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Literary Life in Istanbul’s Changing Society

Jasper James Istanbul's Literary Life

Photo: Jasper James

I'd flown to Istanbul from New York to attend a literary conference at the university where I'd been a Fulbright scholar in the late 90's, and hailed a taxi that looked oddly familiar. It turned out to be an old Chevy Bel Air from the 1950's, when I was in high school in the Midwest. We raced along the great road that has led into Istanbul along the coast of the Sea of Marmara for centuries—Herodotus, in his Histories, describes this same path. After the assassination of President Kennedy, the road was renamed for him; today the sea is adrift with the rusted hulls of freighters that look like abandoned toys. We could just see the minarets of Hagia Sophia as we rounded the crescent by the Topkapi Palace in Sultanahmet, its gardens and harem asleep in the fresh morning air. When we reached Bebek, a rich community on the Bosporus, we drove up the impossibly steep road everybody calls the Twisty-Turny to Bogaziçi University, where a young female graduate student welcomed me in the traditional manner by pouring lemon eau de cologne into my hands. "Merhaba, Nancy Hanim!" she said, smiling.

The university is built high above the Bosporus around a greensward that looks a lot like Princeton, which isn't surprising since it was built by an American, Cyrus Hamlin, as Robert College in the 19th century, when it was directed by a board of American trustees. In 1971, when the trustees could no longer afford to keep the school running, it was taken over by the Turkish government, and is now the most distinguished state university in Turkey. It was here that I taught American literature, and writing in English, and met some of the writers who are now making their mark. Orhan Pamuk wasn't at the university when I was, but his brother teaches there. And Maureen Freely—whose father, John Freely, has dominated American expatriate writing in Turkey since the 1960's, when the family arrived—translates Pamuk and accompanied him in Stockholm when he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2006. He calls her upcoming novel, Enlightenment, a "Conradian drama set in a beautifully illuminated Istanbul, where the past is always with us."

A good deal of that past is set in the Bebek Hotel. It sits on the edge of a ravishing bay on the Bosporus, where huge freighters from Russia, Eastern Europe, the Black Sea, and the Crimea silently slip by throughout the day and night. By 4:30 the next morning, the singsong Arabic chant of the muezzin at the Bebek Camii is calling the faithful to prayer, and wakes me up. It's a good hour before the sun will rise across the straits out of that landmass we used to call Asia Minor, but is truly the beginning of Anatolia. The only other living creatures I can see from my terrace are sleek black Ottoman crows strutting along on the jetties below; their gray feathered shoulders make them look as if they're wearing military capelets, bird spies in the house of Osman.

It's still too early for breakfast at the hotel, so I walk along the shore of the Bosporus to the great stone walls of Rumeli Hisari, a massive fortress built by Mehmet the Conqueror in 1452, the year before he took Constantinople from the Byzantines. On the way, I pass two sleepy fishermen, their woolen caps perched atop their heads, pouring a steaming pot of tea into tulip-shaped glasses already half-filled with raki. Beside them, a plate of black and green olives, as well as cubes of white cheese, are set out on a small wood stool beside their rods and gear.

Later, I pay a visit to a colleague who lives near Rumeli Hisari and who taught in Bebek for years, a good decade before I was at Bogaziçi. With the recent conflicts in England and France over Muslims wearing head scarves, I asked her what it had been like among her female students in Istanbul. She laughed and said, "I think the only question then was whether it was an Hermès." But I had seen a very different reaction to the wearing of a head scarf at Bogaziçi when I admitted a devout Muslim girl to one of my classes in American lit. She was absolutely first-rate intellectually, but I didn't know then that head scarves were forbidden in the state schools of secular Turkey. She was the daughter of an imam, and although I've never regretted having her as a student, I was being naïve and ignorant of Turkey's hard-won secularism.

This was nearly 10 years ago, but the question is even more vital today. In a society as determinedly secular as Turkey, is there any room for such a visible symbol of religious identity in a state school?I suspect it is fear-mongering to describe a clash of civilizations, which is not to say there are not considerable differences among us—cultural, political, economic, and culinary. But is the best way to handle those differences to deny, or in effect to punish them?If a scarved Muslim woman is not allowed to attend a state university, where will she go to learn?I will never forget one of the women in my department saying that we Americans were in part responsible for the growing religious intensity of the Muslims in Turkey. She insisted that American support of the Saudis was to blame, since they had opened religious schools for the poorest Turks, who then flooded into Istanbul from the countryside—where memorizing the Koran was the focus of study, where they were not learning basic reading, writing, and arithmetic.

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