Archive for December, 2006

From Istanbul to São Paulo

December 21, 2006

The déjà vu, the familiar in the unfamiliar. I felt when catching a taxi into Shangai. I had spent 36 hours travelling right around the globe with a time difference of 12 hours, and here I was, back in a city that enormously resembled São Paulo. As does Istanbul. As felt Thomas and Aline as we caught a bus from Sabiha Gökçen Airport. An excess of concrete, ugly, rapidly built apartment blocks, a lack of green. A city which endlessly sprawls. And traffic fumes and crawls and hoots. Commerce spills out on to the pavements, which in turn are broken, full of cars, craters and rubbish. Except near the glittering high-rise futuristic banks.

The stories of the cities are parallel. São Paulo grew and grew from the Brazilian economic miracle of the late 1960s and 1970s; Turkey’s economic miracle started in the 1980s, and Istanbul’s streets were also paved with gold. Istanbul’s migrants came from poor rural Anatolia; São Paulo’s from the arid poverty-stricken Northeast. Older inhabitants of both cities hearken back to the old comfortable easy and pleasant days. Both cities are plagued by inadequacies of: public transport; sewerage systems; water in the outlying areas; pollution controls; noise; stress; housing and green areas. And a growing religiousness at grassroots level: Islamic here, Evangelical there. But much much less urban violence in Istanbul.

So where can one find the differences? Is life in one enormous conurbation just a replica of life in another? Is there still room for difference? I hear the muezzin calling, as he does five times a day. At secular Boğaziçi Universitesi we had a cocktail in daylight hours in Ramazan while most Turks fasted, and as I see the crowds streaming out of Friday prayers at the mosque just outside campus I realize we are in an Islamic country. A country which wears its Islam pretty lightly in general, but still, a country of believers. Where the forthcoming Bayram, public holiday, the Kurban, in commemoration of the ram sacrificed by Abraham in place of his son will be celebrated by many families even in urban Istanbul with the ritual slaughter of a lamb. In Muhammed‘s time a camel was usually the animal sacrificed, as it was at Atatürk Airport last week by maintenance workers to celebrate the return to the UK of troublesome Avro RJ 100 leased to Turkish Airlines. Though most people today take the lamb, not a camel, to the butcher’s to be killed, many backyards in Istanbul will be streaming with blood after the first day of the holiday, which this year coincides with New Year’s Eve.

Where alcohol is not often consumed. At least by the majority of the population. I look for a student bar or pub near the university and fail to find one. Well-behaved students drink tea and smoke in the local cafés. Alcohol is readily on sale in big supermarkets and in kiosks in every shopping area, even in Fatih, the most Islamic area of Istanbul. It seems most people buy to drink at home. Out for a meal with a visiting professor we ask for a beer. The restaurant sends out for bottles. Almost as if it is ok to serve the alcoholic foreigners but not to stock beer. Except in the old European area of Pera, now Beyoğlu, off Taksim Square: birahanes, Irish pubs, wine bars, German brew houses. Seedy and sophisticated joints; posh and poor; dark and light; noisy and quiet.

Remarkable parallels between Turkey and Brazil. Military dictatorships in recent years. In Turkey from 1960 to 1961 and the hardline coup from 1980 to 1983; Brazil from 1964 to 1989, the tough years of end 1968 to mid 1970s. Rapid industrialization, burgeoning cities; highly productive agrobusinesses; now political stability and economic growth under “left-wing” governments. Maybe their similarity is a factor which hampers economic contact.

Both societies are nowadays pretty free; you can do and say what you want. But with one striking difference. One which has given Turkey a very bad press in recent weeks: it is still a crime to insult “Turkishness”; to question the official denial of the Armenian massacres in 1915 and 1916. To insult the memory of Atatürk. To question the official fabrication of the concept of the integrated state. Such would be a joke in Brazil, where official nationalism only appears once every four years in June and July. Orhan Pamuk questioned the denial of the massacres and went to trial, but the case was thrown out on a technicality. Elif Shafak was stood accused of “insulting Turkishness” in her novel The Bastard of Istanbul, centring on two families – one Turkish, one Armenian – and including discussion of the mass killing of Armenians in the dying days of the Ottoman Empire in 1915. She was charged under Article 301 of the penal code, which can give a possible prison sentence of three years.

Neither do translators escape prosecution. Only yesterday the editors, Faruk Kurhan and Taylan Tosun, and translator, Ender Abadoglu, of Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, which criticizes Turkey’s treatment of its Kurdish minority.

And on Tuesday the attempted prosecution of Ipek Calisar, whose book on Atatürk’s wife of two years, Latife Hanim Ussaki suggested that Atatürk once dressed as a woman in order to flee from an assassination attempt. The charges were initiated by a reader of the nationalist newspaper, Hurriyet, Huseyin Tugrul Pekin: “To claim that … Ataturk, whom no one could even attempt to weigh his courage, would have done something like this … is the greatest insult,” he said in a letter to the prosecutor making his case for charges to be brought against the writer. But, maybe under political pressure, the attempted prosecution was thrown out. And Latife Hanim has now become a bestseller.



December 17, 2006

The Hellespont, the narrowest point of the Dardenelles, the strait which connects the Aegean to the Marmara Sea. A point of origins and a strategic point through which all ships must reach Russia’s Black Sea ports. The setting of the myth of Hero and Leander. Leander was a youth from what is now the Turkish side, Chanakkale, formerly called Abydos, who fell in love with Hero, a priestess in the Temple of Venus at Sestos, now the sleepy fishing village of Kilitbahir. Every night Leander swam across for a night of love, guided by a torch which Hero held up. One night the torch was blown out by the wind, and Leander couldn’t find the shore and perished. Hero, in despair at finding his body on the shore, threw herself from the tower.

Swimming the distance of nearly a mile was thought impossible till Lord Byron successfully attempted the feat in 1807 and made it the setting of his 1813 poem, The Bride of Abydos. Now, as long-distance swimming has developed, it’s kid’s stuff.

And we mustn’t forget the legend of the Golden Fleece and the origin of the name of the Hellespont. Athamas, king of the city of Orchomenus in Boeotia in southeastern Greece, took as his first wife the cloud goddess Nephele, by whom he had two children, the boy Phrixus and the girl Helle. Later he fell in love with and married Ino, the daughter of Cadmus. Ino was jealous of her stepchildren and plotted their deaths. In some versions, she persuades Athamas that sacrificing Phrixus is the only way to end a famine. Nephele, or her spirit, appeared to the children with a winged ram with a fleece of gold. On the ram the children escaped over the sea, but Helle fell off and drowned in the strait now called after her — the Hellespont. The ram took Phrixus safely on to Colchis, on the eastern shore of the Black. Phrixus then sacrificed the ram and hung its fleece on an oak tree in a grove sacred to Ares, where it was guarded by a dragon. There it remained until taken by Jason. The ram became the constellation Aries. And the fleece is the Golden Fleece.

And Troy is just down the road. Only discovered by Frank Calvert and Heinrich Schliermann in 1859. I now realise the origin of the name of Hotel Helen in Chanakkale.

But this is not what we’ve come to see but rather the battlegrounds of Gallipoli, half a million Allied and Turkish soldiers lost their lives in 1915. I never really knew how important ANZAC Day, 25th April, a public holiday, was to Australia and New Zealand before coming to Gallipoli to the first time. It was the first time Australians and New Zealanders had been involved in a war. It was the day, as the cliché goes, that these two young countries ” lost their innocence”.

Turkey had enetered the Great War on the side of Germany. Enver Pasha, Prime Minister, the chief Young Turk, had forged a number of commercial agreements. Germany had built a railway into Iraq and Syria, still part of the Ottoman Empire. Winston Churchill, Lord of the Admiralty, had cancelled delivery of warships to Turkey, and these shıps were replace wıth German ones. The Allies needed to capture the Dardenelles Strait so their ally, Russia, could be supplied through its warm Black Sea ports.

First to the Anzac (Australia and New Zealand Army Corps) beach, a hundred yards of shingle where 1500 Australians mistakenly landed at dawn on 25th April 1915. They should have landed further to the North on Brighton Brach where the gullies were not so steep.  They managed to takes ground towards the top of the ridge but never established a position. At the top of the ridge Lieutenant Colonel Mustafa Kemal, later Atatürk, exhorted his men to fight with the now famous words: “I don’t order you to attack, I order you to die. In the time it takes us to die, other troops and commanders can come and take our place.”

The English and French Allied landing at the southern tip of the peninsula, Helles Point, was also a uncoordinated cock-up. Many troops landed were the Turks were strongest and were gunned down. Those who did safely land where there were no defences did nothing, when they could have taken the Turkish positions. The day after they re-embarked.

Trench warfare continued near the Anzac beaches until August when the Allies tried another attack. It almost succeeded, as the New Zealanders briefly took the Chunuk Bair ridge and got their only glimpse of the Dardenelles, but the Turks soon retook it. Kemal’s luck continued as his pocket watch stopped a bullet into his chest that would have killed him. The stalemate continued until November when the Allies gave up and evacuated.

Over half a million died. Turkish and Allied cemeteries and monuments are dotted around the peninsula. Mehmet son of Mehmet, Ahmet son of Ibrahim, for Turkish surnames were only later introduced. Private John Simpson Kirkpatrick, aged 22. Private N. E. Gabbett, 23rd Australian Infantry, 5 November 1915, Lest We Forget. The most moving monument contains Atatürk’s words from 1934:

“Those Heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives… You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lay side by side here in this country of ours… You, the mothers, who sent their sons from far away countries, wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.”

Pierre Loti

December 16, 2006

There are two ways to the Pierre Loti Café. Either follow the winding road up through some scruffy housing as I did on a very warm October afternoon in Ramadan, late in the afternoon when the stress of no food, no water, no cigarettes was beginning to get many down. Or go up past the mosque, one of the most sacred in Istanbul, founded by the companion of Mohammed, after whom the district of Eyüp is named, which is now a prime site to be visited for many, especially for a picnic to break fast during Ramazan. Don’t take the cable car but walk up the path next to the cemetery, which contains the graves of some of Istanbul’s most illustrious, as you can see from the turbans on top of the gravestones, a sign of distinction. Then you reach a tea shop on the site of the house where Pierre Loti (1850-1923) lived from August 1876 to March 1877. Look inside shop and you see photos of Loti the poseur dressed in Turkish costume in his Turkish den in his house in Rochefort, dressed as the Egyptian God Osiris, and smoking a narghile next to his manservant Chucru.

Loti is given short shrift in Edward Said’s Orientalism, but it is probably Loti, real name Julian Viaud, French naval officer, through his best-selling stories and novels on Istanbul, who is most responsible for much of the popular exotic image of hidden veiled women and mysterious dervishes that even remains today. His most famous work is Aziyadé (1877), the fictionalization of the affair he had with a young woman from a harem, Hatıdjé. They meet, or rather they exchange looks as Aziyadé spies on the dashing mariner and peeps over an iron gate when Loti is in Salonika, then part of the Ottoman Empire. Through bribes, the help of his valet Samuel, his own skill in disguise as a Turk, the English officer (for Loti did not want to offend the French naval authorities) manages a meeting with Aziyadé, the youngest member of the harem of a wealthy merchant, Abeddin Efendi. He is in luck as she returns to Istanbul and he is posted there. Loti takes advantage of the repressed sensuality of the woman brought up in the harem.

“Turkish women, in particular the more sophisticated, hold fidelity to their husbands very cheap. The savage surveillance and terror of punishment alone holds them in check. Always idle, eaten up with ennui, physically obsessed by the monotony and solitude of harem life, they are capable of giving themselves to the first come – to a slave who is at hand, or the boatman who rows them about – if he is handsome and pleases them… My knowledge of their language and my hidden house were both propitious for such enterprises. Had I wished, no doubt my hide-out could have been propitious for many such idle inmates.”

Loti’s Istanbul is that of the mysterious dervishes, the veiled women, the hidden assignments, the smell of the narghile water-pipe through which he can escape the confines of Europe. He foresees that he will have to leave:

“Who will give me back my Oriental life, my free life Wandering without any set purpose… to make a round of the mosques, chapelet in hand, stopping at the cafes or Turkish baths to drowse in the smoke of the narghile; to talk with the dervishes or passers-by; to be, myself, part of this scene, and to be sure that the beloved will be waiting for you, at night…”

But Aziyadé herself is something of a cipher. Her main occupations are combing her hair and tending to her nails. “She is lazy, like all women brought up in Turkey; but she knows how to sew, make rose water and write her name. She has written it everywhere on walls, making it appear to be a serious exercise, and has used up all my pencils doing this”.

Finally Loti has to leave Istanbul. He knows he will never see Aziyadé again. Communication would not be so easy, especially with the address of the go-between, and the fact she could only write her name: “ To Achment, son of Ibrahim, who lives in Yedi-Houlé, in a road which comes out on ther Arabahdjilar-Malessi, near the mosque. It is the third house after a tutundji, and at its side there is an old Armenian who sells medicine, and in front, a dervish”. It seems the real life Aziyadé died of a broken heart just a few years after. In Istanbul: Le Regard de Pierre Loti, ed. Alain Quella-Villéger, we see the pictures Loti took when he, now a famous writer, returned to Istanbul from September 1904 to March 1905. Dapper in fez, waxed moustaches and frock coat, beside the grave of his beloved, in front of a cluster of cypresses, he sadly looks into the camera. Just to relieve his ennui he found/ contracted/ hired three veiled young ladies, his mock harem, with whom he took coffee.

Many are those who see in Aziyadé a male lover in disguise. When Loti was elected to the Academie Francaise in 1892, Eduard de Goncourt referred to Aziyadé being in fact a “Monsieur”. Loti enjoyed dressing up and the company of brawny sailors, as we see in brother Yves, and he also enjoyed drawing them. But in In Love with a Handsome Sailor Richard M. Berrong finds now proof Loti was gay. Much was obliterated from his notebooks and diaries by his sons and grandchildren.

The wistfulness he feels for Aziyade is that which he feels for Istanbul:

“…in the hazy distance a gigantic form can be just made out, the incomparable outline of a city. At its feet a sea which is endlessly furrowed by thousand of ships and boats, from which there comes the din of Babel, in all the languages of the Levant. Like a long horizontal cloud, the smoke floats over the masses of black steamers and golder kayaks, and the gaudy crowd which shouts out its business and goods. The veil of smoke covers everything. But the huge city seems to be floating on this sea of smoke. In the clear sky lance-sharp minarets rise from domes which seem to be piled on top of each other like stone bells. The still mosques, which for centuries have crowned Stamboul with their giant cupolas, giving it its unique shape, more grandiose than that of any other city on earth (Constantinople en 1890).”

Gone is much of the smoke, but the view is still the same.


The Pope’s Visit to Istanbul

December 2, 2006

Having lived in Brazil, the largest Catholic country in the world, for a long time, I, quite unnaturally, expected something quite different. There were no fawning crowds, not even of the curious, no parade with Papamobile, no open air mass, no waves to the crowds. Not Ratzinger’s style, maybe. But not a single banner welcoming him. No badges, buttons, magnets. Of course, Turkey nowadays is nearly 100% Muslim. But even so… 

And what did we find? A military operation: large swathes of Istanbul were cut off. The whole of the Sultanhamet Square with the Haghia Sophia on one side, the Sultanhamet Mosque on the other, and the Roman Hippodrome in between was cut off and protected by armies of police. After the protests against the visit last Sunday, people in high places were worried. Police leave was cancelled, and reinforcements were called in from outside Istanbul. But protests were muted. 

TV was what mattered. I got home to see the Pope and the Turkish Minister for Religion strolling through Haghia Sophia, the great monument of Byzantium, dedicated in 537AD by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian, and then turned into a mosque when Mehmet II conquered Constantinople in 1453. Only in 1935, in a gesture of goodwill to Greece, did Atatürk order it to be turned into a museum. Many wish that one day it will become a church again; ikewise, others see no reason for it having stopped being a mosque. A prayer here would have been fatal… 

Only in the Blue Mosque, Sultanhamet. A TV picture broadcast to the whole world. 

But the Pope didn’t come here for that. Apparently not. The main aim was to meet the Patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Church, Bartolomeos I, the “leader amongst equals” and help solve the schism which dates back to 1054 between Rome and Constantinople, deepened in 1204 by the sacking of Constantinople during the fourth Crusade. 

If you look hard, you will see that Istanbul is full of churches. Small Greek Orthodox and Armenian churches in Karaköy, Kadiköy, Arnavutköy, the village of the Albanians; an Armenian church and crumbling school in Beshikitash; the large Greek church in Chiangir; the various Greek Orthodox churches in Fener, where the Patriarchate still stands; and many, many others. And the Jewish synagogue down by the Galata bridge. But they are all closed, except for the Catholic Church on the Istiklal Caddesi. I ask when they will open. Maybe Sunday, the locals say, maybe not. 

What happened to the thriving communities of Greeks and Armenians and Jews? I read that today, of Turkey’s 70 million people, only 65,000 are Armenian Christians, 2,000 are Greek Orthodox, and 23,000 are Jewish. In 1914, of a population of a million, 22% of the inhabitants of Istanbul were Greek orthodox, 25% Armenian, and 5% Jewish. How did Turkey become almost a monolingual country? The Armenians, Jews and Greeks were the traders and craftsmen of the Ottoman Empire. They paid their taxes and many thrived. There was never any pogrom against Jews in the Ottoman Empire. During the First World War, when Turkey was fighting on the side of Germany, the apparent support of the Allied forces by the Greeks and the Armenians antagonized the government of the Young Turks, resulting in the killing of many Armenians in the east, now a very hot potato, and which Turkey may need to acknowledge, or at least investigate, in order to get into the EU. The Greeks were given the area around Izmir, or Smyrna, after the First World War, but were driven out by Atatürk’s nationalist army in 1923. The Turkophile nationalistic policies of the Republican government resulted in many losing their Armenian or Greek heritages and integrating into Turkish society. Many Armenians emigrated to France and, together with the Greeks and Jews, the US. Israel welcomed the Jews in 1947. And the looting of Greek businesses in 1956 sent many Greeks, nearly all born in Istanbul, to Thessalonica, Athens or New York. So now I hear no Greek or Armenian in Istanbul 

The Republic invented the myth of Turkish nationalism. Whether they were of Greek, Slavic, Italian, Hungarian, Albanian, Circassian or Anatolian origin, those born and bred in Turkey and brought up to speak Turkish would feel a sense of national unity and belonging to the Turkish nation. But on TV I see the Spanish Celta Vigo baiting the Turkish Fenerbahçe fans with a “Freedom for the Kurds” banner. But this story will come later…