Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Istanbul

As will be obvious from my half-hearted and rather superficial post about Frank Field on Monday, I am currently enjoying a break. Though I had good intentions to maintain a daily blog and could easily do so given that I have wi-fi access in my hotel, I just haven't been able to motivate myself to do it.

In fact, I'm going to indulge in this mesmerising city, Istanbul instead of writing about how Hillary Clinton's win in West Virginia changes nothing or how it is fascinating that Obama has moved his campaign to general election footing signalled by his decision to speak in the swing state of Missouri rather than West Virginia last night or how the draft Queen's speech contains some really good measures not least a cheeky little proposal on buying up surplus housing for redistribution or the welfare reform measures and a strong idea on the introduction of an NHS constitution.

The reason I'm here is quite simple. Orhan Pamuk. I've been a fan of his writing for some time (I would particularly recommend 'Snow' and 'My Name is Red') and his 'Istanbul: memories and the city' has been on my bookshelf for a while. Cheesy but what better than to read it in Istanbul?

The threads of Turkey's identity crisis, East and West, Kemalist and Ottoman, flow through Pamuk's literature just as the Bosphorus and Sea of Marmara collide and separate in Istanbul. In 'Istanbul', Pamuk becomes curator, poet, archivist, social historian, and autobiographer. Istanbul becomes his history, his canvas, his personality. Like Hugo, Dickens, and Joyce before him he allows himself to be defined by a city and in turn hooks us into accompanying him on an archaeological dig of the soul of place.

Pamuk's personal history and that of his family has an uncanny entanglement with that of his subject. His family's fortunes turn upon the death of his paternal Grandfather, a 'magnificent man', whose fortunes are frittered away by the hopelessness of his father and uncle's business acumen. A decaying family fortune reflects the decaying seat of the Ottoman empire, a city neglected, bellowing up nothing but darkness and painful memories of past greatness.

He never met his Grandfather just as he never saw Sultanate Istanbul, but each is omnipresent in his upbringing. His Grandmother, wise and charismatic, never surfaces until after midday, rarely leaves the family home, waiting for their family greatness to return (she sees omens of this in little Orhan, the 'crow') and Istanbul is gripped by huzun, a kind of collective melancholy induced by dispossessed greatness, power, and wealth.

The embers of this melancholic shabbiness remain in modern Istanbul but this is not the same city that Pamuk grew up in. It had just about reached a population of a million when Pamuk began school, its population now stands at ten million. The old city, Pera, and Bosphorus communities have been swallowed in mass migration and development. Romantic as the crossing from the West to the Asian side sounds, the Asian side is nothing of the sort. Rather it is a sea of modernist medium rise tower blocks. Rather than a bridge from West to East or vice versa, the trip across the Bosphorus is more akin to crossing from 1920 to 1965.

There is much discussion about whether Turkey can ever be part of Europe. Istanbul is not typical, I'm assured, but on the evidence of this city it absolutely can be. It has the feel of a modern, European city with an Islamic hue rather than an Islamic city. Islamic architecture (sometimes subsuming Orthodox Christian architecture as in the spectacular Haghia Sofya) provides the city's best moments. However, much as the Sultans left for the hills and then extinction quite a while ago, Ottoman Istanbul remains as a relic rather than a threat. Even Haghia Sofya is now just a museum (though I can't remember being in a more breathtaking structure.)

So where does Turkey's destiny lie? The Government of Tayyip Erdogan seems to want have its cake and eat it, supporting a fusion of modern economic reform and conservative Islam. It is patently obvious that the only way to combine these two things is hypocrisy- liberalism will leave religious conservatism in its wake. The only question will be if and what kind of backlash this approach will provoke. For now, the EU's most sensible course of action is to continue an engagement with Erdogan. The mono-creed vision of European politicians such as Valery Giscard d'Estaing needs to be challenged just as areas where Turkey falls short, freedom of speech, Cyprus, and the potential entanglement of religious with secular law need to be tested. It should be noted that despite the approach of Erdogan's AKP, Turkey is perhaps more aggressively secularist government than any in Europe with the possible exception of France.

Orhan Pamuk's city of black and white has been replaced by a sparkling city, self-confident in its future, released from its past. It is as Europoean as Napoli, Athens, or Seville. Old Istanbul, the city of Pamuk's youth was given its energy by the Bosphorus. New Istanbul, this city of new train lines, stadiums, affluent housing developments, and high-rise office blocks, has an energy of its own. Ataturk has won- in Istanbul at least. Is the EU to reverse the city back to its history or allow its destiny to be European? On the evidence of Istanbul at least, Turkey is already well on its way to a European destiny.

Postscript: Pamuk collects some newspaper columns that he has read over the years (see what I mean about being a curator?) Two quotes particularly amused me:

From 1946:
"We're tired of seeing every square in the city flooded every time it rains. Whoever is supposed to fix this, should fix it soon."
From 1927:
"Yesterday it snowed and did anyone in the city board a tram from the front or indeed show any respect to their elders? It is with regret that we note how quickly the city forgets the polite rules of society that so few of our inhabitants knew in the first place."
Anyone who has been here will be able to vouch for that!

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