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Friday 11 September 2015


Snapshots and postcards from Istanbul’s glamorous past
 “It isn't necessary to imagine the world ending in fire or ice. There are two other possibilities: one is paperwork, and the other is nostalgia.”
Frank Zappa

 The discovery of a copy of Cornucopia magazine at a bazaar in Ottawa was timely. Issue 51 from November 2014 has the cover story Istanbul Unwrapped part 2: Beyoǧlu Boogie splashed across a photo of five men in dinner suits laughing over their cocktails. The picture was a message to readers that back in the 1940s Istanbul had been more Paris than Paris, and a lot more fun.

The timeliness has to do with news reports indicating that Washington has finally realized that Ankara’s deeper loyalties lie with ISIS, not the West. Long time observers may wonder why the U.S was so slow to catch on to the bleeding obvious but quite a few Turkish people will nod and remind whoever is listening that it only looks like Washington has acknowledged things very recently. In the grand chess plan, this admission is only a feint hiding darker ambitions. Turkey didn’t invent the conspiracy theory but it made it a work of art. In any case, what Washington is also admitting is that Turkey is no longer that beacon of Western Civ flashing its light across the barren sands of Islamic Asia. It has literally gone over to the dark side. Not so long ago - as in during the Cold War – that was unthinkable. Secularism was actually built into Turkey’s constitution, and it was one of the few countries that proclaimed religion as bad as Communism (How tres Camus!). It was also desperate to be European, particularly in the sense that European meant wearing hats by Dior, smoking Benson & Hedges cigarettes and driving Mercedes Benzes. To President Erdoǧan and his associates secularism was an era that has now ended. Ultimately they want it purged from the national consciousness. Cornucopia is a magazine that wants to preserve that past in aspic. It and the Government conduct their affairs apparently oblivious to each other. What’s interesting to us is the myths they both construct about that era.

Cornucopia’s aesthetics lie somewhere between those of National Geographic and Food and Wine. On one page we have a dervish whirling in the afternoon light filtering through a dusty window, on the next an array of white cheeses discovered at a local market. You can imagine. Politically it belongs somewhere between 1920s nationalism and 1950s secularism. Secretly, it longs to be woken at dawn by the graceful ululations of the muezzin (without the crackle of cheap loudspeakers), to sit down to a breakfast of yoghurt, figs and dried apricots before a morning practising on the baǧlama or learning the traditional methods of dyeing wool and spinning it into kilims. Its commitment to history may be sincere though its sentiments are dubious. To Cornucopia the era between the 1923 revolution and the 1960 coup was a golden age of Turkish culture, unrivalled except for that other semi-mythical age when Ottoman Constantinople flourished under Suleiman the Magnificent. 

To President Erdoǧan and his faction in the AKP, this rose-tinted nostalgia isn’t just a longing for an age that may be more legend than reality but a Western attitude that is fundamentally orientalist. They have a case – the magazine advertises itself as “Turkey for connoisseurs”; a warning to lesser mortals to steer clear – but they (the AKP) actually indulge in an even more absurd nostalgia. For them there was an age more fabulous than Cornucopia’s; when Turkish culture was governed by pious asceticism. Concrete evidence for the existence of this time and place is hard to find, except ironically in the writings of European travellers. For writers like Gustave Flaubert and Pierre Loti, the sight of a white robed muezzin calling from the balcony of a minaret evoked something Europe had lost in the Enlightenment. 

Thanks to Cornucopia we learn that Maxim’s of Taxim (sic) was established and run by Frederick Thomas, a black American who had run nightclubs in Moscow during the Bolshevik Revolution: why isn’t he better known? It’s a bit like giving Dooley Wilson the lead role in Casablanca. Instead we got a 1957 remake, Istanbul, starring Errol Flynn and Cornell Borchers. Back in town after a brief spot of diamond smuggling, Flynn turns up to a hotel in Sultanahmet to discover former girlfriend Borchers towing behind her new husband, while Nat King Cole is the house pianist. Well, who wouldn’t be delighted? Of course, when Hollywood portrayed Istanbul as sophisticated, what it really meant was that it was exotic. As usual with all its films set in the eastern Mediterranean, we know the city’s male inhabitants can’t be trusted because they are either slovenly or effeminate. 

Istanbul’s music scene of the 1940s was heavily occupied by Turks quick not just to embrace but make a Xerox copy of Western music and especially jazz. Meanwhile black musicians having a tough time in the States were heading over to Europe, which led them to Istanbul, where they discovered eastern modals. In the 50s Turkish jazz bands would be pumping out the very worst of Dixieland while over in the U.S Art Blakey, Thelonius Monk, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane were discovering a whole new way of thinking based on Turkish music. 

A conceit of Cornucopia’s article is that this world can still be found. Turn left here and walk down a laneway that hasn’t changed in half a century. Enter this shop and step back in time. Nostalgia is a form of fraud, as is its opposite (a concept that interestingly enough has no single word for it in English). In post revolution Turkey history was something best to forget, or at least to rewrite, and if they were difficult then laugh at it. 

 The past hasn’t completely vanished. Anyone who wanders through the narrow strip of laneways between Istiklal and Cihangir can tell at once that this was once a land of seedy yet staunchly à la mode nightclubs. Until about five years ago some of the old cinema palaces around Istiklal, like the Alkazar and the Emek, survived. The Emek was vast, with elaborate galleries and even the way the curtains drew back on the screen was graceful and majestic. The film might be rubbish but you felt you were at an event. This image was taken at a cinema over in Aksaray in the 1940s. Back then the neighbourhood was a residential area under the shadow of Istanbul’s great mosques and the nearby Grand Bazaar. Today it is ugly and dishevelled, dissected by a highway and best known as a centre for sex trafficking. 

The long Ottoman era – but especially the last century – had been defined by exclusion. Women were not permitted here, non-Muslims could not go there, Muslim men could only enter this place so long as they didn’t eat this or touch that eat this and so on, ad nauseum. Even Protestants had more fun than that. As Ataturk understood secularism, people could believe and do as they wanted. To the neo-Ottomans this effectively unleashed a form of anarchy upon a nation conditioned to doing what it was told.

Even so, Turkey’s entrance into the modern world remained a celebration for the privileged: wealthy Turks who privately supported westernization, and the still powerful non-Muslim communities of Armenians, Greeks and Jews. In his memoir, Portrait of a Turkish Family, Irfan Orga describes the morning after the proclamation of the republic as quiet and still, the streets mostly empty, the businesses shuttered.  No one was really sure what the end of empire meant.  

 The feeling Cornucopia wants to impart is that Istanbul 1923 – 1959 was about the most exciting city on the planet. The French may disagree but they never had that sense of kicking against the pricks that drove Istanbul’s culture; or as Parisian Jean Cocteau put it: ‘Originality consists in trying to be like everybody else, and failing’. Only when it wanted to be Paris did 20th century Istanbul discover its real identity.