political.

What took me by surprise, despite the obvious title and the summary about an eccentric character who loves houses more than the average person does, was the non-perfunctory view on the subject. The discourse ranges from houses being compared to human souls, to the ideal harmony of a building with urban space and its character, to how preservation is of great importance to a place, to criticisms on the sacrificing of aesthetic quality for the sake of profit, to describing a particular house as like an erratum, a coarse printing error in the elegant context of the street, and even to the communion with buildings as if they were alive, which in fact they were!


Of course I can’t say that those books about architecture made me fall in love with houses. They only explained to me why I love them. From them I was schooled in houses’ physiology, their circulatory system, their epidermic defensive envelope, even their stomachs, their sensitive stomachs, not to mention their life process… From books, then, I had come to know the mysterious process of a house’s conception, initiated long before its violent birth on the building site.


Arsenie Negovan is an imperfect but intriguing man who will irritate you or gain your sympathy. He makes a name for himself as a builder and a lover of houses, but after an existential maelstrom, he withdraws himself from the world and allows himself to be oblivious to the unrelenting flow of time for twenty seven years.

When at last he decides to come out of his self-alienation, he is an old man in the process of writing his will, and he soon begins to suspect a great divide between the world in his mind and the world in reality.

Houses is one of the most intelligent novels I have ever read. With the absence of chapter breaks, I found myself being pulled steadily towards its exceptionally executed finale. Its abstract metaphors grant liberal spaces for contemplation as they convey nagging questions on possession, and on building and ruin, whether concerning a city, society, a house, or a life. 

While most of its readers describe the progression of the story as a descent into madness, I choose to see it as an awakening.

June 19, 2022 – Samarkand: Shah-i-Zinda

Afternoon light enters silently through the gaps of Shah-i-Zinda in Samarkand and transforms the whole necropolis into a prismatic vision that makes one understand why this place has earned illustrious names throughout the ages, and why it is most widely known as “The Mirror of the World”.

But as I sat there mesmerized, I became more inclined to believe that it mirrored constellations and galaxies… and that so much of what we find beautiful are mirrors of our joys, sorrows, and the distinct libraries of music and thoughts stored in our beings.

It probably was not the first time that a girl stood under its hypnotic gaze and made her contemplate on beauty and celestial realms; and I’d like to think that those reflective beings who came before me must have also gravitated towards its lesser-known epithet — “Garden of the Soul.”

© 2022 MDR
Shah-i-Zinda, Samarkand, Uzbekistan

June 23, 2022 – Khiva, Uzbekistan

In the alley right below, a child sings in a language both strange and familiar to me. Strange because she sings in the Khorezmcha dialect, familiar because it is music.

A few meters away from her, women in traditional dress eclipse the child’s voice as they bargain with her mother, a scarf seller. These women are tourists from the other “Stan” nations. They flock the streets by sundown. (Western tourists tend to forego Khiva because it is out of the way. To get here from Bukhara, one has to drive for hours through an expanse of steppeland that seems to stretch to infinity, and the usual tourist would usually opt for another stamp on the passport from another Stan than come to Khiva. I am now closer to Turkmenistan than I am to Bukhara.)

But I also see Khiva changing right before my eyes. I see workers installing LED lights, replacing some crumbling bricks, and fixing the cracks of the old city, making it look new. And although they have the tourist’s best interest in mind, I feel a pinch in my heart. I know Khiva will not look the same in a few months, or weeks… and there is a bittersweetness in realizing that I came just in time — or perhaps, a few centuries late.

In the distance, the tallest minaret in Central Asia calls my attention, calls to prayer, calls time to stand still, and all falls silent.

Does this balcony right outside my bedroom explain enough why I chose to stay in Khiva longer?

© 2022 MDR
Khiva, Uzbekistan

June 22, 2022 – Summer Solstice in Khiva

Resplendent, the summer solstice sunset gilds the citadel of Khiva.

Khiva, the former capital of Khwarazm.

Khwarazm, the region that gave us polymath Muhammad Ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi (780-850), who wrote the book Al-Jabr. From his name we have the word “algorithm,” and from Al-Jabr “algebra”.

The sun blazes differently here. And for knowledge, their wise men, too, seemed to burn so intensely.

June 21, 2022 – The Colors of Bukhara

The temperature is significantly higher in Bukhara that you can feel your skin baked into the color of a lepyoshka as soon as you step out of the caravanserai. Yes, I am staying in a caravanserai! Isn’t that the most natural thing to do when traversing desert cities?

In contrast to Samarkand that can only be depicted in golden blues and vibrant shades of dreams, Bukhara wears the colors of the desert.

But that’s not to say that this important stop on the Silk Route is monochromatic. For as we know, the desert yields surprises; and thousands of years of history have stamped their mark and bled their hues on this oasis city.

I made two friends today who know their history! One endearingly encouraged me to look it up on my phone because he says it’s all there, and the other is an imam who saw me taking pictures of the architecture while trying my best to be unobtrusive at a site sacred to Muslims. He must have appreciated this because he beckoned to me and invited me to take closer pictures of the mosque and its interior, and afterwards, for tea. It was the best tea I’ve had on this trip!

June 19, 2022 – Samarkand Mornings and Minarets

“A city so deeply imbued with poetry that even the doctors wrote their medical treatises in verse.” This line by Elif Batuman, who wrote briefly about the height of the Timurid Renaissance, came back to me so clearly as I took my last look at Samarkand.

I can only commit these soft mornings in Samarkand to memory, as another gem in the Silk Route beckons…

June 18, 2022 – Samarkand, Uzbekistan: Ulugh Beg

© 2022 MDR
Ulugh Beg Madrasa, Registan, Samarkand

It seemed to have been written in the stars that the first place I would be drawn to in Samarkand is the remnant of an observatory that was the most well-known throughout the Islamic Golden Age and the largest in Central Asia, preceding Tycho Brahe’s Uraniborg and Taqi al-Din’s observatory in Constantinople by more than a hundred years.

The great mathematician and astronomer behind this observatory, whose computation of the length of the sidereal year was more accurate than that of Copernicus’s, is Ulugh Beg.

Although what remains of the observatory is the arc of a gigantic sextant (used to measure the transit altitudes of the stars and to produce the most comprehensive star catalogue in the period between Ptolemy and Tycho Brahe); the splendid madrasa that he built right at the heart of the city still stands.

He turned Samarkand into an intellectual center, inviting mathematicians and astronomers to study there — but no longer by force. He was, after all, a sultan of the Timurid Empire, the grandson of Tamerlane, and his tomb lies at the foot of his grandfather’s in the Amir Timur Mausoleum.

…to trace the constellations of Samarkand’s history and look at the stars that have burned the brightest… and bask in their afterglow… what a dream.

© 2022 MDR
Ulugh Beg Conservatory, Samarkand