Istanbul, Not Constantinople… ?

Travel Series: On Istanbul, Turkey

There’s a common question that every Istanbulite asks one another. A question with which I’ve always had a complicated relationship:

Where are you from?

Istanbul.

No, really. Where are you originally from?

Although most of us whose appearance happens to be juxtaposed with an indeterminate accent is familiar with the latter in the Global North, the context in Istanbul is a little different.

Istanbul in the 1800s.

As a cosmopolitan city, Istanbul has been home to hundreds of civilizations, ethnicities, and immigrants. Naturally, “where are you from?” is not a strange question, nor is it necessarily offensive.

But I used to dread the question.

In elementary school, our teachers would ask us to go around the room, introducing ourselves and telling the class where we were originally from. In middle school, our school bus driver would ask: nerelisiniz siz? In high school, my friends’ parents would make sure to ask where my family was from. Originally.

I dreaded the question because I was told by my parents that my family on my father’s side had lived in Istanbul for centuries. I got a bit perplexed then. Did that mean my ancestors were Ottomans? Rumanians? Greeks? Arabs? The response I received was always: no, they were true Istanbulites. Ironically, it didn’t feel like the truth for my seven year old self.

And as I grew older, I also grew tired of explaining:

… I’m from Istanbul. No, really. Originally. My great-great-great-great x great grandparents had been Ottomans. I don’t know what ethnicity, but yes, Istanbulites. No, not Arabs. Rums, you say? Maybe. I’ve always suspected that. No, not Armenian. But maybe.

So, instead of offering an open-ended narrative to a seemingly simple question, I started to just say: “We’re from Artvin,” a city that shares a border with Georgia in Northeastern Turkey- a city where my mother was born and later immigrated from.

Simple and clear.

That is, until I moved to the U.S.

Now, that’s another story. But what’s interesting is that ‘Istanbul’ has become not only the simpler but also the organic answer to the question ‘where are you from?‘ since my move.

Not Turkey. Not Europe.

Not the Middle East. Not Eurasia.

Istanbul.

“Coexist”. A photo I took at the gift shop at the Orthodox Patriarchate of Fener in the the Church of St. George (1454 (Agios Georgios)

Fast forward to today, and I understand a little bit better what has changed.

There’s no doubt that it’s been an arduous process. But my visit to the historic Fener-Balat/the Golden Horn area has revealed that the complexity of my relationship with the age-old question -and Istanbul herself- is rooted in the cultural complexity of the city.

The Fener-Balat Neighborhood/Photo Credit

I hadn’t even thought of the question for a while when an amiable coffee shop owner in the Fener-Balat area asked the inevitable question. My cousin and I had walked all around the Golden Horn and decided to take a break and drink some strong Yemeni coffee at a coffee shop located right across Ahrida Synoguge of Istanbul.

Nerden geliyorsunuz siz?

Istanbul.

Fener Balat Sokakları

That’s it.

Istanbul.

I didn’t cringe, nor did I feel uncomfortable like I used to.

But what was different?

That I hadn’t lived in Istanbul for over seven years? That another Istanbulite hadn’t asked me that question for years? I didn’t want to be caught up in a slew of questions that my overanalyzing mind was looking forward to dissect. Instead, I focused on the fact that my answer this time was simply Istanbul.

Not Artvin. Not Istanbul, but really Istanbul. Not Istanbul, but I live in the U.S.

Just Istanbul.

Without hesitation.

It was organic, and I felt that was the truth.

Despite my propensity- or rather desire- to analyze, I knew that I didn’t need to ask any more questions.

Now this may sound cheesy, but the answer was right there. It was really right here and there– all around the Golden Horn and its antique city walls; all around the old neighborhoods; inside the ancient courtyards of the Church of St. George, Yavuz Sultan Selim Mosque, and Yanbol Synagogue.

Could an inspiring day in Fener-Balat change how I perceive my ‘roots’?

Let’s not say change. I believe the right word is uncover.

Or

Unearth. Unmask.

The Church of St. George

The Fener-Balat area is the Greek and Jewish quarter, where Greeks, Armenians, and Jews lived before the anti-Rum pogrom in the 1950s in Turkey.

It is important to remember that the pogrom in the 50s was subsequent to the anti-Rum pogrom in the late 20s after WWI. In the late 20s and the 50s, the majority of Orthodox Christians living in Istanbul had to leave home.  

But:

Fener, the seat of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, is still one of the most important Greek neighborhoods in Istanbul. So is the Balat district, which was inhabited by Greeks and Jews too, but by those who were not as prosperous. 

Yavuz Sultan Selim Mosque

The district is unique in that it captures the cosmopolitan spirit of Istanbul.

If you take a walk around the Fener-Balat area today, you see neighborhoods that have undergone extensive gentrification. At every corner, you encounter colorful houses, bohemian residents, and upscale coffee shops.

Colorful Streets of Fener-Balat

Abandoned houses, children selling books that they’ve likely found out in the streets, and the homeless who survive by collecting trash are not far from the bohemian neighborhoods, however.

Walk a little bit further, and you will be fascinated by the sight of synagogues, mosques, and churches that work seamlessly together to create the sense of harmony that Istanbul in the twenty-first century deserves.

Fener Greek Orthodox College

This euphony that cloaks the city reminded me of what Ernest Hemingway playfully wrote in one of his dispatches, “Old Constan.” This was when he was in Istanbul, covering the Greco-Turkish War in 1922. He wrote:

There are one hundred and sixty eight legal holidays in Constan. Every Friday is a  Mohammedan holiday, every Saturday is a Jewish holiday, and every Sunday is a Christian holiday. In addition, there are Catholic, Mohammedan and Greek holidays during the week, not to mention Yom Kippur and the other Jewish holidays…every young Istanbulite’s life ambition is to work for a bank. (TS 1922)

“Dostoyevski in Constan.”

Although I was never one of those young Istanbulites (or was I?) (although the majority of the minorities have left the city since the 1920s and 1950s), I could feel that the Fener-Balat area has preserved not only Istanbul’s age-old painful realities but also its true spirit.

‘Kafka in Constan.’

Take a walk around the Fener-Balat area. As cheesy as this may sound- if you’re lucky, the city will allow you to feel its spirit.

Its spirit is heavy, ancient, young, powerful, wise, playful, and hopeful. The spirit of Istanbul eclipses such trivial questions as where are you originally from ? It readily transgresses the pointless East-West dichotomy that has dominated the discourse on Constantinople.

So, what do you do?

You find yourself letting such false narratives go.

I am from Istanbul, you say.

I am a true Istanbulite.

Istanbul in the 1800s.

And you feel it too.

12 replies

  1. Excellent post! Istanbul is the kind of centuries-old melting pot city, which is not defined only by its landmarks or the group of people who held dominion for a long period of time, but rather by its spirit and the very idea that the city’s welcoming arms were/are stretched out to everybody, regardless of their ethnicity, religion, ideology..etc

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I enjoyed you delving into what it means to be from Istanbul, really from there. Sounds like few people have the history your family does of living there for generations. I liked hearing the journey where time away helped that identity solidify. The vintage photos are lovely. So glad to have discovered your blog. Thanks for following Fake Flamenco and I look forward to your future posts, since I’m following yours. Rebecca

    Like

    • Hi Rebecca, thanks for your lovely comment. Istanbul and I have a complicated relationship, and I love her. I’m leaving the U.S. after 9 years to move back to Istanbul (soon I hope when this global crisis clears up!), and I actually cannot wait to write more about the city. I look forward to reading your posts! -Neri

      Liked by 2 people

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