Istanbul: Weimer City?

In City Journal, Claire Berlinski describes the current flux in Weimer Istanbul

What is a Weimar City? It is a city rich in history and culture, animated by political precariousness and by a recent rupture with the past, vivified by a shocking conflict with mass urbanization and industrialization; a city where sudden liberalization has unleashed the social and political imagination—but where the threat of authoritarian reaction is always in the air.

Weimar Cities are not freaks of nature. They may be expected to arise under certain social, political, and historical circumstances. World War I destroyed both Imperial Germany and the Ottoman Empire. The remnants of both entities succeeded in imposing alien new social orders on themselves, fragile experiments in democracy. The Turkish Republic has lasted far longer than the Weimar Republic, but the stories do not differ in the fundamentals; they have merely been telescoped or expanded by contingent events.

With the rise to power in 2002 of the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, the Turkish Republic has experienced a fresh convulsion. The AKP opened the Pandora’s box of political Islam. It has presented its reforms as an exercise in liberalization. In a sense, this is true: religion as a political force had, since the founding of the Republic, been repressed. In another sense, it is not true at all: this particular political force is one that, by its nature, tends ultimately to erase liberal reforms. “Democracy is like a streetcar,” Recep Tayyip Erdoǧan, now prime minister, said infamously in 1995. “When you come to your stop, you get off.”

Turkey is now in the throes of two revolutions. The social transformations over which Mustafa Kemal Atatürk presided have not yet been assimilated; simultaneously, something new—and old—has rushed up to challenge them. The ancient order is thus disappearing doubly. Cultures, it would seem, react in particular ways to the disappearance of ancient orders…

…What does it feel like to live in a Weimar City? Consider the mad optimism of my neighbors, who have just opened a luxurious wine boutique down the street from my apartment. Who invests that kind of money in renovating and stocking a massive cellar, in importing champagne, port, and sherry, in the middle of an Islamic revolution? The number of licenses granted for the sale of alcohol has sharply contracted, even though Turkey’s population is growing. Alcohol bans are spreading throughout the city. Yet when I walk past this gleaming boutique and take in the elegant stone floors, the sleek, varnished hardwoods and marble, the tasting tables and tasting kits and the in-house sommelier and the 1,200 bottles of wine glowing in their illuminated cabinets, it seems absurd to ask whether Turkey has been lost to the West. I am reassured until I turn the corner, and then—not so fast! There goes the caravan of bearded ninjas screaming down the street in their jihadimobiles, yelling slogans about the liberation of Palestine. I keep walking down the block and am whipsawed with this confusion a dozen times before I reach the traffic light.


I visited Istanbul in May 2006, and the city was as lively and interesting as Berlinski describes. If it could be compared to any other city, then Russia’s St. Petersburg would be the closest match – both cities had a kind of reckless, entreprenurial energy, both were shedding old oppressors and gaining new ones, both had enough beautiful artwork, good food, danger and comfort zones to keep your attention. Both had the most lunatic taxi drivers.

During our short 2006 visit, I didn’t witness any anti-semitism or see any jihadmobiles. The ultra-hip 360 Restaurant featured works by an Israeli artist, who sketched, drank, and chatted with us about his work. The art scene there seemed very accessible, very multi-cultural (in a good way). People expressed anti-Khomenist sentiment, but there was no obvious anti-semitism.

In the English-language newspapers, some secular Turks expressed great fear that Erdogan would be re-elected. If he was, they planned to emigrate to the US or Europe. I wonder if those secular Turks did leave. That may have influenced the general mood of the city.

In any case, Berlinski’s essay reminded me that I would love to revisit Istanbul – and I have a bunch of old photographs of Greece and Turkey that

About marypmadigan

Writer/photographer (profession), foreign policy wonk (hobby).
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