A Fading Future in Istanbul

Emir Eğricesu/Street musician in Istanbul, Turkey

The neighborhood of Çengelköy (pronounced: Chengel-koy) is nestled in Istanbul on the Asian shore of the Bosphorus. Its streets are steep climbs, and a perilous journey for the uninitiated driver. It’s a place where the nightlife is lively but sober. The nouveau riche couples and families of president Erdogan’s tenure squeeze themselves between uneven, cobblestoned paths to visit one of the many seaside cafes and restaurants. Most of the old streets in this already narrow district are reserved for car passage and parking.

Perched over the neighborhood is President Erdogan’s residency, the Vahdettin Pavilion, a replica of the one that belonged to the last Ottoman sultan, Mehmed IV. It was yet another symbol of a new era for Turkey: modern but Islamic, patriotic but open to the world. But take a closer look, and the reality is underwhelming—a cheap replica of the real thing. To build it, the government flattened historic mansions and evicted nearby residents from their homes during Ramadan. The designs themselves were rushed and the result was an Ottoman-ish construction that neither innovated on the traditional styles nor displayed any mastery of them.

Instead, industrial modernity has imposed itself on the old Greco-Roman and Ottoman skyline, now snaked by great highways, tramlines, new ports, and underground tunnels for trains and cars. Motorized ferries and underground trains can take you from the palace-dotted shores of European Istanbul to the village-like shores of Asian Istanbul, behind which lies a greater urban sprawl stretching beyond the peninsula and into the vast Anatolian landmass. The Bosphorus is almost negligible as a stopping force for the ferrying of people between Europe and Asia Minor. 

Over the past decade, Istanbul has become my second home. With every visit, I have seen another great infrastructure project unveiled, welding Asia and Europe together by means unimaginable to previous generations. With every new highway or train line, Istanbul has become much more connected internally as a city, and externally with the rest of the country. 

Yet this closeness has also brought a sense of alienation amid the grand infrastructure and the influx of non-Istanbulite residents from inside and outside Turkey. The social fabric of the city is being stretched to its limits.

The promise of this modernization was greater and more equitable prosperity. Instead, Istanbul’s transformation has come to grate on the nerves of its citizens. Suffering from political uncertainty, economic instability, and the long-running culture wars that have divided the country, Istanbul’s people have come to view infrastructure development in a negative light. The changes to their city were meant to bring economic prosperity but the people instead find themselves mired in poor job growth and inflation, and a city that appears too big and too ugly for human happiness. 

The mood of Istanbul’s denizens has waxed and waned with the times. In the first decade of AKP rule, there was a sense of possibility and openness, powered by the government’s brief period of vast liberalization of Turkish politics and the economy. Visitors and even refugees were most welcome in those days. The few years following the attempted coup by members of the Gülenist sect on July 15th, 2016 were the height of national unity, confidence, and hope for the future. In this small window, the government had reached the apex of its popularity and power, using the attempted coup as an opportunity to “clean house” of the remnants of the Gulenists and anyone else who could mount an opposition to the government—legal or otherwise. However, even at that time, cracks were appearing in the edifice of its power.

 The Turkish lira began its slow slide as post-coup fears about instability saw foreign investors divesting from the country. The slide became a rout after 2018, and today the Turkish lira has lost 80% of its value against the dollar. The dominant political agendas of the day are economic deprivation and the threat of migration destroying the social stability and “Turkishness” of the Republic. Istanbul is Ground Zero for these developments, bearing the brunt of the government’s infrastructure development programs and the worsening quality and cost of living. 

Two decades after President Erdogan and the AK Party came to power, global inflation and an open-door policy to migration have eliminated much of the popularity that the government had achieved in its first decade of rule. Local mayoral elections have also cost Erdogan major cities, including Istanbul itself. Erdogan now faces serious challengers from Turkey’s far-right as well as its center-left. Istanbul’s young workers have grown up expecting a white-collar future in a global city. Instead, inflation and unemployment have given them few options other than menial labor or hopes of working abroad. 

At the moment, Turkey’s battles mainly take place in the halls of state and at the ballot box. In Istanbul, at least, apathy and pessimism produce a sort of peace. It’s increasingly common to see groups of young people with both Islamic and Western garb drinking tea or walking side-by-side. But as opportunity slips from the grasp of more and more of its residents, the overall sense of decline beckons for a scapegoat. And with no clear successor to Erdogan himself, a countdown is underway for someone to take advantage of it.

Istanbul’s Psycho-Spatial Expansion

Everything about Istanbul impresses upon you the sheer scale of the city. The “Panorama 1453” exhibition lies just outside the Theodosian walls and has an impressive room with a multi-layered, 360-degree rendition of the Ottoman siege of Constantinople. Construction began in 2005 and the doors were opened to visitors in 2009. The panorama was part of a general wave of works as part of the refound confidence that sections of Turkish society had found in their Ottoman past in the first decade of AKP rule.

On the physical layer, cannons, cannonballs, and debris litter your immediate surroundings. On the walls of the room itself, artwork of impressive depth and detail features the bombarded walls of Constantinople, with Ottoman legions marching through the breaches. On the auditory layer, a surround-sound system blasts cannon fire, Ottoman Turkish war cries, and Mehter music to confound your senses. I couldn’t help but feel a small measure of awe, as if I too was overcoming the greatest walls engineered in human history with gunpowder and sheer manpower.

The Theodosian walls are still there too, fifteen hundred years after they were built. Some of the segments have been refurbished. Others have begun to crumble under the weight of time. Postwar highways built by modernizing regimes run through segments of the wall, along with overland tram lines built in the 2000s. 

The more recent Marmaray train line passes under the walls. Commissioned in 2004 and completed in 2013, the Marmaray’s route runs parallel to the Marmara coastline, and at some points along the route where the train runs overground, one views the sea of Marmara stretching almost endlessly to the Dardanelles, and beyond to the Aegean sea. At the cost of a dollar, one can traverse the entirety of settled Istanbul from shore to shore. Few megacities feature public transport that is this clean, cheap, and efficient, and that reenacts a historical prerogative of conquering the land. 

Previously, the city was a series of semi-connected towns and villages within a vaguely defined grand metropolis. The new rulers consolidated the historical peninsula of Constantinople itself and called it Fatih after its conqueror, Sultan Mehmed II. The districts outside this peninsula saw themselves as autonomous and would refer to traveling to Fatih as “going to Istanbul.” However, modern transport infrastructure has reduced physical barriers like great bodies of water and sheer distance into irrelevance. Hours have been reduced to minutes, and with that, the conception of Istanbul has been reduced to a single continuous city.

The modernization of Istanbul has imposed a psycho-spatial reformation on its denizens at increasingly diminishing returns. Istanbulites have faced worse: war, poverty, and hyperinflation still exist within the collective memory. Yet there was always a sense of ownership—that no matter what happened, this was their city. Now there is a sense of loss in an increasingly unfamiliar landscape.

A Capital Without an Empire

Istanbul is an imperial capital without an empire; a true melting pot populated by people with often wildly divergent value systems. 

Passing beyond the Theodosian walls into the north of Fatih district, you wander into Çarşamba, an area populated by adherents of the İsmailağa Sufi order. They are hard to miss; Ottoman-era clothing is the predominant uniform of its denizens, with Ottoman kaftans and green turbans for the men, and flowing black jilbabs for the women. Many of the older women keep with the Ottoman tradition of holding part of the cloth over their noses and mouths, sometimes with just one eye left uncovered for sight. 

Just down the hill from Çarşamba is a district with an entirely different vibe: Balat, one of the areas formerly inhabited by the Ottoman Empire’s minorities, including the Jews, Orthodox Greeks, and Armenians. Picturesque cafes and old Ottoman mansions line the streets in between ornamented churches and synagogues. Much of the traditional character of the neighborhood has been diluted in the drive to give the area a kitsch feeling for tourists. No physical barriers separate Çarşamba and Balat, but each inhabits its own world.

In the south of Fatih around the Aksaray district, the full scale of AKP’s “neoliberalization” of Turkey’s migration policies can be felt. Crowds of commuters force themselves onto the highways, competing with drivers who believe that driving rules are just guidelines.

I have often felt apprehension when having to squeeze myself between this crowd of people from everywhere and nowhere in particular. It is rare to find Turks here. Instead, Asian and African laborers bustle past European tourists between the restaurants and touristified landmarks. The sound of vehicle engines, bellowing hawkers, and the excited chatter of a hundred different languages confound the senses. Amid the chaos, the exquisite Pertevniyal Valide Sultan mosque is imprisoned by crisscrossing highways, her once white marble walls blackened with soot from exhaust pipes.

Fatih has become emblematic of what critics of President Erdogan and the AKP party call an “invasion” of migrants and refugees, and the general selling out of the country for foreign money. As a foreigner myself, wandering the roads of Aksaray I began to understand why Turks had become so alienated by what their city was becoming. In the year that I have been here, I saw food, rent, and gas prices double or even triple. Turkey’s official inflation rate is around 70%. However, most prices have increased by a far greater amount. An inflation rate of 30% saw widespread chaos in Sri Lanka and the collapse of parts of the government. Here, the suffering is taken in stride.

While there is widespread resentment towards the government for the spiraling cost of living, most anger is directed at what Turks feel is more important—the surrender of their sovereignty and national character to migrants and faceless foreign capital.

From Fatih, you can cross over the Golden Horn by tram, car, or ferry into Beyoğlu, centered on the historic Genoese trading town of Galata. One can find Arabs, Central Asians, Slavs, and a growing population of Desi migrants and tourists reveling in the nightlife. Further north in Şişli, hookah bars, nighttime escorts, and nightclubs that serve alcohol are not uncommon. 

The tourist hotspot of Taksim has become a key cultural battleground between the government and its supporters against secular and nationalist citizens. The Gezi Park protests in 2013 were characteristic of the divide between the two parties—the government sought to implement real estate development projects in a park, and a coalition of several factions protested issues such as a lack of consultation of locals by the government for construction projects, and the government’s purported “Islamist agenda.” Much like Aksaray in Fatih, the touristification of one of Istanbul’s most iconic attractions has brought with it prosperity for the real estate developers and social dysfunction for the dwellers.

Further north of the Bosphorus straits, upscale areas populated by the secular “white Turks” on the European shore face off with the conservative bourgeoisie on the Asian shore. Both sides competitively demonstrate their wealth as a form of credentialism. Increasingly, one of the few differences between the lifestyles of the secular and conservative elite factions is the lack of alcohol consumption and a more modest fashion sense of the women in the latter. Yet both revel in the purchase of imported German cars, upscale shopping malls, and westernized education. Erdogan’s desire to create a “pious generation” has run into the age-old roadblock of material consumption and its moral consequences. 

Even though Istanbul suffers from various dysfunctions, certain aspects of life remain superior. Even with spiraling xenophobic sentiment and economic deprivation, the social degradation that dominates western cities like London, New York, and San Francisco—drug abuse, homelessness, and general anarcho-tyranny—remains extremely uncommon in Istanbul. Its social fabric still retains the necessary moral base to prevent the most extreme atomization, narcissism, and dysfunction of western society. Turks, while extraordinarily stubborn, are equally hospitable, and that ethos creates the foundation for the city’s culture. The daily social activity of choice is keyif—meeting with friends and acquaintances to spend hours smoking, drinking tea and coffee, and engaging in idle chatter.

As big as Istanbul is, and despite its current economic woes, the city is fated to only grow larger. The flow of migrants toward Istanbul is unlikely to stop anytime soon. Turkey’s neighbors are too unstable and its government has too much to gain from the cheap labor they provide. 

But the government’s economic policies have only served to buy time—they haven’t resolved the deepening social divides or the growing sense of generational failure. Pogroms against Syrians and other foreigners have already begun to occur, sparked by the kinds of small disputes that come with close contact. Local officials are only too happy to fan the flames. The question for Istanbul is just what to do with its growing population.

All the Chief’s Men

Many of those who live below Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman residence in Çengelköy are migrants hailing from the Black Sea regions and are intensely loyal to the President, who is affectionately called “Reis” by his supporters, meaning “chief.” These are the “black Turks,” the conservative population originating in rural areas of the country. Erdogan’s rise to power permitted the once-maligned conservative Muslim demographic to gain access to state patronage and private business opportunities that they would have previously been locked out of by the secular elite of the city—the white Turks mostly found in the Aegean region. This population has disproportionately benefited from the government’s ongoing waves of construction. Migration has also spurred the rise of a “gray Turk” populace, which is urban and educated but also religious. 

Secular discrimination against practicing Muslims once dominated society; something as simple as a man refusing to drink alcohol or his wife wearing a headscarf would see him barred from any higher position in the military, state, or private sector. Today, the headscarf is a common sight in universities, courtrooms, and the Grand National Assembly, Turkey’s legislative body. Most AKP politicians’ wives don headscarves, including the wife and daughters of President Erdogan. Many of Turkey’s largest companies are now run by sober professionals whose wives and daughters wear it.

I enjoyed a sumptuous lunch at the home of one such man, the CEO of one of Istanbul’s big construction companies. He had been fortunate to live under a government willing to share out infrastructure contracts beyond the small circles of white Turk businessmen that had monopolized them a generation before. My host was a quiet, polite man, as well as a hafiz—a memorizer of the Quran. His wife was an Arab businesswoman whose work took her around the world. She kept her face covered and hosted the women in an adjacent room. In these circles, this match communicated a particularly Islamic form of cosmopolitanism—the reopening of Turkey to the urban, educated Muslim world. 

The family’s Malay helper prepared the lunch, which was surprisingly spare of Turkish dishes. The older Turkish generation is not exactly fond of foreign cuisine, but even conservative neighborhoods now have Arab restaurants popping up to cater to a younger generation. Like many of Turkey’s conservative business elites, the children have received a Western education. They speak English with American accents and their demeanor would have put them at home on any U.S. or European university campus.

Just two decades ago, a deeply conservative man running one of Istanbul’s largest companies would have been incredibly rare. Today, openly-practicing nouveau riche Muslims form one of President Erdogan’s most important bases of support and funding. 

As the evening went on, it dawned on me that older, conservative businessmen like my host had drawn a Faustian bargain. Their rise to affluence was owed to President Erdogan, and the construction sector is where many of them made their fortunes thanks to the government’s special treatment. Erdogan had helped them to become rich, and in return, they had given him their loyalty at the ballot box. During the 2016 coup attempt, they had faced down the barrels of tanks and guns for him. But the path they were on was paved with concrete, and much of Istanbul’s traditional character disappeared under it. The children of this new affluent class are increasingly alienated by the politics of their parents and find themselves ill at ease in a modernizing Istanbul.

The social tapestry and political dynamics of Istanbul produced in the endless churning of goods, services, and people are the products of decades of rural-to-urban migration that has seen Istanbul become the biggest metropolitan area in Europe, and one of its most consequential. With them came an intense building frenzy of gecekondus that have created a densely-packed concrete jungle across the Bosphorus and Marmara. It is the rise of this new demographic that has impacted voting patterns in Istanbul and consequently the national stage. The continuous drive for homes, jobs, and sustenance created new relationships between Turkish politicians, infrastructure companies, and Turkish voters that now define Turkey’s political landscape.

A College on a Hill

In the last week of Ramadan, I was invited to a student-organized iftar—the sundown dinner where Muslims break their daily fast during Ramadan—at Boğaziçi (pronounced: Boe-ah-zi-chi) University, considered one of Turkey’s premier institutions for higher learning. Several thousand people were expected to attend, and an event like this was unavoidably political. This was the home turf of Turkey’s traditional secularist elites, and a large, explicitly religious gathering was fated to be met with hostility. I couldn’t miss out on the opportunity to insert myself into the maelstrom of Turkey’s culture wars, so I signed up at once.

As attendees broke bread below string lights, many felt the eyes of the white Turk contingent who watched on from the surrounding grounds and through the windows of the faculty buildings above. From the highways and skyscrapers to the parks of college campuses, a cold war continues to be fought for the future of the country. 

Formerly and still colloquially known as “Robert College,” the university was founded in 1863 by American railway magnate Christopher Robert and Protestant missionary Cyrus Hamlin. The college has the distinction of being the oldest American school outside America itself. The university was owned by the Robert family until 1980 when the state forced a transfer of ownership after a coup d’etat. Nevertheless, while the state has and continues to “encroach” on the grounds through symbolic ownership and an increasingly physical footprint in the form of security personnel, Boğaziçi’s guardians have remained defiant in protecting their jurisdiction and community.

The contrast between the Boğaziçi campus and modernizing Istanbul could not have been starker. The campus is built in an American neoclassical design and occupies one of the best pieces of real estate in the city. Its view of the Bosphorus below and across toward Anatolian Istanbul is unparalleled. 

Its prime location, architectural design, and continued identity as a premier institute for learning are not by accident but by design. Boğaziçi’s raison d’etre is above all the continued presence and propagation of American influence in the country. Its American benefactors’ influence continues to be felt in the secular and increasingly progressive ideologies that are being adopted by the Twitter-addicted student population on campus before being disseminated through Turkish society.

Boğaziçi occupies a paradoxical position in Turkish society. It is an American-founded university treated as a private club by a minority elite. This elite defined itself as a secular vanguard and still holds a significant amount of prestige and discursive power in a nation that mostly holds divergent values. 

The day after the event, I scrolled through Twitter. Popular accounts belonging to faculty staff, students, and alumni waxed hysterical about the event, particularly incensed at the act of collective prayer after the dinner. Termed an “invasion,” the feeling of unwelcomeness to “outsiders” was palpable.

Boğaziçi is a club, and for the better part of the last century, it was a club for a particular type of Turk that now finds themselves increasingly disenfranchised over what they perceive as their territory. Having lost much of their public power at the hands of President Erdogan and the AKP, as well as the increasing size of the “conservative middle class,” the white Turks retreated to their private institutions and organizations: elite universities, country clubs, foundations, and business corporations. Despite their power, they remained deeply aware of their status as a minority. They also proved unable, or perhaps unwilling, to assimilate the broader Turkish population. Atatürk’s vision of a white Turk-ified nation never came to pass.

As a rule, minority elites always feel persecuted by the majority they rule over. This is a symptom of the insecurity of their power. For Turkey’s white Turks, their feeling of persecution stems from the fact that they have occupied the commanding heights of the Turkish state and society since the founding of the Republic. They grudgingly accepted the existence of the black Turks, so long as they stayed tucked away in Anatolia. Now the latter “majority” are starting to encroach on the minority elite’s private institutions after having seized the public sphere.  

Boğaziçi has seen the government appoint an Erdogan-friendly rector to govern the university, and now security guards have been placed on campus—which is a first for Boğaziçi. Fear and insecurity are reaching a fever pitch. It’s a phenomenon you see with Syrian Alawites, South African Boers, Bahraini Sunnis, and other minority elites: a besieged, insecure elite begins to identify the base population as an agent of persecution.

Even as things get worse, Istanbul retains a certain magnetism drawing in people from all around the world. But as things stand, Erdogan personally remains the lynchpin in Turkey’s state and economy. Without a real succession plan, Turkey’s current geopolitical autonomy and relative openness to Asia will last only as long as the man himself. An opposition largely concerned with shoring up its domestic position against Turkey’s practicing Muslims and foreign refugees is unlikely to do anything other than reverse economic liberalization and entrench its position in domestic conflicts.

But the political nihilism of Istanbul’s young population hasn’t seeped into the rest of life—yet. Friends still meet among the many alleyways of the city to drink tea and coffee, and smoke and chat into the late hours of the night. Marriage ceremonies continue apace through the summer, the most favored time of the year. While there is little hope for the coming decade and for their own future, they still look ahead and imagine a better Turkey for their children. All the while, the reconstruction of Istanbul lumbers on, reshaping the horizon and adding further confusion to the complex matter that is Turkish identity. 

When I first came to Istanbul, the most common question was, ‘‘where are you coming from?” Locals don’t just ask foreigners this, but also other Turks. You never know when you might meet someone from your home village. But beneath the apathetic calm is a growing apprehension. Lately, I find myself more often wondering, “where are you going?”

Above the construction cranes and beyond all material interests, the call to prayer blankets the city five times a day, as unceasingly as it has since 1453.

Ahmed Askary is co-founder of a stealth permanent capital organization and resides in Istanbul. He writes at Post Apathy and tweets @pashadelics.