In 1964, when I was 12 or 13, I spent the summer at a house by the sea, 35 miles from Istanbul. I would leap over the low garden wall and walk towards the beach through the rocks and empty fields that lined the shore, inspecting all the little surprises that nature lay across my path.
One day I came across a small pool of water among the rocks. It wasn’t exactly a pool: the sea kept pouring in through the gaps among the stones. But like an actual pond, it was about one foot deep and six or seven metres wide, and shielded from the sea’s unruly waves. I quickly discovered that below the unruffled, perfectly transparent surface was another world, a whole civilisation, and I began to spend more and more time there, alone in the summer heat, fascinated by the bustling realm submerged in the tepid seawater.
My favourites were the half-white, half-translucent baby crabs – no bigger than my fingernail – running around in a perennially flustered sideways scamper. Mottled, multicoloured goby fish darted from one rock to another, studiously avoiding the sun. (These were rather ugly.) Bigger gobies often became entangled in fishermen’s nets, as did scorpionfish, which had poisonous spikes on their backs. I did not like them. A needlefish that had lost its bearings occasionally rose to the surface and searched for an escape route, its black beak slicing the water like a submarine.
I wore short shorts and plastic flip-flops – known in Turkey as “Tokyos” for the way they mimicked traditional Japanese slippers. Sometimes I waded into the pool until the water reached my knees, the ground beneath my feet as slimy as a swamp, and stopped at the centre. Little white shrimp jumped like grasshoppers and scattered. I waited for the mushroom cloud of mud to slowly settle, and afterwards brought my nose down to the mirror of the water. I stood like that for hours sometimes, observing the sea slugs, the snails with feet as hairy as a spider’s legs, the strange holes in the ground that looked like anthills, the tiny air bubbles whose presence I could never quite account for. The sun burned the back of my neck.
Over the course of those two summers, there was one terrifying incident. A seagull plunged into the water and skilfully caught a plump, hapless goby in its beak before soaring up towards the sky. I have never forgotten the fear I felt in that moment.
Every now and then my mother called for me.
I never replied, lest I revealed my whereabouts. I wanted to belong to the world inside the pool, and so I just waited, quiet and motionless.
That whole world is lost now. In 1964 there were two and a half million people living near the Marmara Sea. Today they number 25 million, and nearly half of Turkey’s industrial activity is based there. In 1976 my pool was filled up and a concrete jetty was built in its place, designed to give people summering in the block of flats nearby an area where they could sunbathe.
In June 2021 a mysterious, revolting white sheen – dubbed “sea snot” by disgusted locals – appeared on the Marmara Sea. The beaches of Istanbul and the Marmara region – each of which had once constituted a distinct world of its own, as old cinemas used to – were all shut down, just like the sea snails and the white shrimp that had disappeared long before.
Orhan Pamuk’s novel “Nights of the Plague”, will be published by Faber in autumn 2022