Islam, Globalization, and Postmodernity

By Akbar S. Ahmed; Hastings Donnan | Go to book overview

Chapter 2

Turkish arabesk and the city

Urban popular culture as spatial practice 1

Martin Stokes

For Christians and Muslims, Istanbul has long been an icon of the meeting of East and West, and the place of Turkey in the world. For Europeans, this image of the city is familiar from a substantial travel literature, and a media treatment which has justified the Western promotion of the state in a 'troubled neighbourhood'. In Turkish historiography, the conquest of the city in 1453 opened up the 'Age of Conquest'. Istanbul became a complex and often contradictory image of the significance and power of a European Islam, and at the same time, an image of the modernizing role championed by the Ottoman Turks in the Middle East. For the Ottoman Sultans, Istanbul was not just a capital but a theatre in which imported ideas of progress and development were played out in utopian planning schemes (Çelik 1986). Today, contrary to the claims of many theorists of modernity, in which cultural experience has become fundamentally 'delocalised' (Berland 1988), this is a place which has lost none of its power to signify, although the global order of today has wrought fundamental changes in the ways Istanbul is experienced. Istanbul continues to emblemize modern Turkey more than anywhere or anything else, and although it has lost its status as the capital city to Ankara, it has lost none of its contradictory force as an image of the East in the West, and the West in the East. This image is of vital significance to a state which is currently so concerned with the projection of a European and secular image. It also asserts the vital political claims: that it is capable of dealing with the fundamentalist 'threat', maintaining its civilizing role in the Middle East, and assuming the natural responsibilities, conferred by its geographical and cultural position, for the economic development of former Soviet Central Asia. As Keyder has recently pointed out, the city's business élites have not been slow to develop new ways of 'selling Istanbul' (Keyder 1992).

However, this is not just an élite myth. Istanbul has a population of over ten million. To live in Istanbul, a city straddling Europe and Asia, is to be exposed to the full force of Turkish myths of East and West. It is to live with constant reminders of the global histories of two worlds which those Turks with no stake in the dominant mythologies often consider them-

-21-

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