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This is Who We’re Dealing With

August 20, 2010

Around a certain cross-section of people, The Huffington Post is a well-respected section of the internet. They make fun of Dem True Amurricans, they have fun little articles and slideshows, and they’re generally a beloved lefty news blog. We’ve all gotten links from them. They’re mostly pretty amusing. But for goodness’ sake, avoid their #Istanbul tag. Full of press releases and uncomfortable misinformation, its news as given by a 7th grader. We very much prefer the fantastic work by Ms. Frederike Geerdink.

Our attention was drawn to a Terry Kelhawk’s review of Istanbul 2010 Capital of Culture earlier this week, and although we tried to bring the ugliness of the article to HuffPo’s attention, we are only a little WordPress blog. We’re trying to change the latter, but we’re just going to go ahead and do the former.

So I know my co-conspirator won’t be game for it, but here I say: Ms. Kelhawk, the gauntlet is dropped. If you would like to convince me that you know more about Istanbul than you show, please, it’s AJKohn at Istanbulalti.com. You can find out about me here. And since it seems to be more your thing, feel free to try to convert me. I’m all ears.

Other than that…here is our joint response:

In response to a woefully clichéd guide to a city we love.

We are not the most regular of Huffington Post readers. Friends link us to particularly interesting or noteworthy articles, we read them and think, “Really, we’ve got to make it to their homepage more often,” and end up forgetting to do so until the next HuffPo link comes our way. But we generally enjoy the site’s progressive stance, wide range, and interesting reporting, particularly in the Travel section. This is why we were particularly appalled to read this week’s “Turkish Delights in Istanbul: 2010 European Capital of Culture,” by one Terry Kelhawk. Kelhawk’s article, which purports to offer an insiders or a city expert’s checklist of the treasures Istanbul offers, manages instead to be insulting and full of tired, obnoxious picks that would make anyone attempting to ”do” Istanbul exhausted, grumpy, and really as un-Istanbul as one can get in this town.

We’ve lived in Turkey for years now. We have studied, researched, worked and lived here. While we’re hardly old hands, Istanbul is our familiar home and its residents are among our neighbors and close friends. We’re not writing out of pique at “not getting the city right” – after all, a city this big has a lot of options for what “getting it right” entails. We are writing for the 15 million (no really: 15,000,000) Istanbullus who are treated like background noise for the oblivious Ms. Kelhawk. Our intrepid tour guide, it seems, has spent enough time in this city — or at least the Sultanahmet area around her hotel — for four (4!) exclamation marks but not a single person.

We sincerely doubt Ms. Kelhawk’s knowledge of the city she purports to write about. Confused by some basic errors, I decided to break out the ol’ Google search. In Ms. Kelhawk’s writing for HuffPo, in which she has discussed how “a guy whose fly is unzipped?” can be equated to “If God is everywhere, why must we face Mecca when we pray?” and examined howwhosoever killeth a human being for other than manslaughter or corruption in the earth, it shall be as if he had killed all mankind” (Sura 5:32) allows Jews to kill for vengeance. Outside of this website, she said that it was good her Palestinian friend “… was not in the mood to blow up a plane that day” and writes for a blog called Answering Muslims, which closes its FAQ page about “…bring[ing] people into a loving relationship with each other and with God,” with the benediction of “May God bless us all with his love and destroy the shackles that might bind us. May we serve Him with humility and dedication. In Jesus’ precious name, amen.”

Clearly we are not dealing with someone who will serve as a ready guide into one of the most populous Muslim cities on Earth. What we have is a Palin-esque God-squadder who sees Istanbul and smacks her lips at the opportunity to call these people, these individuals, backsliders in the face of God.

Her book has been described by Publishers Weekly as a “cartoonish showdown “ that “fails to do justice to its intriguing premise” thanks to its “two dull leads.” But hey, besides the blinding crusade and the poor writing, what can she tell us about this city? Not a whole lot.

East and West. Stop it. It doesn’t mean anything anymore. It’s Ramadan right now, and one of us had a beer over lunch. Some people wear headscarves, some don’t. It isn’t half one and half the other, the city is all Istanbul. It’s a palimpsest, not a mosaic. From the Muslims who came to the city in 674 (which may still not be early enough for Ms. Kelhawk) to the Armenians celebrating the Feast of the Assumption of Mary last weekend, it’s a complicated city. Did you know it wasn’t officially named Istanbul until 1923? Or that the Topkapi architecture Ms. Kelhawk denigrates is the only mixture of Central Asian nomadic yurts with Austrian-style fortifications in existence? If you did, it wouldn’t be from Ms. Kelhawk.

Her “gateway between heaven and hell” is a breezy 68 degrees in the summer; a great place for a break from the heat. Gözleme, which she recommends, is as Istanbul as a camel and can only be found in the tourist traps in Sultanahmet. For fantastic Turkish cuisine in Istanbul we would recommend checking out www.istanbuleats.com, which has excellent writing on Turkish food and great restaurant recommendations around the city.

Kelhawk’s foray into Ottoman women’s life is bizarre and frankly closer to some sort of Disney version of life in the late Ottoman Empire than what is generally accepted to be reality. Her focus on “Les Desenchantees” and her position that it “brought the attention of Europe to the plight of Turkish women” is odd when one considers that that book is considered to have been founded on a hoax or joke perpetuated by the disenchanted women portrayed in the novel (see Peter James Turberfield’s “Pierre Loti and the Theatricality of Desire” or Ömer Koç’s “The Cruel Hoaxing of Pierre Loti”). Kelhawk’s premise that “most” Turkish women only left the harem to get married and be buried belongs on the shelf of other exoticized Orientalist portrayals with Ingres’ paintings and Lawrence’s writings. They’re enjoyable to ponder or read, but not a good frame for Istanbul. The “plight of Turkish women” or even meeker “maidens” is as complex as any discussion of women’s rights in the 1800s, from San Francisco to Sana’a. But to portray them as helpless flowers is objectification bordering on infantilization. Kelhawk would be well-advised to read the work of Prof. Dr. Madeline Zilfi, an Ottomanist at University of Maryland, before she rambles and pontificates further.

We don’t write this to complain about her method of travel. We are concerned about her exoticizing and her clearly shaky grasp on the city. At a more general level, we are frustrated with the lack of insightful, non-clichéd advice on this fascinating city. The Istanbul portrayed by Ms. Kelhawk is devoid of humanity. Indeed, the city she describes is “a 360 degree living light and sound show” for the tourist’s own benefit. The most insipid tourist is the one who wants to “get out [their] camera and wait for the show to begin.” The disturbing lack of understanding Ms. Kelhawk has for this city and the people in it makes us want to personally give a tour of the city to everyone who reads this article to prove what a deep place it is. There are abundant haunted mosques, ancient recipes, and ground-breaking music in this city that one can discover just by asking people, getting lost, or delving a deeper into the city than Kelhawk has. The Capital of Culture Agency has events ranging from jazz concerts to photography workshops just a website away. Don’t let the tired tropes offered by a misguided package-tour Orientalist lead you astray. Come here for the hammams, the tiles, whatever. But talk to people and explore when you get here.

Asher Kohn is a law student living in Istanbul. Rebecca Doffing is an editor living in Istanbul. They run Istanbulalti.com, a newspaper and guide to Turkey for Turkey’s sake.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Hakan permalink
    August 22, 2010 6:31 pm

    A deep response to a shallow piece of text. Thanks to the authors. Could not be written better.

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  1. Terry Kelhawk is the Embodiment of Everything Wrong « İstanbul Altı

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