Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Can Istanbul Smoothly Embrace Western Expats and Culture?


Move over Goa - Istanbul is the new hip destination for Western youngsters with time and money to burn.
Istanbul is fast resembling Henry Miller's Paris or the post-Soviet city-wide party in Prague where western twentysomethings can spend that critical time between university and life. "You just can't just show up in New York or London and hope to fit in," says Katherine Ammirati, 23, from Berkeley, California. "At least not without a plan bankrolled by well-heeled parents."
She came to Istanbul, doing tutoring jobs and then clerical work at a law firm and will go home one day to become a lawyer herself. "Istanbul still has rich and poor side by side, and that makes it feel like a real city," she says.
However, long-time Istanbul residents aren't so thrilled with the sudden gentrification.
A focal point of Istanbul’s gentrification movement is the traditional Tophane District. The neighborhood has long been known for its conservative flavor; women are more traditionally dressed, mosque attendance is high, and despite being within five minutes’ walk of Istanbul’s main party areas, there are very few bars serving alcohol.
But at the same time, the signs of creeping change are everywhere. Most conspicuously, an increasing number of art galleries have opened in the district over the last five years -- drawn to the area by relatively cheap rents and the close proximity of the new Istanbul Modern and a converted cannonball factory, now itself a gallery space. There is a stark contrast aesthetically and financially between these new galleries and the tea-houses and shops where old-timers congregate.
Social tension in the neighborhood has been high since a riot in late September, when attendees at six simultaneous gallery openings were attacked by local residents wielding pepper spray bottles and assorted brickbats. The brawling left five individuals hospitalized and ignited a round of soul-searching that reached into the top levels of government.
Locals justified their aggressive actions by saying that the gallery crowds were disrespectful of neighborhood sensitivities, in particular drinking alcohol in the open. The secularist press, meanwhile, derided the locals’ behavior, with one newspaper running a headline: “Forest Law in the City of Culture.” Gallery owners also recounted tales of intimidation and receiving threats to leave the neighborhood, or face consequences.
Of course, Istanbul was once Constantinople and was once known for its artistic output.
An intensified revival of interest in classical art forms and ancient literature reflected Byzantium's continuous and active engagement with its ancient past throughout the empire's long history.
Then again, these new galleries don't look like they're doing much to embrace classical traditions.

But it's not just the young, white bohemians moving to and adjusting to the city. Former NBA player Allen Iverson moved to Istanbul to play in the Turkish leagues and hang out at TGI Fridays.
Basketball, though, is still a niche sport in Turkey, and the skill level of Iverson’s team, I’m judging, is on the level of a middling Division I college program here; Besiktas plays in the Turkish league, not in the superior Euroleague. I ask people on the street, in hotels, in cabs, what Iverson’s coming means to Turkey; a lot have no idea who he is. One cabbie says, “Iverson! Yes!” and then turns up the radio he turned down when he picked me up — a game blared. “This is the sport here,” he says. “Football!” Soccer, in other words. Allen Iverson, basketball star, is in a foreign place.
And in the wake of the high-profile assassination of a Pakistani governor over opposing the blasphemy death penalty, an Istanbul publisher announced it will publish Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses in Turkish.
Kara Gunes Basim said the novel’s Turkish version, due to be published on Jan. 28, will be “a test for Turkey’s non- tolerance,” according to the website www.karagunesbasim.blogspot.com.
The publication of the novel by Rushdie in 1988 prompted Iran’s then-supreme leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, to issue a fatwa condemning him to death for alleged blasphemy. Islamists in Turkey also staged mass demonstrations against Rushdie at the time.
The Indian-born writer spent nine years in hiding, living with guards in various locations in the U.K.
If the locals are angry enough with kids drinking booze at art galleries to beat and pepper spray them, who knows what will happen after The Satanic Verses and an Allen Iverson freak-out both hit Istanbul (and Turkey at large).


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