by Lee Boot

Leaving my world behind allows me to experience other cultures, and also helps me see my own. I’m in Istanbul at the International Symposium of Electronic Art (ISEA) to find out what others are doing, see the Istanbul Biennale, and talk about prosocial media research. Istanbul is cool. Baltimoreans would love it, as does everyone here, it seems. Since I arrived I’ve been scribbling down notes, trying to better understand my sense that Istanbul and Baltimore are similar in some significant ways, and so are Turkey and the US.

We both have identity issues, and things we can learn from each other. Both have struggled for centuries to understand how a powerfully religious population can nest in a modern society whose face to the world is secular—and like ours, visibly focused on commerce. Mostly, it works. The percentage of Muslims (and Christians) who are non-pluralist fundamentalist, like Rick Perry’s associates at the New Apostolic Reformation, is apparently low enough that they don’t see a way to dominate the country’s politics.

Having been the seat of two empires, the people of this city might have a few words of caution to offer the US. Istanbul is literally built on the rubble of the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires. After millennia of glory, by mid-twentieth century, Istanbul was a broken down shell of its former self with a pall of melancholy hanging over the city. Like Baltimore at the end of the 1960s, residents who were left must have looked around them and wondered, “We were great once—what went wrong?” There’s something destructive to the self-esteem and self-efficacy of a population that goes through this. Orhan Pamuk writes about it beautifully in his book, Istanbul. As a Baltimorean, aware of what our city must have been like in its past hay day, and aching for the renaissance I know is coming, I can relate. We share something else. Just as Baltimore is suspended between Northern industrial and pragmatist sensibilities, and the conservatism of the South—often locking us into what feels like rigor mortis, Istanbul is where East meets West. The air seems compressed under the pressure, but they’ve used this to their advantage.

Istanbullas rebuilt. Unfortunately, most of the great houses in Istanbul were wooden and were torched to make room for new development. We have brick. Good choice. (Maybe I can sell formstone here!). Now the city is once again thriving cosmopolitan metropolis, with a population that went from 500 thousand to nearly 10 million. (Watch out New York, we’re on your heels!) What’s more, Turkey’s GDP grew 8.9% last year. That’s where our story and theirs diverge.
I check out my take on all this with Barbaros, a gentleman who spoke enough English to help me communicate “vermouth” to the bartender. He’s lived here all his life, though travels and sees his country from the outside as well. He confirmed my understanding of his city and his country, but worries about their future—the economy, etc. He also worries about something new—and very old, and unsettling. Turkish Prime Minister, Erdogan, as you may know, has thrown down the gauntlet with Israel. We shared a drink. Not all that far from where my country’s treasure and blood soak the soil, we spoke few words to know what each other thought about empires.




  • slp September 18, 2011 at 7:03 pm

    Hi- I’m a Baltimorean ex-pat who’s been living in Istanbul for 10 months, and I agree with a lot of your impressions, but not all. I think, for instance, comparing Baltimore to Istanbul is patently absurd. It it’s heyday, Baltimore was a thriving industrial town and fairly major port city, not the seat of an empire. When I compare Istanbul to an American city, (doesn’t every traveler do that?) I compare it to New York. I love living in Istanbul, and I love, (yearn for it, often crave the garbagy smell of its ridiculously poorly maintained streets in summer) Baltimore, but I see very little of the it in the overpopulated, cosmopolitan sprawl of Istanbul. But I see New York everywhere- Greenwich village in Beyoğlu, Uptown in Taksim, Brooklyn in Kadiköy…
    Also, conservative estimates have its population at at least 13 million, with some people theorizing that with illegals, as many as 17 million live here. 
    I think you should also revisit your assertion that the government has remained mostly free of religious fundamentalism. While it’s true that Turkey is still a secular state, there’s a deeply conservative religious base in the east and the south, and growing concern among “the frightened left” that the government is becoming more religious every year. 
    In all, a lovely article, and thank you for letting me see Istanbul through fresh eyes. 

  • Oletha September 18, 2011 at 3:56 am

    Lee:  what a wonderfully unique experience! I would love to go to Turkey. It’s on my list of places to go. Now to aspire to a career in selling “formstone”, might add a new dimension to life.   

  • John September 15, 2011 at 8:18 pm

    Lee- Istanbul is one of my favorite cities! It’s Cok Güzel!  You have to go to the  baths-Çemberlitas Hamami- up from Hagia Sophia.  they scrub off layers of skin you didn’t know you had.
    I have photos of those old wooden houses- some were still there in the 1980’s

    • Lee September 20, 2011 at 8:02 am

      Thanks for comments. Haven’t hit the baths unfortunately. Sounds great. Addressing “slp’s” comments, actually, it was the fall from prominence to decay that I was trying to point out as the basis of comparison. Just to clarify, I guess Washington is the only city where a direct comparison (seat of an empire) is possible, and I don’t think there is much similarity there. On the religion piece, I know there is serious Islamist influence in government, my comparison was on how that is balanced. That said, since I wrote the article, I’m finding more and more evidence that the conservative factions are overpowering secular ones. Again, thanks for thoughts.

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