Midnight at the Pera Palace by Charles King

Where to start when writing about a city as vast and storied as Istanbul? In Midnight at the Pera Palace: The Birth of Modern Istanbul, Charles King takes an inflection point in the history of a city that is itself a key inflection between East and West. Or rather, he takes a period of hinges to illustrate how many aspects of modern Istanbul came about, and to show both what is new and how it is linked to what came before. He uses a series of portraits of people coming to, living in, or passing through the city to demonstrate how individual choices both take part in and add up to larger currents of history.

For more than half a millennium, the West’s image of the Islamic world has been shaped by its encounter with Istanbul: the grandeur of its golden age, the swiftness of its decline, the apparent choice between the bad alternatives of authoritarian rule and religious extremism. But in the interwar years, Istanbullus embraced Western ideals with a zeal that no one could have imagined. The city whose very geography united Europe and Asia became the world’s greatest experiment in purposeful reinvention in the Western mold. …
Europeans who came to Istanbul understood the dark side of their own civilization precisely because many of them were its victims. After the First World War, in the parallel universes created by the collapse of empires across Europe and the Near East, Westerners were sometimes the needs immigrants and Easterners their reluctant hosts. Wave after wave of Europeans landed in Istanbul in ways they could never have imagined—not as conquerors or bearers of enlightenment but as the displaced, impoverished, and desperate. …
Istanbul’s rise began with a journey away from a place that visitors often knew as Constantinople. The new city was the product of immigrants as well as emigrants—women and men who, by choice or necessity, had come to Istanbul as well as those who had left it, the first generation of republican Istanbullus or the last generation of imperial Constantinopolitans. In an era of leave-taking and restlessness, a time we now call the interwar years, the Pera Palace was not the only place where these transients and newcomers began their reinvention. But for wave after wave of refugees, migrants, and exiles, the storied old hotel was a symbol of the transition from a past age to a new one—a place that embodied the ties between East and West, between empire and republic, and between nostalgia and experiment in the only place on earth to have been the epicenter of both Christendom and global Islam. (pp. 6–10)

The Pera Palace is a grand hotel, built at the close of the 19th century by the Wagons-Lit Company to lodge guests at the eastern terminus of their Orient Express trains. It was

meant to be the last whisper of the Occident on the way to the Orient, the grandest Western-style hotel in the seat of the world’s greatest Islamic empire. Like Istanbul itself, the hotel was Europeans’ first major port of call when they went east into a traveler’s fantasy of sultans, harems, and dervishes. But before the Pera Palace had celebrated its twentieth year in business, all of that had begun to change. (p. 4)

The other part of King’s title, midnight, comes from a time when those changes had already been sweeping through now-republican Turkey for several years, and fundamental reforms would continue for several more.

When revelers gathered at the Pera Palace on New Year’s Eve 1925, they were celebrating something of a first. Never before had all Istanbullus marked exactly the same hour, month, and year. A calendar change in the late empire had introduced Western-style months, at least for dating financial transactions and train schedules, but the republican government still numbered the year from the Prophet Muhammad’s flight from Mecca. Greek Orthodox used the Julian calendar, which was thirteen days behind the Western, or Gregorian, one. Observant Jews followed their own lunar reckoning. Pious Muslims counted days according to sunrise, sunset, and the calls to prayer.
Guidebooks included impenetrable tables converting dates and hours from the Ottoman system to the more familiar international style. …
Because of the changing moment of sunrise, the calculation would be different for any other day of the year, and more than a few travelers probably found that by the time they had figured out the hour, they had to start all over again. … But as streamers unfurled and corks popped, marking the start of January 1, 1926, people were stepping into both a new year and a new era. It was the first time that all Istanbullus had technically agreed on a thing called midnight. (pp. 179–80)

And thus King’s subtitle, The Birth of Modern Istanbul, acquires both a time and a place. By the end of 1925 at the title’s midnight, the last sultan had fled, the republic had been proclaimed, and the caliphate abolished. The fez had also been prohibited. In 1926 a new civil code would come into force, while in 1928 Islam would be disestablished as a state religion and the Arabic alphabet rejected in favor of the Latin one for writing Turkish.

Populations changed nearly as much as institutions. The Armenian genocide pushed many of the survivors who didn’t leave the Ottoman Empire entirely to settle in Istanbul. One of the waves mentioned above that King spends a fair amount of time exploring is the Russian exodus prompted by the triumph of the Bolsheviks in that country’s civil war. At the end of the First World War, the Hellenic Republic attempted to acquire lands on the eastern shore of the Aegean. Smyrna, contemporary Izmir, had a Greek majority, and leaders in Athens thought to gain at the expense of the dying Ottoman Empire, as the British and French were doing further south. In the war that followed, the Greek forces lost (King refers to them as Hellenes, to distinguish them from Greeks living within the Empire and then within Turkey). War inflamed nationalist passions on both sides, and afterward both governments decided to expel populations of the foreign ethnicity, though it was called a “population exchange.” Many of the non-Greeks who left western Thrace, and Salonica (contemporary Thessaloniki) in particular, settled in Istanbul. Many of the Greeks whose ancestors had resided in Istanbul for centuries were forced to leave the city. Over time, people also increasingly migrated to Istanbul from the Anatolian countryside, drawn by the appeal of the great metropolis. Toward the end of the book, King looks at the role Istanbul played as a conduit for Jews trying to escape from Axis-controlled Europe.

When jazz comes to Istanbul, King looks at three performers who capture old and new, and give readers a notion of the vivid mixture to which the city was home.

Roza Eskenazi was a native Istanbullu, the daughter of a poor Jewish rag merchant. While still a girl, she found herself caught up in the movement of refugees and opportunity-seekers occasioned by the Young Turk revolution and the Balkan Wars. [Before World War One] Roza’s family set out … toward [Salonica] a city where Jews were the single largest ethnic and religious group in a mix that included Greeks, Turkish-speaking Muslims, Bulgarians, and others. For a Jewish family looking to move up in the world, resettling in Salonica was a reasonable idea. … Roza grew up in amid the street life of a city that was in many ways Istanbul in miniature—a cosmopolitan port, Muslim in its political identity, but where mosques shared space with Sephardic synagogues and Greek Orthodox churches in the maze of small streets and avenues winding down to the Aegean Sea. (pp. 162–63)

In the 1920s, by then a young widow, Roza moved to Athens to work as a singer. She performed with Armenian and Greek musicians, some of them people displaced by the postwar population exchanges. She became famous for singing rebetiko, what King calls “an Aegean version of the blues, sung in both Greek and Turkish.” He adds, “she was unrivaled in her ability to reflect the experience of immigrants still totaling up the lives and fortunes they had lost. It is not too much to say that she had become, by 1930 or so, the truest voice of the Greek diaspora.”

Her backing bands often featured an oud, a lute-like instrument known and played from Morocco to Iran.

Among professional as well as amateur oud players, there is no more recognizable name than that of Hrant Kenkulian, or Udi Hrant, as he was generally known. (“Udi” was an honorific title that indicated his position as a master of the instrument.) Blind from birth, Hrant grew up in Istanbul in an Armenian family who had managed to negotiate the multiple transitions from empire to occupation to republic. The massacres and starvation that had emptied parts of Anatolia of its Armenians had been less marked in Istanbul, and the dwindling of the urban community was much like the loss of Greeks—a slow draining of difference, neighborhood by neighborhood, rather than wholesale eradication. …
Little is known about Hrant’s early life, but he emerged in the 1920s as one of the city’s most popular oud players, with a surprising set of innovations that expanded the limits of the instrument. He could play double-stops, or two strings at the same time, in the style of a violinist. He could pluck the strings with both his left and his right hands, and, like a guitarist, use both sides of the plectrum, sounding a note on the upstroke as well as the downstroke of his right hand. This might seem like scant reason for renown, but few people had thought of playing the oud in this way, and it was no accident that Hrant developed these techniques at a time when jazz guitarists and violinists, with their free-form styles, could be heard all along the Grand Rue. (pp. 165–66)

While he started his career in interwar Istanbul, “he toured abroad and, after the Second World War, recorded some of his work in live sessions in New York. Like Roza Eskenazi, he was a multilingual artist, easily moving between Turkish and Armenian and composing his own songs in both languages. He still appeared regularly in Pera nightclubs until his death in the late 1970s.” (p. 167)

King turns to his third example:

There was nothing unusual about a world in which a Greek-speaking Jew became the voice of the Greek diaspora or a blind Armenian could revolutionize the playing of an instrument that Turks, Arabs, and Persians all think of as their own. … What was truly new in this era, however, was not just the emergence of widely known artists but rather the appearance of a very specific type of one: a Muslim woman, her hair and face uncovered, performing before a paying and mixed-gender audience. …
[By the 1920s] local singers competed to be the first to indigenize an international musical style, to make a borrowed object into a rooted and Turkish one. The first to do it for the tango was Seyyan.
Like many female performers of the day, she was known only by her given name … With her flapper bob and kohl-lined eyes, Seyyan was among the earliest singers to reject classical styles in favor of her own interpretations of Western forms. In 1932, she began to debut a tune by Istanbul composer Necip Celal and lyricist Necdet Rüstü that was quickly labeled the first of its genre, a truly original and certifiably Turkish tango.
The song had an over-the-top title—”The Past Is a Wound in My Hear”—and the word were pure melodrama … But in Seyyan’s hands, the song became something more: a simple and heartrending recollection of loss and regret. …
“The Past,” as it was known, became her signature tune. In a fleeting song, barely three minutes long, she managed to crystallize a set of familiar feelings—that you carried your past with you, that you could change your home without changing your condition, that some journeys never really come to an end. (pp. 168–69)

The movements of populations, King notes, were crucial to all three, and to creating the audiences that hungered for such songs. Istanbul’s musical ferment reached a wider world in other ways as well. The Zildjians were an Armenian family that had, since the seventeenth century, supplied cymbals to Ottoman military bands. During World War I, the family fled, some to Romania and other to the United States. While some returned to Istanbul during the Allied occupation of the city, by the end of the 1920s the family patriarch decided to move the entire business to Massachusetts, and Zildjian is still a globally recognized brand of cymbal. Neshui and Ahmet Ertegün, sons of a Turkish ambassador, spent some of their younger years in Washington, DC, where their father served during FDR’s tenure as president.

… they jumped eagerly into Washington’s raucous music scene, pioneered by the city’s foremost performer, Duke Ellington. They spent their weekend evenings along U Street, DC’s version of Harlem, and took occasional trips to New York, with its reefer-filled clubs and late-night music sessions. They became avid collectors of obscure 78s, featuring black dance bands from the South or singers who might have cut only one twin-sided disk in their careers. As sons of a diplomat, they had the social standing and resources to indulge their passions, and even though they were far from Istanbul, they were uniquely representative of the world that the political and cultural changes in the city had produced …
Within a few years, the brothers had decided to turn their musical tastes into a business. With financial support from a family friend, in 1947 they launched their own recording label, which they called Atlantic Records. (p. 174)

King places this in a larger context:

The Ertegüns were products of a moment when Istanbullus were becoming worldly, experimental, and modern in ways that would have shocked their grandparents. The Ottomans had been obsessed with catching up to the rest of Europe, but Istanbullus were now reworking global art forms to reflect their unique circumstances. They bent art to fit their own experience of kaleidoscopic cultures and reveled in the possibilities of self-invention. They were not just envying Western culture. Like Hrant and Seyyan, they were also making it. … All of that was possible because plenty of people like the Ertegüns and Zildjians were of Istanbul but, for reasons prosaic or tragic, no longer in it. (pp. 174–75)

As with music, King traces other threads of local and global history that intertwine with each other. Dmitri Shalikashvili, the father of a future head of the American armed forces, passed through Istanbul between the Bolshevik revolution and taking up service in the army of independent Poland. Trotsky lived not far from the city before his ill-fated departure for Mexico. The Cheka agent who kept Trotsky under watch in Turkey and later masterminded his assassination in Mexico returned to Turkey during World War II, where he failed in his attempt to do the same to the German ambassador, former chancellor Franz von Papen. The Vatican’s representative in Istanbul, who may have exceeded his delegated authority in the assistance he gave to Jews trying to flee to Palestine, had an even more important role later in his life.

In addition to the fascinating portraits that King offers to illustrate Istanbul and modernity, one absence becomes increasingly notable as the book goes on; at least, an absence compared with other books about the early Turkish republic that are intended for a general audience. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk barely appears. That’s not entirely true: the index lists quite a few appearances, and he is even on the stage as he passes through the city early in the Allied occupation. But he is such a towering figure in Turkish history that most books on the era sometimes seem to have two members of their cast: Atatürk and Everyone Else. Midnight at the Pera Palace is a refreshing approach, one clearly chosen, as King implies in his epilogue. “People live the present as a grand improvisation—misunderstanding their predicaments, laughing when they ought to mourn, staying when they should leave, and packing up their belongings when it would be better to stay at home. They rarely experience life as rushing toward something.” (p. 374)

Although King does not show life in interwar Istanbul as rushing toward something, he shows a great opening of possibilities. This is an interesting contrast to how, for example, Orhan Pamuk has emphasized nostalgia in his own writing about the city. King doesn’t shy away from tragedy, or from showing how the choices of the republic’s government systematically favored some Turks at the expense of minority citizens. But the balance of the book is on the mix, the variety, the novelty and the possibilities of the years after World War I in Istanbul. If things do not quite come full circle in the end, there are at least similarities. “The Pera Palace is now a reinvented version of its old self. The dazzling white ballroom has been refreshed, the cast-iron elevator has been rehung, and the faux marble has been repainted, all under the stewardship of a luxury firm from Dubai.” (p. 375)

Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2015/02/25/midnight-at-the-pera-palace-by-charles-king/


3 pings

  1. Ben Macintyre’s A SPY AMONG FRIENDS is very good on the spy world of Istanbul in WW2, including the British caper that resulted in Hitler dissolving the Abwehr in early 1944.

    1. Thanks, Alex!

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