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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
And you feel it too.