Tag Archives: Mumbai

The “comforting illusion” of India

11 Nov

Screen Shot 2019-11-11 at 3.37.33 PM.png

I have a serious philosophical issue with all monotheisms; the concept just doesn’t hold water for me and I never understood why in junior high history it was presented as such a leap forward in the development of human consciousness.  Like, what’s so smart about this totally reductive idea?

I’ve always said that if I could be a sentient embryo and choose what religion I would be born into, it would be Hinduism, because it seems to me that it contains the most intelligent and sophisticated dialectic between unity and plurality.  Just the Gita — where a handsome, young, womanizing god is revealed to be the very principle of existence itself — has always been enough to seduce me both intellectually and emotionally — and sexually, frankly.  I think Kanha’s “I am the taste of water”, may be even more powerful than Yahweh’s «Ἐγώ εἰμι ὁ ὤν» — “I am the Is”.

But it’s precisely that kind of Western romance with Hinduism and its infinite polymorphousness, to paraphrase Freud*, that has led to the “free pass” we’ve given to a criminal Modi from “Bible-belt” Gujarat and a criminal BJP for way too long.  It’s tempting and comforting to think that Hindu fundamentalism is an oxymoron, but fanaticism and hate can infect any ideology.

Modi is a criminal and the BJP and Shiv Sena — with its increasing stranglehold on one of the world’s great, open, cosmopolitan cities, which is why “Mumbai” infuriates me, though nobody seems to listen to me — are criminal, murderous organizations.

No amount of saffron and marigolds can change that.

**************************************************************************************

* Anthropologist Clifford Geertz used to tell an anecdote — whether real or not has never been verified — about an Englishman who asked a saddhu he came across one day where the universe was located.  And the holy man replied:

“On the back of an elephant that rests on the back of a turtle.”

“And the turtle?”

“On the back of another turtle.”

“And that turtle?”

“On the back of another turtle.”

“And that turtle?”

“Ah, sahib, after that it is turtles all the way down.”

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Memo to: a certain generation of “progressive” Turks

4 Aug

From: NikoBakos

Re: the final and total castration of the Turkish military

Date: August 2017

Ataturk Mausoleum Yildirim Chiefs of staffPrime Minister Binali Yildirim of Turkey, front right, and the chief of staff, Gen. Hulusi Akar, third from left, visit the Mustafa Kemal Ataturk Mausoleum before the Turkish Supreme Military Council meeting in Ankara on Wednesday. Credit Adem Altan/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

ARE YOU HAPPY NOW???

I have two groups of friends in Constantinople:* one a group of mostly Alevi**, first-generation urbanites (from Dersim and Antiocheia); another of at least several urban generations, who are pure “White” Turks in every way.

A sub-category of this second group of friends (who are fast becoming ex-friends) are/were or considered themselves to be “leftists” (“I should cough” as one of the characters in Hester Street says).  These were always violently allergic to anything that had to do with the military, Turkish or otherwise.

Peaceniks, of course, our rift began when it proved completely in their interest to paint me as a super-American hawk during the Iraq war, even if I’m deeply un-American in my self-identification and was never a supporter of Bush’s adventure.  I simply did not know what to think about the idea of invading Iraq and toppling Saddam Hussein and took issue with their knee-jerk, anti-American attitude, with their facile certainty they knew what to think.  In the end I just decided that anybody who was automatically against the completely justified invasion of Afghanistan and the removal of the Taliban — and if that’s a tragically uncompleted project, that doesn’t mean the initial result or victory was not worthwhile…ASK ANY AFGHAN — was going to be a robot-thinker about any kind of American intervention or just about war of any kind, so I couldn’t be bothered.

Of course, these types DON’T KNOW ANY AFGHANS to ask, because they’re shameless hypocrites living in their pleasant, sheltered suburbs in C-Town, who know our Cyclades better then they know the rest of their own country — certainly better than I do — and wouldn’t dare head out to Afghanistan, even on a dare.  Why do they irritate me so much?  It’s simple.

If the original sin of the Right is selfishness, the original sin of the Left is self-righteousness, by which I mean the need to see one’s self as morally correct no matter what, even if this means a breezy indifference to the realpolitik or the reality of what’s really happening on the ground.***

Of course, they were steadfast in their belief that the Turkish military was an institution of bastardized Kemalism that was the greatest anti-democratic force in their society.  This was their justification for eventually rejecting their parents’ admittedly corrupt CHP as well, Turkey’s Kemalist Republican party.  And yet it’s ironic that the Turkish military’s “anti-democratic” orientation has repeatedly prevented the complete descent of that society into chaos.  One of these types has a whole sob story she used to recite to me about how, as a young girl in the 70s, she was terrified every day when her father left the house that he wouldn’t come home because of the terrible and constant terrorist violence that was then occurring on the streets of Constantinople.  But it was the military that put an end to that violence in 1980, like it was the military who got rid of Menderes, architect of the 1955 anti-Greek pogrom, in 1960.  And as soon as Erbakan started exceeding his limits (btw, he was the first who tried talking about limiting alcohol consumption and tables on the street in Pera and Galata), the military got rid of him too in 1997 — not exactly cause and effect there.

As a Greek, there’s obviously little love lost on my part for the Turkish military.  I just feel that if Turkey’s twentieth-century history, culminating in the Erdoğan phenomenon, has proven the country to be incapable of forming a democratic civil society that doesn’t spin out of control into violence, corruption and chaos, then you just don’t have the luxury of being anti-military.  Furthermore, from our perspective, Erdoğan’s pre- and post-“coup” military is a far more threatening force than it was previously.  Violations of Greek air space have increased exponentially under Erdoğan’s tenure, as has his, and formerly Davutoğlu’s, irresponsibly imperialist Neo-Ottoman language.  And just like it wasn’t a military junta that organized the pogrom of 1955, it wasn’t a military government that invaded Cyprus in 1974, ethnically cleansing and occupying 40% of the island to protect a Turkish minority that is only 18% of the island’s population.

Lately there had been a weird shift in their attitudes though, as it has slowly sunk in that they had supported (“I voted for him!  My God!!”) the most un-democratic, anti-consitutional, religiously retrograde, paranoid, chip-on-the-shoulder lunatic to rule Turkey since Abdülhamid (photo below).  After the takeover and purging of the daily Zaman in March of 2016, I ran the idea past a few of them: “do you think it’d be a good idea for the military to step in? …they already have more unconstitutional dirt on him than on most Turkish heads of state.”  And even the Teşvikiye girl who had worried so much about her father, didn’t get apoplectic on me like she would’ve done in the past; she simply mumbled passively, in the static cadences of Turkish passivity: “I don’t even think they’re in a position to do anything at this point.”****

AbdülhamidAbdülhamid

Worse was one who said to me: “What Turkey needs now is unity.”  Well, your compatriots have actually shown a quite impressive amount of unity in the face of the Erdoğan challenge.  Every time he has engineered some sort of spectacular violence to terrify them over the past almost three years, they have unitedly come back, in elections and referenda and the mob-mobilization they have always been so good at, to give this “most un-democratic, anti-consitutional, religiously retrograde, paranoid, chip-on-the-shoulder lunatic to rule Turkey since Abdülhamid…” an even greater mandate on power than he had before: Daddy please save us!

Infantile beyond belief.  Is that the “unity” you wanted?  There was great unity in the mob hysteria that this supposed coup was met with (no, I don’t believe it was Gülen; no, I don’t think it was the army, unless it was army that already knew it was going to be sacked; no, I don’t think he didn’t know; I’d probably refuse to believe that Erdoğan wasn’t the architect of the whole thing — see the New Yorker‘s great Dexter Fillins’ “Turkey’s Thirty-Year Coup”).  They displayed impressive unity lynching poor little Mehmetçiks just following orders on the Bosporus Bridge (scenes guaranteed to make the hair of Greeks and Armenians stand on end), impressive unity in the Nazi-style rallies the Great Leader has convened, impressive unity in heckling men from the army and journalists and writers being led into a show trial that can quite possibly end in their execution or certainly life sentence (see “Inside Erdoğan’s Prisons” in the Times) and with the kerchiefed teyzes screaming for blood outside the courthouse in Ankara — and I’m sure they’ll show impressive unity in supporting the reinstating of capital punishment if that goes up for a referendum soon.

Turkish thugs and soldiersTurks beating up young conscripts on the Bosporus Bridge, defending their democratic right to elect a dictator who has abolished Turkish democracy for the most part and soon will have the power to go after whatever’s left…Turkish “unity” in action.

IS THAT THE UNITY YOU WANTED?  The unity of Kristallnacht? (or the “Septembriana” — same difference.)  The unity of Nüremberg?  The unity that comes with thinking that you can enfranchise the newly rich, provincial pious, those with absolutely no democratic education — or education of any kind — and that they won’t turn on you like swine before which pearls have been cast?  (Plato said that the “demos” — the people — shouldn’t have the right to vote because they’ll always vote for the tyrant — τυραννόφρων; Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor says precisely the same thing.)  Did you want the unity of the Italians and the Germans who respectively put Mussolini and Hitler in power with their vote?  Or the Americans who voted for Trump?  Or the Russians who voted and will again vote for Putin?

Tabrik migam, then.  You got it.

And this is the cherry on your birthday cake: Erdoğan replaces the military chiefs of staff with his own men.  Good luck ever getting rid of him now.  He’s now in a position of total control, with no challenges whatsoever.  You’re stuck for life.

*************************************************************************************

* The days when in the p.c. stupidity of the metapoliteuse we used to refer to Constantinople as “Istanbul” — I mean when speaking Greek…airport announcements and newspaper by-lines used “Ιστανμπούλ“…in Greek…are over.  I’ve now taken to calling it Constantinople in English as well, as Turks are free to call Salonica Selanik or Bulgarians and Macedonians Solun and I have no problem.  I’m not going to tell others what to call cities historically important to them; it actually makes me happy.  For more on this see my: Names: “Istanbul (not Constantinople)”…and Bombay! and keep an eye out for my “Boycott ‘Mumbai” campaign” post.  In general except an upswing in South Asian posts as we approach the seventy-year anniversary of Partition.

** My friends bear out the truth that Turkey’s Kurdish-Zaza Alevis and Syria and Lebanon’s Alawites are religiously the same branch of semi-Shia Islam.  The ones from Dersim have recognized that Syrian Alawites are also Alevi like them, even if that hasn’t made them Assad supporters; and the ones from Antiocheia (Antakya in Turkish or Hatay province in the logic of Turkish science fiction nationalist narrative) are just plain Alawite Arabs, who have understood that if there’s anything separating them from Syrian or Lebanese Alawites, it’s only the Turkification campaign they were subjected to when Turkey annexed that part of then-French-mandate Syria in the 1930s.  If papers like the Times feel the need to add the caveat that they’re different in every article they publish on the subject, it’s because they’re ignorant, the Turkish Press Office has made a fuss every time they don’t add that caveat, and it’s easy to think that people separated into difference by the ethnic nation state aren’t religiously brothers.  I’ve written extensively on this in a Twitter dialogue I had with a Turk who thought everybody should fight “lies and defamation” against their country when they appear in the media:

Syrian Alawites and Turkish Alevis: closer than I thought

Turkish Alevis and Syrian (or Lebanese…or Turkish?) Alawites — a Twitter exchange

Alevis and Alawites addendum: a “p.s.” from Teomete

More on Alevis and Alawites…or Alevis and Kurds…or Iraqi Kurds…or…Christian Kurds…or Assyrians…or…

Look out for Alevis in the current struggle in Turkey.  Whereas Kurds proper are not trusted by the political establishment or most Turks because they’re convinced they’ll never give up their separatist aspirations, Alevis, who suffered terribly under the Ottomans and the early republic and still do on some level, are still loyal to the Turkish Republic and Turkey itself.  This puts them in the position to become the secular backbone of all democratic impulses that still exist in that country, something like African-Americans in the United States were in the mid-twentieth century, since their form of Islam does not aspire to becoming the State itself, as all forms of conventional Sunni Islam do.  They were a disproportionate share of the casualties and deaths that occurred during the crackdown of the 2013 protests, not because they were targetted specifically, but simply because they were already a disproportionately large percentage of the protesters.

*** It may seem irrelevant, but this type always reminds of a passage in Chesterton’s Orthodoxy in which he trashes this kind of moral correctness by trashing the New Agers of his time:

“Only the other day I saw in an excellent weekly paper
of Puritan tone this remark, that Christianity when stripped of its
armour of dogma (as who should speak of a man stripped of his armour of
bones), turned out to be nothing but the Quaker doctrine of the Inner
Light. Now, if I were to say that Christianity came into the world
specially to destroy the doctrine of the Inner Light, that would be an
exaggeration. But it would be very much nearer to the truth. The last
Stoics, like Marcus Aurelius, were exactly the people who did believe in
the Inner Light. Their dignity, their weariness, their sad external care
for others, their incurable internal care for themselves, were all due
to the Inner Light, and existed only by that dismal illumination. Notice that Marcus Aurelius insists, as such introspective moralists always do,
upon small things done or undone; it is because he has not hate or love
enough to make a moral revolution. He gets up early in the morning, just
as our own aristocrats living the Simple Life get up early in the
morning; because such altruism is much easier than stopping the games of
the amphitheatre or giving the English people back their land. Marcus
Aurelius is the most intolerable of human types. He is an unselfish
egoist. An unselfish egoist is a man who has pride without the excuse of
passion. Of all conceivable forms of enlightenment the worst is what
these people call the Inner Light. Of all horrible religions the most
horrible is the worship of the god within. Any one who knows any body
knows how it would work; any one who knows any one from the Higher
Thought Centre knows how it does work. That Jones shall worship the god
within him turns out ultimately to mean that Jones shall worship Jones.
Let Jones worship the sun or moon, anything rather than the Inner Light;
let Jones worship cats or crocodiles, if he can find any in his street,
but not the god within. Christianity came into the world firstly in
order to assert with violence that a man had not only to look inwards,
but to look outwards, to behold with astonishment and enthusiasm a
divine company and a divine captain. The only fun of being a Christian
was that a man was not left alone with the Inner Light, but definitely
recognised an outer light, fair as the sun, clear as the moon, terrible
as an army with banners.”  [All bold emphases mine.]

**** “yanlış oldu” — See Loxandra‘s amazing “duck with bamya” chapter; I never tire of recommending it.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Names: “Istanbul (not Constantinople)”…and Bombay!

21 Jun

I reckon I’ve now received enough emails complaining about my use of “Constantinople” that it’s time to address the issue.

Constantinople – Kwnstantinoupoles — is Istanbul in Greek.  It’s the Greek word for Istanbul.  Istanbul comes from the word Constantinople.  It’s that simple.  The way Moscow is the English word for Moskva.  The way Parigi is the Italian word for Paris.  Constantinople is the Greek word for Istanbul.  It’s that simple.

That the Republic chose to change its official name to the time-honored Turkish name of Istanbul in the 1920’s does not obligate speakers of other languages to call it that, especially not those with as heavy an emotional, historical and spiritual investment in their own name for it as we have.  Just like the world will hopefully never be obligated to call Greece “Hellas” by the idiots who are attempting to do so.  Where Istanbul is concerned, the Ottomans themselves were content, at least for official purposes, with using the Arabic Costantiniyye until very late – till the very end, 1923, if I’m not mistaken.  And it took the rest of the world several more decades, as well, to abandon “Constantinople” and conform to the Turkish Republic’s new orders — for those who thought the name just disappeared in 1453.

What exactly is the problem?  If readers think I have some nationalist, much less irredentist, reasons for referring to the city as Constantinople, then they haven’t read anything else on this blog, and know nothing about me.  If there even is any discernible pattern in my switching back and forth between the two names, it’s not easy to identify.  I mostly refer to the city’s Greek community as Constantinopolitan Greeks, usually when I’m talking about a time when there was a community.  When the present is involved I usually say something like “Istanbul Greeks.”  I call Greeks from Istanbul “Polites” and will often say “Pole,” or even “the City” in English to evoke some sense of its importance to Greeks – and to me.  And all sorts of various combinations of the above.

In both print and speech I never hear Turks call Salonica “Thessalonike” but Selanik – except for the occasional overly p.c. Turk who thinks that “Thessalonike” is what I want to hear.  And not only does Selanik not annoy me, not only do I not take issue with it or get offended by it, but it moves me.  Obviously, when a Turk calls Jiannena — one of my many hometowns – Yanya, it moves me even more.  A Turk who says Yanya is asserting his connection to that city, and that assertion becomes an immediate bond between me and him: a bond we both share to its streets, its lake and its mists, its mosques, its churches, its synagogues, its borek, the mahallades my mother used to tell me were Turkish before the twenties, including the one where she grew up, the parks she used to tell me were paved over Muslim cemeteries, that used to scare her as a girl when the region’s interminable rains would expose bones and skulls in their mud — all told with her peculiar sensitivity and strange sadness that would make you think these things were all her own; I never heard a word of ethnic animosity or hatred for anybody out of her mouth — not ethnic or any other kind — and not from my father either.

Yanya: the lake, mosques, the beautiful gate of the Ic Kale, streets, the front gate and interior of the Old Synagogue, 18th c. (The New Synagogue, 19th c., outside the city walls, was blown up by the Nazis.)

And when a Turk says Selanik, he’s asserting his deep historical connection to that city; whether he’s from there or not, he’s using a name which carries all his historical references to that place, which I’m nothing but happy to grant him.  I don’t even call it Thessalonike, but ‘Salonike.  When I think of Byzantine Thessalonike, of Selanik, Salonico, Salonica, they all evoke for me a great and ancient Mediterranean city; for a long time, the second city of the Byzantines, of St. Gregory Palamas and Nicholas Kabasilas; Salonico makes me think of the heir to the philosophical and poetic heritage of Jewish Spain; the great center of Sephardic learning, both rabbinical and the deep Kabbalistic learning that Jews brought with them from their previous homeland; I think of a Turkish city that was a flourishing center of a variety of Ottoman Sufi orders; the city where so much of Turkey’s new Republican bourgeoisie came from, just as ours came from the other direction.

Frontispiece of a Salonican Zohar, a seminal Kabbalah text, originally written in Leon, Spain.

Salonican Jews

Great caption; “the fanatical sect of Islam” being referred to are the Mevlevis!!!

 When I think of modern Thessalonike, on the other hand, I think of an unattractive, humid Balkan town with a serious second-city complex. 

But I’m a “manic lover” of St. Demetrius, its patron, so I have to visit every now and then.

Mosaic of St. Demetrius, originally from the church of St. Sophia in Kiev (or is it Kyiv?), currently in the Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg (or is it Leningrad? or Petrograd? or just the name that everyone who knows her and truly loves her calls her, Peter…)

Funny that it took me so long but I recently realized why I dislike both Salonica and Izmir so much; despite their history, despite Salonica’s plethora of classical and Byzantine monuments even, neither of them — for reasons we all know — feel like organically old cities, the way even Athens does, though in its modern incarnation it’s far newer.  They both feel like one city was removed from that location and another one hastily put in its place.  Remade.  They don’t feel grounded.  What you feel in both of them mostly is the absence of history.*

Can you even tell which is which? — except for a few giveaway signs…

With all that said, therefore, I think we have to be very careful about whether it’s the renaming of places or persevering in the old name that represents the more nationalist impulse.  I recently confirmed for an Indian friend that, yes, Greeks still refer to Istanbul as “the City,” and he shook his head and mumbled something about the “narcissism of nationalism.”  But an increasingly fundamentalist and nationalist India may be the perfect example to start with.  Granted, Calcutta was always Kolkata in Bengali.  But what was wrong with Madras?  And what nationalist Tamil mythology does Chennai justify?  The BJP (fundamentalist Hinduism.…you’d think it’d be an oxymoron) in fact, has a list for changing the names of almost all the cities of India to more appropriately Hindu ones, not just obvious targets like Allahabad, but Delhi itself and others: see the list if you’re interested.  Aung San Suu Kyi calls her country by its perfectly legitimate name of Burma, yet for a couple of decades we were content to use the name imposed on it by its military dictatorship, Myanmar, and never asked why or by whom it had been changed.  The State is not to be questioned.  If you said “Burma,” people looked at you like you were uninformed.

The most unfortunate and vulgar change of all is “Mumbai,” but almost no one knows or cares about how that change happened.  It was once generally accepted that Bombay comes from the Portuguese “bom bahim,” or good little harbour, just north as it is from Portugal’s long-time colony of Goa.  But even if that etymology is bogus, it was under the name Bombay that it flourished and grew under the British into the most important and cosmopolitan city in South Asia.

Bombay (gotta click on this one)

But in 1995, the Shiv Sena party (the Army of Shiva…) won control of the state government of Maharashtra, of which Bombay is a part, though it’s so different in social and ethnic make-up from the rest of that state that it deserves a separate federal district type status like Delhi has, or Mexico City, or D.C.  Shiv Sena, being a party whose power base is rural Maharashtra and poor migrant Marathis who feel they deserve more power in the city, is actively hostile to Bombay’s dizzying diversity and especially its large Muslim population.  It’s essentially a Marathi branch of the BJP, only worse (and they haven’t been getting along lately): a virulently Hindutva bunch that have not only been found to be involved in Bombay’s drug, prostitution and extortion circles, but ordered and even carried out much of the more vicious anti-Muslim attacks during the Bombay riots of 1992-93: the kerosene-dousing and burning of individuals and the burning tire around the victims’s neck were a couple of their trademarks.

When, despite all that, Shiv Sena were voted into state office in Maharashtra, their response to the poverty, massive infrastructural challenges, crime and destitution of this barely manageable city of more than twenty million was to change its name to Mumbai.  This was based on the supposed fact that there was (or is, or if there hadn’t been, I’m sure there now is) a temple of a Marathi goddess of that name on the site before the colonial city rose up, which may or may not be true, but, given the fact that every square yard of India contains at least one shrine or temple to someone or something, doesn’t mean very much.

And yet the whole world fell in line.  Thinking that, like Myanmar, if it’s coming from there it must have some sort of indigenous, authentic root, filled with post-colonial guilt and worried about offending what we thought were Indian sensibilities, we all dutifully started calling it Mumbai.  Fearing that using the old name would immediately make others imagine us to be jodhpur-clad gin-swillers, we let a bunch of criminal thugs and violent nationalists change the name Bombay — the name by which this great, open-to-the-sea-and-the-world, mercantile, diverse, cosmopolitan, sexy metropolis, a microcosm of India itself and its modern face to the world, was known for almost three centuries – and nobody asked why or breathed a word of resistance.

Bombay — Marine Drive — Queen’s Necklace

So as for C-town, you choose which is more “nationalist.”  Calling the city the name by which it was known to most of humanity for more than sixteen centuries?  Calling it an also venerable name that the nationalist, anti-cosmopolitan, Turkification project of a military dictatorship whose attitude to the City, its legacy, history and population was actually hostile for much of the time decided the world should call it?  Or just calling it both?

Or how ‘bout who cares?  As long as we know which city we’re talking about.

* See next post

 

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com


%d bloggers like this: