“Invisible Borders:” Walking Tour of Istanbul

And before long, the music, the views rushing past the window, my father’s voice and the narrow cobblestone streets all merged into one, and it seemed to me that while we would never find answers to these fundamental questions, it was good for us to ask them anyway.
–Orhan Pamuk

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Istanbul is known to be the crossroads of the world.  In visiting the city, I am curious about how different groups have lived together there in different eras and conditions.  How do people compose their community life in day-to-day relationships, regardless of how news headlines and history texts portray them?  How do they create the “in-between” space that Maxine Greene describes as the key to public life, “where people speak in terms of ‘who,’ not ‘what’ they are”?

These questions take shape around borders: How do borders sustain respect? How do they abuse human dignity? I know a little bit about the waves of conflicts and oppression, the written laws and unwritten customs used by Jewish, Christian, and Muslim communities – and many languages, cultures, and other subgroups within and across these communities – to co-exist over the course of Istanbul’s history.  And the news shows people all over the world engaging in a range of collective behaviors, from nationalist xenophobia to democratic inclusion to indifference.

The scale of these views is too large for me.  I am looking for small, local processes of relationship building across differences.  Neighborhoods are where people are listening and learning and growing side-by-side, day-by-day, in many contexts over time and across countries.  But media and politics tend to ignore these local spaces and the knowledge and struggles of their residents.

My daughter is studying in Istanbul; she arranged for us to take a walking tour of a few intersecting neighborhoods of Istanbul: Fener, Balat, Dramond, and Edernekape.  The tour focused on demographic and architectural changes, but the subtext is, “how do people live with another across class, ethnic, religious, and cultural differences?” We spent about an hour in each neighborhood, covering a few blocks and several “invisible borders.”

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Our guide, Gaye, lives in the neighborhood we are walking through.  She describes her view of neighborhoods: spaces where people want to be in relationships with other people, where they experience otherness as a rich resource, not as a threat.   She, along with a team of students and professors at the university, is developing what they call “active anthropology,” engaging people from different communities in asking questions about identity, social change, and culture.  In contrast to widespread media attention to ethnic conflict, the anthropologists are interested in “how we’re nourished by intersocial relations between different groups in a place.”  They wonder if the increasing societal emphasis on private life is “a deliberate plan to create distance between people.” These neighborhood researchers demonstrate “intersocial” commitments in the way they approach us.  Gaye urges us to ask questions, “not because I’ll have answers, but so we can all learn from what you are asking about.”

The framing question she has for our group of western visitors, mostly university exchange students, have to do with patterns of gentrification: Would you choose to respect the historical quality of the neighborhood or to respect people’s daily lives and choices – including their self-interested changes to the historical buildings of the neighborhood? Pointing out historical markers like “jumba windows” of the Ottoman period, she emphasizes that homeowners may or may not preserve such features when they remodel.

Gaye is studying gentrification in this particular community because in Istanbul, “Usually gentrification happens too quickly to track.  Here it’s happening slowly enough that we can watch it as it unfolds.”  She classifies two types of gentrifiers: Type A gentrifiers, who are investors, and isolate themselves from the neighborhood with fences, bars on the windows, and general absence. Type B gentrifiers are the hipsters, who seek out relationships with neighbors, sensitive to problems in the neighborhood.

Gaye puts herself in the Type B camp.  She originally comes from a neighborhood across the river on the Asian side.  She tells a little story about learning the language of neighborhood life: “Women express themselves with cleaning.  There’s a discourse of laundry in this neighborhood. Ropes strung between buildings are used to express connection and conflict. I wanted to hang laundry and arrived at my window at the same time as a woman on other side of the street.  She glared. I smiled a little, she smiled a little, gradually, smiling more and more.  We silently came to an understanding and shared the rope.” Gaye shows us how she “reads” the streetscape, including doors and windows, empty space, sounds, and, of course, people.

She describes what happened when scores of Syrian refugee families came into the neighborhood recently.  She took part in a community response: people in the neighborhood rented flats for the refugee families, taught them Turkish, provided food and other supplies. But the refugee families sold the food, left the flats.  The activists researched – what went wrong?

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I feel ambivalent.  I appreciate Gaye’s team’s deep interest in neighborhood relationships and their creative intellectual work.  At the same time, I think their research stance carries dangers: they are experimenting and intellectualizing, a response that seems irresponsible in relation to the vulnerability of the people in their neighborhood living through humanitarian crises.  On the other hand, is it less irresponsible to do nothing?

As a place-based educator, I am fascinated by these university researchers’ “active anthropology.” I’m also disturbed by it.  I won’t assume that gentrification in Istanbul works the same way that it does in Chicago and other U.S. cities, where the influx of wealthy, trendy folk assaults the integrity of lower income neighborhoods.  But, like American gentrifiers, the Turkish gentrifiers don’t seem to demonstrate the self-reflectiveness that is necessary when people of privilege enter into more vulnerable communities.

Gaye is exploring her own conditions, the neighborhood she is over time making herself part of. She is studying gentrification from within.  Her focus is still, though, on the other, on other people, on buildings, on streetscapes, not on herself: her reactions, people’s reactions to her.  Without such reflection, her study is incomplete and likely to unintentionally perpetuate an “othering” approach.

Even though they’re on the lookout for othering, the team’s faith in their anthropological method may block them from doing the kind of self-examination necessary to interrupt objectification.  Without examining their own prejudices at every turn, they are perpetuating stereotypes.  Gaye’s research questions can sound like veiled accusations: “Why did you sell the rice we gave you?” “Why did you leave the apartment we put you in?” “Why aren’t the Syrian men working?” “What could change this problem?”  She doesn’t hear the power she wields in her voice, her stance, her freedom of movement, and without being alert to this, she is likely to alienate the neighbors who are most different from her, the ones she is most interested in connecting with.

If the enterprise of peaceful co-existence subordinates local knowledge to common understanding, it will always be the more powerful who set the terms and maintain order.  So, local knowledge is always threatened, never fully respected.  As an outsider to a community, who wants to learn how to be in relationship with people in it, I am wondering if there is a way I can hold awareness of the danger I as an outsider pose within my respect for the community.  Does attention to the ways local knowledge is threatened, including my own gaze and narrative as an outsider, make my relationship in another community more possible – or less so?

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