Istanbul lately has the feeling of a crime scene. The Gezi protests are over but life has got weirder: the black police helicopters always hovering; the intimidation of dissenters on Twitter by the government’s online enforcers; Kurds and ultranationalists and police fighting in the streets as if it were the 1970s before the military coup. This spring, the entire country lost electricity for several hours, during which a leftist group took hostage the Istanbul prosecutor investigating the death of a teenager hit on the head with a tear gas canister. (The prosecutor later died in a shoot-out.) Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has sought to expand police powers so that anyone with a firecracker can be shot. Young people who four years ago were excited about living in Istanbul now talk about leaving. Isis has moved in; apparently they find the city hospitable. Tourists still walk down Istiklal Caddesi, their necks craning in delight, as if nothing had changed; theirs is the fuzzy romantic city you might take in from a rooftop bar at sunset. The city’s parks are being peeled away, its shoreline mangled, its gardens ripped up, its hills sawn off so that the rich can build their towers and their malls, its woodlands replaced by asphalt. Recently, tornadoes have begun to whirl up out of the Bosphorus: as a result not necessarily of global climate change, but possibly of the disruption of local weather patterns by the deforestation and urbanisation of Istanbul alone.
The AKP came to power in part because of its pro-business policies and promise of managerial competence. Concerns about Erdogan’s ‘Islamist’ roots were offset by the party’s economic vision, which looked reassuringly Western. And unlike previous governments, once in power the AK Party got things done. The Turkish economy has flourished in the last decade despite the global financial crisis and its cities have been transformed. Istanbul is Erdogan’s town – he grew up there and was its popular mayor in the 1990s – and as home to millions of migrants from eastern Turkey, it needed improvements to its housing, roads, transport and utilities. The Erdogan government delivered on many of its promises: no one complains about the fact that you can now ride the Metro from one end of the city to the other. But as with many of the AKP’s activities, what once seemed admirable has become excessive: massive construction and development projects cement relationships with a handful of powerful businessmen; environmental, social and legal concerns are secondary; forced evictions have become commonplace. When tenants at the Grand Bazaar locked the doors to resist eviction, the police blew the doors up. In 2013 Erdogan said he would demolish a mosque to build a road.
The AKP posts videos online that imagine entire neighbourhoods, like Okmeydani, a longtime settlement of Kurds and Alevis, replaced with new ones, the suggestion being that there are bottomless pots of money to transform Istanbul into a deranged version of itself. Last autumn, in order to pay for more ‘development projects’ the government called for bids to privatise IGDAS, the largest state gas company. Soon there will be nothing left to sell but land and water. The AKP has put the two towers of the dreaded third bridge across the Bosphorus – the Yavuz Sultan Selim – on two large green, empty bluffs where it meets the Black Sea. As the bridge went up, you could see how mean a thing it would be: the forlorn stumps on either side, alone and unconnected, staring dumbly at each other. It has always been part of Istanbul life to watch the ships go back and forth on the Bosphorus; the sight gives a reassuring feeling of continuity and survival. Now, blocking the view of the vast horizon to the north, there will be that silly bridge carrying more cars to a gigantic third airport.
Little of Istanbul – the Istanbul of high-rises, unfinished corporate spires, highways and bare street life that stretches across an area nearly four times the size of London – is like the charming pedestrian neighbourhoods visited by most foreigners. But those parts are changing too. In Beyoglu, or what was Pera, the last of the old shops have been shut down or threatened with closure: the Emek Theatre, Inci Pastanesi, the bookstore Robinson Crusoe; recently, people have been rallying around Kelebek Korse, or Butterfly Corset, a bra shop that has been on Istiklal Caddesi since 1936. Joseph Brodsky travelled to Istanbul in the 1980s because he felt ‘for some reason, that here, in apartments, shops and coffeehouses, I should find intact an atmosphere that at present seems to have totally vanished everywhere else’. Inside these shops, interactions seemed slower, gentler, somehow permanent, as did their aesthetic of marble, heavy wood, stone, tiles and gold-painted cursive signs – none of the plastic and plaster beloved of today’s builders. During the Gezi protests, I noticed a teenager rubbing with his foot the meringue façade of a mall which covered what once had been a perfectly beautiful hundred-year-old building. He kicked it and some of the white stuff broke off, like dried icing sugar from a gingerbread house.
What is Erdogan doing? It’s easy to hate him, as if he came up with the idea of modernisation and development himself, but as historians pointed out during the Gezi Park protests, preservation was hardly ever a principle of the republic – especially when it comes to Beyoglu. In 1939, ‘while new government offices were rising in Ankara,’ Charles King writes in Midnight at Pera Palace: The Birth of Modern Istanbul, ‘the Turkish government organised an international design competition to solicit proposals for solving the problem of Istanbul’s future development.’[*] The winner was Henri Prost, a French urban engineer who ‘called for cutting highways around the Grand Bazaar, demolishing most buildings along the Grande Rue, making the shores of the Golden Horn into an industrial park, and building high-rise apartment blocks along the Sea of Marmara … Prost included green spaces in his designs, but these were by and large orderly promenades created by the bulldozing of things he considered “parasitical”’ – i.e. the old stuff. Anything that reminded the Turks of the Ottomans had to go, so they cut ‘highways deep into the heart of the old city’ and pulled down ‘Ottoman-era wooden houses to make way for cheap multistory apartment blocks’. Prost’s vision crystallised in Taksim Square, which Erdogan too set his neo-Ottoman sights on in 2012 – by then it was ‘the new heart of the republican city’. A tidier square meant a more monotonous culture. ‘When John Dos Passos went to a cabaret near Taksim in the early 1920s,’ King writes,
he found a Russian lady on a stage doing a peasant dance, two English girls crooning in knee socks and sweaters, a troupe of Greek acrobats … In 1928, however, city planners cleaned up part of the square and created a bronze and marble monument to the republic’s founders … One side showed Mustafa Kemal, Ismet Pasha, and other makers of the new country in astrakhan hats and the military garb of the War of Independence. The other side portrayed them as modern statesman in Western-style suits and ties.
The Kemalists, the secular nationalists who founded the state, hated the Ottoman Empire at least as much as the West had. Getting rid of its traces left a void that had to be filled with something: ‘Modernity and civilisation were the watchwords of the early republic.’
The Kemalists had to tame a city that had almost been wrested from them during the First World War. The allied powers intended to parcel out Istanbul between Britain, France, Italy, Japan, Russia, the US and other countries, and in 1919 allied troops occupied the centre of the city, where they both disparaged and enjoyed its cosmopolitan moral squalor. The beginning of King’s book is a paean to these last days of Constantinople: spies, thieves, grand hotels, Trotsky, multilingual Greeks and Armenians and Jews, and the Pera Palace Hotel, which King calls ‘the last whisper of the Occident on the way to the Orient’. The hotel’s neighbourhood, full of embassies and fine restaurants, had begun to decay and ‘prostitution, dishonesty, misery and drunkenness were openly flaunted.’ Refugees – Armenians fleeing the massacres of Anatolia, White Russians escaping the Revolution, displaced Muslims arriving from Greece and the Balkans – pawned their jewels, and sometimes their women, to survive. The occupiers convinced themselves that their revels weren’t mere postwar plunder. They ‘saw themselves not just as winners but as liberators’, King writes, ‘sent on a providential mission to unburden the people of Istanbul of their benighted government and free the Christians of the city from Muslim rule’.
The Allies made no secret of their preference for non-Muslims, who ran much of Pera. Until 1922 Greeks still owned 1169 of 1413 restaurants in the city. Non-Muslims had formed ‘the warp and weft of Istanbul’s economy and popular culture, its barkeepers and bankers, its brother owners and restaurateurs, its exporters and hoteliers’, and they felt empowered by the arrival of Western guns. Greek and Armenian leaders, who had just seen the Armenians subjected to genocide, declared they had been freed from ‘slavery’. Muslims meanwhile nursed a sense of grievance. They came to believe that Greeks mocked the muezzin and called street-dogs ‘Mohammed’; that British soldiers swatted at fezzes and tore off veils; that the everyday fires that burned down wooden houses in Muslim neighbourhoods were acts of arson. In disgust, Kemal, at the time a soldier living in Pera, boarded a ship for Samsun and launched the Turkish resistance.
Turkey’s War of Independence ended in 1923. By the early 1930s, most of the Russians and many of the Greeks, Armenians, Levantines and other non-Muslims had fled Istanbul. This is where the ‘modern Istanbul’ of King’s title actually begins. Christians were disenfranchised in favour of Muslims, but beyond that there was a systematic centralisation of power over all former Ottoman subjects. The rights of mosques were taken over and church properties seized. Sufi tekkes were shut down. Alevism was shunned. The Kemalists were out to destroy religion as well as any other source of authority. Under the Ottoman ‘millet’ system, which required Christians and Jews to pay special taxes, people had been ‘born, wed and died according to legal codes that were unique to their specific religious category’, King writes. ‘The assumption was that, at every stage of life, one would turn most frequently toward the appropriate religious authority, not the state, for resolving matters ranging from registering a birth to executing a will.’ Those rites of passage would now be presided over by the new bureaucrats. In creating a more ‘civilised’ country, the Kemalists shattered many of its communities.
King is more irreverent than most historians in his depiction of the way the Turks, in carrying out this transformation, effectively conquered themselves. ‘Turkish schoolbooks taught new generations of students to see their distant ancestors as Turkic tribesmen, even if their grandfathers had actually been Salonican greengrocers or Sarajevan tailors,’ he writes. ‘Under the Ottomans, few of these families would have dreamed of using “Turk” to describe themselves. That label was generally reserved for a country bumpkin more comfortable astride a donkey than in the sophisticated environs of Istanbul.’ If the Kemalists believed that the cosmopolitanism of Constantinople had been uncivilised, then this country bumpkin was the paragon of modernity, a blank slate. ‘Few countries have gone through revolutions whose aim was to make everything seem so deeply ordinary – making Turkey and the Turks, in other words, a nation just like any other, with their own national liberation movement, national heroes and national language,’ King writes. ‘But the core of Kemalism was precisely that: a belief that the rump empire and its multilingual, multi-religious subjects needed to be dragged, one soul at a time, into modernity.’
The most difficult part of the Kemalists’ task was somehow getting rid of Islam in public life; the Christians and Jews had been pests, but to erase the Ottoman Empire, Islam would have to be constrained. ‘All over Istanbul, street signs came down, with the whirls and swishes of Arabic-style lettering,’ King writes. The fez was banned, the veil discouraged as retrograde. Drinking alcohol in public was permitted, buffalo-drawn carts were not. Men wearing turbans had to take them off to salute the flag on Republic Day. The Kemalists renamed Allah ‘the sky god of Central Asian nomads’, or Tanri; in King’s words, ‘even God had been nationalised.’
Most histories of Turkey present this period in the same way: Kemal came along, changed some rules, the people followed. Turkish textbooks never portray the end of the Ottoman Empire as anything other than a liberation. Westerners, titillated by the idea that Islam could actually be excised from a society, also celebrate Turkey as a triumph of modernisation. One rarely reads testimonies from the period that give an account of what it’s like suddenly to lose your language, your mode of dress, your idea of the world; and there are few clues to what, in fact, was lost that someone like Erdogan could now claim to represent it. What was Muslim daily life like in Istanbul before, and after, Kemalism? It is a measure of the success of Kemalism that the question ‘What is a Turk?’ can be answered easily, but the question ‘What was the Turk?’ still cannot, though great progress has been made recently by Hale Yilmaz, whose Becoming Turkish (2012) examines the way Turks responded to the state’s top-down reforms. One first-hand account is Irfan Orga’s Portrait of a Turkish Family (1950); Orga reacts to the abolition of the fez: ‘Was Ataturk playing with them? Was he sitting in his château in Ankara devising new things to disturb and break their habits of centuries?’ A contemporary depiction of the demise of old Istanbul can be found in Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar’s novels of the 1930s, A Mind at Peace and The Time Regulation Institute, which were recently translated into English.[†] ‘They’re all orphans of a civilisation collapse,’ one of his characters says:
But preparing the formula of a new life for these unfortunates, what good does it do to destroy previous forms that have provided them with the strength to persevere through life? Great revolutions have long experimented with this, and they’ve served no purpose besides leaving the masses naked and exposed.
King’s book ends after the Second World War, when Turkey shut itself off from the rest of the world, hoping to grow its new breed of human without the destabilising influence of East or West. Each of the several following decades began with an election and ended with a coup; each time the country had to start over and re-imagine itself. After the coup of 1980, the generals promoted the values of Islam, family and nation, and wrote them into a new, authoritarian constitution. They hoped that making a little more room for Islam would distract Turkish citizens from leftist causes and render them more obedient. Brodsky didn’t find the city enchanting. ‘The dusty catastrophe of Asia,’ he wrote in his essay ‘Flight from Byzantium’: ‘Green only on the banner of the Prophet. Nothing grows here except moustaches.’ Cement covers everything, he said. The minarets and domes of the skyline were merely ‘enormous toads in frozen stone, squatting on the earth, unable to stir’, and the romantic, winding backstreets ‘crooked, filthy, dreadfully cobbled, and piled up with refuse’.
Upper-class Kemalists fled the old city for other reasons: they were ‘looking for clean lines and modern furnishings, not velvet curtains and imperial excess’, i.e. not the Pera Palace, whose ‘back side, still with one of the best sunset views in the city, towered over gritty neighbourhoods where Turkish migrants from the Black Sea coast and central Anatolia hung laundry from the windows of the apartments’. One of the religious Black Sea families that moved to these neighbourhoods was Erdogan’s. He spent his youth looking up at republican Beyoglu. When as prime minister he proposed replacing a small park with a giant mall outfitted to look like Ottoman military barracks, the idea was received as an assault on the Republic; those barracks were among the buildings demolished in Taksim in the early 1940s, during the era of Prost’s replanning. Yet of all Erdogan’s acts of demolition it’s possible to have some sympathy for this one. He can’t be the only Turk looking to re-create, however clumsily, the signs of an identity that many still mourn.
Then again, it might be a mistake to ascribe too much emotional complexity to Erdogan. Like Ataturk, he is someone who draws strength from destructive ideas of modernity. Many secularists accuse the president of opening up Turkey’s borders to attract more Arabs and Muslims as part of some larger scheme of Islamicisation, but as with his endless bulldozing of the landscape, it’s likely his greatest motivation has been profit. The forces of globalisation are now stronger in Turkey than ideals or ideology. But there has been one unexpected result of the wreckage: Istanbul is cosmopolitan again, at least superficially. It is no longer rare to see people with black skin in Turkey. Young Europeans – even Greeks – and Americans arrived in the aftermath of the financial crisis. ‘Gulf Arabs’, as they’re called by unhappy Turks, push baby strollers by the Bosphorus and shop for Chanel in Erdogan’s malls. The Pera Palace is now owned by a luxury firm based in Dubai. The Gulen movement attracted people from Central Asia; Libyans arrived after the Arab Spring; Iraqis after the American wars; Muslim Brothers after the coup in Egypt; Syrians are still arriving in large numbers. The housing project Erdogan built on top of an old Roma encampment has been largely occupied by middle-class families from Damascus. (The Roma are not the only ones to have been driven out of their neighbourhoods under Erdogan; the Kurds, and the poor and immigrants generally, have been forced to leave.) It would have been strange ten, even five years ago, to hear men arguing in Arabic on the street, but Arabic is everywhere now, even on shop signs in Beyoglu, as the script was a hundred years ago before Ataturk made the shopkeepers and schools remove it. Istanbul is a haven for refugees, a transient place, a spy town, a way station once again.
[*] Norton, 480 pp., £18.99, November 2014, 978 0 393 08914 1.
[†] The translations are by Erdag Goknar and Alexander Dawe and Maureen Freeley: they were published in 2011 and 2014 by Archipelago and Penguin.