Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Diversity in Istanbul

by Levi Armlovich

On April 5th the European Union Center held its Seventh Annual Turkish Studies Symposium entitled Ethnographies of Istanbul. The first panel of the day was “The Allure of the Cross-Roads City: Cosmopolitan culture, immigration flows into/out of Istanbul, and the growth of international tourism.” The panel included Dr. Derya Özkan from Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, Dr. Amy Mills from the University of South Gerogia, and Dr. Mahir Şaul from the University of Illinois.

One theme that this first panel brought up was the idea that Istanbul either has lost, or is rapidly losing, its old cosmopolitan nature. The argument basically goes that once upon a time in old Istanbul, Turks and Greeks and Armenians and Jews all lived together in peace and harmony, and now that that’s not the case anymore Istanbul has lost its diverse, cosmopolitan culture. I’ve heard this line of argument before in other contexts, and I remain just as unconvinced after this conference as I was before.

I suspect that if asked the panelists would all deny that they hold this view and have lots of good things to say about Istanbul’s current diversity.  But this theme, this idea that present-day Istanbul is somehow less than the Istanbul of the past, or that the Istanbul of the future will be less than present-day Istanbul was woven throughout this whole symposium, so I’d like to take a few minutes to present my argument against this idea. Let me begin with a story about another city.

I spent two months last summer interning in Brussels, and I loved the city. Brussels is full of winding streets and pretty houses. It combines 1000 years of history with a central place in current political events. It is diverse and multi-lingual. It has a top-notch public transit system. And the entire time I was there I found myself defending the city against its detractors. I don’t think I’ve ever lived anywhere else where the people were so negative about the city they lived in (and I’ve lived in a few different places).

One of the disparagements I heard most frequently was that over the last century the government has torn down old historic buildings all around the city and built modern monstrosities where these beautiful buildings once stood. Personally, I like the heterogeneity that this type of development creates. You can find 200-year-old homes across the street from a modern apartment complex, and the old city center is a short walk away from a mall and several high-rise office buildings. Sure it’s not “authentic,” but it’s alive. And here’s the kicker: the historic 200-year-old buildings that the city tore down to make way for modern development were themselves built over the remains of 400-year-old buildings that were torn down in the name of progress 200 years ago.

My point is that cities change. People get nostalgic and talk about how nice things used to be, but doing so is dishonest in two ways. First, this type of argument fails to acknowledge that the old buildings or old peoples or old ways that have been replaced were themselves replacements of earlier buildings and peoples and customs. Second, focusing on the vanished past undervalues the present.  Dr. Şaul told the story of a few groups of African migrants to Istanbul, and how their movements to different neighborhoods were the result of pressures from Roma and Eastern Turk populations. So yes, Istanbul’s diversity is different today than it was 100 years ago. But I have yet to hear anyone argue convincingly that this new diversity is somehow less diverse than the city’s old diversity.

Levi Armlovich is a first year MAEUS student. He received his Bachelor’s degree in 2008 from St. John’s College in Santa Fe, NM, worked odd jobs for a couple of years, then decided he missed being a student. He is currently pursuing a dual degree in Law and European Union Studies and is interested in international business and trade law. He is also a project manager for Illinois Business Consulting, a student-run consulting organization on campus. He interned at the Illinois International Trade Office for Western Europe in Brussels over the summer and received a Foreign Language and Area Studies fellowship to study Turkish this academic year. In his spare time he brews his own beer, travels as much as he can, and enjoys reading and hiking.

Picture: Istanbul skyline, with mosques in the foreground and skyscrapers in the background. Credit: Bill Holsten, http://www.billholsten.com/apps/photos/photo?photoid=167434367

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