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.
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...