Three books about an exotic polyglot Near East

I’ve finished three books about exotic cities with a multi-lingual, multi-ethnic, and multi-religious population.

The first is Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul: Memories and the City.  The publisher pushes this as essential reading for tourists who want to learn about Istanbul.  About half of the text of the book is devoted to the author’s feelings and memories of childhood.  He loves his mother and is fascinated by her makeup and clothing.  He loves (male) Turkish writers who are captivated by the beauty and sexuality of teenage boys.  He is often melancholy, even after sex (perhaps because his partner wasn’t a teenage boy?).  You would be forgiven if you thought that this was a lost work of Marcel Proust.  The other half of the book has some interesting information about Istanbul.

Pamuk claims that the entire city suffers from melancholy and despair because of the collapse of the Ottoman empire and subsequent decline in the city’s relative fortunes.  He celebrates the contributions of Greeks, Armenians, and Jews to the city’s culture and mourns the departure of these ethnic groups (Pamuk notes that Istanbul was more than half non-Muslims at the beginning of the 20th century and nearly 100 percent Muslim at the end; he says that the Christians and Jews were encouraged to leave after their property was confiscated in the 1940s and by riots in the 1950s that destroyed their homes and shops).  Stories of ships colliding in the Bosphorus are captivating (you have to sail through downtown Istanbul to get from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea).

Pamuk’s own family has suffered a decline in their fortunes, but he doesn’t seem to notice the rise of other families.  The latest shopping malls are grander than any palace that the Sultans ever built.  The bridges spanning the Bosphorus are engineering achievements beyond anything the Ottomans might have dreamed of.  The wealth of modern day Turkish businessmen exceeds anything the Ottomans had.  It is true that the Ottomans ruled an empire, but it was an empire mostly of illiterate peasants who couldn’t pay much in the way of taxes.  Modern day Istanbul is at the center of a powerful growing economy of 70+ million people, nearly all of whom are better educated and better employed than their 19th Century counterparts.

Summary: an interesting book for fans of Pamuk’s other writing, not particularly instructive about Istanbul.

The next book is Justine, the first novel in Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet.  The exact time of the novel isn’t specified, but they have cars and don’t have antibiotics, so 1920s or 1930s seems like a good guess.  The city has little industry and people don’t work very hard so they spend all of their time having sex with each other, regardless of marital or economic status.  Unlike with Pamuk’s book, the sex tends to be heterosexual.  There is a lot of mingling among Europeans, Arabs, Copts (descendants of the ancient Egyptians who built the Pyramids), Turks, and Jews.  Poverty is a common condition, one that often leads to arrangements of a sexual nature.  Love is understood by all concerned to be a transitory phenomenon.

Summary: Too bad these folks did not have access to modern scientific research, such as

The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit by Lucette Lagnado is the most educational of the three.  She chronicles a century of her family’s history in a way that illuminates the general via the particular.  Her family starts off in Syria in the early 20th Century.  The breakup of the Ottoman Empire has enabled the local Arabs to indulge their passion for anti-Jewish violence (the Ottomans discouraged violence against taxpayers; they didn’t care what religion someone practiced as long as he or she paid taxes).  The family flees to Cairo where her father grows up to enjoy a fantastic social life, mostly enjoyed after dark and with a lot of different women.  The city is a paradise of neighborliness and opportunity created by the mixture of well educated and sophisticated foreigners and religious minorities.  In his early 40s, Lagnado’s father marries a beautiful 20-year-old and installs her in his mother’s house where she becomes miserable from isolation and his nighttime wanderings and presumed infidelity.  As an Arab nationalist government supplants the monarchy, the Arab Cairenes become increasingly hostile towards their Christian, Jewish, and foreign neighbors to the point where most of the non-Arab Muslims have to leave by the early 1960s.

Jews are allowed to leave with no more than $30 in wealth, plus a few suitcases full of clothing.  Lagnado’s family of six shows up in Paris with $200 and eventually manages to make its way to the shabbier neighborhoods of Brooklyn.  Their relatives end up in Israel where they trade the pleasures of the city for a life of hard labor on a dusty kibbutz farm.

Many of the events in the story are sad.  Babies die.  Babies are sold because a family doesn’t have enough money to feed them.  Italian relatives are shipped off to German death camps, never to be heard from again.  The world was a much more consequential place then.  Yet Lagnado’s prose is never sad and, as you might expect from a Wall Street Journal journalist, there is little fat that could be trimmed from her language.

The 870,000 Jews who were expelled from Arab countries between 1940 and 1960 are a statistic (to paraphrase Joseph Stalin); the Lagnado’s family expulsion is a lot more instructive.

One thought on “Three books about an exotic polyglot Near East

  1. “they didn’t care what religion someone practiced as long as he or she paid taxes”

    And baksheesh (kickbacks/protection money/bribes), of course. The Ottoman empire was astonishingly corrupt toward the end, and the simmering violence in the background provided plenty of revenue opportunities.

Comments are closed.