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Imperial City 7 décembre 2014

Posted by Acturca in Art-Culture, Books / Livres, History / Histoire, Immigration, Istanbul, Russia / Russie, Turkey / Turquie.
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The New York Times (USA) Book Review, Sunday, December 7, 2014, p. BR 84

By Jason Goodwin

Every now and then, there’s a story that needs to be told. It may come in a film or a novel, but it often arrives as a history. These days, we need a history of Ukraine and one of Syria, and we also need Charles King to trace the making of modern Istanbul.

Two summers ago, huge demonstrations followed an attempt by the local authorities to demolish a small park, designed by a French town planner in the 1930s, that stands near Taksim Square. The plan was to replace Gezi Park with a reconstruction of an Ottoman-era barracks, but when bulldozers arrived and began uprooting trees, many people felt that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, then prime minister, was behaving dictatorially. Some suspected him of twisting Turkish history, of subverting Istanbul’s narrative to the narrow ends of his own political party. The peaceful protests — and the violent government reaction — suggested that there were complex undercurrents swirling around this ancient city, a place destined, so an early ambassador wrote, to become the « capital of the world. »

King’s timely new book, « Midnight at the Pera Palace, » tells how interwar Istanbul transformed itself from the Ottoman imperial capital to a European city of refugees, jazz bars, muezzins and spies. Today’s city is a rare blend of Islam and democracy, and King has made a brilliant attempt to establish an English-language narrative for it.

We glide into the story on the wheels of the Orient Express, that fabled train whose arrival in Constantinople, as Istanbul was known until the 1930s, symbolized the city’s wakening connections to the West. Masterminded by a Belgian railway entrepreneur who aimed to compete with the Pullman coach, the Wagon-Lits company soon opened the first of Istanbul’s grand hotels, the Pera Palace of King’s title, whose fortunes in some ways encapsulate the story of the early modern city. It was the plushest of the plush, built in a district decimated by fire and meant, with its similarly luxe neighbors, to offer what Le Corbusier called « allure new-yorkaise. » Already we’re a long way from the stock harem-and-mosque image of Istanbul.

History grabbed at the city’s coattails as the Ottoman Empire staggered to its collapse. At the end of World War I, Istanbul suffered its first foreign occupation since 1453. The Pera Palace Hotel became one of the places where Ottomans and Westerners could meet. Mustafa Kemal, the future founding president of the Turkish republic, took rooms there the very day the Allies assumed control of the city. French, British and Italian policemen patrolled the streets. The city’s Greek inhabitants were jubilant, and expectant. The Muslims — outnumbered, by one estimate, 15 to one — were depressed and bewildered. It was a city of Jews, Armenians and Greeks; of Allied soldiers, Balkan ne’er-do-wells, Russian émigrés and, in rapid succession, entrepreneurs, Communist sympathizers and spies of all stripes.

In King’s narrative, each event — each new arrival — lays down another layer, chisels another facet of the city’s history. These are the Istanbul stories the Erdogans of today would gladly leapfrog, stories that remind us exactly how modern Istanbul became itself. Many of them do involve the Pera Palace as it limped along from a cynosure of glamour to a sort of self-­parody, full of tattered chintz and dusty carpets. King tells of the Allied occupiers settling in while the defeated German general Otto Liman Von Sanders took his promenade along the road outside (he stayed at the Hotel de Londres); how a bomb, timed to explode on a train carrying the British ambassadorial staff to Istanbul from Bulgaria, instead ripped open the hotel lobby in 1941; of the jubilant hour in 1923 when Turkey was declared a sovereign nation.

King’s broader perspective absorbs many facets of Istanbul’s interwar history, from its jazz age to its relationship with Russia. That Russian story could be a book in itself, encompassing the influx of White Russian refugees fleeing the Bolshevik Revolution and the strains this placed on the city. A Russian whose act included performing rats and dogs, as well as a pig, applied for assistance, dolefully noting that « artists cannot live in Russia now. The atmosphere is uncongenial to art. » But Istanbul’s most famous interwar Russian guest, Leon Trotsky — supported by plenty of Turkish capitalists — chafed in his gilded cage. To him, the city was not quite at the center of things. He eagerly awaited a new visa, preferring Germany, Britain or France.

In 1933, when he finally departed, he left behind a new generation of Turks, as they now called themselves. The Treaty of Lausanne, the final pact of World War I, also slapped ethnic labels onto one and a half million people distributed between Greece and Turkey. Greeks like Prodromos Bodosakis-Athanasiades, the absentee owner of the Pera Palace, lost their property and other rights as the new Turkish government tried to squeeze out the last of its minorities. The owner of the Hotel de Londres, just down the road, went bankrupt. Dismissed for begging outside his old hotel, he came back and shot one of the employees. But Bodosakis went on to become a formidable industrialist in Athens, exploiting contacts made in the lobby of the Pera Palace years before.

Ernest Hemingway, reporting on Istanbul in the early 1920s, supposed the fun would dry up when the Allies left the city. He was wrong, as King ably demonstrates in a chapter devoted to Istanbul’s « jazzing. » Bars and clubs were to be found throughout the city; any tiny room capable of holding a few chairs and tables had its own orchestra. Gambling, dancing and drinking were the order of the day. Frederick Bruce Thomas, a Russian citizen and the son of former Mississippi slaves, established Maxim as the leading nightclub of the mid-1920s.

King revels in what he calls a « sonic history » of the city, detailing changes to its soundscape: « Istanbul was, in a way it never had been before, loud. » It wasn’t just that there were new cars and fire engine sirens, there were the new sounds of the movies and popular musicians and phonograph recordings.

While Istanbul became more cosmopolitan in style and more Western in its habits and entertainments, it also became more Turkish. In part, that was because so many Balkan Turkish refugees arrived in the new country, the rump of the lost Ottoman Empire, but it was a development seized on and encouraged by Mustafa Kemal and his Republican People’s Party. In some ways, as King points out, the Kemalists were not unlike the Bolsheviks, running a one-party state and making citizenship a declaration of faith. They too organized show trials, massacres and expulsions to enforce their nationalist creed. They made the word « Turk, » once synonymous with « country bumpkin, » a badge of honor and a token of belonging.

By the late 1920s, Turkey was more Turkish and Istanbul was more Turkish: The brilliantly conducted national census of 1927 demonstrated as much, underscoring Kemal’s success in making it an attractive identity. Conversely, Turkey’s non-Kurdish minorities were now concentrated in Istanbul. The « imperial legacy, » King writes, « the long history of multiple confessions, many languages, origins and heritages — had been distilled into a single city. »

This distillation of comings and goings — the influx of Russians in the 1920s and Eastern European Jews in the 1940s, the arrival of German Jewish academics in the 1930s, all amid the partygoers, the writers and musicians, the bar girls and photographers — makes up a dizzying kaleidoscope of a city that became recognizably modern in just a few decades. Charles King has combed out the threads of this complex and highly nuanced story in a hugely enjoyable, magnificently researched and deeply absorbing book.

Jason Goodwin is the author of the Investigator Yashim series of Istanbul mysteries. His most recent novel is « The Baklava Club. »

The Birth of Modern Istanbul
By Charles King
Illustrated. 476 pp. W. W. Norton & Company. $27.95


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