Tag Archives: Polites

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

Philopomeon writes on: “Magnificent Turks and the Origins of this Blog”

3 Jul

In one more, just can’t keep ’em from coming, comment on “Magnificent Turks and the Origins of this Blog,”  Philopomeon writes:

“Oh wow, and don’t get me started on the “you don’t know OUR history” stuff from them. For them basically the years 600 AD to 1821 are a blank spot with some vagueness about a “Greek Empire” and the fall of Constantinople to the Turks”

And the massive gap doesn’t even seem to register with them or concern them.  Too much sloppiness to fit into the orderly narrative boxes they like.

It’s actually quite astonishing: where the narrative line doesn’t follow Glorious Greeks to Evil Turks to meh Independence, they’re as historically ignorant as many Americans.

BLUEMOSQUEZIMG_D950Interior of Sultan Ahmet mosque. (click)

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

 

“Magnificent Turks” and the origins of this blog

11 Jun

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA(The photo above and all photos in the main body of this post, are of the Šarena Džamija in Macedonian, or Alaca Cami in Turkish, which means “The Decorated Mosque,” an eighteenth-century masterpiece of Ottoman Folk Baroque in Tetovo, Macedonia.  The photos interspersed between the footnotes are of the Bektaşi Harabati Baba Teke on the outskirts of Tetovo — two of the loveliest places I visitted on this trip.  Click on all.)

From Rebecca West’s Black Lamb, Grey Falcon:

“It is impossible to have visited Sarajevo or Manastir or Bitolj or even Skopje, without learning that the Turks were in a real sense magnificent, that there was much of that in them which brings a man off his four feet into erectness, that they knew well that running waters, the shade of trees, a white minaret the more in a town, brocade and fine manners, have a usefulness greater than use, even to the most soldierly of men.”

Yes, again…  West is prompted to make this comment in I can’t remember what city in Macedonia because the book is huge. Always super-astute, she identifies something really profound about Turks: essentially, what’s known in classical Japanese aesthetics as “bushi-no-nasaké” – “the tenderness of the warrior.” I don’t think that needs to be explained any further. Afghans have this quality, and the autobiography of Babur, the founder of the Mughal dynasty, his Baburnama, where he talks about the blood and fear of war with true horror in one passage and the sweetness of his beloved Kabul’s melons, its ice-cold waters and the handsomeness of its young men in the immediately following, is probably the most striking literary example of this aesthetic strength outside of anything written in Japanese I would imagine. (Complicated: the fact that it’s a quality most highly present in strongly homoerotic environments or cultures.) I remember sending West’s passage to one of my best friends in Istanbul when I read it and she wrote back and said: “I wish there were even a trace of that sensibility left here.” And I think she was being a little unfair and also suffered from the near-sightedness we all do when we’re immersed in an environment and really can’t see it objectively. To begin with, at least as far as C-town is concerned, it’s hard to build a city for fifteen million in fifteen years and maintain any kind of sensibility at all, so something has inevitably been lost in the dizzying pace of progress in contemporary Turkey. But it isn’t hard to see if you just look a little: a sensuality, an alertness to beauty and material comfort of all kinds, despite some overdone glitz, that comes at you from nowhere often – of course from Turkish women, some of the world’s most impressive for me, but even from the most macho (and some of the world’s most impressive) guys, which is when it’s really beautiful and almost disconcertingly lovely: an aesthete’s attention to detail; a sudden, completely unsolicited, solicitous gesture of smiling generosity; a strange soft politeness and sensitivity, which the sound of the language, especially in the City’s accent, only adds to… A “tenderness.” That of a complete man. Which is what the Japanese meant.

But my reasons for posting it now have nothing to do with my friend or with Turks really. I had been looking for an opportunity to post this passage at some point because it’s essentially the seed of this blog. I thought maybe on some anniversary in April, but Easter posts always get in the way then. What gave me the impetus to post it now is finding the beautiful “Painted Mosque” in Tetovo in Macedonia and the Bektashi Harabati Tekke on the outskirts of the same city, because both structures or compounds are the purest embodiment of the observation West had made of Turks some eighty years before.

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Why did the Jadde grow out of this particular quote? I’ll start from the beginning.

Four, five, maybe even six years ago – I think it was 2008 – a group of Turkish historians of Ottoman art and architecture completed a massive and what sounds like a seriously respect-worthy encyclopaedia of all the Ottoman monuments of the Balkans. I heard about this from Greece, however, in an email from a fairly out-there nationalist who has since grown exponentially deranged, that went out to friends, and friends of friends, and acquaintances, and acquaintances of acquaintances, with the pompous subject line: “The Falsification of History!” No explanation of why the work of serious Turkish scholars was false or a process of falsification. No explanation at all; and, really, I can’t even remember what the tirade in the rest of the email went on about. I wrote back (“Reply all”) and said: “Good for them. Why don’t we do it too?” And then I remembered the above passage about “Turkish magnificence” that West had written while in Macedonia and I sent that out right after.

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The response blew my mind. Dostoevsky said that hysteria was God’s gift to women. But watch certain kinds of sports fans or listen to a certain kind of nationalist and you’ll see that maybe it’s the y-chromosome which carries this gift of the Lord’s. Or maybe Samuel Johnson was wrong in calling “patriotism the last refuge of scoundrels” and should have dubbed it the “last refuge of hysterics.” I was called a traitor. I was called an idiot. One person wrote to tell me that he might agree with some of what I said (I hadn’t really said anything – Rebecca West had) but that I was so aggressive that he wasn’t going to stoop to my level. One guy wrote me an email most of which sounded like it was lifted out of the literature and billboards of Samaras’ (now Prime Minister) simultaneous Macedonia/Elgin Marbles campaign that made an international rezili of us in the nineties when he was Foreign Minister (*1), telling me to “read some history” and “that if you don’t know your history you’re nobody; you’re pathetic my friend — you and your ‘magnificent Turks.’” Now, when a Neo-Greek tells me that I don’t know my history, the hair on the back of my neck stands on end, because even when they come out of the country’s best schools (”…oy, I should cough…” as a certain old Jewish lady I knew liked to say), like this guy has, the “history” they know – or choose to know — are just the national mythologies. I actually really felt sorry for him to be honest, not even insulted, because, like I said, this was a circle of friends of friends and there was a good chance that he would eventually get to know more about me some day and then he would feel r-e-a-l-l-y dumb for doubting either my historical knowledge or my sense of cultural consciousness. I hear he’s a nice guy. He later apologized for calling me “pathetic” but insisted that we still disagreed completely – “diagonally” was the term he used in Greek. I didn’t bother to ask what it was we still disagreed about exactly. And I also won’t tell you who most of these people are professionally because it’ll send chills down your spine.

There were no explanations coming anyway. What was “false” about this project? Were these academics impostors or clowns? Why was I “pathetic?” What was it that I didn’t know supposedly? What was the “diagonal” disagreement about? that the Ottoman was a civilization? What? Explain. Just like I never got an explanation for why my Genocide post was “enraging”…. εξοργιστικό…. other than that it takes away someone’s claim to victim status, nothing was clarified here either, except that one shouldn’t stand anybody saying anything positive about Turks.

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Eventually an attempt at explanation (talk about “pathetic”) came from the original sender, who we’ll call “The Messenger” from now on. “Of course, I support the preservation of art” – he wrote: the classic, vapid introductory caveat of every ideologue; Hitler loved art too; that’s why he bombed the shit out of Piraeus but didn’t touch Athens – “but I can’t tolerate the turning of every little stone into an Ottoman ‘monument.’” Had he seen this encyclopaedic project first-hand? Did he know that any of the entries were just “little stones?” I doubt it. But then came the real point, the following completely strained and muddled analogy: “And when it comes down to it, the preservation of the art of the burglar must take second place to the art of the owners of the home that was burglarized.”

Got it, right? The burglars are the Turks. Understood? Even if we overlook the fact that the primary genetic material of modern Turks is made up of the converted and Turkified peoples that already inhabited the Balkans and Anatolia (2**) — they’re us and we’re them essentially, on some deep level there’s no “they” there; does that not create even the tiniest bit of empathy and identification? — the Turks, and Islam, have been in the Balkan peninsula for six centuries. They’ve been in Anatolia for nine. But for the Messenger, they’re still burglars. They first appeared on the record in the history of southwestern Asia as military slaves, I think, in when? the 7th century? If we count Turkic peoples like the Bulgars, Cumans and Pechenegs, they’ve even been in the Balkans since the 6th century. When do they get their green card?

So this is the essential irrationality of these people’s thought pattern and it’s what makes their arguments descend into crazed incoherence so dramatically fast. They’re not angry at a policy or an act or a group, really, or even a politician or another nation even. They’re angry at gigantic, abstract historical phenomena: the spread of Islam; the westward movement of nomadic tribes from East Asia in the first millennium – shit like that. Which are phenomena that, admittedly, we may have been on the uncomfortable receiving edge of, and — you know what? — yes, cause me occasional sorrow too: the loss was great. (Though we maybe were given much through these processes, also, if you’re willing to see.) But, “ὅτε γέγονα ἀνήρ, κατήργηκα τὰ τοῦ νηπίου” – “when I became a man I put away childish ways” (that’s Paul, I Corinthians, 13:11, since none of these types will know where the quote is from or even if it’s from the Bible very likely) and started looking for ways to handle that sorrow more productively instead of angry — which I had never felt — ranting — which I had never done anyway. But when you listen to these guys you get the distinct impression that you’re watching someone whipping air, or digging a hole in the water as the Greek has it. Because you’re listening to the rant of someone stuck on what he thinks is the losing side of history, and who insists on continuing to act like a loser – and thereby remaining one — by whining and hating. And if you confront them too intensely, they just get nasty because they hit a wall almost immediately; they have nowhere to go rhetorically. I was in a comfortable living room in Athens last month, having drinks and a perfectly civilized – I thought, at least — conversation and listening, I think, to Hadjidakis or even Chet Baker. And I said, for some reason – I can’t remember the context: “Obviously the single largest ethnic group, if not the majority, of the population of Greek Macedonia were Slav-speakers until the beginning of the 20th century, until they were chased out or massacred or exchanged and the considerable remnant terrorized into being afraid of speaking their language or even of openly being who they were.” And I immediately got a traditional warm Balkan reply from this τάχα sophisticated Athenian and Kollegiopaido: “Bre haydi, go fuck yourself, malaka!” Not because this person doesn’t know that what I said was true, but because I had dared to say it so bluntly. And instead of getting up and leaving, or staying and breaking some teeth for being spoken to that way, I was silent. “We were persecuted and thrown out of so many places too!” And then you realize you’re talking to someone who has descended to the level of a fourth-grader and that it would be child abuse to continue.

So rather than waste too much more time in exchanges or situations like that, I finally got my act together a couple of years later and started this blog. I wasn’t going to continue writing or responding to these people individually: narrow-minded and locked in their ideological boxes and — most irritatingly — profoundly provincial and ignorant of certain things and yet simultaneously convinced of their status as the crème de la crème of their segment of Athenian society. (They’re big fish in a little pond and when they get thrown into the ocean they don’t even realize it.)  I was just going to put my ideas out there and anybody who wanted to could do what they felt about them.

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There are two basic components on which these individuals’ thought worlds rest and are designed and constructed. One is their complete lack of empathy, or even the capacity for the slightest identification, with those different from them. I understand not everyone can be from New York, where you’re not only confronted – in the flesh – with the entire rest of the world from the moment you’re conscious of your environment, but confronted as well with the stories of loss and tragedy and deprivation or just frustration and lack of opportunity –again, in the flesh – that brought both you and all these others together here in this city. And you don’t have to be as peculiarly sensitive to these issues as I am. But unless you have an anvil for a head, or no heart at all, it’s impossible to be a New Yorker and not recognize that, though your story may be distinct, it can’t be privileged in as facile a manner as it can when you’re home locked up in your little mono-cultural society. (3***)

And the “in the flesh” part is what’s crucial. People like the Messenger, or Mr. “Pathetic,” feel an instinctive, knee-jerk negativity towards Turks – or anybody else — because….

they’ve never LIVED them, or VISCERALLY lived ANY kind of DIFFERENCE, at ALL, in ANY  REAL way. (4****)

I’ve already written extensively about how the young people of my village, with one-fifth the education of these cosseted bureaucrats (much less a kid like my nephew Vangeli), are more cosmopolitan and open about the world because they’ve lived bi-cultural existences in Albania since their first breath, even if it’s with people they may not particularly like. If anything, the kids of Derviçani would silently ignore The Messenger and his preachings. And if The Messenger dared to get angry and nasty and foul-mouthed with them because his prophecies weren’t being heeded, as he always does with everyone who doesn’t fall at his feet when he speaks, he would be roughly escorted out of the café or bar they would happen to be in, in New York Irish pub style, by a couple of big Derviçiotika djovoria (5*****) — believe me, they’re good stand-ins for Irish pub bouncers, take a good look at some of them in my photos — and quite possibly at knife point just to make sure the message got through. They don’t take kindly, as I don’t, to being told what to feel or think by Athenian amateur “intellectuals” or what they more frequently refer to as “butterboys.” But there are even more dramatic examples I know, intimately, of people having lived amidst ethnic conflict from birth and then — as per Paul in Corinthians – having grown up.

My father grew up in that same village under much worse conditions: conditions of almost constant, chronic – and fatal — communal violence between his communities and the surrounding Muslim villages. During periods of extreme tension, for months or years at a time, a man didn’t leave his village’s boundaries without a rifle visibly slung over his shoulder and cartridge belt across his chest and the women never left at all. And this is the 1920s and 30s we’re talking about, not the eighteenth century. My father could easily have interpreted everything he and his family suffered then, and later under Albanian communism ( see: Easter Eggs…) as something inflicted on him by Albanians or Muslims. But he never did. One of his best friends in New York was a man I used to call Kyr’ Meto (Mehmet), not only an Albanian Muslim but a Çam, in fact, from the Albanian tribal group that were driven out of Greece and massacred by our righteous, right-wing resistance during WWII. They would tease each other, even, in a kind of morbid tragic-comic way of dealing with their shared painful past. My father always greeted Turkish or Albanian Muslim or any Muslim friend in my house with almost more warmth than he did others, as if slightly overcompensating with them were a balm for the pain or the fear of the past — or as if he felt the backwardsness of the old hatreds and they were now more a source of embarrassment than anything else — and with a genuine amused affection and nostalgia and interest in interaction with them, visitors from what was now a lost world. I remember him tearing up once (only on the side and with me, of course, not in front of anyone else) because a Turkish friend of mine had baked a spinach börek for him. They may have been the enemy once; but even as the enemy, they were real people to him, that on some perverse level he “missed,” and now the “enemy” part didn’t even count any more.

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My godfather was from a much more privileged, cosmopolitan environment.  His family was from a village near Isparta in western Anatolia. But the son of an Ottoman military doctor (which probably would make him a traitor in The Messenger’s eyes), he grew up in Konya and Aleppo and Beirut and finally Smyrna, where he lived a charmed life – the son of a rich Greek doctor in 1910s Smyrna and a promising violin student at the city’s conservatory. All this came to a nightmarish end with his father and brother-in-law hanged from the balcony of his house, the inferno and horrors of the Smyrna waterfront and refugee destitution in Athens. Yet it was the politicians who “never really hurt for the land and its people” — the Greek politicians — and had brought such total, scorched-earth disaster down upon their heads that he would constantly curse. Not Turks. He would kill for any opportunity to speak Turkish. He practically swallowed whole a Turkish friend of mine once, whom I had brought to meet him in Greece (admittedly a very beautiful one – the one who had made the börek for my father) and she in turn was dazzled by his strange, now slightly warped Ottoman Turkish. As conservative an old man as he was, he was, in fact, so old that he was still pre-nationalist in many ways and had no patience for what he felt was the ridiculousness of Greek nationalism. He would often say to Greeks – (slightly in a spirit of provocation and infected with that condescension that certain old Anatolian refugees or Polites – or even Cypriots today — feel for what they consider the backwards, ignorant inhabitants of the Greek state: “We taught them how to dress; we taught them how to conduct business; we taught them how to eat; we taught them how to wash themselves…”) – that he wasn’t sure whether he should consider himself a Greek at all, but maybe should just call himself a Turkish Christian. There were no smiles all around when he’d say things like that, but he got a kind of malicious, gleeful satisfaction from it.

Reflex hatred, despite their experiences, was just not part of their composition, like it is for The Messenger and his ilk. And needless to say, they would both have found it laughable that someone had freaked out — και τάχα μωρφομένα παιδιά — because eighty years ago a middle-aged English woman had written that Turks had good taste.

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The second, and I’m not sure I would call it a basic building block but it’s certainly a primary characteristic of these people, is related to what Benedict Anderson once wrote in his groundbreaking Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (6******), and that is that (I’m paraphrasing here): “The nation-state pretends to be the guardian of your culture and traditions whereas, in reality, it’s the enemy of the old ways.” I’ve always thought this the key to the strange contentlessness of nation-state nationalism. All these people who wrote me — the Messenger and his crowd — are, as is usual in these cases, from the more déracinées middling-bourgeois classes of their society and, other than a certain requisite amount of feta that gets put away in each household, there’s a certain indifference to and ignorance of any form of Greek tradition or life at all, and there exists only that same locally inflected form of post-bourgeois, consumer lifestyle that one finds among this class everywhere in the world, including both the tragic and comic consequences of their somehow thinking that their lifestyle puts them on a par with comparable classes in Paris or London or New York.

This was the class of young Athenians who mocked us relentlessly as Greek-American teenagers in the 70s, because we both knew and liked the dances and musical traditions of our parents’ regions and because we both knew and enjoyed the light Greek popular music of the time, which was, in fact, in its Golden Age during that period. I think we forget the degree to which Greek music of any sorts had come very close to dying out completely among these social strata until the rebetiko revival, which started in the 1980’s — and just refuses to die — because rebetiko was a tradition that was perfect material for middle-class white-boy appropriation (like jazz, the blues, and later rap and hip-hop in the United States): it provided all the discourse and attitude of subversiveness and marginality without any of its risky realities. Later, when by the nineties, the little girls of this class could be found dancing çiftetelia on the tops of bars in Mykonos (badly, of course; the thread had been cut by then and there was no regrafting the branch back onto the trunk of tradition), it was hard for me/us to contain our laughter or control the reactions of our stomachs.

Then there’s their complete indifference to the Church. And I’m not talking spiritually; I could give a shit about them spiritually or about the state of my or their or anybody else’s souls. Or religiously, a word whose meaning I don’t even understand.  I’m talking about the Church as a cultural institution, of which one cannot remain so profoundly ignorant and consider himself Greek. Period. That’s an unalterable, non-negotiable secular article of faith for me.  Sometimes I don’t like it either; but whether we like it or not, this institution: its philosophy, art, architecture, music, poetry and theater, were what the Greek world poured the by far greatest parts of its cultural energies into for close to two millenia. I know it’s a difficult leap to make from that; Holy Mother Russia for example, had the time and luxury and power to remain deeply Orthodox and yet take from the Western world the forms and genres she needed to make them her own and create the dazzlingly rich literary and musical culture she did for herself. I wish we had had a Dante or a Chaucer or a Boccaccio or a Lermontov or Pushkin to set us on the road to a modern literary culture, but we didn’t; we had to wait till the Generation of the 30s to produce anything even resembling a coherent modern prose and poetry tradition. We had to make the jump from the essentially mediaeval mind-set of late Ottoman Hellenism directly to modernity and in trying to make it were tripped up, on top of it, by the Classicism forced down our throats by the West.  As a result, the average member of The Messenger’s class is profoundly ignorant of any aspect of Church tradition, but will, in ways which make you cringe in embarrassment, take great pride in pointing out to Americans that the columns on a Greek Revival home in Princeton, New Jersey, for example, are “Greek” columns of the “Ionian order,” like the father in “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.”  The Messenger himself spent this past Holy Week sending out YouTube videos of Greek Air Force flight formations as a form of holiday greetings. I responded that I didn’t know what these could possibly have to do with this time of the year and asked why he was sending them to me and he got angry and sarcastically replied: “Ok, I’ll only send you ecclesiastic hymns from now on.” This is obviously a sarcastic reference to my supposed “religiosity” – which he probably considers a combination of passé Greek diaspora churchiness with a healthy dose of American “Jesus-Loves-Me” thrown in. I wrote back that I had never posted a single ecclesiastic hymn on my blog and that whenever I did post on a particular religious holiday it was to place it in a wider context of the myriad connections it usually has to other civilizations more than anything else. In fact, almost all the religious music on my blog is Black American Gospel or R&B. And if The Messenger or Mr. “Pathetic” or any of their buddies do know any ecclesiastic hymns, other than the first bar of “Christos Aneste,” which they’ve heard on those three and only three minutes, when, at midnight on Easter, they even set foot near a church, they’re welcome to send them to me.

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I talk earlier about certain historic processes, great losses of ours, causing me sorrow too. And, in response I’ve spent the greater part of my adult emotional and intellectual energies trying to build some sort of rickety bridge to those lost places – even if the only thing I have to show for it is this amateurish blog — and to the peoples with whom we lived in those spaces and with whom, over these spaces, literal and symbolic, we slaughtered each other in such staggering numbers for so numbingly long a time. But The Messenger and Mr. “Pathetic” don’t give a flying shit. A lost Byzantine world or even the lost world of Anatolian Hellenism mean nothing to them, other that just a reason for Turk-hatred and nothing else –read on if you can.

Because THERE…is that deeper indifference that stuns me often; and that’s not just an indifference to a certain body of cultural tradition, but to the bearers, the people themselves, of those traditions. This, again, is the natural outcome of being obsessed with the state of the State, while being almost completely indifferent to the cultural content – which is its people — of the State. The Messenger is obsessed with what’s good for the State, but is almost completely stumped if you ask him what his vision is for the Hellenism that this State is supposed to contain and defend.  I remember a characteristic attack of hysteria on his part in which he was screeching: “And I don’t give a shit about Anatolian Hellenism or Politikes Kouzines or Loxandres!!! (7*******) I care about what’s good for Greece!!!”   And this was always clear: that, taking this particular case, if the completely moronic plan for the 1919 invasion of Anatolia had worked, it would’ve been good; if not, as it wasn’t, then fuck the lot of them; bring them all to Greece and start again. The Fatherland is what counts. These are exactly the thought processes of Venizelos himself, without a doubt one of the slimiest dressings-up of two-penny Cretan machismo into a frangiko tuxedo that ever left its trail of slug-juice across the international stage: “Let’s try this insane idea and if it brings me greater glory and only then Greece, ok.  (I mean, damn, I even had to suck off Lloyd George in Paris to support me on it.)  If not, we’ll figure something else out, like up-rooting one-third of the Greek world – the most dynamic and productive part — from their aeons-old ancestral hearths and destroying forever the civilization and culture they had built in those places.”  “In place of that civilization,” which is not reconstructable in another place – places, lands, cities, forgive the New-Agey tone, have an energy, an identity, that don’t allow you to just put them together again somewhere else – “I’ll have myself a homogeneous and distinctly more governable Greece,” thinks the Great Cretan Father “and I’ll deal with the Jews of Salonica my way (politically disenfranchising them and allowing a series of vicious pogroms against them which would release the frustrated energies of the Anatolian refugees I was responsible for creating); I’ll conduct some completely gratuitous political purges and brutal Third-World-style monkey trials and executions so that I can blame the failed vainglory of my plan on the Monarchists, thereby perpetuating into the late twentieth century the polarization of Greek politics that I’ve been the primary creator of…those pesky Slavs in Macedonia will probably have to be taken care of by another generation… But I’ve certainly done my part in bringing myse…errr…the Fatherland peace and glory and order and progress and – just watch and see — they’ll even name a big airport and a big ole boulevard in Belgrade after me when I’m gone.” And there is a big ole boulevard in Belgrade named after the Cretan manga, which is quite apposite actually, because stirring up dangerous passions and delusions among his people and then abandoning them to ruin does make Venizelos very close to a Greek Milošević; they might want to think of a Milošević Boulevard in Athens too, or a Karadžić Avenue, just in honor of the spirit of Greco-Serbian friendship. And if you wanna go beyond Greek-Serbian palishness and broaden things up ideologically, a Tudjman Street would not be such a bad idea either.

Likewise The Messenger. All during the nineties, after the terrors of communism had passed the inhabitants of my father’s villages spent years of anxiety caused by a new fear: that the Albanian government would take advantage of the general chaos in the Balkans at the time and expel them from their villages into Greece – one fear replaced by a new anxiety. Only after 1997, when the Albanian state collapsed on all imaginable levels, and then things slowly stabilized, did this new fear subside, partly because the Albanian military itself had collapsed as well and all its weaponry, down to tanks, were completely looted from one day to the next. This flood of weapons is what caused the radical escalation of the Albanian KLA’s (Kosovo Liberation Army) violence in Kosovo, but in a land where a man’s rifle was “better than his wife” as an Albanian song puts it, it may have been the reason for the final coming of some sort of stability, for reasons that would make an NRA member’s heart sing: if there were any ideas about expelling Greeks from their villages, the knowledge that they, like almost everyone else in the country, now had a couple of Kalashnikovs along with their old hunting rifles buried under their houses’ floorboards definitely put a halt to any such radical plans.

But even despite this second wave of terror my people experienced, The Messenger stands at my side, about ten kilometers from Derviçani, where my ancestors held on tooth and nail to their land, their religion, their language, for centuries – as every other people have the right to — looks out over the valley of Dropoli and thinks out loud: “These borders could have been drawn to better advantage for us. All that was necessary would’ve been a few key population exchanges…”

He. They. Simply. Just. Don’t. Care. They care abut the Fatherland (or in The Messenger’s case, calling it the Vaterland at this point might be more apposite) and that it comes out on top. What it does to the civilization it’s supposed to defend, what the content of that civilization even is, what it does to the souls of its inhabitants, don’t matter. Das Vaterland über Alles. Nation-States, sadly, as in the analogy I made at the top of this post, are a whole lot like professional athletic teams. “Why do you love this team? It’s from my city. And? Your city has two or three of these same teams; why do you love this one? Everybody in my neighborhood does.  So?  Because my father did. And? Well, just because…ok… χέσε με τώρα… Fuck off now…what are these questions about anyway?”  You ask for meaning — like in the living room where I was told to go fuck myself — from something meaningless, and ultimately, the only response you’ll get is rage. The rage of the mute.

Again, I said I wasn’t going to tell you who these people are professionally, but those who know me already know and the rest can probably take a not so wild guess. Let’s just say, as I must have made obvious, that they consider themselves the defenders of the Fatherland’s interests abroad. So for them to have something to defend, the Fatherland must have some enemies — or just not very cooperative neighbors — because if not, what would they be defending? Nothing. And then they’d just be living the life of a glorified bureaucrat. And where’s the glamour in that?

Or as the poet said: “Οι άνθρωποι αυτοί ήσαν μια κάποια λύσις.” “Those people were a solution of some kind.”

The Staurodromi, Pera, June 2014

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1 * In the nineties, Antones Samaras, now Prime Minister, was Foreign Minister and he put all of his energies into preventing the recognition of Macedonia as an independent state by that name, and forcing the issue of the return of the Elgin Marbles to Greece; this is when plans for the new museum of the Acropolis were set in motion, which I just won’t go into, despite the fact that I admit it’s an impressive building. It has a hall of models of the Elgin marbles, that’s waiting there, for the return of the real ones, like Miss Havisham and her moldy wedding cake, spitefully waiting with her clocks stopped in her the fading beige wedding dress, for the bridegroom who, believe me guys, the Brits are never going to let come. And good for them and rightly so.

We never had a defensible point about Macedonians’ use of the name Macedonia for themselves. We may have had a point about Macedonians appropriating the completely Greek cultural phenomenon of Alexander the Great as their own – despite the cosmopolitan he, Alexander, later, clearly became, when he recognized the beauty and superiority of the cultures of the East he had conquered (but of course, we ignore that part of his story). Where we may have really had a point is that all this indicated irredentist intentions on the part of the new Macedonian state, on lands which may have been ethnically Slav-Macedonian until recently but now were clearly not. But we didn’t emphasize that or put it at the forefront of our argument.  Instead, as if it were still 1810 and some crazy Philhellene Wittelsbach were king of Bavaria, we tried to play the “The Ancients” card with the rest of the world. Instead of taking the lead, at a time of horrendous instability and bloodletting in the Balkans, and attempting to be arbiters of some kind of peace, as the most stable state in the region at the time (can you imagine?) we “donned our ancient fineries” as the Xarhakos song from Rebetiko has it, which only left the rest of the world, as Misha Glenny says: “confused and bored.”

This imbecilic persistence in the idea that claiming Greek antiquity as our own is going to gain us prestige and preferential political treatment from the West is beyond just neurotic; it’s pathological.  And yet no Neo-Greek can seem to understand how pathetic and comical it seems from an outsider’s perspective.

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2 ** A lot of Turks don’t like this argument either, because they think you’re calling them gavur tohumu or something. Official early Turkish Republican historiography had Turks arriving, as they now are, and gloriously conquering Anatolia and the Balkans, though there was never any explanation as to why Turks here – especially the Great Father himself – didn’t look anything like the Turks who lived in the places where they had come from (though the answer could probably be found if you got deep into Sun People/Sun Language theory and historiography, which, if you’d you’d like to do, be my guest).  Of course, nobody really believes this any more; when you have Bosnian restaurants and Kosovar Albanian fraternal organizations, or Circassian youth groups, you have a society that’s admitted that it comes from diverse sources in a manner much more mature than that of Greece – and that that’s no shame. But I can understand Turks getting defensive about it; Greeks have started saying this about Turks a lot lately and mostly it’s in a negative spirit, as a way to delegitimize them as some sort of mongrel race, or the: “See, Sinan was really Greek” argument. But it’s an odd and very stupid argument for Greeks to make, since we, as a former “absorbing,” Imperial people ourselves, are also a very complicated ‘mongrel’ mix, as the huge variety of our own physiognomies proves: “See, Basil I was really Armenian, and the Comnenoi were really Vlachs,” for example.  But there’s no talking logic to things as rootedly irrational as racism and nationalism.

3 *** I wrote once in an old post about Greek racism, when Golden Dawn violence was at its height, that:

“I’m from a city where you stop being a stranger the second you arrive, maybe, as many say, because nobody can really be bothered to give you a second thought.  “We may not be very nice, or smile, or say ‘Good Morning’,” wrote Pete Hamill, “but there’s always room.”  But I don’t believe that New York is tolerant just because everybody’s too busy to be intolerant.  I believe there’s a sadness behind New York cynicism and irony and supposed “world-weary stoicism” that few people really understand, but if you feel the city in your gut and it’s not just a cool glamour-spot for you, then you know.  You can hear it in people’s voices, in the accent, in their body language and facial expressions, and in the kindness and blunt bursts of warmth you’ll suddenly get from where you least expect it.  It’s the sorrow of exile — and the wisdom it forces on you.  He may not know a word of whatever it was his great-grandparents spoke or seen even a picture of the land they came from, but every New Yorker carries a bit of that sense of loss in him and an innate knowledge of what drove him and his away and brought them here: the destitution of Ireland, the grinding poverty of Sicily, the fear of just being Jewish in Russia, the terror of being Black in Georgia, the violence of Colombia…  You think it’s romantic; it’s not.  (In fact, there’s lots of research out there now suggesting that repeated external experience can and does become codified as genetic information that is then transmitted from one generation to the other.)  Every New Yorker just knows it’s the human condition.  So when the next stranger comes along, he nods, says hi, and goes about his business.  Maybe takes a curious interest in where the new guy is from and learns a little something about the world; maybe helps him out if he can.  Of course, it’s now a cliché to say that New York isn’t America; but it’s just as true that it couldn’t exist in any other country.

“How Greeks forgot the “sorrow of exile” is beyond me.”

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4 **** You feel this innate inability to experience the Other in the gut in this entire class of Athenians or urban Greeks generally, because the complex they’re burdened with, like the middle-classes of all semi-developed countries,  is that they’re always looking for petit bourgeois status points in everything they do and the rest falls outside their blinkers. They’ve been everywhere and have seen everything it seems, but have felt nothing. The great test for me, of course, is New York. Now, if you don’t understand that the great glory of New York is the dialectic between its glamorous, high-fashion, high-finance, high-cool end, and its popular, working–class, thriving immigrant metropolis end – neither of the two poles on their own, but the incredibly fecund dialectic between the two — then you’ve understood nothing about New York and might as well, as Nasredddin Hoca says, “go home.” And it’s so obvious that the great majority of Neo-Greeks who visit are so completely interested in just one end of that polarity that they’re not even worth considering as people who have truly appreciated the city. Colombian and Mexican friends who live here and have visitors come tell me the same thing: “They only wanna see what’s cool, so they can talk about it when they get home.” In other words, middle-class white boys from underdeveloped countries are all the same. It’s always the odd German or the curious French or Japanese couple — or two Turks once on 74th Street! — who have taken the subway out to Jackson Heights or Flushing and are prowling around for good Mexican or Indian or Chinese food or just the feeling of coming out of a subway stop and being in a completely different country. Neo-Greeks visitors, in fact, are so clueless about New York City, that they don’t even see that New Yorkers themselves now consider Astoria one of the city’s hippest neighborhoods, and instead they’re embarrassed by its old-fashioned immigrant Greekness; they can usually be found in a tourist trap neighborhood like Greene or Mercer Streets somewhere…looking for shoes.

As for The Messenger, he has a job that many would kill for, that posts him in various interesting cities around the world. Maybe not Paris or London or New York or Berlin, but cities and countries interesting enough that most of us would jump at the opportunity to go work there for a while. He hates all of them. Within two weeks of arriving he’s come up with his own elaborate, and always scarily racist anthropology of the country: why the city is boring and disgusting; why the food is disgusting; why the people are inherently, genetically morons and fools. He lives in each for up to two years at a time and hasn’t made a single friend in any of them. They’re all too boorish for him.

His criterion for loving a city is that he can get köfte and french fries at four in the morning. The only city worth living in for him is Athens. Now Athens is not an immediately loveable city by any means. It’s an acquired, and not easily acquired, taste and I for one happen to genuinely love it. But it’s the ugliest city on the European continent that doesn’t have war or a megalomaniacal communist dictator to blame for its hideousness and, as I’ve said before: “It probably takes first place among Europe’s cities in imagining itself as far more sophisticated than it truly is.” I love it…but can we get a reality check here, please?

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5 ***** These low stone walls here (shown above), boundary markers between individual properties, are called “djovoria” in Dropoli, the region where my father’s village is; I’ve never heard the term used in other parts of Epiros. The men of Derviçani are also known as “djovoria” or “a Derviçiotiko djovori.” The meaning of this moniker is probably clear. It implies thickness and strength and stubborn immobility, a dude who’s probably not too bright, but who, like a genetically gifted wrestler or judoka, has a low center of gravity that’s hard to knock down and take to the mat. “Άντρα άπ’τη Δερβιτσιάνη, κοπέλα από τη Γοραντζή, γαϊδούρι άπ’το Τεριαχάτι κι άπ’το Λεζαράτ’ σκυλί.” “A man from Derviçani, a girl from Gorandji (the neighboring village which is considered not only far more elegant and sophisticated than Derviçani, but also to have the prettiest girls in the region), a donkey from Teriahati (because it’s inhabitants were considered docile and somewhat dumb) and a dog from Lezarati (long story: this is the neighboring village and competitor in the ongoing, still violent feud…because they’re considered turncoats, having converted to Islam in recent memory, which in these parts means the eighteenth century). And this is a saying that’s not from Derviçani, but from the other villages of the region. In fact, almost all the other villages of Dropoli consider themselves culturally superior to the brutish brawlers of Derviçani, but because it’s the biggest and northernmost Greek village, they’re considered the frontline, dumb grunt infantrymen of Christian Dropoli, and are granted grudging admiration for that – if nothing else.

6 ****** Types like “Mr. “Pathetic” are always telling you to read history, yet outside of standard Greek sources, they have read nothing…by which I mean nothing. They know none of the literature of modern nationalism, like Anderson or Hobsbawm  or or Gellner or Ignatieff; they’ve never read any of the writers on Balkan nationalism in particular, Glenny or Judah or Todorova. And they haven’t even read the works of scholars that have dealt with Modern Greek nationalism almost exclusively in their work, like Michael Herzfeld or Anastasia Karakasidou, a Greek anthropologist who studied in the United States and who was physically threatened and practically had to go into hiding after her dissertation was published in the late 1980s, because it dealt with the continued presence of Slav-speakers in Greek Macedonia; even the informants in her research who had told her they still speak Bulgarian better than Greek came out and officially denied her and the information they had given.

What’s the history I’m supposed to know again, Mr. “Pathetic”?  Let me know.

And what have you read lately?  Tell me.  Nα μαθαίνω κι εγώ…  

(Those scholars’ names are linked to their Amazon pages btw; don’t be scared…try…there’s nothing to be afraid of…)

The Messenger, of course, reads nothing but military history.

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7 ******* Politike Kouzina I’ve never seen, but it’s a film that I’ll admit sounds like the kind of sappy, faux-nostalgia, Greek-Turkish “brotherhood” corniness that makes me ill.  Maria Iordanidou’s novel Loxandra, however, is a masterpiece.  It’s often — and very  mistakenly — taken lightly because it’s a glimpse of life in late nineteenth-century Constantinople as seen through the eyes of a middle-aged Greek housewife, whose primary daily preoccupation is whether she should buy small mussels for lunch and fry them or big mussels and stuff them, or whether the eggplants in market are of the right fleshiness to make a decent hünkar beğendi yet. Yet through her daily preoccupations, deeply intelligent observations are made about nationalism, about ethnicity, about co-existence and inter-ethnic relations and about the compromises we make – often in the face of terrifying violence – to go on, not only living with others, but to continue seeing them as human. Together with Polites’ Stou Hadjifrangou, and to some extent, Theotokas’ Leones, it’s far smarter on all those counts than anything by Benezes or Sotiriou or any other book of the “Anatolian martyr” genre that usually fills about one-third of the average Greek bookstore. And in the best Greek Constantinopolitan tradition, huge sections of it are hilariously funny as well.

Of course, since it has no bearing on the good of the State, The Messenger doesn’t give a damn about any of this, or everything that was lost in the destruction of that world.  He’s angry at the destruction because his animosity can feed off of it.  But what it was that was actually destroyed, he is completely indifferent to.

Κι’αυτά.  Bu kadar, as they say.

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Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

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.

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

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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

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