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Imagining the Turkish House

Imagining the Turkish House
Collective Visions of Home

An engaging discussion of how the concept of home inhabits the Turkish memory and imagination, becoming a muse that shapes personal and national identities.

August 2008
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360 pages | 6 x 9 | 81 halftones |

"Houses can become poetic expressions of longing for a lost past, voices of a lived present, and dreams of an ideal future." Carel Bertram discovered this truth when she went to Turkey in the 1990s and began asking people about their memories of "the Turkish house." The fondness and nostalgia with which people recalled the distinctive wooden houses that were once ubiquitous throughout the Ottoman Empire made her realize that "the Turkish house" carries rich symbolic meaning. In this delightfully readable book, Bertram considers representations of the Turkish house in literature, art, and architecture to understand why the idea of the house has become such a potent signifier of Turkish identity.

Bertram's exploration of the Turkish house shows how this feature of Ottoman culture took on symbolic meaning in the Turkish imagination as Turkey became more Westernized and secular in the early decades of the twentieth century. She shows how artists, writers, and architects all drew on the memory of the Turkish house as a space where changing notions of spirituality, modernity, and identity—as well as the social roles of women and the family—could be approached, contested, revised, or embraced during this period of tumultuous change.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction. Welcome to the House
  • Chapter 1. Bringing the Turkish House into Focus
  • Chapter 2. The House Takes on the Weight of Historical Consciousness
  • Chapter 3. How Fiction Positioned the Turkish House on a Memory Chain of Values
  • Chapter 4. How Literature Is Spiritual Space, and How the Heart Is Superior to the Mind
  • Chapter 5. The New Turkish Landscape and the Desire to Remember
  • The Cast of Characters
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Carel Bertram is Associate Professor in the Department of Humanities and a faculty member in Middle East and Islamic Studies at San Francisco State University.


There is a distinctive type of house that once was found wherever the Ottomans lived. From the seventeenth century up until the first days of the twentieth century, when regions like Bulgaria, Greece, Bosnia, and Turkey were claiming a private title to their own part of this once great empire, timber-framed houses with protruding upper stories characterized a wide landscape, giving it a distinctive Ottoman stamp. Although these houses shared a common style, this book is not about their architectural vocabulary but about the way this type of house came to be imagined poetically at a turning point in Turkish history, and about the people who created and understood its poetic impact. At a higher level, this book addresses the powerful way in which the concept of home inhabits our memory and our imagination, and in so doing how it becomes a muse that can shape our personal and shared identities.


The project for this book began when I was a Fulbright Scholar in Turkey in 1993, investigating, as an Islamic art historian, the architecture of what by then was known as "the Turkish house." People were forever asking what a foreigner like me was doing in Turkey, and my simple answer was that I had come to do research on the Turkish house. What I found, to my surprise, was that I had only to utter those three words to have my interlocutors' faces become positively beatific. In fact, I came to expect a glow, as they repeated the words with a reverent love: "the Turkish house. . . ." After the glow, and a pause, would come stories about a specific house they knew, or one they had missed knowing: their grandfather's house, their great-grandfather's house, their uncle's house that had been torn down or that was in a village they had not visited, or they had visited it, and how they wished to live in one.


During that Fulbright year I began to collect those stories until I finally realized that my research question, which once asked why and how the architecture of this house changed over time, itself changed: How did this house come to evoke such strong emotions and memories of the past in the Turkish imagination? And what exactly do these emotions and memories express?


In Turkey, representations of the Ottoman house, with its recognizable profile, began to take on this larger-than-life power at a crucial time of transition: between the beginning of the early twentieth century and the late 1930s, as a young Turkey struggled to release itself from its Ottoman past and take its place in the world family of nations. With the establishment of the state of Turkey in 1923, this transition took on an increasingly Westernizing trajectory: not only was the Ottoman political system of the sultan and his realm replaced by that of a Turkish republic and its citizens, but language, literature, music, script, dress, codes of behavior, and almost every other area of cultural production were regulated and revised in such a way that the Ottoman past was defamed or erased.


Yet as these former Ottoman citizens became Turkish citizens, these men, women, and children, these imams and schoolteachers, these bureaucrats, shopkeepers, and housewives brought images and memories of an Ottoman house with them, and as they reconceptualized themselves as Turkish, they reconceptualized this house, making it Turkish, too.


In Imagining the Turkish House, then, you will meet these people, especially the Ottoman citizens who became Turkish ones, and see how their values, their uncertainties, their spiritual longings, and their political strategies contributed to transforming the old Ottoman house into a Turkish emotive image, and how it became lodged in the Turkish imagination. You will meet Naim Efendi, the Ottoman patriarch who, as a character in the novel Mansion for Rent (Kiralık Konak, 1922), wrestles with a new Turkish world. In his old wooden house, he picks up a novel left by his son-in-law, but he cannot read it. It is in a new script, with a new vocabulary; even the genre of the novel itself is new. The educated Naim Efendi had never read a novel in his life! You will meet another old man, too, connected emotionally to another old wooden house, but he is a character in a 1996 cartoon. This old man has located his childhood house in a run-down neighborhood in Istanbul and, while looking at it, imagines that all the refinements of a lost Ottoman era are still alive inside. I will also introduce you to Hodja (teacher) Ali Rıza Bey, the Ottoman painter who, by the beginning of the twentieth century, had already captured many Ottoman houses on canvas, and who conveyed his love for them to his many students.


You will also encounter Arif Hikmet Koyunoğlu, one of the architects who hoped that the Turkish house would become an inspiration for a new national architecture. In 1928, he designed and finished at his own expense a model Turkish room in the Turkish Hearth Association Building in the new capital of Ankara. And do not forget the hostess named Ay Hanım Efendi, famous for her weekly evenings of tea and conversation and very proud of the "Turkish room" that she designed in her 1931-modern apartment.


Except for our cartoon character, all of these people are the cohort who lived in or came to life during this important period when modern Turkey struggled to come into being and its former Ottoman citizens were coming to terms with a cataclysmic rupture with their past. It is this cohort that helped to redefine the Ottoman house as Turkish and to invest it with a very specific aspect of Turkish identity. This identity was not without its raw edges and contradictions, and I trace these too. Yet the durability of the emotional meanings that they helped assign to this house can be seen when its image is examined at the end of the twentieth century, for example, in the thoughts of our cartoon character, or in the idyllic drawing of Turkish houses by a 1990 middle school girl in Istanbul who, when asked to draw a perfect future, drew a landscape of houses from the Ottoman past.


The primacy of the old Ottoman house as a space of meaning in the Turkish collective imagination is especially interesting because hardly a Turkish house remains in Turkey today, and their position on the Turkish landscape was already waning by the end of the nineteenth century. These wooden houses that once covered Istanbul, Anatolia, and the Balkans were ravaged by serial fires and replaced by serial rebuildings until the turn of the twentieth century, when they were no longer suited to the new demographics, economics, and lifestyle needs of a growing and modernizing nation. Thus, what we today call the Turkish house is actually a house that characterized Ottoman urban space but did not survive as a viable built form into the Turkish republican period. At some time around the turn of the twentieth century they stopped being built forever, so that our real and fictional protagonists never knew them in their original state. Imagining the Turkish House, then, investigates how this Ottoman house took on a second life, and how it still lives on as a visual and textual memory image that does serious cultural work.


Aristotle, and many philosophers following him, believed that memory was always stored in images. Theorists like Richard Terdiman, paralleling Aristotle to some degree, consider memory almost coincident with images or representation, suggesting, in fact, that memory cannot exist without its representation. Following these ideas, I suggest that representations of the Turkish house as they are found in art, in descriptions, or in literary evocations came to function as symbols for ideas related to the past, such as spirituality, or as surrogates, such as when the image of the Turkish house became a code for an Ottoman life-world that could only be thought of in secret, a situation we encounter in Chapters 3 and 4. Terdiman suggests that a representation might even, following Jean Baudrillard, be a "simulacrum," an exact copy of something that never existed. An example of this might be the construction of a replica Turkish house as a museum or even a small hotel, combining idealized forms and furnishings from various periods or places.


What I show in Imagining the Turkish House is just how and when—and why—these symbols, surrogates, and simulacra were created, and how they took on meaning for a large cohort of people. In fact, the idea of memory that I am discussing and the type of memory that I am uncovering here is never an individual's memory at all but an example of what is called collective memory, as Halbwachs would have thought it, and this is a major theoretical underpinning of my work.


Maurice Halbwachs (1877-1945), a student of Emile Durkheim, who theorized the idea of social thought in The Rules of Sociological Method (1895), went on to theorize memory itself as "social historical thinking." This is a type of memory that exists independently from individual, autobiographical thoughts or memories, and it was he who first called this nonautobiographical thought collective memory. It is social because it is shared by a group in a specific group context; it is historical because it comprises shared notions about the past. It is collective memory, then, because it is composed of loosely focused thoughts (rather than remembered experiences) that are accumulated and combined into an overlapping set of ideas about the past.


But if this memory is not individual and autobiographical, where does it come from? It comes from group-owned ideas about the past that are shared in myths, stories, images, rituals, and traditions, all of which have their own ways of representing group history. The representations stored in collective memory may be topically specific, for example, a Jewish collective memory of the Exodus from Egypt, or a second- or third-generation Palestinian's memory of exile, but they are always generalized or generic, and in no case are they memories of events that have been experienced directly. Those memories would be part of a different genre entirely. (A collective imagination is a similar notion, and I use that term as well, although it often refers to image-based thoughts rather than event-based ones.)


Imagining the Turkish House shows how the concept of the Ottoman (and then Turkish) house became a collectively held memory about the Ottoman past. It could not be autobiographical memory because, by the time of our period of study, although old houses were still visible and even inhabited, the lifestyle of that house had disappeared. (In the United States today, people who live in old Victorian houses, for example, are not Victorians.) For the citizens of the emerging Turkish Republic, then, a meaning for the old Ottoman house could only be imagined through representations of it.


It is these representations that I investigate, as they entered the collective imagination, becoming the places where the past was collectively remembered, and took on the ability to trigger, rehearse, repeat, contest, or change important ideas about the Turkish self. In fact, it is because images in the mind change over time that they can be historicized: memory images emerge and transform, and sometimes disappear. For this reason, we can use images and representations to talk about "the history of memory." On occasion I refer to this group of images, ideas, and representations as the Turkish imaginary.


By focusing on collective memory as an interpretation of the past in the present, a second theory is also implicit in this work, one that has variously been called reception theory or reader-response theory—or, by logical extension, viewer-response theory. Here, when studying a text or an artistic piece, a building or an artifact, the emphasis is shifted from what the author intended, or even from the author's discourse or experience, to what the reader or viewer (that is, the audience) might have understood or misunderstood, and especially to what the reader might have felt, and thus to the ideas and feelings created in their minds in response. In reception theory, "the meaning of a text is literally created in the act of its being read."


In Imagining the Turkish House, I read a variety of "texts" both chronologically—that is, as they entered the social arena over time—and in combination, accumulation and association—that is, with the hope of entering the larger imaginative world of the citizens of this era as they created a collective idea. In Chapter 1 I refer to this constructed and accumulated meaning as "the mysterious plus." I hope to convince you that this focus on the point of view of the reader, in his or her social-historical context, allows us to recapture new meanings as they became a part of historical consciousness.


When I follow the reader into the world of memory, I am not alone. Today, literary studies have begun to embrace the interplay of memory and place. At the top of this list is the work done on Diaspora studies, and the prime example is how literary expressions and metaphors have connected Palestinian self-conceptions to an internalization of spaces of loss and longing. There are also the "literary memory spaces" of South Asian memoirs and Greek novels investigated in Eleni Bastea's Memory and Architecture. In the realm of "historical memory," Turkish and Ottoman studies have contributed as well, for example, Ahmet Evin's work on the literary and aesthetic history of the Ottoman and Turkish novel, Emel Sönmez's study of women in nineteenth-century Turkish novels, and Jale Parla's use of novels to investigate the ambivalent feelings about the role of the patriarch/father and changing domestic visions at the close of the Ottoman Empire. (I refer to many of these types of works in subsequent chapters.)


Literature, one might say, is the obvious container and shaper of memory. Renate Lachmann's comprehensive review of literary theorists and her close readings of Russian texts suggest how "literature supplies the memory for a culture and records such a memory. It is itself an act of memory." Lachmann's readings also show the importance of reading intertextually, which is simply reading texts in relation to other texts.


Yet much of the work that relates specifically to the house (and household) in Turkey has not been in the field of literary studies but has been guided by the disciplines of sociology or art and architectural history. Alan Duben's and Cem Behar's studies of the sociological construction of the Ottoman Turkish family counter stereotypes of extended families and multiple wives, Deniz Kandioti's work shows how the real—and the iconic—roles of fathers, sons, and daughters related to ideas of modernity at the time of the new republic, and Fatma Müge Göçek's work on Turkish nationalism widens our understanding of what nationalism means and meant for various groups.


The earliest works on the Turkish house itself are specifically architectural, especially the monumental and pivotal studies done by the architect and historian Sedad Hakkı Eldem, who documented and typologized them. There are also many newer works, every one of them indebted to Eldem, as well as the publications of the Turkish Association for the Preservation of Historical Houses.


Sibel Bozdoğan's work on Turkish architectural culture, however, is one that crosses disciplines, and in some ways it is the closest work to my own, yet she stands at the other end of the spectrum of research interests and strategies. In Modernism and Nation Building: Turkish Architectural Culture in the Early Republic, Bozdoğan addresses, with depth and sensitivity, the complex and interwoven architectural culture of the new Turkish Republic, including its antecedents, by investigating the work, worldviews, discourses, and political philosophies of the architects, city planners, teachers, and nationalists who were working to define it. Unlike a traditional architectural historian, who might focus on form and style, Bozdoğan searches for the ideologies and utopias that informed the real—or hoped-for—built environment during what she refers to as "the long 1930s." But how what was built, and especially what was lost, might have taken on emotive power in the general urban population is not the thrust of her project. Although both her work and mine are concerned with the history of thought, my inquiry sources and inquiry questions hope to open a different door, one that exposes different historical knowledge and different historical meanings: ones that refer to the lived emotions of this period. That is, I give this period and these sources a poetic reading.


Whatever could this mean?


If we read our sources as if they were poetry, we read them quite differently than if we are looking for their literal meanings or even their distinct social purposes. We read a poem for abstract ideas, symbolic significances, and especially for our emotional reactions to what is described or evoked. With the introduction of the idea of a poetic reading of my sources, I also suggest that the places, novels, images, and popular texts that contain references to—or representations of—the old Ottoman house can be read poetically, and furthermore that they must be read as a poetic combination, as something larger: as a poetry that holds human meanings that can only be understood from their association with one another—a poetic reading of the mysterious plus.


My methodology, then, has been to search for representations of the old wooden house as they enter into the Turkish imaginary, there to evolve as part of a collective repertoire of images, and to read or see them as the contemporary viewer might have done, with his or her social knowledge and understanding of a related world of emotionally heavy symbols. I rely particularly on novels, which with their conscious verbal depictions of places are a perfect site of collective memory. It was in these literary renderings and artistic depictions, as well as in the political rhetoric and even the built environment—namely, in the space of the imagined and imaged—that I discovered just how—and to what depth—houses can became poetic expressions of longing for a lost past, voices of a lived present, and dreams of an ideal future. It is in a poetic reading that the Turkish imaginary becomes a Turkish symbolic universe.


My interest, then, is not in the specific architectures of the house or in the house as a built fact, and my work is not a traditional, art historical analysis of buildings, their style, their patrons, their architects, or even the social and historical forces or discourses that brought them into being. Rather, I consider the house as a poetic abstraction, with the particular validity that only poetic abstractions can have, and the meaning of which can only be fully realized in this larger poem. Thus, the subject here is the emergence and transformation of this abstract poetic image—the imaged and imagined Turkish house—and the imagining minds that gave it meaning at a critical moment of social change, when the Ottoman centuries were slipping away.


The Chronology of This Book


I begin this poetic reading by asking how and when the Ottoman house first became a representation. Throughout the Ottoman period this house was not idealized, and it had no architectural name or studies done about it. For those who lived in them, they were just a place to hang your fez. In Chapter 1, we see that the Ottoman house was first "pictured" as a stage prop in the Turkish shadow theater productions of the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries. This stage prop established a visual image that would be repeated over time, with particular emphasis on the cantilevered upper floor. By capturing a real feature of a widely recognizable architectural type, the stage prop established a generic image that could easily be disseminated with a larger meaning. In Chapter 1, I argue that the meaning that this first image carried was that of the life-world of a timeless Ottoman neighborhood.


In Chapter 2, I show how the Ottoman house began to lose this association with time immemorial and took on a clear association with a past that was over. This change occurred in the period when the Turkish Republic was being envisioned, and significantly, this is when the Ottoman house began to be called "Turkish," making it available as a player in the creation of a new Turkish self. It is in this transitional period that the beloved Hodja Ali Riza Bey began to record the national heritage in pen and watercolors, images that might well have been illustrations for the political rhetoric of Hamdullah Suphi, who, as president of the Turkish Hearth Association, was defining and promoting a Turkish national consciousness.


We meet Hamudulla Suphi as he is describing a coffee ceremony inside "an old Turkish house" as a way to evoke a shared past that was authentically local. Hamdullah Suphi is an important character in our cohort of transition and one who epitomizes the complexity of the period. For example, with his nationalist valorization of Westernization and secularism, Hamdullah Suphi actively supported equality for women. In 1921, he was forced to resign as minister of education because he had supported a co-ed teachers' conference. But the idea of the equality of all Turks was also one that would erase very real ethnic, confessional, and regional differences. The image of the Turkish house thus began its history as a lieu de mémoire, a site of memory that bound all Turks together by a common memorial heritage in spite of demographic data to the contrary and in spite of the complexity of what constitutes a real Turkish heritage.


In Chapter 2, we reevaluate Koyunoğlu's museumized room, Rıza Bey's nostalgic paintings, and Suphi's "house of shared origins" as places that were also valorized as intrinsically modern. In the early republican period, for example, the house was being discussed in the vocabulary of Le Corbusier—that is, as both hygienic and light. With such intrinsically avant-garde design characteristics, it could then be imagined to have housed a Turkish self that was modern at its core. This was a memory that privileged the house for the way that it looked: an exteriorized house, a house that deferred to an Orientalist-Westernist authority that was defining Turkish identity from the outside.


But in Chapter 2, we find another concept of the house that contested this view. This is the image of the house as it was understood affectively, in which the Turkish self was presented from a spiritual, emotional, and psychological viewpoint. This image self-consciously represents the Turkish house at its most authentic, that is, from the inside. But this image of the house often existed secretly or in code, as it represented an attachment to a way of life that was strongly sanctioned by a secular, republican Turkey. Imagining the Turkish House investigates this interiorized space as it makes its appearance in contemporary novels that take place inside the old, wooden Ottoman house. At all levels of Ottoman society, the house had embedded within it an important element of privacy, but the novel invites us to enter, and even allows us to enter the most protected of its interior spaces, the emotional life of the people inside.


In Chapter 3 we meet Naim Efendi, of Mansion for Rent (Kiralık Konak), and find out why he had never read a novel in his life: the novel had only recently arrived in the Ottoman Empire, just as that world was about to end. In this chapter we look at these pre- and early republican novels and the people in them to see just how the Turkish house became a major marker of the past. But because these novels were set in the early republican present, at the time of transition and rupture, it also became the place for the characters and the reader to work out feelings about what was fading away—to hold on to important values and to mourn the loss of others, or to let them go with relief. We see this with a young married couple in the story Harem (1918) who use an image of the old Turkish house to help them define who they are in their new apartment. (All of these important players, fictional and real, are listed by their dates at the end of this book.)


Chapter 4 moves to the novels of the 1930s, a time when Westernization of the Turkish Republic was at its most strident. By this time, the concept of Westernization was firmly associated with progress and materiality. But for many, the issue was how to maintain what had come to represent its opposite: something that was at once Eastern, authentic, spiritual, and Turkish. I show how novels of this period confronted these issues from inside the old Turkish house. For example, what is Neriman, a seventeen-year-old woman, to do when she first sees the café life of the most Westernized neighborhood of Istanbul? And how does her father react when he understands that when she boards the tram to go there, it could be a one-way trip? How they confront and negotiate this situation may surprise the reader, but it is clear that the old Turkish house, where their conversations take place, is a protagonist in their story.


I believe that the elements of these Turkish house novels and stories—the narrative, the characters, the plot, the poetic imagery, and the emotions these conjure up in the reader—become players in the Turkish collective memory. But because these stories take place in a time when the real Ottoman house is obsolete, the memories inside them are of a past that was not experienced directly by the reader. The stories are in no way autobiographical; rather, they are incipient players, just as Halbwachs suggests, in the construction of a collective memory of the past. They are in no way autobiographical, and yet, because they describe contemporary emotional truths, they ring true. It is this sense of a "felt real" that made these novels important at the time as well as important historically, for in them the image of the Turkish house became the sign of continuity, which is essential if one is to identify with one's origins.


While the Turkish collective memory was developing inside the historical novel, real architecture was being designed for the new Turkey. In order to contextualize contemporary images of the Turkish house, we meet Turkey's most famous architect, Sedad Hakkı Eldem, who might have restored or revived the Turkish house on the ground, although his project was actually to revive some of its parts for a new, historically referent architecture. If this had happened, the real architecture of the 1930s and early 1940s might have had a different place on the trajectory of memory about the Turkish house. But it did not happen. Yet at this time, Eldem began to clarify how the Turkish house operated as an architectural typology: how its cantilevers captured breezes and vistas and how its elements were modular. This work inaugurated a period of intense memory collection that would be seen in the encyclopedias of the 1940s through the coffee-table books of the later twentieth century. We can credit Eldem with disseminating the idea that to catalogue Turkey's urban past is to catalogue its wooden houses. In Chapter 5, then, we return to the built house as it becomes an object of study that will lead to the simulacra of the museumized house or of a themed, gated community, as well as to an interest in historical preservation.


Chapter 5 also brings the reader closer to the present with a continued look at how the house survives as a literary image. Mid-twentieth-century authors were still writing from inside the old house, but there was a shift in interest: characters began to replace questions about who they were with questions about what they had become. The long string of memory images now approached the present through the stories, cartoons, and other representations that struggled to remember and preserve meaning for the Turkish house, delaying or softening its slip into nostalgia.


Imagining the Turkish House, then, has three main thrusts. The first is to participate with you, the reader, in the drastically new life-world that citizens of the new Turkish Republic experienced as they crossed into it from the older Ottoman Empire. This explains my interest in accessing an aspect of the early twentieth century as a Turkish citizen might have known it, but at the same time in presenting human emotions that would have resonated in the reader's life-world. The second is, by using ideas of collective memory and reception theory, to introduce a theoretical understanding of the interaction between memory and representations, and also to show how a methodology that reads the images and poetic texts that the citizens would have known helps us approach and understand their world. The third step is to tie these two together to show that the mental image of the Turkish house as a poetic image was an important, even strategic player in this transitional period, becoming a bridge that brought the old into the new at a time when there was pressure to forget the old altogether.


As Walter Benjamin reminds us, "every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably." Clearly, the image of the Turkish house continues to "flash up" in the present because it provides a space of legitimacy for the present's concerns. This is corroborated by images of the Turkish house that stand for a nonautobiographical past while exhibiting surprising contemporary and autobiographical components. Thus, I suggest that there is a crossover between collective memory and individual meaning, for what a collectivity brings to the present as memory arrives there to serve something that is still experienced, felt, or valued by individuals. Investigating the private aspect of memory enriches our understanding of the meaning of historical consciousness, how it operates, and what it serves in the present and augers for the future.


Memory, as William James said, is "the association of a present image with others known to belong to the past." But the Turkish house is also an image that creates the future, an image of expectation, which according to James "is the association of a present image with others known to belong to the future." This, as James saw, is the other side of memory. Perhaps more than any other image in the Turkish imaginary, the Turkish house as Naim Bey or Neriman or Hamdullah Suphi knew it still stands at this crossroads, between memory and hope.



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