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Boundaries of the nation in the space of the urban

November 18, 2011

There are a number of interesting articles out there that consider concepts of landscape and social narrative by looking at particular communities – tiny examples of human living on the global stage. Individually, they’re interesting and alongside each other they build up a picture of social life around the world, complete with similarities and differences (though, notably, there are common theoretical themes running through these studies!!!)

One I found interesting is Amy Mills’s article  ‘Boundaries of the nation in the space of the urban: landscape and social memory in Istanbul’ in which she studies the social memory of mahalle life in Kuzguncuk, a neighbourhood (mahalle) of Istanbul. This study, she writes, “reveals the complexity of issues at stake in narratives of history in Istanbul.  The landscape is the material discourse of contesting notions of what constitutes the urban, and who belongs in the nation, mediating the interchange between dominant and minority identities, and between memory and practice in urban life.” (389)  Mills “interprets the nostalgia for Istanbul’s minorities… [and] situate[s] it within the context of a cultural debate concerning the terms of belonging, of being a ‘Turk’, in Turkey, a debate which both redraws and contests the boundaries of the nation in the space of the urban.” (370)

The narrative of peace and tolerance embedded in the landscape of social memory obscures other, untold stories of the mahalle’s past: the traumatic events that pushed out the minority communities.” (379) “The social memory in Kuzguncuk can… be read as a narrative of the past which attempts to cope with the present and articulate an imagination for the future.” (371)

Narratives of the mahalle, those which reinforce the dominant memory of multiethnic tolerance, and those which challenge this memory with ‘other’ stories of violence and fear, betray the constructed nature of the categories ‘minority’ and ‘Turk’, exposing the vulnerability, tension and uncertainty embedded in the boundaries which define the nation.” (385)

“Throughout my research”, Mills writes, “I was curious about the relationship between the social memory of mahalle life in Istanbul and the complex reality of daily life.” (377)  …and this is where the connection to young adult literature lies (in case you were wondering!)

Kuzguncuk – how it is remembered and thought of:

Mills begins by describing images of Kuzguncuk as they are portrayed in media and as they ‘appear’ at first glance. It is a neighbourhood where churches and mosques and synagogues cohabit and “the image [of a church and mosque side-by-side] has become a symbol, serving as material ‘evidence’ of the social memory of past tolerance and harmony between a multiplicity of ethnic groups in the area” (368) Kuzguncuk’s “nostalgic images and narratives of the neighbourhood’s past claim to retain historic, multicultural tolerance” Mills writes (368), but ” this landscape, and the narratives that create it, actually work to obscure a contentious and traumatic minority history.” (368)

She explains: “Although Kuzguncuk’s landscape is known as ‘historic’, it is not a mere relic of the past but a landscape under continual and deliberate reproduction. This process is sustained by two interrelated nostalgic narratives: a narrative of multicultural tolerance; and the narrative of the neighbourhood, the mahalle , as the urban space of belonging and familiarity. These two narratives themselves respond to and reproduce a social memory of a past cosmopolitanism. Kuzguncuk’s minorities are gone, however, and the traumas they experienced during mid-century Turkification policies, as well as the current divisions of class and origin in Kuzguncuk, are denied in the popular narrative of harmonious neighbourhood life. This denial attempts to hide tension embedded in the national narrative of belonging, of being a ‘Turk’. This study of the power dynamics shaping Kuzguncuk’s landscape, then, is a study of the issues at the core of the cultural debate in Turkey today concerning what it means to be a member of the Turkish nation” (369)

However, Mills continues: “Neither the landscape of Kuzguncuk nor the social memory reproduced through it are innocent. Rather, they exist in a complex relationship to a nationalist discourse that inscribes the boundaries of belonging to and being excluded from the nation: of who is a Turk, and who is ‘minority’ (azinlik ).  The oral histories I gathered from minority residents challenge the dominant social memory of harmony and belonging, exposing both the role of the state and of inequal daily social relations in constructing the categories of ‘Turk’ and ‘minority’. Revealing the constructed nature of these categories is important because landscapes, in their materiality, have the power to make this discourse appear natural and uncontested.” (371)

Her explanation of the ‘mahalle’ in Turkey is interesting and entirely relevant to her conclusions, but I am not going to repeat all of her argument – just the salient bits…

Boundaries of the nation in the space of the urban:

Zygmunt Bauman, relying on the work of Frederick Barth, links ethnicity to the problem of national identity. The nation created an ‘ethnic category’ to legitimize its own existence by marking the terms of exclusion and thus making the nation the preferable category of identity. For Turkey, the category of ‘minority’ inscribed a boundary of exclusion, making the imagined community of the Turkish nation the space of belonging.” (373)  “In the beginning of the twentieth century, as the Ottoman empire lost territory and was under threat, Turkish nationalism emerged in the person of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Atatürk’s ideas synthesized some elements of Turkey’s Ottoman heritage with European-style modernization viewed as necessary for Turkey to survive among European nations. He supported a reformist agenda, identifying it with the idea of a strong Turkish nation, and proposed replacing a traditional civilization with a modern European one. In spite of his emphasis on secularism, he defined Turkey as a Muslim nation, because Islam was considered an integral part of Turkish culture. The other integral part of Turkish culture was Turkish ethnicity, which identified Turkey’s roots in an ethnically Turkish past and in the migration of Turkish tribes from Central Asia across Anatolia. These two elements of nationalism in Turkey combined in the idea of the ‘Turk’, that is, the ideal member of the nation who was Muslim and ethnically Turkish.” (373)

Boundaries of nostalgia: the mahalle as the site of history:

Mills writes of “the alienation of the postmodern city” and notes that “If we are ‘all an other among others’, none of us belongs to the ‘self’, to the collectivity  there is no place to signify the belonging of home. If social, cultural, or collective memory is fundamentally dependent on location, place layers this space with meaning: place is the location of memory. [Kathleen] Stewart’s nostalgia becomes, in the alienating city, ‘the one point on the landscape’  or the place  ‘that gives hope of direction’. By Christine Boyer’s definition, the postmodern urban landscape is characterized by the very employment of material forms that recall a collective memory of the past. The nostalgia creates this point on the landscape by bringing itself into form in the ‘authentic’ mahalle. As the landscape of collective memory brings nostalgia to materiality, it performs the illusion of making a past way of life ‘real’ once again. The mahalle landscape of Kuzguncuk creates the illusion of belonging in place; it creates, in urban space, a collectivity that fills the void of alienation. In its very denial of the condition of being an ‘other among others’, it signifies cultural mourning for a loss of place in the city.  The nature of Istanbul’s contemporary cultural crisis, however, extends beyond a mere postmodern urban malaise. The ‘social memory’ mahalle of tolerance and multiethnic harmony in place tells us that more is at stake.” (386)

Zygmunt Bauman bridges this analysis of the mahalle as a nostalgic response to the need for community in the postmodern city to ideas of the community as a category of belonging within the nation. He argues that the purpose of national culture is to ‘loosen the grip’ of local communities on the nation, to create an overarching category of belonging more powerful than the previous category of the local community. His reads nostalgia for the ‘sweetness of belonging’ as a response to the failure of the nation to successfully create the overarching imagined community. In order for the nation’s imagined community to succeed, ethnic communities must eventually assimilate or perish, which he terms the ‘annihilation of difference’. The mahalle represents the very instability of the ‘minority-nation’ relationship: the category of nation produced the ethnic minority, and then proceeded to destroy the minority in order to achieve hegemony (to territorialize itself, in the case of Turkey to ‘Turkify’ the territory). The curious paradox of recalling the presence of minorities in the mahalle through the social memory, while simultaneously employing a language of tolerance to deny the history of anti-minority violence, is an ‘assimilatory pressure’ which ‘strip[s] the ‘‘others’’ of their ‘‘otherness’’; to make them indistinguishable from the rest of the nation’s body, to digest them completely and dissolve their idiosyncrasy in the uniform compound of national identity.’” (387)

National Boundaries:

In her conclusion, Mills writes: “Turkish nationalism broke apart what was once an integrated mosaic of different identities cohabiting in cosmopolitan daily life. Today, these different identities no longer form a cohesive cosmopolitan mosaic, but exist alongside one another as fragments, categories with rough edges and unacknowledged friction between them that contain the potential of future violence. The memory of mahalle life on the main street in Kuzguncuk produces an imagined cultural space that refers not to the past, but to what is happening now. It has become necessary to remember a tolerant multiculturalism in order to cope with the tensions in contemporary life. Nostalgic memories of the minority neighbours of the past erase tension by making invisible minority claims to place, by denying the social difference that nationalism turned into injustice and dispossession. ‘By now, traditions have been so thoroughly ‘‘invented’’ or homogenized, and ‘‘history’’ so absolutely marketed or commodified, misrepresented, or rendered invisible, that any oppositional potential rooted in collective memory has been eclipsed completely.’ There is, today, no space for alternative narratives of Kuzguncuk: the collective memory of multicultural harmony has become a Turkish cultural space, existing within the hegemony of the nation.” (388)

She takes this further: “But have these boundaries really succeeded? The social memory betrays, as well, the very fragility of the boundaries of the Turkish nation and their failure to create a conceptual space of belonging. Urban alienation suggests that the boundaries have not succeeded to create a ‘self’ with an ‘other’. In Turkey today, the boundaries which define the terms of inclusion and exclusion in the nation have come under debate both from inside Turkey and within its international context as a Muslim country petitioning for EU candidacy. These debates are rooted in the foundation of the Turkish Republic as a secular, modern nation and yet with boundaries of identity that include only those who are ethnically Turkish and Muslim. Cultural and political tensions in Istanbul, caused by the city’s population of overwhelmingly rural origin and the increasing visibility of political Islam, as well as the presence of Kurdish refugees from the south-east of Turkey (a constant reminder of recent and ongoing state violence as well as the existence of ethnic minorities in Turkey), are fuelling cultural debates over ‘what nativeness signifies, what sort of everyday comportment . . . Turkish authenticity requires’.” (388-389)

“Prime Minister Erdogan,” Mills declares (and I haven’t the symbol to spell his name correctly in my computer!!!), “straddles an uneasy line as he seeks support from his Islamist party and majority popular opinion while initiating reforms demanded by the European Union, projecting a simultaneously Turkish and Muslim and yet European Union-member identity for the nation. The boundaries of any nation are continuously re-created in relationship to other nations. How can boundaries encircle the Turkish nation as a space, when the nation requires the internal integrity of a consistent imagined community, and yet must acknowledge demands for ethnic and religious pluralism in a democratic state? The discourse that produces the narrative of the nation reveals its very core to be unstable, and its boundaries to be porous, shifting and vulnerable.” (389)


Amy Mills (all blue, bold emphases mine) (2006)  ‘Boundaries of the nation in the space of the urban: landscape and social memory in Istanbul’ Cultural Geographies 13: 367-394

Quoting, amongst others: 

Z. Bauman, Culture as praxis (London, Sage, 1999)

Z. Bauman, Community: seeking safety in an insecure world (Malden, MA, Blackwell Press, 2001)

M. C. Boyer, The city of collective memory: its historical imagery and architectural entertainments (Cambridge, MA, MIT Press, 1996).

K. Stewart, ‘Nostalgia: a polemic’, Cultural anthropology 3 (1998), pp. 227  41.


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