At the beginning of my freshman year in college, I started dating a young man from Turkey. While reading Orhan Pamuk’s “Istanbul” I was reminded of the same strange love for the country my ex-boyfriend had. by strange I mean he was at times distancing the country from it’s history and declaring himself proud of the history and culture. He would randomly tell me stories about the Ottoman Empire, how they ruled much of the world. He would tell my of the different Ottoman artifacts his mom had saved up as wedding gifts for his future wife. And after telling me these fantastic and almost exotic stories of his culture and country, he would insist that Turkey was very modern and just like any other European country.
Orhan does something similar in his book. By contrasting the old mansions that everyone used to live in with the modern family apartment in which he now resides. This contrast was especially noticeable when he talked about the western sitting room every family had when he was young. The sitting rooms were like museums to him, and it represented westernization. However no one new what westernization was good for, but they all did it. They gave up the traditional pillow clad lounging rooms for western living rooms with pianos no one could play and china plates no one could touch.
The way I saw it, they were pretending to be “western” ,whatever that means, until it became true. So this probably explains why that ex-boyfriend from Turkey was so offended when I asked him If Turkey was a middle eastern country or considered apart of Europe. His answer confused me then but after reading these short stories I think I better understand why he said “Turkey is neither and it is both.”
When reading Pamuk’s Istanbul (or really any of his books) it becomes apparent that Turks living in Istanbul have a strange sense of the past and almost a hundred years after the conquest of Turkey (or fall of the Ottoman Empire) there is still a deep sense of loss. Even people, such as Pamuk, who grew up well after still can sense the transitioning in the area. It is interesting to note how he talks of the destruction of old pashas’ mansions, the yalis and even the cemeteries where many of them are buried. It seems to be a terrible disregarding of history and a past culture but I am reminded by Pamuk that it is on purpose. The Turkishization of Turkey by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in the early 1900’s is the backdrop of this destruction. It is almost as if by destroying the pashas’ and other bourgeoisies’ things you can destroy their very memory and delete all that they represent from society.
This leads me into another key point in all of Pamuk’s writing, the want of Turks in Istanbul, especially the upper middle class, to be Western. There is also a very specific conception of what being “European” or “Western” looks like. This has always struck me as very odd whenever I encounter it in any of his or other Turkish writer’s books. Being Western is being secular, wearing western clothes, using the latest appliance or having china dog’s on your television set. Because of this ideal there is also a lot of attention paid to Westerners’ comments on their city and culture in general. I do not quite understand why he should deem that important. Why is westernization so important? I find it ironic that the very things Westerners visited Turkey for are the things that were done away with in the pursuit of Western and Turkishization.
Overall my greatest question is if Pamuk realistically describes what it is to be an Istanbullus and, if there really is such thing.