Midnight at the Pera Palace: The Birth of Modern Istanbul by Charles King (2014) (read in 2018)

Published by marco on

Updated by marco on

Disclaimer: these are notes I took while reading this book. They include citations I found interesting or enlightening or particularly well-written. In some cases, I’ve pointed out which of these applies to which citation; in others, I have not. Any benefit you gain from reading these notes is purely incidental to the purpose they serve of reminding me what I once read. Please see Wikipedia for a summary if I’ve failed to provide one sufficient for your purposes. If my notes serve to trigger an interest in this book, then I’m happy for you.

This book is a history of Istanbul from its very earliest days—before it was even Constantinople—up until the end of World War II. It’s a tremendous work, using the Pera Palace (a famous and much-frequented hotel) as a focal point in modern times.

It is fascinating to learn about the mix of cultures that led to Istanbul—and, indeed, to Turkey. The Greeks and Jews were an intrinsic part, right up until the end. There were purges and seizing of family wealth, with strong parallels to the overthrow of the Tsars in Russia. The ties went deeper after the revolution, when Trotzky lived there for years, in exile.

It’s the crossroads of Europe and Asia, providing rail access to Russia, hosting one of the terminuses of the Orient Express. The history covers the rise of Ataturk as well a slew of activists and contributors to Turkey’s rich, political history. As a neutral country during WWII, it hosted secret-service agencies from all countries, offering a sort of hallowed ground where they could meet, if need be.

Turkey joined WWII even later than the U.S. and had a complicated relationship to the Axis and Allied nations, especially as related to getting European refugees of all kinds out of Axis-occupied nations. Their neutrality looked like appeasement. The bureaucracy was maddening. Whereas tens of thousands of people made it through to Israel and the Middle East, just as many were rejected and sent back where they’d come from, into the teeth of the Nazi machine.

After that, Ararat’s secularist state was increasingly muslimized, with Jews and other denominations (e.g. Greek Orthodox) being increasingly culled. It’s a difficult history, though nothing to be especially ashamed of, as compared to other, actually colonial, fascist or imperial nations. It’s hard to summarize the whole book, so I leave you with the following, from near the end (I’ve included a longer version of the citation below):

“National history asks that we take the impossibly large variety of human experience, stacked up like a deck of playing cards, and pull out only the national one—the rare moments in time when people raise a flag and misremember a collective past—as the most worthy of our attention.”
Page 374


“The antidote to hüzün was what the Turks called keyif: a sense of joyful abandon, of singing to avoid crying, the willful summoning of mirth as an answer to horror.”
Page 5
“The dynasty of the House of Osman, which had governed an empire”
Page 87
“The sultan had abandoned Istanbul and the empire. A few days later, the Grand National Assembly named the crown prince, Mehmed’s cousin Abdülmecid, as caliph but without the additional title of sultan. The roles of universal Islamic leader and imperial ruler were now separated for the first time in centuries. The dynasty of the House of Osman, which had governed an empire for more than six hundred years and had commanded Istanbul for four hundred sixty-nine, was no more. The sultan himself had become a refugee.”
Page 87
“The streets were full of people of all nationalities wearing all manner of clothes, often some mixture of military uniforms and civilian attire. The refugees—Russians, Georgians, Azerbaijanis, Ukrainians, and others—had blown into Istanbul carrying remnants of past lives and disappeared nations.”
Page 99
“There was nothing necessarily dishonest in their dealings, at least at the level of individual transactions, but they rested on a massive transfer of wealth whose origins lay in the republic’s preference for national purity over the old cosmopolitanism of the imperial capital.”
Page 130
“The club’s proprietor was an unlikely impresario. Frederick Bruce Thomas was the son of former Mississippi slaves. He had joined countless other black men from the southern United States who sought jobs and fortunes in Chicago and New York, waiting tables or working as valets. A sense of adventure and a desire to escape the everyday racism of Gilded Age America took him to London, Paris, and then, in 1899, to a place very few African Americans had dreamed of visiting: the Russian Empire. Within a few years, he had taken Russian citizenship, found a Russian wife, and—as Fyodor Fyodorovich Tomas—set himself up as one of the premier maître d’s in Moscow.”
Page 138
“Jazz depends on improvisation, which is why it has been described as not just a musical form but an ethical system. It demands that a player really listen to his comrades, with the bravery to step forward when he has something to say and the self-possession to know when he has said enough. It requires virtuosity but also humility.”
Page 166

Programming as jazz?

“Like many revolutionaries, the Kemalists had started out as reformers, seeking to save the sultanate from invaders and occupiers, until it became clear that the old system was beyond repair. But in most other ways, this was a revolution of an unusual type. The Turks legislated their monarch out of existence without ever marching on a royal palace. They conquered no territory but their own. They embraced the idea of a parliamentary republic but just as quickly enveloped their supreme leader in a cult of personality that exceeded that of the Ottoman sultans.”
Page 181
“Rights, Halide believed, were there for the recognizing. They were not granted or bestowed so much as finally accepted and acknowledged […]”
Page 216
“Russia and Turkey had been strategic rivals for centuries, and this long history was difficult to overcome, especially in an era in which Soviets and Turks were both beginning to see themselves as contrasting models of modernity for oppressed peoples everywhere—one based on a proletarian revolution, the other based on a national one. In the contest between rival ideals, the Turks preferred the version that allowed them to build a nation of their own, not one that preached the end of nations altogether.”
Page 225
“Nâzım was tried and sentenced to thirty-five years in prison. Unlike his previous sentences, however, this one more or less stuck. He spent the next twelve years incarcerated as a threat to the Turkish state, a rejecter of Kemalism, and a traitorous admirer of the Soviet Union, which had gone from being an early ally of Turkey to a regional rival in the run-up to the Second World War. He was released in 1950 in a general amnesty of political prisoners and only then after a sustained international campaign supported by Pablo Picasso, Jean-Paul Sartre, and other European intellectuals.”
Page 230
“Trotsky had been exiled twice before, to Siberia and the Russian North, during his period as an underground revolutionary in the tsarist era, and he was used to the concept of starting a new life as an émigré. The two earlier periods of exile had given way to triumph: the 1905 Russian revolution that forced the tsar to create a Russian parliament and the October 1917 revolution that elevated the Bolsheviks to power. He had no desire to stay in a country where he could not speak the local language, he told Turkish journalists, and he hoped that soon a visa would come through for Germany, Britain, or France. There, he would be able to continue his political work on behalf of international socialism while also railing against the usurper Stalin.”
Page 236
“[…] the Byzantines consistently called anyone living outside their capital city “hoi ex Roms,” foreigners from beyond New Rome, that is, Istanbul. They usually referred to their metropolis as simply “the city,” much as New Yorkers speak of Manhattan. That habit probably gave us the modern name, since the Greek eis tn polin—“to the city”—is tantalizingly similar to “Istanbul.” To this day, ethnic Greeks native to Istanbul are referred to in Turkish as something akin to “Romans,” or Rumlar, an echo of the name Byzantines gave themselves.”
Page 274
“Atatürk was very much in the mold of other twentieth-century dictators. He ground down political opposition and held firm to the belief that state planning could realize the true interests of the nation, without ever feeling the need to ask the nation what its interests happened to be. Yet, unlike a Mussolini or a Franco, he knew where to draw the line. He was one of the few supreme leaders of the era to develop a cult of personality that staved off its own inevitable decay.”
Page 292
“As with all clandestine services, however, the line between neutralizing a real danger and manufacturing one precisely so that it could be neutralized was always somewhat hazy. Intelligence work could be a closed circle. Sometimes the evidence that a threat existed was no more than the fact that some security operative had decided to report that it did. It was a way of thinking about security, politics, and foreign intrigue that was built into the basic structure of the republic and its police apparatus.”
Page 305
“But X-2 soon set about systematically contacting Americans, many of them working at Robert College, the brother institution to the American College for Girls and a Protestant missionary school that had become one of the country’s best educational centers.”
Page 309
“Americans seemed especially willing to believe that “any attractive girl who shed a few tears and told him how much she hated the Germans was genuinely anti-Nazi.””
Page 311
“The next day, he boarded a plane for Miami. After a week cooling his heels waiting for a US Army transport plane for Turkey, he found a berth. At the end of January, the C-54 took off with a group of young officers bound for India and one middle-aged civilian hitching a ride. After five days en route, via air hops to Puerto Rico, Brazil, Ghana, and Egypt, several days in Jerusalem, and a twenty-eight-hour train ride across the Taurus Mountains and half of Anatolia, Hirschmann at last arrived in Ankara on Valentine’s Day, 1944.”
Page 327
“The reason is that the largest tax assessments were handed out to Greeks, Armenians, and Jews. “This law is also a law of revolution,” said Prime Minister Saracolu at the time. “We will in this way eliminate the foreigners who control our market and give the Turkish market to the Turks.” Families and minority businesses found it impossible to meet the requirements. According to a secret report by the OSS, the tax assessments for Armenian property owners amounted to 232 percent of their property’s real value, 179 percent for Jews, and 156 percent for Greeks, while Muslims were assessed at just under 5 percent.”
Page 333
“In the summer of 1938, the Turkish government had officially barred the door to Jews coming from countries with antisemitic laws. Ankara may have believed that these people, even though the neediest, were also the most likely to stay in Turkey.”
Page 338

I’m almost speechless.

“Modern European history has two dominant modes, the national and the elegiac. Both are, in their way, fictions. National history asks that we take the impossibly large variety of human experience, stacked up like a deck of playing cards, and pull out only the national one—the rare moments in time when people raise a flag and misremember a collective past—as the most worthy of our attention. The elegiac asks that we end every story by fading to black, leaving off at a point when an old world is lost, with a set of ellipses pointing back toward what once had been.”
Page 374
“When the sky is bruise-blue and cold, crowds of gulls and pigeons still bounce along the shoreline. Sparkle-headed grackles and magpies strut deliberately beneath the dormant oleander. Snow-covered Judas trees share the coastal hills with evergreen cypresses. On blustery mornings, the Sea of Marmara is a dull sapphire, with leaden domes and gilded spires muted on the shore, everything radiating a cool blue light once the early mist burns away.”
Page 376
“Talât, a Muslim villager, broke and unmarried and just arrived that day from Giresun, his hometown on the Black Sea, has come up from the docklands, perhaps looking for work. In an apartment nearby, a Muslim musician, the son of Balkan immigrants, is practicing his contrabass. And around the corner, on the street named for the little vine-covered mosque, someone the neighbors call Shalom, Mordecai’s son, has come out for an evening walk.”
Page 378