Identities and Traditions

Pickle and pickle-juice vendor with stand prepared for the evening's trade, Eminönü, Istanbul, 2012. (Fuji X100). Click to enlarge.

Pickle and pickle-juice vendor with wares prepared  in advanced for the evening’s trade, Shore-front of the Golden Horn, Eminönü, Istanbul, 2012. (Fuji X100). Click to enlarge.

Invented Traditions

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.

At the water's edge: Neon-lit canopied faux-traditional caiques, floating kitchens preparing and serving grilled mackerel sandwiches to passersby. In the foreground, an angler in search for his own dinner. Illuminated in the far distance, the Süleymaniye, the mosque complex of Sultan Süleyman the Law-Giver ("Suleiman the Magnificent"), a master-work of the 16th-century architect Mimar Sinan. Galata Bridge, Istanbul, 2011. (Fuji X100). Click to enlarge.

Mid-distance at the water’s edge: Neon- and lcd-lit, faux-traditional, canopied launches — floating, wave-tossed kitchens grilling and serving  to passersby mackerel sandwiches garnished with lettuce and onions. In the foreground, an angler in search of his own fish dinner. Illuminated in the  distance, the Süleymaniye, the mosque complex of Sultan Süleyman the Law-Giver (“Suleiman the Magnificent”), a master-work of 16th-century architect Mimar Sinan. Galata Bridge looking across the mouth of the Golden Horn towards Eminönü, Istanbul, 2011. (Fuji X100). Click to enlarge.

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 ….

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