x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Istanbul dispatches: diversity vs uni-culture

Revisionist history in the Middle East likes to think of the Ottoman years as an episode of Turkish domination. The reality, however, was far from that.

Revisionist history in the Middle East likes to think of the Ottoman years as an episode of Turkish domination. The reality, however, was far from that. The Ottomans were a diverse group. One of the most powerful positions in the empire, the Sultan's chief of staff, was always an African. The top ministers and bureaucrats were more often selected from the ranks of the devshirme, Christian children raised in the palace and groomed for high-ranking functions, including military leadership. The language itself, Ottoman Turkish, was written in Arabic script.

There is a tendency in the Middle East to blame all failures in modernisation on the "Turkish Occupation". The accusation appears moot, however, when we notice that the last Grand Vizier, Said Halim Pasha, was educated at Lausanne, Switzerland in the social sciences. He would be killed by Armenian assassins. If the Ottomans had really been the "sick man of Europe", the British and their Anzacs would have faired better in the Dardanelles, but it was a rout.

More than anything, what may have contributed to Ottoman decline would be the impatience of the Young Turks to chase the fashion of modernisation. Add to that the intoxicating idea of nationalism, the latest import from Europe, as it spread throughout an ethnically diverse empire. Istanbul today, at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, remains diverse. Although rich in culture and still quite cosmopolitan, it abounds in contradictions: history and modernity; graceful beauty and kitsch; aristocracy and the nouveau riche; tradition and technology; authoritarianism and desire for democracy; conservative culture and moral abandon.

The gift of globalisation, however, has brought to this cosmopolitanism the creep of the uni-culture. The visitor looking to experience all that is unique to Turkey is challenged at every step by American fast-food restaurants, shopping malls, hotel chains and a plethora of other stylised conventions. If one allows oneself to be seduced by the siren song of the familiar, he or she might just forget where they are until they bump into the next monument. The advertisements are fundamentally the same, the banter of the radio jockeys is the same, the commuter traffic to their bedroom communities is the same; and it's all just boring.

Today's uni-culture is plastic, one-dimensional, and tastes of polyurethane. The alternative is the "authentic", but that too is an enigma. "Authentic" is an adjective applied to another thing, like one might apply the "rustic" theme to their screensaver or interior design. We should be conscious that even when visiting a historic sight, we are seeing it through the filter of "presentation". This is a stylised representation or interpretation of life as it was. It is still not the lived reality of the historical moment of the place and its occupants. They didn't gaze at the walls and tour the objects as we do; they lived and "did" within that supporting context.

Reality, the third level of experience, is founded on continuity. It is a portal connecting us to the real. Uni-culture and "authentic representation" are temporal and never enduring. In the narrow streets of the Fatih district and the hills of Uskudar live real Ottomans, who can show you, with the most gracious hospitality, a continuing history that no guidebook could "represent". The Quran says: "And as for the froth, it will dissipate as if it had never been; but what benefits the people will remain in the Earth."

Jihad Hashim Brown is director of research at the Tabah Foundation. He delivers the Friday sermon at the Maryam bint Sultan Mosque in Abu Dhabi