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La pensée de midi N°29, "Istanbul, ville monde"

Un cosmopolitisme sans fierté, Kerem Öktem
La réalité multiple des populations qui composent la ville et la célébration du cosmopolitisme ne doivent pas masquer une autre réalité, nationaliste, xénophobe et souvent intolérante…


Kerem Öktem

Istanbul is being rewritten and re-imagined, desired and decried at breakneck speed. Shiny images of minarets and church towers distributed by the municipality’s PR department and the Turkish Ministry of Culture frame the global representations of the city, and they all provoke desires of cosmopolitanism and diversity. Yet, they omit the tensions and anxieties, which the co-existence of different lifestyles, cultures and mindsets inevitably brings.

Istanbul’s cosmopolitanism is both imagined and performed in differential manners, resulting not so much, or at least not only in the ‘Palimpsest’, which the Catalan writer Juan Goytisolo saw in the city’s historical topography, nor in the metaphor of a ‘patchwork’ city. It is the presence, competition and struggle of synchronic but distinct, even mutually exclusive life-worlds and their cultural imaginations that signify Istanbul’s troubled relationship with its multiple pasts and presents, its peoples and landscapes.

Beyond cosmopolitan nostalgia

Since the 1990s, with Turkey’s gradual integration into the global economy and the timid disengagement from the unitary identity project of the Kemalist Republic, Istanbul is being rediscovered and recreated by novelists and literary critics. A good part of Turkey’s burgeoning new generation of writers is obsessed with exploring the city, its vanished ethnic and cultural diversity and the lost parochialism, intimacy and kindness of uniform Kemalist modernity.

Melancholy permeates Orhan Pamuk’s memoirs of his childhood, even though this melancholic state of mind, hüzün, is only marginally shaped by the desire for the remnants of Ottoman multiculturalism. Pamuk timidly longs for the splendour of the lost Ottoman age while he sulks at the modern, but soulless monochrome of the republican middle classes. Ironically, in his latest novel, ‘The Museum of Innocence’, the ironic desire for a transfigured past turns towards the relative grey tones of 1970s Istanbul, in which even the upper classes live a life of moderation, yet where kindness seems to rule supreme. This is Istanbul after the departure of most of its Greek and Jewish communities, yet before the city’s conquest by industrious Anatolian and Kurdish immigrants, at a time when amidst a mounting civil war, middle class values and old fashioned rules of courtesy determined every-day interaction, despite the rising body count and the looming devastation of the 1980 coup.

If longings for a more refined urban past and dislike of the city’s foreigners and Kurds pervade the imaginations of the Kemalist compartment of the middle classes, memories reach deeper and further back: The world of İhsan Oktay Anar’s 18th and 19th century Istanbul abounds with breathtakingly different people from all corners of an empire stretching from Europe to Asia and Africa, and from beyond the fuzzy imperial boundaries. Despite the otherness of dress, language and social status, however, his protagonists are united in their respective religious parochialisms and their disinterest in each other’s difference as much as by their mostly frustrated search for power and love, and their common predilection for wine, feasts and money. Ironically, Anar’s Konstantiniyye, city of Constantine, is probably the closest in content and appearance to today’s fragmented but thriving world city Istanbul. A city, where difference and diversity create synergy and constant tension, anxiety and creativity, and where cosmopolitan desire and everyday experience seldom coincide.

Elif Şafak, in her ‘Flea Palace’, turns garbage piles and stuffy flats into synonyms for the silenced memory of the city’s pre-national heritage and the burden of denial of its destruction. Her ‘Bastard of Istanbul’ pushes further the reckoning with nostalgic transfiguration by giving agency to those who have been kicked out, and subsequently, written out of the collective memory: Armanoush Chakmakchian, a young girl of American-Armenian origin questions the comfortable longing for a ‘sterilized’ multicultural golden age and demands recognition of what she sees as her own story: April 24, 1915, when Istanbul’s Armenian intellectuals and community leaders were round up and marched of into prison camps, and the genocide, which spared the city’s Armenian communities, but was planned and executed from Istanbul.

The writers of Istanbul have broken with both the monochromatic history of Turkish nationalism as well as with the sterile manifestations of the desire for a meaningful past. This imagination I found perfectly represented in a new variety of homely cafés that emerged in Istanbul in the mid-1990s. There, walls would be plastered with random photos from vanished families, many of whom were clearly of Christian origin. The rooms would be stuffed with the artefacts of urban middle class life at the turn of the century. This interior design hardly obfuscated the almost desperate need for a historical reference that would promise a bit more fun and depth than the uniform official representations of the republic, and that would have the additional benefit of connecting historical imagination to a more European lifestyle.

Many more writers of Istanbul could be added to this spectrum of representations and revisions: From Ahmet Ümit’s crime stories, in which the new rulers of the streets, the mafia, is pitted against disempowered members of the minorities to Yılmaz Karakoyunlu’s novels about the dispossession of the city’s Armenians, and Jews and the eviction of the Greeks of polis, they have shifted the gaze away from the desire for a more comfortable past to the many tensions inherent in both the past and the present, and to the troubled lives in the streets and buildings of Istanbul.

Muslim desires and the Ottoman golden age

Yet, desires persist and transcend the limits of literature and artistic creation: Governed by a succession of ‘moderate’ Islamist mayors since 1994 and endorsed by the ascending Islamic middle classes, a novel historical imagination is now firmly established: the Ottoman golden age. Breaking with the anti-imperial narrative of the republican nation-builders –if not with their Jacobin authoritarianism- this neo-Ottoman fantasy clumsily projects the religious and ethnic homogeneity of the republic back into the imperial age, which then emerges as a mostly Turkish and almost exclusively Muslim Garden of Eden.

The Muslim longing for a golden past is apprehensive of allegations of genocide and displeased by the suggestion of real inequalities and discrimination of non-Muslims in Ottoman history. Yet, it is nevertheless also shaped by the imagination of a felicitous society, where religions and cultures co-existed in perfect harmony, under the benign and unquestioned supremacy of the Muslim and Turkish ruling classes.

The transfiguration of the messy Ottoman past as a posthumously Turkified Islamic polity is not limited to the political realm, and neither is it constrained to the increasingly popular interior design of the multiplying boutique hotels and neo-Ottoman headscarf arrangements: Behind the floral patterns of heavy brocade curtains and sofas sprinkled with chintemani patterns, it has become the alternative founding narrative for cultural actors inspired by the ‘moderate’ Islamic politics of the city’s ruling party. The historically inaccurate, yet highly emotive ‘Conquest Panorama 1453’ of the Metropolitan Municipality of Greater Istanbul transposes the simple and contemporary binaries of ‘East vs. West’, ‘Islam vs. Christianity’, ‘Turks vs. Greeks’ into a historical context, where these distinctions were not nearly as clear-cut as they have become since the emergence of nationalist projects in the region.

The social climbers of the ‘moderate’ Islamic revival find both self-worth, pride and ownership in this misconstrued cosmopolitanism of the city’s Ottoman past, and while writers and critics re-imagine and revisit Istanbul’s troubled past with its own diversity, and while all these discursive currents permeate and reshape each other in the big party that is Istanbul’s –and the nation’s- cultural life, the city’s urban landscapes host altogether more existential struggles: Streets and quarters are being fought over, reshaped, regenerated and cleansed from its often unwelcome current residents.

Unbearable proximities and parochial certainties

Beyond the cultural and political discourses of cosmopolitanism, Istanbul is a metropolis in which diversity in terms of class, ethnicity, religion, race and sexual orientation co-exists with a deep-seated fear of otherness and a reluctance to accept alien life-styles.

Lacking the cultural resources of ‘sociabilité’ and conviviencia, thanks to the succession of authoritarian modernities, whether secular or Islamist, most Istanbulites are afraid of each other and of each others’ differences. Justified doubts on the explanatory power of large surveys notwithstanding, Istanbulites emerge from such surveys as a people terrified by otherness: The large majority of them would rather not live next to a Kurd, an Alevi, a non-Muslim or a gay person. Blending local parochialisms with universal phenomena like racism and xenophobia, most Istanbulites also dislike Jews and Christians, Armenians and Greeks, African migrant workers and Arab tourists. Discomfort is at hand, when conversations turn to the rising number of expats flocking to the city’s growing financial institutions and the international professionals working in its increasingly globalised industrial and academic sectors.

If the moderate Muslim cultural elites imagine their version of a diverse society as a real political alternative to the unbearable xenophobia of modern Turkish life, their political representatives seem not to take notice. Istanbul’s police, now largely penetrated by followers of the charismatic Muslim leader Fethullah Gülen are retrained to prepare Istanbul’s often seedy public spaces for the utilisation of the ‘Islamic family’ as well as for sophisticated European cultural tourists. Hence, the police have been cracking down on transsexuals, transvestites and African migrants that are on all those unwelcome representatives of a diversity that threatens the morality of the new middle classes. The zeal of the security forces to cleanse the public space has often been exacerbated by hatred for sexual and ethnic difference and sometimes helped by the violent desires of testosterone-driven young and jobless men, who have joined in the hunt under the smokescreen of religious and nationalist patriotism. Together, they have destroyed whatever ‘hospitability’ towards others had survived the military putsch of 1980 and the three decades of self-interested primitive accumulation eversince. Needless to say that leftwing demonstrators, socialists and unionists also feel the punch of police batons, when they challenge one of the unwritten and unquestioned rules of the putschist, who had declared Taksim Square off-limits for the left.

Amid municipality plans to ‘regenerate’ –read, to procure for the market- historical quarters inhabited by those ‘unwanted’ groups that threaten the harmony of the AKP’s family-oriented public space and the forced eviction of Roma and poor immigrants to social housing developments on the city’s distant outskirts, however, diversity is flourishing nevertheless and in spite of desires for a clean and family-friendly city.

Even though Istanbul’s urban landscape is now littered with the phallic symbols of a decade of nationalist bravado and religious competition –disproportioned minarets and newly erected flagpoles-, and even though Istanbulites are officially one of the most xenophobic urban dwellers globally, Istanbul today is also a truly global city, albeit with very different constituents than in Ottoman or early republican times. It is probably the city with the largest Kurdish population and certainly the capital of the cultural production of Kurdish intellectuals. It is a global meeting place for progressive and politically engaged artists and the performing arts. Istanbul is as much a Kurdish city, a city of African and Arab immigration and transit migration, a city of gays and transsexuals, and a city of women, as it is the template on which the new Islamic middle classes imagine their future on the backdrop of an idealised, yet ultimately misappropriated Ottoman past, and the source of inspiration for its very own writers and critics.

Istanbul is cosmopolitan, and increasingly so, but it is not proud of it. While the shiny photos of the city’s PR department assemble mosques, churches and synagogues in seemingly perfect harmony, Istanbul’s de-facto diversity is an altogether messier, and less desirable one for most. A large part of Istanbulites yet lack the social resources to endure, or enjoy the stirrings of a truly diverse urban society. The Ottoman fantasies of Islamic middle classes can only veil the deep lack of tolerance in today’s Istanbul and drape it in the newly fashionable shrouds adorned with tulips and red carnations. But they provide no answer to the question on how to transform a multicultural but contested and conflicted city into a welcoming place for its citizens and its temporary residents to live safely and interact freely. Yet, maybe tolerance and enjoyment of difference, ‘hospitality’ in its basic form, is not a precondition for diversity and citizenship in a globalising metropolis.

I have cited French translations where available, otherwise I have referred to English editions. This failing, I have listed the original publication in Turkish.
İhsan Oktay Anar (2001), Atlas des continents brumeux, Actes Sud.
Juan Goytisolo (2003), Cinema Eden: Essays from the Muslim Mediterranean.
Yılmaz Karakoyunlu
(1990), Salkım Hanımın Taneleri [Mrs Salkım’s Diamonds], Doğan Kitap.
(2000), Güz Sancısı [Pains of autumn], Doğan Kitap.
Orhan Pamuk
(2009), The museum of innocence, Faber and Faber.
(2008), Istanbul. Souvenir d’une ville, Gallimard.
Elif Shafak
(2008), La batarde d’Istanbul, 10/18.
(2008), Bonbon Palace, Phébus.
Ahmet Ümit (2002), Sis ve gece [Fog and night], Doğan Kitap.

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