Istanbul impressions

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Wed Jan 8 16:57:53 MST 2003

Although the main purpose of my visit to Istanbul was to meet my in-laws, I
had no doubt that broader cultural and political concerns would make
themselves felt. Chief among them was Turkey's role in the impending war
with next-door neighbor Iraq, the lingering effects of a severe economic
crisis that began in February of 2001, and finally a burgeoning Islamic
political movement that had won the recent elections.

After being picked up at the airport and while driving along a major
expressway, I was surprised to see that long stretches of Istanbul resemble
Los Angeles. The old city is clustered around the Bosphorus Straits, but
spiraling out from this hub is an anarchic mass of factories, upscale
apartment buildings and slums that serve as workplaces and homes to a large
part of a population that now exceeds 13 million and is growing rapidly as
impoverished rural folk pour into the city each day from Anatolia.

If you look at the map at, you
will get an idea of the dimensions of the city. I would estimate that
between the westernmost border in Europe and the easternmost in Asia, the
length exceeds 25 miles. Any tourist notions of "walking around Istanbul"
only make sense if you limit yourself to the old city; otherwise it would
make about as much sense as "walking around Los Angeles."

Istanbul shares with Los Angeles an underfunded and inadequate mass transit
system. Even though Istanbul was one of the first cities in Europe to
launch a subway in 1874--a horse-driven one at that!--it has not kept pace
with the city's rapid growth. For the average citizen, minibuses that are
largely owned by mob-run companies have to suffice.

Bural, who had picked me up at the airport, was fairly typical of
middle-class Istanbul. Fluent in English, the owner of a sleek Peugot and
constantly on his cell-phone, he was the very image of success. Not long
ago the company he worked for had been taken over by the Turkish government
in a reverse trend against privatization. Since his salary would be slashed
after the restructuring was complete, he took preemptive action and
launched a human resources consulting company to make sure his income kept
pace with Turkey's hyperinflation. Of course, his income would now no
longer be guaranteed. Despite some initial success, he was still trying to
figure a way to emigrate to Europe or North America since the country's
proximity to the seething Mideast worried him.

One other thing that Istanbul shares with Los Angeles is its proximity to a
highly dangerous fault line that most experts predict will result in a
catastrophic earthquake over the next 25 years or so. On August 17, 1999,
an earthquake measuring 7.4 on the Richter Scale hit the city of Izmit in
Turkey. Just three months later, a similar quake hit Duzce. Over 18,000
people were killed and more than 15,000 buildings collapsed, causing up to
$25 billion in damage. With a high level of corruption in Istanbul
responsible for shabby construction standards and substandard emergency
relief, it is safe to assume that a major earthquake could have the same
kind of lethal impact that was felt in Somoza's Nicaragua.

Whether it would have the same kind of political aftermath is open to
question, however. While radical mass action has been the response in
Argentina to a devastating economic collapse, Turkey appears eerily calm in
face of its own. Except for increased votes for populist Islamic electoral
formations, there is not much one can point to as a sign that people are
unhappy with the status quo. When I pointed this out to one of my
better-informed hosts, she explained to me that there is a key difference
between Argentina and Turkey. While displaying superficial similarities as
"modernizers", Peron and Ataturk differed on one key question. Peron
consciously built up the trade union movement; Ataturk did everything he
could to suppress it. As father of modern Turkey, Ataturk's portrait is
everywhere--from barbershops to government offices. However, from a class
standpoint, his popularity is deepest in the middle and upper bourgeoisie.

The geological fault line obviously has a counterpart in the city and
country's precarious location on the political-tectonic plates that divide
the Christian West from the Islamic East. If these plates clash with each
other at full force, the impact can be as devastating as any earthquake.
Istanbul is geographically unique. It is the only city in the world--as far
as I know--that straddles two continents. Imagine getting in your car each
morning in Asia each morning and driving across a bridge to get to your
workplace in Europe. Not only is the city divided spatially, it is also
divided culturally and politically. The dialectical tension between East
and West has been the subject of many treatments, both literary and
analytical. The most recent of note are Orhan Pamuk's "My Name is Red", a
novel set in 16th-century Istanbul, which examines Western cultural
encroachments upon the East. The other is NY Times reporter Stephen
Kinzer's "The Crescent and the Star", a book I plan to read despite my
loathing for this former apologist for the Nicaraguan contras.

                                 * * * *

Who are the Turks?

Originally, the Turkmen were horse-riding nomads of the Central Asian
steppes who had much in common with the Mongols and other such peoples.
While widely regarded as "barbarians", the historical role of such peoples
is far more complex as Jack Weatherford explains in "Savages and Civilization":

"Most of the nomads spoke one of the Turkish or Mongol languages, but they
also included speakers of European languages, particularly Slavic and
Finno-Ugric. The nomads, who combined all the racial groups of Eurasia,
formed frequent alliances in which whole tribes would unite, and they
frequently absorbed the people whom they conquered as affiliated clans. In
addition, they made marriages with settled peoples, accepting European and
Chinese women in marriage as well as kidnapping them.

"The names for these people have varied through the centuries. Scythians,
Avars, Huns, Magyars, Tatars, Bulgars, Mongols, and Turks. Many of the
tribes are lumped together as Mongols because the Mongols were among the
greatest of the nomadic conquerors, but they are also often called Tartars,
or Tatars, after a Turkish part of the Mongol confederacy. The name Tatar
probably comes from the Chinese word ta-ta, which simply meant 'nomad.' For
Europeans, they were the fiends of Tartarus, the ancient Greek word for
hell, and thus they were often called Tartars.

"The nomads would suddenly appear on the borderlands, sometimes literally
traveling faster than the news of their approach. Seemingly without reason,
they might turn in another direction, or they could sweep through cities
and destroy crops for hundreds of miles. Then they disappeared as quickly
as they came, but took with them thousands of slaves and new wives, and
hundreds of wagons of bounty.

"As completely capricious as the nomads may have appeared to the settled
people, there emerged a decisive pattern and logic to their behavior. They
constantly probed and tested the whole length of Eurasia. In decades when
China grew strong, they turned toward the west and headed for Europe, or
south into Iran or India. In years when these other kingdoms showed more
strength, the nomads headed back toward China. They seem to have conquered
tribes, cities, and even whole empires with equanimity.

"The movement of any one group sent a sequence of shock waves across the
heartland as one tribe was pushed onto another, dislodging smaller nomadic
tribes and forcing agricultural peoples in the heartland to flee away from
the grasslands and toward the coastal kingdoms. These wandering and
displaced hordes themselves became menaces to the people whose lands they

"For the three thousand years from 1600 B.C. to roughly A.D. 1500, the
wandering of tribes and the warfare between settled, civilized people and
their barbarian, nomadic enemies became the focal issue of Eurasian
civilization. But as the two great traditions fought with each other, they
constantly exchanged cultural traits and technology. The nomads sometimes
settled among the farmers as their overlords or as their neighbors, but
they also moved millions of people in forced relocations.

"In order to survive, each side had to learn the ways and the culture of
the other. The Mongols borrowed technology, animals, and ideas from all
parts of their territories, and spread them to the other nations, from
Europe to China."

(Interestingly, this cross-fertilization is similar to the one that took
place during the "dark ages" in Western Europe, if you accept the argument
of Perry Anderson in "Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism", a book that I
am currently reading. Anderson demonstrates that the Visigoths and other
Germanic tribes did not really wipe out pre-existing Roman institutions but
absorbed and transformed them as they created a new feudal system.)

What made the conquering Ottomans adopt Islam? According to the superb
guide to Istanbul from Knopf publishers (part of a series that includes
other major cities and countries, including Paris, Morocco, etc.), it was
strictly business in the Don Corleone sense: "In the middle of the 11th
century the khans of the Oguz Turks of central Asia adopted Islam in order
to control the silk route, in alliance with their former enemies the Arabs.
It was an entirely political conversion, and was only a matter of convenience."

This pragmatic attitude toward religion persists to this day. In
neighborhoods all around the Istanbul, zoning regulations--such as they
are--are trumped by Allah. If houses are built without permission in
squatter fashion, all that is necessary is to build a mosque in their
midst. As long as the mosque remains standing, no house can be demolished
on the land it occupies.

(Another oddity was observed in Istanbul housing. On the edge of one big
modern soccer stadium on the Asian side, there is a cluster of hovels that
are enclosed by a fence in a barely successful cosmetic gesture, like
putting pancake makeup on a very large wart. It was explained to me that
the dwellers own deeds to the land, presumably received as a populist
gesture during some former Kemalist administration.)

                                 * * * *

Although the economic situation in Turkey has probably improved since the
stock market collapse of 2001, it is still very bad.

Not far from my quarters in upper Bostanci (pronounced Bostanji), a
middle-class neighborhood on the Asian side reminiscent of Flushing,
Queens, there is a major shopping drag called Bagdat Avenue. (There is an
accent under the g in Bagdat that Microsoft cannot accommodate. It is
silent and is used to extend the vowel immediately before it. In this case,
you would pronounce it "Baahdat".) Despite the fact that this avenue is
named after the capital of Iraq, there is nothing Mideastern about it
except for the occasional mosque--ubiquitous to all of Istanbul, including
the most occidental sections.) It is a bustling thoroughfare with expensive
European clothing outlets, banks and doctors' offices. On Saturday night
the sidewalks are crowed with elegantly dressed Turks who often have a full
shopping bag in one hand and a cell phone in the other.

(The recent Islamic electoral victory might be interpreted as a reaction to
Bagdat Avenue ostentation. However, things are never quite that clear. One
of my Turkish hosts pointed out to me a couple of women in scarves who were
carrying Hermes handbags. The next day she also brought my attention to a
newspaper article that highlighted the success of "Islamic stylishness", an
approach that its promoters hoped to win secular Turks to its cause.)

This is not typical of the city and even beyond the means of many people
who formerly could enjoy its wares. Among them were Hassan and Miral, my
hosts. They are retired employees of Turkish Airlines and Phillips
Petroleum respectively. Their combined income of one billion Turkish liras
would have been equivalent to something like $4000 per month in
pre-inflation days. Now they are forced to watch every penny.

After shelling out 250 million TL (Turkish Lira) at the start of each month
for apartment maintenance, phone, cable and other fixed expenses, they have
to buy food and other necessities. Right now items like tomatoes, chopped
meat, olives and feta cheese--all the basics of a Turkish kitchen--cost
about 5M TL per pound. In the USA, a typical retired couple with a good
pension in New York City might receive something like $4000 per month. A
pound of tomatoes might cost about $4. So, this purchase represents
1/1000th of your income. In Turkey, the ratio is something like 1/200 for
Hassan and Miral.

For somebody on minimum wage (taking home 100 million TL per month), you
can barely scrape by. For a middle-level government or private employee,
the take home wage is about 300 million TL per month. So people are
suffering. Just to drive the point home, imagine if you were taking home
$2000 per month and had to spend $10 for a pound of tomatoes, etc.

On December 4th, the IMF's European director told the Financial Times that
"My conviction is that Turkey is emerging out of a crisis period. "The new
government is well-placed to bring Turkey out of an era that was rather
unhappy in the 1990s." This would come as a surprise to the Turks I spoke
to, who are by no means in the lower rungs of society. One woman I met was
forced to divorce her husband so she would be eligible to receive her late
father's pension. Although this seems like small potatoes to somebody in
the USA, it is a painful step for somebody living in a society where
traditional values are much stronger. Apparently this practice is
widespread today.

As deep as the suffering faced by the average Turk, the country was still a
haven for many citizens of the former Soviet Union who came to Turkey in
the same way that Mexicans cross the Rio Grande into Texas. I met Olga from
Molodova, a middle-aged woman with a university degree who had to subsist
on $20 per month as a schoolteacher in this poorest of ex-Communist
republics. Now she was a nanny to one of the Turks I passed time with. She
was clear about what wrong in her former homeland. "Things were better
under Communism," she would tell me and anybody else who would listen,
adding, "Everything went wrong under Gorbachev".

                                 * * * *

It would be nearly impossible for me to describe Turkish culture in the
richness it deserves in this posting.

I would only recommend that you track down Jules Dassin's 1964 masterpiece
"Topkapi", which should be available in most well-stocked video stores.
Filmed on location in Istanbul, it is a loving tribute to the city and the
Mediterranean culture he learned to identify with so strongly after being
witch-hunted out of Hollywood and after marrying the film's star Merlina
Mercouri, another leftist.

Based on leftist Eric Ambler's novel "The Light of Day", the film is
basically a comic version of Dassin's earlier jewel heist film "Rififi"
( Like "Rififi",
it is the story of an elaborately prepared, but ultimately unsuccessful
robbery. The climax of "Topkapi" involves a thief being lowered by his feet
into the Treasury Room of Istanbul's most famous museum, formerly the
castle of the Ottoman Emperor, in order to steal an emerald-encrusted
dagger. "Mission Impossible" shamelessly ripped off this scene when Tom
Cruise entered a high-security computer room suspended by his feet.

(In a twist on the plot of '"Topkapi", Jules Dassin has carried on with the
crusade begun by the late Merlina Mercouri to return the Elgin Marbles to
Greece, booty that was stolen by the British imperialists.)

You can see many examples of Istanbul's classic architecture in this film,
which has sadly disappeared in recent years during the Los Angeles-ization
of the city. You can also see everyday Turks on the street carrying bundles
on their shoulders or selling goods, just as the case today. For gay
comrades, one of the highlights of the film is a wrestling match that can
only be described as tantalizingly homoerotic.

I was fortunate to be escorted through the old streets of Istanbul by
Hassan and his long-time friend Erdogan. (Accent under the 'g'. Pronounced
Erduan.) Here is an example of the sort of house that is falling prey to
the wrecking ball of 'modernization':

At midday, we enjoyed lunch at a restaurant in one of Istanbul's fabulous
covered bazaars, in this case one specializing in seafood. From left to
right, you can see Erdogan, Hassan and I with a slightly bleary look on our
faces, the result of beers laced with vodka. I am not sure if this drink is
particularly Turkish, but it is a tradition of theirs.

As you might have expected, Turkish television is heavily dominated by
American television shows and movies. When you skip through the dial,
you'll see something like the atrocious "Seinfeld" dubbed in English
adjacent to a channel featuring a rapturous performance of some Turkish
folk music, which comes in all varieties. I prefer what is called
"Arabesque", a style that is virtually the same as that found in the
Mideast although my hosts find it somewhat vulgar. This did not come as
much of a surprise to me, since they tend to think of themselves as
European and secular. In fact they moved to upper Bosanci from Uskudar, a
part of old Istanbul that had immense charm but is now apparently too
dominated by religious people for their tastes. When I mentioned this to my
mother, she said that secular Jews have exactly the same reaction when
Hasidim move in: "There goes the neighborhood".

At night we tried to evaluate whether war was coming and how soon. Turkish
television is dominated by criticism of Bush and the pressure he is
applying on the country. Interestingly, one of the most hard-hitting
critiques of US policy was seen on a talk show on a station owned by an
Islamic group connected to the new government.

This show was in stark contrast to a movie channel that offered a dreadful
American movie the same night of the kind that people like Chuck Norris
starred in during the Reagan years. It opened up with a small group of US
commandoes parachuting into some unnamed Arab country, whereupon they
proceed to slaughter hundreds of their swarthy enemies. It was particularly
jarring to hear the dubbed Turkish coming out of their mouths. I could only
wonder if this film was aired as part of a deliberate propaganda offensive.

                                 * * * *

Alas, poor Turkey has little leverage when it comes to the kind of muscle
the USA can apply.

This wasn't always the case. During the height of the Ottoman Empire,
Europe stood in fear of their neighbor to the East, which had driven the
last remnants of the Byzantine Empire out of Constantinople in 1453.
Deploying a combination of artillery and explosives that had never been
seen before, the Sultan's troops overran the Christian garrison and
converted the biggest church St. Sophia into a mosque, now called Haghia

After Istanbul became a Moslem stronghold, the Ottomans swept westward and
established their rule over much of the southern Balkans as well as North
Africa and the Arab east. While the question of the nature of Ottoman
society is beyond the scope of this post, suffice it to say that it is a
hotly debated topic in Turkish scholarship, involving many of the same
sorts of issues found in the Brenner thesis controversy. Chiefly, they
revolve around the question of whether the Ottomans were feudal or not
since they had much of the character of the absolutist state described by
Perry Anderson, a transitional step toward the consolidation of bourgeois rule.

Key to the military success of the Ottoman Empire were the crack Janissary
troops, who were drawn from Christian children in conquered territories in
the Balkans. Apparently the Ottomans could not rely on soldiers drawn from
their own territory since young men had loyalties to their local
chieftains. By contrast, a Christian child could be converted to Islam and
taught fierce loyalty to the Sultan.

In battle, the Janissaries were a formidable foe. As Scottish troops used
the bagpipes to rouse themselves to the occasion, so did the Janissaries
use a distinctly martial kind of music that eventually became something of
a fad in Europe. Mozart employed elements of this music in his Rondo a la
Turk and, more significantly, "The Abduction of the Seraglio". However,
what you hear in Mozart sounds nothing like the real thing. For that, you
have to go to the marvelous website,
which has samples of all sorts of Turkish music, including modern
renditions of Janissary music. These wild sounds have nothing much in
common with Mozart's music, which of course has to stand on its own merits
and obviously succeeds on those terms.

"The Abduction from the Seraglio" is just one of many 'Turkish' musical or
theatrical expressions that flowered in the 18th century, when fascination
with the Ottoman Empire was at an all-time high. This charming 'singspiel'
includes two significant Turkish characters, a 'good' Turk named Selim, a
Sultan who has been trying successfully to woo a Spanish captive named
Constanze. His aide Osman is a 'bad' Turk, whose nearly every word consists
of threats to hang or burn the Spanish interlopers who have come to Turkey
to rescue Constanze and her maid Blonde.

Eventually Selim shows mercy and allows the Westerners to depart. Why? Only
because he himself is of western origin and even though having renounced
the west and Christianity still can identify sufficiently with those under
his power.

By the time Mozart wrote his opera, the Ottoman Empire had begun to decline
and so it was possible to treat the Turkish enemy with a kind of generosity
that was not possible centuries earlier. The question of why it failed to
conquer territory much further east than the Balkans is one that scholars
can chew over. The thought of an Islamic Europe is certainly intriguing in
the sense of those novels that try to imagine the world in "what if" terms.

I will not try to answer this question in any kind of depth, only to
suggest that the sort of line of investigation opened up by my old friend
and comrade the late Jim Blaut seems relevant here. The Knopf guidebook
tells us:

"In the 16th century the Ottomans negotiated the first 'capitulations'
between Suleyman and Francois I, then with the English (1580) and the Dutch
(1612). At its height the empire included Mesopotamia, Syria, most of the
coast of the Arab peninsula, Egypt, and the coast of North Africa. It
engaged in a merciless fight against the Hapsburgs, who controlled not only
the German empire, but also that of Spain and soon Portugal (1580-1640).
The struggle took place on two fronts: Central Europe, with the conquest of
Hungary (1526) and the siege of Vienna, and the Mediterranean, where the
Ottomans maintained their supremacy from the victory of Preveza (1538)
through to their defeat at Lepanto (1571).

"At the end of the 16th century the Ottomans had an inadequate army and
were at a disadvantage when engaging the Hapsburg army, which used numerous
technical innovations paid for by the gold from the recently discovered

Thus the rise of imperialism, which now threatens to engulf the entire
region in a cataclysm, was made possible by the expropriation of Native
America. Hence it makes sense to conceive of the redemption of peoples in
the New World and the East in terms of reversing the effects of the
original European conquests, but on class terms geared to our epoch.

Louis Proyect, Marxism mailing list:

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