Semester at Sea Fall 2006 Voyagebanner


Performing for the West

Jessica Von Wendel 

          I walk through the modern city of Istanbul, Turkey, and as I wait at the crosswalk I realize its symbolic nature.  Istanbul is a crosswalk connecting East and West, and Turkey is waiting for that light to change in order to take that step and cross safely into the European fold.  In Yael Navaro-Yasin’s article “The Historical Construction of Local Culture: Gender and Identity in the Politics of Secularism versus Islam” she discusses contemporary struggles over Turkish identity.

tI pass under a beautiful stone archway, a remnant of Istanbul’s historic past, and I enter the Grand Bazaar which is an indoor city of shops.  I watch the merchants who sit outside their tiny stores drinking small glasses of tea while chatting with their neighbors.  I take this as an iconic image of Turkey.  Navaro-Yasin describes that “what the nativist ethnographer identifies as local or native might only be the effect of a (nationalist and/or revivalist) discourse that disciplines certain ‘truths’ about local culture and nativity and rejects others perhaps as deeply rooted as ‘authentic.’”  The way these merchants sat and drank their tea while trying to sell sample packs of the same tea to tourists raised the question of the merchants' true identity versus what may be a performative cultural show used to increase sales.

I talked with a shop owner from New York who retired in Istanbul and set up her own store to sell her handmade crafts.  She was the only female merchant I saw in the entire bazaar.  She explained that the men sitting outside of the shops work for commission and that the actual owner of the store is rarely, if ever, present.  Could tea consumption, that everyday iconic symbol of Turkey, be merely a selling strategy?  This Turkish commission system was similar to the Kahn al-Kalili market in Cairo, Egypt, and I found many of these performative techniques of the Turkish market to be similar.  Navaro-Yasin claims that “Consciously or unconsciously assumed identities are lived and felt as if they are real and authentic.”  Could this tapply to the Istanbul merchants?  In addition to the local tea culture set on display, I felt as if I was back in Egypt when the male merchants began their flirtatious cat-calling.  This raised the same question I asked in Egypt:  Is flirtation used strictly as a selling technique or as a local mode of personal entertainment? With all the free time on their hands these merchants may sit and chat over multiple glasses of tea and have fun coming up with the cheesiest ways to endear customers into their shops.  One yelled, “I’ve seen you before!”  I replied “No you haven’t,” and he yelled back “In my dreams!”  I kept walking.  One man casually sitting asked “could I hustle, opps, I mean help you.” 

To enter the European Union, Turkey itself is obliged to perform to European standards and the country's identity is of two minds caught on that crosswalk between East and West.  Even on the smaller scale, the local merchant is a local with native culture and customs, but he too must perform for the tourist in order to sell a product.  Trying to distinguish between true culture and performance is just one of the challenges we face in this globalizing world.

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