Istanbul is the New Colossus

Published 23.02.2017 01:31

The rapid and continuing changes in Istanbul's social scene and architecture have been a source of inspiration for many over the centuries. Earlier this month, I traveled to Istanbul from Washington, and once again I was mesmerized by the sudden differences in my old neighborhood's social fabric and the new way of life created by Turkey's new conservative middle class.

It is not just Syrians opening up countless stores, establishing art galleries or joining the workforce, but also Africans, Central Asians, and Caucasians. They are all clearly returning Istanbul to its Ottoman glory days when it was a truly cosmopolitan capital where for centuries different ethnicities and religious minorities existed in harmony.

The change is already on your doorsteps. Syrian and African immigrants who can't speak proper English are delivering your water, and you can find yourself sharing a seat with a slum dog in a dolmuş in Gultepe in the very heart of Istanbul's business district. In Umraniye's rather dicey Sondurak neighborhood, a Palestinian police station employee is the most liked person in the building. Police officers are constantly in need of his English skills while handling Syrian refugees and Chinese nationals who end up at the station every hour or so.

It is a little gloomy as well. The Syrian refugee issue has already divided Istanbulites into camps. Most of them complain about the rising Arabization in the city, especially with the help of rich Gulf tourists. Some friends blame Arabs for the sad state of the iconic İstiklal Avenue; they believe the street lost its European flavor after most of the storefronts adopted Arabic alphabet signage. What is more peculiar is that Turkey's conservatives also are not very happy with this Arab influence. They too indulge themselves with their proud Turkish identity and despise their Muslim brothers for many reasons, from their social conditions to the perceived Arab betrayal of the Ottoman Empire during World War I. Yet, all of them like the Syrian guy who sells traditional desserts just down the street.

Still, even with the diminishing numbers of European tourists, the city has largely kept its European face and added new motifs with refugees and Arab visitors. Moreover, there is a new wave of nostalgia felt by many middle class conservatives; a new generation is built on popular culture yet somehow pious.

Mosques, during Friday prayers, are full of young Muslims who wear skinny high-hemmed pants. Young Muslim women are setting trends by opening private boutiques and promoting luxurious non-alcoholic cafes as their meeting spots.

I find Istanbul as vibrant as ever. Despite the erosion in tourist numbers and the slowing economy, Istanbulites continue to enjoy their dinners in restaurants. İstiklal Avenue was bubbling with people on a Friday night, and I discovered that the recently gentrified Karaköy district was sporting new pubs and beautiful restaurants.

2016 has been very hard on Istanbulites for very good reasons. Most white-collar, college-educated people have either emigrated to Europe or are looking for ways to leave. Yet the city does not seem to have lost anything, as more people from the peripheries of the world continue to emigrate to this antique Roman capital.

As the United States, the nation of immigrants, concerns itself with new arrivals, Istanbul has become the New Colossus, the mother of exiles that glows worldwide, for Arab intellectuals to Syrian children.

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