Response: Cem Behar’s “A Neighborhood in Ottoman Istanbul: Fruit Vendors and Civil Servants in Kasap Ilyas Mahalle”

BradleyCollege Papers, Graduate Work, Religion, Reviews0 Comments

In A Neighborhood in Ottoman Istanbul: Fruit Vendors and Civil Servants in Kasap Ilyas Mahalle, Cem Behar attempts to reconstruct the life of an Ottoman Istanbul neighborhood through the use of an exceptional collection of records that he claims are unique to Kasap Ilyas. The records he uses as a primary source for his reconstruction of the mahalle are the notebooks and records of the neighborhood’s imam and (later the) muhtar, which he supplements with data from the 1885 and 1907 censuses and Islamic court records from 1782 to 1924. Additionally, the author attempts to recreate the atmosphere of the neighborhood in the late Ottoman, early Republic period, by interviewing elderly residents of the modern neighborhood.

When considering the information used to create this account, one has to wonder how representative of Istanbul life in general it can possibly be. Behar is careful to point out that Kasap Ilyas’s history and circumstances are certainly unique, and while his findings cannot be used to generalize about Istanbul life, it can be used as a tool to essentially guess at what life in other parts of the city might have been like, given similar circumstances. How many other neighborhoods were there that could have replicated the situation in Kasap Ilyas, however? It does seem to have had many peculiarities, including the large public bath, the nearby wharf, and later the influx of a large population of immigrants from Arapkir. Certainly other parts of Istanbul must have had immigrant populations who were incorporated into society in a similar manner (claims of lost identity papers glossed over by local sponsorship), but how many other neighborhoods also had access to a wharf and warehouses, or to large gardens that provided work opportunities and properly accommodated a working class population? Certainly the elderly inhabitants of the modern neighborhood felt that there was something unique about their neighborhood when they bitterly complained about the destruction of the warehouses and the ‘upper mahalle’ as destroying something essential to their neighborhood.

The unique combination of people and resources (the wharf, gardens, and bath) created a sustainable neighborhood in a city where neighborhoods were routinely absorbed into neighboring mahalles. What I found most interesting about the structure of the neighborhoods, however, is both the diversity of economic classes and the living arrangements. Coming from a Western society, I took for granted that the division of neighborhoods by economic class was a universal occurrence. What factors influenced social norms in Istanbul that made it ok to live in socioeconomically diverse neighborhoods, with beggars living right next to mansions? What made Western society so different? Behar mentions that socioeconomic divisions of neighborhoods didn’t occur until the twentieth century, in response to Western influence. Was it really just as simple as people from similar ethnic and religious groups living together, as a priority over people of similar economic classes living together? Was this common in Islamic cities, or just Ottoman cities, or just in Anatolia? Regarding living arrangements, it was interesting to see that people would often list their business as their residence, but that speaks directly to the economic situation in the neighborhood.

Behar used the itinerant vending of fresh fruits as an example of an informal trade network and then used it to describe the difference between the common activities of recent immigrants from Arapkir to Kasap Ilyas and the more established Istanbulites who had stable businesses governed by regulations and guild organizations. He described an informal network as requiring little or no skill, no permit or license, and little to no startup costs. The only true requirement is that one have a customer base, which Behar describes as a “solid network of personal relations” (115). Behar’s point was probably to show what factors made Kasap Ilyas such an attractive point of entry to Istanbul for the Arapkir immigrants. The Arapkirlis had previously established a system of patronage through the retinue of a pasha who brought his household back to Kasap Ilyas. Alone, this would not have been enough, but because of the presence of the large vegetable gardens, like the Langa gardens, the Arapkirlis were able to incorporate themselves into the larger Istanbul economy through “entry-level” work. Certainly many maintained that lifestyle. Behar describes fathers and sons performing this work together, but Behar also describes other Arapkirlis using fruit vending as a starting point for upward mobility through civil service. I’m sure that there are many cities in many parts of the world that have experienced similar patterns of immigrant exploitation of a resource to establish an ethnically homogenous presence in a city where greater opportunities for social mobility are present. Considering the high rate of population turnover in the neighborhood, it is likely that not only the Arapkirlis were taking advantage of the neighborhood’s usefulness as a socioeconomic stepping stone.

One area of Behar’s work that I found problematic was his assumption of familiarity with foreign language terms. Of course, when writing this type of history, it would be fair to assume that the reader has some familiarity with ‘Islamic’ terms, but Behar’s text is liberally sprinkled with Latin phrases and words that have been borrowed from German. He places these phrases in Italics, signaling their rare usage, but then fails to give a definition. Admittedly, a reader could simply pick up a dictionary to learn the meaning on his own, but if Behar knew the usage of those phrases was problematic and put them in italics, he could have gone the extra mile and defined them at their first usage as well. There were also instances where he deliberately used a Latin word where an English word would have sufficed, like on page 40 where he uses nomenklatura instead of “nomenclature”. Given the context, it is unclear whether he is using the Latin term to replace the English term or if he is making a reference to different statuses within the elite classes of Communist bureaucracies. Another problematic use of language is on page 90, where Behar indicates that the ‘surname’ “binti Abdullah” is significant in connoting conversion to Islam, but does not explain why.

Overall, Cem Behar’s work does an outstanding job of using records to create an image of what Kasap Ilyas might have looked like over the course of Ottoman control of Istanbul. It helps the reader to understand the social and economic dynamics at play in the neighborhood and the city in general, as well as how neighborhoods operated internally.

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