Tag Archives: Beyoglu

From Culinary Backstreets: A Beyoğlu Legend Passes on

25 Nov

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Why did we know that even if we were not definitely told by anybody?  i.e., that the whole culture and ceremony of meze-fish-rakı is a Greek contribution to İstanbul.

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The last Greek restaurant, İmroz (Ίμβρος) on Nevizâde Sokağı closed soon after its owner passed away in 2015.  Before that there was still İnci, the patisserie on the Jadde itself that was momentarily a part of the Gezi protests in 2013.  See my: “Nobody really cares about Gezi Park: Greek thoughts on the protests of 2013.

So, it’s over; I think it’s now official.  At least as far as I know.  I’m 99.9% certain that there are no longer any Greek retail businesses left in the City.  Anyone who knows any different, let me know.

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On any given night, bustling, narrow Nevizade Street in the heart of Istanbul’s Beyoğlu district buzzes with thick crowds of evening revelers searching for the best table while clean-shaven waiters in their customary uniform of pressed white shirts and V-neck sweaters attempt to lure the crowds into their establishments.

Hyperactive as it may be, Nevizade – a hub for the meyhane, the Turkish taverna where plates of meze are enjoyed alongside slowly sipped rakı and grilled fish – has for decades had one distinctive, constant presence: Yorgo Okumuş, co-owner of the meyhane Krepen’deki İmroz and sole proprietor of a pair of almost comically bushy white eyebrows and an enigmatic mien that seemed to say he’s seen it all (which he probably had).

This week, sadly, Nevizade lost its elder statesman, with Yorgo Baba (as he was affectionately known) dying at the age of 94 after a short period of bad health. With the passing of Yorgo, a member of Istanbul’s dwindling Greek community, Beyoğlu lost one of the living links to its once vibrant multicultural and cosmopolitan past. At the same time, with his meyhane, Yorgo leaves behind an Istanbul institution that itself serves as a link to that past and that tells the incredible story of the fall and rise of the Beyoğlu neighborhood and its nightlife and dining scenes.

Imroz, photo by Yigal SchleiferWhile Nevizade and the streets surrounding it comprise one of the most lively and well-known nightlife hotspots in Istanbul, the meyhanes there trace their roots to a humbler, grittier period from where a time traveler would find the Beyoğlu of today utterly unrecognizable. “We were the first meyhane to arrive in Nevizade, in 1982. No one else was around in those days, and there was a mortician next door,” 57-year-old Mustafa Yıldırım, co-owner of Krepen’deki İmroz, told us during a recent visit. The name, which translates as “İmroz from Krepen,” is a nod to the island (known in Greek as İmroz and Gökçeada in Turkish) from which Yorgo hailed and a reference to its former location, the late Krepen Pasajı, where it opened in 1941.

Built sometime in the second half of the 19th century, the arcade was home to shoemakers and tailors until the early 1940s, when meyhanes began to move in one by one, resulting in a rowdy alcove of debauchery, where good-natured hell was raised on a nightly basis until the passage was razed in 1982. It was later rebuilt as a more mild-mannered arcade for secondhand bookshops, and remains so to this day.

Krepen might have been demolished, but Yorgo and Mustafa decided to carry on, relocating to Nevizade Street, just off Beyoğlu’s fish market, and İmroz became Krepen’deki İmroz so that it would be recognized by patrons from the previous era. “The backstreets were dangerous,” Mustafa said of Beyoğlu in the ’70s and early ’80s. “They were terrible back then. As far as a woman walking through during the day, forget it. It was even difficult for men to pass by. There were drunks and junkies, and the possibility of a fight breaking out was high.”

“We really struggled against this,” he said, adding that mafia pressure (still a factor in Beyoğlu today) was a major reality back then, with legendary kingpin Dündar Kılıç exerting a formidable presence in the area.

The cosmopolitan feel of Beyoğlu created by the Greeks, Armenians, Jews and Levantines (residents of European descent) who once dominated the area began to disintegrate in the second half of the 20th century, when non-Muslim Istanbullites vacated the area en masse, leaving a wealth of gorgeous, European-style architecture behind as tokens of their once established presence. The devastating anti-Greek pogrom of September 6-7, 1955, set its sights on minority-owned homes and businesses throughout the city, but the damage in Beyoğlu was particularly severe, resulting in a large number of Greeks leaving the country. Just under a decade later, thousands of Istanbul Greeks were expelled from the city as Greek-Turkish relations turned sour over Cyprus, a nail in the coffin for the once robust community and the urbane quality of Beyoğlu.

Krepen Pasajı, with its raucous array of meyhanes run by both Turks and Greeks alike, successfully navigated those complicated twists and turns in Beyoğlu’s social life. The Turks learned the trade from the Greeks, and Yorgo was perhaps the last meyhane proprietor of his kind in Istanbul, where the Greek population has now fallen below 2,000.

Mustafa of Krepen'deki İmroz, photo by Paul OsterlundYorgo and Mustafa opened Krepen’deki İmroz in 1982, but the two had actually worked together since 1970, when a 12-year-old Mustafa was hired on as a busboy in the meyhane where Yorgo was working as a waiter at the time. When they opened their own place, the beginning of a new social life began to take root in Beyoğlu. “In the 1970s, while working in Krepen, there were no female customers. Maybe in a month you would see one or two. Families would not go there,” recalled Mustafa. “The atmosphere was one of vulgar, slang-ridden conversations between men. After we moved to Nevizade in the ’80s, women started to show up, and the men began to watch their mouths.” Kadir’in Yeri (“Kadir’s Place”), one of İmroz’s neighbors from Krepen Pasajı, followed suit by opening on Nevizade under its current moniker, Krepen’deki Kadir’in Yeri.

At that time, Beyoğlu was far from the vast entertainment hub that it is known as today. The back alleys were beyond sketchy, and young people did not go there to socialize, instead heading to the quarters of Ortaköy, Nişantaşı and Etiler, which now rank among the most expensive and luxurious neighborhoods in the city. Krepen’deki İmroz was part of Beyoğlu’s gradual change, which surged after 1988, when the district’s main avenue, İstiklal, was designated pedestrian-only, and the adjacent Tarlabaşı Boulevard was expanded across six lanes.

“Eventually the pavyon segment of Beyoğlu began to transform into one of pubs, cafés and grillhouses, and young people began to come hang out,” Mustafa said, referring to a kind of “gentlemen”-only nightclub where customers would pay to have women flirt with them tableside and which was once a main fixture of the district during its seedier days.

Krepen'deki İmroz today, photo by Paul OsterlundDining habits in the meyhane also changed in the post-Krepen era, Mustafa told us. Back then, the meze affair was much simpler: While İmroz’s meze tray today groans with the weight of some 40 selections, it only carried a half-dozen or so in the old days. Not-for-the-faint-of-heart choices such as grilled kidney and ram’s testicles were also on the menu once upon a time, but have since quietly disappeared.

The years treated Mustafa and Yorgo well until recently. Mustafa said that the Gezi Park protests of 2013 and the subsequent iron fist of police violence that slammed down on Beyoğlu for months afterward have irreparably damaged business, sinking revenues by as much as 50 percent. The constant cat and mouse of police and protestors – and the ensuing tear gas – routinely spilled over into backstreets like Nevizade and profoundly affected the area.

“Since we’ve been around for so long, we have been able to stay on our feet. Some of our neighbors are having a harder time,” Mustafa said solemnly.

Wreaths for Yorgo Okumuş included one from Yeni Rakı, photo by Ansel MullinsMany of those neighbors turned up for Yorgo’s Wednesday funeral at the Greek cemetery in Istanbul’s Şişli neighborhood. Meyhane keepers, merchants from the Beyoğlu fish market and waiters, some in their work attire, all came to pay their respects. One man walked through the greeting line wearing an apron. Near Yorgo’s grave was a large funeral wreath from Coşkun Kasap, an old-time Beyoğlu butcher who supplies many of the meyhanes. Not far from that wreath was one sent by Yeni Rakı, Turkey’s largest distiller of the anise-flavored spirit.

Old customers were there in force as well, unshaven, many looking hungover. They smoked and gathered in knots, as if congregating in the dining room of İmroz, all wearing a photo of Yorgo pinned to their jackets. “He was the last of the Mohicans,” Emre, a tour guide and regular, told us. A spice merchant from the fish market said, “He was a four-star human, a beautiful person.”

One old regular of İmroz recalled Yorgo’s occasional temper, which over the years became part of his charm. “Many times I’d do something to annoy him and he’d blow up on me. But that came from his love,” he said. “Love and friendship – that should stay in our minds when remembering Yorgo Baba.”

Yorgo’s son, giving an interview to a television station, simply said, “He was the heart of Beyoğlu, the heart of the fish market.”

Not far from the freshly dug grave, a group of friends caught up with each other. “We’re getting the team back together,” one said. “5:30, İmroz.” They all nodded. “5:30, İmroz!”

Additional reporting was contributed by Ansel Mullins.

(photos by Ansel Mullins, Paul Osterlund and Yigal Schleifer)

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Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

“Might they open the doors of the wine shops And loosen their hold on our knotted lives? If shut to satisfy the ego of the puritan Take heart, for they will reopen to satisfy God.” — Hafez

3 Nov

WineryimageFrom Pulse News: Beer, wine flow in West Bank Christian hamlet”  by TIA GOLDENBERG | November 3, 2014

TAYBEH, West Bank (AP) — A tiny Christian enclave in the overwhelmingly Muslim West Bank has for years crafted the only Palestinian beer and brought thousands of visitors flocking to its annual beer fest. Now, it is adding wine to its list of libations, hoping a boutique winery will be another tourist draw and contribute to keeping the small village afloat.

While Christians around the Middle East have seen their numbers dwindle due to conflict and the lure of better economic opportunities abroad, Taybeh has remained an exclusively Christian village, the last in the West Bank.

The family behind the wine and beer says they are carrying out “peaceful resistance” by investing in their homeland and staying put.

“This is how we believe the state of Palestine can be built: by people like us to invest in the country and encourage other Palestinians to come and invest in their country,” said Nadim Khoury, who founded the brewery and winery.

I’ve always been fascinated by the association, in so much Persian(ate) poetry, of alcohol with non-Muslims — and by extension, licentiousness, sexual desire, subversiveness, sin, etc.  There’s probably a dissertation out there somewhere that I should try looking for.  I thought about it a lot in my rant on the Gezi Park protests and the symbolic importance of Pera in the İstanbul imaginary that I wrote from Kabul last November.  In fact, it was pretty much the thesis of the piece:

“And here we run into our first paradox, or the origins of a chain of paradox: that this now central “heart” of Istanbul began as a space of marginality.  The Byzantines originally put some of their unwanted Catholics there: Galata’s mother city is actually Genoa.  In Ottoman times, Christians and Jews lived there and made wine and everybody else came there to drink it.  While not an exclusionary, extramural ghetto of any sort – to their credit the Ottomans didn’t often do that kind of thing – it was sort of the wrong side of the tracks: the Ottoman equivalent of the suburbs or the across-the-river Zoroastrian neighborhoods in Iran where Hafez and company went to drink the infidel’s wine and torment themselves with the beauty of the innkeeper’s son: the other side of town, the refuge of disbelief and transgression, of unorthodoxy and the unorthodox in every sense.  The alcohol…”

…….

If 2013’s protests then – at least Istanbul’s –were at their core about protecting aspects of the essential urbanity of Istanbul, and Greeks played such a large role in shaping that urbanity, shouldn’t that be acknowledged?  If Turkish society is playing out – again, at least in Istanbul – its most intense culture wars on a ghost blueprint of vanished minorities, then wouldn’t making that a more explicit part of the contest be immensely productive – all around.

See it all:Nobody really cares about Gezi Park: Greek thoughts on the protests of 2013

 

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Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

The adventures of me and my nephew Vangeli in C-town

2 Jun

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This is my nephew Vangeli from Tirana, who came and spent an extended weekend with me in Istanbul last week, eating a simit in the Staurodromi.  When I started this blog I said to myself I wasn’t going to include personal names.  When you represent something ideologically problematic for me, you’ll usually be described by a repeated sociological profile: “the Athenian thirty-something” or you’ll get a moniker all your own; in any event, if you read regularly, you’ll know who you are.  But the warmth of certain experiences I had with my family in my village this past spring has made me want to “call their names,” both because these are people I learned to love a great deal in a very short amount of time and to do them the honor, even if these experiences are not that interesting for the objective reader.  It’s obvious that it’s for them.

Vangeli is my second cousin Calliope’s eldest son. (See Easter Eggs… because, believe me, you don’t want me to run through all the lineages each time and I can’t do it either.)  When I first went to Derviçani in 1992, after Albania had safely opened up for good, Calliope was already living in Jiannena and we met there first, so we could get to know each other before going into Albania together.  When we arrived in the village for the first time, hers was the face I was constantly looking for as a reference point among the throngs of relatives who were constantly surrounding me.  It was her and my cousin Panto, Pantele, who is still my official bodyguard everywhere I go in the village, telling me who’s who since I can’t keep track, taking me everywhere I want to go, counting the tsipoura (raki) I have at every visit, so they don’t add up to too many in one afternoon, etc.  His mother, my Kako Poly (Polyxene), is a saintly woman who made great sacrifices caring for my grandmother in her final years under conditions of great material deprivation for all.  In video we have of my grandmother, taken by complete fluke by a cousin of my mother’s who went to Albania in 1988, a year before my grandmother died, as part of a Greek commercial exchange delegation — these groups were always taken to Derviçani as it was the showcase Greek minority village in communist times — my grandmother says: Να, αυτή είναι η Πόλυ, μ’έχει επάνω της… — “Here, this is Poly, she (lit.) carries me.”

IMG_0050This is Calliope, with her two sons Vasili (left) and Vangeli (right) on Easter night in church (click).  She’s an extraordinary and extraordinarily loveable woman: a great housewife, a competent businesswoman, funny, generous, always smiling, as flirtatious and open as a teenage girl — she’s one of my great relative-loves.  Here she is below at the Monastery on Easter Monday, having just deposited a huge piece of lamb shoulder — no, actually, a lamb shoulder — on a paper towel in front of me, cold and glistening with shiny white fat like some Homeric offering.  My father always loved cold lamb, and would never let my mother reheat it, because it reminded him of the Easter dance at the Monastery.  This is a typical pose to catch her in below, because her innate generosity is always giving something to someone.  (Click)

IMG_0119I hadn’t met Vangeli before, and if I had he would’ve been a baby.  But in church that night, when we were introduced, he said to me, in his classic Aries way — breezy and confident: “Actually, I don’t know you, but Christos Aneste!”  And my Aries replied: “I don’t know you either, but Alethos Aneste!” and I knew right then we’d hit it off.  We talked the next day at the dance; I invested some of the best days of this trip visiting them in Tirana on my way back from Montenegro, and of all the people who said they would come to Istanbul to see me while I was here, I knew he was the only one who would actually do it.  We locked horns on titles or terms of address for a while; I am literally twice his age, fifty and twenty-five, but we hang out like cousins and that’s what he used to call me, whereas I want to be called “uncle.”  He wasn’t having it.  (I have a similar problem with some nephews in New York on my mother’s side.)  For a while we agreed on “şoku,” which is “buddy” in Albanian but also meant “comrade” in communist times, so that didn’t last very long, nor did the Russian “tovarishch” which means the same thing.  Finally, when he got to Istanbul, he heard some guy addressing another as “abi” — big brother, technically, but often just “mate” — which they use in Albanian as well, so it’s been “abi” since then and that pretty much describes how we relate to each other. 

I’m an only child.  Calliope is like the big sister I never had and it’d be hard to imagine a more loving one.  But my parents also had a first son that died when he was a baby, so, even more deeply, I’ve always felt literally haunted by a living presence and desperate absence at once, and by an entirely metaphysical need for a being that I feel is out there to incarnate itself again as an older brother.  But being an older brother to someone else is just as gratifying, especially to a kid like Vangeli.

Because he’s good at his role and he did me super-proud here.  He studied computer engineering in Birmingham and speaks flawless English, dresses impeccably, works for a company that sends him to Italy on a regular basis, so he speaks some passable Italian as well.  (Some fashion-victim friend of mine from New York saw him dancing in the second video here and wrote to ask me who the funky kid with the curly hair and the Prada glasses was — she had recognized the Prada frames from five-thousand miles away…)  We went out for a classic Istanbul fish-and-rakı dinner at a really good place in Cankurtaran in the old city; he immediately recognized that this was not just any meal, but that he was in the presence of a certain ritual to be respected, like Japanese kaiseki, and he acted accordingly.  He was put off by the anise in the rakı at first — we drink ours unflavoured in Epiros — but then realized that Turkish rakı is not the cough-syrup by-product that Greek ouzo is and enjoyed it thoroughly.  He had no negative preconceptions of Turks and Turkey and he never, never — not once — tried to insert one of those slimey negative innuendos about Turkey into the conversation that almost every Greek tries to do when he’s with Turks.  He just listened to the two female friends we went out with, asked questions, tried to learn, gave his opinion, talked to them about Albania and Argyrocastro and Tirana and our families and Britain and anything else you could imagine, and charmed the skirts off of both of them.

He wanted to see everything.  I hate going into the old city.  I find it depressing, crowded.  I love the mosques, but the Byzantine monuments discourage and sadden and, sometimes, anger me, and I prefer to not be confronted with the interface between the two and just stay here in Pera, expelled from the walls in my gavuriko varoşi.  Also, getting there is alright, but getting back means trudging up and down and then up and down again some incredibly pedestrian-unfriendly streets and intersections and underpasses, unless you take some sleazy Sultan Ahmet cabdriver whose meter suddenly races to 100 lira by the time you get from Hagia Sophia to Pera.*  But for Vangeli I went.  And we saw everything there was to see.  We even stumbled upon the Rüstem Paşa mosque, which if you ever asked me to find, I never could.  We sat in the Süleymaniye for an hour and he listened to me talk about why I like sitting in mosques and watching Muslim prayer — Istanbul was the first time he had been inside one — and find them so calming and peaceful.

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Suleymaniyeimg_redirect.phpThe tiles of Rüstem Paşa above and the interior of the Süleymaniye (click)

We covered every inch of Topkapı, where I hadn’t been in years and where I was re-dazzled by that Ottoman sense of elegance and comfort that Rebecca West speaks of so often.  He was interested in the oddest things.  His favorite palace was Beylerbeyi, as it is mine, but he was fascinated by the story of the French empress Eugénie, born Eugenia de Montijo of the highest Andalusian aristocracy, who extended her state visit there for so long that it began to turn into a diplomatic scandal in Europe: he wanted to know how beautiful she was; he wanted to know whether Abdülaziz was such a stud that he was actually shagging her and how Napoléon III could have been such a nebech that he didn’t come grab her by the hair and drag her back to Paris.  “Άμ,’ ήθελες γυναίκα Ισπανίδα…” he decided, after much pondering — “that’s what you get for wanting  a Spanish wife.”  And an Andalusian one at that.  But once you’ve seen Beylerberyi, where she was put up on her visit, which is like a gigantic Turco-Venetian palazzo opening up onto the fresh, cool waters of the Bosphorus and not some smelly canal, you realize that once anchored there, leaving would be hard even if you weren’t getting any from the Sultan.

Beylerbeyi Palace (click)

beylerbeyi_palace_by_shidikujThe Empress Eugénie of France, née Eugenia de Montijo of Granada; the Jackie Kennedy fashion plate of mid-nineteenth century Europe and considered one of the most beautiful women in the world at the time (click), subject of the copla by Rafael de León and Manuel Quiroga, made famous in Concha Piquer’s incomparable rendition.

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The last day I was exhausted but he wanted to go look around Turkish supermarkets for yufka to compare the quality and price to what his family’s company makes; this is my Uncle Vangeli’s business; they make yufka and tel kadayif and sell it throughout Albania.  The name of the company is Demetra, like the ancient goddess of agriculture and cereals.  We went to a couple of Carrefour and he wasn’t impressed.  We went to some small bakalika and they didn’t have any at all.  And, very cutely, he made the assumption, in those hushed tones of respect that the Ottoman culinary tradition still carries with it in the Balkans, especially in the western Balkans from Epiros to Bosnia, where börek is an institution and a strong regional identity marker: “They probably open up [that’s the term we use] their own phyllo at home still.”  I didn’t want to pop his bubble.  Then he wanted to go to Dolmabahçe too — the energy of youth — but it was already too late in the day.  As compensation we went to dinner at the Çırağan, the hotel that’s now in the palace most similar to Beylerbeyi.

What I most admire about Vangeli is that he’s smart, sophisticated, has a C.V. that could take him anywhere in the world that he might want, but he wants to stay in Tirana, not just because he wants to help the family business, but because he actually wants to stay in Albania and build a program design business of his own, in the country he grew up in and lived his entire life in, and that that doesn’t get all mixed up with dumb ethnicity issues.  I didn’t ask him; he probably doesn’t “love” Albania any more than I “love” the United States.  He probably doesn’t have an answer.  But where he lives — what state he lives in, in particular — doesn’t have any bearing on who he is.  Like me.  He’s Vangjel Stavro; he’s a computer engineer; he’s Greek and he lives in Albania.  Period.  He may be the New Balkans.  In fact, soon all of the Balkans might be the New Balkans except for us, who will still be left blinkered, frozen like a deer in the headlights, wondering why the “Europe thang” didn’t go as we planned.

There are a couple of inside jokes to the photo at top where’s he’s eating a simit at the Staurodromi.**  One is that we both felt like hell that morning, which is why I’m not in the picture, not that I like being in pictures anyway.  Two nights before we had had that splendid fish dinner in the old city and had put down a fair amount of rakı, but it was with food — basically, after a few rounds of great meze, this beautiful lithrini (lüfer):

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But the night before the simit photo, I had wanted to take him to the bar on the rooftop of the Marmara Pera hotel, so he could see the places we had visited in the old city that day from across the water at night and illuminated, and then we were planning to go hear some Greek guys who play rebetika at a very cool, shabby old meyhane near Taksim.  But we spent too much time at the Marmara and by the time we got to the rebetiko place all the food was gone and all that was left were stragalia/leblebi.  Now I don’t know exactly how leblebi are made — I think they’re dry-roasted chickpeas — but I detest them as much as I love cooked chickpeas/rebythia/nohut.  Something happens to the dense, almost meaty, velvety texture of chickpeas when they’re made into leblebi that produces something that tastes like a highly compacted nugget of sand, or like taking a teaspoon of raw flour and popping it into your mouth.  I think the only reason they’re considered a drinking snack is because you’ll choke on them if you don’t have anything to wash them down with.  Vangeli hates stragalia too, but I tried to encourage him: “Come on man, this is the exclusive diet of the Great Father; this is how he defeated Turkey’s enemies and brought his country glory, with a pocket full of leblebi and a flask of rakı!”

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So we ate as many as we could, starving as we were, and had way too much to drink in too short a time on top of it.  We then went outside when the performance was over, and suffering from the drunk munchies on which rests the drunkard’s philosophy that if you pile more crap into your stomach on top of too much booze it’ll make you feel better, we had two plates each of chicken-and-pilav from the street vendors (one of the most delicious things you can possibly eat in Istanbul — Turks are magicians with rice), and then on my corner we found Orhan, my favorite Kurdish midye kid, and I think closed down his shop that night as well; we must have had about twenty mussels each.  So we were not very happy the next morning.

The second insider joke is actually one me and Vangeli share with Epirotes down the centuries.  Legend has it that Epirotissa mothers would slap their sons on top of the heads to flatten them from the moment they were born and say: “Και σιμιτζής στην Πόλη” — “And may you become a simit vendor in the City” and that this explains the idiosyncratic beer-can shaped heads that a lot of Albanians and Epirotes have, like some of my chorianoi:
IMG_0148or a guy as seriously Kosovar-looking as Novak Djoković:

DjokBearCanBnhbw7ZCYAAgVoE.jpg_largeor me:

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The point is that the flat top would make it easier to balance a tray of simit on your head.  Of course the joke is based on false modesty, because Epirotes did not come to Istanbul, or go to Roumania, or Odessa, or Alexandria, or the United States or anywhere else in the world to become simitçides.  They went to make money and, some of them, fabulous amounts of it.  This is why you can be driving through Epiros, through empty, lunar karst limestone landscapes where you wonder if you could even herd goats, much less sheep, much less plant anything edible, and then suddenly come upon villages with massive two or three-story stone mansions, and equally impressive churches and schools.  And this is why Epirotes contributed so greatly to the Greek Enlightenment, to the creation of the Greek state’s institutions and educational establishments, and generally had an exceptionally high standard of living and literacy — even for womenfor rural Greece, until the whole exclusively male emigration structure collapsed and was followed by a massive exodus to the cities after WWII.  Like certain islands of the Aegean or the Saronic, it was the very barrenness and lack of resources that the land could not provide that drove the movement, ingenuity and creativity of traditional Epirote culture and that allowed them to make such lives for themselves at home (at least for their families, because they themselves were gone most of the time) and make such important contributions to the wider Greek world.***  Of course, it was also the institution of emigration that led to the endemic, marrow-deep sadness of the culture as well.

Traditional Epirotiko village architecture from various parts of the region, obviously not the communities of poverty-stricken hillbillies, built with money made abroad by emigrants; the final picture at he very bottom is the front gate to my mother’s patriko, the house where she was born.  Her family made their money through three generations of baking businesses in Bucharest. (click)

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And below — in order — the Zografeion and Zappeion Lycées in Istanbul, the Zappeion exhibition hall and gardens in Athens, the National Polytechnic School in Athens, the Zosimaia in Jiannena, and the Zografeion college of Kestorati, all just a few of the institutions funded and built completely by Epirotes (click).

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I have a friend in Greece who’s from a part of Greek Macedonia that, before the refugee tents went up there in the 1920s, was inhabited exclusively by mosquitoes.  We were good friends but we had more than our share of tensions because he was an insufferable kind of arrogant Eurocrat that Greece used to produce at the time and had some supposedly hot-shot job with one of the sleazier Russian-type Greek communications moguls to appear in the nineties — μιλάμε principles yok.  And for some reason, he had this implacably neurotic competitive impulse that he would always unleash on me any time I spoke about Epiros, especially if it was with any amount of pride.  “It eez the poooorest proveens in Euuurope…Galicia in Spain and Epiros…are the pooorest proveeenses in Europe…” he would say to me constantly, like a Brussels parrot.  And after WWII, the practice of leaving families behind and going off to work abroad and returning only occasionally became untenable, and most of Epiros did become tragically depopulated.  But it was poor because it was depopulated and the only permanent inhabitants of many communities were pensioners, not because it was a region that traditionally suffered from desperate poverty.****  The hot-shot job and the whole Euro-thing has collapsed since then, along with the whole balloon in which it existed, of course, and he’s a significantly humbler person today.  But it was just so infuriatingly ignorant and anistoreto on his part to see Epiros as some Greek Appalachia and his motivations for harping on that distorted image escape me to this day.

Anyway, that morning I wanted to buy five or six simitia and pile them on Vangeli’s head as a reference to this simitçi tradition, but I could see he wasn’t having it, so I didn’t even try.  He insisted it was the anise in the rakı that made him sick and has sworn that from now on it’s only “real” raki for him — straight and Albanian — with no sissy Politiko flavorings to eff him up.

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* Turks are among the most honest people I have ever come across in all my travels, and not because of modern efficiency like in Europe, but out of traditional philotimo or honor.  I’ve had a Turk from a Taksim pilav stand recognize me as I walked by, and come up to me to give me one lira change he owed me because three days earlier I had eaten there and he was short.  I’ve had to fight with a Turkish simitçi because he wouldn’t sell me a simit because it was late in the day and they were stale, begging him, eventually giving up because he simply refused — the famous Turkish “yok”; when you hear it give up immediately.  I’ve had Turks — this happened to me in Afghanistan once too — run down the street after me to give me a Bic pen I had forgotten on their restaurant table.  But something happens to a Turkish cabdriver when he’s in the Sultanahmet area and he becomes the biggest sleazebag in the world.  I think that now that tourists have discovered the Beyoğlu side of the city and generally prefer to stay there, there’s greater tourist traffic between Pera and the important monuments of the old city, and these jerks take advantage of it.  But be tough with them; simply refuse to pay more than 20 or 25 lira — no matter what his rigged meter says — and walk away and tell them you’ll call the police if they don’t like it and, being cowards, like most frauds and liars, they’ll immediately back down.

The route from Şişhane or the Galata Tower, across the Galata bridge to Hagia Sophia has to be — and always has been — one of the most important pedestrian traffic axes in the city.  And instead, both Karaköy and Eminönü — the two districts and “squares” that face each other across the Horn and are like the two ventricles of the historic heart-like link of the City — are hideous, dirty, badly designed nightmares to walk through.  Instead of worrying about Taksim so much, Erdoğan might want to put some effort into redesigning this essential, central binder of the two Istanbuls.  But that would be a massive project that would involve levelling almost everything that’s been built there in the past forty years and starting with a clean slate.  Plus, you don’t want to give him too many ideas because he’s perfectly capable of building something as ridiculous as a ski-lift from Şişhane to the Hippodrome to assist tourists in their sight-seeing.

** The Staurodromi is one of the nicest spaces in Pera.  The gates of Galatasaray are beautiful, the other corners have their original turn-of-the-century buildings intact and there’s one modern, kind of semi-Brutalist building in travertine that I really like, that houses a bank and a bookstore and that you can see in the picture above behind Vangeli and in this one below.  The only thing that mars the whole space is this ugly sculpture:

Uranium piles

Does anybody know what it’s supposed to be?  Missiles of some kind?  I don’t know what enriched uranium piles look like, but during Fukushima and every time someone talks about Iran or North Korea and uranium piles, my imagination immediately conjures up this horrible sculpture.

*** This was all part of what I can only generally call the “Great Mobilization” of the Greek world that began in the early eighteenth century.  The confluence of factors that caused this are so intricate that they’re hard to summarize: the primary spark was perhaps the massive wealth accumulated by the Phanariotes — Greek aristocratic families in Constantinople prominent at the Patriarchate and, by extension, at the Porte — who had used their influence in imperial circles to turn most of what is now Romania (Moldavia and Wallachia) into their own autonomous Greek kingdoms, which they sucked dry, and how that wealth was poured into Greek institutions and trickled down into Greek hands generally; the concurrent spread of Greek educational and commercial networks in the Balkans and Eastern Europe and later in the Near East, in the rapidly modernizing economy of post-Mehmet Ali Egypt especially; the way the so-called Greek Enlightenment worked through both these kinds of networks.  The increased mobility that the nineteenth century made possible; most people, for example, don’t know this, but the Greeks of the Anatolian Aegean coast and the Marmara were almost exclusively migrants from the islands and mainland Greece — and even later the Kingdom of Greece itself, Greece basically having been an economic basket-case since the get-go — that started settling there in large numbers in the later eighteenth century and not, as we romantically like to believe, descendants of Byyzantine Hellenism; the only remnants of Byzantine Hellenism in Asia Minor were the Greeks of Pontus and Cappadocia, of course, and small pockets near Konya and Kula and Isparta and that lake region, all of whom, except for Pontioi, were Turkish-speaking until some of the men started learning Greek in the nineteenth century.  (In isolated areas of Cappadocia, a dialect of obvious Greek origin had also survived into the nineteenth century but was already dying out by then, and was so heavily Turkish in vocabulary and had even developed extensive agglutinative structures like Turkish that it’s almost impossible to call it Greek, any more than you can call Vlach Roumanian.)  Then there were the colonialist economic incursions into the Ottoman Empire and its reduction to a European debt-slave (much like “Memoranda” Greece today) that together with the privileges for Christians that the Great Powers forced the Ottomans to grant, created a space for growing Greek and Armenian prosperity from which Muslims (and Jews, for that matter) were excluded, and that produced exclusively Christian micro-economies within the Empire in which Greek rural migrants could find work and prosper.  All this had an enormous effect on Greek life everywhere.  You can see it in the village architecture of certain regions of the Greek world.  And you can see it in traditional dress of Greek rural women.

My father’s villages in the valley of Dropoli are situated in one of the few extensive, arable parts of Epiros, the fields you see in the pictures taken from atop the village itself (click):

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Paradoxically, it was this theoretical asset that kept our villages relatively poor until the mid-nineteenth century, because these fields were all çiftlikia of Muslim landowners (“fiefs” I guess; don’t ask me to explain Ottoman land tenure to you, or tell you the difference betweeen a çiftlik or a timar or anything else, because every time I try and read about it I fall asleep and don’t remember anything I’ve read when I wake up) and we were essentially sharecroppers for them.  Only with the exponential growth of emigration in the nineteenth century did any kind of considerable prosperity come to our villages and many were even able to buy their village lands from the increasingly impoverished ağadhes themselves.  Like I said, this was markedly obvious in the changes in female costume and the complete switch of male dress to frangika, Western clothes; traditional male outfit of the region would have looked something like this, the characteristic white felt pants called poutouria (this photo is from southern Serbia actually, but was the nearest approximation I could find) and not the fustanella kilts that folklore groups in the village like to use today indiscriminately and inaccurately:

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While, with the women, in extremely old photos from Derviçani, you can see that almost all the articles of the costume were home-made by the women themselves, with growing wealth you see the gradual addition of articles of clothing that had to be made by professionals.  My grandmother’s outfit here, for example, especially the vest and apron:

Family…obviously had to be made by a professional sirmakeşi — an embroiderer of gold thread — in Jiannena or Argyrocastro, and the dress of some particularly wealthy villages, like those of Lunxhi, behind the mountains to the left across the valley in the photo (Albanian-speaking Christians with whom we intermarried extensively and still do, the homeland of Zappas and Zographos, the benefactors mentioned above) had, by the end of the nineteenth century, simply become regional variations of Ottoman urban dress, like in this photo, which the museum of Kozani (why it ended up in Kozani?) felt it had to put its water stamp on, like someone was going to sell the design to YSL or something:

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**** Despite my friend’s condescension, regional funding initiatives for these “poorest provinces in Europe” have greatly expanded the university in Jiannena and developed an extensive and prestigious medical research center there, an information technologies industrial park, renovated (sometimes over-renovated) large parts of the old Ottoman city and created a general climate of growth and prosperity seemingly unaffected by the problems of the Greek economy.  Epiros has become a little bit like a Greek Bavaria or the French south-west: a traditional, somewhat backwards area that made the leap over the ugly stages of modernization to post-modern comfort and prosperity.  Half-ruined villages have been renovated, largely through the skills of Albanian craftsmen, who still were trained in the traditional building skills necessary to preserve the region’s distinctive architecture.  There’s good traditional and contemporary food in Jiannena and in some of the newly developed tourist towns.  There’s skiing in the winter; there’s hiking and mountain-climbing in the summer and gorgeous beaches only an hour-and-a-half away from each other on the new highways.  And it’s generally agreed that Jiannena is one of the most pleasantly liveable of Greek provincial cities and Epiros one of Greece’s most beautiful and pleasantly liveable provinces.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Welcome to C-town: Tear gas in the Staurodromi…and a dedication: “In Spite of You…”

14 May

Galatasaray Lisesi gatesGalatasaray Lycée gates

Today, I had my first experience of tear gas.  A demonstration that, like most, was perfectly peaceful, started, like most, in the center of Pera, where the Jadde meets the Yeni Çarşı Caddesi and the Meşrutiyet Caddesi to the form the crossroads that the local Greeks used to call just that — το Σταυροδρόμι — the “Crossroads.”  If Pera was/is the center of the city, this was/is, despite everything, the center of Pera.  Here’s an old pic, the gates of the Lycée on the right:

Stabrodromi

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Pera: the large lot at the corner of the İstikal Caddesi and the Yeni Çarşı Caddesi in the lower-left-hand quadrant of the map, just before the İstikal bends a little to the south, is the beautiful Galatasaray campus at the “Crossroads.” (click)

This started out as a quiet sit-down demonstration about the tragic mining accident: “245 Dead and 200 Missing in Turkish Mine Disaster “(NYTimes, May 2014).  I’m in no position to tell whether the accident was the government’s fault or its response criminally ineffective as most people here seem to think, but it does kind of sound like one of those acts of God that a people angry at their government are just looking for as a club to use against an unpopular regime.  If the mining accident wasn’t in any way the government’s fault though, what’s now become the conventional way to break up these demonstrations was: setting up a cordon of armored vehicles around some quiet twenty-somethings and then finally disbanding them with tear gas and water-hoses and helicopters — for pure intimidation’s sake: “shock and awe” — just, stupidly, gives the demonstrators exactly what they want.  It’s inexcusable.  The demonstrations seem to have become weekly events (below) and Erdoğan seems to think he’s showing us all his magandalık by acting like he doesn’t care or dismissing them as works of subversives trying to make Turkey look bad.  (See his comments in The New Yorker article by Jenna Krajeski, “Turkey’s Coal Problem.”)  I’ve never seen a bunch of kids who seem to love their country more.

Protester, with cream applied to his face to protect against tear gas, reacts during a May Day demonstration in Istanbul A protester, with cream applied to his face to protect against tear gas, reacts during a May Day demonstration in Istanbul May 1, 2014. (Ümit Bektaş/Reuters)

Here I was all happy on this trip that I had found a place to rent literally fifty meters from the Staurodromi, and instead getting home tonight involved passing through the thick of the left-over tear gas cloud and tires burning outside the door.  The tear gas was, not so much a more painful, but much more panic-inducing a feeling than I had imagined it could be.

Here’s a dedication I want to make to Tayyip Bey, Brazilian cultural super-hero Chico Buarque’s 1970 “A pesar de você” — “in spite of you.”  The story of the song, from Lyrical Brazil:

“After spending approximately a year in Italy in exile from Brazil’s military dictatorship,  Chico Buarque returned to Brazil in 1970 and met with a rigid censorship machine — a result of Ato Institucional V, which institutionalized the pre-release censorship process.

“In an interview in September 1971, Chico lamented, “Of every three songs I write, two are censored. After being censored so much, something troubling is happening with me: I’m beginning to self-censor, and that is terrible.”

“The censors had grown particularly harsh with Chico after their inadvertent release of his thinly veiled protest anthem “Apesar de você.”

“Chico wrote and released “Apesar de você” as a single in 1970. The censors initially approved the song and it became a quick hit on the radio. As the song became popular, rumors spread that it was dedicated specifically to general Médici, who served as president from 1969 – 1974.(Chico says the “you” in the song actually referred to the entire system.) To the censors, Chico argued that he had written the song for a rooster that mistakenly believed that the day only broke as a result of his song, until one night when the rooster lost track of time and realized that day broke in spite of him. Unconvinced, the censors banned the song and punished those who had let it through.

“After the song was banned, Chico says he received the treatment of a traitor who had attempted to dupe the censors.  As a result, he faced even more stringent censorship. “Apesar de você” was re-approved and re-released on the album Chico Buarque (Samambaia) in 1978, as the government began a gradual political liberalization process during Ernesto Geisel’s presidency.”

The clenched-teeth rage of this song — “you’ll pay me back with interest” — behind the sweet samba beat and Buarque’s soft Rio accent always moved me enormously.  And the image of the rooster who thinks the day breaks because of his crowing is beautifully Erdoğan-ish.

And here’s a “non”-video version with much better sound:

 

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The lyrics:

Tomorrow will be another day…

Today, you’re the one who calls the shots
I said it, it’s been said,
There’s no talking about it, nope.
My people walk around today
Speaking to the side and looking down at the ground

You, who invented this State,
Invented by inventing
All this darkness
You who invented this sin
You’ve forgotten to invent forgiveness

In spite of you
Tomorrow will be another day
Where are you going to hide
From the great euphoria?
How will you prohibit it,
If the rooster insists on crowing?
New water bursting forth,
And our people loving one another, without stopping

When the moment arrives
This suffering of mine
I’m going to charge you for with interest, I swear
All this repressed love,
This scream contained
This samba in the dark.

You who invented this sadness
Now be so kind as to “disinvent” it
You’re going to pay – and doubled
Every tear that rolled
In this anguish of mine

In spite of you
Tomorrow will be another day
I will pay to see
The garden that you tried to stop from blooming.

You’ll end up choked in bitterness
Seeing the day break
Without asking your permission.
And I’m going to die of laughter
And that day is bound to come
Sooner than you think
In spite of you

In spite of you
Tomorrow will be another day
You will have to see
The morning reborn
Gushing poetry

How will you explain to yourself
Seeing the sky clear, without your permisson, suddenly
and with impunity?

How are you going to stifle
Our chorus singing
Right in front of you
In spite of you

In spite of you
Tomorrow is going to be another day
You’re going to to be out of luck
Etcetera and so on
La la-ya, la la-ya, la….

 

Hoje você é quem manda
Falou, tá falado
Não tem discussão
A minha gente hoje anda
Falando de lado
E olhando pro chão, viuVocê que inventou esse estado
E inventou de inventar
Toda a escuridão
Você que inventou o pecado
Esqueceu-se de inventar
O perdãoApesar de você
Amanhã há de ser
Outro dia
Eu pergunto a você
Onde vai se esconder
Da enorme euforia
Como vai proibir
Quando o galo insistir
Em cantar
Água nova brotando
E a gente se amando
Sem pararQuando chegar o momento
Esse meu sofrimento
Vou cobrar com juros, juro
Todo esse amor reprimido
Esse grito contido
Este samba no escuroVocê que inventou a tristeza
Ora, tenha a fineza
De desinventar
Você vai pagar e é dobrado
Cada lágrima rolada
Nesse meu penarApesar de você
Amanhã há de ser
Outro dia
Inda pago pra ver
O jardim florescer
Qual você não queria
Você vai se amargar
Vendo o dia raiar
Sem lhe pedir licença
E eu vou morrer de rir
Que esse dia há de vir
Antes do que você pensaApesar de você
Amanhã há de ser
Outro dia
Você vai ter que ver
A manhã renascer
E esbanjar poesia
Como vai se explicar
Vendo o céu clarear
De repente, impunemente
Como vai abafar
Nosso coro a cantar
Na sua frenteApesar de você
Amanhã há de ser
Outro dia
Você vai se dar mal
Etc. e tal
Lá lá lá lá lai-
Will be back for more post-Balkans trip coverage soon.  NB.

Nobody really cares about Gezi Park: Greek thoughts on the protests of 2013

1 Nov

Taksim Square protest

“Oh, is that what it’s called?” I remember saying to myself when last summer’s protests erupted, and I suspect I was joined by quite a few lovers of İstanbul and even natives when they found out that the scruffy, forlorn lot north of Taksim and behind the Arab nargile places along the Cumhurriyet actually had a name.  I may have spent about four or five accumulated months of my life in İstanbul over the years and I think I’ve been inside this park once; one look is enough — and the much bandied-about slogan about “saving the last green space in central Istanbul” becomes comical.  A sudden nostalgia for the place sprang up at the time; everyone suddenly had memories of playing there as a child, but they didn’t seem very convincing.  Nobody cares about Gezi park.  Or did last summer.

What young Turks cared about was Taksim, but even more the string of neighborhoods south of Taksim to Karaköy and their enormous importance in the life of İstanbul.  Proof enough – and weighty proof at that – is that serious civil disobedience began in the area back in the spring, not when the government tried to start construction in Gezi, but when it tried to impose limitations on alcohol consumption in the neighborhood.  Remember the alcohol – it’s a central part of our story, enough for us to maybe have called the whole upheaval the Rakı Revolution and not the Taksim/Gezi protests.  But somehow the press and the people itself forgot that.  Somehow that got lost as the movement morphed into a catch-all protest with a not particularly convincing “green” bayraki propped up as its mascot in a shabby, dirty park.

Unclear?  Yes.  It is to me too and I’m sorting it out as I write.

It goes like this: Pera and Galata — because those are the core areas of the municipality of Beyoğlu that really concern us (Taralabaşı too but as a side show, another story) — were, until the middle of the previous century, heavily Greek.  And Armenian and Jewish, but Greek enough so that pidgin Greek was the quarter’s common means of communication till the early nineteen-hundreds. Pera and Galata were centers of non-Muslim life in İstanbul and Pera and Galata were where you went to drink.  Not a coincidence obviously.  And Pera and Galata are still where you go to drink and party – in fact even more than ever.  And that’s why the fact that attempted restrictions of alcohol consumption set off the civil disobedience of 2013 is so important.

The tourist literature and the press never tire of calling this the center of contemporary Istanbul and tourists who used to stay in Sultanahmet and wonder at the eerie emptiness of the old city’s streets at night have finally started to discover the area – the “Old New Town” as Alexandros Massavetas calls it in his loving, lyrical Going Back to Constantinople: a City of Absences.  And truly, as I’ve written before, these neighborhoods dominate the contemporary social and cultural life of İstanbul in a way that’s not comparable to any other major metropolis I’m familiar with.

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The neighborhoods we’re talking about, Beyoğlu, with Pera (“over there” in Greek, meaning from the old Byzantine/Ottoman city) at its center. (click)

And here we run into our first paradox, or the origins of a chain of paradox: that this now central “heart” of İstanbul began as a space of marginality.  The Byzantines originally put some of their unwanted Catholics there: Galata’s mother city is actually Genoa.  In Ottoman times, Christians and Jews lived there and made wine and everybody else came there to drink it.  While not an exclusionary, extramural ghetto of any sort – to their credit the Ottomans didn’t often do that kind of thing – it was sort of the wrong side of the tracks: the Ottoman equivalent of the suburbs or the across-the-river Zoroastrian neighborhoods in Iran where Hafez and company went to drink the infidel’s wine and torment themselves with the beauty of the innkeeper’s son: the other side of town, the refuge of disbelief and transgression, of unorthodoxy and the unorthodox in every sense.  The alcohol…

The nineteenth century marked Pera and Galata’s – Pera’s especially — transformation into uprent enclaves: gentrification avant-la-lettre in effect.  The Christian-ness of the area only attracted more of them, then foreign Europeans; the influx of non-Muslims from the rest of the city concentrated its gavur character even more deeply.  There were foreign embassies.  Foreign embassy cultural activities followed.  Cafés.  Theaters.  Neoclassical Row houses and apartment buildings in an eclectic mix of local versions of the Neoclassical or Art Nouveau.  All the apparatus of contemporary European urbanity developed: a place of often obscene display of non-Muslim privilege that reminds one of Durrell’s Alexandria or descriptions of the foreign concessions in Shanghai before the revolution, and increasingly alienating to the average un-Westernized Muslim.  But a city.  One as we mean it.  In the Benjaminian sense.  With everything that the modern city at the time implied and still does: socializing and the public space, boulevard culture, entertainment, exteriority…  WOMEN…  Alcohol, of course…  And with Kyr Panos’ taverna and Monsieur Avram’s textile shop still flourishing alongside.

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The Jadde at its height, probably early Republican times, by the gates of Galatasaray Lycée (above).  This was the neighborhood known as the Staurodromi by Greeks, the “crossroads” because it’s where the Grande Rue meets Yeni Çarşı Caddesi (the New Market — not sure what that referred to — food market around Balık Pazarı?)  (Click)  Bottom photo is by Ara Guler*

And then all the Kyr Panoses and the Monsieur Avrams went away, for reasons readers know and this blog touches on often and will inevitably look back at again.  And this “center of the city” sat in a kind of rancid aspic for a few decades until a young and dynamic and sophisticated Turkish society reclaims it.  And it comes alive again.  And yet the paradox still stands, now sharper than ever (though how conscious and to whom is very much up for debate and may be my real question): that this is the cosmopolitan center of İstanbul; but what made it cosmopolitan were populations that don’t live there any more, but whose legacy is in both the air and breath of the place and in its physical matter itself.  And what we, Turks today, do about that – how we reconfigure a center of our city so laden with the presence and absence of others in order to suit our contemporary needs – is, to a great extent, what progressive Turks and Erdoğan were fighting about last summer.  Not Gezi park.

Some of Erdoğan’s ideas don’t seem so bad to me; a tunnel for one (already built?), that as I gather goes under in Dolapdere and emerges somewhere in Kabataş I think, that would finally free Taksim, never an aesthetically promising piece of real estate, from having to be a major traffic circle,  though Harvard’s Hashim Sarkis’ idea that: “We know from the 1960s that pedestrianizing everything doesn’t work…Managing the balance is better…” makes sense, and I often wonder about the wisdom of having pedestrianized the İstiklal itself.  The (now aborted?) reconstruction of the Ottoman barracks may turn out to be a piece a kitsch, but you never know.  In Moscow, for example, much that was destroyed by Stalin has been carefully reconstructed and it’s lovely; and some of the rest unnecessary, and garish – and often silly.  Either way, I wouldn’t miss the park.

The true big elephant in the Taksim room is a big old elephant of a Greek church that lords over the whole space.  The church of the Hagia Triadha is one of the post-reform churches of İstanbul, churches that were built during the Tanzimat, when traditional restrictions that imposed visual discretion and inconspicuousness on non-Muslim places of worship were lifted and Greeks in İstanbul built some very conspicuous –and often conspicuously ugly — churches.  The Hagia Triadha is actually one of the lovelier of them – it reminds me of the Balyan mosques a little – and gives you a real sense of just how confident Greeks in the City felt in the late nineteenth century.  But its presence is almost impudent; I can only imagine how more traditional Ottoman Muslims must have felt as they saw these giants go up after the 1850s, and to be honest as I’ve walked by at times even I’ve found myself overtaken by what I can only describe as a mild shtetl-anxiety and thinking: “But so big?  And right here?  Can this be good for the Jews?”  So you can imagine that to Erdoğan and the Turkish Islamist mind its bulk must be doubly provocative, and presents a problem that needs to be solved.  The “central square” of the “modern center” of İstanbul just can’t be left looking so…well…so Christian.

Agia_Triada_Greek_Orthodox_Church,_İstanbul

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The church of the Hagia Triadha alone and surrounded by its kebab shops.  (Click on both)

0053 - Istanbul - Taksim Square - Hagia Triada - Orthodox Church

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And another aerial view of the church, the school and surrounding area that gives a clearer idea of layout (click)

So Erdoğan is going to make good on a long-term promise/threat to build a large mosque there to balance out the religious character of the space.  First, he’s going to tear down the circle of döner and kokoreç stands that surround the Hagia Triadha and the neighboring Zappeion, once İstanbul’s most elite Greek school for girls, which is a shame because a circle of smoking lamb fat wafting around the billowing clouds of a church’s incense was always a beautiful olfactory image to me – this is what the Temple must’ve smelled like – and because neighborhood partiers will be deprived of much-needed early morning sustenance.  But philistines like Erdoğan don’t like the smell of lamb fat – probably too familiar — or as Auntie Mame might have said, when you’re from Kasımpaşa you have to do something, so the döner stands will have to go.  And I originally had no sources for this other than my own suspicions, but I was wondering if the döner stands aren’t part of the church’s vakoufia (religious trust properties) and that removing them is another act of expropriation of Greek community real estate that has been going on steadily for decades now; and the Greek community is indeed split into warring camps already about whether taking down the stands is expropriation of parish property or is a good thing; only Greeks can be reduced to a community of about a thousand people, mostly over seventy, and still find energy to bicker about everything; but then there are two Jews left here in Kabul — two –and they’re not speaking to each other over some maintenance issue concerning their one synagogue.  Anyway, the official claim, however, is that the food stands will have to go – get this — in order to make the church more visible so that it and its new neighboring mosque can clearly stand side by side as confessional brothers in the new, beautified Taksim.  Turkey has tried desperately over the past few decades to gain political and cultural capital through gross multicultural gestures of this sort.  This has to be the most nauseating example to date.**

The English-language coverage of the protests paid only the scantest attention to issues of this sort.  Even this piece from the New York Times by Michael Kimmelman: “In Istanbul’s Heart, Leader’s Obsession, Perhaps Achilles’ Heel,” about the reconstruction of Taksim managed to not include a single photograph of the Hagia Triadha, which is quite hard to do actually and, were I a bit more of a conspiracy theorist, would think might be intentional.  As to the former ethnic composition of the area, all reference to the area’s former cultural and linguistic character is colored by the inability of Western — whether American or European — thinkers, to think about multiethnic societies outside of the immigrant societies they know.  In this piece also from the Times that prompted my Tarlabaşı series, “Poor but Proud Istanbul Neighborhood Faces Gentrification,” Jessica Burque says: “Migrant workers have a long history of living in Tarlabaşı, dating from the early 1900s when Greek, Jewish and Armenian craftsmen lived in the area” — no sense that they had belonged to the city for generations, centuries before 1900.  And the above referenced article by Kimmelman refers to Beyoğlu as an area where: “poor European immigrants settled during the 19th century.” — no sense that these people were natives of the city, often of communities that predated the Ottomans, or that they were essential component parts of Ottoman society, from other parts of the empire perhaps, but not outsiders or “immigrants.”  There’s often some vague reference to the buzzwords “diversity” and “cosmopolitan” and no serious mention of what drove the “cosmopolitans” and “migrant workers” away; again a perception that seems informed by seeing this all through the prism of the American immigration experience: as if Pera were a neighborhood on the 7 train, let’s say, and its Dominicans have now moved on to the greener suburban pastures of Bayside.

Unfortunately I don’t know if the Turkish press made any reference to the area’s former social composition when covering the protests or if any Turks did at all.  The closing of İnci, the patisserie, is what most brought this all home to me: “the closing of the historic Emek cinema and a much-loved pastry shop…”  There was quite a fuss about İnci apparently, but was any mention made at the time that this had been one of the last Greek businesses in the neighborhood?  There are two more left in all of Beyoğlu I think, İmroz, the restaurant on Nevizade and, perhaps the only growth industry in Greek İstanbul, a coffin-maker’s near the Panayia in Stavrodromi.  Inci had been there since 1947.  I leaf through Speros Vryonis’ massive “The Mechanism of Catastrophe”*** to the pages containing K. Ioannides’, a journalist from the Salonica-based Macedonia newspaper, cataloguing of ransacked Greek businesses in the area, which means all of them, without exception.  On just the İstiklal Caddesi, Meşrutiyet Caddesi, Pasaj Evropa, Yüksek Kaldırım and Perşembe Pazarı there is a list of three-hundred and twenty-nine businesses.  And you really have to marvel and wonder at whether the Greek “daemon” is more than a myth.****  After the financial decimation of the community by the Varlık Vergisi, the “estate tax” of the 1940’s, when discriminatory taxation against minority groups had wiped out many, and sent many of those who couldn’t pay to forced labor camps, Greeks had bounced back to dominating the retail business of these central neighborhoods in less than a decade – only, of course, to have it all definitively trashed a few years later.  And, sure enough, there it was, at number 27 on the list: “Pastry shop İnci of Loukas and Lefteres.”  When people mourned the loss of İnci last summer, was there any sense that something more than a charming old patisserie was disappearing?  Or that this was a place that had bounced back from total loss in one Istanbul tragedy and then went on to continue serving the city for more than fifty years?

İnci, before and during protests, after closure.

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What do I want exactly?

All – I thought a lot about whether I should use “almost all” in this sentence and decided against it –because all the hippest, funkiest, most attractive, gentrified neighborhoods in the historic parts of İstanbul are neighborhoods that were significantly, if not largely, minority-inhabited until well into the twentieth century: not just Pera and Galata, but Cihangir and Tarlabaşı, and even Kurtuluş — of course — and up and down the western shores of the Bosphorus and much of its eastern towns too, and central Kadiköy and Moda and the Islands.  (And if serious gentrifying ever begins in the old city it’ll be in Samatya and Kumkapı and Fener and Balat; I wouldn’t put any big money into Çarşamba just yet.)  If young Turks are fighting to preserve the cosmopolitan character of areas made cosmopolitan by a Greek presence, among others, is it a recognition of that presence, however vestigial, that I want?  Yes.  Is it because some recognition might assuage some of the bitterness of the displacement?  Perhaps.  Is the feeling proprietary then?  Does the particular “cool” quality of these neighborhoods that protesters have been fighting to protect register for me as a form of appropriated “coolness?”  I’m afraid that yes, sometimes it does.  In darker moments this spring and summer, these Occupy Gezi kids annoyed me: “What’s wrong mes p’tits?  The Big Daddy State threatening to break up your funky Beyoğlu party?  Do you know the Big Daddy State made life so intolerable for the dudes who made Beyoğlu funky that they not only had to break the party up, but shut down shop altogether and set up elsewhere?  That your own daddies and granddaddies probably stood by and watched, approved even?  Do you know that now?  Do you care?”

taksim4Cleaning up in a Greek neighborhood after the pogrom of 6-7 September 1955.  I’ve spared readers and myself more and worse photos. (Click)

No one in New York would think of talking about the Lower East Side, for example, or the Bronx, without due respect to the Jewish role in the formation of those areas and, by extension, every aspect of New York culture.  You mourn the passing of every Ratner’s and Second Avenue Deli even if you aren’t Jewish and even if five of them take their place in Kew Gardens or Borough Park.  Or to use a significantly more heated example: if the young white professionals now moving in large numbers into Harlem refused to acknowledge that Harlem’s atmosphere, style, musicality — that the whole Harlem phenomenon — were  largely African-American contributions to the city’s life, wouldn’t any culturally or historically conscious New Yorker find that problematic or reprehensible; not to mention how the neighborhoods Blacks would feel (and do…)  And Jews and Blacks were never driven out of New York by a systematic campaign of violence, harassment, confiscation and forced expulsion.

Therefore: If 2013’s protests then – at least İstanbul’s –were at their core about protecting aspects of the essential urbanity of İstanbul, and Greeks played such a large role in shaping that urbanity, shouldn’t that be acknowledged?  If Turkish society is playing out – again, at least in İstanbul – its most intense culture wars on a ghost blueprint of vanished minorities, then wouldn’t making that a more explicit part of the contest be immensely productive – all around?

But these grudges are usually not this deep and usually don’t last long.  Partly because I’m always on the side of the partiers – any partiers.  Partly because I trust the growing consciousness and honesty of most young Turks.  The protesters as a rule behaved so civilly and politely, their chants and slogans so witty and intelligent for the most part, that you couldn’t help but be impressed.  As opposed to Erdoğan and his party’s grand Haussmanian plans, I think they didn’t really want much: Gezi was just a convenient object.  I think they want the area neither Islamized and Neo-Ottomanized or “re-Republicanized” as it were.  I think they’re tired of those two poles, and as a close friend of mine said, they want another option.  I think they wanted the neighborhood to stay as it is and always has been: a place of pleasure and freedom and difference, of uncomfortable, musty cinemas that offer something more interesting than the suburban multiplexes, of Art Nouveau cafes, no matter how garishly over-renovated or turned into fast-food lunch shops, of badly lit meyhanes that you have to know to find, a couple of gay bars, of mini-skirts and transvestites – both separately and together — everything that the strange sensuality of Istanbul offers and the freedom to not be told how and when to enjoy it.  Every man’s inalienable right to want a sweaty glass of rakı and some leblebi or a good mojito when he wants it.

Protesters in Istanbul

And they’ll win too.  Just as Hafez says:

Might they open the doors of the wine shops

And loosen their hold on our knotted lives?

If shut to satisfy the ego of the puritan

Take heart, for they will reopen to satisfy God.

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                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                — Kabul, November 2013

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* Two more of Güler’s most famous photographs:

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While there’s no documentation that the subjects of these photos are Greek, the period, the neighborhood they were taken in and — well — just their look, seem to say so.  Ara Güler was a prolific photographer whose work has been sadly overexposed by excessive postcard-ization.  He once famously said: “Today, 13 million people live here. We have been overrun by villagers from Anatolia who don’t understand the poetry or the romance of Istanbul. They don’t even know the great pleasures of civilization, like how to eat well. They came, and the Greeks, Armenians and Jews, who became rich here and made this city so wonderful, left for various reasons. This is how we lost what we had for 400 years.”

He was called a racist by many leftists for that comment.  But who pays them any heed?  His website: Ara Güler: Official Website

** For more of my thoughts on the hypocrisies of multi-culti İstanbul nostalgia see my early piece The Name of this Blog, and my series Tarlabaşı I, Tarlabaşı II, and Tarlabaşı III .  Especially see Amy Mills’ Streets of Memory: Landscape, Tolerance, and National Identity in Istanbul  based on her research in the Bosporus suburb of Kuzguncuk, where she argues that nostalgia for the cosmopolitan actually serves to erase minorities and discrimination against them from public memory and reinforce Turkish Republican ethnic homogeneity.  I think that’s exactly what’s happening in Beyoğlu.

*** Speros Vryonis The Mechanism of Catastrophe: The Turkish Pogrom Of September 6 – 7, 1955, And The Destruction Of The Greek Community Of Istanbul is a magisterial life’s work and piece of historical journalism that covers the one night of September 6-7, 1955 in which a pogrom organized by Adnan Menderes’ Demokrat Parti destroyed practically the entire commercial, financial, ecclesiastic, educational and domestic infrastructure of the City’s Greek community.  I had put off reading it for quite a while — because the subject matter is upsetting and it’s long and detailled — but I was really impressed when I finally did.  I hadn’t realized the exact extent of the damage: 4,500 Greek homes, 3,500 shops and businesses (nearly all), 90 churches and monasteries (nearly all), and 36 schools destroyed and 3 cemeteries desecrated.  I hadn’t known that so many homes had been destroyed, leaving a large part of the community of then 80 or 90,000 or so homeless and destitute and that, as opposed to the traditional account of one old monk being burned alive, some 30 people were actually killed and many raped.

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The Menderes government initially, and stupidly, tried to portray this as a spontaneous outbreak of nationalist fervor against Greeks over growing Cyprus tensions, but it was actually an extremely well-planned and executed military manoeuvre (every Turk, after all, is a soldier born) carried out and directed by local cadres of the Demokrat Parti who knew their neighborhoods and its Greek properties and institutions well and through the use of Anatolians brought in from the provinces; I guess they were afraid that local İstanbullus, who knew and lived with these Greeks, would not be as easily destructive, though the record of how the city’s Turks did act during the riots is hardly edifying.  As all products of the nationalist-militarist mind, the plan was an extremely stupid move as well.  It brought the economy of Turkey’s largest city to a virtual standstill, at a time when the country was in deep economic doldrums to begin with, by ripping out its retail heart, so much of it being in the hands of Greeks and other minority groups, and in the immediate aftermath there were chronic shortages of basic supplies in the city because distribution networks had been completely severed and even bread — so many bakeries being Greek and Epirote, especially, owned — was hard to find.  It temporarily made Turkey an international pariah (though in that Cold War climate that didn’t last too long) and eventually played a role in bringing the Menderes government down and costing him his life — thought that all is well beyond the scope of this post, this blog and my knowledge.  Vryonis’ analysis is brilliant if you’re interested.

It’s become axiomatic that the riots were the beginning of the end of Greek Constantinople; the community struggled and tried, but this time things were shattered — physically and psychologically — beyond repair.

**** The Greek Daemon, “daemon” in the Roman sense of the word of animating genius — “To daimonio tes fyles” — is the idea that Greeks are resourceful enough to prosper anywhere and under any conditions — Patrick Leigh Fermor’s belief in their ability to “spin gold out of air” — and the repeated tragic setbacks and almost immediate comeback of the Greek community of İstanbul after nearly every catastrophe to befall it in the twentieth century tempts one to believe in its truth.  Thus, one of the most poignant elements in the Constantinopolitan story is their almost masochistic refusal to leave — what it took to finally make the vast majority abandon the city they loved so much was just too overwhelming in the end however.

There is one important corollary to the “Greek Daemon” myth, however: it only operates for Greeks outside of the Greek state itself, and unfortunately history seems to continue to bear this out.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

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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