Interview with Jim Bjork--June 13, 2016

Interview with Jim Bjork, Senior Lecturer in Modern European History and Liberal Arts at King's College London. The interview was conducted in London on June 13, 2016. To access an mp3 of the complete interview, click here.

Jim Bjork specializes in the history of nationalism and the social history of religion. His book, Neither German nor Pole: Catholicism and National Indifference in a Central European Borderland, 1890-1922 (University of Michigan, 2008), shows the myriad ways religion competed with nationalism for the "souls" of Upper Silesians around the turn of the century. He’s currently at work on a history of religion in postwar Poland. 

Interview Themes

How Bjork came to the study of East-Central Europe; coming of age around 1989 (min. 1:25)
What drew him initially to “Cold War” takes on the communist bloc (4:15)
Bjork’s memories of 1989 as a student at Georgetown - "disorienting but exhilarating" (5:55)
On his first visit to the region in 1993 and what stood out; the unique atmosphere in Romania (9:20)
Learning German, Polish, etc. (14:50)
Bjork's plans when he started grad school at the University of Chicago (16:15)
On Bjork’s starting cohort at Chicago (17:55)
Is there anything that sets his cohort/generation apart intellectually? John Boyer's influential interest in religion and politics; Alf Lüdtke and Alltagsgeschichte (19:35)
Comparing Chicago to Columbia in treatment of the Habsburg Monarchy (24:12)
How he came to his dissertation/book topic (28:20)
On religion as an “independent variable” (31:07)
How his interests were influenced (or not) by secessionism of the moment—Yugoslavia, USSR, Czechoslovakia? (34:25)
Bjork’s view on plebiscites in the post-WWI period, up to Brexit (38:00)
Sovereignty and the problem Westphalia was meant to address (44:00)
Were the partitions of Poland in some sense the original geopolitical sin? (46:57)
How he came to his current book project on religion in postwar Poland (52:30)
On Polish historiographical dichotomies (peasants/szlachta, nativists/Westernizers, Piłsudski/Dmowski, church/nation) and ways of looking at Polish history (58:17)
On Vergangenheitsbewältigung and Jan Gross's Neighbors (1:05:55)
The recent changes in Poland (with the coming to power of PiS) and how (un)expected it was (1:17:46)
On whether there is a desire on the part of East-Central Europeans to stop time (1:23:10)
Where the field is going/should go from here (1:29:05)
What's different about studying East-Central Europe from Britain as opposed to the US (1:40:42)

A Country for Old Men

October 2014 protest in Budapest against the Orbán government.
Photograph: Ronan Shenhav
This was recently published in the Boston Review. 

Last September an article on the front page of a leading Hungarian daily began, "The story of the ever-deepening refugee crisis is taking ever more unexpected turns." A prominent Hungarian intellectual and former dissident, György Konrád, had come out in support of the efforts of the Hungarian government to build a wall to keep out newcomers and to cast them as economic opportunists rather than political refugees. In another corner of the Hungarian media, pundits were citing passages from The Final Tavern (A végső kocsma), a 2014 book by Holocaust survivor and 2002 Nobel laureate Imre Kertész, who passed away last month. In the book, Kertész was sharply critical of liberals' welcoming attitude toward Muslim refugees and migrants. His and Konrád's statements were registered with incredulity in the liberal press and with undisguised relish on the right.

Anyone who has followed the serpentine trajectory of Hungarian politics since the controlled collapse of state socialism in 1989 might be forgiven for throwing their hands up in confusion. For more than two and a half decades, Hungarian political life has been a story of reversals. The party of the Young Democrats (Fidesz), founded in 1988 by a few-dozen college students, has mutated from a member of the Liberal International to the torchbearer of right-wing populism in Eastern Europe. Hungarians who once described themselves as liberal, including the current prime minister and Fidesz leader Viktor Orbán, have shed the epithet. Already in 1994, Orbán favored replacing it with "free-thinking." Twenty years later, his metamorphosis was complete when he wondered whether being part of the European Union was an obstacle to the reorganization of the state into "an illiberal nation state within the EU."

Orbán's liberal critics are quick to insist that he was never one of them. Plucky anti-communist dissidents who trumpeted individual liberties against the paternalistic and overweening socialist party-state merely looked liberal to many Western liberals. But conservatives, too, found soul mates in dissidents, generalizing their anti-communism into a wholesale censure of the left. In short, everybody loved a dissident. It was the left-leaning poet W. H. Auden who helped to bring dissident poet and later Nobel Prize–winner Joseph Brodsky to the United States in 1972; another poet and powerful intellectual force of the U.S. neoconservative movement, Peter Viereck, brought him to Mount Holyoke College in 1974. For every dissident who fulfilled the Western liberal fantasy, there were as many who fulfilled at least part of the conservative one, from union leader and Solidarity figurehead Lech Wałęsa to the Czech playwright, philosopher, and president Václav Havel.
If it was not the dissidents themselves who changed, what explains these reversals? And why has the migrant and refugee crisis in particular become so symptomatic of a crisis of liberalism?

...[to continue reading, click here]

Interview with László Karsai--January 10, 2016

Interview with László Karsai, Professor of History at Szeged University in Hungary. The interview was conducted in Budapest, Hungary on January 10, 2016. To access an mp3 of the complete interview, click here.

László Karsai specializes in the history of the Holocaust and anti-Semitism in Hungary. He has also written on the nationality question in France and on the Gypsy Holocaust in Hungary. 

His publications include: A cigánykérdés Magyarországon 1919-1945. Út a cigány Holocausthoz [The Gypsy Question in Hungary 1919-1945. Toward the Gypsy Holocaust] (1992), as well as with many works, including a book on the nationalities question in Belgium (Flamandok és vallonok, 1986), and a biography of the Hungarian Arrow Cross leader, Ferenc Szálasi (Szálasi Ferenc - Politikai életrajz, 2016). He also compiled and edited two extensive volumes of primary sources: one of anti-Semitic writings and another of writings against anti-Semitism in Hungary. 

Special thanks to Máté Rigó, Cornell University Ph.D. student, for preparing an inventory of the interview. 

Interview Themes

0:41 Family origins, Elek Karsai (b. 1922), Holocaust, survival of father in Buda in 1944
2:00 Holocaust in family history
3:20 1983 – Starts research on Hungarian Gypsy Holocaust
5:00 Elek Karsai’s Holocaust stories, his work on Szálasi’s trial
7:00 Ph.D. dissertation on the nationality question and Marxism, criticizes Marx and Engels
8:00 1978-79: his paper published in Magyar Filozófiai Szemle, identifies as a right-wing dissident at Szeged University
10:00 Publications on the Holocaust
11:00 Elek Karsai’s political trajectory, 1940s, finished rabbinical seminary, then became social democrat, then communist; starts his career as sociology professor around Sándor Szalai; After Szalai’s conviction he works as an archivist at the National Archives
15:00 Father rejoins the communist party in the early 1960s.
16:00 Karsai’s articles in Beszélő in 1980s, in which he criticized Tamás Krausz and László Béládi
20:00 Parallels between the leftist and liberal generations of intellectuals that came of age in 1945 and 1989: missed opportunities and the experience of having “screwed up”
22:00 Elek Karsai's documentary book on 1944/1945 Sorsforduló, protest by Czechoslovak embassy, book triggered political scandal, Soviet communist party initiates censorship of L. Karsai's work
24:00 Elek Karsai nominated as director of Trade Union Archive
28:00 Sociology as a discipline in late 1940s, József Szigeti, István Király
34:00 Fear as a defining experience of his father
35:00  László Karsai’s mother and grandmother, Emma Lederer
40:00 Grandmother and politics, Mihály Babits, Antonio Widmar, László Hárs
44:00 Political convictions of the women in his family; Mother worked at the Hungarian Television, travel to Cannes
49:00 Reading complete works of Marx and Engels
51:00 1956 Revolution as taboo, disillusionment with communism in late 1950s
56:00 Elek Karsai’s radio show
58:00 Protest of Hungarian writers at the UN
1:00:00 Exposure to anti-Communist literature in Paris in early 1980s, 1956 literature
1:03:00 1956 Revolution, Tibor Méray – Tamás Aczél, Tisztító vihar
1:07:00 Expulsion from Szeged University
1:12:00 History and historiography of the Holocaust
1:16:00 Historian as public intellectual in Hungary
1:17:00 Mistakes of the generation of 1989, Viktor Orbán, similar to Franz Joseph and János Kádár as “father figure” for Hungarians, corruption
1:22:00 The crisis of liberal democracy
1:28:00 Hungarian Jews and the migrant crisis, György Konrád, Hungarian Jews and politics after 1989
1:33:00 Migrant crisis, Muslim minorities from North Africa and the Middle East

The Final Frontier

Tibor Varga has been distributing aid to refugees and migrants
since 2011 for Eastern Europe Outreach. Photo by Róbert Pölcz.
This article was recently published in V4Revue along with original photos by Róbert Pölcz. 

"It's not always the piece of bread or food or clothing they want, but some kind of relationship," said Tibor Varga, a 59-year-old Protestant minister. He was standing on a quadrangle near a railroad crossing in Horgoš, a village in Serbia a few kilometers from the Hungarian border. It was a damp and blustery afternoon in mid-September, and the crossing was crowded with hundreds of people from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Nearly everyone was traveling light, with just a backpack, duffle bag, or plastic shopping bags.

Close by were two vans and a car, their trunks and hatches stuffed with food, clothing, and other essentials. At the front of a line for garbage bags was a tall, gangly youth whose eyes were magnified by thick glasses. He stood still without reaching for a bag; after several minutes a volunteer noticed him, apologized, and gave him one.

A couple of paunchy, older Serbian men handed out bread and tins of sardines. One of them wondered out loud what might happen if Hungary should manage to seal off the border. "Things must be very bad where these people are coming from," he said, and then began a dialogue with himself: "Of course things were bad for us, too, during the war, but we stayed."

...[to continue reading, click here]

Hope and Scandal in Hungary

This article was recently published in Dissent, along with original photos by Róbert Pölcz [click on photo to enlarge].

Bust of István Bibó (1911-1979) on the Danube promenade in Budapest. Just above the inscription is graffiti directed against the current prime minister of Hungary, Viktor Orbán [click photo to enlarge]. Photo by Róbert Pölcz.
This year a new Hungarian film, White God, has been touring the festival circuit. It’s about an abandoned mongrel whose trusting nature is repeatedly tested by abuse and cruelty. The result: what had once been an endearingly naughty pooch turns into a very bad dog.

White God could be an allegory about Hungary—a proud creature, kicked around and abused, diminished and blamed, that eventually lashes out in fury. Or maybe it’s about how Hungary has treated some of its own since the second half of the nineteenth century—assimilating them, but forever suspecting them of betrayal; marginalizing them, persecuting them outright, or even killing them. And so, as in the film, the odd victim leaps up to tear out the jugular of a Hungarian guard in a single snap.

This tortured sense of intractable antagonism was the lifelong preoccupation of the Hungarian thinker and former statesman, István Bibó. Born in Budapest in 1911, Bibó spent most of his life trying to divert the states and peoples of Central and Eastern Europe—and, above all, his native country—away from the extremes of enraged self-pity and self-righteousness and toward responsibility. At the same time he sought to sensitize the Great Powers to the miseries that fed these extremes. As he wrote in 1946, “Men are most wicked when they believe they are threatened, morally justified, and exonerated, and particularly when they feel they are entitled and obliged to punish others.”

... [to continue reading, click here]

© 2015 Holly Case, as first published in Dissent.

Interview with Marci Shore--April 10, 2015

Interview with Marci Shore, Associate Professor of History at Yale University. The interview was conducted in Ithaca, NY on April 10, 2015. To access an mp3 of the complete interview, click here.
Marci Shore specializes in European—and especially East-Central European—cultural and intellectual history is the author of 2 books, including Caviar and Ashes: A Warsaw Generation’sLife and Death in Marxism, 1918-1968 (Yale, 2006) and The Taste ofAshes: The Afterlife of Totalitarianism in Eastern Europe (2013). She has also translated Michał Głowiński’s Holocaust memoir, The Black Seasons, from the Polish (that book was published in 2005). In addition, she has  written a number of articles for both academic and more general readership audiences, including Kritika, Contemporary European History, and Modern European Intellectual History. She is currently at work on two book manuscripts, one is entitled “Phenomenological Encounters: Scenes from Central Europe,” and the other is an intellectual history of the recent revolution in Ukraine.

Interview Themes

How Shore came to be interested in history, people who influenced her, and the “susceptibility to being transported” (1:48)
How Shore came to be aware that she was living history in Eastern Europe in the 1990s and the “un-grounded” and “up-in-the-air” feel of that time (8:08)
What did people like Shore, who came of age intellectually in the 1990s, see or miss when compared with those who came before or those who came after? (11:58)
How Shore approaches writing: principles and idols (on “keeping the language fresh” and “setting the scene” as opposed to “telling the reader what to think”) (16:58)
On empathizing with the subjects of one’s work (25:20)
On what holds Shore’s body of work together: dynamics of generation, friendship (32:40)
Going to Eastern Europe to seek meaning: how does one arrive at the fundamental questions? (39:15)
Is there an identifiable “Naimark school” of those who studied under Norman Naimark (45:35)
What is at stake in considering oneself of an intellectual historian who focuses on a particular region? (51:05)
Is Eastern Europe becoming “real” again through events in Ukraine and on the Maidan? On the “return of metaphysics” and knowing that—for better or worse—“anything is possible.” (57:25) 
Shore on the “miraculous transformation of subjectivity” in Ukraine (1:05:28)
How should we be training the next generation of scholars in the field? (1:09:00)

Interview with Dimiter Kenarov--December 29-30, 2014

Interview with Dimiter Kenarov, freelance journalist, poet and translator from Bulgaria. The interview was conducted in Istanbul, Turkey in two parts on December 29 and 30, 2014. To access an mp3 of the complete interview, click here

Kenarov has written on a variety of issues of relevance to contemporary Eastern Europeans, among them a fascinating profile of Georgi Markov, the Cold War dissident from Bulgaria who was famously assassinated in 1978; a piece on Poland since the shale gas bubble, on snowboarders in Sarajevo, as well a number of recent articles on Ukraine and Crimea relating to politics and the environment, and many many other topics. He has written for venues like The Atlantic, Foreign Policy, The Nation, Esquire and Outside. He is also a photographer, poet, and translator of poetry.

Interview Themes
Part I: Dec. 29, 2014
1:15 Kenarov’s background and how he came to write on Eastern Europe
6:15 On the American high school in Bulgaria Kenarov attended during the 1990s
10:40 Memories of 1989 in Bulgaria
13:45 On the blowing up of the Georgi Dimitrov mausoleum
19:45 Is a heightened sense of the surreal in politics and everyday life a useful or a demobilizing sensibility?
24:00 The case of the Serbs and self-irony
28:30 On the legacy of communism in Bulgaria
35:05 How the generation that grew up after communism relates to its legacy
36:15 Kenarov’s own family’s experience of communism
40:55 On his parents’ approach to politics after 1989
45:25 How Kenarov imagines his audience within and beyond the region; pieces written in English vs. Bulgarian, translated, etc.
50:40 Using the word “totalitarian”
54:25 Bulgaria as a unique vs. representative case
1:02:05 To what extent is there a cautionary tale for the West in East European dissident literature?
1:09:15 Who is critiquing the West in Eastern Europe/Bulgaria now; nostalgia for communism
Part II: Dec. 30, 2014
0:00 On women’s experience of communism from Kenarov’s family history
7:05 Kenarov’s mother’s study of cybernetics and his grandmother’s tenure as a mayor
10:50 Controversy, conflict and danger in reporting on the region (Crimea, Belarus, etc.)
14:15 Kenarov’s favorite story and how it came into being (via the KGB and prison)
22:05 On whether or not there is such a thing as “Eastern Europe”
24:25 How defining was the experience of “transition” for Kenarov’s generation?
27:15 On the post-communist period as an acceleration of time
30:40 Confronting the narrative of Eastern Europe as an absence of something/lacking something and what ideas resonated with people in the 1990s
35:05 What Bulgarians see when they look to Turkey
41:25 Kenarov’s Gagauz and Romanian-speaking extended family members
45:00 The recent events in Ukraine
47:45 Kenarov’s study of Russian literature
55:45 Contemporary Bulgarian writers doing interesting work
1:01:20 How Kenarov sees his own work in relation to that of academics who work on the region

Best of Kenarov 

The Virginia Quarterly Review (Spring 2009)
The Nation (May 18, 2009)
The Virginia Quarterly Review (Fall 2011) 
Outside (Jan. 2012)
The Nation (April 7, 2014)

Interview with Ronald Suny--December 26, 2014

Interview with Ronald Suny, the Charles Tilly Collegiate Professor of Social and Political History at the University of Michigan and also Emeritus Professor of Political Science and History at the University of Chicago. The interview was conducted in Istanbul, Turkey on December 26, 2014. To access an mp3 recording of the complete interview, click here

Ron Suny has written and edited several books on Russian, Soviet, Armenian and Georgian history, including Armenia in the Twentieth Century (1983), The Making of the Georgian Nation (1988); The Revenge of the Past: Nationalism, Revolution, and the Collapse of the Soviet Union (1993); Looking Toward Ararat: The Armenians in Modern History (1993); The Soviet Experiment: Russia, the USSR, and the Successor States (1998) and edited volumes on nationalism, the Caucuses, the Russian Revolution, and the Armenian genocide. He was the president of the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies (the former AAASS, now the ASEEES), and now has books on the Armenian genocide, Stalin, and the historiography of the Soviet Union and Russia’s Empires in the publication queue. 

Interview Themes

01:25 How Suny came to Soviet history
02:15 Suny's Armenian roots in Turkey and Russia
03:40 On how Suny's father encouraged him to think differently about the Russian Revolution
06:05 The difficulty of working out where the Russian Revolution went wrong
08:20 Russia and the Soviet Union -- a disambiguation?
10:50 Suny's first visit to the USSR in 1964
13:00 Family trip to Armenia in 1964
14:50 On seeing the Soviet experience from a non-Russian perspective 
17:25 How knowing a great deal about Soviet history influenced Suny's understanding of leftism and ideology more generally
20:10 Skepticism vis-a-vis the institutionalization of leftism
21:15 Overlap between Western leftism and early dissidents
23:45 On the relationship between violence and the construction of an alternative to market capitalism
31:10 Gorbachev and the unravelling of the USSR
33:20 Soviet Union's lessons for "empires" about how to/not to collapse 
35:25 Was the Armenian genocide the end or the beginning of a polity?
37:20 Nationalism and ideology as preoccupations of Soviet vs. East European historians
42:10 The impact of the war in Yugoslavia on the Soviet field
47:50 Class vs. nationalism as "imagined communities"
51:30 Suny's characterization of his own generation of scholars
55:55 Historical divisions (or not) and factions in the Soviet field - emergence of Kritika
58:15 How did the atmosphere change in the Soviet field?
59:05 What a Soviet scholar could tell a scholar of the Middle East today
1:01:55 Impact of the dissolution of the USSR on the Soviet field
1:05:25 Things to be optimistic about in our time
1:06:40 The challenge of turning "nuance" into politics
1:08:30 History vs. political science (from the perspective of someone who does both)
1:09:50 On being a leftist who studies the Soviet Union
1:10:40 Suny's views on area studies and its usefulness in our time
1:11:55 Suny's views on Turkey as a scholar of the USSR/Russia
1:14:10 What is the "European way"?
1:15:45 Will the European Union have staying power?
1:16:25 Most interesting aspects of the various fields Suny works in
1:17:50 Suny's all-time favorite books 
1:19:35 How we should be training the next generation of scholars

The Walkers of Kadıköy

From left Yüksel Karabekir, Gültekin Karlıdağ, and Süheyl
Açıkel on a morning walk along the Marmara shore.
Every morning in Kadıköy, on Istanbul’s Asian side, a group of retirees meets to walk along the shore. They go twice from the fashionable Moda Club on the tip of the “Moda Nose” peninsula to the dock from whence local sea pilots are dispatched to navigate container ships through the Bosporus. The group coalesced around a retired architect, Gültekin Karlıdağ (79), who became a regular walker a decade and a half ago, shortly after a paved, level path was put in along the shore. Since then, as many as seven other men have periodically joined him on his morning walk, among them a retired naval officer, a heart surgeon, an insurance salesman, a wealthy businessman, a lawyer, a physicist, and a mechanical engineer. They have a code: the walk begins promptly at 6:30 a.m. and ends at 8; one walker is always required to join two others if they approach from opposite directions; and members of the group occasionally wear matching purple shirts. Topics of discussion include politics, diet, and health.

I interviewed the walkers one morning after their walk and joined them on their rounds a couple of times thereafter. Since the interviews were conducted in Turkish, they are not appended here. Instead, I have drawn on our conversations to elucidate how Turkey’s past, its politics, and its possible trajectories can be read from the lives of these walkers and their daily ritual.

Karlıdağ feeding the strays.
Though not aligned with any particular party, the walkers are all “Tayyip karşı,” which is to say opposed to the policies of the former Turkish prime minister, now president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, whose AK Party has been in power in Turkey since 2002. (It seems that referring to unloved leaders by their middle names is a global linguistic phenomenon of our time; there is “W.” for G. W. Bush, and Putin’s detractors call him by his first and middle names, “Vladimir Vladimirovich,” a form of the diminutive connoting not so much endearment as belittlement.) When Erdoğan introduced free public transportation for seniors, Karlıdağ started using the money he saved on ferry and bus fares to buy “sosis” (hotdogs) for the hundreds of stray cats that live among the seawall rocks along the shoreline path. “If there is a heaven and hell—which I don’t believe there is—but if there is, I will go to heaven on their prayers.”

"Ayşe Hanım" feeding strays.
The morning walk begins with Karlıdağ’s feeding of the strays. Yüksel Karabekir (80) says that if he sees the cats out on the rocks along the shore, congregated around small handfuls of dried cat food and sosis, it means Karlıdağ has passed that way recently. Though he may be the first to feed the cats, Karlıdağ is by no means the only “kedisever” (cat-lover) on the roundish peninsula known as the Moda Nose. Others bring water in plastic dishes or jugs, and leftover table scraps after the day’s meals. By evening, a shoreline stray sniffs twice before making off with anything short of fresh, raw fish parts. Within an hour of Karlıdağ’s first feeding, a recently retired health worker whom they call Ayşe Hanım (Ms. Ayşe) comes along with more bags of food and sosis, as well as supplies to treat the cats’ various injuries. When an otherwise healthy-looking tiger cat appears with green puss oozing from one of its eyes, Karlıdağ informs her of its whereabouts as they pass. 

"Lost cat" sign (with cat). 
The name Kadıköy translates as “Village of the Kadı” (or Ottoman official, akin to a judge). But a better name for it is “Kediköy” (Village of the Cat). Karabekir told me that municipal workers in other parts of the city are in the habit of bringing their own strays here, because they know the inhabitants are predisposed to care for them. It is not uncommon to see tens of cats at once, lounging on the roofs of parked cars, in doorways, or on ledges. In an area with so many strays, “lost cat” posters taped to lampposts, or a sticky note in the vitrine of the cash exchange reading “Seeking a good home for a kitten” have a comical resonance.

Kadıköy is not the only part of the city where remarkable concern is shown for strays. In Fatih, where Karlıdağ and Karabekir both grew up, and from whence they migrated to the upscale neighborhood of Kadıköy known as Moda, the municipality builds wooden houses for strays, marked with the municipal insignia. Yet Fatih is otherwise the polar opposite of Kadıköy in almost every respect. Fatih is relatively poor and run down, and its inhabitants tend to be much more conservative and stalwart Erdoğan supporters. In earlier times many of its inhabitants were Greeks and Armenians; these left or were driven out in successive waves from around the turn of the century up through the 1960s. Some of the houses stayed empty after their departure, but most have accommodated the steady stream of migrants to Istanbul from Anatolia.

A municipal cat house (Fatih Belediyesi Kedi Evi) in Fatih.
The shifting demographics in Fatih were part of the reason why upwardly mobile middle class Turks evacuated the area in the 1970s, many of them moving across the Bosporus to Kadıköy. “A lot of our friends from Fatih came over to this side,” Karlıdağ says. Here, the streets are wider, the houses newer, the pace of life more relaxed, and the politics more liberal. (Karabekir interjects that there are also plenty of hospitals and pharmacies, making it all the more attractive for retirees.) Not only professionals have made their homes here, but also artists and intellectuals, some of whose politics tend towards the harder left. Last winter, intense demonstrations against the Erdoğan government took place just a kilometer or two from the shore path in connection with a corruption scandal, and it is no coincidence that the favorite of the Turkish left, Selahattin Demirtaş of the Peoples’ Democratic Party—an ethnic Kurd and human rights
The Demirtaş election rally in Kadıköy on August 3, 2014.
lawyer—was enthusiastically received by a very large crowd in Kad
ıköy on August 3 of this year. Demirtaş ran against Erdoğan and an independent candidate (Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu) in the first ever election for the Turkish presidency on August 10. He won only a handful of districts, mostly in eastern Anatolia where Kurds are concentrated, and even in Kadıköy took just 6 percent of the vote (the majority of Kadıköy residents voted for İhsanoğlu, and just over 20 percent for Erdoğan, whereas in Fatih, more than 54 percent voted for Erdoğan).

Civic and political engagement is as much the essence of Kadıköy as are its cats. Even the extension of the shoreline path around the other side of the peninsula last year provoked opposition from some Kadıköy residents who felt the plan called for too much cement and too few trees. On summer evenings along the shore, hundreds of people of all ages lounge on the grass with blankets, beer and snacks. Some play tennis or basketball, push strollers along the path, take bee-bee gun shots at rows of balloons or eggs set up along the shore, or set “wish lanterns” adrift over the Sea of Marmara. Others come with guitars or books, and a few even with dogs that are distinguishable from the numerous docile strays by their collars and the conspicuous absence of a municipal ear tag indicating they have been vaccinated by city vets (as all strays have). Some of the strays with longer fur have even been shaved to keep them cool during the hot summer months. Karlıdağ has a few favorites among these strays, too, and occasionally throws a handful of catfood and sosis to them and the scruffy-looking black and grey “karga” (a variety of crow) that otherwise peck at packaging pilfered from the path-side garbage bins.

Crows (and cat) feeding on cat food thrown by Karlıdağ.
A resident of a less well-to-do part of Istanbul recently told me that strays can hardly expect such treatment in some of the outer suburbs, where the atmosphere is much more dog-eat-dog. But here in Kadıköy, park workers have even set up and maintained an informal stray dog village complete with row houses, concealed behind the public restrooms. Animal empathy has gone so far that it has even become the object of a socio-artistic satire. In a city where police recently rounded up thousands of Syrian refugees from abandoned buildings where they were congregating and bussed them back to camps near the border, the contrast with treatment of strays in this well-to-do neighborhood was not lost on a pair of artists, Evren Üzer and Otto von Busch, collectively known as Roomservices. They nailed a birdhouse to a tree overlooking the sea on the Moda Nose—one of the most prized pieces of real estate in all of Istanbul—with a long perch extending from both sides. The house is UN-sky-blue, and the side is painted with the acronym “UNBRD,” which stands for United Nations Bird Refugee Dialogue, a spoof of internationalist-humanitarian-speak. A bird with the signature United Nations spangle of stars is painted just under the entrance hole. The UNBRD, the artists explain in thick grant-proposal-ese, is an “agency of reconciliation which invites communities to imagine, discuss and manifest the restoration of hospitality of urban environment for birds, in order to recall a common and shared heritage of hospitality.” Needless to say, there are no actual birds living there.

The UNBRD house.
The bird house notwithstanding, there has been relatively little new construction in Moda and Kadıköy over the past few decades. This is another feature that sets it apart from other areas of Istanbul, a city whose population has grown from less than a million to over 14 million since the walkers were born. Almost no one is a true “Istanbullu” (Istanbul native) anymore. The city now sprawls in a seemingly never-ending ribbon of high-rise apartment buildings stretching along the Bosporus and the Sea of Marmara. Most of the buildings in Kadıköy are no more than four or five stories, and the newer construction is obvious for its incongruity. Both Karlıdağ and Karabekir spoke disparagingly of the Double Tree Hilton that dominates the nighttime skyline with its garish rows of blue lights (another inhabitant has called it “the ugly black glass freak” of Kadıköy). As an architect himself, Karlıdağ disapproves of the proliferation of high-rise apartments around the city, emphatically declaring that the projects he and his wife—also an architect—have worked on were “serious” by comparison. These projects included parts of the famous Beyazit Square in Fatih and the twenty-year-old Sabancı University.

Like many Turks who participated in the fast-paced internationalization of the Turkish economy, in the early 1980s Karlıdağ’s work took him outside the country. He spent three years working for a Turkish construction company in Libya, then in the midst of its own population and housing boom. Although the walkers in Karlıdağ’s group are ethnic Turks, the international geopolitics and trade around Turkey over the past half century color their life stories. The walkers regularly encounter and greet another older man walking his dog, an Iranian artist who left Iran following the 1978 Islamic Revolution. Karabekir, who graduated from the military academy on the nearby Heybeli Island in 1955, became part of the Turkish navy as it was being integrated into NATO. He spent ten months in Philadelphia in 1962 while the ship he was on was undergoing repairs following an accident. In 2003, he worked for a private shipping company, Cenk Group, transporting semi-trucks up into the Black Sea to Ukraine, from whence they were sent west into Europe.
Karlıdağ feeding strays with Karabekir (right).
In a tea garden overlooking the path below and the sea beyond, Karlıdağ and Karabekir talk about the outdoor cinema that used to be up the street, and the times when there was no path along the shore. They don’t agree on everything. On the subject of soccer, Karlıdağ is a Beşiktaş fan while Karabekir is for Galatasaray; and whereas Karabekir follows the advice of the Turkish-American television personality “Dr. Oz” (Mehmet Öz), Karlıdağ is unimpressed by him. Yet once the topic turns to politics, their views seem in perfect harmony. “We are not satisfied with this system,” Karlıdağ says of Erdoğan’s Islamicism. “The fanaticism, the backward sliding—Istanbul wasn’t like this. No one wore headscarves or turbans in Istanbul back when we were young.” Karabekir comments on how the Erdoğan government has “paid” (given scholarships to) women from rural areas and lifted the ban on headscarves at state universities. This has meant social and geographical mobility for many young women in Turkey, but Karabekir believes that “once they go in on that compromise, they can’t get out.”

By 8:30 a.m. the sun is high and the air hot and heavy. A middle-aged woman in shorts and a T-shirt walks by with a golden retriever and greets the walkers. Karabekir pets the dog’s head before the woman moves on. “She belongs to a later group,” Karlıdağ says. “We generally don’t meet them.”

Special thanks to Linda Case for her editorial input.