At the cross­roads

Is­tan­bul has been fer­tile ground for de­sign­ers, gal­lerists and mu­sic-lovers, but the rapid rise of re­li­gious con­ser­vatism is cre­at­ing a cul­ture of fear. Louise Cal­laghan asks what the fu­ture holds for the city where East and West col­lide.

VOGUE Australia - - L' unico -

On June 17, 2016, a mob burst into a record shop on a cob­bled Is­tan­bul street and at­tacked a group of young peo­ple lis­ten­ing to a Ra­dio­head al­bum. It was the Mus­lim holy month of Ra­madan, and they were drink­ing beers. The at­tack­ers wanted to pun­ish them.

The next day, just up the road, Zeynep Rende, her ebony hair sway­ing down her back, opened 3rd Cul­ture, an in­te­ri­ors and art store she runs with her brother. When she moved back to Is­tan­bul in 2014, the lib­eral dis­tricts of the city were buzzing with cos­mopoli­tanism and cre­ativ­ity. Gal­leries popped up on ev­ery cor­ner, and at night the ta­bles of cheap mezze restau­rants and bars splayed across the streets, heav­ing with a young in­ter­na­tional clien­tele. Some said Is­tan­bul would be a new Ber­lin. But af­ter the raid on the record shop, Rende spoke to her gallery-owner neigh­bours, who re­solved to start hold­ing open­ing par­ties qui­etly – ush­er­ing drinkers and smok­ers through to the back, in­stead of let­ting them spill on to the street. Fear be­gan to creep in, hang­ing softly in the air. Ter­ror­ism, gov­ern­ment re­pres­sion and a ris­ing con­ser­vatism cast a pall over the city’s open-minded spirit. Clus­ters of bars in the Euro­pean district of Bey­oğlu, where Rende’s store is lo­cated, are now closed, re­placed by shisha cafes or stand­ing empty. Con­ser­va­tive dress has be­come more com­mon. Euro­pean tourists stay away.

“Is­tan­bul has be­come less tol­er­ant. We never used to hear of places be­ing stormed be­cause al­co­hol was be­ing served,” Rende says. “I feel less safe, and that peo­ple aren’t okay with the co­ex­is­tence that has hap­pened in Is­tan­bul for hun­dreds of years.”

For cen­turies, the “city at the cross­roads of the world” has been a cos­mopoli­tan melt­ing pot of Euro­pean and Asian. A bea­con of sec­u­lar­ism in a con­ser­va­tive re­gion, where women in thick silk hi­jab and long tu­nics gos­sip in cafes next to their friends dressed in skinny jeans and sleeve­less tops. The all-con­ceal­ing niqab is largely re­served for tourists vis­it­ing from the Gulf.

When I moved to the city from Lon­don a year and a half ago, Is­tan­bul’s once-vi­brant arts and nightlife, though in de­cline, re­tained a sense of nor­mal­ity. At night, groups of twen­tysome­things still spilled on to the streets drink­ing glasses of cloudy raki (an aniseed liquor) and beer. Be­low my flat, a shop run by an Amer­i­can woman sold ex­pen­sive green juice. Around the cor­ner, a gym held aerial yoga classes.

But it was clear that the care­free years were end­ing. Bars closed early and many tourists had stopped com­ing. The party, I was told, would soon be over – and with it the fever of hope and in­ter­na­tion­al­ism that had swept the re­gion at the be­gin­ning of the Arab Spring. Bomb­ings grew so com­mon that they stopped be­ing front-page news. The gov­ern­ment, run by Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­doğan, was more op­pres­sive – jail­ing jour­nal­ists and rail­ing against the West. Things didn’t re­ally seem to work any more. Rub­bish some­times piled up on the streets; elec­tric­ity started to shut down ev­ery week or so; the wa­ter stopped flow­ing mid-shower.

Istik­lal Cad­desi, Is­tan­bul’s main shop­ping street, turned seedy; shops were boarded up and groups of home­less chil­dren openly sniffed sol­vents in aban­doned door­ways. Peo­ple started jump­ing at the sound of bangs, as­sum­ing they were gun­shots.

Para­noia flour­ished. De­nun­ci­a­tions of sus­pected gov­ern­ment de­trac­tors flowed. Liberals be­gan to lower their voices when talk­ing about pol­i­tics in pub­lic. “I’m al­ways watch­ing to see who’s lis­ten­ing,” whis­pered one jour­nal­ist friend in a chic cafe on the Euro­pean side of →

the city. “I can’t be­lieve it’s come to this.” Those who could be­gan to leave. Last sum­mer seemed like one long good­bye party, as first the for­eign­ers, then the op­po­si­tion-lean­ing Turks looked for a way out. Ev­ery month, the city seemed to shrink in­ward, grow­ing smaller as the walls pressed in.

Then, a month af­ter the at­tack on the record shop, a dis­si­dent fac­tion of the army tried to over­throw the gov­ern­ment. The coup at­tempt was quickly crushed, but soon af­ter came a crack­down, dur­ing which tens of thou­sands were ar­rested, sacked or sus­pended from their jobs on sus­pi­cion of sup­port­ing it. The gov­ern­ment claims the purges ex­clu­sively tar­geted the coup plot­ters. But oth­ers say that they are a smoke­screen for an at­tack on gov­ern­ment crit­ics.

Last Au­gust I sat in the liv­ing room of an Is­tan­bul psy­chol­ogy stu­dent. “I have no fu­ture now,” she wept. Her uni­ver­sity had been shut down as part of the purges and she was barred from join­ing an­other one – tainted by as­so­ci­a­tion. “How am I go­ing to get a job? I’ve been black­listed.”

In ad­di­tion to sub­ju­gat­ing the ju­di­ciary, the po­lice and the army, the gov­ern­ment crack­down has crip­pled the arts scene. Many cre­atives have ei­ther fled abroad or fear speak­ing out. “It’s just sti­fling,” said one gal­lerist, who left the coun­try for Britain last year. “Everyone is keeping their head down, hop­ing things will change. It’s re­ally de­press­ing.” Change seems al­most im­pos­si­ble. A ref­er­en­dum held in April this year ce­mented the pres­i­dent’s grip on power, giv­ing him con­trol over par­lia­ment and the courts. Is­tan­bul has be­come a harder, more sus­pi­cious place. Just be­fore the ref­er­en­dum, an Ot­toman princess whom I in­ter­viewed would sub­mit her re­sponses only on pa­per, which I had to sign in du­pli­cate. She thought I mis­rep­re­sented her an­swers any­way. Fear lies like a thick blan­ket over the city. “I self-cen­sor all the time,” said Özlem Saraç, an ac­tress and scriptwriter whose work ex­plores the hypocrisy of con­ser­va­tive at­ti­tudes to­wards women. “I feel un­easy. Two years ago I went on stage half-naked. Now I wouldn’t dare to do that. I don’t know what hap­pened. It came piece by piece. I feel like I’m be­ing pushed into a cor­ner.”

An at­tack by a gun­man on a night­club last New Year’s Eve that killed 39 was, for many, the end of Is­tan­bul’s lib­eral years. The ter­ror­ist, who claimed al­le­giance to Isis, used an au­to­matic weapon to mow down a young in­ter­na­tional crowd as they danced on the banks of the Bospho­rus. Now many pre­fer to stay in, afraid that they could face the same fate. It’s not un­likely. Amid the para­noia and in­sta­bil­ity, con­ser­va­tive thugs such as the ones who at­tacked the record shop see a chance to act with im­punity. Few seem to face con­se­quences: more of­ten than not, in­tol­er­ance is not pun­ished. In Jan­uary, Bar­baros Şansal, a Turk­ish fash­ion de­signer, was beaten by a mob as he dis­em­barked a plane at Is­tan­bul’s Atatürk air­port. His crime was to have pub­lished a video crit­i­cis­ing the gov­ern­ment. The fol­low­ing day, he was jailed for in­cit­ing ha­tred on so­cial me­dia. His at­tack­ers went free. “The at­tack on Bar­baros re­ally scared me,” a friend said. “I feel like these peo­ple hate us. The way they look at us – it’s like they re­ally de­spise us. For the first time in my life I’ve started think­ing about whether I’m wear­ing clothes that are con­ser­va­tive enough. I bring a jacket and a scarf with me ev­ery­where.” When Er­doğan came to power in 2002, he pledged to bring re­li­gious free­dom to the coun­try: re­peal­ing laws that had stopped women who wore the head­scarf from go­ing to uni­ver­sity and work­ing in pub­lic of­fices. Hi­jabi women of­ten tell me that with­out Er­doğan they would never have been able to get an ed­u­ca­tion and find work. “He set me free,” a lawyer told me last year. “My fam­ily would not have let me go to uni­ver­sity with­out wear­ing the head­scarf.”

But many say that con­ser­vatism has gone too far, and turned Turkey into an il­lib­eral, in­tol­er­ant place. In a river­side tea shop this year, a young

hi­jabi tele­vi­sion pro­ducer told me her big­gest se­cret: she had stopped be­liev­ing in God, but kept wear­ing the head­scarf. “Peo­ple treat me with re­spect be­cause of it,” she said. “Men would treat me badly if I took it off.”

At the same time, some of those in Is­tan­bul with more out­ward-look­ing at­ti­tudes are de­ter­mined to stay put – in­clud­ing those in the fash­ion world. Seda Do­maniç, Vogue Turkey’s ed­i­tor-in-chief, be­lieves that the coun­try’s youth has be­come in­creas­ingly in­ter­ested in fash­ion. “Nu­mer­ous fash­ion e-com­merce sites are flour­ish­ing, fol­low­ers of fash­ion in­flu­encers are reach­ing mil­lions, and new fash­ion pub­li­ca­tions are ad­dress­ing them,” she says. In spring, Do­maniç even launched a na­tional ver­sion of Miss

Vogue. How­ever, she adds, “in Turkey, the di­vide be­tween con­ser­va­tive and pro­gres­sive life­style choices has grown, and fash­ion is no ex­cep­tion to this. I don’t be­lieve the young are be­com­ing more con­ser­va­tive over­all, but con­ser­va­tive cloth­ing choices have be­come more pub­licly vis­i­ble and pro­moted over the past five years, with spe­cial pub­li­ca­tions, web­sites and shows ded­i­cated to mod­est fash­ion. To us, what is most im­por­tant is to have a re­fined sense of style, and our mag­a­zine speaks to both au­di­ences, as long as they are in­ter­ested in dress­ing well.”

As I walked along the Bospho­rus on a bright sum­mer day, I watched the cars rum­ble over one of the bridges that link the Euro­pean side of Is­tan­bul to the Asian and con­sid­ered how, through war and de­struc­tion, the city has al­ways per­se­vered. “Is­tan­bul is Is­tan­bul, it will al­ways be di­verse,” says Rende. “No mat­ter how many changes we see, it’ll never cease be­ing Is­tan­bul. It’s big­ger than us.”

CLOCK­WISE FROM TOP LEFT: IN­SIDE GALERI MANÂ IN THE TOPHANE DISTRICT OF IS­TAN­BUL; FASH­ION ED­I­TOR ASENA SARIBATUR AR­RIVES AT IS­TAN­BUL FASH­ION WEEK; THE COVER OF THE MAY 2016 IS­SUE OF TURK­ISH VOGUE, FEA­TUR­ING BELLA HA­DID; ‘NIGHT AND DAY IS­TAN­BUL’, FROM...

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