12 June 2008 |
If you stop outside the antiquarian’s stall in the book market near the main gates of Istanbul University, Tosun Andakoç will turn the lights on for you. Andakoç, a slight and gentle-seeming man, sells pages taken from illuminated Ottoman textbooks, classic hand-painted scenes of the old city, of sultans, sword fights, of heroes and lovers, of garden parties, decorated archways and cyprus trees, primroses and Izmir tiles, seagulls and minarets.
But here in Istanbul, amid the still-decaying ruins of a great empire, the tiny shop feels a little less like a lost world. One courtyard over, heavy-eyed and somber men drink tea and display rosary beads in the shade of plane trees; just a few steps in the other direction, laconic men sell dress shirts and underwear beneath the otherworldly glow of the compact fluorescent. The look on their faces, betraying a Turkish melancholy, or hüzün, isn’t that much different than that of Mecnun coming in vain for his lover Leyla in one of Andakoç‘s illuminated pages.
The Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk says that to Sufi followers of Islam, hüzün is a “spiritual anguish,” the inability to get close enough to Allah. But as an Istanbullu collective grief, hüzün was amplified by the decline and loss of empire, by crumbling city walls, by rotting wooden houses, by vacant lots, and ultimately by the feverous construction of apartment blocks that has obliterated the urban fabric of once-elegant neighborhoods.
A sense of loss pervades these Bosphorus hills. Pamuk calls it a “black mood shared by millions of people together.” But he explains that it’s consumed and projected by Istanbullus with pride and honor. “Hüzün does not just paralyze the inhabitants of Istanbul; it also gives them poetic license to be paralyzed.”
The first time I read that sentence I thought of Philadelphia, of the ways we, too, have allowed loss and decline to define our outlook. “We like hüzün,” says Müge Özbay, a graduate student who studies contemporary Turkish art at Yildiz Technical University and the guide for our group of faculty, staff and students from the University International Scholars Program at Philadelphia University. Indeed, we display our grief proudly, too — in our reflexive support of the underdog, in our insistent lack of pretension, in our willingness to endure hardship, ugliness and corruption. We wear our own hüzün as a badge of honor.
There is much in common beyond the prevalence of plane trees and crumbling infrastructure (Pamuk observes the very familiar-sounding, “cobblestone staircase with so much asphalt poured over it that its steps have disappeared”). Similarities — born particularly of loss and decline — are hard to ignore. The Philadelphia themes resonate here. Once the federal, state and financial capital and the seat of industry, and very nearly the home of the United Nations, for half a century Philadelphia has drifted. It no longer looks much like the rest of America (rather, America no longer looks like Philadelphia). It isn’t New York. Nor, despite our own attraction to things Continental, is Philadelphia more than vaguely European. Our founders both embraced and rejected European ideals. Istanbul, interestingly a European Union-designated 2010 “Capital for Culture,” retains a similar ambivalence toward Europe. Özbay says Turks suffer for not being European enough. But they also reflexively refuse an Eastern label. Here in Istanbul the uncertain identity is amplified by the loss of standing. Ankara, a giant Harrisburg, is the capital of Turkey. Istanbul’s Topkapi Palace, home of the sultans — much as our Independence National Historical Park — is left as a tourist ghetto (and yes, there are X-ray machines for security).
During the first 30 years of the 20th century, Istanbul’s population declined by more than one-third. The middle class collapsed mid century. But then, at the same time that rural migration to Philadelphia and other American cities began to slow, in Turkey the movement of peasants to the city accelerated. So by 1970 the two cities were about equal in size. Philadelphia had declined slightly from its 1950 high of 2,071,605 to 1,948,609 people (the region was 4.8 million). Istanbul, essentially without suburbs, had more than doubled from 983,041 in 1950 to 2,132,407. But since 1970, Istanbul and Philadelphia have diverged. The Philadelphia region has grown slightly, to 5.8 million. The city of Istanbul passed that mark in the mid-1980s. Now, at well more than 11 million, it is one of the world’s largest cities.
There are still enough crumbling wooden houses, abandoned buildings, and vacant lots to make a Philadelphian feel at ease. The Tarlabasi neighborhood crumbles amidst gypsies, Kurdish immigrants and prostitutes. New slums prevail — and multiply — on the periphery.
But at present Istanbul feels self-assured. It is rich. There are gated communities, skyscrapers and fashion houses. The art scene, punctuated by the just-opened contemporary Santralistanbul museum, connected to an evocative former city power plant, is producing challenging, high-quality work. Beyoglu at night is an urban playground, so thick with bodies, so sonorous with music and voices, that it produces what must be a self-sustaining energy — enough to make a power plant seem unnecessary.
Pamuk observes that the “people of Istanbul simply carry on with their lives amid the ruins.” Indeed, in neighborhood after neighborhood, a new city is roughly and imprecisely added on to the old. It’s messy. If new development here involves a backwards gaze, it’s hidden from the visitor. (UNESCO has threatened Istanbul’s World Heritage status for its lack of care in protecting monuments.)
Here in Istanbul, as in many cities, wealth challenges authenticity. As much as my companions and I delight in the Beyoglu scene, to the graduate student Özbay it feels like just another Barcelona — a European urbanity purchased for the whimsy of the nouveau riche.
This kind of ennui is what worries some Philadelphians who fear that an overabundance of cafes and million dollar condos threaten the raw beauty of decline. Pamuk says hüzün was a platform on which Istanbullus erected their identity. The filmmaker David Lynch observes that Philadelphia’s decline is similarly beautiful, a magical source of creative inspiration. “It all started for me in Philadelphia,” he says, “because it’s old enough, and it’s got enough things in the air to really work on itself. It’s decaying but it’s fantastically beautiful, filled with violence, hate and filth.” Lynch is remembering the Philadelphia of the late 1960s. Some things have been prettied up since then, but no observer would call this an urban theme park. Neither is Istanbul. Since 1970, when Istanbul must have felt much like Lynch’s Philadelphia, it has added more than nine million people. And still it is decaying; its streets are filthy. And still there remains a wonderful, sorrowful, beguiling energy. Happily, not all has been lost.