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10. “Beloved Istanbul”

Realism and the Transnational Imaginary in Turkish Popular Culture

Martin Stokes

When Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish nation, died in 1938, his body was moved from Dolmabahçe, the last palace of the Ottomans in Istanbul, to a vast and austere mausoleum in Ankara, the capital he created in the center of the new republic. When President Turgut Özal died in Ankara in 1989, his body moved in the opposite direction, ending up, after a funeral service in Fatih (a stronghold of Islamist politics), to the Süleymaniye Mosque, which dominates the historic “old city.” He was interred in a family plot, in close proximity to the mausoleum of another religiously minded populist liberal prime minister, Adnan Menderes, who was ousted and executed after a military coup in 1961. Thus “the uniform and unified Kemalist holy cosmos has yielded to a type of symbolic ambiguity,” remarked Günter Seufert and Petra Weyland (1994, 85), and the focus of this ambiguity is Istanbul. This chapter is concerned with popular cultural images of what one might call, following Seufert and Weyland, an “ambiguous Istanbul”: images that mediate the way its inhabitants perceive and act in a dramatically changing urban environment. This exercise raises a more general set of questions, of resonance outside Turkey. Is nationalist modernism in the Middle East a spent force, and if so, what is replacing it?

Modernity, following Max Weber’s somewhat pessimistic diagnosis, has often been imagined as a total transformation, of one cloth, as it were, and a predominantly European and North American experience at that. Anthropologists have more recently begun to argue that this is a more complex and fragmented experience, that “modernities” should be spoken of in the plural and examined ethnographically, and that the preeminence of the European experience (and the subordinate relation of other modernities to it) should be questioned (note, e.g., Armbrust 1996; Faubion 1993; Miller 1994). Turkish modernity has, since 1923, been framed by the state’s nation-building project, which, like others, has struggled to reconcile national with global imperatives. The production of a distinctly national social and cultural reality, rational, secular, functional, gendered, and ethnicized, has throughout been uneasily aware of its Other, rendered in Turkey in pathologized terms as Oriental, “Islamic,” irrational, and transgressive. The production of a spatial imaginary of place and territory has also been crucial to the state project as many commentators have pointed out, a task of representation that (like all others) is never complete and easily undone.[1]

No place has had a more complex and crucial role in mediating the place of Turkey in the world than Istanbul, and this chapter is concerned with contemporary struggles over the representation of a “global Istanbul.” If modernist republican aspirations were clearly focused on Atatürk’s capital, Ankara, Istanbul was condemned as an unpromising site for national regeneration; the labyrinthine complexity of the streets, its “mixed” population and schizophrenic placelessness (“between” Europe and Asia) serving as a telling foil for the nation builders’ vision of a modern society. The city, and what it looks like, has always been a crucial issue for Turkey’s modernizing elites. The ordering principle is, indeed, insistently visual, constituting distinctly new kinds of urban views and viewers. The foregrounding of this kind of visualized functionality is one of the first principles of architectural modernism and modern urban planning, a technique that works particularly well when this functionality can be juxtaposed with “traditional” or “historical” quarters preserved precisely to this end. The importation of this kind of modernist planning into the Middle East, and the way it mediated an emerging colonial order toward the end of the nineteenth century, has been discussed persuasively by a number of authors (see Çelik 1986; Fuller 1996; Gilsenan 1982; Mitchell 1988; Wright 1991).

The point extends to the subsequent nationalism of the modern Turkish republic, whose dependence on the Western powers, as Çağlar Keyder and others have argued, only deepened after the war of independence (see, in particular, Keyder 1987). The secular elites who founded the republic established principles of realism, legibility, clarity, and function, principles that carried, and in some respects continue to carry, an extremely heavy moral and political load and that continue to mediate an unequal relationship with the Western powers. These principles were epitomized by the design of the new capital city and the state-promoted celebration of its Anatolian hinterland. In Ankara architecture and urban planning were explicitly designed to connect “Turkish” (that is, Hittite and Sumerian) prehistory to wider currents of European modernism and to efface the Islamic and Ottoman past. Istanbul thus came to stand for the reverse: Ottoman/pan-Islamic “civilization” as opposed to a national “culture” (to use the terminology of one of the republic’s most influential political theorists, Ziya Gökalp), “the past” as opposed to “the modern,” secrecy as opposed to clarity, hybridity as opposed to purity, complexity as opposed to simplicity, hierarchy as opposed to egalitarianism, “fantasy” as opposed to “reality,” and so on.[2]

The parallel processes of structural adjustment and accelerated integration into a global economy that Özal initiated in Turkey have been accompanied by the conspicuous growth of Istanbul, a growth that is simultaneously demographic, political, economic, and cultural. As Kevin Robins and Asu Aksoy (1995) aptly point out, this is a fragmented and uneven process. Two distinct Istanbuls are emerging. One is the product of the business elites who have thrived in the liberal economic environment created by Özal. This Istanbul is one that is currently celebrating its “global” status as a center of commerce and culture for the new Central Asian and Balkan states and that is currently being marketed in ways that are designed to attract global flows in its direction.

The other Istanbul, in Robins and Aksoy’s view, is the focus of a process of intense rural-urban migration that began nearly half a century ago. Migration has been actively encouraged by the state during particular periods of industrial development (some would argue that the policy continues through the more or less enforced movement of the Kurdish population away from the southeast to an environment in which they can be more effectively supervised and integrated into the national economy), but it remains an overwhelmingly popular movement. The present government continues to pursue the chimera of an Istanbul of limited demographic expansion, while migrants continue to pour into the city’s squatter towns at an unprecedented rate.

It is the former Istanbul that constitutes the focus of an insistent new language of globalization, mobilized in particular around the 1996 Habitat conference and a number of events and exhibitions evoking Istanbul’s “global” status. This discourse of globalization has been an important strategy in the legitimization of liberal and Islamist city managers; for the former, “opening up” Turkey to the wider global traffic in commodities, ideas, and opportunities, and for the latter evoking the Golden Age in which Turks dominated Europe and the Middle East. In practice the two strategies have converged, as Özal’s liberalism was marked by an attempt to co-opt increasingly oppositional Islamist politics, and, in power, the main Islamist party, the Refah Partisi, successfully made common cause with the city’s major business elites.

The city’s liberal mayor in the 1980s, Bedrettin Dalan (of Özal’s ANAP), and his Islamist successor in the mid-1990s, Recep Tayyib Erdoğan, pursued similar planning objectives in Istanbul, characteristically modern in their appeal to the city’s visual order. Vast funds have been devoted to cleaning the Golden Horn, bulldozing inner-city gecekondu (squatter) development to create parks, rezoning unsightly heavy industry, illuminating the old city’s mosques, and pointing up the city’s picture-postcard skyline of domes and slender minarets, revealing the city—and hence the nation’s—Islamic and Ottoman historical infrastructure. This visualization is a point of constant rhetorical appeal. A city council Buletin from these years (August 1995) contains a cartoon showing a young man looking across at the old city, the piled-up mosque domes and minarets vastly exaggerated. “Why should anybody need alcohol when we live surrounded by this mind-spinning beauty!” the caption exclaims. The message is absolutely clear, the young man is positioned in one of the popular locations from which one views the sun setting over the old city (probably Salancak, between Üsküdar and Harem). The flowers that surround him evoke the Ottoman poetic trope of the “rose garden of love”; in fact, a huge road, constructed in 1990 as a link in the new coastal-road project, has now destroyed this once-beautiful spot. What makes the view beautiful, at least from the point of view of the Buletin’s (anonymous) cartoonist, is the Ottoman/Islamic profile of the city, the manifestation of a political heritage of which Refah claim to be the true guardians. While the cartoon overtly accompanied their ongoing antialcohol campaign, the picture’s meanings operate more generally against the background of Refah’s pursuit of a simultaneously modern and Islamic Istanbul. “Historical,” business, residential, and industrial areas are neatly and rationally zoned by the planners, and the process is pleasurably confirmed by the viewing subject in the cartoon.

Away from the fantasies of those who have the power to mobilize their visions in stone, cement, and legislation, Istanbul has become the focus of less solid but no less significant imaginings. The popular cultural urban imaginary is complex. It is an imaginary that has roots, but also a more pressing and recent history, in the face of policies that have rendered everyday life in the city particularly difficult for many of its inhabitants. It is also an imaginary that operates against the background of the particularly intense involvement of the Turkish state in the production of exemplary forms of national culture. The complex nature of literary representations of Istanbul make sense when set against this.

The connections between models of literary realism and the narratives of nationalism have been elaborated by Benedict Anderson (1991) in a well-known analysis. “Realism” directed writers away from elite Ottoman codes to the vernacular (in the Turkish case, heavily constructed through an intense process of linguistic reform) and away from a subject matter generated from within and often about the city. The purpose of the republic’s exemplary literature was the evocation of life in the “real” Turkey, that of the Anatolian countryside, portraying “something self-evidently there, recorded for the purposes of changing it” (Holbrook 1994, 24). The same principle extended beyond language and literature. “Ottoman” music was purged for analogous reasons and replaced, primarily through the agency of the radio, associated conservatories, professional cadres, and archival projects, by an invented folk culture that aspired to reflect the “real” life of the villages (see Markoff 1990; Stokes 1992a).

This realist imperative directed musicians and writers to the countryside, away from Istanbul; for those who resisted this imperative (for a variety of reasons), the city became the locus of a distinct and complex phantasmagoria, approached via dream, fantasy, reminiscence, and guilty and uncertain backward glances. In fact, the city has a long history of distinguished literary celebrants throughout the republican period, notably in the poetry of Yahya Kemal Bayatlı and Orhan Veli and the novels of Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar. The literary evocation of a phantasmagoric Istanbul might be traced in the work of all of these writers, but it is in the more recent novels of Orhan Pamuk (to which I return) that one can detect an explicitly countermodern literary tradition, dark, melancholy, convoluted, which tacitly interrogates the canon of Anatolian-oriented literary realist texts constructed and promoted by the nationalist intelligentsia.

Popular music provides more overtly dissident expressions of this kind of countermodernity. The genre known as arabesk, connected in the 1970s and 1980s to the local film industry, and now to video clips promoted by the music industry on the new satellite channels, constitutes a different yet equally explicit fantasy of the city. For the ruralites in the big city who constitute the stereotypical heroes and heroines of the genre, Istanbul is an object of attraction and fear; indeed, fate itself. In Ayrılamam (I Will Not Separate; 1987) the singer Emrah (playing himself, as always) and his widowed mother are seduced by their wicked uncle into leaving their village with the clinching words “Başka Istanbul yok!” (There’s only one Istanbul!). In Istanbul they meet their paradigmatic end, manipulation, humiliation, violence, and finally solitude and death. Istanbul itself becomes a remote object of desire, an analogue of those “modern” women who manipulate and humiliate the male protagonist in so many arabesk dramas, while embodying their deepest hopes and desires (Stokes 1992a, 138–42).

The popular repertoire is full of songs that express this ambiguous attitude. Taner Şener famously “hated Istanbul” (“Istanbul’u Hiç Sevmiyorum”) in the 1960s; this sentiment was echoed three decades later in Burhan Çaçan’s immensely popular hit, “Istanbul’a Niçin Geldim” (Why Did I Come to Istanbul?; 1995), and Yılmaz Morgül’s “Elveda Istanbul” (Farewell Istanbul) a year later. A distinct register of fatalism and pessimism focusing on the city thus marks this musical repertoire, a fact that has led to its persistent condemnation by nationalist intellectual elites and cultural legislators (Stokes 1992b).

Opposing an “official” nationalist modernity with an “unofficial” popular countermodernity runs the risk of dichotomizing and simplifying a complex situation, and of endorsing some of the less productive binarisms of nationalist modernizers (“traditional” vs. “modern,” “Ottoman” vs. “Republican” Turkey, “rationality” vs. “irrationality”). It is, in fact, the links and interdependencies between the two forms of modernist cultural production that are striking; the complex forms of dialogue that are set up between them provide grounds for evaluating the continued significance of the nationalist project in Turkey today. Two recent popular texts, Orhan Pamuk’s Kara Kitab (The Black Book) and Bülent Ersoy’s recording of “Aziz Istanbul” (Beloved Istanbul), that are crucially concerned with the ways in which Istanbul might be “seen” provide my point of departure.

Kara Kitab

Kara Kitab concerns the necessity of memory and the problematic search for identity among people who are obsessed with imitating others. As an allegory of the failure of the entire state project in Turkey, the book could hardly be more explicit. One character, a lawyer named Galip (victor), searches for his missing wife, Rüya (dream), who has disappeared with her half brother, an evasive journalist named Celal (divine wrath) who is also Galip’s cousin. The parallels between Galip’s quest and the spiritual quest for the beloved are revealed both to the reader and to Galip himself, with constant references to Jalal al-Din Rumi’s Masnavi, Attar’s Conference of the Birds, Sheikh Galip’s Beauty and Love, and the doctrine of Hurufism (the mystical interpretation of the letters of the alphabet). Indeed, the sense of following in others’ footsteps, being trapped in other people’s stories, without at the same time being able to transcend them, lies very much at the heart of Galip’s “nightmare,” a nightmare that ends in disaster.

The characters in the book are obsessed with time in quite different ways. The protagonist, Galip, lives in the past. His missing wife, we learn, is only happy when immersed in the future-directed telos of detective stories (this book is also a detective story in reverse, with the death coming at the end). The evasive journalist has a particular fascination with places and spaces that have been forgotten but is losing his memory and takes medicine that he believes will remedy the problem. The book’s plot hinges on missed or chanced-on telephone calls and coincidental meetings; the failure of people to intervene in the passing of time and shape their own destinies is stressed throughout (the parallels with arabesk films should be noted). Rüya reads detective novels apparently as a means of evading other responsibilities. The journalist, whose articles dwell on forgotten, murky corners of the city in a veiled apocalyptic idiom, sends concealed messages to former lovers and political accomplices through his daily column, and they in turn act in ways he is unable to control. The best Galip can do is ponder the past, but of the three, he, a melancholy and solitary wanderer (not dissimilar to the gariban protagonist of the arabesk film), emerges “victorious” precisely as a consequence of his intervention in and identification with the past.

This engagement with the past is a constant preoccupation in Orhan Pamuk’s fiction, and it marks the clearest possible difference between his novels and the forms of realism promoted by nationalist intelligentsia. The paradigmatic idiom of expression of the republic’s novelists was everyday speech; a style of writing known as devrik cümle (lit., inverted sentence)[3] was specifically designed to reflect this. Brevity was a key feature of this modernistic realism, also partly a result of the expense of printing books, which meant that most writers’ work was serialized in newspapers or printed as short stories. By contrast, Pamuk’s novels (themselves on the lengthy side) are full of speakers who reminisce at excessive length. Galip recognizes his own capacity to bore, and Celal’s prose is described by a bitter critic of his in the book as “unrealistic and imitative” and his work as “nonpolitical nonsense concerning his own private obsessions which he penned in an outmoded manner and a prose style that was unreadable and much too long” (1996, 395). Pamuk’s ironic and self-referential voice should be recognized here: these criticisms are sometimes directed at the writer himself, and even fans speak of the fact that the prose is “cold,” “distanciating” (mesefali), and sometimes simply “difficult.” But these are also the techniques by which he critically comments on the norms of realism fostered in the republic, which Pamuk implies have been precisely responsible for the nation losing its literary memory.

Pamuk’s dense and somewhat convoluted prose style, now generating a secondary literature of explanatory textbooks, is a metaphor for the city itself, which might perhaps be considered the key figure in the book. This fact is undoubtedly one of the key causes of the novelist’s immense popularity. He writes about an Istanbul that people can actually recognize—cold, wet, impossibly huge, easy to lose one’s way in, and of constantly surprising three-dimensionality. Pamuk’s city is impossible to “see,” in a variety of ways, but at the same time (as if to emphasize this visually conceived powerlessness), it is a city in which it is very easy to be observed. A column by Celal in the book elaborates a “metaphysical experiment” in which he observes himself being observed by a large eye while he is wandering around the streets on a dark night. For Celal this is an externalization of his own habit of self-surveillance, but the image haunts Galip, who is tormented by the idea that he is being watched and followed. The resonance of this for readers in Turkey in their thirties today, who experienced the military coup of 1980 and its aftermath as high school or university students, should not be forgotten.

The three-dimensionality of this city is for Pamuk a telling metaphor of Turkey’s unseen and unwanted past. Two of the most celebrated passages in the novel describe buried history. In the first, Pamuk imagines the water draining out of the Bosphorus, and the life that would emerge among two millennia of junk, thrown away in order to be forgotten or concealed. The second describes the maker of mannequins around the turn of the century who begins to perceive that Turks on the street are losing their gestures, looks, and bodily movements, their “innocence” destroyed by imported Western films. His workshop turns into a museum of gestures and movements that are disappearing from the streets. As this obsessive task of documentation continues, he is obliged to dig deeper and deeper under the streets of Beyoğlu to make space for his growing collection, which finally becomes a parallel labyrinthine underground city. This burying of the past is part of the city’s “incomprehensible” nature; the past has to be excavated with an act of the imagination, and the present can only be redeemed through this kind of excavation. This not only requires imagination but a rejection of a certain notion of “reality”—on the surface, there for everybody to see (like Ankara). The novel problematizes the act of seeing in the city. It is in precisely this way that Pamuk invites his readers to engage critically with the state’s tradition of realism.

“Beloved Istanbul”

Bülent Ersoy’s “Aziz Istanbul” involves a similarly reflexive view of the city. The song raises the question of imitation in a more bluntly provocative way. For Pamuk, imitation is simultaneously a means of damnation and salvation. In the quest for selfhood (or, one might say, viable cultural identity), one cannot avoid imitating, but the process requires imagination. For Pamuk, the act of imaginative imitation, of being somebody else, actually denies repetition and closure; to look back at the past is not necessarily to repeat the past’s mistakes (as Turkey’s republican ideologues have been asserting since the 1930s)—it is, in fact, the only way forward.[4]

“Aziz Istanbul” is a rerecording of a song whose text was written by Yahya Kemal Bayatlı (one of the foremost republican poets of the city), and whose music was composed and recorded for HMV by Münir Nureddin Selçuk in the late 1940s. Selçuk stood somewhat apart from the state’s musical reforms, being associated with the urban art-music genre, which was, in comparison to Ottoman literature, rather halfheartedly and unsystematically opposed (see Stokes 1992a). Selçuk was, however, a reformist, a popular exponent of the view that the urban genre should not be condemned but modernized, a process that would allow the music to engage with the wider currents of the “modern” and simultaneously (this being the ideological sleight of hand of Turkish, and indeed many other nationalisms) reveal its essential Turkishness.[5] He was, according to his Turkish celebrants (see, in particular, Kulin 1996), the man who put Turkish music in Western dress (“Türk musikisine frak giydiren adam”). The allusions to Atatürk are really quite explicit: the founder of the republic, quite literally, put Turks into Western dress. The promotional photographs of the singer show him striking a dandified, Westernized stance; smartly dressed in a variety of suits and hats, often looking at some point above and beyond the photographer, as in many of the more famous portraits of Atatürk that are to be found in offices and cafés all over the country.

Selçuk was a member of a family whose position in the bureaucratic establishment straddled the Ottoman and early republican period. His father was a high-ranking religious official; he himself learned his art at the foremost musical institutions in Istanbul and went to France to further his musical studies in 1926. He worked extensively with the emerging Turkish film industry, making a name for himself singing some of the first imitations of the Egyptian musicals that were so quickly banned by the new republic. His recordings were the best-selling hits of the day. He was the first Turkish musical “star” in other senses. Most conspicuously, it was he who initiated the practice of standing apart from the seated musicians. Formerly the singer (a mere hanende, seated alongside the instrumental sazende) was part of an ensemble; Selçuk was thus directly responsible for introducing a “modern” and hierarchical division of labor into Turkish musical practice. A statue in Kadiköy commemorates his passing.

Bülent Ersoy is the direct descendant of this kind of musical stardom—fabulous, remote, and spectacular. She too was the recipient of an elite form of musical education. Her trip to Europe, however, had a very different motivation: she underwent surgery for a sex-change operation in London in 1981. Her exile in Germany was at least partially the result of an intense debate in Turkey over whether a transsexual was in fact a man or a woman (an argument that has only relatively recently been resolved in favor of transsexuals). If Bülent’s identity card stated that Bülent was a man, there was no problem, but if her card was to be changed to reflect her new identity (as she wished), then she had to get a special police permit to perform live; this was never granted, on moral grounds. The sexual politics of Bülent’s music have a longer pedigree. Her very distinctive vocal style is explicitly modeled not on the avuncular Münir Nureddin Selçuk but on her teacher Müzeyyen Senar, a well-known lesbian. The lofty and somewhat remote gaze of Selçuk is thus opposed, in Bülent’s version of his song, by a different kind of glance (quite literally encapsulated in the pictures of the singer on her cassette covers); campily ambiguous, engaging and questioning, and invariably directed at the camera/viewer.

It is not just sexual politics but a matter of style, and more particularly an attitude to the sung word itself that distinguish the two singers. Whereas Selçuk’s voice has always been famous for its light clarity of texture, Senar’s passionate and dramatic voice, for Turkish listeners, lacks precisely this quality. The musical style favored by nationalist ideologues was to be as clear and legible as it was realistic. Still today singers connected with Turkish Radio and Television (TRT) criticize others for their lack of diksiyon, which might simply be glossed as “clear communication.” Although Selçuk had no connection with the resuscitated rural style that was shaped by nationalist ideologues in the 1940s, his work exemplifies a concern with legibility. Each word can be heard clearly. The same cannot be said for arabesk singers. TRT musicians interpret this both as an intellectual failure and as a lack of proper schooling, and, indeed, the two are connected in their minds. Why should anybody bother to sing things clearly when the words are practically meaningless anyway?

Bülent Ersoy’s music is often identified by singers connected with the world of cultural officialdom as the logical conclusion of this art of vocal obscurity. Their point is put in classic modernist terms: too much passion and not enough technique. These are of course quite explicit, aimed-for vocal techniques on the part of such paradigmatic arabesk singers as Bülent Ersoy (whose singing is a vocal drama in which words are played with and deliberately distorted), Ibrahim Tatlıses (who sings at such a high pitch that words are very difficult to pick out simply for physiological reasons), and Müslüm Gürses (who mumbles).[6] The text of Yahya Kemal’s poetry in Bülent’s “Aziz Istanbul” is thus particularly hard to follow. The piece is sung, if anything, a little slower than the original, meaning that the words are more drawn out and more easily interspersed with sighs and gasps that disrupt and even conceal the text. As I have often discovered, while trying to identify a lyric heard as background music, people who have not made a particular effort to learn or listen to the words (and word books can be purchased to this end) have great difficulty in hearing what Bülent, and indeed many other popular singers, are actually “saying.” Bülent’s distanciating and convoluted vocal art might therefore be usefully compared to Pamuk’s prose style.

Much of what is alluded to, hinted at, or actually obscured by the voice revolves in musical performance around the opening poetically conventional “ah,” with which Yahya Kemal’s poem begins, and which Münir Nureddin Selçuk and Bülent Ersoy elaborate in quite different musical ways.[7] Yahya Kemal’s poem has the poet looking out over the city, “I looked down on you yesterday from a hilltop beloved Istanbul / I could not see one place that I had not strolled through, did not love / Create happiness in my heart as long as I live / Even the love of one of your neighborhoods is worth an entire life.”[8] Münir Nureddin Selçuk takes the stereotypical sigh and cleverly turns it into a representational reference to the hill from which the poet is looking out at the city, Çamlıca.

Çamlıca has a very distinct place in Turkish popular culture. It is not only the space and the relatively fresh air that have made this a popular excursion since it was opened as a municipal park in 1867 but the view. One cannot only look across the city and see its edges, but one can also look down on it. This, as Donatella Mazzoleni (1993, 297) suggests, is a rare privilege in the modern city. In particular, the viewer experiences the sound of the call to prayer coming from below, rather than from minarets towering above. The opening “ah” traces the sound of the call to prayer in the faintest outline; the singer is echoed by a ghostly female chorus. The view of Istanbul, and the distant sound of the mosques, establishes the viewer as a sovereign modern. He (the viewer is unambiguously gendered) looks down on a glorious Islamic/Ottoman past that has been built on and transcended, the mosques that represent it quietly evoking the old rhythms precisely to signify their transcendence by the new (see Augé 1995, 75).

In other ways too the viewpoint constructed by Yahya Kemal’s words and Selçuk’s vocal performance is the product of a decisively modern experience. The popular practice of excursions and enjoying a view in itself is modern. Çamlıca has been the focus of an emerging culture of excursions and pleasure trips that can be dated with some precision to the beginning of the Tanzimat reform process, which involved, among other things, the increased interest in the appearance of the urban fabric and the expansion of a planned transport system across and beyond the city (Belge 1983). In Yahya Kemal’s poem this view also encodes a moral position. The relationship that the singer imagines with the city is a modern matrimonial relationship, clearly gendered and based on romantic, lifelong, individual attraction, the very image of the late Ottoman and early republican ideal of modern marriage (Duben and Behar 1991). As if to emphasize the modern marital order that the song evokes, the opening “ah” is clearly gendered in the vocal performance. The first time it is sung by Münir Nureddin Selçuk, and on repetition it is sung by a chorus of women: a neatly balanced sentimental hierarchy.

If there is a hint of ambiguity in Selçuk’s recording, it springs from the simple fact that the beloved city in question is Istanbul and not Ankara. Things in the beloved city are not entirely under control. The beauties alluded to (keying the beautiful women associated with Istanbul’s upmarket neighborhoods in this musical genre) are distant, remote. Once seen, they disappear.[9] What modern technologies of transport and surveillance provide, they also whisk away. The observer is left on his own, with nothing more than memories. Yahya Kemal’s poem begins with reminiscence, “I looked down on you yesterday from a hilltop, beloved Istanbul.” There is a wistful nostalgia to the song that is characteristic of many of the poetic and literary representations of the view of the city from Çamlıca (and Yahya Kemal’s poetry in general) that springs precisely from the more general fact that, according to the dominant logic of Turkish modernity, no more than the most fleeting backward glance could be permitted in the resolute westward march.

If this might be interpreted as a sneaking nostalgic doubt in Münir Nureddin Selçuk’s version, it fades into utter insignificance in comparison to Bülent Ersoy’s. Bülent brings to the performance a dramatic play on gender and sexuality, which clearly undermines the gently “paired” (although hierarchically ordered) masculinity and femininity of Selçuk’s performance. Bülent’s voice is, for most Turkish listeners, one of passion and transgressive sexuality (aşk); it is the voice itself, not simply the words, that constitutes the “meaning” of the song. For those who know the original, the cool, legible balance of Selçuk’s version is entirely subverted. This destabilization makes its most dramatic manifestation in the opening “ah.” The gendered dual “ah” of Münir Nureddin Selçuk is replaced by a three-way split: Bülent’s voice at its most breathily erotic; the simultaneous sound of a “real” muezzin reciting the call to prayer in the background; and finally a mixed chorus. The call to prayer was sung by Bülent herself. The performance of the ezan by a transsexual caused outrage among Islamists when the cassette was released, which Bülent had not apparently anticipated and seriously regretted. Indeed, Bülent has recently made great efforts to present a sober religious persona to the general public, through the (highly publicized) observation of Ramadan and so forth.

Texts on the Street

The mild outrage generated by “Aziz Istanbul” contrasts markedly with the reception of Orhan Pamuk’s high-concept novel. Linking the two, for those familiar with Turkish highbrow literature, may be considered a somewhat provocative move. There is, however, considerable justification for considering the book and the song together. For all of its experimentalism, its austere style, and the relative expense of the novel itself (costing around £7 [U.S.$10] in Turkey in 1996), Pamuk’s Kara Kitab is a popular phenomenon in its own right, both drawing on and contributing to other mass-mediated popular narrative forms. Cartoonists such as Galip Tekin, Erder Özkahraman, Suat Gönülay, and Can Barslan in comic magazines such as LeMan have, over the last decade, produced long and rambling stories full of baroque violence inspired largely by American horror films and comics and set in a dark and decaying Istanbul. Conversely, the most widely screened film in Istanbul throughout 1996 was Istanbul Kanatlarımın Altı–a (Istanbul Beneath My Wings), a historical drama noted at the time mainly for its portrayal of a gay Murat IV, but which also drew heavily on a persistent theme in Pamuk’s novels, the sultan/pasha in disguise.

It is not just the figures and tropes that one can find in Pamuk’s book that locate it so firmly in “popular” practice; it is, literally, its place on the streets of the city. My first discussions with Turkish people who had visited the United Kingdom in the 1980s revealed their incredulity at what they considered to be the absurd habit of reading on buses and trains. Shortly after the publication of Kara Kitab in Turkey in 1990, however, the novel was to be seen in the hands of people on boats, on trains, and waiting at bus stops all over the city. The book is published by the main leftist/secularist publisher in Turkey, Iletişim, more generally known for its pioneering translations of contemporary European political and social theory. Following this unprecedented popular success, an advertisement for his next novel, Yeni Hayat (The New Life), which simply presented the opening sentence (“One day I read a book that changed my entire life”), appeared on billboards all over the city. The remarkable physical presence of the text itself on the streets of the city, and the simple but startling fact that a novel could be a mass-marketing phenomenon at all, marked a radical transformation of popular reading practices. This kind of secretive withdrawal from one’s fellow travelers is perhaps otherwise seen only in the reading of newspapers on Turkish public transport, which tend to be shared if circumstances and time permit, or in the murmured recitation of Qur’anic verses, which are, although in a different sense, shared property as well. The book thus initiated, or coincided with, the conspicuous emergence of a distinct and culturally elaborated figure, the public-transport traveler immersed in a novel.[10] This fact alone gave it a place in popular consciousness, a rare literary feat in Turkey that has perhaps not been achieved since the serialized publication of Yaşar Kemal’s Ince Memed (Memed, my Hawk) in Turkish newspapers in the 1960s.

An indication of this can be found in a cartoon by Bahadır Boysal that appeared on August 21, 1996, in the cartoon magazine LeMan (no. 245, p. 8)—that is to say, six years after the book was first published. In the cartoon, a young man finds himself in a train compartment with (one judges by the shape) a young woman covered in what would be recognized as the most extreme form of religious garb in Turkey, a black coverall similar to the Afghan burqa in which the eyes are covered by a cloth grille. They sit opposite one another. The woman takes a copy of Orhan Pamuk’s novel out of her bag and begins to read it. The experimentalism of the novel, and its frequent and intellectually playful references to Muslim eschatology, means that this book could hardly be said to be a popular read in Islamist circles. The young man looks on in astonishment. Expecting, perhaps, an unlikely sexual adventure, he eventually strikes up a conversation and asks to look at the book. The woman turns the book around; the pages she is reading are pitch black (an explicit reference to the final chapter in Pamuk’s novel). She then pulls off the hood of the burqa, revealing herself to be Death, and decapitates the boy with a swipe of his/her scythe.

The cartoon plays on the associations between an oppressive and puritanical religiosity and sex and violence that would readily be made by LeMan’s readership; in some senses the novel is perhaps little more than a pretext for the gory and flamboyant draftsmanship. It does, however, touch on a more general issue in relation to Pamuk’s book. The cartoonist and editors assumed that the reference would need no explanation to the readers. They were also able to play on knowledge of the “modern” habit of reading on trains and the fact that Kara Kitab is indeed, as the publisher’s blurb suggests, a book that draws complete strangers into conversation. Its circulation within a popular cultural economy relates not only the ideas and representations that are contained within the text, therefore, but its physical presence on the streets of Istanbul.

The arabesk singer Bülent Ersoy appears, on the face of it, to occupy a more obviously “popular” location. She produces a new cassette at least every year, which is promoted throughout the city with the formidable resources available to S-Müzik, Raks’s elite arabesk division.[11] Like many arabesk singers, Bülent Ersoy is a curiously absent presence. She rarely appears on stage and very rarely gives interviews. In fact, the hostile attitude of the Turkish state toward arabesk throughout the 1970s and early 1980s meant that the singer lived a life of virtual exile in Germany, only returning to Turkey in 1989 by virtue of a kind of amnesty granted by Turgut Özal (it was no secret that his wife was a great fan). This “amnesty” was entirely consistent with Özal’s liberal politics; it coincided with the return of a number of other cultural and political dissidents (notably the former leftist singer Cem Karaca), and it was undoubtedly a political coup for Özal’s regime. As a calculated and considered gesture, this was not, however, simply a matter of populism. The urban musical repertoire in Turkey occupies a space that straddles the Western European distinction between “high” and “low” culture (Adorno and many post-Frankfurt cultural theorists have done much to absolutize this highly culture-specific notion). A great many singers of arabesk and Turkish popular music were trained in either the state-run conservatories or in the more prestigious private conservatories (notably at Eminönü, Üsküdar, and Kadıköy) that maintained the “Ottoman” urban genre during the years of republican reformism. Performance in the arabesk/light classical genre starts with serious items from the historical canon of the genre, in the more “difficult” modal structures (makam), and concludes with rural and urban popular songs in more familiar modal structures. Bülent Ersoy cannot therefore simply be described as a “popular singer.”

Indeed, the two main mass-media representatives of the urban genre in recent years, Zeki Müren (who died in October 1996) and Bülent Ersoy, have impeccable musical pedigrees. Zeki Müren was born in Bursa but educated at the Boğazici lycée in Istanbul, took classes at the Istanbul Academy of Fine Arts, and studied with Refik Fersan and Şerif Içli. Bülent Ersoy took classes at the Kalamiş Musiki Cemiyeti and studied with Muzaffer Özpınar and Müzeyyen Senar. Both have produced recordings in an austere Turkish classical style but also, in Zeki Müren’s case, reworkings of Egyptian film music and, in both cases, recordings of contemporary arabesk. These movements have often been strategic. Bülent Ersoy’s Konseri (Concert) was released at a time when there was a great deal of speculation about the repeal of what was referred to, in 1987, as “the Bülent Ersoy ban” (Bülent Ersoy yasağı).[12] This recording consisted of a strict sequence of pieces in a particular makam (tailored for cassette release), including the opening instrumental peşrev introductions and instrumental taksim improvisations, all in a severe monophonic style. This was in stark contrast to arabesk recordings, which are in a variety of unconnected makam, have no (or few) instrumental numbers, and are accompanied by guitars, keyboards, and a variety of other Western instruments. This severely “classical” recording undoubtedly added weight to the claim that Bülent’s exile was to the cultural detriment of the nation; for Bülent it was a timely piece of work.

At various points in her career, the singer has produced other recordings, popular in vocal style but austerely classical in content. “Aziz Istanbul,” on a record entitled Alaturka 1995, is one example; its “Easternism” signaled by the title, it used a large and well-drilled orchestra somewhat reminiscent of the Turkish Radio and Television style and contained a self-consciously “classical” selection of songs from the late Tanzimat to the early republican period, including peşrevs, instrumental taksims, and a virtuoso demonstration of a style of vocal improvisation (gazel) that has been almost defunct in Turkey since the 1950s.[13] The cassette was conceived as a present to Bülent’s teacher and mentor, Özpınar, a composer and tanbur (an extremely complex long-necked lute) player who had been trained under Mustafa Rona at the Eminönü conservatory. Özpınar’s tastes are severely classical, in spite of the fact that he has penned some of Zeki Müren’s and Bülent Ersoy’s most enduring hits.[14] Bülent proposed recording the cassette by way of tribute to her teacher. Although it was not a huge commercial success in terms of the sales figures with which S-Müzik normally operate (it sold approximately half a million copies, as opposed to the two million the singer would normally expect to sell), it was nonetheless to be found on every cassette and CD stall in the city for at least a year after the release, and has, in spite of the row that accompanied its release, furthered the singer’s claims to a more elevated status.

There are grounds, then, for considering the two texts together. Both are material objects circulating in a mass-mediated cultural economy, both are familiar landmarks in contemporary urban experience in Turkey (whether or not one could claim to have read or listened to either), both have a conspicuous material presence on the streets of the city, both have done something to blur the rather flexible Turkish distinctions between “high” and “low” culture, both take Istanbul as an object of reflection and contemplation, and both intervene in this environment in distinct and identifiable ways. Both, I would argue, are read in Turkey as a critical commentary on the legacy of modernist reformism.

These texts are, however, embedded in a wide range of discursive frameworks. For Bülent’s mentor, Muzaffer Özpınar, the cassette was the product of a sense of duty: the musician must contribute to the cultural health of the nation as well as make money from it. For S-Müzik’s manager, Sacit Suhabey, the cassette plugged into a pleasing market for nostalgia—pleasing because it did not take too much effort and finance to service, and the mild notoriety of the cassette was, in the end, good publicity. For some fans, Bülent’s music is the passionate truth of the defiantly isolated individual; for others, it is a joke, high-camp humor. The out gay community is ambivalent: many feel that Bülent could do great things as a spokesperson for radical gay politics in Turkey and lament the fact that she is more concerned with maintaining some improbable model of bourgeois respectability.[15]

One of my music teachers, a former officer who had retired from the Turkish army on health grounds, apparently knew the singer quite well in (then) his youth. His response touches more closely on the issue with which this chapter is concerned, the way in which a problematic past is imagined in the context of a resolutely forward-looking nationalist modernism. My teacher, like many musicians, played the bars and clubs in Çamlıca, and even when he did not have an engagement he would join the crowds on the hill on weekends, strolling, sitting, and enjoying the view. The subject of Bülent sometimes came up in our discussions, but I was never sure when it would be brushed aside irritably or be the subject of fond reminiscence. When I brought up the subject of “Aziz Istanbul,” he was brusque but inconclusive. I got the impression that he couldn’t make up his mind whether to be outraged at the violation of a classic or pleased that it had been given a new lease on life. “She’s a commercial artist. She can do what she wants,” he said, evoking the idea of musicians as cultural prostitutes as opposed to responsible worthies committed (like him) to the aesthetic long haul, before abruptly changing the subject. This was a criticism that he, as a professional musician, knew was often, and increasingly, directed at people like himself, particularly in the Refah-dominated neighborhood in which he lived and worked.

In relation to my teacher’s life, the question of Bülent and the view from Çamlıca were curiously related—a relationship that was almost coincidentally suggested to me by the fact that my teacher had started to play in a club on Çamlıca at precisely the time “Aziz Istanbul” had been released. The song, the place, and these two people (one the remote and fabulous star, the other my teacher of nearly ten years) thus came together for me as a consequence of my own movements about the city that summer. But it soon became clear to me that there was more to this connection than the idiosyncrasies of my own movements. Bülent was a distinct figure from my teacher’s own past and the music club that he still attends. I gathered in a discussion with a group of his old friends that Bülent had been invited to sing at my teacher’s son’s circumcision party, some time before Bülent’s disappearance to London. “We had some clues even then…,” my teacher once said, tailing off and laughing. Bülent’s connection to his own past and the music he continued to play was one that, he was entirely aware, did not fit in with the decent, masculine duties and pleasures through which he understood himself. Bülent was then an acknowledgment of elements of his past that did not fit, that could not be easily explained, and whose relationship to the present, and his self, was anomalous.

Çamlıca is, in Pierre Nora’s (1989) sense, a classic lieu de mémoire, a place of memories and reflection on the not always smooth passing of time. Çamlıca is, as “Aziz Istanbul” suggests, a place from which one is almost obliged to contemplate the presence of the past, the troubling failure of the state to contain it, and the equally troubling efforts of the state’s new managers to turn this view to their own ends. The place of Çamlıca in Turkish popular and literary culture is so thoroughly related to memory that I would seldom make this trip with any Turkish friend without discussion turning to the question of the past, what would have happened if we had not met, who we had been when we had first met or first come up here, what we had become, and how things might have turned out differently. As a cultural trope, and a popular experience, one might say that Çamlıca is about troubled memory: memory of a past that does not lead smoothly to the present.


In a society in which the state of being modern is cast so insistently in terms of forgetting, and in which the modern is so organically connected to the institutions of the nation-state, remembering becomes both a problem and a matter of cultural elaboration. This is not because the state is incapable of making people forget but because the politics of forgetting paradoxically demands the preservation of a variety of things to demonstrate the necessity of their having been forgotten. When one of these objects in the repertoire of the “forgotten” is an entire city, and one that currently houses at least one-sixth of the nation’s population, the city itself is likely to occupy a large and significant problem in the national imaginary—a problem that springs out of the experience of modern nationalism itself. This is why the questioning of this experience through the ways of looking at Istanbul discussed in this chapter should, in certain ways, and for all their apparent “postmodernism,” draw heavily on cultural techniques established by nationalist modernists (i.e., novels and solo singers backed by large orchestras) in Turkey. Although transnational realities shape Turkish life with ever-increasing clarity, as indeed they have done since the establishment of the republic, Istanbul’s cultural space is still shaped significantly by popular cultural forms, which look to the nation both as a source of inspiration and as the focus of critique.


I would like to thank Ayfer Bartu, Asu Aksoy, Jay Dobis, Dane Kusic, Kevin Robins, Michael Gilsenan, and Anne Ellingsen for their comments on this chapter and support along the way. I availed myself of John Morgan O’Connell’s generously provided expertise on Münir Nureddin Selçuk. A more general context for this chapter has been several years of musing on the subject of nationalism with Richard English at the Queen’s University of Belfast. A version of this chapter was read at the American Anthropological Association meeting in Washington, D.C., in 1995; it benefited greatly from Walter Armbrust’s and Lila Abu-Lughod’s discussion of the panel as a whole. I am particularly grateful to the Department of Sociology, Boğaziçi University, for their hospitality in summer 1996. The problems that remain are mine and mine alone.

1. The spatially destabilizing effects of global capitalism have been repeatedly stressed by Anthony Giddens, Manuel Castells, and David Harvey (see, e.g., Giddens 1990; Castells 1996; Harvey 1989); anthropological implications are explored in Kearney 1995. [BACK]

2. In the context of my own fieldwork, every one of these binary constructions appeared in a discussion with a friend working as a state-employed musician at the Ankara radio station (the TRT), evaluating the relative merits of TRT work in “the capital” and in Istanbul. The national folk music project was never going to work in Istanbul, he suggested, because of its distance from Anatolia and the distracting complexity of big-city life, tied to the dead and undemocratic weight of Islamic history, powerful minority populations, and big-business interests, forcing the expression of Anatolian “realities” to accommodate to the “fantasy” of Istanbul-based arabesk. Precisely these facts had turned Istanbul-based radio singers, his peers and rivals, into national media stars at the time; under these circumstances, the speaker was forced to put his case in rather extreme terms. [BACK]

3. In fact, as Geoffrey Lewis (1967, 242) points out, the devrik cümle technique has a history that long predates the republican era. This is somewhat ironic given that it was, during the height of nationalist reformism, considered to be the height of literary modernism. The word devrik itself has revolutionary overtones, suggesting as well “overturned” or “overthrown.” [BACK]

4. Homi Bhabha’s discussion of mimicry, in “Signs Taken for Wonders: Questions of Ambivalence and Authority under a Tree Outside Delhi, May 1817” (reprinted in Bhabha 1994), is highly relevant here, even though the “text” that is being repeated here is of a very different kind, in a situation in which masters and colonial servants are much less clearly delineated, if they are delineated at all. [BACK]

5. The scholarly argument was articulated by Hüseyin Sadettin Arel. See Stokes 1996. [BACK]

6. A discussion of the particularities of vocal drama and the dynamics of vocal “concealment” and “revelation” in relation to these three singers can be found in Stokes 1995–96. [BACK]

7. For other examples relating to the music and poetry of the city, see Aksüt 1994. [BACK]

8. (Ah) Sana dün bir tepeden baktım aziz Istanbul / Görmedim gezmediğim, sevmediğim hiç bir yer / Ömrüm oldukça gönül tahtıma keyfince kurul / Sade bir semtini sevmek bile bir ömre değer / Nice revnaklı şehirler görülür dünyada / Lakin efsunlu güzellikleri sensin yaratan / Yaşamışdır derim en hoş ve uzun rüyada/ Senda çok yıl yaşayan, sende ölen, sende yatan / Sana dün bir tepeden bakdım aziz Istanbul. [BACK]

9. Benjamin’s (1983, 45) characterization of the modern city as the domain of “love at last sight” is entirely apposite. [BACK]

10. As a slow reader of Turkish, and as someone addicted to reading on public transport, I had plenty of opportunities to verify this assertion for myself. Non-Turkish readers should refer to Güneli Gün’s translation of The Black Book (Pamuk 1994). The translation of this might be usefully compared with Victoria Holbrook’s translation of an early Pamuk novel, The White Castle. Both are literary feats in their own right, and both have quite different views about how Pamuk’s prose should be represented. For the benefit of non-Turkish readers, page references are taken from Güneli Gün’s translation in the Faber edition. [BACK]

11. Raks currently dominates about 75 percent of the music market and associated industries in Turkey today. This emerging monopoly is underpinned by its movement into broadcasting and its enthusiastic support of the newly formed performing rights society in Turkey (MESAM). S-Müzik handles Zeki Müren, Bülent Ersoy, Kayahan, and Ibrahim Tatlıses, among others—that is to say, the music industry’s all-time biggest sellers. Sacit Suhabey, S-Müzik’s manager, claims that Ibrahim Tatlıses’s most recent recording sold over six million—one recording per household (interview with the author and Anne Ellingsen, July 23, 1996). [BACK]

12. For a contemporary Turkish account of the debate, see Görmüş and Baştürk 1987. [BACK]

13. The last popular representatives of this virtuouso genre were Hafız Burhan Sesyılmaz and Münir Nureddin Selçuk. [BACK]

14. Notably Zeki Müren’s “Kahir Mektubu” of 1976, an LP-length song in the style of Umm Kulthum’s later collaborations with Muhammad ‘Abd al-Wahhab. [BACK]

15. Interview of Anne Ellingsen and the author with “Demet” and “Ece,” July 25, 1996. Demet was the founder of the socialist transsexual collective, a group that had been formed to mobilize residents of the main center for transsexual prostitution, Ülker Sokağı, just off Taksim Square, against police harassment during the Habitat conference in June 1996. [BACK]

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