27 August 2006

961) Life in the islands...

One of the most exquisite and yet perhaps internationally less appreciated spots in Istanbul is the islands --Buyukada, Heybeliada, Burgaz and Kinali. Although hosting lots of tourists every weekend, the islands do not correspond to a trendy, touristy sport. And though they can become quite crowded during the summer season, they still constitute a perfect haven, an inconspicuous sanctuary to those who want to attain some inner peace and tranquility without necessarily leaving the city. . . . . . . Most importantly, the islands embody an ages-old, deeply-rooted cosmopolitan culture and a way of life that Istanbul too used to retain once but has long lost.

The first hints of that culture are revealed on the way to the islands, in the ferryboats that commute back and forth between the city and the four islands. There, you will encounter a variety of people, a motley cluster of individuals from all walks of life, and hear a variety of languages and idioms, being spoken all at once.

Greek and Jewish, Armenian and French, English and Ladino will intermingle with Turkish. Every now and then you will hear a sentence that had started in Turkish to be completed in Jewish. Sometimes a talk in Turkish will be replete with Armenian expressions. You will hear them all. You will happen upon mothers who speak French with their children, Turkish with their husbands.
You will see women who enthusiastically, unreservedly and almost endlessly gossip in one particular language, but then choose another language when they want to “get serious.” Next to these seasoned islanders, most of whom have either been born on the island or spent most of their childhood and adolescence here, you will catch sight of the visitors -- Istanbulites of all professions, here for a daily escapade from the hustle and bustle of the city, and numerous tourists, composed of mostly Arabs, British, and Russian.

The Arabs come with their families, children and all, the British come with their partners, couples holding hands, and the Russian come with their dreams. All are welcome in the islands. As soon as the ferryboat comes ashore, they all get out and mingle with the island crowd. As you walk along the islands, from the open windows and the balconies you will hear songs in Armenian, Greek, Hebrew and Turkish. You will see grandmothers chatting in three languages with their grandchildren. You will pass by mosques and synagogues and churches. The seagulls will accompany you everywhere you go. And you will lament the gradual loss of this astonishingly, gracefully intense and vivid cosmopolitan culture, once present in almost every nook and cranny in Istanbul and Turkey, but now confined to particular spots and those only. Turkey has lost countless minorities in its recent history -- so many non-Muslim families have left this country, step by step. Though they are gone, from each and every family something remains behind -- remnants of a past not that far away.

As it has moved away from being a multilingual, multiethnic, multireligious empire towards a secular, modern nation-state, it is indeed true that Turkey has accomplished a major transformation unheard of in other regional contexts. And yet the flipside of this story is that a gradual loss of cosmopolitanism has accompanied Turkey's recent political history. And now, at this point in history, it is time to come to grips with those losses, to face the past and envision a better future, to choose historical consciousness and memory instead of collective amnesia, and to honor cosmopolitanism once again. It is time to learn not to be afraid of differences -- be it ethnic, religious or cultural, and celebrate, once again, multiculturalism. Only then can the captivating fabric of life vividly present in the islands today recuperate and cascade all over the country.


Sunday, August 27, 2006
Elif SAFAK
© 2005 Dogan Daily News Inc. | turkishdailynews.com.tr

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