Home > Hesitating > Istanbul, Not Constantinople

Istanbul, Not Constantinople

In between heaping handfuls of artificial-butter flavored popcorn film critics will argue the merits of cinema until their faces turn blue and their arteries clog with smegma. Despite the insulting utterances of these arrogant fiends who’ve no business orating anywhere other than from the depths of the dumpsters where they belong there comes from the horde rare observations which blind by virtue of their sheer brilliance. The particulars escape me, possibly severed from my retrievable memory by my own mind, but I once witnessed one such studio crony escape the tired opinions of his rank and question: do films from bygone eras appeal to modern audiences because of their inherent achievements or because of a collective nostalgia?

The Untouchables Still

When I was growing up my summers were often spent falling asleep on the couch watching TV20 before the rape and pillage perpetrated by the WB. Original Star Trek episodes aired at midnight and, if you could stand the excitement, The Untouchables (starring Robert Stack as Elliot Ness, narrated by Walter Winchell) followed. More than anything (certainly not syndicated episodes of Perry Mason which my sister loved to watch) I think that this constant exposure to hard-nosed G-men tommy-gunning rum-runners for God and country eventually relinquished my dependence on color when watching movies. The show, which originally aired from 1959-1963, was shot on film, expertly lit and well crafted. The dialogue and acting was, admittedly, less refined but that’s hardly important when you’re eleven and get really excited when people are riding running boards through the streets of Chicago shooting up speakeasies.

As I’ve never really gotten over the cheap entertainment of pulp I still find a fair share of detective stories and back-lot productions to kill my life an hour at a time. The deeper you dig the worse you find but my tolerance for crap of this kind is far greater than that which is churned out these days. Bad acting, insulting plots, dialogue a deaf-mute could’ve written and cheap sets are just part and parcel of the experience. You forgive the movies because they come from another time and another place and your irritations are washed away by stylish old cars and trench-coats, smokey diners, cheezy swing-bands, wise-cracking cabbies and roustabouts working the pier. And the dames? Ah, the dames!

It could have just been an honest geek-fixation but I started to get pretentious and watching movies with subtitles. At first I just assumed this interest came as a result of my obvious superiority in matters of taste and intelligence but after hearing some snobby poppycock on the television about nostalgia as a spice I started scrutinizing these nickel and rupee three reel deals a little more, trying to look through the exotic for the inexcusable faults which anchor our major productions to the bottom of the bowel. There’s been some success: recently a Russian movie which made the rounds and earned rounds of applause on the indie/arthouse circuit earned nothing but my displeasure because of obvious pandering, shallowness and exploitation. I don’t want a Russian movie made for an American audience, I want Russian movies about fucking Russia for Russian audiences. I want quality, taste, intelligence, emotional resonance! Maybe if I read the back of the boxes before I borrowed these things I could spare myself some wasted evenings but that’s a no-no unless it’s a documentary…

Journey to the Sun DVD

The Turkish film “Journey to the Sun” isn’t great by any measure. The acting comes courtesy of, reportedly, amateurs culled from the streets and there’s little doubt in my mind that this is true. Overall the story is serviceable but elements can cause involuntary cringing (particularly the cheap, pre-fab romantic sub-plot) and not the empathetic embarrassment you get from “Rushmore” but the revulsion of seeing old 1940’s melodramas still seeping into film. Loose ends are tied together a little too cleanly with convenient twists cropping up at just the right time, reaching across the table for the salt and maybe that gravy’s gonna slop and stain the linens. There’s little room for directorial detatchment but even allowing political content there’s ways to make a movie without having your thumb in the frame. It’s not a great movie at all but I would sit and watch it again this very evening.

There’s a little window in my living room, a window into the world. It’s the streets of Istanbul and not the streets they have in tourist pamphlets or posters in travel agencies. It’s peeking in on people struggling to survive, struggling for identity and struggling to be. Through it you see the news, you see history, you see things that make you feel richer for having witnessed and you feel ashamed for not throwing open the sash and screaming. Not to reveal too much but this is a movie about two people who’ve moved from their impoverished provincial towns to the big city, one from the east and one from the west. One knows the score and one’s about to learn the hard-way that life isn’t just unfair but it calculatingly fucked. One’s a Kurd and one’s a Turk but the difference suddenly becomes negligible.

Yesim Ustaoglu- Artshot

The film’s writer/director, Yesim Ustaoglu become a filmmaker while working as an architect. With some short-films for which she won some awards under her belt she eventually dedicated herself to a feature film, 1994’s The Trace. Turkey became more volatile as Kurdish separatists and government troops became increasingly engaged in what would amount to war and Ustaoglu, being from eastern-Anatolia, decided to focus her lens closer to home. In interviews after the film’s screening in various festivals Ustaoglu talks about how she became increasingly depressed and despondent about the second-class status of Kurds and wanted to understand more about how things had come to be the way they are today. From her research and reading came the script and eventually the movie. Her reasoning is my favorite thing about this movie, but also a reminder that I don’t know shit about shit…

Generic Istanbul

I knew two things about Turkey: It’s Istanbul, not Constantinople; Armenian genocide. That’s twice as many things I knew about Turkey then I knew how to learn about anything so I held my nose and committed excessive abuses of blind-trust and stared at Wikipedia and leafed through my trusty (abridged) copy of Martin Gilbert’s “A History of the Twentieth Century“. By the beginning of the 1900’s the reach of the Ottoman Empire was in severe decline with many of its remaining European territories in open revolt and European colonial powers edging in on it’s African flanks. Historians (such as my references were) intimate that the Caliph’s pogroms against the Armenian population resulted from an attempt to consolidate power within their Muslim citizens as power waned. Ethically the Armenians were related to Persians and had repulsed the forced conversion to Islam that the Kurds and many minorities under the Ottoman umbrella had suffered during the 10th century but, while they had been characterized as second class citizen throughout the Turkish Empire, had managed to develop a strong business community throughout much of the Anatolian region. Orchestrated massacres began taking place in the east during the last decades of the 19th century and various tribes, of note the Kurds themselves, were prone to sacking isolated populations as well when no protection was offered by the empire. The actual region known as Armenia was safe from Turkish rule, having been lost to Russia in an epic game of Risk. I suspect the Armenians weren’t much better off under the Romanoffs.

Pressure on the Ottoman’s hold was growing as the century rolled over with many European territories openly revolting. Places, particularly Macedonia, were taking up arms to repel Turkish attempts at Islamification and the rising colonial powers began to intervene through diplomatic channels when reprisals for rebellion became barbarous. Inner turmoil became increasingly apparent, culminating in 1908 when a group of military officers based in Salonika (Greece) formed what would be known as The Young Turks, a political group which began to stage a rebellion to reinstate a constitution which the Sultan had promulgated in 1876 only to repeal a year later. As the best and the brightest were behind this movement the Sultan had little room to negotiate and the constitution was reinstated offering nominal freedoms such as an end of censorship, release of political prisoners and the creation of a parliment.

Young Turks

The honeymoon didn’t last long– Bulgaria soon announced its independence and sat confident that it would be supported by Austria who swept in to claim Bosnia-Herzegovina. As the Balkans began to factionalize violently priority was given to countering the further crumbling of Turkey’s possessions in Thrace. Loyalist troops took advantage of the situation and marched on Constantinople which drew the Young Turks across the straits and into the Motherland. The loyalists were resoundingly trounced and the Sultan was expelled and his brother seated. Then everyone shook hands and raced back to Macedonia to kick some ass. As the shit was hitting the fan during this in-fighting Turkish troops with the aid of common, everyday, fatally bigoted citizens, eradicated Armenians along the Mediterranean, in the province Adana, killing an estimated 30,000.

This effort to bolster a more unified Islamic nation didn’t prevent the outbreak of a series of Balkan wars wherein Albania began a guerilla campaign of surprising effectiveness and troops from Bulgaria, Serbia-Herzegovina, Montenegro and Greece held hands and fought the Turks off almost all of Thrace. If I remember correctly the Albanians were very excited until one of their neighbors decided to step in, same with Macedonia, and the Italians got so excited standing on the sidelines they swam across the sea and expelled Turkey from its last African outposts.

After the 30,000 Armenians were viciously slaughtered Europeans gave Turkey a diplomatic time-out which is, perhaps, why they allied with Germany. That and some shady business dealings which brought a lot of German money into the country. The problem was that these pesky Armenians had hooked noses and claws and controlled the banks and the media and had to be dealt with. As Turkey began to fortify their border with Russia (buns for the Armenia death-sandwich) they also began what would become the most famous massacre of their hated minority population, using troop movements and blood-thirsty Kurdish militias as cover for a holocaust which took the lives of 600,000 to a million. Those that were not burned alive or worse were driven into the Syrian desert, often purposefully with Kurds on their heels and often without making it very far.

Turkish Soldiers 1915

As all this was going on an up and coming military officer who had been an original member of the Young Turks was making a name for himself defending Gallipoli from Mel Gibson’s attempts at taking the Black Sea. Mustafa Kemal rose up through the ranks day by day, often leading defensive charges against the Australian and New Zealand forces himself, and astonishing the world of military enthusiasts. Unfortunately Turkey only had one great son and although whitey never penetrated the straits to the Black Sea whitey did make a bunch of polite Indians ride donkeys through the Mesopotamian desert to force the Turks out of Basra. Things might have taked a turn for the worse before the Ottomans had been able to bury the broken corpses of Armenian children except that a bunch of Communists riled everyone up in Saint Petersburg and Russia dropped out of the war to deal with a severe case of identity crisis.

In 1919 Armenia, being left alone by the new Russian order which was busy purging itself, declared independence. The world laughed politely behind its hand.

When World War I came to a close the prevailing European power insisted on a complete emasculation of Turkey. Mustafa Kemal, the highly respected and decorated soldier who had risen through the ranks as he swam through the gore of countless military campaigns saw the sovereignty of his nation diminish and, being in charge of dismantling the armed forces as agreed by the armistace, led nationalists to Ankara, seizing control of the city and declaring war on the Allies. The British and French, busy elsewhere in the European Theater, allowed the Greeks to assert control but Kemal’s forces quickly turned their advance and chased them all the way back to the much disputed straits leading to the Black Sea which was held, ultimately, by British troops alone. In the end a hastily drawn up peace treaty was signed sparing the British and remaining Greeks the Turkish wrath and returning full control of Turkey over to Kemal who banished the last Sultan and declared the independence of The Republic of Turkey. It was 1923.

Throughout the sparring between the conquered and conquerer the last decentralized Armenian populations were exorcised. Even the eastern Caucasus were not spared– the newly created Armenia was trounced by both Turkey and Russia after Kemal negotiated a treaty with the Revolutionary government. No one seems to offer any opinions on the role of Kemal relating to these final massacres; prior to Kemal’s stand against European occupation members of the Young Turks who were administrating throughout the Great War were later found to be guilty of these atrocities and they ceased when Kemal created modern Turkey but, of course, there weren’t really any Armenians left to butcher so it’s not known where his sympathies lay. As revered a historical figure as he is (even the Australians and New Zealanders have monuments to him after suffering grievously during the failed attempts to take Gallipoli) it doesn’t seem likely that such a sensitive issue would be broached.

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk wanted a western-styled nation free from the Islamic rule that the Ottoman Empire had thrived under. He banned Islamic education, the fez(!), the Arabic script and changed Constantinople to Istanbul. However he instituted an integrated parliment, women’s rights (suffrage in 1934), and an emphasis on national literacy. By all accounts he seems like a dedicated and driven person who had a vision of bettering his country and strove to do all he could to see this dream realized. The citizenry, however, were not as certain and in particular the attempts to secularize the government was met with outright rebellion in the provincial east. In 1923, soon after the founding of the republic and the beginning of these reforms, a Kurdish rebellion sparked calling for the creation of Kurdistan. History is a little confused if this was a genuine cultural war or, as is often the case, if preserving the sanctity of Islam was masquerading more earthly concerns. Regardless of the why the rebellion was brutally suppressed, with the League of Nations so repulsed by the tactics of Turkish troops that it intervened. Islam would continue to be a thorn in Kemal’s heel– one more than one occasion he requested government ministers begin new political parties so elections would be more representative and each time he banished the new parties when Islamic fundamentalists rose in power. As the Kurds were Sunnis the represented a constant threat to a secular Turkey, although they were suppressed much more viciously than any other group in Turkey for their cultural beliefs. The fact that being ethnically Arabic makes them visibly different just might have had something to do with that.

After Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s death in 1938 Turkey has been essentially under military rule. Whenever a president is elected who threatens to lead the country back into Islamic rule there’s a coup. They also seem to have a big problem with Cypriot independence or Greek rule, tho I haven’t read up on that issue. It also seems pretty odd that Kemal and his successors have invested to so heavily to make Turkey a modern, western nation ruled by democratic majority but have continued to suppress 20% of the population. Until recently the Kurdish language has been illegal in Turkey.

Abdullah Ocalan

Curious as well is that places like wikipedia have plenty of information about the Armenian genocide but almost no information about what was happening to the Kurds until the 1970’s when a Marxist faction was founded, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), under the leadership of Abdullah Ocalan. After Stalin rose to power in the Soviet Union Turkey ceased its diplomatic relationship with Russia, conveniently opting for a fortified border through the Kurdish populated lands. Next to Islam Turkey has historically hated Communists. Ocalan was probably the military’s worst nightmare and a wet dream all come true.

The PKK wanted an independent Kurdistan which would take land from eastern Anatolia, as well as northern portions of Syria, Iraq and Iran. No one seems to like the Kurds generally and no one was willing to lose any land to them. However, as tempestuous as the Middle East is, all have found the Kurds a good investment for international squabbling and have funded various militarized groups acting in their neighbor’s backyards. The PKK has been linked to money from abroad, Europe and the US, but this can hardly be misconstrued as the west giving the underdog and its aspirations to freedom a leg up; now the US and other nations in the west are condemning the PKK, even offering support to the Turkish military.

For some years the PKK operated abroad much in the fashion of the PLO when exiled in Beirut. However their Marxist ideology lost a lot of ground when the USSR collapsed, and their Kurdistan lost a lot of ground as the Iran/Iraq war drew to a close and Saddam had a little free time to gas entire villages. Attempts at revitalizing the PKK by dropping the politics and picking up the banner of Islam were made but, after a decade of fighting, people were tiring and the Turkish government began making concessions (albiet, ones which shouldn’t have HAD to been made) such as allowing Kurdish broadcasts and de-criminalizing the written language. Okay, in 1991…

Abdullah Ocalan was captured in a joint CIA/Turkish operation while vacationing in Nigeria. Returned to Istanbul he was tried in court and sentenced to death but in the 11th hour the European Court on Human Rights intervened and his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. Good thing because just the sentence of execution led to a renewed urban bombing campaign and uprisings requiring the attention of tanks and guns. In recent years the PKK (now KADET, less commie and more Allah) has negotiated cease-fires with the Turkish government but has never surrendered any arms and, as is often the case, skirmishes have broken out. After America decided terrorism is actually a global issue the organization has seen many of its assets frozen by various European nations and even Ocalan has renounced the tactics employed by his former comrades.

“Journey to the Sun” was released a week or so after Ocalan had been captured bringing the movie a sense of immediacy which could never have been manufactured. Perhaps this led to problems with distribution– it took a year for the film to be shown in Turkey even after winning awards in several international festivals. Hell, it took a domestic award and was still not screened for a year. There were bomb threats to theatres and the newspapers never bothered to submit reviews. Many complaints have been made, and it’s easy to see why Turks might sneer at a movie which all but removes the armed conflict in deference to unspeakable repression and brutality. Not to suggest that the Kurds have been dealt a fair hand across the board– there’s little doubt that random disappearances are perpetrated by the police and it’s known that entire villages in Anatolia have been torched or flooded out of existence– but without any sort of context you might think the Armenian genocide from a century before is a convenient parallel to view the events portrayed. Of course it’s not that simple but shit, I just wanted something exotic to watch while I ate popcorn.

PKK Graffiti, Kurdish boy

It’s still not that simple. Just because I have a little window in my living room where I can ogle the funny-looking peoples of the world doesn’t mean those people aren’t being fucked left right and center out there. Since the creation of the European Union members of the Turkish government have wanted in but, as Turkey has been suffering wholesale depression across the board, there’s also been a surge of nationalism and separatism. The secular state has seen seemingly moderate Islamic politicians riding this wave of discontent, culminating in the very controversial election of an Islamic President and the ascension of an openly Islamic political party. As Turkey scratches and pulls hair the military, who’ve already threatened to intervene when the new President was nominated, cracks its knuckles and while the Turkish economy flounders European diplomats question Turkey’s bloody past and its continued treatment of the Kurdish minority. Meanwhile the Kurdish separatists have killed over sixty soldiers in eastern Anatolia. Hopeful politicians are courting the Kurdish vote in the east while hopeful politicians in Ankara are screaming for Ocalan’s hanging. Somewhere in between the extremes of nationalism, religious extremism, political violence and military rule there are seventy million people trying to get by. If nothing else “Journey to the Sun” made me think about them for a second.

Categories: Hesitating
  1. Fro
    September 30, 2007 at 12:03 pm

    thanks for the truly vile image of arteries clogged with smeg I appreciate it. wanted to recommend a totally unrelated movie that I saw recently and enjoyed, Behind the mask – the rise of leslie vernon… lots of fun
    the turkish history lesson was interesting

  2. Brendan
    October 2, 2007 at 9:38 pm

    Well I’m glad that the vile imagery didn’t ruin your reading experience and that you were able to persevere until concocting an unrelated movie suggestion… If I had Netflix I’d stick it in my queue but, alas, I refuse to pay for shit so I’ll just have to rely on your reminding me repeatedly until I succeed in seeing it…

    More importantly I sincerely hope that your appreciation for the (ignorant and misguided) history lesson came not from obligation but actual knowledge bombs exploding your cranium… Okay, I’ll take some sympathy ups, sure…

  3. December 20, 2007 at 1:44 am

    apo ananı öküzlere sktireceğiz vatan düşmanı piç teröristler apo piçleri sizinde ananızı siken apomuyduda amına kodugumun çocuguna köpeklik ediyorsunuz sizin şerefinizi sikiyim

  4. Mustafa Kemal ATATURK
    March 2, 2008 at 1:15 am

    Ulu önder ATATURK ün evladı olarak: peace at home peace in the world..

  1. No trackbacks yet.

Hit Me

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: