A city divided, on the brink of ruin

Ece Temelkuran

I am used to mourning the cities I didn’t get to see before they turned to ruins: Kabul, Baghdad, Aleppo and many others. It never occurred to me that someone would come to feel the same way about Istanbul, until a friend in London asked, “Is it too late to see Istanbul?” But I shouldn’t have been surprised. Istanbul-based foreign journalists have been leaving the city one by one and writing their elegies.

Turkey’s political turmoil has made Istanbul a city to run away from. But there has always been an almost secret custom among residents: We’ll gaze out over the Bosphorus at sunset, while sipping rakı with friends, and someone will murmur, “After all that rape she is still excruciatingly beautiful, isn’t she?”

Today, that is harder to say than ever.

The political and cultural polarization of the last decade has divided the city. Üsküdar, on the Anatolian side of the city, facing the Maiden’s Tower, is for government supporters. Beşiktaş is known for the controversial urban legend surrounding its football fan club. Çarşı, in the center, is a safe haven for middle-class seculars. Bebek, on the European side of the city, near the bridge where the Bosphorus opens into the Black Sea, is for upper-class secular elite. Kadıköy, facing the Old City, is the last diverse neighborhood. The drinking crowd has retreated from rowdy Taksim to upper class Nişantaşı or hipsterish Kuledibi. In Taksim, careless Gulf tourists wander slowly along the streets of a city center designed to their assumed tastes: excessive glitter and distasteful damask.

Taksim Square witnessed every dramatic turn in Turkish political history. Now it has been cleansed of politics altogether. The square has become a sanitized symbol of the government’s plan to turn the city into another Dubai. There are shopping malls on every corner, but no public space to gather and discuss.

The city center is clean and neat, obedient and calm. But if you look closely, you’ll notice that the government has not entirely stamped out its beating heart.

The square has been under so-called construction for years — an ongoing struggle between the natural vibrancy of the city and the will of the political class. No wonder President Erdoğan spoke in an almost vengeful way about rebuilding Taksim Square in his first public appearance after the failed coup attempt. He has not yet been able to conquer it.

I have always seen a city’s walls as coded diaries of its ongoing conflicts or secret social clashes. Cracking the code will teach you more about a city than any political analysis.

The walls of Istanbul, with their playful graffiti, are disproportionately elegant considering the vulgarity of its governing politicians.

Whenever local authorities paint over mocking jokes with gray paint, more graffiti will appear, as if to say, “Oh, gray again!” No matter how much paint is wasted, citizens find ways to make themselves heard.

Still, the truth is that districts are becoming increasingly polarized. New urban development projects target locals to appeal to a specific identity. “A serene life!” one building’s billboard proclaims, meaning it promises conservative neighbors. “Live with people like you,” says another, using smiling women in miniskirts to paint itself as a Western-friendly community.

Now, as the government’s “us and them” discourse spreads like wildfire, the city’s invisible borders are mutating and multiplying at an extraordinary pace.

What will Istanbul look like tomorrow? Who will its future belong to? Throughout its history, people have been forced to leave this city against their will: Armenians, Jews, Leftists, minorities to the political power of their time. This city of indestructible beauty, traditionally a bridge between East and West, became unlivable for many.

And yet, there has always been a group of friends who will look at the city, sitting somewhere along the Bosphorus, and think: “Still beautiful after all.”