Friday, October 13, 2006

Turkey, Ruined but Unspoiled

The Nobel Prize in Literature for Orhan Pamuk? Hooray! He's one of my favorite writers, and Snow is one of my favorite books. Alas, so many older than he whom I thought would win by now...

Istanbul: Memories and the City, which has not received as much attention as other works by Pamuk, contains vibrant insights into the use of urban landscapes. One chapter, "The Melancholy of Ruins: Tanpinar and Yahya Kemal in the City's Poor Neighborhoods," explores how the two writers explored the less attractive parts of Istanbul in an effort to find the genuine Turkish people, the spirit of the nation, not overburdened by the legacies of the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires (or the poetry of the French who glorified them).
When Tanpinar wrote "A Stroll Through the City's Poor Neighborhoods," he was not just describing his own most recent visit and his earliest walks. His purpose was more than merely to reacquaint himself with the poorest and most remote areas of Istanbul; he was attempting to accustom himself to the fact of living in an impoverished country, in a city that no longer mattered in the eyes of the world. To explore the poor neighborhoods as a landscape, then, was to address the reality that Istanbul and Turkey were themselves poor neighborhoods

[Tanpinar and Kemal] had a political agenda. They were picking their way through the ruins looking for signs of a new Turkish state, a new Turkish nationalism: The Ottoman Empire might have fallen, but the Turkish people had made it great (like the state, the two were happy to forget the Greeks, the Armenians, the Jews, the Kurds, and many other minorities), and they wanted to show that though suffused in melancholy they were still standing tall. Unlike the ideologues of the Turkish state who expressed their nationalism in unlovely and unadorned authoritarian rhetoric, they expressed their patriotism in a poetic language far removed from decrees and force.

To prove that theirs was a Turkish city, these two writers knew it was not enough to describe the skyline so beloved of western tourists and writers, or the shadows cast by its mosques and churches. Dominated as it was by Hagia Sophia, the skyline noted by every western observer from Lamartine to Le Corbusier could not serve as a "national image" for Turkish Istanbul; this sort of beauty was too cosmopolitan.

Nationalist Istanbullus like Kemal and Tanpinar preferred to look to the poor, defeated, and deprived Muslim population, to prove that they had not lost one bit of their identity and to satisdy their craving for a mournful beauty expressing the feelings of loss and defeat. This is why they went out on walks to poor neighborhoods in search of beautiful sights that endowed the city's dwellers with the hüzün of the ruined past ... . All his nationalist fervor notwithstanding, Tanpinar sometimes resorted to words like "picturesque" and "paysage"; to convey these neighborhoods as traditional, unspoiled, and untouched by the West, he wrote that "they were ruined, they were poor and wretched," but they had "retained their own style and their own way of life."

Ruins often figure into the image of places. Early modern illustrators were keen on pairing peasants with ancient edifices whereever they went, but particularly in the eastern Mediterranean. Such images gave power to the Classical era, but also romanticized the unchanging nature of traditional ways. But in the 19th Century, landscapes in France tended to divorce the people from the ruins. The paintings of Millet, for instance, put the peasants and their struggles in the center. The human ruins that Tapinar sought established a different hierarchy: rather than just eliminating monumental architecture, the people replaced it.


At 11:52 PM, Blogger Joel said...

Your excerpt helped convince me that Istanbul is my next Pamuk read.


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