Friday, January 13, 2017

"Midnight at the Pera Palace"

Midnight at the Pera Palace: The Birth of Modern Istanbul covers a wide range of topics. One that I found interesting was the subject of public dining places in Istanbul history. Author Charles King writes:
"Until well into the twentieth century, a home-cooked meal was a rarity. "This mode of dining was almost exclusively the purview of the wealthy, who could afford a permanent kitchen in their villa or mansion, one of more servants to go to the market, and a cook to prepare the food. Average Istanbullus got their food in groups... Given the need for food that was easily prepared and easily served to large groups, simplicity was key. ... That is why so many of the memoirists of everyday life in Istanbul are most wistful when they recall a noted baker, the purveyor of an especially good yogurt, or a well-shaded teahouse. A traveler today can go from a morning simit, ... to a grilled fish or stew at midday, to a sludge-bottomed coffee in the afternoon and still approximate the foodways ... of average Istanbullus of the past." (p. 143-144)

A city full of wonderful culture
and colorful characters.
Poet Nazim Hikmet
on a stamp.
He wrote a poem titled
"Gioconda and Si-Ya-U"
in which Mona Lisa runs off
with a Chinese Revolutionary.
During the first half of the twentieth century the city of Istanbul drastically changed not just once, but several times. A republic replaced the Caliphate, and citizenship replaced traditional communitarian government under Muslim, Christian, and Jewish religious law.

Midnight at the Pera Palace brings these changes to life by describing political events, ever-present espionage, several waves of refugees, changing awareness of history, and cultural trends like jazz, avant-garde poetry (especially the poet Nazim Hikmet), folk music, restaurants and clubs, and much more.

Above all, Istanbul changed from a city that looked to Europe and had a very multi-ethnic and multi-cultural population to one that was dominantly Turkish and Muslim, but with a secular government. The invention of Turkish nationalism under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was the backbone of the changes, including negatives (above all, the Armenian genocide) and positives (e.g. the development of rights for women, including the end of polygamy). However, politics is far from the only focus of the book.

The Pera Palace of the book's title began as a luxury hotel in the best neighborhood of Istanbul. Diplomats, foreign journalists, and tourists like Agatha Christie (and fictionally, Hercule Poirot) stayed there. Socially, King relates, it was a center for jazz and other entertainment, western style as well as upcoming Turkish jazz. Spies and other agents met in its public spaces. White Russians fleeing the Revolution stayed there if they could afford it. Subsequently, its Greek owner was displaced as part of the expulsion of much of the native Greek population. Along with much property that belonged to former Greek residents, it was confiscated and turned over to a Muslim. Soon thereafter, its upkeep deteriorated, the location became less prestigious, and its status began to decline.

The historic hotel nevertheless continued to be a center of activity through World War II. In this era, we learn, Istanbul was a critical location because of Turkey's resolute neutrality and strategic location. Notably, early in the war the Pera Palace suffered major destruction from a suitcase bomb planted among the luggage of British diplomats who had just been expelled from Bulgaria. Later, it housed one of the major players in the effort to save Jewish victims of Nazi persecution.

On our visit to Istanbul in 2006, we visited an island that
I think was the temporary home of Trotsky.
I was surprised to discover some of the very famous and accomplished people who spent time in Istanbul -- and sometimes in the Pera Palace -- in these years. Trotsky lived in Istanbul on one step of his exile. A young reporter for the Toronto Star named Ernest Hemingway reported from Istanbul during World War I. Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, a member of the Papal delegation there in the 1920s through 40s spent much effort trying to help fleeing European Jews, enabling them to go through Turkey to safety: Roncalli later became Pope John XXIII. Many members of the Joint Distribution Committee and other international rescue organizations were in Istanbul then, also trying to save European Jews: for example, Teddy Kollek, later mayor of Jerusalem. Art historians came to Istanbul among other things to restore the plastered-over Christian mosaics in Santa Sophia.

Mosaic of John the Baptist from Santa Sophia, revealed in restorations allowed by
Mustafa Kemal's secularization. Charles King presents a fascinating discussion of
the meaning of this work of art in the context of the historic building, built and
decorated as a church, later a mosque, and restored as a museum.
Cumhuriyet, a Turkish newspaper that supported Mustafa Kemal's secularism,
sponsored a Miss Turkey contest -- this is Keriman Halis who became first
Miss Turkey, then Miss Universe of 1932. King also describes several Turkish
feminists who participated in the development of women's rights in the new republic.
This richly detailed book has much more than I've been able to indicate, and I enjoyed reading it. Though written recently, it does not make explicit comparisons of historic events to recent events or trends, and in fact barely mentions the modern politics of Istanbul and Turkey in general.

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