Europe, a hopeless love?
Nathalie Galesne - 13/04/2007
Le pont sur le Bosphore
Istanbul offers eternal views, sometimes from the Asian shore, others from the European side. Both face each other, belong to each other, slightly separated by a narrow water band: the Bosporus, where light falls in layers of silver wavelets when it rains or splashes it with sapphire when the sun shines. Yet, under all sorts of weather, the Bosporus keeps moving perpetually like a mechanized sea-creature. Both sea and river, it is relentlessly crossed by Vapur (1) ferries, cargoes, cruisers, fishing boats, trawls, that draw arabesques in the water with their swirls.
The Bosporus has fascinated many, as witness the illustrations of an Italian orientalist, Amedeo Preziosi. He is currently exposed in an art gallery of İstiklâl street, one of Istanbul’s busiest arterial roads. Preziosi sketched the thousand facets of the city, dappling his detailed drawings with colour in a surprisingly modern style that anticipates comic strips by a couple of centuries.
However, such orientalist reveries suit neither a city like Istanbul nor a country like Turkey. Firmly anchored in modern times, Istanbul throbs with a population of 12 million that fill the streets with a young stride, and delivers a cultural mix of remarkable turmoil.
Nevertheless, Istanbul is also a wounded city where, on last 23 January, more than a 100.000 people took to the streets to pay tribute to Hrant Dink. Editor in chief of “Agos”, left-winger and fervent advocate of the Armenian cause, he was murdered by a boy aged 17, Ogün Samast, who was obviously manipulated by an ultranationalist group, apparently conspiring with intelligence. The Turks call this trend “deep State”.
Stuck between its prominent imperial past, the magnificence of its national mythology and an uncertain present (with or without Europe?), Turkey seems restless from within and yanked by several sides. Yet, despite the pull of Islamism and the drift to nationalism, Turkish civil society, seems just as vital and combative, if not more, than societies in ancient Europe.
There’s nothing like a small detour where Istanbul’s artists and intellectuals live, to make you grasp the complexity of Turkish society and the variety of voices it stages. You should listen to them, while crossing one side of the river to the other, and letting all certainties sway along with the ferry that links Europe to Asia.
A trip where the people of Istanbul are particularly friendly and chatty…
«You love me, me neither…»
«Europe, a hopeless love». Is that what we forcibly think when trying to picture Turkey’s relationship with Europe? This is most obviously a disillusioned love, which has left a bitter taste of frustration in the mouths of quite a few Turks. Regardless of generation or background, they cannot manage to conceal their humiliation and resentment towards Europe. All, without exception, refer to the unfairness of Europe, of its double standards and that it turned its back on them.
In fact, modern Turkey, this young nation nurtured by Europe’s bosom since the rise of Atatürk, was never accepted by the old lady who, in the past decades has opened the house door to her Northern and Eastern neighbours, but has left this great Muslim nation out. Yet, for more than a century Turkey educated its elite in European schools and universities, it imported and imposed European arts (music, ballet, theatre…) and habits on Turkish families, even to the most humble ones.
«We all carry a European identity within us, says Refik Akyüz, editor in chief of the photo magazine Geniş Açı (wide angle), for example my father studied at the German school and I studied at the American University. I also believe the Balkans have an influence on us, but that we also have a Kurd and Armenian side. This varied identity is written in our Turkish DNA. I’m favourable to Turkey’s entry into the European Union, though I feel increasingly confused. I think European standards will be of help to Turkey. To me one of the most important things is the respect of differences and freedom of opinion, I relate to others through my eyes and my hunger for international culture, I’m fascinated by the world.”
«We’re currently facing a rise of intolerance, which is linked among others to our failure to adhere to Europe and to the drawbacks it entails. It really feels like we’re under a double standard. Turkey has been dragging around Europe’s door for the past 40 years, while Bulgaria has just acceded with disarming ease. This drives people towards ultra-nationalism and to start withdrawing from the European project.»
Young filmmaker Pelin Esmer, thinks very much the same. Awarded several times for her movie “Oyun”, she too feels the need to escape the nationalist stranglehold of the European obsession. Pelin hates reclusive identities, her approach is based on tackling culture at its widest range, a quasi-universal range.
«Identity is a crucial problem in Turkey, we have always lived asking ourselves who we are, it’s a part of us, she says. Therefore, I don’t refuse to question identity, though I don’t trust an identity you can live as a simplistic ready-to-wear. Some Turks change their mind like they change their shirt to reach an assertiveness they need due, among others, to the frustration and humiliation Europe has inflicted on them.”
«When I think of Europeans, I feel I share the same feelings and the same reactions, but if we talk about the European Union, things get more complicated as it leads to question our identity. To me European culture doesn’t only belong to born and bred Europeans that have lived there for generations. Emigrants also contribute to enrich it. The Arabs for example, have largely contributed to European culture. However, everyone today is scared of diversity; both those who receive emigration and the newcomers, who also fear assimilation and withdraw in themselves”.(2)
Filmmaker and critic Engin Ayça greets me in his lovely home facing the tower of Galata on one side and the Golden Horn on the other. Engin, who is about thirty years older than Refik and Pelin, tells me of how his generation was moulded in the European model. This old practice, established with the rise of the Turkish Republic, had to be thwarted later on by some sort of return to the origins, though that wasn’t easy either. European hegemony also thrived on the cultural plundering of oriental countries. Engin overturns the situation and illustrates, through a thousand examples, how European culture is packed with Anatolian contributions. The pride and dignity he feels for his country is typical of his generation, even those who do not call themselves Nationalists.
«I know Europe but Europe doesn’t know me, underlines Engin, does Europe know about Turkish music for example, does it know anything of its millenary culture?”
“I believe, he concludes, that acceding Europe with a population of 70 million would produce a relevant presence in the European Parliament, and we are all aware that Europe bears an old Turkish phobia, that can even be found in French and Italian expressions, and let’s not even mention the Islamophobia that now prevails almost everywhere in the West.(3)