After a long period when no one of consequence came to Istanbul, and local journalists interviewed all foreigners who turned up at the Hilton Hotel, the Russian-American poet Joseph Brodsky published a long piece entitled “Flight from Byzantium” in The New Yorker.
Perhaps because he was still smarting from W. H. Auden’s brutal review of the book recounting his journey to Iceland, Brodsky began with a long list of reasons he’d come to Istanbul (by plane). At the time I was living far from the city and wanted to read only good things about it, so his mockery was crushing, yet I was glad when Brodsky wrote, “How dated everything is here! Not old, ancient, antique, or even old-fashioned, but dated!” He was right. When the empire fell, the new Republic, while certain of its purpose, was unsure of its identity; the only way forward, its founders thought, was to foster a new concept of Turkishness, and this meant a certain cordon sanitaire to shut it off from the rest of the world. It was the end of the grand polyglot multicultural Istanbul of the imperial age; the city stagnated, emptied itself out, and became a monotonous monolingual town in black and white.
The cosmopolitian Istanbul I knew as a child had disappeared by the time I reached adulthood. In 1852, Gautier, like many other travelers of the day, had remarked that in the streets of Istanbul you could hear Turkish, Greek, Armenian, Italian, French, and English (and, more than either of the last two languages, Ladino, the medieval Spanish of the Jews who’d come to Istanbul after the Inquisition). Noting that many people in this “tower of Babel” were fluent in several languages, Gautier seems, like so many of his compatriots, to be slightly ashamed to have no language other than his mother tongue.
After the founding of the Republic and the violent rise of Turkification, after the state imposed sanctions on minorities—measures that some might describe as the final stage of the city’s “conquest” and others as ethnic cleansing—most of these languages disappeared. I witnessed this cultural cleansing as a child, for whenever anyone spoke Greek or Armenian too loudly in the street (you seldom heard Kurds advertising themselves in public during this period), someone would cry out, “Citizens, please speak Turkish!”—echoing what signs everywhere were saying.
Dumneazu blogger Zaelic comments:
True, but with holes in it. On my last trip to Istanbul I managed to find myself in several situations where other languages indigenous to Istanbul were openly used. Kurdish and Laz were not rare among my friends. On the street where we lived in Beyoglu (known as the Tomtom Kapitan neighborhood) Kurdish was never rare, Arabic was common and occaisionally I heard Romani. I found Ladino spoken both at the booksellers shops near Tunel, as well as on the Princess Island of Burgaz Ada. Also Greek on Burgaz Ada, as well as Pontic Greek among some Muslim Rumca-speaking friends from the Black Sea coast (who moved back to Istanbul after being raised speaking Rumca in Germany! They essentially had to learn Turkish in Turkey – in Essen they spoke Rumca as kids and thought it was Turkish! On the weekend ferry to Buyuk Ada – where the upper class Armenians of Istanbul have their weekend homes – I heard a lot of Armenian, something which my American friend who has resided in a strongly Armenian neighborhood of Istanbul for years (Samatya) says came as a great surprise to him. I wouldn’t say that Pamuk is wrong, but things have loosened up in the last five years… people are less afraid to be heard speaking languages in the streets that have often been confined to the kitchen.
For a skeptical take on either Pamuk’s
Istanbul and his memories of Brodsky and Auden or the translation thereof, see House of Mirth, who notes that Auden, not Brodsky, was the author of the travelogue about Iceland.