28 February 2007

Pamuk on the Exotic—and What Was Done about It

In "The Return of the Flaneur," Walter Benjamin begins his review of Franz Hessel's Berlin Walks by noting, "If we were to divide all the existing descriptions of cities into two groups according to the birthplace of the authors, we would certainly find that those written by natives of the cities concerned are greatly in the minority." According to Benjamin, the enthusiasm for seeing a city from the outside is the exotic or the picturesque. For natives of a city, the connection is always mediated by memories.

What I am describing may not, in the end, be special to Istanbul, and perhaps, with the westernization of the entire world, it is inevitable. Perhaps this is why I sometimes read Westerners' accounts not at arm's length, as someone else's exotic dreams, but drawn close by, as if they were my own memories. I enjoy coming across a detail that I have noticed but never remarked upon, perhaps because no one else I know has either. I love Knut Hamsun's description of the Galata Bridge I knew as a child—supported by barges and swaying under the weight of its traffic—just as I love Hans Christian Andersen's description of the "darkness" of the cypresses lining the cemeteries. To see Istanbul through the eyes of a foreigner always gives me pleasure, in no small part because the picture helps me fend off narrow nationalism and pressures to conform. Their occasionally accurate (and therefore somewhat embarrassing) descriptions of the harem, Ottoman dress, and Ottoman rituals are so distant from my own experience that even though I know they have some basis in fact, they seem to be describing someone else's city. Westernization has allowed me and millions of other İstanbullus the luxury of enjoying our own past as "exotic," of relishing the picturesque....

What grievance I feel when I read western travelers on Istanbul is above all that of hindsight: Many of the local features these observers, some of them brilliant writers, noted and exaggerated were to vanish from the city soon after having been remarked. It was a brutal symbiosis: Western observers love to identify the things that make Istanbul exotic, nonwestern, whereas the westernizers among us register all the same things as obstacles to be erased from the face of the city as fast as possible.

Here's a short list:

The Janissaries, those elite troops of great interest to western travelers until the nineteenth century, were the first to be dissolved. The slave market, another focus of western curiosity, vanished soon after they began writing about it. The Rufai dervishes with their waving skewers and the Mevlevi dervish lodges closed with the founding of the Republic. The Ottoman clothing that so many western artists painted was abolished soon after Andre Gide complained about it. The harem, another favorite, also gone. Seventy-five years after Flaubert told his beloved friend that he was going to the market to have his name written in calligraphy, all of Turkey moved from the Arabic to the Latin alphabet, and this exotic joy ended too. Of all these losses, I think the hardest for İstanbullus has been the removal of graves and cemeteries from the gardens and squares of our everyday lives to terrifying high-walled lots, bereft of cypress or view. The hamals and their burdens, noted by so many travelers of the republican period—like the old American cars that Brodsky noted—were no sooner described by foreigners than they vanished.

Only one of the city's idiosyncracies has refused to melt away under the western gaze: the packs of dogs that still roam the streets.
SOURCE: Istanbul: Memories and the City, by Orhan Pamuk (Vintage, 2006), pp. 240-243

No comments: