A ruined yali, or Bosphorus mansion, is still standing on the shore of the largest island of the Istanbul archipelago. The roof is long gone, but in better days it was the magnificent home of Leon Trotsky, who fled to Constantinople after his exile from the Soviet Union in 1929.
Trotsky arrived during the turbulent birth of modern Turkey. The new republic sought to rid itself of Armenians, Greeks and other “undesirable” populations but Istanbul was opening its arms to White Russians, disillusioned Bolsheviks and African American jazz musicians. Later in the 20th century, intellectuals and dissidents from Germany and the Balkans would add to the diversity of a city that has always stood at the world’s crossroads.
A similar dynamic is playing out in Turkey today. On the one hand, domestic opposition to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government is met with disproportionate force, and journalists, human rights activists and Kurdish politicians languish in prison on terrorism charges. Yet on the other, Istanbul has become a beacon of safety for persecuted people across the Muslim world. Here, Uighur refugees practise their faith freely; young Saudis and Iranians dance the night away; and Arab activists displaced by the Arab Spring still raise their voices against the regimes they fled at home.
“Turkey is increasingly looking eastward, away from its Nato partners, to its old sphere of influence during the Ottoman Empire,” said Mohanad Hage Ali, a fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center. “Its cultural influence can be seen all over the Middle East today: there are new Arabic translations of Turkish poets, and novels about the city coming out in Arabic. Over the last two decades we’ve seen a strong cultural bridge form.”
While the Arab world used to centre around the cultural output of Cairo in the 1950s and Beirut in the 1970s, today most look to Istanbul’s screen stars. When Ramadan begins on Thursday, people across the Middle East are looking forward to a month of reruns of beloved Turkish television shows.
The old political fervour of Cairo and Beirut has relocated to Istanbul, too. The city of 17 million people is now home to an estimated 2 million Arabs, who have opened coffee shops, book stores, theatre and media companies, and joined the staff of universities.
The Arab Media Association of Istanbul numbers 850 journalists, including Yemeni Nobel peace prize winner Tawakkol Karman and Egyptian Ayman Nour, a former politician who fled after the 2013 coup that bought President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi to power. Both now run opposition television stations.
“Istanbul revitalised the Arab Spring in a way no other place could,” said Labib al-Nahhas, a senior member of the Syrian political opposition. “The city has provided Arabs and Muslims the opportunity to meet face to face and freely share their experiences, hopes and visions.”
Welcoming Muslim exiles – in particular those with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood – is a high priority for Erdoğan’s government, which likes to showcase its particular flavour of political Islam.
“Istanbul is certainly now the Muslim Brotherhood hub, but there are also so many other Arab political streams present in the city,” said Hage Ali. “In fact, the exposure to other types of thinking and the experience of a cosmopolitan city means people sometimes end up leaving the Brotherhood and becoming more liberal.”
Istanbul’s beauty has long inspired writers across the Islamic world. For Yasmine Seale, a French-Syrian writer and translator, there is no better place. “Seeing the Bosphorus every day. Hearing Arabic. The persistence of small trades and slow crafts. The generosity and humanity of neighbourhood life. Anglosphere literary scenes seem self-absorbed at this remove,” she said.
Yet adapting to Turkish life can pose challenges: foreigners often find the fiercely patriotic national identity inaccessible, and racism against Arabs is widespread.
Ahmed Hassan, a cinematographer who worked on The Square, an acclaimed 2013 documentary about Egypt’s 2011 revolution, moved to Istanbul from Cairo in 2018, but has found the racism and barriers to journalistic work hard to deal with. “I think of Istanbul like a beautiful watermelon,” he said. “It’s lovely and green, and on the inside a beautiful dark red. But when you bite, it has no taste. I’m still waiting to taste the sugar.”
Turkey’s internal instability and financial woes, as well as the murders of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 and Iranian dissident Masoud Molavi Vardanjani last year, are also reminders for diaspora populations that Istanbul is not always as safe as it seems.
In a unique example of Istanbullu juxtaposition, across the water from the ruins of Trotsky’s mansion on Büyükada, Abdullah Öcalan, one of the founders of the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), is serving life as the only prisoner on İmralı island. Seen as a terrorist by Turkey, the UK and other western nations, he is still championed by many as a revolutionary.
“Istanbul’s cultural and political melting pot is a novel experiment, and while Turkish cultural influence is a good thing for the Turkish state, they only have so much control over it,” said Hage Ali. “We will have to wait and see the impact the ‘Istanbul effect’ will have on the region.”
By: Bethan McKernan