Seyahatname

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Cunda

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Written by szerlem

August 23, 2012 at 08:18

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Everything Is Ficition

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Sepoy linked to this piece in the New Yorker and I found this paragraph particularly touching (and true) —

And I mean that—everything is fiction. When you tell yourself the story of your life, the story of your day, you edit and rewrite and weave a narrative out of a collection of random experiences and events. Your conversations are fiction. Your friends and loved ones—they are characters you have created. And your arguments with them are like meetings with an editor—please, they beseech you, you beseech them, rewrite me. You have a perception of the way things are, and you impose it on your memory, and in this way you think, in the same way that I think, that you are living something that is describable. When of course, what we actually live, what we actually experience—with our senses and our nerves—is a vast, absurd, beautiful, ridiculous chaos.

Written by szerlem

August 15, 2012 at 12:17

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Langour

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I haven’t been here in a while and the general listlessness I feel these days is partly responsible. Istanbul is hot now, not terribly hot like Delhi, but hot enough with it strong sun and terrible humidity. I usually walk the last leg of my journey to the office in the morning (this journey involves taking the ferry across the bosphorous, a funicular uphill and then either a short metro ride or a fifteen minute walk), but this week I bailed and decided I would take the metro instead. The prospect of air-conditioning won over the thought of arriving at work drenched in sweat and wanting yet another shower. Perhaps it is the heat that has also made me listless with Istanbul. This has never happened and I never thought it ever would, but I do feel like Istanbul and I are in the midst of a little tiff. I feel frustrated by the heat, the crowds, the ramazan drummers. Even looking at the beloved skyline frustrates; the multitude of skyscrapers that are being built going higher, becoming more concrete everyday.

Last month I went to the UK for a week and I think that only added to the confusion I feel. Till my work permit came through I was going back there so often it hardly felt as if I had left, but this time it was clear I had with no idea of when I will or can go back. I miss the place, I miss the people there, I even miss the stodgy full English. The grey wet miserable cold weather was welcome (till it was not, having outstayed that welcome). I feel at times like a loutish teenager who wants everything — I want to be here and there. And yet, I also have a long list of complaints and issues with both places and if I am not here I know I will wish I was. At any rate, I think all my frustrations with this city will son dissipate, it is too beloved for it not too. In the meantime, I am currently in the midst of a massive love affair with the Aegean and that takes away some of the angst of being annoyed with this place. This weekend I am going away to Ayvalik and Cunda and that has been an incredibly happy thought in this vile, vile heat. I am looking forward to the green of the olive trees, turquoise blue of the sea and the smell of fish.

Written by szerlem

August 8, 2012 at 09:51

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On 1453

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I wrote about the film Fetih 1453  and the conquest of Istanbul for al Majalla here. They edited out the bit about the Panorama Museum (I was completely over the word limit! At any rate, the museum is great.) So here is the whole piece.

This May 29th marked the 559th anniversary of the conquest of Istanbul. Thousands of people gathered in the soft drizzling rain on the Golden Horn in the evening to watch the celebrations. Some climbed trees to get a better view of the stage that had been set up on the water, others contributed to the atmosphere by wearing Ottoman costumes. Almost everyone was waving the national flag. To fill the gap before the spectacle actually began, the organisers played some kind of neo-Ottomanist militaristic tune on a loop. “This is infectious,” said my friend swaying to the music, along with the vigorously flag-waving crowd, “It reminds me of what Woody Allen said about not being able to listen to too much Wagner for fear of wanting to conquer Poland.”  When the proceedings began a voiceover reminded the crowds of Sultan Mehmet’s statement before the conquest – “Either I will take Istanbul or Istanbul, me.” Heavy cheering ensued. This might not have been what the Sultan actually said, but almost everyone in the crowd would have been familiar with these words that had been emblazoned over the city on the posters of the summer mega blockbuster ‘Fetih 1453’.

When ‘Fetih 1453’ (Conquest 1453), a historical epic about the conquest of Istanbul, released in February – the premiere was a matinee show at 14.53 – it was the most expensive film to have been made in the history of Turkish cinema. The film boasts 16,000 extras, CGI effects, numerous sword fights and battle scenes, free use of violence and a cameo voice-over by the Prophet himself. The film’s ambitiousness meant an ever-expanding budget during filming and trouble with financing. By the time shooting had wrapped up the film had taken the best part of three years and an estimated $17 million to be made. Still, the producers need not have worried about the budget, which was massive by Turkish standards. On just the opening weekend, a staggering 1,405,000 viewers flocked to the movie theatres to watch the film. It was the best opening weekend any Turkish film had ever seen. Since then, Fetih has become the highest grossing Turkish film of all time, earning back about three times the cost of making the film.

The success of the film is, perhaps, not all that surprising given that its release has coincided with a period of particularly strong love for all things Ottoman in Turkey. Much has been made of the current government’s so-called ‘neo-Ottoman’ foreign policy, but interest in Turkey’s Ottoman past has very much become a feature of cultural life in the country, with ‘Ottomania’ affecting realms from food to fashion. Soon after the film’s release school children were taken on school outings to see the film. A restaurant in the heart of Istanbul’s touristic Sultanahmet district that specialises in Ottoman food brought out a special ‘Conquest Menu’. More recently, when the football club Galatasaray won the Süper Lig trophy the Turkish daily Radikal used the Fetih poster to report and celebrate the club’s victory. The club’s manager Fatih Terim, whose name literally means ‘conqueror’, was shown as the conqueror of Istanbul.

Swords and Sandals; Violence and Hedonism

But what of the film itself? I went to see the film expecting a historical piece that follows the journey of Sultan Mehmet II and his successful siege of Constantinople. What I ended up seeing was a story about the conquest that gets mostly co-opted by a love triangle between the heroic Ulubatlı Hasan (a character of dubious historical reality, but one who is nevertheless celebrated in Turkish folklore as planting the conquering Ottoman flag on the Byzantine palace and getting shot down by arrows in the process), the Genoese commander of the Byzantine forces, and a cross–dressing female canon member of the Ottoman army who makes the victory possible. As a way of assurance that the film was not completely insane, my Turkish friend guaranteed that all school children did learn the Ulubatli Hasan version of the conquest (though there was no love triangle mentioned). “In school when we had to draw the conquest, I remember drawing Ulubatli Hasan planting the Ottoman flag, with tons of arrows in him.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, for all the money spent on the film, it has come in for criticism from critics and historians for its recreation of the past, and especially its depiction of the Byzantines, who are painted with broad brushstrokes as evil hedonists. A Byzantine historian friend fumed that the film was so off the mark that “it seemed the makers had not even bothered to read a basic history of the period”. The critic Emine Yıldırım was even harsher on the film writing “Obviously, the filmmakers did a lot of research and expended a lot of effort to depict the Ottoman state as genuinely as possible, but why has this not also been the case for the Byzantines? In the film, Emperor Constantine XI and his statesmen seem to have been transplanted from a comic book universe where there are no grey lines between good and evil.” The simple oppositional set up of the film not only ignores the fact that there were a large number of Greeks who were fighting on the Ottoman side, but also some of the continuity the Ottomans themselves saw between Byzantine and Ottoman rule. On his conquest of the city, Mehmet claimed the title ‘Caesar of Rome’.

Apart from problematic historical representation, a fault found in many a historical blockbuster, there is also the violence. The journalist Andrew Finkel says he saw the film as an unconscious celebration of war. At the end of the film, once Constantinople has been conquered Sultan Mehmet enters the Hagia Sofia, where a group of terrified Byzantines have been hiding, kisses a baby and declares that the citizens of the city have nothing to be afraid of and can practice their religion as they like. Though the event is historical fact, coming on the back of endless minutes of violent battle scenes, it seems too superficial a gesture. The film also makes a big play of Mehmet allowing the defeated army to bury the King Constantine’s body as per their rituals, though in actual fact the fate of the last Byzantine Emperor’s body or its burial place is highly disputed. It is this kind of token nod to tolerance that caused Yıldırım to declare the film a “muddled pool of hypocrisy” that not only engenders antagonism against the West, but also reinforces an aspiration for superiority. The columnist Burak Bekdil added to the sentiment writing, “Sadly, millions of Turks will go to the theatres to feel proud of their ancestors and to visually show their children “our greatness.” We are great not only because “we had the power of the sword” but, even more sadly, because we still adore the idea.”

The Conquest in Public Consciousness

These criticisms, however, were just a few in a sea of praise for the film, which even Prime Minister Erdoğan has said was “well done”. Andrew Finkel tells me that he thinks 1453 has a continued resonance because in many ways the story of the conquest has resonance not just for the political classes who want to re-enact that ultimate triumph again and again, but also for the many people who have come or want to come to Istanbul. Despite being banished to the side-lines by the new Republic in its first decades, Istanbul has been the throbbing heart of the country and a magnet for migration since the 1950s. Today the city is home to nearly 15 million people. According to the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality, the city has seen a migration of nearly 11 million people over the last fifty years. “You can say that Istanbul has been conquered multiple times even in my lifetime,” says Finkel. “The Istanbul of today is not the city it was in the ‘60s, ‘70s or even the ‘90s. The notion of conquering the city and making it one’s own has a strong resonance.”

A few weeks after the release of the film, I paid a visit to the Istanbul Panorama Museum. The museum is located near the city’s Byzantine Theodosian walls and recreates in three dimensions the moment of the conquest. In a country where museums are not exactly popular excursion venues, it took an approximately forty-five minute wait amongst a crowd of mostly religiously observant visitors to get in. The museum has been popular since its opening in 2009, but I also wondered if the release of the film had caused a spike in the number of visitors to the museum. Inside, the rush of crowds made it difficult to clearly see the panorama. At one point a whisper went around the room that Sultan Mehmet’s face could be seen in the clouds. After being convinced by my Turkish friend that she too could not see the Conqueror’s face, while everyone around us exclaimed their excitement at a spotting, we made the most of the distraction to focus on the panorama itself. What I saw of the panorama was well worth the effort – the paintings were beautiful. The museum’s location means that the created panorama maps out on to the walls outside tying in the epic story of the conquest with material culture that witnessed it and still survives. As I walked along the city walls afterwards I could not help but be struck by how deserted they were. Though the walls have undergone restoration since 2005, large segments seem abandoned and desolate. The visitors had come and seen the museum, but paid little or no attention to the actual place where the historical event had taken place. It was perhaps easier to think of the fantastic, movie images when thinking of the conquest than trying to reimagine the glorious moment looking at the ancient walls.

In spite of the early Republic’s rejection of all things Ottoman, the conquest of Istanbul has one of the two main central dates in Turkish historiography. After the 1980 coup, the military government embarked on a wide-ranging cultural project of Turkish-Islamic synthesis. In the run up to the coup the country had been racked by violent divisions between the left and right-wing political groups and it was hoped that Islam and Turkish nationalism in combination would prove to be an all-inclusive ideology. It was a final consolidation of the re-embrace of religion that had first become visible in Turkish politics and public culture in the 1950s. After the Welfare Party (the predecessor of the currently-ruling AK Party) won the 1994 Istanbul municipality elections, there was a determined effort to reinstate 1453 as the defining event in the life of the nation. In the Istanbul neighbourhood of Üsküdar, two red sculptures of the dates 1453 and 1923 overlook the Bosphorous. One is the year the city was conquered, the other the year the Republic was established. It might be too simplistic to say that 1453 is now more important, but the release of Fetih has certainly contributed to a certain swagger and nationalistic pride over the conquest and made it even more central to popular culture and politics in Turkey today.

Written by szerlem

June 16, 2012 at 18:26

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Shameless Plug

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A piece I wrote about the Ottoman Bank Museum was published recently. Go here to read it 

Written by szerlem

April 5, 2012 at 12:41

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Stamboul when it snows

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The streets of Istanbul are close to being murderous when it snows. They are often treacherous in normal circumstances, with sudden twists, almost ninety-degree slopes and uneven pavements but an added layer of ice makes them a dangerous accident waiting to happen.  The uneven pavements get carefully hidden and those near perpendicular streets become slides of ice, with one wrong step threatening to deposit you at the bottom of the road.

A dusting of snow almost seems to slow the city down a notch, suddenly everyone negotiating the streets with baby steps. Today a swarm of municipal workers in neon orange appeared to clear the streets. The streets are now dotted at regular intervals with mounds of snow and ice. On those crazy sloping streets, these heaps seem to turn into mini glaciers, the source of narrow rivulets that flow downhill and clean the streets as they flow.

Written by szerlem

February 10, 2012 at 14:04

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