After 12 years away, Black is “called back” to Istanbul by death. Before he left, he’d fallen in love with his cousin, Shekure. While he was away, he performed administrative tasks in Persia, and over the years he was horrified to find that he forgot what Shekure’s face looked like. Black returns to Istanbul to find that many of his friends have died. He visits his mother’s grave while it is snowing and cries, though he stops when he sees a black dog standing near him. Black walks through the streets of Istanbul, noticing that there are more wealthy people, as well as a handful of beggars, including a blind man who smiles at the falling snow. Black learns that Shekure’s mother has died, and that she and his uncle (Enishte) have moved away.
Black’s return to Istanbul has a myth-like quality, recalling Odysseus’ ten-year absence from home, which is chronicled in the Odyssey. (Note that “My Name is Red” is considered to be in conversation with James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” which is itself inspired by the Odyssey.) Black’s return to Istanbul is filled with meaningful symbols—in particular the dog, the snow, and the blind man. These help to create the impression that Black has been summoned back to Istanbul by mysterious, supernatural forces for a special purpose.
Before Black’s return, he received a letter from Enishte inviting him back to Istanbul in order to assist him with a “secret book” commissioned by the Sultan. Black walks through the city, marveling at how it has changed. He notes that inflation has become so bad that “money no longer had any value.” There are rumors that the Flemish and Venetians are producing counterfeit coins and bringing them over on ships. In amongst this chaos, a hoja called Nesrut from Erzurum has achieved a significant following by blaming the problems of the Ottoman Empire on deviance from the teachings of the Koran, tolerance of Christians, and sins such as wine and music. A pickle seller tells Black that counterfeit money and foreign people are together dragging Istanbul to “absolute degradation.” The pickle seller paints an evocative picture of opium-addicted followers of an illegal dervish sect who dance and have gay sex.
This passage introduces the idea that Istanbul is a city of clashing cultures. The Hoja of Erzurum and his followers denounce this diversity, arguing that it is leading the city to ruin and that living a virtuous life involves denouncing all non-Muslim people and practices. On one level, it is true that the influence of foreigners has had some negative consequences on Istanbul, such as the inflation caused by counterfeit money. However, the Hoja of Erzurum and his followers seem to go too far in blaming all of Istanbul’s problems on foreign influence, using this influence as a scapegoat.
Black watches the snow falling and sees a ship coming in. He listens to the sounds of the city and feels that Shekure’s face might “suddenly appear.” After evening prayers, Black goes into a coffeehouse, where a storyteller is entertaining the crowd. He shows the audience a drawing of a dog, speaking in the dog’s voice.
Black’s visit to the coffeehouse shows that he does not follow as strict an interpretation of Islam as the Hoja of Erzurum. The presence of the storyteller creates layers of metafiction. Within the story Black is narrating, the storyteller is narrating his own story through the voice of the dog.