Tarlabaşı II: Elif Batuman, Beşiktaş, Kuzguncuk and “diversity”

2 Aug

A couple of problems I have with this New York Times article from last month  —  “Poor but Proud Istanbul Neighborhood Faces Gentrification”  — that prompted this Tarlabaşı series (see “Tarlabaşı I”), other than that it’s so confusingly written that one can’t exactly tell what the Beyoğlu municipality has in mind for the area, which may be their plan and not the fault of the writer.

One, is the “migrants” bit in the first or second paragraph of the article.  Yes, Istanbul continued to attract migrants until the early twentieth century from all over the Ottoman Empire and even the independent and impoverished successor states of the Balkans, men like my great-grandfather and his son-in-law, my great-uncle.  But the Greeks, Armenians and Jews that lived in Tarlabaşı in the 1940s and 50s where not migrants.  They were born and bred — mostly far more than two generations — Constantinopolitans who would’ve gotten somewhat apoplectic if you told then they were migrants.

Two, is that contemporary Tarlabaşı is not “diverse.”  It’s almost 99.9% Muslim and probably about 80% Turkish and 20% Kurdish – maybe with a very heavier demographic tilt toward the Kurdish end, which is natural because you would have run away to the big city too if your villages were being constantly bombed and flattened and what’s essentially the sürgün* of Kurds westward had been going on for decades.  That’s not diverse.  It’s probably pretty representative of the poor of the rest of the country.  If by diverse we mean the ex-pats that’ve found a good rental deal there and the artists who live in Tarlabaşı, that’s a whole other story.  In that case, maybe it’d be a good idea that artists recognize that they’re always the anti-diversity seed for every gentrification: they move in, their blending in with the locals is “cool” at first; the bankers, the lawyers, and the academics with a little bit of money follow the coolness (they have to do something), and then the ‘hood is gentrified and the funky artists can’t live there anymore…along with the neighborhood’s working, or maybe completely impoverished, classes.  And then come the wine bars.  Maybe the artists should go straight to Yalova or Tekirdağ, or Poughkeepsie or Scranton, so there’s no fear of the yuppies following them.  What do you think?  Demographically emptying neighborhoods, like the East Village and Williamsburg were here in New York in the eighties, obviously went first.  A mahalla with a stay-put, clannish population, like the Greeks and Italians and Bosnians of Astoria, obviously doesn’t let the process go that far, which is why Astoria has its share of artists and actors and writers and gay guys but still has functioning ethnic communities with their clubs and bars and butchers and produce shops at the same time and in the end remains far more interesting — and far more New York – a neighborhood than Williamsburg has become.

Astoria (click)


But gentrification is not the issue.  The buzzword “diversity” is and that’s not even the Times’ writer’s fault.  “Diversity” and “multicultural” are words that have filled Turkey’s stock portfolio for several decades now: the less diverse İstanbul, especially, became, the greater the ubiquity of those words became; for tourists obviously, but, more importantly, for internal consumption in a dynamic so complicated that it’s always been tough to outline for me or figure out at all.  Post-eighties, late-twentieth-early-twenty-first-century, modernizing, haltingly democratizing, Turkey has a great investment in these words.  I mentioned in one of my first posts The Name of this Blog,” that:

“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.”

Or have they?  I admit to asking this question with more than a significant dose of bitterness because the issue makes me angry.  Maybe I just want to expect – or eventually be able to expect – better from Turks.  I know what Greek nationalists think and they’re hopeless, because the bitterness of Neo-Greek impotence springs from an eternal source.  They think only Greeks ever lived in Greece.  They think there were never any Turks in pre-1913 Greece.  They don’t know how hard the Neo-Greek statelet made life for Salonican Jews between the wars (even as a little nostalgia phenom’ has developed around them in Salonica, a city hungrily looking for cultural capital).  They don’t know that Muslim Albanians were massacred and expelled from western Epiros during WWII.  If it were up to them, they would expel the Turkish minority from the north-east – were it not for fear of Turkey’s response (see Çiller’s famous comment about the Turkish army in Athens in 24 hours, the bully-face of the Turkish state at its grossest) – and they simply ignore the Macedonian minority of the north-west, terrorized and intimidated for decades, if they even know or are willing to admit it exists, etc., etc.  There’s no point in going on.  I detest Greek Turk-hatred; it’s so beyond obvious to me that it’s a projection of the total failure of the whole Neo-Greek project – politically, socially, economically and culturally – and I bow up like a friggin’ cobra whenever I sense even the slightest whiff of it.

But sometimes I wonder if I prefer Greek animosity to Turkish arkadaşım-s and kardeşim-s or silent smiles.  Elif Batuman is a writer I love.*  She wrote a very funny book on Russian Studies academia in the U.S. and she’s been The New Yorker’s guy in İstanbul since she moved there in 2001.  She writes truly – not just hilarious – but perceptive articles on modern Turkey, which remind you why — if one does – you love that country and its people.  In the March 7, 2011 issue of the New Yorker she wrote a brilliant piece on İstanbul’s Beşiktaş soccer club, “The View from the Stands,” and soccer in Turkey generally that said so much about the country she should look into writing a book about it.  (Her writing often betrays her, also, as a woman who really likes men; I don’t mean “likes” like that; I mean has a deep and genuine appreciation for them and their company — she’s a guys’ girl.)  Anyway, at one point she writes:

“Hakan quoted a much repeated cliché: ‘Armenians support Beşiktaş, Jews support Galatasaray, and Greeks support Fenerbahçe.’  Nobody ever says whom the Kurds – Turkey’s largest minority – support.”

Really?  Batuman recognizes it’s a cliché and probably also asked herself the same question: What city is he talking about?  Granted the p.r. guy, for lack of a better word, for Beşiktaş’ mob-like fan club is an Armenian.  Other than him…?  How many of İstanbul’s estimated 50,000 Armenians, 25,000 Jews, or 1,500 Greeks have been to a Beşiktaş game?  (I mean…forgive me the stereotype, but the idea of a good Jewish boy going to one of the high-testosterone matches Batuman describes, with their brawls and stabbings, strains all belief; one of the old Greek ladies from the Balıklı old age home would be there first.)  Or how many of Beşiktaş’ fans, unlikely to even be from İstanbul (and whom Batuman makes you like so much you want to hang out with them), have even met one of any of the above ethnic groups – out of a city of almost 15 million?

So in eternal pursuit of this question I buy Streets of Memory: Landscape, Tolerance, and National Idenitity in Istanbul, a book by Amy Mills from the University of South Carolina about Kuzguncuk and the narratives of social change that are told by its inhabitants.  Kuzguncuk is a lovely neighborhood on the Asian side of the lower Bosphorus.  It once had a large Armenian and Jewish population and a slightly smaller Greek one.  Beginning in the 1940s and into the 50s, as the minorities left for other neighborhoods or left Turkey all together, rural migrants, especially from the Black Sea coast, started to settle in the area.  But it was one of the ripest gentrification fruits in the city, dripping and ready to drop like a cracked fig: quiet, as the Asian neighborhoods of the Bosphorus are (quieter and prettier generally than their counterparts across the water; their only drawback is that in the summer they roast in the setting sun for the entire afternoon), close to Üsküdar and Kadiköy and their easy connections to the European side of the city, and still so architecturally intact that several good-ole-days, neighborhood soap operas have been shot there.  As for the quarter’s former or remaining minority residents, Mills’ doesn’t get very much out of them; the old Turkish residents of the area have the usual smiling, nostalgic accounts of their lives with the others, but are generally silent about what happened to them, or at least uncomfortable about going into details (as are the non-Muslims themselves), and the young Turkish gentrifiers of the area are, of course, too busy fighting their usual war against the newer, richer gentrifiers that the former are sure will destroy their mahalla-paradise.

The skala at Kuzguncuk (above).  Houses in Kuzguncuk (below) by Selma Arslan (click)

But after several chapters of interesting but kind of non-conclusive ethnography and lots of interesting accounts (the Greeks are the most secretive and unhelpful of her subjects — perhaps because they’re the most recently and deeply traumatized), Mills drops a theoretical bomb — for me at least — in her conclusion that summarizes everything I’ve always suspected about the issue:

“But why do non-Muslim minorities become the subject of nostalgia?  As I demonstrate in chapters 2 and 4, the nostalgic emphasis on minority cultures in Istanbul is a way of reinforcing a sense of cultural and social difference, a way of othering, that ultimately works to co-opt minorities back into the predominantly Turkish imagination of the city.  Thus nostalgia embraces and reinforces a nationalist context that defines social difference (without which, there wouldn’t be social difference) along ethnic and religious lines.  If we interrogate the cultural politics of this nostalgia, we see that nostalgia constitutes the flip side of silence.  By focusing on the dimensions of interethnic neighborhood social life that emphasizes togetherness and sharing, nostalgia erases fissures and differences.  In chapter 4, I discuss how nostalgic memories of life on the main street smooth over the violence of particular antiminority events in Kuzguncuk: the erasures accomplished by nostalgia actually reify the ideology behind the dominant national narrative, that Turkey is an inherently Turkish nation.  Nostalgia for cosmopolitanism, by sustaining the erasure of difference, writes minorities back into a seamless collective, and so nostalgia for minority places and people is part of the discursive field that dispossesses minorities of place.  Minorities comply by maintaining silence regarding their experiences of Turkish nationalist discrimination and by assimilating, thereby ensuring their safety.  In this way, the primary function of the nostalgia for cosmopolitanism is to sustain and mediate social and personal experiences of ethnic Turkish nationalism.  The conclusion is that in Istanbul, cosmopolitanism is imagined locally in ways that perpetuate the notions of social difference and inequality that cosmopolitanism, as an ideal, claims to transcend.”

Hard to say more than that; it strips “İstanbul nostalgia” down to its basic – if not hypocrisy – then at least its unintentional disingenuousness.  But there is probably one more layer that needs to be excavated there and a connection that may need looking in to.  Under the fanatically secular project of the Republic, which permits the doublethink simultaneity of pure Turkishness and gracious cosmopolitanism that Mills nails on the head to “co-exist,” may run, ironically, the frequently bloated claims of tolerance and egalitarianism that Islam has often made for itself.  There’s a suspiciously similar paternalism: “We’re in control here, but as long as you lay low, you’ll be ok…” that seems part of the foundation of both ideologies, and that might not be a coincidence.

And that’s also why Batuman’s Beşiktaş fans can recite the classic trio of vanished ethnic groups but never say what team the Kurds support: because Turkey has 14 million Kurds, and they won’t “lay low.”


*Sürgün means deportation in Turkish (I don’t know if it’s originally a Turkic word).  The Ottomans, the Byzantines, the Safavid and previous Persians, the Romans — all used them for strategic military purposes and to disperse peoples whose unity was considered threatening or subversive.  The Byzantines used the method extensively to re-Hellenize the Greek peninsula after the Slavic invasions of the 6th century, moving Anatolian Greeks to Greece and Slavic groups to Asia Minor; a cynic will tell you that exchanges of populations and ethnic cleansings are nothing new.

**You can find most of Batuman’s work for The New Yorker here, though most of it is behind their bitchy pay-wall, and her book: The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

See Tarlabaşı I and Tarlabaşı III

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