Across the divide

Istanbul's Galata Bridge joins the twin spirits of that many-faced, ever-changing city

The bridge is not hard to identify. You come flying in over the city, over these ten million souls, their villas and tower blocks rolling away across the hillsides, over the inland sea and bays that divide the city, over the suspension bridges where the freight convoys between Europe and Asia grind along bumper to bumper, over the dozens of ships rusting in the harbour, over the fallen bastions and city walls of the long-vanished empire, over the Blue Mosque, above which, in sharp relief against the evening sky, white birds are always flying. And then, unavoidably, your eye is drawn to the bridge.

Or else you discover it by accident. You walk down the narrow streets past the bazaar, past the cheeses, the olives, the display cases filled with jars of honey and fruit conserves, past the ironmongers' shops, the saws, the stoves and teapots, past the men standing solemnly beside their boxes full of ballpoint pens and paper hankies, past the butchers with their sausage, tripe and goat heads, past the vendors of lottery tickets and luck. Or you follow the quay where the ferry boats dock; you fade into the vast morning masses rolling into the city, the young businessmen, the porters, the office girls, the farm-women, that whole parade of briefcases and threadbare suit jackets; you plough your way through the engines' throb, the fast tick of the girls' heels, the street merchants' shouts; the light reflects across the water, each day in a different way, always in motion; the gulls cry and suddenly, there, round the corner, behind the kiosks and the stairways, begins the bridge.

The bridge, in fact, is not a pretty sight. Built of concrete, it is a little more than half a kilometre long, four lanes and a set of tram tracks wide, a counterweight construction at its middle, its access ramps surrounded by tunnels and shopping arcades. The paved surface climbs gradually so that smaller boats can pass easily beneath in mid-river. Under the bridge, on the waterfront, lies a long row of restaurants and teahouses. Pedestrians can also cross beneath the bridge itself; that's cosier, but halfway across, close to the control towers, you have to negotiate an extra set of steps. And of course you miss all that space, the sea, the autumn mists, the dolphins that on occasion roll up across a distant wave.

The bridge spans a broad estuary that divides the two oldest districts - and, with them, the two spirits living within this city: the southern shore is conservative and looks towards the east, while the northern side, with its centuries-old embassies and merchants' palaces, is permeated with the mentality of the west and the lightness of modern life.

A beloved chronicler of this city once compared the masses of houses in the two districts to the "broad wingspan of a slender bird". That image still applies. The bridge is the slim body between those huge wings. "The bridge is slender, tiny, but take it away and those enormous wings will break off as well; they will no longer be able to move, to soar into the air!"

Without the bridge you cannot know the city. The bridge is, in fact, a city, though one must not take that too literally; the bridge is not the city and the city is not the country, not by a long shot. The bridge is, above all, itself.

Evening rush hour has begun. From the streets to the north a steady flow of shop girls, workmen and office clerks shuffles tiredly towards the bridge. They descend to catch one of the ferries, or trundle on to one of the poorer neighbourhoods on the Muslim side. The sun is turning red behind the minarets. Wrapped up warmly against the wind, the pavement photographer walks back and forth dejectedly, his hood up, his dilapidated Polaroid camera clenched in his cold hands. He started this afternoon at one, has been standing here five hours, but had only two customers. "I don't have time to talk to you now; six million, I can't live on that. I have to earn a couple of million more."

This is the moment when children begin appearing on the streets as well - the ones who sell tissues and adhesive bandages. There are the little carts of roasted chestnuts, porters with their rolls and baskets, the man with the big pile of pretzels balanced on his head, the shoeshine boys, the gamblers, the old women, the lovers.

The pickpockets have spread out across the bridge. They calmly move along with the crowd, stroll about, come a little too close to a pair of tourists - "Oh, excuse me!" - and in a twinkling it's happened again, like a cormorant jabbing a fish from the water, but faster. It's a relaxed and above all civilised activity, this professional fleecing of the handful of Europeans and Americans who venture out on to the bridge.

In the arcade, the voices are all ringing out together: the umbrella salesman, the man selling felt insoles, a ballpoint-pen vendor, a wallet pedlar, a battery man and a female beggar sporting an all-too-pitiful child and too many golden rings. The optimism of the lottery girl rises above it all: "Create your own luck! Drawing on Saturday!" That's when the results of the big lotto will be announced. "I've sold ninety tickets so far. I'm sure I'll make it to a hundred today," she says cheerfully. Her left eye is bruised and blackened. "Today I know I'm going to make it."

Outside, the Wind of the Stars has come up. It is one of this city's stranger natural phenomena: great booming gusts of wind that come hurtling in off the river. Suddenly the waves have grown nasty little white caps, the ferries steam and puff to stay on course, on the terraces the place settings begin blowing off the tables, pavement signs slam to the ground, sand bites the eyes. The man with the electric drill takes to his heels, the shoeshine boys pack their things, the fishermen start reeling in their lines, but it is too late.

Atop the towers the huge plastic tulips crack loudly and fall one by one - it happens right before our eyes, we're nailed to the spot - those brightly coloured globes go flying across the bridge, dangerous buggers they are as well, so big that the photographer, the perfume vendor, the Spanish couple, the Americans, the pickpockets, the fishermen, everyone on the bridge, we all have to run like mad not to be crushed by one of those ridiculous monster tulips.

Then the wind dies down.

Translated by Sam Garrett. Geert Mak's "The Bridge" is published by Harvill Secker on 6 March (priced £10)

This article first appeared in the 25 February 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan reborn