On Contemporary Istanbul

Istanbul, the unofficial capital of Turkey, boasts itself as the sixth most visited city in the world, with its ranks steadily rising. But despite its heavy tourism, the city deftly yet naturally evades the sense of “museumification” and “Disneyfication” that has transparently afflicted the tourism culture of many other cities of such international acclaim and status — namely, that of Rome. This rift in the trajectory of tourism culture throughout the histories of these two seemingly similar destinations is initially perplexing; both are cities whose rich historical remnants of antiquity and beyond can be attributed for a vast amount of their attraction and appeal.

Yet the landmarks and icons that make these cities so attractive to tourists from around the globe are intrinsically treated with such different care by both locals and tourists. A tourist at the Hagia Sophia, for example, will not be bombarded with plastic figurines of the historical structure, while one at the Colosseum will invariably. The rift, it seems, derives from underlying divergences in cultural phenomenon of the contemporary city that contends with the ancient and complex city. I sensed these divergences at the beginning of my short visit, yet it was not until my last day in the city that I began to extract a simple notion of what that phenomenon might be.

On our last day in Istanbul, my boyfriend and I visited a Turkish rug store called the Motif Collection. Having been set on purchasing a rug during our trip, we had previously researched the best rug stores in Istanbul to visit, and this store had been unanimously supported by its reviewers online. Upon our first attempt at the store, I was shocked by its size: it was essentially a rectangular hole in the wall, with each of its interior walls lined with stacks of hundreds of rugs and textiles, allowing for floor space that was no larger than five feet by twelve feet. Accordingly, only one client group was able to be assisted at any given time.

The first two times we attempted to visit the store, a family was inside being helped, and we were apologized to profusely and politely asked to return. The third time, there was another family in attendance, but before we could leave disheartened, a man named Hamit came out to meet us. Again apologizing profusely, he insisted he treat us to lunch as we wait for the next client to finish their business — a genuine and generous business practice I had never encountered or expected.

As we sat in the beautiful garden of the most historical hotel in Istanbul, enjoying some of the best Turkish food I had encountered, Hamit began to enlighten us on his life’s work and business. From a small town in Anatolia, Hamit came to Istanbul to study rug restoration and start a business in order to share with the international community the beauty of the tradition of rug-making that was so lively in his region. And as he spoke more about the tradition, I began to hear phrases and sentiments that struck a chord with me, because they so definitively reminded me of the sentiments surrounding textile production in the rural areas of my home country of Indonesia.

Hamit spoke of women who learned to weave rugs as naturally as we in Western cultures might learn to read: starting from a young age, weaving is taught not only as a skill of functional purpose or economic value, but of self-expression, and recollection. He told us stories of women who, being illiterate, weave in specific colors in specific rows of textiles in order to mark important dates such as birthdays or weddings. He explained to us the significances behind the intricate details in the patterns and their symbols which, combined tell elaborate non-narrative epics and life stories that make each and every rug one-of-a-kind, not allowing for exact repetition of any one design. These designs struck me as a true physical testament to the vastness of human creativity.

In Hamit’s description of the culture of Turkish rug-making that I could so easily mentally compare with that of Indonesia’s, it became clear to me that perhaps one of the underlying facets that separates the tourism culture of contemporary Turkey is its abounding history of such cultural production. Like in Indonesia, this is production that is simultaneously careful and personal while being deeply embedded into its communal tradition; production that has defined a society for generations upon generations. And although Hamit spoke solemnly of women from his village beginning to lose interest and taste for weaving, his persistence in bringing the art form to contemporary Istanbul’s international market indicates a desire for the tradition to still be heard.

After leaving Hamit’s store having made a significant purchase, I began to notice this cultural production that was fixed all around me: women knitting and selling slippers on the street instead of begging, others singing traditional guttural yet melodic tunes as they walk. The Turkish, it seemed to me, were just like Indonesians: it may not be that they were necessarily extremely proud of their traditions, but they neither knew nor lacked for any other lifestyle of artistic production, and thus this existence translates directly to their contemporary lifestyles. And perhaps this was the secret to their careful skirting of “museumification” and “Disneyfication” — their ability to avoid being redefined by a Western lens — in that their culture, as a result of its constant artistic production, has developed a definite and refined contemporary taste (in aesthetics, music, food, what have you). Although sales tactics might, this taste — hundreds of years in the making — does not compromise for tourists. So yes, a tourist at the Hagia Sophia will not be bombarded with plastic figurines of the building, but they may very well be yelled offers for “special prices” on oil lamps or scarves along their way to the mosque — though perhaps not all genuine, such items reflect the taste of the times rather than the taste of the tourist seeking mementos. And, with good fortune, a tourist might run into someone like Hamit, striving to sell not just for the sake of selling, but for sustaining the culture that enhances and solidifies these tastes.