Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Narratives in City Landscapes: Cultural Identity in Istanbul*

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Narratives in City Landscapes: Cultural Identity in Istanbul*

Article excerpt

One of the most important issues to consider in studies of ethnic identity and the status of internal debates in Middle Eastern societies is the ways in which nationalism creates a sense of identity as belonging to--or being excluded from--the nation. Geographers examine how these imagined national boundaries, which define one as part of the dominant group or as a "minority," are spatialized in the experiences of everyday life. Contemporary Turkey provides particularly interesting insights into how identity is created in the spaces we live in every day and how debates about national identity produce new landscapes because the country faces ongoing internal debates concerning national identity as it seeks membership in the European Union. One of the most important obstacles to Turkey's accession is its poor human-rights record regarding ethnic and religious minorities (Dahlman 2004), and the European Union is pressuring Turkey to reform laws concerning the rights and status of its minority citizens. The issue of minorities is a sensitive one for Turkey because it touches on a fundamental part of its national identity.

Since the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923 under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Turkey has defined itself as an ethnically Turkish and Muslim nation. Persecution of ethnic-religious minorities--from the Armenian genocide in the early twentieth century to the more recent erasure of Kurdish villages and the deaths of several thousands of Kurds in the southeast--has been justified as being measures to defend the Turkish nation-state against threats to its integrity and stability. Turkey today is a predominantly Muslim country, and yet, alongside its national identity as ethnically Turkish and Muslim, it is also an avowedly secular nation. Turkey's current government, voted into power by the Islamic party, tries not only to defend Turkey's national integrity and appeal to its local constituency but also to make necessary changes to improve the likelihood of European Union membership. The issue of how Turkey represents its own minority history to itself and to the world makes it an interesting site of study for geographical questions about local identity in urban life.

This article is a study of two neighborhoods in Istanbul. Both areas have rich histories of minority culture. French Street is a new commercial development project in Beyoglu, an area that was built on the European side of the Bosporus around the beginning of the twentieth century by and for a predominantly Christian and Jewish local elite and expatriate Europeans. Kuzguncuk is a small neighborhood on the Asian side of Istanbul that was historically home to a population of Greek, Jewish, and Armenian workers and artisans. In spite of the differences between these neighborhoods, their common minority histories and the ways in which they are employed to create particular landscapes today provides the basis for their comparative analysis.

I begin with a brief discussion of the theoretical framework used in the analysis--the "reading" of these two urban landscapes as "text." I then situate this study within other landscape studies that examine spaces of nationalism and identity. I address the specific issue of ethnic identity in Istanbul with reference to its larger historical context to show that the special relationship of Greeks, Jews, and Armenians (and others) to European powers and their status as semiautonomous, so-called millet communities in the Ottoman Empire gives them a particular history in Turkey and identity as "minorities." Because of this legacy I consider only Greek, Jewish, and Armenian minority history here (and not the histories of Kurdish, Alevi, Laz, or other groups that also constitute significant minorities in Turkey. (1)

I then focus on the new cultural memory of Greek, Jewish, and Armenian minority history that is now emerging in the cultural debate in Turkey. This cultural memory counters the "nationalist narrative" of Turkey as an ethnically Turkish and Muslim nation while underscoring that part of the nationalist narrative that ascribes a modern and secular identity to Turkey. …

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