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Berkan Özyer

Berkan is a researcher at Istanbul Planning Agency’s Vision 2050 Office. 

Caitlin Morrissey

What is the DNA of Istanbul?


Berkan Özyer

My answer on this question is very clear. Since, I don't know, 10 years, 15 years, there's a word, it's an Arabic word, actually. I don't know the proper translation for this in English, it might be sorrow, it might be pain, it might be, nostalgia or something different. It is hüzün, h-u-z-u-n, and both 'u's have umlauts.


Hüzün is like – Orhan Pamuk in his book about Istanbul has a perfect section about this. He explains, the sources or reflections of this feeling, of this very DNA, by giving tons of different examples: the way people walk, the way people go to their job, the way people kind of smile with their family, but always having past traumas in their minds. So Istanbul is like the the main feeling, main DNA about Istanbul is hüzün, I would say. And and also anger, might be. Being at the edge, the feeling of being at the edge. So you have hüzün, but you are also very  very close to rebellion. You're caught in the middle. This is the way Istanbul lives, Istanbul delivers, life goes on, but also you can say the third addition would be desire. Desire to innovate, defined by René Girard, mimetic desire. So Istanbul is like – you have to have a desire about Istanbul, and there is no other way.


Throughout the city, Istanbul was created as a capital of an empire in the year of 330 by the Roman Empire. So being a capital of an empire is at the very DNA of Istanbul. It has been created that way. It has been formed that – of course, there were previous settlements. But for the last 2000 years, until the Turkish Republic, it was the capital of four different empires.


So in total, I would say hüzün and being close to rebel, say your anger out loud, put it out loud, and desire. This collective desire for the city itself. 


Greg Clark

Well, I'm just going to say, this is a beautiful answer, Berkan, and there's so many things you just said that we should understand better, but let's just begin with this idea of Istanbul being really created as an imperial capital and being, in a sense from the very beginning, a multinational city in a certain way. Can you just say a little bit more about that? Because I understand very well this idea. One idea about Istanbul is that it is the world's first truly multiracial, cosmopolitan city. In a way, it invented the idea of the Cosmopolis. So can you just talk a little bit more about what what you see in that in relation to that? 


Berkan Özyer

As I've said, to make it clear that, of course, Istanbul was a city starting from 3000 B.C., even even more, 5000. That was a reason excavations took place in the old town of Istanbul. There was a ship and port dated back to, I don't know, 5000 B.C. It was always a trade  center. So even being a trade center equals to being multinational, multiculturalist. I wouldn't say multinational, because nations wouldn't exist at that time. So the idea was being together mostly for economic reasons, trade reasons, but that it is in the Mediterranean Sea. You know, Stefan Hanß wrote huge literature literature on this Mediterranean culture. Being a trade port, being a trade center, as I've said, comes up and creates a final outcome that you have to be multi-cultural.


So being the capital of first the Roman Empire, Eastern Roman Empire. It was enormously geographically– I mean, like natural resource-wise, Istanbul can't even be a city. It doesn't have water. It doesn't have half fertile lands around it, so it has to be fed. In the Roman Empire, in Byzantine Empire, in Ottoman Empire, Istanbul was always a centre for for consumption. It can't produce even today, Istanbul consumes one third of all production of Turkey, for example.


It was a tradition for the Roman Empire that Ottoman also did this. You can't export. And you can't export first when you produce something in Anatolia and trade, the  first output has to come through Istanbul first. If Istanbul is fed then, you can export them.


So being the capital of an empire, this is the negative sides. We are not so good with production in the city and also I guess it is also related with the human feeling as well, because we know we are consuming always we know we are dependent on some external resources and we know we always have this fear of that might and one day. And so we are always at this, I have to say, feeling of losing what we have. I don't know if that answered your question, but, yeah.


Greg Clark

Very, very good. So the strategic location, the Sea of Mummery, the Bosphorus, the link between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea, this creates the conditions for a trading post. The trading post becomes a cosmopolitan population center, but it's dependent upon trade for all of its consumption. And then you're describing a kind of vulnerability, therefore, that this dependence upon goods and food and resources that are created elsewhere makes a vulnerability, which is very interesting because I suspect later you'll also talk about vulnerability to earthquakes and other kinds of things.


So there's an inherent vulnerability. And this relates to your three ideas of sadness, rebellion and desire, which I think are all things that make you vulnerable in a certain way. So I like very much the answer because I think I understood. Is there anything else you want to say to make it even clearer?


Berkan Özyer

As you said, the nature of reasons and those feelings, three feelings, go hand in hand. So Istanbul as a city has tens or hundreds of different rebellions in its history. Istanbul is a city full of earthquakes, fires, and the city collapses for various reasons. But then it has to be rebuilt. It has been rebuilt many times. So as I've said, this is the desire part. You can't just give up the city. It has to go on whatever happens, and also Istanbul is no matter how – this is, probably – we think this is the problem of today, but it also has been that way. Human rulers, I don't know, society itself, has been harming Istanbul's natural resources for like thousands of years. The city itself is so beautiful that you can't – it has a huge arsenal, military arsenal, I will say, so no matter how hard you harm this, it never ends. It always comes up with with something that surprises you. And you remember the very reason you have desire for the city.


Greg Clark

It's such a wonderful city and it's so difficult to discuss this in simple ways, so I think you just said two things that occurred to me as very important. You said that the city is always rebuilt, if you like. There is a permanent need for Istanbul. Why? One, the strategic location between Asia and Europe, between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea. In this amazing point where the two continents connect, there must be a city there. And you said, because it's such a beautiful city, in a sense, if if human beings are alive, they have to continuously recreate this city. Is that right?


Berkan Özyer

Exactly.


Greg Clark

OK.


Berkan Özyer

And one thing I would add, it's – how to say, including while we talk – in the 19th century, especially, the people always – we have this specific term for Istanbul. Istanbul is the bridge between the continents, between cultures, but now we find out that it is not actually because when you use a bridge, you just pass it. You don't stay. But people do stay here. People get rooted here. And so it is not a – might be more Noah' s ship, what was the prophet Noah's – Noah.


Greg Clark

Noah. Yes.


Berkan Özyer

Noah's ship.


Greg Clark

Noah's Ark.


Berkan Özyer

Exactly. Thank you.


Greg Clark

Yeah.


Berkan Özyer

So people just don't go, don't pass it, but stay here. And no matter how you hate each other or can't stand each other, have negative feelings or positive feelings, we are aware that we have to live together. There is no other way. It's tried many times. People tried to create ghettos for them. I mean, informal ghettos, not in the European sense of, I mean, Venice sense of ghetto, but you can't just create – Istanbul's beauty is that it is organic, that is the reason why creating a strategic plan for the city is so hard. It has always been, in the imperial times as well. And so city grows organically because human itself is organic and so city lives as a human, I would say.


Greg Clark

Hmm, wonderful. We're going to go back to Caitlin, but I will just say there is a way to do a strategic plan for an organic city, but it's not the same as the strategic plan that you do for a city that is not organic. And this is going to be your journey for the next two years, Berkan. So congratulations.


Berkan Özyer

Thank you for this expert advice.


Caitlin Morrissey

So if I can, in your mind, how many Istanbul’s are there and what distinguishes them?


Berkan Özyer

How many Istanbuls?  Of course, there are stratifications in the city, but I would say there is only one, there's only one human body of Istanbul, with different parts of the body. But at the end, they all start with a feeling, because Istanbul is like an – I don't like identity politics, but Istanbul is an identity, whether you have it or not, once you have this identity, you can't get rid of it. There's a very like 10, 15 years ago, very popular music song, which was saying Istanbul jailed us, put us in prison and we can't escape.


And it is the same. There's only one. I thought about this question very much. Now I'm also thinking. But I can't come up with another answer without saying Istanbul. There's only one Istanbul. And once you enter the city, you become part of it. The only thing you can do is just to explore the different human parts of the city.


Caitlin Morrissey

What makes people want to live in Istanbul and start families there and grow businesses there, and also how quickly can you feel like you're part of Istanbul if you're not from there?


Berkan Özyer

Again, I would be – probably, I will say it is about – I might repeat myself, but it is also about this being capital of an empire, because the life is here. You see, the government or empire investments has been so uneven, comparing each with different cities. So even today, you have this huge projects, megaprojects, as our governments love to mention. Even today, it is so obvious that you have to make investments in different parts of the country. But still, it's also, I don't know, it's just it's a huge problem, but no one is trying to solve this problem. No one is thinking of other options, because mindsets are like this. Istanbul is Istanbul and you have to make Istanbul more beautiful. Istanbul is like a conquest, contest, about leading the city, about having the city, about making it your property. It's like all the government leaders, politicians, empires and predators have been trying too hard to conquer a city. So they are always trying to make some additional things, make their name last forever.


And how long it takes to be a Istanbul I don't know, it's also a never-ending thing, because as I said at the beginning, in more or less all senses, you are caught in between here. You can never be sure whether you have the city, whether you are part of the city or you are outside of the city, and you can't be sure to where you can go, I don't know. I don't know, as a poor person, you can't visit all parts of Istanbul. But would you – as a rich person, you can visit all parts of Istanbul, but there are also these, and it is probably more or less in most all cities, I'm aware of this, but these unseen walls are being waited to be demolished in people's minds. Once you are open to demolish those walls, you can be part of the city, but it takes time. I don't know. Not time, but maybe mindsets, changing mindsets.


Greg Clark

Yeah, you're describing a very interesting psychology, Berkan, where the city is incredibly compelling, a place where people want to be because throughout history, Istanbul is the place where people can make a completely different new life for themselves from many different backgrounds. And yet when you get to the city, it produces this equal combination of magnetism and also uncertainty. And it exposes in your mind the places where you don't feel you might belong. And so it encourages you to overcome your internal uncertainties in order to be in the city, which is such a place of fluid flows of people and ideas and interactions. Is that right? Is that what you're saying?


Berkan Özyer

It is. This is exactly what I'm saying. In addition to that, in turkish movies in the 60s, 70s, there was a specially huge half internal migration within Turkey, especially after the 50s with improvements in road technology and infrastructure. Many Turkish movies have this very clichéd scene that a guy with his luggage comes to Istanbul, Haidar Pasha train station on the Asian sides, which is just next to the Bosphorus. It has this magnificent scene. What a scene. This guy comes to Istanbul for various reasons. It might be running away from the law, running away from family issues or, I don't know, just to be invisible. Istanbul, as it is in most metropolises, Istanbul gives a huge chance to be invisible. But in addition, it gives the chance to realize yourself. So in this scene, in this cliche scene, this guy comes with comes to Istanbul by train, leaves the Haidar Pasha train station, looks at the Bosporus, looks at the old town of the city and says, "Istanbul, I'm going to conquer you. Istanbul, I'm going to meet you."


So this a very cliched scene in Turkish movies. Istanbul is this – when you come to the city, you try to beat the city. Until you realize that no one has beaten it yet and you won't also.


Greg Clark

And then you have to yield somehow to the city and allow it to conquer you.


Berkan Özyer

Exactly, exactly.


Greg Clark

Yeah. 


Caitlin Morrissey

In Istanbul's history, who are its most influential leaders, who stands out in your mind as having shaped the city significantly?


Berkan Özyer

Constantine, also. The first name will be Constantine, the Byzantine emperor who named the city. And Mehmet the Conqueror will, as we call him in Turkish, Fatih Sultan Mehmet. He is who conquered the city. It's also created, how to say, I'm sure you know what was the time, I don't remember, but early 13th century, 1204 or 1240. Then in the fourth crusade, Istanbul was raided. And Byzantine Empire had to escape the city, and there was a brief empire, Latin Empire for like a hundred years, which lasted hundred years. That time, we know today that demolished the city. All the infrastructures, I don't know, buildings, palaces was torn apart. Many things were stolen, which you might find many of them in Venice, today's Venice. When Ottomans had the city it lost its population, it lost all the infrastructure and having the sense of capital, it had lost it. The reason Mehmet is important is that he gave this identity back to the city. He created huge population movements within the city. He created huge infrastructure projects. I would mention him. 


After that, I will say, again, at this very same era, 16th century, Mimar Sinan the architect, he was the imperial architect, court architect. He made most of the beautiful additions to the city that we see today, like Suleimani Mosque, some parts of Topkapi Palace, minarets for Hagia Sophia, today's Ayasofya-i Kebir mosque, great Hagia Sophia mosque, as it is called today. I will go back. But as we see it in the Hagia Sophia case as well, it is like a never ending desire to promote yourself as the owner of the city, conqueror of the city. Hagia Sophia is that.


But you have to make something that you made a decision that could not be taken back. Hagia Sophia Mosque will be called with our current president. This is the never ending quest, request, to have the city. And again, I'm thinking about especially – I won't give a specific name, but 19th century has been very crucial in Istanbul's history, especially when the Empire also realized that it's about coming to an end. It collapsed. It doesn't have anything to promote the world. So, one day, they notice they are falling down. They turned back and looked at modernism. And so they tried to plant the city on Paris' modernism principles. So this era, especially the second half of 19th century, has been a very crucial era. You can name emperors, sultans at that time, Mahmoud, Abdul-Amit, Abdul-Aziz. Or planners, urban planners who came to Istanbul from outside world. But this 19th century gave a crucial era. I would not say any more specific names.


And there are some people who haunt the city, of course, in a way that you can't heal again. In Turkey he has a huge supporter base. But our former prime minister, Adnan Menderes,  in the 50s, who was executed in '60 after a coup d'etat, which was a horrible event, of course. But again, to make huge boulevards in the city in the way France, Paris did in 19th century, after French Paris commune, especially. In the middle of Old Town, Old City, he created huge boulevards and destroyed hundreds of historical things, mosques, I don't know, churches and et cetera. This is something specific that I would never mention him in a good way. I don't think he would care, but...


Caitlin Morrissey

And this sort of brings us to a question about the shocks and traumas that Istanbul has faced over its history and what it has learned and what lessons it applies to the way that it deals with any more adversity that may fall in its path. What are the lessons that Istanbul has learned from traumatic periods in its history?


Berkan Özyer

We don't have any habit to learn lessons, I think. It is not in our DNA, at least not the way I see it. Make it, destroy it, remake it, re-destroy it, and it's a never-ending process in my mind. Trauma's, I would say, as I've said in the very beginning, and being a metropole always creates anger and a huge income gap and uneven income distribution, unfair.


And so Istanbul has always this anger, which is waiting to be triggered. It takes so little to create a fire in the city. In a literal way also, because until the 19th century, Istanbul was full of wood, the houes were wooden.


So the reason I'm saying Istanbul never takes lessons: there were many times fires, which creates districts, half of the city even. The last biggest fire was at the end of the 19th century. And then you look at the houses again, they built wooden houses again. And then comes another fire. Or today it is the same with the earthquake as well. So putting the human feelings aside, the nature itself is very traumatic for Istanbul because we are always having this never-ending fear that we will have this earthquake. The last big earthquake was in 1999, and it will happen in the very near future. We are very aware of this, but we don't do anything. We don't do enough at least, and we are waiting for this. This will happen, but we don't do anything. And this is also part of hüzün, or being so close to losing everything you have, you possess, because we know that, as I said, when Istanbul earthquake happens, it will destroy everything. It had destroyed everything in previous earthquakes.


And apart from that, social-wise, as I said, it takes two little things to create a fire social-wise, because Istanbul has always had these hopeful breaks. And very near biggest trauma, of course, sixth, seventh September in 1955. And it was the last time, it was the final farewell to Istanbul's multiculturalism. And I don't know if you know, but that was an international struggle with Greece, and the Turkish government needed to have the upper hand in the struggle and to reunite, mobilize Turkish people for this struggle, for this fight. And there was a rumor saying some guy in Greece threw a hand grenade to Ataturk's home in Salonika in Greece. And this creates the huge anger. And thousands of people gathered, mobilized quickly and destroyed thousands of non-Muslims' houses. I don't know, corporates, it was a huge event. I mean, like, you know, awful, very traumatic events. And it turned out later it was, of course, a secret government operation as it is in most cases. It was like the final nail in the coffin.


But the main trauma, putting in a more theoretical way, the way I see it the main reason for traumas of the last 150 years is the idea of nation states. The idea of nation states, the idea that attempts to create a nation state cannot fit in in a city such as Istanbul, and it didn't. This is the main trauma, I would say.


Greg Clark

This is a kind of permanent tension, Berkan, between the nation state that is Turkey and the world's first great cosmopolis, which is Istanbul. So these are two different ideas about identity and belonging, aren't they, that a nation state is a state of citizens with passports that share a common language and cultural identity? A great cosmopolis like Istanbul is a city that in a certain way belongs to the world and to all of its people. So this you're saying is the the traumatic permanent tension?


Berkan Özyer

Exactly. Exactly. We know that, how visible it is, how historic it is, to what extent it belongs to the world. And as I said, the fear that one day you might lose it creates a huge trauma. And also in our near future, we know that we were so close to losing it, after the First World War. Istanbul has been occupied, has been invaded onto that independence border. So there is this constant fear in Turkey, being very often made fun of, this fear, but it also has historical reasons to have this fear of losing the city, losing what you have.


Caitlin Morrissey

And we have about five minutes left, but I'd love to ask the question about myths that unite people in Istanbul, and I think that you've touched on a few of these and then misconceptions that people have about the city that are wrong or the myths that don't ring true. So the first is stories and myths that unite people in the city. And the second is misconceptions that people from afar have about the city, if there are any.


Berkan Özyer

About me, actually, I don't have any specific answers for this and – but the idea – misconception about Istanbul can only be possible if you didn't visit the city. Once you see it, once you see any part of it, it is like you can face it. You can see everything very easily if your eyes are open. I will say this.


Caitlin Morrissey

Have you ever encountered any in your discussions with people?


Berkan Özyer

You mean misconceptions?


Caitlin Morrissey

Yeah.


Berkan Özyer

Istanbul, when you think about the last couple of hundred years or centuries, more than three centuries, this town has become a bit rusty. When you look at sites, you have to polish it. If you want to see it, obviously. But Istanbul, in my mind, is such a city that you shouldn't polish, it's stunningly beautiful. As people living in Turkey, we used to have conversations, questions about Turkey and Istanbul, "Oh, you ride camels, always wear a fez, you all speak Arabic, don't you?" Etc. This became something like a source of fun. Of course, it has changed. But, and I don't know, after I've never heard – still, I'm thinking now I've never heard a misconception from a person who visited the city.


One thing they might be surprised about, the answer to your question, "Who are the leaders of the city?" When you look at the historical memoirs from different centuries, you see that when someone from other parts of the world comes to Istanbul, the first thing they really feel surprised is the stray dogs and stray cats. They own the city here. You can't as a person, as an organization, as a government, you can't lead the city. You can't be the leader of a city. This has been proven time and time and time. But the main owners, leaders of the city, as I said, those are animals. And I've read a memoir that's – when a European comes to especially in the 19th century, comes to Istanbul leadership, he or she sees how beautiful. And the first thing they are very surprised at, the power of dogs. They are everywhere, they write. So this is something we all like. This is something we all spend our hours during the day, feeding the cats, at least looking after them. This also has become part of our DNA as well, because most of people are aware that, as I've said, they own the city. We will be temporary, but they will stay here.


Caitlin Morrissey

Our final question is, if we were to have asked you the right question or a good enough question, would that have been anything else that you would have wanted to say to us about the DNA of Istanbul?


Berkan Özyer

I'm thinking. I would say continuity as well in parallel with what I've said. And as I said, never-ending feeling to continue going to your life is something we can't give up. It is something like it is the thing that creates a connection with the city for ourselves. Once we lose it, once we lose this feeling of continuing, getting on, there is no Plan B, because there are many songs, movies, I don't know, huge literature saying you can't leave the city. Once you come here – one of my favorite songs about Istanbul is You Can't Leave Istanbul. It's very hard to say. It's a song in Turkish classical music. We say it's like more court music. Very slow and etcetera. As it says, you can't leave the city. You can't just leave the city and go.


So no matter how hard we get tired during the day, no matter how we hate things about Istanbul, this feeling is keeping us in prison. And we can't leave.

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