Over the last fifteen years or so, I’ve leisurely waded through the canon literature of the study of the emergence and solidification of nations and national identities: Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, Eric Hobsbawm’s Invented Traditions, Pierre Nora’s five-volume study of the national memory of France, Patrick Geary”s The Myth of Nations, and, most recently, Timothy Snyder’s powerful studies of identity and hegemony in Eastern Europe (Reconstructed Nations, Bloodlands, etc.), works that illuminate the translation of contrived national identities into viciously exclusionary and expansionist nation states.
A by-product of this reading is the realization that most “national” traditions — be they architectural, musical, dance, culinary, sartorial, folkloric, etc. — are either blatantly invented or appropriated from traditions shared in common with neighboring peoples in an attempt to establish the legitimacy and hegemony of one’s own group at the expense the identity and power of others. Invariably, such traditions are posited as being products of an imagined national “golden age.”
Pickles and Mackerel
So, what does the disquisition above have to do with pickles and grilled mackerel in Istanbul?
First, note the costume worn by the pickle vendor in the photo at the top of this post: a) an imitation fez made of cheap velvet rather than traditional wool felt, and emblazoned with the Turkish national crescent and star and with a stylized tulip, the latter a logo thought up for Turkey’s national tourism authority by a PR or “branding” agency; b) a mass produced embroidered vest of the sort sold to tourists in souvenir shops and bought in bulk by amateur folk-dance troupes; and c) a brightly colored waistband over wide pantaloons (the latter not visible in the photo).
A decade ago, the very same vendors dressed in normal street or work clothes and the carts from which they were sold were simple affairs of glass panes and unfinished or laminated wood.
Second, note the boats of grilled mackerel vendors moored at mid-distance in the second photo above. The boats are topped with canopies in the shape of stylized fantasy imitations of those that once adorned the excursion launches of the Ottoman elite — with the addition of multicolored neon and incandescent lighting. A decade ago, such boats were plain wooden skiffs with simple canvas or plywood roofs to block seasonal sun and rain.
I don’t remember exactly in which year this “make-over”of pickle vendors and mackerel boats occurred, nor am I certain why and at whose behest. My guess is that it was mandated by the local district municipality or by the tourism functionaries of the municipality Istanbul. More interesting is why ….
Pitfalls of Nostalgia
The spot at Eminönü where the costumed vendors stand and the faux-Ottoman mackerel boats are moored is frequented by tourists and locals alike. The setting between the historic Egyptian Spice Market, the pedestrian Galata Bridge, a bus depot, and local ferry landings is a magnet both groups.
Dressing up vendors and boats indeed adds color, serves as a marketing device, and augments the visibility of licensed venders. But the choice of stylized period costumes takes us to another level. It implies tradition and authenticity. It appeals to the orientalist fantasies of many tourists, including Europeans who flock to the Istanbul in search of the imagined exoticism of Turkey but vote to keep Turkey out of the EU out of fear of having the very same exoticism taint the national purity of their own homelands.
The appeal to locals reveals another aspect of such authentic costumes — the choice of period. Note that the vendor’s costume is a garishly colored version of the clothes of vendors and workingmen as photographed in the late-19th century and the final glory years of the Ottoman Empire and the time of the iron-fisted rule of Sultan Abdul Hamid, and reproduced on touristic postcards ever since. Ample photographs are also available of western-suited, peaked-cap-wearing vendors from the early decades of the Turkish Republic (itself and artificial contrivance) but — and here’s the rub — anno 2013 such costumes and the early Republican period no longer seem to conjure forth the same nostalgia nor sense of authenticity that they did a generation or two ago. In the present political atmosphere in Turkey, images of the Republic fade and shades of the authoritarianism, religious establishmentarianism, and external influence of the last decades of the Empire solidify.
However, from my point of view at least, there is a good side to this as well. In the 19th-century Istanbul, mackerel and other fish vendors were not only Turks but, if I am correct, mainly local Greeks, with, depending on neighborhood, the occasional Armenian or Jew in between. Sadly, the ethnic and religious diversity of late-Ottoman Istanbul inspires is left out of the nostalgic fantasies among most present-day Istanbul residents and visitors to the city as well, especially as leading figures in the country’s governing party engage in ongoing condescension and bombast against those members of Istanbul’s tradition minority groups who still remain.
Technical footnote: The price of laziness
Usually, I make a point of only posting photos that are sharp and otherwise technically spot-on. Both of the photos in this post were shot handheld. Shutter speeds was ample but apertures were far too open to permit sufficient depth of field and adequate zone focusing. Another reminder, thus, to forgo laziness and take along my tripod!