Occupied Istanbul: From Trauma to Trope in Turkish Culture
The occupation of Istanbul is a little-known historical event outside of Turkey and the Middle East. European powers occupied Istanbul between 1918 and 1923 to enforce the partition of the Ottoman Empire after WWI. The partition took five years and led to the emergence of the new nation-states, mandates and kingdoms that would constitute the Modern Middle East. Yet the occupation of Istanbul is an event that has been marginalized in histories, and there is no account in English of the enduring impact of the occupation on the Turkish cultural imagination. In 2005 the EU officially opened membership talks with Turkey. The same year two novels on the occupation of Istanbul were published and immediately became bestsellers. The timing of these publications was not coincidental. European powers had played a formative role in the establishment of the Republic of Turkey after World War I. The possibility of Turkey’s reintegration into Europe raised new anxieties and phobias about the loss of national sovereignty. In light of these geopolitical changes, what did the figurative return to the Allied occupation of Istanbul represent? Close to 100 novels address the recurring trope of occupied Istanbul, making it a subgenre in Turkish literature. Internationally recognized writers from Halide Edib to Nâzim Hikmet and from Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar to Attila Ilhan have all written novels set in occupied Istanbul. I argue that occupied Istanbul is not only a traumatic historical period, it is an unexamined trope in Turkish culture that is central to understanding modern Turkey in its moment of global integration.