February 13, 2011

Weimar Istanbul

The City grew rapidly, dwarfing in size and population any other in the country. The streets stimulated like cocaine; horns honked, crowds surged, nerves jangled. To step outside was to be electrified by the harlequinade of roaring colors, bright lights, rushing traffic. Sybaritic nightclubs thrummed until dawn and well thereafter; strange and perverse sights were to be found on every boulevard, in every alley, at every hour, the aesthetic of contradiction between civilization and barbarity heightened by the ersatz baroque of the old architecture and the shocking ugliness of the new. Transvestites prowled, thieves pickpocketed, and in the fashionable cafés, intellectuals smoked furiously and complained of their anomie.

The Old World had vanished, and with it its agrarian economy, its reassuring class distinctions and social order. An alien and fragile political order had been imposed in its place. Experimental music, art, and cinema flourished; fascinations arose with utopianism, fortune-telling, mysticism, communism.


What is a Weimar City? It is a city rich in history and culture, animated by political precariousness and by a recent rupture with the past, vivified by a shocking conflict with mass urbanization and industrialization; a city where sudden liberalization has unleashed the social and political imagination—but where the threat of authoritarian reaction is always in the air.

Weimar Cities are not freaks of nature. They may be expected to arise under certain social, political, and historical circumstances.


Istanbul’s thrilling skyline, a glittering ribbon of palaces, mosques, and minarets, forms the backdrop to the sinister glamour of its rooftop nightclub scene, where the city’s privileged youths pass their summer nights spending their fathers’ money. I have rarely in the West seen promiscuity such as that which characterizes Istanbul’s elite, secular class. Come the Revolution, they will surely be shot. Yet the women complain to me, in tears, that they cannot understand why the men they bed never call the next day. The poor things, I think. They are so new to this.

North of the Golden Horn, on the European side of the city, it is almost impossible to walk down the crowded streets without passing a film crew. Turkish filmmakers are wan and drawn, earnest, deeply preoccupied with Turkey’s rapid social transformation. Film departments at universities throughout the city are packed. The Turkish film sector expanded by 10 percent last year. Not all the movies are good, but they are unified by the experimental drive characteristic of a Weimar City.


I am often asked why I stay in Istanbul. Often, I ask myself. But in the end, isn’t it obvious? After this, anyplace else would bore me senseless. What curious student of history could resist the chance to see something like this with her own eyes? Who wouldn’t want to know what will happen next?

Claire Berlinski, a contributing editor of City Journal, is an American journalist who lives in Istanbul. She is the author of There Is No Alternative: Why Margaret Thatcher Matters.

Read more on CityJournal.org: Weimar Istanbul


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