Nicholas Birch
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on : Thursday, 6 Dec, 2012
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All About Image

blog: ANATOLIAN DISPATCHES

Has Turkey’s transformation into a more "Eastern" country over the last decade been a case of re-branding, for a global world where multi-culturalism is everything?

Actor Liam Neeson poses for a photo before a press conference to promote his film Taken 2. Souce: JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/GettyImages

Marka [MAR-kah] n. brand, trade-mark

A fortnight or so ago, just after Skyfall hit cinemas with its opening scenes filmed on the roof of the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, Ali Saydam, Turkish marketing guru, went with his wife to see the latest film by the French director Olivier Megaton, Taken 2. This sequel to the 2008 film Taken is a thriller starring Liam Neeson and is set almost entirely in Istanbul. Saydam disliked it so intensely that he devoted an entire column to the film in the Turkish daily Yeni Şafak.

He said the film ruined the Istanbul brand (İstanbul markası) by presenting the city as disreputable and backward. Saydam said, “We are face to face with a situation which goes beyond the basest form of Orientalism.”

Murat Menteş, a young novelist who writes columns for the same newspaper, took up the issue. What was the difference, he asked, between Saydam’s comments and the suggestion made a week earlier by a Turkish film director that Turkey should buy the loyalty of Kurdish rebels (a variation on a popular belief that the rebels are only rebelling because foreign powers are paying them to do so)? Istanbul, Kurdish rebels—it made no difference, Menteş said. Both were “brands” with market value. Both could be bought or sold. The answer, surely, was for Turkey to buy Olivier Megaton too, so that his next film did not damage Istanbul’s brand.

Menteş’ article was a cry of revolt against the commodification of things, and the assumption that if you polish the image enough the dirt covering the reality beneath will somehow miraculously disappear. And it is difficult not to sympathize with him: a day after his article appeared, Turkish newspapers reported that the “conservative” and “pro-Islamic” municipality responsible for the old center of Istanbul had plans to knock down scores of Ottoman buildings—including the lodges of Sufi brotherhoods, fountains and up to ninety mosques—to make way for two hundred new hotels.

But all this is beside the point. The point, or rather the question, is the following: the Turkish Republic is the product of one of the most radical cases of rebranding in modern history. New alphabet, new calendar, new hats: East became West, pretty much overnight. But what about the country’s rapid transformation over the last decade, under the Justice and Development Party, into something more Islamic, more Eastern, more visibly neo-Ottoman? How big a part of this transformation has been a concern over image? How much of it has been a case of brand repositioning for an explicitly multi-cultural globalized world that has new and different expectations from Turkey?

The question may sound frivolous, but you only have to look at the history of the Ottoman Empire in the nineteenth century to see how intensely aware of Western opinion this part of the world has been. When an Italian author in the 1870s mentioned the number of stray dogs in Istanbul, the city authorities, stung by the perceived insult, rounded them up and shipped them off to an island to die. Western travelers mocked the slovenliness and ignorance of Sufi dervishes, so educated Ottomans began to look down their noses at them too. Even sexual habits changed under Europe’s prurient gaze. “Women-lovers proliferated while boy-lovers disappeared, as if the people of Sodom and Gomorrah had perished all over again,” wrote the Ottoman historian Ahmed Cevdet, mentioning one pasha who “tried to conceal his interest in boys out of fear of the criticism of foreigners.”

The Ottomans in their last years were—you could say—like children who turn up in fancy dress at a party where everybody else is in ordinary clothes, and the Republic was a radical attempt to cure the self-consciousness that resulted.

But the transformation was made easier by the fact that it took place at a time when the West, at the peak of its global dominance, assumed that the future was in its image. It is worth remembering that the Turks were fighting for their Republic when Henry Ford’s car factory was at its peak. Henry Ford famously said that “any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black,” but he could just as easily have said, “Any country can have any civilization it wants so long as it is Western.” Hardly surprisingly, most Westerners visiting the Republic in its early years sided wholeheartedly with the modernizers, praising their brave strides into the modern world.

The West today is not like that. Having exported its Model T vision of the world (the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss gloomily wrote that mankind was “preparing to mass produce civilization, like beetroot”) it is now looking for ways off the factory production line. It is looking for exoticism.

The search takes different forms. It is there in the rise of micro-nationalisms. It is there too in the growth of interest in history, and the increasing number of historical novels and TV dramas, windows onto a world where people do not have to look or act or think like the person reading about them. More obviously, it is there in the adverts you see on the streets of northwestern European cities for winter holidays in the sun. Palm trees, classical sites, and stone villages on steep mountain sides. Not an electricity pylon in sight. Pure, unadulterated, authentic, impossible. In all its forms, this new sensibility (shot through with a sort of Rousseau-esque vision of noble savagery) is catastrophic to the Kemalist idea of Turkey.

Nicholas Birch

Nicholas Birch

Nicholas Birch lived in Istanbul, Turkey, from 2002 to 2009, working as a freelancer. His work—mainly from Turkey and Iraq—has appeared in a range of publications, including the Washington Post, Time Magazine, the Guardian and the Times Literary Supplement. He was a stringer for the Wall Street Journal and the Times of London until the end of 2009. He now lives in London.

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