Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Q&A with Charles King

Charles King is the author of the new book Midnight at the Pera Palace: The Birth of Modern Istanbul. His other books include Odessa, The Black Sea, and The Ghost of Freedom. A professor of international relations and government at Georgetown University, he lives in Washington, D.C.

Q: What role did the Pera Palace play in the creation of modern Istanbul, and how was your book's title chosen?

A: The "midnight" in the title refers to New Year's Eve 1925, a moment when the new Turkish Republic transitioned to a common Western calendar and timekeeping system. I thought this was a telling and symbolic thing: an instant in which, for the first time, everyone in Istanbul and across the wider country agreed on what the hour and date were.

Previously, different religious communities in the country had reckoned time differently, with Muslims using one system, Christians another, Jews yet another--even though people in the worlds of business and international trade were in sync with the timetables and market schedules in the rest of Europe, of course.

I imagined what a New Year's party at the Pera Palace--the grandest hotel in the city--must have been like on that evening, a moment when the entire country was symbolically stepping into the modern world.

The hotel was built in the final decades of the Ottoman Empire, and at the time it represented the height of European-style luxury. It was in many ways a place that symbolized what modern Turks wanted to become: worldly, Europe-oriented, modern.

The book uses the hotel as a kind of literary device to follow the fortunes of Turkey in its transition away from a Muslim empire and toward a contemporary nation-state, with all the attendant violence and reinvention that this transition entailed.

Q: You write, "For more than half a millennium, the West's image of the Islamic world has been shaped by its encounter with Istanbul." How does Istanbul during the 1910s-40s compare with the city today?

A: The book is about the origins of the modern city, and so much of what we see today dates from the interwar years. The winding street layout around the Grand Bazaar, for example, is not particularly ancient: it was created as part of an urban renewal program in the 1930s and 1940s (previously it had been even more winding and alley-filled than today).

The beautiful expanse of gardens in the old city between the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque was similarly a product of wholesale re-engineering (including the massive leveling of private houses and shops) in the same period.

Even the interior of the city's greatest ancient monument--the Hagia Sophia itself--was unveiled to the public in the 1930s. The stunning mosaics inside were uncovered by Thomas Whittemore, a Boston archaeologist who convinced the Turkish government to allow his team to restore the Byzantine mosaics for public view. 

The fact that we think of Istanbul as a Turkish city was also in many ways a product of the period covered by this book. It was a time when the city's ancient non-Muslim minorities--Greeks, Armenians, Jews--left the city in droves, many of them pushed out by anti-minority policies pursued by the new Turkish government.

Of course, many of the things we see in the city today were products of a later period, such as the bridges over the Bosphorus, the demographic changes that brought millions of ethnic Kurds to the city, and more recently the controversial rebuilding programs pushed by the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. But all of that began with the move away from the old imperial city chronicled in the book. 

Q: What changes occurred for women in Istanbul during the period you cover in the book, and what is the legacy in today's Turkey?

A: The early Turkish Republic sought to liberate women as a group. The veil disappeared (even though Islamic veiling had been mainly practiced by upper-class Ottomans and was not a universal feature of the city), and women were allowed to vote and run for public office. In fact, in the 1930s, there were more women in the Turkish parliament than in the U.S. Congress.

The first Muslim Miss Universe, Keriman Halis, took to the stage in 1932, a woman who represented for many Turks the height of their country's modernity and a kind of social advancement for women--even though today we would hardly see a beauty contest as representing women's empowerment. 

But many of the issues that still bedevil Turkey today were wrapped up in the status of women. How could a woman be religiously observant while still also being politically empowered, with a strong public voice? When women, both secular and religious, spoke out and sought to form their own political party, for example, it was quickly closed down in the 1920s.

Women in Turkey today face many of the dilemmas that an earlier generation faced: how to combine religion, feminism, and politics in ways that make sense to all of Turkey's women, whether they are from cosmopolitan Istanbul or from the more conservative interior of the country.

Q: You describe the future Pope John XXIII working with Jewish groups to try to help Jewish refugees pass through Turkey on their way to Palestine. How did this partnership come about?

A: Angelo Roncalli, the future John XXIII, was the apostolic delegate--or papal representative--in Istanbul in the 1930s and early 1940s. He had a great love for Turkey and the Turks, even spending time learning the language (which he found a kind of penance, he joked, because he found it so difficult).

During the Second World War, Turkey remained a neutral country, which meant that it was a hotbed of espionage by both Axis and Allied powers, who could work relatively freely there. The country's neutrality also provided an escape route for Jews seeking to flee Axis-dominated Europe and find shelter in Palestine.

In a remarkable story of cooperation and courage, Roncalli used his network of church officials to ferry immigration certificates to embattled Jewish communities in Europe, especially in Hungary. From there, Jews could board boats and trains to Istanbul and from there continue on toward Palestine. 

In the book, I detail the story of the many individuals--more than 13,000--who were saved from almost certain death by the actions of Roncalli and a small band of rescuers, including representatives of the American War Refugee Board and the Jewish Agency, which would become the future government of Israel.

Roncalli's biography is well-known--especially now that he has been elevated to the status of a saint by Pope Francis--but the fact that thousands of Jews found safety via a Muslim-majority country is still one of the least known chapters of the Holocaust.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have a number of things going at the moment. But sorry: I'm always coy about new projects until I've settled on exactly which direction I'm pursuing next, though.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: People should go to Istanbul. They will find it one of the most magical and enchanting cities they have ever visited. But in addition to the Byzantine and Ottoman monuments, they should dig into the world of the hidden Islamic jazz age, the period my book covers.

Many of the buildings, neighborhoods, and sites connected with the book are still there, and they provide a fascinating entree into the hidden era when Istanbul and Turkey began their journey toward modernity.

A plug for some friends of mine: one of the best ways to discover the city is to eat your way across it. Istanbul Eats has amazing walking tours that let you sample some of the best street food and traditional eateries you'll find anywhere. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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