Ok, so it seems a bit strange to find the African Wanderer rambling on about Istanbul on his very African website.
Actually my intention with this blog is to write about anything that I feel I’d like to share with the odd lost soul that might stumble onto the site – travel impressions, political or economic insights, philosophical thoughts; anything that generates enough energy to make me sit down and write. Perhaps I should put this sentence up as a warning right at the beginning.
So what was it about the two weeks of meandering through the enigma that is Istanbul that makes me want to write about it? Well, that’s it – the enigma; and the way it reminded me of my own South Africa.
My first impression of the ancient city was one of jostling – benign, at least on the surface, but intense. It’s a very big city, and very full. Twenty two million people (my host informed us) packed into (mostly) three to four-storeyed dwellings terraced layer upon layer over the rolling hills that rise above the Bosporus and the Golden Horn – almost like cardboard boxes stacked in a warehouse with no space for trees or green patches.
But when we started settling into the community, passing the people that live in the neo-classical style houses pressed in like books on a shelf, with poorly built 60’s and 70’s structures randomly inserted here and there, and buying from the numerous little shops, and eating and drinking in the countless cafes and restaurants elbowing for space and literally clamouring for attention from the edges of impossibly narrow cobbled streets, I became aware of a kind of sadness, and a strange uncertainty; a kind of subconscious searching for something that somehow keeps eluding them.
The Turks are deservedly a proud people. Sure, like most old nations they have had their patches of infamy, like in the latter part of the Ottoman era, but on the whole they have a proud, even a glorious history. They seem friendly, almost jovial, and eager to help, but interacting with them gives one the vague impression that – at least in Istanbul – they are less confident of being Turks than say the Italians in Rome of being Italian, or the French in Paris of being French or the Spanish in Madrid Spanish.
It manifests in many dimensions.
They live in a city (and a region) with a fantastically rich (known) history; wonderful flavours of ancient Greece and Rome and the Middle Ages and the ancient Muslim world and the Renaissance and the Baroque and even late eighteenth and nineteenth century Europe, but they seem uncertain to what extent they should embrace its diversity – or reject it. Somehow they end up halfway. Many of the beautiful neo-classical style buildings that would be perfectly at home lining a Parisian street have been neglected and are crumbling; some have been replaced with ugly and poorly constructed 60’s, 70’s structures; others have been preserved and kept up – and the décor inside – but have been overlaid with jarring signage on the facades
One must be careful of a few impressions gained over just two weeks, and it’s a pretty intangible issue at best, but one does get the impression that they are struggling with an uncertainty: Are they uniquely Turkish Muslims, or are they European secularists? They seem to yearn and reach out for the latter, but not quite. Their recent political history also hints at this. Part of course has to do with the forceful secularisation by Ataturk almost half a century ago now. It’s as if they are still trying to regain perspective. And while they are vexing their beautiful old city is decaying around them – perhaps that is where the hint of sadness comes from.
Perhaps the best metaphor for the modern Istanbulian is this picture by an unknown artist – The Turk, still dressed in his nomadic warrior clothes and taking the pose of the expert bowman shooting backwards from his galloping horse, but the bow has been replaced with a mini camera and he is shooting a selfie of him giving a (western origin) V sign.
In a way there are startling parallels with Africa. Modern native Africans (at least in South Africa) also seem to be uncertain of who they really want to be. They, especially the more urbanised ones, seem to lean towards western lifestyles, have pale skins and straight hair, converse in English or French, even amongst themselves, and adopt western style systems, institutions, conventions and customs. But the way they weave it into the attitudes and perspectives and the age-old traditions, customs and conventions that make them African seem to have them, too, end up halfway. From a western perspective it leads to strange mixes of customs and social- and work place behaviour and incomprehensible policies and laws and decisions. To the casual western visitor this often seems quaint, but for Westerners having to deal with it a lot of it holds an illogical and unpredictable enigma that often leads to disastrous situations. And of course it creates unease, I think – for them, and for those that come from a western tradition and interact with them on more than just a casual basis.