Don't Build Kanal Istanbul!

Some 112 ships pass through the Bosphorus every day, or 41,112 ships per year. These are freighters and tankers, cruise-ships and military vessels. Everything that arrives at, or leaves, the five countries along the Black Sea coast must come through the Bosporus. In addition, of course, there are the regular ferries that connect the European with the Asian side, private yachts and dinghies, together with a fleet of small fishing boats. There are obvious problems with such intensive traffic. The straight is narrow and treacherous, requiring sharp turns in quickly moving currents; there are problems with pollution and waves, and if an oil tanker ran aground, the environmental impact would be devastating. In fact, some 10 incidents happen each year, most of them collisions. The Kanal Istanbul project, in other words, makes a lot of sense. It makes sense to separate the commercial, long-haul, traffic from the local. After all, we do this with cars. There should be a way around, rather than through, the city.

And yet, I hope Kanal Istanbul will not be built. But my reasons are not the ones regularly heard. I don’t worry about the cost, in terms of money or environmental impact; I have not read the Montreux Convention of 1936 which regulates the international status of the Bosphorus; and I have no idea whether the project will enrich the wrong people. Rather, I’m concerned with the impact on Turkey’s national identity.

I live in Üsküdar, or in Salacak to be precise. It’s nothing fancy, just an ordinary Turkish apartment, but I got very lucky with the view. From my living room I have a front-row seat of all the action taking place in the Bosphorus. I see all the 112 daily ships, the freighters and the tankers, the navy vessels and the cruises. The whole world passes before my window, coming from everywhere and going off to everywhere. And the view is particularly impressive at night. I find my thoughts drifting as my eyes follow the red and white lights as they glide through the darkness. Some ships seem to last for ever — indeed, a tenth of them are over 200 meters long. I wonder who the crews are onboard these ships? What is it like to be at sea for months on end? Do they miss their homes and their families? What are their hopes and dreams? The ships and the crews are right here, in the center of our city, and yet we know nothing about them. They are the alien other at the core of our lives.

In Moses and the Origin of Monotheism, Sigmund Freud argues that Moses actually was an Egyptian. The origins of many Jewish practices, Freud claimed, were Egyptian too. This included, most notably, monotheism. Although the Egyptians were famous for worshiping many different gods — including crocodiles and other animals — Pharaoh Akhenaten, some time in the fourteenth century B.C.E., abolished this plurality. Akhenaten instructed his people to worship the sun as their only god. Moses, born into a high-ranking Egyptian family, adopted this religion — substituting Jahveh for the sun — and this was the faith he brought with him to Canaan, the land of milk and honey, where his followers eventually settled. Judaism, according to Freud, is this mixture of Egyptian and Canaanite traditions. Circumcision, for example, was originally an Egyptian custom.

Over time, however, this Egyptian heritage was repressed. The Jews made Moses into a purely Jewish figure. Monotheism became their invention, and God was speaking only to them. But, says Freud, if we repress our memories we will never understand who we are, and we will do damage both to ourselves and others. Identities are are not things after all, they have no essences, but must remain open to the new and unexpected. Acknowledging the alien at the heart of our being, is a way to maintain such openness. There is a powerful paradox here. Identities are never identical to themselves. Only by recognizing that we are other, can we recognize who we are.

Repressing the truth about their origins is what nationalists do. And when Edward Said wrote about Freud’s thesis in Freud and the Non-European, he identified Israel as a nationalist state. The Israelis have repressed their foreign origins, and the repression of the Palestinians follows directly from this fact. The Israelis have sharply distinguished themselves from their geographical and cultural environment, and from the people to whom their land belongs. This explains their aggressiveness, their sense of superiority and entitlement. By repressing how their country was established, they will never understand who they are. As a result, they will continuously do damage both to others and to themselves.

Modern Turkey is another country constructed by means of nationalism and the repression of memories. What most obviously was repressed is Islam. Islam is not a Turkish religion after all. Islam comes from the Arabian peninsula, and it has Arabic as its holy language. The five daily calls of the muezzin are made to a universal, not a national, community. Repressing Islam was a way to deal with these embarrassing facts. Indeed, modern Turkey as a whole does not have its origins in something uniquely Turkish, but instead in the Ottoman Empire, with all its amazing cultural and ethnic diversity. The population of Istanbul was until 1925 only half Turkish, and the other half was made up of Greeks, Kurds, Albanians, Armenians, Jews, Bulgarians, Roma, and all sorts of other people. The family tree of Kemal Atatürk — the Turkish Moses — is similarly ethnically diverse, a fact which Turkish nationalists prefer not to remember. And sexual identities proliferated too. Indeed, European travelers to the Ottoman Empire were regularly warned not to fall for illicit temptations. The Ottomans were leading the world in LGBTQ rights!

Repressing the truth about their origins is what nationalists do. And when Edward Said wrote about Freud’s thesis in Freud and the Non-European, he identified Israel as a nationalist state. The Israelis have repressed their foreign origins, and the repression of the Palestinians follows directly from this fact. The Israelis have sharply distinguished themselves from their geographical and cultural environment, and from the people to whom their land belongs. This explains their aggressiveness, their sense of superiority and entitlement. By repressing how their country was established, they will never understand who they are. As a result, they will continuously do damage both to others and to themselves.

Apart from the actual price tag, and the possible environmental damage, there is an existential cost to be paid for Kanal Istanbul. Istanbullites will lose that daily reminder of their cosmopolitan heritage, and as a result they will miss an opportunity to understand themselves better. By banishing all international shipping to a newly built, commercial, transit route, the foreign can be kept at bay. We can even imagine that there are no foreigners, and no ethnic or sexual minorities demanding to be heard. Suddenly we are all alike; we are finally identical to ourselves. Yet as Freud knew, and as Said explained, this is not how identities work. If you think you know who you are, you are mistaken. We need those 112 daily ships to remind us of this fact. We need that radically other that passes through our lives in the middle of the night.

0
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x
()
x