I have to remind myself again and again that I am just an observer. If I am going to write, I need to observe more than speak.
When my students ask me where I am from and I tell them, they are puzzled as to why I’m here. They point out my last name and assume that I’m here because I’m married to a Turk and I assure them that isn’t the case.
“Then why, teacher?” they ask.
I tell them I’m here because of Istanbul. I share with them all that I love about Istanbul and they smile back at me, still confused. They don’t seem to understand why a foreigner, especially one from an English speaking country would want to come and live in theirs.
What is there to love that they themselves find hard to love?
The truth is there is something peculiar about Turkish culture. Something that I have become more and more aware of but something I don’t speak about because it is a sensitive issue. Nevertheless, it is something that needs to be spoken about here because it is an important aspect of the genius loci that is Istanbul.
The it that I refer to is something called Hüzün.
I asked Anas today if hüzün meant anything in Arabic and he said yes. It means sadness. And I responded to him by saying that it was a very particular special kind of sadness.
Orhan Pamuk devoted the tenth chapter of his book “Istanbul: Memories and the City” to it. He described it as a type of communal melancholia- a depression – that is in the end self-perpetuating. Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar describes it as the melancholy of those doomed to arrive late in history through no fault of their own.
Allow me to explain…
Istanbul is a city that is in one way frozen in time. Its beloved iconic landmarks stand tall on the landscape, guiding visitors to the various historic quarters. Each tells a story of a glorious past but if you look closely you will notice that many of Istanbul’s lesser-known landmarks are left badly neglected. Very little, it seems, is preserved and proudly displayed.
I paraphrase Pamuk by saying that travellers may find these neglected part of the city and historic landmarks charming but for the more sensitive residents, the ruins and neglect are a reminder that this present city is too poor and confused to be able to rise up to its former heights of culture and power.
The root of this problem is more than just a lack of money. More importantly, there seems to be a lack of deep awareness and pride in their own cultural heritage and identity.
As the historic landmarks decay, they are replaced by restaurants, shopping malls, and office buildings; all of them ‘non-places’ which have steadily become the new landmarks of modern Istanbul.
History has become a word without deeper meaning. Stones are taken from the city walls and are added to modern material to make new buildings. Old buildings are restored haphazardly with concrete. It’s as if no point is seen in restoring things to their former beauty; no significance is placed on the importance of history as a continuum of identity – something that should be preserved and shared as a source of pride. The whole city suffers as a result of this attitude that is communally shared to one degree or another.
But where did all this begin?
In the 1920s Mustafa Kemal Ataturk led a drastic cultural revolution in an attempt to modernize the Muslim-majority Ottoman Empire. One of the reasons was because he felt humiliated and oppressed by the industrialized power of the West and urgently sought to match it.
The existing Ottoman culture was forcibly and hastily abandoned in order to emulate European modernity. Gone were the traditional lifestyles and artistry of the people. The newly minted Turkish Historical Association introduced a new history of Turkey, in which Turks became a primarily ethnic rather than religious community. The Ottoman language was stripped of all Arabic and Persian influences, reducing the vocabulary by 60%, in order to create the new modern Turkish language. Linear time was formally introduced with the passing of the Gregorian Calander Act in 1926 with the hope of maximizing the efficiency of individual citizens. Those who didn’t adhere to the new reforms were severely punished.
As the modernizers attempted to do in a few decades what it took the West centuries to develop, the forced change left the population feeling alienated and humiliated as they were expected to mimic the assumed superiority of others. They were no longer allowed to take pride in their own ways and had to assume a new identity that was not truly their own.
As Dostoyevsky once said, “No nation on earth, no society with a certain measure of stability, has been developed to order, on the lines of a program imported from abroad.” He was speaking from the experience of nineteenth-century Russia which was also coerced by its insecure rulers into imitating the West, resulting in bloody revolutions and authoritarian rulers that still persist.
Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar described it best by saying that the approach of top-down modernization left the people with the experience of arriving late in the modern world, as naive pupils, to find one’s future foreclosed and already defined by other people’s past and present.
According to him, and I agree, modernization can never be a tabula rasa. Instead, he hoped for a synthesis of past and present that went beyond secularist slogans and state programs for modernization. It had to be an invitation to create a vast and comprehensive synthesis of a new life unique to the people and compatible to their conditions without closing themselves to the West and by preserving their ties with the past.
Once discarded, Tanpınar warned, tradition cannot always be retrieved and used to re-enchant the world.
There is a definite sense of loss in the hüzün of Istanbul. How you define this loss is open-ended. I remain sensitive to it and re-examine my own thoughts concerning the meaning of modernization having become more aware of the damaging effects of cultural enginnering.