The Surprising Story of Eartha Kitt in Istanbul


Arts & Culture

Eartha Kitt in Istanbul, 1949

One month into their marriage, my parents leave Turkey for good. It’s my mom’s first time on a plane. They fly from Ankara to Brisbane, an Australian city where they don’t know anyone. The trip takes two days. Their tickets are one way, paid for in cash. The year is 1975, and Australia has recently rescinded its White Australia policy. My parents are among the first nonwhite immigrants allowed into the country.

British Airways tells them they can bring up to forty kilograms’ worth of things. When they pack, my parents are more strategic than sentimental. They pack clothes, bedding, albums—but only a few, because photo albums are strangely heavy, and the other kind, the kind on vinyl, too fragile to make the trip.

The first record my parents purchase in Australia has a picture of a black woman on the cover: just her face, a hint of cleavage, painted lips but no smile. Her hair is pulled back, coiled against the nape of her neck, and she’s looking away from the camera, wistful. I am five, maybe six years old, and I enjoy staring at that album cover. I believe the wistful woman is Turkish. She sings in Turkish. She sings this one song,“Üsküdar’a Gider İken” or, as the track is listed incorrectly on the front, “Uska Dara.” It’s an old Turkish/Macedonian folk song.

At the time, I don’t wonder why Eartha Kitt, who was born into extreme poverty on a plantation in South Carolina, is singing about sailing up and down the Bosphorus with her male secretary. I just know that those nights on which my parents, tipsy off cheap Australian red, dance to her voice in our apartment are the best kind.

I recently found, on the Internet, a picture of Eartha in Istanbul. She’s in a swing-back, wide-lapel black jacket that’s more cape than coat. Hands on hips, elbows pointing behind her; her gaze suggests dissent or defiance or maybe just survival. Behind her: the arched gateway to Istanbul University, and a streetcar. She’s standing in front of the streetcar, as if she has stopped traffic. She looks like the kind of woman who stops traffic. I admire the power of her stance, the middle finger of it. It’s like posing naked in front of a NO SHIRT, NO SERVICE sign. It’s like being a single black American woman in Istanbul during the Cold War. Check me out.  

Later I learn that Eartha Kitt went to Istanbul by accident. The story, as she tells it, goes like this: she was sixteen, all but abandoned, killing time in Spanish Harlem, when a woman stopped her on the street to ask for directions. She was going to audition for the Katherine Dunham dance troupe, she said, so Eartha walked her to the place, stuck around, borrowed a leotard, tried out too. Dunham told Eartha she would never make it as a real dancer (“her breasts are too big”), but Eartha still landed a spot in the traveling performance group.  

The Dunham company went to Paris. There, Fred, famed lesbian owner of the club Carroll’s and Marlene Dietrich’s former lover, protected Eartha, telling waiters and patrons she “must not be touched.” After Paris came London, then Istanbul, where Eartha was happy to discover that the Nicholas Brothers—Fayard and Harold—were staying at the same hotel. The brothers were widely regarded as one of the greatest African American dance acts of their time.

This was the Istanbul Eartha encountered in 1951: a shaky but vibrant, regenerative place; a place that had gone about the business of reinventing itself as arts capital of a post–Ottoman Empire, new Turkish republic. World War II was over by then, the Cold War freshly hatched, and Turkey was fast becoming an American ally. President Truman had recently cemented this alliance through the Truman Doctrine, announcing generous Cold War support to both Turkey and Greece. And so politically there was an alliance, and culturally there were the beginnings of one, too. The Katherine Dunham dance troupe’s tour, for instance, was funded by the U.S. government, part of an American effort to introduce jazz and blues to Turkey.

Eartha heard “Üsküdar’a Gider İken for the first time at an Istanbul bar. The wife of a Turkish naval officer taught her the words, helped her with pronunciation, and Eartha began performing the song solo at Kervansaray, a new club in the city’s business district that catered mostly to men. By all accounts, when young Eartha entertained, it was a performance of self-possessed female sexuality, and I wonder what it must have been like for her to be on that Turkish stage. What did it mean for a teenage black woman to be starting her career in a place so linked to U.S. Cold War imperialism, a place deeply segregated along lines of gender, a place so racially flat? What was it like for her to entertain Muslim men who, until fairly recently, had been under Ottoman rule, their women under lock and veil? Did the men rise, clapping until their palms stung? Did they avert their eyes, in accordance with Islamic law?

Eartha stayed in Turkey for two months, during which time Ankara Radio gave “Uska Dara abundant play, turning it into a hit. The door swung open, and when she returned to New York, Eartha recorded the song for RCA Records, too. It was her first record. It sold 120,000 copies and, in a matter of days, Uska Dara topped American charts. It became the first album to turn such a profit for RCA in twenty-seven years.

When Eartha first recorded the track in Istanbul, the Turkish musicians she worked with had only a limited, approximate understanding of “American” music. It was out of necessity more than design that, with their help, Eartha cobbled together a patchwork song: part English, part Turkish. It featured classical, somber Turkish instruments (the kemençe, the ney), but it was also camp. It was a pioneering, hybrid piece we would now categorize as “world music.” Without realizing it, in the recording of “Uska Dara,” Eartha had birthed a genre.

The track became central to Eartha’s cabaret performances, the type of song people would associate with her for the rest of her six-decade-plus career: suggestive, playful, with elements of foreign language. On the Eartha Kitt album my parents owned, it was the fifth song listed, right before a track called “African Lullaby.”

The summer before I turned eight, my parents and I moved to a suburb in western Canada. Albums had given way to cassette tapes by then, but Eartha still came with us. We settled into a four-level-split across from my school, where I was the only Muslim. I was also the only girl with a unibrow, and possibly the brownest kid my school district had ever seen. Everyone else looked like a cast member from Little House on the Prairie—a show I sometimes watched for helpful tips on how to churn butter and communicate like a pastor’s daughter: “Remember well, and bear in mind, a constant friend is hard to find!”

On this new continent, I was friendless. My first winter in Calgary was spent in my bedroom, hosting depressing tea parties for my stuffed animals. I missed my friends in Australia, but the silver lining was that there were Turks in Canada. They came from distant suburbs, from towns called Medicine Hat and Okotoks. They came all the way from Edmonton, and together we ate steamed Turkish dumplings in our kitchen, and the adults got drunk off raki and reminisced about Istanbul, a place I’d only ever seen in pictures.

There was music too, and some nights, when the air outside our window froze, depositing waves of snow on the sill, the Eartha Kitt album was dusted off and spun, and we danced. By then, I knew Eartha wasn’t Turkish, but that didn’t stop me from claiming her. It didn’t stop us. Immigrant nostalgia works in funny ways, unbound by logic and sense. When Eartha rolled the r in “Üsküdar,” when she sang coyly about feeding her lover Turkish sweets from a handkerchief, she was performing home, our true home, a place we might have left behind for this glacial prairie land, but not really. Not in the ways that mattered.

Eartha Kitt published three autobiographies in her lifetime. All three began with an early childhood memory: Eartha, age three or four, born of rape by a white man, wandering through South Carolina forest and farm country with her half-black, half-Cherokee mother. They went house to house, looking for a place to stay and something to eat, and were rejected at every turn. It’s a story of hunger, for food and home, but also of belonging; a hunt for love.

“I don’t think I ever felt I belonged anywhere,” Eartha once said, in a 2000 interview, “because I was … conditioned from the time when I was a child that I didn’t belong. So I sort of followed my own path.” When a plane ticket to Turkey materialized, there was no one telling the teenage Eartha not to go, “there was no one to say, ‘No, you can’t do that.’”

So Eartha got a plane ticket in one direction, and my parents got theirs in another, and maybe they did it in search of something similar. Maybe they were driven by ambition. Curiosity. Maybe it was instinct, a hunch that whatever was out there, it had to be better than here.

Maybe all people who take that leap, take the plane, the boat, those who cross the mountains, jump the border, belong to one another. The ones who borrow a leotard for the audition; the ones who hear “whites only” but go anyway. They’re the ones who demonstrate that the lines meant to separate people, the lines between citizen and immigrant, black and white, east and west, aren’t the lines that draw a home. The lines that draw us home are the ones we cast toward one another, reeling in an American voice singing in Turkish on a cold night in Calgary.


Hilal Isler is a 2018–19 Loft Literary Center fellow, sponsored in part by the National Endowment for the Arts.