A city caught between the heretical seductions of modernity and the atavistic lures of medievalism
The grammar of Turkey’s future (Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
IN THE EARLY hours of dawn, the indigo-blue waters of the Bosphorus Strait yelp and crackle when waves slap and lick the algae-covered embankments beyond which lie the urban agglomerations of Istanbul that straddle the terminus of the Asian and European landmass. But for now, like at every dawn, the immensity of history and geography is forgotten as a wintry haze shrouds the city. The streets have gone silent and await, like a prisoner condemned to be shot, the moment of melee when all hell breaks loose as morning traffic roars back to life. But there is never a definitive moment when this happens—when the transcendence of early morning calm gives way to the madhouse of cars and trucks. Traffic, like wrinkles in old age, comes unannounced. A car here, followed by two there, then a truck breaks down. Somebody shouts at somebody else for blocking the street. Soon, Istanbul is indiscernible from Delhi or Jakarta. To a traveller, this emergent chaos is a relief. A sign of the familiar amidst the foreign.
It is in Istanbul’s relaxed environs that the grammar of Turkey’s future is slowly invented, however fumblingly and failingly and despite accusations of being inauthentic
Istanbul, like other capital cities such as Delhi on the Yamuna or Washington DC on the Potomac or London on the Thames, meanders along a great waterbody. John Freely, the great lover of that city, writes that we should ‘ideally approach Istanbul from the sea’. If we did follow his advice, we would arrive from the Aegean Sea off Greece, slip through the inviting mouths of the Dardanelles Strait and after traveling a few hours discover the Marmara Sea that opens up like the petals of some watery flower, on whose rim lies the distinct skyline of that ancient city which has changed names—Byzantium, Constantinople, Istanbul—to appease its occupants. But nowadays, most of us fly in, and the only waterbody we meet is the Bosphorus, which snakes through the landmass, dividing Europe and Asia and yet also connecting the waters of the Mediterranean to the Black Sea. It is easy to lose sight of how much of Istanbul is surrounded by this ‘garland of [different] waters’ and, in turn, forget that the muscles and neurons of the Turkic civilisation have been watered and nourished by seas and straits, no different from other Mediterranean cities—Athens, Beirut, Alexandria, Tripoli, Algiers, Barcelona. But unlike those cities and cultures, Turkey has a vast hinterland, one that opens into the geographies of Syria, Iraq, Georgia, Armenia, Iran and, increasingly nowadays, all that comes with the desert winds of the Arabian Gulf. The cultures and codes that flourish in the Turkish interiors are markedly different, less cosmopolitan and often direct challenges to all the seductions and siren calls that come in from the sea.
A few minutes on the ferries that ply over the Bosphorus reveals Istanbul’s debt to this watery openness, which follows no rule except its own, no matter what the great mullahs, republicans, sultans and Caesars declare. Humans, for millennia, have carefully arranged their own affairs and behaviours around the seas of Marmara and beyond, which inspires great terrors—Saint Paul says ‘to learn how to pray, you must go to sea’—but also opportunities to play and surrender to its rhythm. Upon the ferry, after passengers find their seats, the low hum of the engines and the roar of the waters crash into each other with wavelets of sound—the metallic and the eternal—and lose each other. And then, from nowhere, the screeching of the seagulls ascends and overcomes them both. Like the guilty conscience of a first-time adulterer, these birds follow the ferries relentlessly. Egging them, young men on the ferry come prepared with sesame-laced dried bread. They scatter the crumbs into the air past the deck; and in response the seagulls swoop down to interrupt the arc of that bread’s inevitable fall. The young men take a perverse pleasure to tempt and taunt these birds and it feels like an unending rivalry between birds, who never quit chasing them, and humans, who seemingly never tire. Older men who play this game are more content to let the birds feed in a sort of benign camaraderie. In the corner, young lovers stand by and make polite conversation with each other even as older men and women eye these young romantics suspiciously. All this while, the ferry itself rarely picks up speed and like a caterpillar making its way through a leaf, it journeys through the swell and slack of the Bosphorus at its own pace. Aboard the ferry, the furies of modern life somehow seem foolish when this great waterbody goes about its course, patiently and unfailingly. The waters continue to be a witness to Istanbul’s responses to the heretical seductions of modernity and atavistic lures of medievalism. It is tempting to reduce the modern Turkic condition to that which falls between the material charms of Europe and the sullen religiosity of Saudi Arabia. But reality is complicated, messy and any generalisation is likely to be false.
If modernity and its trappings were a newfound god to a large number of Turks in the post-Ottoman Era, to counter this, a more ancient god, a fierce god, an Islamic god, has stirred to life. And to yet some others, the old memory of Kemal Ataturk is godhead in itself
At 3.30 AM as I trudge back to my hostel from a bar, the streets are empty and the moonlight streams past clouds that shroud the skies in a final assault of blackness before sunlight emerges. The areas of Taksim, where that bar was, and Sultanahmet, where I stay, could very well be in two different cities. Perhaps, even in two different centuries. All cities are, of course, bundles of contradictions: across time and space, of clashes between resources and wants, of heady concentrates of power and the desperations born out of powerlessness. If modernity and its trappings were a newfound god to large number of Turks in the post-Ottoman era, to counter this, a more ancient god, a fierce god, an Islamic god, has stirred to life. And to yet some others, the old memory of Kemal Atatürk is godhead in itself. This problem of many gods, each competing for our loyalties is ironically, not really unique to our age, either. The Rig Veda’s empirically minded seers ask in its 10th section: ‘Kasmai devāya havishā vidhema [To which gods are we to direct this (our) song of praise?].’ They, the Vedic sages, may have worried about Agni and Pushan, Indra and Varuna; but this Turkic (and modern) quest to define life around one locus is no different. The seduction of certainty is difficult to resist. Most Turks, much like the pastoralists of the Vedic era, go about life unconcerned or remain ambivalent to the philosophical struggles at the heart of their worldly arrangements. Their concerns are more prosaic. Bills, children’s schooling, rising house prices, the son or daughter who works long hours in Germany, the wars in neighbouring Syria and so on. Life leaves little time to start living. Yet, precisely in these compromises and conquests of daily life we find a Turkey that festers and flourishes.
At this bar in Taksim, where I began to scribble these notes, the strobe lights scattered across the dance floor. The music off the speakers and subwoofers boomed across the room and kept the partygoers moving. Their heads bobbed back and forth like Benedictine monks at prayer while the fumes of human arousal were everywhere to see. The women and men in there had an air of studied casualness. A calculated cool mixed in with the frenzy of movement and alcohol.
A visit to this bar in Taksim was never on the cards. It happened, per chance, thanks to a young woman I met at the hostel where I lived. She wanted to party in Istanbul and looked for a safe companion. Perhaps, I looked safe. Or worse, it was obvious that I was uninterested in her. My travels through Istanbul were part of an effort to declutter my life. She, unlike me, was on a vacation from her academic life in Canada and wanted to live fully while in Istanbul. To the Turks she was a splendid visitor—goldenhaired, young, kindhearted, ready to smile and ever ready to tip the boys who manned the hostel desks. Later, when she found a few fellow Canadians from Alberta, we parted company and I began to walk back to my hostel in Sultanahmet, where by now children must be in bed, their parents eagerly catching the last wink of uninterrupted sleep before early morning rituals hurry by, the muezzin must be stirring to wakefulness and the hostel clerks who serve tourists reliably slouched on their desks as part of their all-night shift. That side of Istanbul lived by a rhythm. Predictability of life was key to their worldview, with the mosques and minarets summoning them to periodic call to prayers, and the pastiche of stars in the skies and the functioning streetlights as the only constant sources of illumination. Sultanahmet is also an area with the most famous of Istanbul’s tourist attractions—the stuff of postcards and T-shirts, where during the day hawkers speak pidgin English, offer tea and try to sell you replicas of Turkish antiquities. The steady trickle of tourists is what they rely on to survive. The residents here rarely look up at the minarets or the imposing domes anymore. The imperious presence of history has become a detail in the filigreed backgrounds of their lives. For the outsider, the litany of these monuments, silent graces in stone, is all one can see. Humans are barely discernible. Even Joseph Ratzinger, or Pope Benedict XVI, when he visited Turkey, came to the Blue Mosque at Sultanahmet. Irrespective of whether this marked the Pope’s personal taste in architecture or not, it is a sign of his genuflection to the cultural importance the Turks grant the buildings that surround this area. It was the second time a papal authority of his rank had visited a Muslim place of worship, and during his moments of reflection, he was flanked on either side by the Grand Muftis who gave him a guided tour of the place. Nearby at the Hagia Sophia, a magnificent basilica built by the Romans who had converted to Christianity, history is more complicated and contested—it had been seized by Ottoman Turks from Christians and became a mosque in the 16th century. Today, it is also a shrine for that other great secular religion of our times: tourism. The whole area of Sultanahmet, from innumerable mosques to the Topkapi Palace swells with historical resonances: here a Sultan executed his balladeer; there a princeling conspired against his brother; in that corner another prince was drugged, castrated and pushed into the dungeons; a stone’s throw away the Byzantine emperor made love to his queen under the careful guidance of his imperial eunuchs before heading to war; on this side of the wall, slaves became the praetorian guards of the new Ottoman empire. It is all quite overwhelming: the barely concealed presence of history that burbles out and imposes on all that the eye can see.
For the outsider, the litany of monuments, silent graces in stone, is all one can see. Humans are barely discernible. Even Pope Benedict XVI, when he visited Turkey, came to the blue mosque at Sultanahmet
But now in the dark of dawn, few are out in the streets. Not much is visible. The markets have shut, the tarpaulin covers have come down. The ornaments and Islamic memorablia are safely tucked away behind waterproof plastic. The rain waters have begun to trickle down the cobblestoned streets. On other nights when I have walked backed to my hostel in these streets, I have invariably been lost in this warren of similar-looking spaces. Like some amateur mariner, I would find my way back to the hostel by fixing landmarks on the Bosphorus that was always visible on the horizon. A longstanding oil tanker in the waters was my lodestar. The cluster of tenements beyond which, on the opposite banks of the strait, were constellations that guided me back to my hostel. It was a guidance system that worked well, except when sometimes it didn’t—one based on intuition more than insight. The upside was that I would often mistakenly walk down unexpected alleyways, see new buildings, say salaam to the residents who hung around and smiled in mutual incomprehension. Despite these happy passages of loss and discovery, I realised that even amongst the intricately embroidered urban settlements like Sultanahmet, human beings could be only lost for so long before their homing instinct discovered its way.
Despite the quiet of the night, my ears were still ringing from the techno music from the bar, and there was a sense of disquiet, a sort of stunned witlessness that comes from sudden silence. I was glad to have come out—all the more so when I realised that a few years ago, an ISIS gunman shot down a similar nightclub in Istanbul. At the bar in Taksim, as I was about to leave, the girdles of the night had slowly come loose. The music from the speakers blared like war cries, young women and men continued to grind and groove on the makeshift dance floor. The women punched their arms into the air as the crescendo of the music arrived. In rhythm, they jumped and rose even further, their bodies reached higher, their deodorants, perfumes and alcohol created a squall of desire. The tattoos above their lower backside peeked through their trousers, their T-shirts swelled and their breasts heaved. Their moves copied the innumerable pop music videos that they must have seen on television. The men who danced along gamely followed, content to be backstage performers. They were dressed in their tight T-shirts that accentuated their muscles, their hair tousled or gelled with an effortlessness that I marvelled, their cropped beards gave them an aura of novice priests in making, their shoes were shiny and expensive, their lithe swagger with the bottle of beer in their hand reminded me of antelopes with elaborate antlers. The scene there was no different than what one would see in nightclubs in Mumbai, São Paulo or Manhattan. The air was spiced with eros and perfumed with the possibility of romantic subterfuge, where the pleasures of physical loves were nearby. Yet few of the men and women here seem to follow through. In nightclubs in New York, physical intimacy is easily on the display. Bodies touch, explore and give in. Here, however, there was an invisible curtain of propriety. Of private passions postponed. It is not difficult to see that many had come to be seen than be enjoyed. The dancers on the makeshift bar floor were less interested in seducing each other and more in living up to the fantasy of their imagined personas as putative pop stars. Make-up, high heels, muscles and cars catered to their imaginations. Every shiny surface or a mirror was an opportunity for the dancer, male or female, to look admiringly at the figure—usually, their own selves—which reflected back. Istanbul’s bars, like elsewhere, are laboratories of contrived eroticism. For many of the young Turkish who come dancing here, this is also an escape into what they think is how the West is, how freedom ought to be, what being modern is all about. Who can blame them? This is again no different than Indian children who spend thousands of rupees in Mumbai or Bengaluru nightclubs to unplug from their immediate surroundings and escape into the rabbit holes of their desire. None of this is consciously done, of course. The consistent theme is to escape, to be free, to avoid filial and tribal expectations of oneself. The visitor from the interior province of Diyarbakir or a graduate student from Ankara—both seek this. And in a small way, a few of them perhaps do manage to escape—the dance, the frenzy, the flirting, the heave-ho of clubbing—all create the preconditions for an emotional emancipation.
Between the stifling heaviness of the secular authoritarianism of Ataturk’s vision and the resurgent wiles of political Islam, areas like taksim with its nightclubs and bars acquire an air of frivolity. They appear, superficially, as an escape
But in reality, few Turks manage to leave behind Turkey, physically or in their minds—for just across the waters from Taksim are the solemn mosques and minarets, the millennia-old private paranoias and public obsession with religion, with God, with the idea of honour and the pursuit of a pious life. Meanwhile, well before Syria and Iraq flourished as battlefields of Islamist violence and terror, prominent Turkish politicians recited poems that affirmed, to the chagrin of their secular military, that ‘the mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the believers our soldiers’. Later, when the Islamists came to power, elaborate conspiracies such as the Ergenekon trials—a bizarre judicial trial involving arrests of hundreds of Kemalists for membership in an organisation that the courts eventually decided perhaps didn’t exist in the first place—became a form of payback. Between the stifling heaviness of the secular authoritarianism of Kemal Atatürk’s vision and the resurgent wiles of political Islam, areas like Taksim with its nightclubs and bars acquire an air of frivolity. They appear, superficially, as an escape. But it is here in its relaxed environs that the grammar of Turkey’s future is slowly invented, however fumblingly and failingly and despite accusations of being inauthentic. But it is these very same young women and men who come here to dance and enjoy, who then return to other parts of Istanbul or Turkey or even the Middle East, where they must put on more familiar clothes, engage with the legacies, prejudices and small battles that are much older than themselves. There is an air of familiarity to this struggle to find one’s footing as the ground beneath shifts continually. After travelling thousands of kilometres from India, in some sense, I have arrived right where I began.