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To the Asian Side: Istanbul and the Future of Turkey

Photo by Engin Kurutepe

For an intercontinental journey, F.’s directions were fairly straightforward. “Head to Eminönü,” she’d said, introducing a thicket of tongue-challenging Turkish umlauts. “Take a ferry to Kadiköy. I’ll meet you there, on the Asian side.” The Asian side: nowhere else in the world can you pass between continents without so much as leaving city limits — at least nowhere that “continents” are as well demarcated as they are in Istanbul, where the two landmasses are cleaved by the heaving tidal cavity of the Bosphorus. Here, the divide has not only been bridged — twice — but, where it hasn’t, the opposite continent is a mere twenty minute commute by ferry.

The simple crossing is almost too easy a metaphor for the way Istanbul overcomes preconceived cultural chasms with the samesprezzatura that other places seem to uphold them. On the other side of the Mediterranan, Tangier, in Morocco, can feel like a world away from Algeciras, in Spain, but Kadiköy, Turkey’s gateway to Asia, is a neighborhood that feels practically Scandinavian in its cleanliness and order. And on Istanbul’s European side, boisterous streets spill from the Grand Bazaar to the Egyptian Market. It’s not to consign this part of the city to Orientalist stereotype to note that the hustle there — and dress — can sometimes seem more Kabul than Copenhagen. It is to say that the city’s contrasts — when and if they ever are clear — are rarely found how and where you might imagine them.

Ideas, though, are powerful things, and neither rational understanding that continents were mere constructs nor anticlimactic Kadiköy do much to stymie my sense of wonder at the quick transcontinental crossing. “It’s my first time in Asia,” I tell F., as we began driving away from the ferry terminal and out along Bağdat Caddesi, Champs-Élysées of the Asian side, which juts arrow-straight to the east — in the direction of its namesake, in Iraq. She had asked us to join her here to show off this side of the city — her part of town. The way the city easily scrambles stereotypes has long led outsiders to consider Istanbul a cliché of “East meets West,” a checkpoint between civilizations, but it was the center, not the frontier, of F.’s life. She had no idea why I found suddenly being at a different end of it so remarkable.


Photo by Ozgur Poyrazoglu

Part of the difficulty is definitely linguistic. It’s almost as if the quotidian normalcy of the passage across the Bosphorus has been written into the Turkish language, which doesn’t usually refer to an “Asian side” of Istanbul; Europe’s counterpart is, instead, Anatolia, the dusty, mountainous peninsula that stretches between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, making up most of Turkey.

The emphasis on the smaller landmass is in keeping with historical practice; in antiquity, what’s now Anatolia was referred to as “Asia Minor” — and use of the word “Asia” often meant this relatively small appendage of the world’s largest continent alone (in the same way that “Africa” once denoted only the spread of that continent’s shore closest to Italy). When the Roman poet Catullus dreamed, in the 1st century BC, that he might “fly to the great cities of Asia,” he wasn’t thinking of anywhere in India or China, but Greco-Roman colonies in present-day Turkey, like Ephesus and Antioch.

But the way the distinction is characterized by the rest of the world isn’t lost on Istanbullus. Political sensitivities, and the social conditions that have stoked them, play into how the city sees itself vis-à-vis the two continents. As F. steers her car along the boulevard that lines the Sea of Marmara, the bulge in the straits between the Mediterranean and Black Seas that borders the city to its south, she can’t help but compromise her former neutrality on Turkey’s continental divide.

“They say this isn’t part of Europe!” she vents, sweeping her hand over a tidy landscape of middle class apartment buildings covered in bright, tiled roofs. By “they” she probably means Western Europe’s demagogic politicos and press, for whom “Turkey” is a byword for alien poverty. The view makes her point almost too well; corporate logos float on soaring signposts a little beyond; I actually don’t feel so much like I’m in Europe as in California.

Istanbul’s European side has its share of neighborhoods that could make F.’s point just as well. Nişantaşı, home to liberal, Nobel Prize-winning novelist Orhan Pamuk, is probably the best example; its drippingly-detailed Beaux-Arts apartment houses bear an uncanny resemblance to Paris’. But south of the Golden Horn, the waterway that splits the European side in two, a different atmosphere prevails. Anatolia has come to Europe: for decades, migrants from the Turkish countryside have been settling in their greatest numbers on the outskirts of the city south of the Horn, at first in shantytowns known as gecekondular (the name is taken from the Turkish words meaning “landed in the night”) and then in lookalike midrise housing blocks that slowly replaced them — and which now dominate the city’s southwestern outskirts.

The migrants’ poverty and relative conservatism have not only lent parts of the European side of the city a more religious air. They’re also factors that fueled the rise of political Islam. Where once the city was dominated by its Europhile bourgeoisie, the city government eventually fell into the hands of the moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party (known by its Turkish initials, AKP) and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who ultimately made the leap from mayor to Turkish PM. Demographically, Turkey had always more closely resembled the migrant neighborhoods south of the Golden Horn more than Kadiköy or Nişantaşı, but only after the rural influx to Istanbul did the rest of Turkey’s government began to seem representative of the segment of the population that had dominated the country all along.

This sign is among the few references to the “Asian Side” in Istanbul; the eastern half of the city is usually referred to as “Anatolian”. Photo by Ozan Kilic

Under the AKP, Turkey has been slowly steering in new directions. Efforts to join the European Union have stalled. Politicians’ performances of F.’s gesture — in effect, attempting to convince officials in Paris, Brussels, and Berlin that a predominantly Muslim country located primarily on the Asian side of the Bosphorus could and should be considered European — fell on deaf or unsympathetic ears (even as they pointed out, presciently, the benefits of welcoming Turkey’s galloping economy into the bloc compared to the challenges posed by its basket-case neighbor, Greece).

Replacing Turkey’s zest for EU membership was the so-called “zero problems” plan, in which Turkey attempted to cultivate the favor of each of its allies and neighbors — a difficult feat, given that one of those historical allies is Israel and the country’s neighbors include Syria and Iran. After decades of a western orientation, the policy has almost necessarily shifted Turkey’s focus toward the east.

Some observers now argue that Turkish foreign policy is unabashedly “neo-Ottoman,” as the country pours money into Middle Eastern states that were formerly part of its vast empire, and as an increasing number of those countries seek to emulate, in the wake of the Arab Spring, the AKP’s achievement — combining prosperity, democracy, and Islamism in a region that often presents challenges to all three. It’s a potent mix that’s confounded expectations in ways not unlike Istanbul itself.

That could explain why, for all his machinations on the world stage, Erdogan continues to stick so close to his old urban power base. A fortune has been pledged for investment in Istanbul, though, despite all the AKP’s claims to moderation, it hasn’t all helped build on the city’s delicate balancing act. After his last electoral victory, Erdogan not only proposed to split Istanbul into two cities, rending (administratively) its European and Asian halves apart, but vowed to build a canal paralleling the Bosphorus, effectively cutting off Istanbul’s “European side” from Europe’s mainland.

To opponents, it was an insane gambit — one which dovetailed with what they describe as megalomania on the part of the Prime Minister, whom they allege has framed and jailed dissidents and harbors ambitions to turn Turkey into an Islamic state. When a regulation banned restaurant tables from Istanbul sidewalks last year, opponents saw it as a sign of a crackdown on liquor consumption. “We are turning East, politically and economically,” worried the director of a local business association (the ban has since been relaxed).

But to believe Turkey is falling away from either democracy, secularism, or the west is to grant these terms a false equivalency, and to forget that secularist Istanbul in decades past experienced far worse constraints on freedom than a rumored ban on liquor. In the 1950s, xenophobic riots drove away centuries-old communities of Greeks and other minorities, and the period of comparatively bleak, monochromatic nationalism that followed was enforced with an extraconstitutional ruthlessness by successive military governments. Whatever the AKP stands accused of still pales by comparison. It’s possible that only a party that emerged from Istanbul could actually disprove the supposed tension between democracy and religiosity that had so long given the country’s military excuses for oversight.

It’s also possible that — whether out of exhaustion or honest reappraisal — Istanbul is becoming less concerned with its place in the world. In the past, Pamuk spoke about promoting Istanbul as a city of letters like Dublin, Paris, or London. While he’s also rejected the notion that the city should continue to be a “pale, poor, second-class imitation of a Western city” — the drab Istanbul of Turkey under military rule — the places he aspired to make Istanbul’s peers suggested that he saw its strengths in European terms. At the very least, he believed it should stake a claim to a type of universalism that emanated from Europe (“There is no east,” Harper’s titled an interview with the author on the city).

But a large part of the reason for Turkey’s eastern reorientation was that, turning its back on Turkey, Europe turned out to be less nuanced, less nimble than Istanbul itself. Even in Pamuk’s Nişantaşı, the local mosque defied the vocabularies of Islamic architecture, sporting, instead, neoclassical elements reminiscent of the temples of Greece and Rome. Istanbul is never, essentially, about taking part in any single tradition, and it’s no wonder the author has now turned away from talking about Istanbul’s place in the world, and turned inward, instead: his latest project is a “Museum of Innocence,” a sort of nostalgia-laden dollhouse that takes cues from the autobiographical world of his most recent novel.

Back on Bağdat Caddesi, F. argues the street’s name should be changed; Istanbul’s connections with Iraq, she claims, have long since dissolved. This was 2007. In present-day Istanbul, much that was old is new again. Bağdat’s name still seems out of place in that it conjures up less plush associations than the neighborhood it anchors, which pulsates with boutiques bearing global brand names. But in a city where migrants from the east hold sway in the west and for a country where priorities have shifted quickly — if far from entirely — from Brussels back to Baghdad, where Turkey is now a major player, this street and its name, once a bizarrely contradictory anachronism, now seem like nothing short of a perfect fit.

Photo by erindipity

From Urban Photo. Follow Szabla on Twitter.

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