Professor Ali Akay
Ali is a Professor of Sociology at Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University and is a curator, writer and critic. You can listen to our conversation with Ali in two podcast episodes on The DNA of Istanbul.
Photo credit: Anna Berdnik via Unsplash.
Ali, what is the DNA of Istanbul?
Yes, it's a very interesting question because normally, it is not really possible to talk about the DNA of the city, a city like Istanbul, because of his instable character. Istanbul's an unstable city; it's a moving city. The city every day changed. Every day, a restaurant is open some day, and some days after-- and some years after you can't find it, find out that it's closed. One day, you'll see just a new restaurant and a new Darty (French computer store) in Istanbul. For example, in the neighbourhood where I lived at the time, I come back from Paris, and I just saw a new Darty in my neighbourhood. And the owner of the Darty was my friend from the lycee Saint-Benoit in Istanbul. It's a very unstable one, as a city, Istanbul.
If I want to talk about DNA, maybe I can say that in order to have a DNA, you should have your parents-- you know, character with the parents. And for an old Istanbulite family-- I'm coming from the old Istanbulite family. My grandmother's family was coming to Istanbul with the Fatih Mehmed in the 15th century. And at that time, until my childhood years, I think we lost our DNA because Istanbul was a very cosmopolitan city with the Greeks and the Armenian and the Jewish and the Muslims. There are some Ottoman Empire situation with the neighbourhood for all communities.
And also, all these people slowly and slowly after [specially after 1922 for the Greeks subject of Ottoman Empire] the first one for the Greek exchange of the population between Turkish-Greeks and the Greeks-Turks. And then after the creation of Israel in 1948, some Jewish people left the city and especially in Istanbul. And the problem in the Cyprus, in the beginning of the '60s - '62, '63 - it was a kind of “civil war” between Greeks and the Turkish Cypriots. And after the invasion of Cyprus by the Turkish army in 1974, so many of my friends of my classroom in the İstanbul from the Saint-Benoit; they just left Istanbul, and they moved to the other countries: sometimes Greece, sometimes in Israel and sometimes in European countries.
Also, we lost our DNA because the manner of Istanbulite speaking, and the mode of cuisine in. We lost, also, all that habits, Istanbulite habits of our city. Yes, for that reason, I can say DNA is probably of the parents, and we lost our kind of combination of our DNA as a population in the city. I think this is my personal answer.
Ali, it's a very clear answer and very strong. And I understood that Istanbul had a three-thousand-year history as a cosmopolitan city, but it lost its cosmopolitan identity in the 20th century, and you explain many moments in that. Where does that leave Istanbul today? Is there a sense of loss that we have lost cosmopolitanism, multi-ethnicism, multilingualism? And do you think there's a desire to regain this DNA, or is this just a political matter of different perspectives?
I can say that we have a new combination of the new people coming to Istanbul after 1990s, after the fall of Berlin in German situation. And from that, after the end of the USSR Soviet regime, there was, in the 90's a new, as we say, tourism of suitcase, tourism with the people coming from the Russia, new Russia, coming from the Hungary, coming from the Poland-- kind of exchange with the textile. They just bring to Istanbul, their vodka and caviar, and they left Istanbul with the textiles which is stronger at that time in Turkish commerce.
The new realisation of the new cosmopolitanism in Istanbul was with the people coming from Balkan and Russia, at that time. But for the Russia, it is a second arrival because after the October Revolution, also, the white Russian people were coming to Istanbul in the beginning of the century. And some of the restaurants actually exist, but the owner of this kind of restaurants, existing during 15 and 17 years ago, becomes Muslim people but whom the parents worked with the Russian people at that time.
I can say that it's correct that the new DNA is going to be developed with the new people coming today from Syria, from Iraq and internal immigration from the east part of Turkey to the Istanbul with the Kurdish people, with the Syriac people, with the Syrian people, with the Iraqian people, with the Afghans and also from Pakistan, from Iran. The people just leave their country, come to Istanbul. There are some of them are political and some of them as economical immigration and then some of them is sexual immigration. The homosexual, for example, they have not the possibility to live in their country. There are some restrictions; there are some conditions for this kind of people. There are some interesting documentary film about that. And Istanbul, between Muslim cities, and Turkey also between Muslim countries, maybe is one of them where the homosexuality have not the repression by the state and also by the population.
And the last years are a little bit different, actually, in the country and also in the city as Istanbul because the new policy of Turkey in the Middle East. They don't give the permission to have a great manifestation of transsexuals and homosexuals and LGBT people. Before, some years ago, it was a great manifestation, a mixed manifestation between heterosexual people, leftist people, ecological movement and LGBTIQ+ and transsexual movement. All of them was [present together, and hundred of-- thousand people sometimes was in the middle of the city in Taksim place to walk the Istiklal Avenue, to the end of this Istiklal Avenue. And I can say that the new identity become to have some new colours in the city, but this is not the DNA; it is a new identity, I can say, because DNA is something very long heritage. Genetically and anthropologically, it's over, I think, if I use the term of biology.
Yes, and what I wonder, Ali, is whether this is a new DNA or whether it is the flourishing, again, in a little way, of the old DNA. Because if you think about the period of Constantinople, Byzantium, it was some of these geographies - Russia, the Balkans, the Eastern European states, not so much Iraq and Iran and Syria, but some people - it was also a place of sexual liberation, a place of multireligious in a certain way. So is it the old DNA having a more narrow expression, or is it new DNA? That's my question for you.
Maybe the difference is coming between the Western part of the DNA of the Ottoman Empire and the beginning of the Republic of Turkey. And actually, it is the easternisation of the immigration. And religiously, the Muslims are dominant of the Jewish and the Christian DNA of Istanbul.
Yes, yes. Okay, that's very clear.
The last, for example, transformation of the Hagia Sophia to the mosque is one of the element that showed us the new policy of Turkey in the Middle East. I don't know if it will serve something, but this is the situation.
Yes, very clear. And can you say anything about the official attitude of Turkish government or Istanbul municipal government to encourage or discourage this new flourishing of diversity? Is it accidental, or is it intentional in terms of policy?
I think the-- it is not intentional because this is a problems of the worldwide situation: the policy of the United States in the Middle East since 20 years ago and the new situation after Trump, especially that the American army are not present in the region. And Turkey have a possibility to have some free air to change the policy with the neighbourhood, with the front neighbourhood of the borders. And the policy of old Republic of Turkey was “peace inside and the peace outside”. And now, we are talking about neo-Ottomanism, and the peace inside and the peace outside, it doesn't work.
There are war. Syria, there are war, and Turkish army in war in Syria, and in Iraq, also, now, in the eastern part of the Mediterranean and some new route, some kind of Mediterranean route to Libya. And it's an extension of policy of Turkey which is very different from before.
How many Istanbul's are there? Is there just one, are there more?
Yes, I think there are so many Istanbuls with the 's' in the end. One; the old one of Istanbul, whom the frontiers are in the centre of the city, where there are no Muslim who are dominant in the culture of the city, with Greek in restoration and Jewish people in medicine and the commerce, and the Armenians in the fine arts and architecture.
For example, in the Ottoman Empire and also in the beginning of the Republic, all the big houses and the palace and the fine houses were constructed by the Armenian architects. The extension of the city on the Anatolian side and the demolishment of the old house to be a modern apartment started in the '60s. I can say sweet '60s because, at the time, Istanbul was really a big and ecologic city: you can swim, you can go to the fish, the air is not polluted. The great time for my childhood time in the '60s. The Turkey was not a rich country, but the mode of life was really nice.
And I can say, maybe concerning a French song in Istanbul of Dario Moreno, 'Istanbul, Constantinople', it's like that. A Jewish singer. If I quote some sentence of this song, 'I found the Bonheur in the middle of the crowd. The people of Bosphorus look at me and the heaven…of Allah with the mosque', all the sentiments are present outside of New York or Paris like that-- reference of the singer of the city to the Parisian life. At the time, I think for so many people from my generation, the good life, “the Bonheur” is there in Istanbul and love is what was present all the time in Istanbul. And also, there is another singer, Armenian singer, Marc Aryan, who has a great song about Istanbul.
And also, the point of this non-Muslim people to the city is passing from the mosque and minaret of Istanbul. This is the kind of “silhouette” Istanbul was at that time: the mosques and the minarets. Contrary to today, the silhouette of Istanbul, when you came from the seaside, you see all the new buildings like New York's or Dubai's skyscrapers. All this kind of new buildings constitute the silhouette of Istanbul today. For that reason, it's a contradiction, maybe, but the new policy of the Muslimasation of the people and the city was in contrast with the modernity of the city.
And I think in the book of Orhan Pamuk, Nobel Prize Turkish author about-- the book about Istanbul, he used a word in Turkish without translation, hüzün, kind of “spleen” or “saudade”, like in Paris with Baudelaire. The meaning of hüzün is this new transformation of the city that we share with my generation. Because the lovely and the very peaceful life with Istanbul is over today. We are living in a very aggressive city with numerous heavy population and so many of them are very conservative, vis-a-vis of the city, vis-a-vis of the woman's right, etc.
And I think the smooth life of the city-- fifteen millions today. The smooth life of the city is past, and we are in the situation in which the people are running for the business since the '80s with the new regime of accumulation of capital. The transformation of economy for importation to encouragement to the exportation, this is the new neoliberal economic policy of, you know, like all the Friedman school theory in neoliberal economy. And it was in the beginning of the 1970s and the worldwide situation in Chili and in Egypt in 1972, 1974, and the worldwide transformation of monopolistic capital to the transnational capital and it was the end of the monopolistic Occidental capital. And in the entrance inside of the European and the Occidental capital, the Arabs petrodollars in the mid 1970s transforms the situation of the world and transforms, also, Turkish policy.
And one of the coup d’état in 1980, it was for the transformation of the regime of capital, also. It was maybe some Marxist iteration developed this idea, but I think the liberal one are now okay with this contestation. And now, this city-- you like, Istanbul a busy city. And the capital and the economy becomes dominant over the capital of the leisure life of Istanbul when we were in the 1960s. Yes.
Ali, if I may, one question here: it's a little bit unusual, isn't it, to have this economic neoliberalism that you describe combined with this conservative Islamification. Do you find this an interesting combination, or you think it's natural and normal?
I think it's natural and normal because the idea of neoliberalism is coming from the old German economists, and some of them Germany (ordo-liberalism) to the United States and the Chicago school of Milton Friedman-- and the Hayeks, the students of Hayek, Milton Friedman, who was in conservative states in the America also. And the coup d’état in Chile against Allende was with the conservative people who worked also for General Pinochet in Chile. And also the neoliberalism was beginning in the States and in England with Reagan and Thatcher-- was the Conservative party.
It's normal, also, in Turkey, the conservatism and the neoliberalism get together. And at that time, I think the scenarist of this situation in Turkey was Turgut Ozal, the economist from the World Bank, who developed the idea that four ideologies are common for the neoliberal economy in Turkey, which was left, right, conservatism and modernism. Altogether, maybe it looks like the postmodern situation. This is the situation of the society and the ideology, contrary of the '60s that was left, at that side, with the communist idea, socialist idea. And the other side of conservatism and religion and the family and the patriarchy, etc. But in the 1980s, we lived the return of the religion everywhere. In the States-- except the France, maybe, because the '80s, Mitterrand was elected with the Socialist Party in France. But contrary to the situation in France, everywhere, it was the Conservative Party who won the elections-- British, Ireland and Germany, Turkey, Brazil.
Do you think that the cultural and creative life of the city has then become diminished? You seem to be saying that the economic purpose of the city is very strong, but the cultural and creative and artistic purpose of the city has been reduced. Is that right?
No, I don't think so because, during this period, we saw the leisure life in Istanbul grow, but I think Istanbul was never drunk like that during the beginning of the Muslim government: the proliferation of the restaurants, bar and the leisure life, nightclubs in the Bosphorus, for example. And also the museums are open: Istanbul Modern, Sabanci Museum,Arter Museum recently and also, Pera Museum. In the '60s and '70s, there is no museum in Istanbul (except one of our university museum İstanbul Resim Heykel (Painting and Sculpture Museum), and in the beginning of 2000, it was the proliferation of the museums situation.
Also, the art centre are developed in the city, and the artistic life began with Istanbul. Biennale, also. İstanbul Biennale is considered today one of the six or ten good Biennales of the worldwide situation in art. Also, the numbers of artists are developed, also, and the galleries, and there is a new market for art now which is not in existence in the '70s. Doesn't exist. It was not clear at that time, but today, we can also talk about the art market. In French, there's two words. Marché (market, piyasa) in English also, but in Turkey, I consider that two words is different. Piazza, like the piazza in Italian-- piazza is different from the bazaar. Bazaar is like the old bazaar. It was the art bazaar of art in the '70s.
Now, we can talk about capitalistic art markets, I think. And this is the paradoxical situation, but it is the reality also. Innovation, creation of art, also in literature and cinema, [inaudible 00:34:01] for example, never. Just after the beginning of the '80s, Yilmaz Guney, the Kurdish-Turkish filmmaker in Cannes film festivals was a surprise because the film Yol was won with the fil of Costa Gavras “Missing” at the same time. But after in the worldwide situation and the globalisation situation of today, the old third world becomes dominant in the arts. Asian part, also. And also Middle East artists from Lebanon, artists from Egypt, Turkey. Nuri Bilge Ceylan is another filmmaker who won the Festival of Cannes. Sharjah Biennial becomes one of the very interesting Biennale. Dubai Art Fair and the FIAC in Paris and the Frieze in New York and London. And this artistic situation is grow up, I think, all these countries and unfortunately, for example, the poor France become more and more poor for the French exception, which mean aid to the art by state.
Who do you think Istanbul's key leaders are? Who has shaped the city over time?
Leaders, most influential leaders of the city. I don't know if there are some influential leader of Istanbul, but if there is one, it could be the city itself. The city is present, in the inner history, Byzans to Ottomans and to the Republic of Turkey. I think the city, during this transformation of politics in the worldwide, as I said, with the neoliberal policy and geographic transformation of the worldwide policy and the end of the ideological fight of the world between socialism and capitalism, liberate the city itself, the leader of the city, I think. I can't say the name of the person but the city itself.
And if I return to your question about the municipality and the government, there are no really big influence through the city. City genetically moves innerly, I think. There is some energy of the city. For that reason, I say this is a nomadic one; it is not stable. I can make some metaphor, maybe. Istanbul is a water city, moves all the time, even if there are some earth. But the earth itself is moving like the earthquake waves. Yesterday, we just saw a new earthquake in Istanbul. It is moving. Geographically, also, it is a moving city, yes.
It's very fluid, the city.
Fluid city, yes. A smooth one and a fluid one. That de-territorialised the city, yes, if I use the Deleuzuen and Guattarian term.
And while we're on the subject of geography, perhaps it would be good to pick up on the question about the geological features and the natural features, such as the Marmara Sea and the Bosphorus Strait, and what role they play. What role have geographical features played in shaping the city and how has their influence has changed over time?
I don't know if I understand your question, really. But if you want, I can say that geographically, we were talking about Istanbul as a city between Europe and Asia. I think this metaphorical bridge is over because, in the beginning of '90s, I developed, at that time, that we are living-- I'm talking about it for 30 years ago. I said that, at that time, we are living in the new situation of the transformed city
In the '60s and '70s, when we are talking about poor countries and the underdeveloped countries and the developed countries like the Occident and the Orient and the Asia and the Africa and the South America etc., we were talking about the states. I begin to develop a theory about megalopolis: the cities becomes the centre of the capitalistic centre of the worldwide situation during the globalization.
And I'm an old reader of Fernand Braudel, French historian, who just wrote with the books in the 1979 Dynamic of Capitalism for example. It's very interesting that he developed the idea of Venice and Geneva and the 16th century and the Amsterdam 17th century, in London, 19th century, New York in the second part of the 20th century. And he said something very interesting at that time in '79. It's interesting. Braudel, in the book Dynamic of Capitalism, he said, "Atlantic is not the centre of the capitalism. We are in the Pacific." It means after the big crisis of petrol, as we say, the transformation of the capital to the transnational capital, the Asian side developed the new capitalism; neo-capitalism, if you can say. With the stronger military regime, without democracy - as China today, we are not talking about democracy, but we are talking about the cities: Hong Kong, Beijing. Istanbul, Tokyo, Paris, London, Berlin. But in States, I think Braudel said, "This is not the New York, the economical centre of the United States, but California, San Francisco with the Silicon Valley at that time." And for that reason, it was an idea to say that Istanbul will be one of the centre of capitalistic and artistic centre of the world. I wrote that in 1990’s.
And I think in the 2010, we saw the situation. Every people from Europe, from Asia, from the Middle East, even from Latin America would come to Istanbul, and they said, "We would like to live here in Istanbul." For example, Flaubert, when he visited Istanbul in 1849-1851, like that, he has an idea to say that Constantinople will be the centre of the world like the cartography of Surrealists. The idea is very interesting for me because all the cities have not this possibility to attract the people like that, from artistic people, from banks. The people from finance also come to Istanbul to live inside of the new neoliberal, completely-free economic situation at that time until 2014-15. We lost, today, the situation because maybe the bad governance of the policy of Turkey. The last five, six years, they lost their diplomacy. They lost the possibility to talk, to discuss with the other European country and the Middle East country, etc.
We are in this situation, after all, today, Istanbul. And the people left Istanbul and some others arrive. It is a big crisis for the people, for the habitation, for the rent of the house, like that, and this is one of the reasons, maybe, that the economy doesn't work today. For that reason, I think that the megalopolises situation the last 30 years was very important, but we lost in the worldwide with Trump's election, also.
There's possibility of the globalism, which was a good thing, I think, because I am not really with this idea to say, like in Turkish leftist and Marxist people, that this is a terrifying parallels of globalisation. No, I don't think so. Globalisation is one part is the capital one, but the other one, the possibility for the intellectual people and the artists and the designers and the fashion to develop this possibility to have a contact with others-- I can say, transversal contact of the people in the worldwide And we lost that, I think, today.
What are the stories that people share about Istanbul? What do they tell about the city? And then, is there anything the people don't quite understand about Istanbul, any misconceptions that they have, whether that's people from across Turkey, across the region or from around the world?
I don't know really what the people thinks about Istanbul crossing the city. But the first thing that I can develop that the city live the life openly in the public space. It's easy to contact the people. In Istanbul, when you are coming from, for example, outside, from foreign countries, you can contact the people easily. And you can develop the first possibility to have eye contact with these people, and a long time, some kind of friendships are developed between artists, between intellectual, between philosophers, like that.
And one thing is, I remember from my friend, French friend, the philosopher David Lapoujade, I was with him in the Deleuzian lectures in the '80s in Paris VIII University. He said to me-- the first time when he came to Istanbul, he said to me, "It is like Roma. But the face of Rome is turned to the past, but Istanbul, the face of the city will be the future." It's a very interesting for me because he just saw, at that time, this possibility to develop this idea of megalopolis in Istanbul. It was in the beginning of the 2000s. It was not really just at that time Istanbul was not really a megalopolis economically and artistically.
But Rome, Roma is all the Roman empires city with archaeological situation. And the Byzans as a Constantinopalese in new Roma empire, new eastern part of the Roman Empire. And historically - this is after Roman Empire - this separation of the eastern and the western part of the Roman Empire. And the Byzans was the second one, I think. Maybe we can say that, from the outside, some people can consider that Istanbul has a possibility to develop the future again and again because the wave one. It's moved all the time. We are in regulation of the waves, but I think the new wave will come some year, maybe after, I think, because the city has a character of that.
I can say, maybe, for the first question, another response. We lost our DNA of population, but the geographically, as a land, Istanbul is always is moderated city. Despite of the urban transformation, have a possibility to have a botanical grow up again, and for that reason, I have some hope for the city, for the future.
We also wanted to ask you about misconceptions, things that people don't quite understand about Istanbul or they get wrong, perhaps people from around the world that might not have ever been there.
I don't know what I can say about that. In my example about the misconceptions-- I think it was the response of the question for the people crossing into Istanbul have a good idea about, Istanbul, I think. And one of my souvenir from the Venice Biennale one day before, maybe some years ago, we shared the hotel with the Japanese people. And during the petit déjeuner, they asked to me from where we are coming because we speak with my friend in French between us, and suddenly, we passed to Turkish. The Japanese people said, "What language you are talking about, which country?" My friend said Paris before. They said, oh, and I said, "And Istanbul." When I said Istanbul, among the Japanese young girls, one of them the young Japanese woman said, "Wow, Istanbul," like that. And I understand that Istanbul was more fashionable than Paris at the time. This is my souvenir.