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Volume 60, Number 5September/October 2009

In This Issue

Istanbul’s Opening - Written by Richard Covington; Photographed by Carolyn Drake

Mehmet Ergen should be ecstatic. The bushy-haired, 43-year-old director has a hit in a brand-new theater. In less than a month before the opening, his cast and crew transformed a garage in a rundown neighborhood into one of the liveliest experimental stages in Istanbul. The play, “Boy Gets Girl” by American playwright Rebecca Gilman, became one of the hottest tickets in the 2008 Istanbul Theater Festival. Ergen, who splits his time between Istanbul and London, where he is founder and artistic director of Arcola Theatre, is brimming with optimism when I meet him at the trendy House Café on Taksim Square. But there’s a wrinkled petal in his bed of roses.

For the festival, he says he would have preferred staging a work by a Turkish playwright. He submitted one—“Silver Birch House” by Leyla Nazlı, which he had directed in London—but the organizers rejected it for reasons he suspects have to do with the play’s exploration of Turkey’s political upheavals in the 1970’s.

“Part of our problem,” reckons Ergen, is that “sometimes it seems we just don’t want to know about ourselves.”

In the Turkish and foreign plays he has planned for his new theater, named Talimhane, and in his workshops, Ergen aims to hold up mirrors to society. “I’m encouraging my students to write realistically about things we talk about every day—about European Union membership, about veiled women, about conflicts within schools and
universities,” he says.

Not that everything has to be serious, he adds. “Just once I’d like to see the curtain rise on a comedy set on a beach in Bodrum,” a popular holiday spot on the Mediterranean. “That’s exactly what we need.”

There is a palpable global-cultural-capital buzz in this city, a 2800-year-old storehouse of Byzantine and Ottoman treasure,

half of whose current population is under the age of 30. That buzz is humming from the sold-out former garage of Ergen’s Talimhane to the streets, cafés and outdoor restaurants of brash Beyoğlu and glitzy Nișantașı; in the ebb and flow of youthful, entertainment-hungry crowds on the Istiklal Caddesi, with its busking saz, kemenche and saxophone players; inside the Istanbul Modern Art Museum; and outdoors at fashion and design fairs at the foot of the medieval Galata Tower. There’s expectancy in the air, a buoyant impression that Istanbul’s time is now.

Novels by Orhan Pamuk, winner of the 2006 Nobel Prize for Literature, and by the no less outspoken Elif Shafak; films by Nuri Bilge Ceylan, who won last year’s best-director award at Cannes, and Turkish–German director-screenwriter Fatih Akın; paintings by Leyla Gediz at the Basel Art Fair and by Abdurrahman Öztoprak, who opened a retrospective in Venice—the list could go on—are all drawing the world’s eyes to Istanbul with their insights into a country that’s embracing modernity while coming to terms with millennia of tradition.

Four major museums have opened in the city in recent years and more are in the works, including a Frank Gehry concert hall and cultural center. Contemporary art galleries and design studios are popping up in gentrifying neighborhoods like Çukurcuma and Cihangir. The Istanbul Biennial, founded in 1987, is becoming a fixture on the global circuit of thematic art fairs, and Istanbul’s well-heeled art collectors still seem largely unaffected by the global recession.

Although progress on Turkey’s membership in the European Union remains glacial, the EU named Istanbul one of three “capitals of European culture” for 2010. (The others are Essen, Germany and Pécs, Hungary.) This year, France is hosting dozens of Turkish cultural events nationwide. And Turkey was the guest of honor at last year’s Frankfurt Book Fair, the world’s largest, where the country was fêted for the vibrancy of its literary production.

“There’s a growing interest in the West in Turkish literature and culture, and particularly in the city of Istanbul,” notes Shafak. “It’s very visible, with the number of people coming to the city, journalists and artists, increasing by the day.” Shafak, in fact, was speaking at a meeting of German and Turkish publishers in advance of the Frankfurt Book Fair. The 38-year-old author’s most famous novel, The Bastard of Istanbul, was a bestseller in both Turkey and the us. It examines the effects of the 1915 Armenian genocide—a word whose use remains highly controversial in Turkey—on two families, one of Turkish Muslims in Istanbul and the other of Armenian–Americans in San Francisco. Although prosecutors charged Shafak in 2006 with “insulting Turkishness,” the allegations were later dismissed.

In characterizing Istanbul today, both Shafak and her publisher, Müge Gürsoy Sökmen of Metis Publications, use the term “multi-layered,” describing the city as a westernized hybrid blending modern Islamic and Ottoman elements with Kurdish, Armenian and other ethnic influences. “This complexity makes the city more difficult to understand, but all the more stimulating for artists and writers,” says Shafak, who was born in France of Turkish parents and moved to Turkey for her university studies. “Wherever you turn, there are stories piled up.”

Adds Gürsoy Sökmen: “My daily experience is that I go past a mosque designed by an Armenian architect, listen to music by a Greek musician, eat in a Jewish restaurant and hear the Muslim call to prayer.”

One thing that drives the publisher crazy is the “Orientalist” stereotyping about Turkish culture that too often still colors western perceptions. “Even when I’m trying to sell Turkish literature to western publishers, they object that it’s too intellectual, too western,” she complains with a shrug. “They want wife-beating stories and teppiche-haschisch stories.”

“‘Teppiche-haschisch?’” I ask.

“You know, ‘carpets and drugs,’ exotic contraband and smugglers. When I was traveling on German trains 20 years ago, there was this constant interrogation by customs officials: ‘Teppiche? Haschisch?’ I said no then, and I still have to say no.”

What Gürsoy Sökmen says yes to, and what Metis publishes, are comic novels blasting authoritarian rule, anguished morality tales about the emotional costs of suppressing ethnic identity and tales of country folk who try to find their place in the city. And even as one of a staggering 1000 publishing houses throughout Turkey, Metis does not lack for customers.

“Sometimes you hear people complaining that we don’t read enough in this country,” Shafak remarks. “But it’s not true. I find that books, especially fiction, have a deep, long-lasting effect here.”

As much as the novelist resents stereotyping, there’s one image she’s not quite ready to abandon: the time-worn notion of Istanbul as a “bridge between East and West.” “These East-West categories still exist, but they’re always changing,” she says. “Istanbul is constantly mixing the categories and showing the world that Islam and
western-style democracy can indeed live together.”

Still, misperceptions abound in the West, and young Turks are becoming especially frustrated. After a one-woman performance entitled “The Storyteller,” 29-year-old Pinar Töre, manager of the experimental theater group Dot, explained that—although Dot had a private sponsor (the textile company Bilsar) and had, over four years, cultivated a loyal audience for its probing of society and politics—it is foreigners, she says, who are not so open-minded, as she found on a brief tour to Italy, Germany and the Netherlands. “It’s difficult to tour because people [in Europe] claim our plays are ‘not Turkish enough,’” frets Töre. “Sadly, they have this very Orientalist prejudice. Westerners expect to see belly-dancing when they think of Turkish theater.”

Of the urban professionals boisterously eating mezze in Beyoğlu’s profusion of restaurants, I suspect that none could even give directions to a belly-dancing performance, much less claim ever to have witnessed one. Educated Istanbullus consider themselves as progressive as their counterparts in Berlin, London, New York or San Francisco—but with a grittier enthusiasm to embrace their city’s chaotic cocktail of diversity and conservatism. Though many take time abroad for education and exposure—and the cachet that goes with it—many of those are pulled back home.

“They find Europe dull,” says Beral Madra, founder of the Suma Contemporary Art Center in the Karaköy district. “Here it’s more interesting for their work. There are continuous crises.”

Indeed, Istanbul is becoming more of an artistic magnet than ever, she observes. “I cannot count the number of exhibitions I have put on with artists from Tblisi, Baku, Yerevan, Cairo, Beirut, Damascus,” Madra continues. “The artists come for 10 days, meet other artists and gallery owners, and create new, wider networks. They flock here to jump into the international culture mainstream.”

A driving force behind Istanbul’s successful bid to become a European “capital of culture,” Madra is now helping plan events to boost the city’s cultural profile and stimulate arts financing from the corporations, private sponsors and municipalities that play the largest roles in backing the arts in Turkey. Although the national government has historically played only a minor role—something Madra laments—others give the government credit for recently promoting a more inclusive sense of Turkish identity.

“Five years ago, I had to worry about spending time in prison for the music I was producing,” recalls record executive Hasan Saltık, the first to champion songs in the Kurdish language—banned at the time. “But now, the country’s president invites me to dinner, and officials hand out CDs I produce as examples of the wealth and breadth of the nation’s musical heritage.”

Despite his office in a nondescript mall filled with independent recording companies, this transformation has made Saltık, 45, something of a moral exemplar on the world music scene. His label, Kalan, now boasts 150 groups and individual artists, and it sells one million CDs a year—some 10 percent of total music sales in Turkey. The catalogue is a wellspring of indigenous musical sources: Derya Turkan, a virtuoso of the kemenche (a three-stringed bowed instrument); Judeo–Spanish–Turkish ballads compiled by Hadass Pal-Yarden; and anthologies of traditional Roma tunes and Rembetika, or “Greek urban blues.” Soon, Saltık says, he’s headed to Hollywood to persuade filmmakers to score more authentic Turkish music in soundtracks of movies about the Middle East. He mentions recently seeing a film set in Iraq—diplomatically, he says that he can’t recall the title—with what he considered an “unconvincing” soundtrack. “We can do much better,” he asserts, flashing an impish grin.

Pozitif Productions, founded in 1989 by Mehmet Uluğ, taps a hipper musical vein with rock, jazz and electronic music festivals, its Doublemoon Records label and a trendsetting club called Babylon in the rising Tünel neighborhood. Originally from Istanbul, 47-year-old Uluğ was living in the us with his brother Ahmet and partner Cem Yegül in the 1980’s. They grew bored with their jobs in engineering and computer science. “Our hobby in the us was jazz, so we decided to try to bring it to Turkey,”Uluğ recalls.

Initially, the promoters focused on importing western performers. “We didn’t know our own music,”Uluğadmits. “Hardly anybody of our generation did.”

Gradually, the company dug into Turkey’s musical heritage and started to produce recordings by Turkish musicians. “Now, there’s more interest in Turkish musicians, both here and abroad, though it’s still pretty marginal in the us,” he explains, despite Fatih Akın’s 2005 movie about Istanbul’s exuberant music scene, “Crossing the Bridge.”

“Twenty years ago, the city was gray, gray, gray,” Ulug recalls. “Now it’s very colorful,

with a new gallery, a new boutique, a new club, something different opening up every day. At the same time, you can still go out into the small streets and see the old ways of life going on.”

On the day I meet him, Uluğ is throwing a press party on the lawn of Santral Istanbul, the cavernous museum of modern Turkish art in an abandoned power plant half an hour’s bus ride up the Golden Horn. It was inaugurated in 2007. Yellow banners emblazoned with the logo of June’s “One Love Festival” flutter from the trees as pounding beats from a Ukrainian gypsy punk band waft over a buffet laden with tomato-and-cucumber salad, fried eggplant and peppers, spiced meatballs and roast lamb.

“Istanbul could become the ideal meeting point for all the arts because of its historical importance and location,” predicts Uluğ as he surveys the mingling performers, record producers, club owners and journalists. “It’s close to Europe, the Middle East and Asia—and Americans go everywhere—so I can’t think of a better city as a crossroads of cultures.”

Back in Beyoğlu, in offices overlooking the Istiklal Caddesi, Vasıf Kortun analyzes his hometown’s changes. Opinionated and iconoclastic, the 51-year-old Kortun returned a decade ago from New York state, where he founded the Center for Cultural Studies Museum at Bard College. In 2007, he curated the first-ever Turkish pavilion at the Venice Biennale art fair. For the past eight years, Kortun has directed Platform Garanti, a contemporary art gallery that also provides living spaces for international artists in three- to six-month residencies. The gallery is supported by Garanti Bank, whose majority shareholder is the Sahenk family.

“Istanbul was always a great trading city, but in the 20th century it became a producing city, though it was never designed for that,” argues Kortun. “Now it’s coming back to its historical identity.” The 1985 master plan, which called for removing industry from the Golden Horn and the shores of the Bosporus, is starting to change the landscape for the better, he says.

“When I was growing up in the 1950’s and 1960’s, there were coal plants, storage depots and tobacco warehouses on the Bosporus,” Kortun recalls. “Now there are hotels, shopping centers, clubs and green areas.” Though the conversion of SantralIstanbul from power plant to museum is part of this scheme, he regards it as more anomaly than emblem. “Instead of building a symbolic structure, like London’s Tate Modern [another power-plant makeover] or the Guggenheim Bilbao, Istanbul has gone the other way,” Kortun maintains. “We’ve decided to fragment the culture and have a number of small- to medium-scale privatized institutions.” But this is not all good, he says: As a result of so much private-sector support, “the public does not have a sense of owning its own arts.”

Still, Kortun is grateful for Garanti Bank’s backing. Later this year, the gallery is moving into expanded quarters on Istiklal Caddesi that will quadruple its space and, he expects, triple the number of its visitors to half a million a year, allowing him to add lectures and education programs.

“We are trying to push the boundaries of what a contemporary art gallery can do and create an institution that blends art and science,” explains Kortun. For example, he is exploring an exhibition on new research into genetic repair, and another on links between architecture and street crime. “In the Middle East, you’re expected to deal with Islam, political unrest, East versus West,” he says. “But that narrow focus on Middle Eastern themes becomes a prison house, and we want to open up perspectives.”

Kortun recollects his own experience at an exhibition called “Paris-Moscou” at the Pompidou Center in Paris in 1977. He wandered into it when he was an 18-year-old student and it “gave me the impetus to embark on a life in the arts,” he remembers. “I hope we can make similar impressions on young people—not just Turks, but also foreigners drawn here because Istanbul is emerging as a global arts center.”

From the gray backwater that Kortun and Uluğ describe and that Orhan Pamuk limns in his 2003 memoir Istanbul: Memories and the City, a newly affluent middle class is forsaking the stone alleys of the Grand Bazaar for the glass-and-chrome “megamalls” of which, according to architect Emir Uras, there are some 70 under construction or in the planning stages. One, the Mall of Istanbul, may become the largest in Europe, and 39-year-old Uras, who moved back to Turkey 10 years ago from Los Angeles, wants to build it.

Uras first came to local prominence as architect and part-owner of 360, an exclusive rooftop restaurant eight floors above Istiklal Caddesi. Apart from malls, offices, restaurants and hotels, Uras and the dynamic 15-person firm he’s established with Durmus¸ Dilekçi in the northern suburb of Yeniköy also design cutting-edge homes, including two for the Turkish pop star Tarkan. Since he’s been back, Uras has observed the esthetic revolution in Istanbul’s urban mentality.

“Traditional Turkish architecture was very inward, not allowing people to look in and only letting them look out through veils or screens,” he explains. “But now, the buildings—and the life inside—are more transparent. You can see this in architecture, music, politics, the economy, in every aspect of society.” (Fittingly, his firm’s light-filled studio opens onto a garden.) Some of the new buildings have power-generating wind turbines hidden on their roofs, he adds, part of an evolving environmental concern in design. But apart from transparency and energy-efficiency, he says, the city’s new architectural credo is speed.

“Things are done very fast here, a lot like New York,” he continues. “And also like New York, we’re becoming a 24-hour city.”

Yet even New York would be hard-pressed to match Istanbul in construction flexibility, Uras contends. Clients here demand that projects be adaptable enough to change function while work is still in progress. “We start out building a hotel and are ordered to redesign it midstream as offices,” he says. Even after a building is completed, re-purposing continues with unnerving frequency. “We’ve erected buildings that have been converted for different uses five times in five years,” Uras points out. “It’s crazy to plan a project thinking it will have only one role during its lifespan.”

Like Istanbul’s architecture, the city’s festival scene has diversified to reflect and reinforce openness.

“Twenty years ago, there was only one major arts festival that bundled together theater, classical music, visual arts, jazz and film. Now there are separate festivals for each,” explains Görgün Taner, director of the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts, the non-profit group organizing the series. Taner views the arts festivals as a means of bridging the country’s often vast cultural divides—particularly those that separate religious conservatives and secular Turks—and fostering a climate in which “opposing segments of society are sitting at the same table and airing their disagreements.”

Likewise, Nazan Ölçer, director of the Sakıp Sabancı Museum, was astonished at the numbers of conservative visitors who made the hour-long bus ride from the city center for a 2006 exhibition of works of 19th-century French sculptor Rodin. “I’m very proud we attract people who have never been to a museum,” she says, adding that she’s confident the Sabancı’s campaign to reach out to underserved populations will help cultivate a younger generation of art lovers.

In truth, few Turks of any demographic or political segment go to museums, admits Ölçer, an art historian and ethnologist who for 30 years directed Istanbul’s Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts. There, she lamented, nearly all the visitors were foreigners. “Turks have only recently begun to acquire the habit of going to museums,” she comments from her book-lined office in an annex to the Sabancı’s main building. Next door is the gleaming new wing built for blockbuster shows, making the Sabanci the new principal venue in Turkey for international exhibitions of such artists as Picasso, Rodin, Dalí and Henry Moore—and on Genghis Khan.

“Part of our mission,” the director explains, “is to familiarize Turkish audiences with European modernism. But we do not want to forget our roots,” she adds. “It’s all part of making Turkey and Turkish art more cosmopolitan.” Thus the museum also showcases art from the Middle East with displays of Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal miniatures, porcelains, calligraphy and Anatolian rugs.

Another angle on the changing face of Istanbul is found at its margins, in the steady migration of rural Turks to the city. Photographer Attila Durak credits this urban population boom with helping encourage the acceptance of ethnic diversity, which the 41-year-old former economist and jazz club owner recently chronicled by spending six years crisscrossing the country, logging more than 240,000 kilometers (150,000 mi) documenting 44 ethnic groups for an exhibition and book titled Ebru: Reflections of Cultural Diversity in Turkey. (Ebru, explains Durak, is an aptly Turkish metaphor that refers to the craft of marbling paper—swirling diverse colors into complex, harmonious patterns without blending them.)

“Years ago, people were afraid to mention religion and ethnicity,” he points out. “Now they talk openly about both.” In Istanbul, the new migrants are spicing the city’s eclectic mix with their own music, arts, fashion and cuisine.

Sitting at an outdoor table of the Ara Café (owned by the former Magnum photojournalist Ara Güler), Durak explains that he too was a migrant, originally from the Black Sea region. “When I moved here 20 years ago, this area around the Istiklal Caddesi was terribly rundown, even dangerous,” he recalls. “Now it’s one of the liveliest parts of the city.” Back then, the air pollution from furnaces that burned coal and wood was so bad it was hard to breathe, he remembers with a shudder, and no one dreamt of so much as sticking a hand into the Bosporus. “Now people swim in it,” he marvels.

I think about this transformation as I listen to Shafak articulate her fascination with her adopted hometown as she drives from her publishers’ meeting in Sultanahmet back to Beyoğlu. On the Sea of Marmara, ferries glide in violet dusk from Europe to Asia and back, and lights from Topkapı Palace and Aya Sofya, the former basilica and mosque turned museum, vie for attention with the floodlit Galata Tower above the Golden Horn.

“The city is very challenging,” she acknowledges. “If you like life neat and sterile, I don’t think Istanbul would be your cup of tea. Definitely, life is not very easy for the individual here, to work with the crowds, to handle the chaos and confusion. It has that difficulty. Yet for artists and writers particularly, the city is a treasure.”

Richard Covington Paris-based author Richard Covington writes about culture, history and science for Smithsonian, The International Herald Tribune, U.S. News & World Report and The Sunday Times of London. His e-mail is [email protected].
Carolyn Drake Carolyn Drake (www.carolyndrake.com) is a documentary photographer living in Istanbul. Her editorial clients include Newsweek, The New York Times and National Geographic.


This article appeared on pages 2-11 of the September/October 2009 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.

Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for September/October 2009 images.