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Stupas, Minarets, and Transnational Spaces

A Comparative Essay on Yangon and Istanbul

By Ryan Bahry

Walking down the streets of Yangon, I experienced a wide variety of sights, sounds, and sensations.  The air is heavy, the humidity hangs over the bustling city with a thickness that sticks to your skin, yet the locals seem relatively unbothered.  The marketplaces and stands that line the streets have a smell that is unparalleled, a mix of the heat and dirt and meats cooking and fresh flowers all blended together.  As I walked throughout the city, I had a difficult time pushing my way through the heavy crowds of young children, their faces painted with limestone to protect from the sun.  The highways are busy with cars, buses, and taxis, and groups of monks stand around in their traditional garb, seemingly observing the urban bustle with their calm gazes.  One month later, I am standing in the middle of Istanbul, halfway across the world from Myanmar.  The air is chilly, the roads are paved, and the small groups of children pay me no mind when I encounter them.  The marketplaces have a distinct smell, as the bold scent of the spices fills the air. 

Although the cities of Yangon and Istanbul are half a world apart from one another, and at least on the surface appear to be in completely different worlds themselves, the cities provide an amazing comparative case study of urban centers in Southeast Asia and the Mediterranean Sea.  Despite many contrasts that exist between the extremely modernized Istanbul and the rugged streets of Yangon, there are also a number of comparisons that can be drawn between these two urban centers.  As I have witnessed throughout all of the countries we have visited on this voyage, there exists both a transnational and vernacular dimension to both cities, and the intriguing comparison that can be drawn regarding the transnational modernization attempts in these cities (as well as how those attempts have differed), the importance of religion in the local culture, and how the vernacular culture has been exploited for tourists and outsiders makes the study of Yangon and Istanbul an illustration of the theme of transnational space and culture preservation.

Here is the link to my global cities research on Yangon and Istanbul on which this comparative discussion is based:

Myanmar: Buddha and Billboards
Turkey: Minarets and Mobile Phones

    One of the most striking comparisons that can be drawn between these two cities, seemingly so different from one another, is the way that attempts have been made to modernize and become increasingly transnational.  The country of Myanmar, under the rule of the military regime, has made efforts to create an atmosphere that silences the true feelings of the citizens regarding the state of the country.  The city of Yangon, in my opinion, is an example of the way the ruling regime has been able to mask the discontent that is truly rampant amongst the Burmese people.  Large efforts have been made to modernize the city, developing certain green spaces and parks while closing others that have particular significance to the local people, introducing modern shopping and electronic ware, and constructing large, modern buildings such as the Trader’s Hotel and the Sakura Tower.  These advancements have been made throughout the city, and almost successfully cover up the reality of the Burmese situation to outsiders and visitors to the city.  It is easy to wander through Yangon and be impressed with the fact that there has been considerable modernization—one can stay in lavish hotel rooms and sip martinis at the top of the elite business tower.  However, the modernization and development would seem to be only surface deep, as the Burmese people remain unhappy under the oppressive regime, work hard in the dirt streets selling various products, and living in substandard housing units.  In Maura Stephen’s article, “The Heart of Burma,” she discusses the horrific injustices that occur in Burma at the hands of the military regime.  She includes a powerful quote from a Burmese man who had witnessed children in labor camps—“life is not a struggle but a hell.”

    The city of Istanbul is a crucial example of the modernization efforts in Turkey that were set in motion in the 1920s by Kemal Mustafa Ataturk.  Under Ataturk, the country began placing an emphasis on modernization and secularization, and the city of Istanbul clearly illustrates the importance the government has placed on creating a highly developed nation.  The city has a western, European atmosphere, the roads and buildings are highly developed, and the Turkish people wear mostly modern styles of clothing.  Yet the situation in Turkey, in some ways, is extremely similar to the modernization efforts in Yangon.  The emphasis on modernization and secularization, and attempts to become a more transnational city and country, have not been well received by all Turkish people.  The population is 99% Muslim, and many believe that the regulations imposed by the secular government is oppressive to their freedom to express their religious beliefs in the manner they wish.  I realized that this similarity existed between the cities of Yangon and Istanbul—both are cities that have been developed and modernized to varying extents, yet those doing the modernization do not necessarily reflect the wishes and needs of the local people.  In addition, as discussed in Jenny White’s article, “The Bridge Between Europe and Asia,” the city of Istanbul is recreated each day on a more basic, relevant level than governmental policies and land development.  Thousands of immigrants come into Istanbul each year, and the modernization and development of the city often overlooks the problem of the rural poor who are streaming into the city proper.  As with Yangon, it is easy to observe the new developments and overlook the invisible poor.

    The importance of religion in the cities of Yangon and Istanbul is another similarity in which these two urban centers can be compared to one another.  In the city of Yangon, Buddhism was so heavily prominent that it was impossible to miss the number of stupas constructed throughout the city and the large groups of monks that would casually walk through the marketplaces or down the sidewalks.  In the increasingly global city of Yangon, with new developments and highways and skyscrapers, a view of the city still yields countless large, golden stupas erected in the midst of the expanse.  It was obvious that in this increasingly transnational space, the importance of the vernacular to the local people is extremely high.  The Burmese people place great emphasis on their faith, and it was a stunning contrast between the transnational developments and the local stupas.  Similarly, in Istanbul, the modernized skyline filled with countless skyscrapers, buildings, and houses on the hills of the city was dotted with hundreds of mosques and their looming minarets.  Walking down the streets of the city, I heard the blasting sounds of the muezzin calling the Muslim population to prayer at various times throughout the day.  Just as in Yangon, the development in Istanbul is still marked by the vernacular mosques and the reminder of the importance of religion to the local people. 

    In Ulf Hannerz’s article, “The Cultural Role of World Cities,” he discusses the ways in which the local culture has become a spectacle to be gazed upon and serve as entertainment to outsiders and tourists.  One comparison that I found between these two extremely different cities is the way in which transnational influence has affected the way the local culture has been projected to tourists and outsiders.  In Yangon, I went to the Karaweik barge to watch a cultural dance show.  This excursion consisted of tourists from various countries, such as Australia, gather in the large performance hall, enjoy a buffet dinner of “local” cuisines that were surprisingly Westernized, and then entertained by various performances of the local dancers in decorative dress.  Although the show was authentic in the style of dance that was performed, the environment and atmosphere in which the show was performed was obviously aimed at a global audience, and therefore reflected an extremely “watered down” version of the performance.  In Istanbul, I attended a performance of the Sufi dervishes.  The dervishes are Sufi mystics who enter into a spiritual trance by whirling about.  Again, the audience was composed entirely of tourists and sightseers, and the “mystical trance” was an hour-long show.  It was a similar feel to the performance I attended in Yangon, and it illustrates the manner in which transnational attitudes and an emphasis on creating a global space in which tourists and foreigners can comfortably integrate has affected the way in which the local culture is portrayed.

    The cities of Yangon and Istanbul are seemingly extremely different, and they do differ in many fundamental ways—clearly modernization and an increasingly transnational veneer in Myanmar in recent decades has implications not akin to the modernization in Turkey that has occurred beneath a secular government over the course of almost a hundred years.  However, the fact remains that these two cities, both huge urban centers that play an especially important role in the vernacular religious traditions of the local people, share many similarities in the ways that they have been impacted by the transnational spaces that have crept into their respective rich cultures.  The cities have both become developed and modernized, albeit at different rates and to different extents, but they both reflect a style that is increasingly westernized.  The vernacular undertone of these cities is obvious, and they both serve a purpose as centers of religious worship for the local people.  I was amazed, when I began comparing the cities of Asia and the Mediterranean to discover so many subtle similarities between these incredibly unique cities in unique parts of the world.  However, this only illustrates the theme of the course even more, that the spread of transnational ideals is inescapable wherever we go.  As a result of the world becoming an increasingly global space, I can stand in the midst of Yangon in southeast Asia and Istanbul, Turkey and draw numerous and fundamental similarities. 

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