The name of this blog

6 Apr

The name of this blog is the old Ottoman name for the main street of the new, ‘European’ side of Istanbul, the part of the City that grew and developed on the northern side of the Golden Horn beginning more or less in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century, the neighborhood known as Pera or Beyoglu, the Greek Pera reappearing in more and more contexts lately as nostalgia about the city has become a minor industry and cultural phenomenon (Robinson Crusoe, easily one of the coolest bookstores in the world, now refers to itself as a “bookstore in Pera”).  Originally, I was going to confine this blog to Greek and Turkish issues and though that’s changed, I’ve kept the name because it’s the main drag of what – as far as I’m concerned – is still the zone’s keystone city.  I had thought of the street as an appropriately symbolic piece of territory where Greek and Turkish interaction was for a time at its most intense, most claustrophobic, even risky.  But even more, I thought of it as a space that best represents our mutual delusions, lies and hypocrisies.

Greeks think of the Jadde as the Main Street of Greek Istanbul, but neither the neighborhood nor Istanbul itself was ever as demographically Greek as the fantasy has it.  Further, the obvious wealth to which the street’s architecture bears witness always smelled a bit too much to me of nineteenth-century minority pretensions, by which I mean those six or seven post-Tanzimat* decades during which we enjoyed unprecedented access to the Empire’s wealth and financial resources without paying any of the obligations of being part of it; it’s apparently where Greek crowds had become so brazen that they gathered to yell: “Zwa! Zwa!”…”Animals!” at Turkish troops during the Balkan War as they left for the front and the mind-boggling casualties they were to experience there.  It’s also when, as soon as traditional restrictions on church construction were lifted, our new confidence raised up the three ugliest Greek churches ever built in the entire history of Constantinople – quite a feat.  And the palatial embassies of the Great Powers that breathed down the neck of the Ottomans for two hundred years and made those idyllic conditions possible for us still line the street.

Turks in the past couple of decades have spent considerable resources ‘restoring’ the area: the street was pedestrianized at some point in the late eighties I think; they set up a cute retro trolley car that runs down the middle and seems to serve no purpose but to annoy the crowds that have to constantly get out of its way; they’ve put some money into remodeling some buildings.  All of this has come hand in hand with a subtle psychological process running in many urbanized Turks’ minds that has gradually made of the neighborhood a symbol of Istanbul’s historically multi-cultural essence, which in many and moving ways it is.

It’s also where hundreds of  Armenians were murdered in a shockingly urban episode of the Hamidian massacres of 1896**, right there in the middle of all the Belle Epoque elegance and the cafes and the hotels, an event so brilliantly handled in the ‘duck with bamya’ (bamiyeh, bhindi, okra) chapter of Loksandra, and where, in one night of September 1955, every single Greek business on the street (marked beforehand in a perverse, inverted Passover), from Taksim to Tunel, down the Yuksek Kaldirim to Karakoy, along with almost every Greek church and cemetery in the rest of the city, were vandalized or completely destroyed in what turned out, after much bogus blaming and bullshitting, to have been nothing less than a government organized pogrom — pure and simple.  The event was later cynically used as one of the lesser charges brought against Adnan Menderes, the first ever democratically elected Prime Minister of Turkey, who had been in power at the time (‘55), by the military junta that removed him in 1960 and then hanged him and several other members of his government in 1961.  That doesn’t mean he wasn’t guilty of his part in organizing the riots — this, thefirst ever democratically elected Prime Minister of Turkey – he was; that’s just not why the Turkish military hanged him.  He was later exonerated, in fact, and has been semi-canonized since.  The Greek community got bubkes in compensation.  The riots were the beginning of the end, a shocking wake-up call to the complacent sense of security the City’s Greeks had started to feel in Turkey again after the fear and discrimination of the WWII years had passed, and they produced a massive exodus, exacerbated by other measures taken against them in the early sixties, as tensions over Cyprus and the usual tit-for-tat stupidities between the two countries grew.  (One will often hear Greek Polites*** bitterly blame Greek Cypriots for the progressive dissolution of their world, in the sad tones of one irrationally seeking a reason for an unassimilable loss.)  By the late seventies, their numbers had dropped below that point of critical mass that makes the sustaining of a meaningful community life possible: old people waiting to die, young people waiting to move to Greece.  I’m sure Thracian Turks in Greece can identify.

All this unpleasantness is usually excised from the contemporary Turkish nostalgia phenom’.  I remember on my first trips to Turkey as a teenager in the eighties even, often finding myself in the confusing position of being told: “Oh, lots of Greeks used to live around here,” in a smiling and totally sincere attempt at bonding and with a totally blissful indifference or maybe ignorance as to why they didn’t anymore, leaving me feeling both touched and irritated.  Granted, people have become markedly more sophisticated since then.

Anyway…  I could have called this blog the Istiklal Caddesi, which has been the street’s name since the nineteen-twenties and which I’m usually forced to use as well so people know where I’m talking about or don’t think I’m some freaky history nerd, but that would’ve been — no offense — too Republican.  I could have called it He Megale Hodos, but nobody ever really called it that except in the most official contexts (Greeks just called it the Straight Street, ‘Ho Isios Dromos’).  The a la Franca pretensions of la Grande Rue are just as self-evident.  So the old Perso-Ottoman “Great Way,” Jadde-ye Kabir, most fit my gousta and purposes.  Jadde means “street” in Farsi (and in modern Turkish and Arabic too; they’re originally Arabic — both words) but I like “way” because I liked the sort of ironic counterpoint between the great ceremonial routes of the old Imperial city on the other side with this thoroughly bourgeois little avenue.  The “path” too, says my Farsi dictionary, which also had a nice Zen ring.

Istanbul has twice septupled in size since the middle of the last century and Greek life there has faded away into nothing: the City has turned into a gigantic, intractable monstropolis like so many others.  Almost no one in Istanbul is from Istanbul anymore.  Yet this relatively small stretch of one small street still attracts massive daily and nightly crowds.  After a couple of depressed decades caused by the minority exodus, some criminally abusive urban planning projects and the criminal neglect of its architectural heritage, the street and the whole neighborhood have come back into their own again, and then some, in a way that frankly makes me so giddily proud and happy whenever I’m in C-town that any of the past’s bitterness just vanishes — it’s ok it’s not “ours” anymore; it’s still mine.  It’s perhaps the most instant snapshot one can get of Turkey’s current cultural dynamism, sophistication, prosperity, and growing freedom – in however tricky a state that freedom still may be.  Despite the clubs and malls of the northern or Asian suburbs, and despite the even more endless suburbs beyond them, inhabited by Anatolian migrants who may have never even seen it, the Jadde still gives the impression of being the default destination of any Istanbullu who’s meeting friends, looking to consume an urban pleasure of some kind, or just has nowhere else to go or anything else to do.  It’s a delicious, overwhelming mix of commercial crassness, elegance, sexiness, good music, cool bookstores, garbage and great food: an Eastern flaneur’s paradise.  In fact, aside from the Nevsky in Petersburg, I can think of no one street in which one can read so much of a great metropolis’ experience of modern urbanity as the Jadde.  It’s one of my favorite places on earth.

— For C., Istanbul, 2010

*Tanzimat: the “reforms” I think…or the “new order” maybe.  I don’t know if it refers to the actual beginning or the whole long nineteenth-century process; the response to the barrage of external and internal problems faced by the Ottoman Empire starting in the late eighteenth century: the interference of Western power interests and extortion; the loss of Balkan and Black Sea territories and the non-stop influx of refugees from those areas; the rise of local warlords (like Ali Pasha of Jiannena) who controlled large fiefdoms that were practically independent of Constantinople; an attempt to modernize the army in an attempt to recentralize things; the attempt to enfranchise the non-Muslim minorities (who didn’t, however, give up their nationalist aspirations in return) without totally freaking out the Muslim clerical establishment; a new constitution at some point, which was then suspended by Abdul Hamid, etc., etc.  Here, read about it yourselves: Tanzimat  The politics of the period are so torturously complex that no matter how much I read, I still can’t grasp the entire process.  I can’t remember which Sultan was pro-reform and which anti and which tried to take a middle path, except for A.H., who was eventually proven to be fairly undemocratic and a bit of a paranoid nut but was responsible for some impressive modernization projects anyway.  I don’t know when or how the Young Ottomans morphed into the Young Turks or who belonged to which group.

I know that it was all a titanic, often heroic, struggle to turn the Empire into a modern state.  I know there was a half-sincere, but belated and pathetic attempt to create a sense of “Ottomaness” among all its subjects/citizens; I won’t be the first one to make the comparison to Hapsburg Austria.  I know that when the constitution was restored in 1908, a year before Abdul Hamid was finally deposed,  there are stories — way too many, frankly, to be believable – of men of all ethnicities and imams and priests embracing in the streets of cities throughout the Empire in the spirit of their new found Ottoman brotherhood.  Then just five years later, in 1912, Greece, Bulgaria and Serbia joined forces and effectively ended what was left of the Ottoman presence in the Balkans and the Turks decided: “Well, fuck this…” and started concentrating on building a modern Turkish nation-state for Turks just like everyone else was doing for themselves.  And the rest, as they say…

It’s an important period for Greeks to know about because it puts into perspective the fact that our influence and wealth in nineteenth-century Turkey was not just due to our diligence and ingenuity and brilliance — to daimonio tes fyles — but also because we were operating in a host body weakened by daunting, almost insurmountable challenges, both internal and external.

** In August of 1896, a group of Dashnaks, an Armenian independence group, took hostages at the Ottoman Bank in Karakoy – I can’t remember what their demands were — and I think set off some grenades or something.  The Pera murders were a response to this, though violence against Armenians and inter-communal violence between Armenians and Muslims, especially in the southeast, had been growing exponentially in the months and years beforehand, all during the reign of Abdul Hamid (“Ho adikiorismenos,” as Loksandra would call him), hence “Hamidian.”

*** Greeks will often refer to Constantinople as “The City” “He Pole” – since it goes without saying which city one means.  “Polites” then are Greeks from The City.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

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