|'changing social identities' in globalizing cities?
Interview Gülsün Karamustafa, Ayse Öncü
|GÜLSÜN KARAMUSTAFA: My first question will cover the issue investigated in your book "Space Culture and Power". Knowing that it is an immense discussion could you tell us briefly about the process of 'changing social identities' in globalizing cities?
AYSE ÖNCÜ: What is fascinating about processes of globalization in the cultural realm is that we seem to be witnessing two processes simultaneously. On the one hand, there is an invasion of global signs, symbols, icons, and words which appear to be intelligible to everyone. Simultaneously however, these are appropriated by different groups and communities in very diverse ways, so that instead of a process of homogenization, what in fact we seem to be getting is cultural hybridization, a multiplication of hybridities. This is what is fascinating as far as I am concerned: How elements from a global culture of consumption are appropriated and blended with indigenous cultures at the local level, used both to rebuild older cultural identities, and also to create new cultural identities. And the question of identities is increasingly becoming bound up with consumption. Goods are not only commodities. They are also symbolic markers, used in different combinations and in different ways to define identities. This is a very fluid realm I find, but increasingly boundaries of identities are marked, negotiated, and defended through symbolic consumption.
G.K: Now we come to Istanbul. In Istanbul, a city of 15 million people, where we are confronting continuous changes in power relations and struggles for cultural identity, can we talk about the rediscovery of Islam and its relation to globalization?
A. Ö: There are various ways of trying to link the growing visibility of Islam in Istanbul and the complexity of changes we call globalization. One aspect is, of course, the increasing significance of Islamic middle classes. There is a growing Islamic middle class which is trying to define its distinctions from ìsecularî middle classes. There is now an Islamic fashion industry, which almost exclusively caters for middle or upper income families. There are lavish Islamic weddings in five star hotels, where women display the latest Islamic fashions. The main difference is that alcohol is not served, and a religious ceremony is performed along with the civil rites. Upwardly mobile families who define themselves as Islamic have begun to appear in consumption sites formerly enjoyed by secular middle class families only, making Islam much more visible, such as in restaurants, hotels, vacation spots etc. There are now Islamic television channels as well as daily newspapers and womenís magazines. An Islamic business sector has grown. The boundaries of what constitutes an Islamic way of life in todayís urban consumer society is being negotiated. This is what I mean by the new visibility of Islam. It is no longer a small town phenomenon. What we are witnessing is the growing significance of Islam as a collective identity among upwardly mobile families in Istanbul. Iím not sure that we can call this a new identity, but it has come to the foreground in new ways in todayís consumer culture.
G.K.: Is there a possibility of linking it with politics?
A. Ö.: Certainly it can be argued that the political discourse of Islam in Turkey is also changing. Formerly, it was mainly centered on such themes as injustice, exclusion, and marginalization. This is a discourse that has traditionally appealed to voters in informal neighborhoods, to poor immigrant populations of Istanbul. Now the Islamic movement is in the process of developing a language of success. A language which is capable of reconciling faith with increased consumption of goods. Is there an Islamic form of entertainment? Arenít people who identify themselves with Islam supposed to have fun? How are their vacations to be different from those of secular middle classes? I believe such questions have to do with the problem of trying to reconcile 'faith' with what Bourdieu called 'taste'. Tasteful ways of consuming for those who embrace Islam. This process of negotiation between 'taste' and 'faith' has come to the foreground in a variety of ways. It is clearly visible in TV advertisements on Islamic channels. It is also clearly discernible in the fabric of the cities, in the growing numbers of Islamic housing estates - "sites" as they are called in Turkish - which provide communal prayer facilities, and public spaces that are ìgenderedî, i.e. built such that segregation of men and woman can be accomplished easily.
G.K.: At this point we are talking about consumption. I think that we can easily link our subject very closely to a new situation of consumption which we are witnessing in Istanbul. In our project we are dealing with the issue of a new kind of trade which we have confronted since the 90s after the changes in the Eastern European countries and Soviet States. A new kind of economy called the "suitcase economy" which is backed by the government in an illegal way. We would like to know where you place this factor within the outcomes of globalization.
A. Ö.: In talking about globalization, what is often emphasized, is the erosion of national economic borders, as financial and commodity markets become integrated on a world scale. And this is backed up by open-door policies of governments to encourage inflow of foreign capital and to promote exports. Turkey is no exception. "Free trade" and integration into global markets has been the official policy for almost two decades now. But of course national borders have not evaporated. And simultaneously with integration into global markets, a flourishing "informal" economy which thrives on the existence of national borders has come into being. This is what is often called "tourist trade" or "suitcase trade". It thrives on the existence of borders between adjacent countries with different political systems as well as levels of income. It is "informal" in the sense that it is not recorded as trade in official statistics. For instance, there is an untold volume of ongoing "informal" trade across the borders with Iraq, Syria etc. in the southern provinces of Turkey. This border trade uses the existing informal networks and it is officially unrecorded. So perhaps the growing "tourist trade" with former Soviet Republics can be considered part of this broader phenomenon. In Istanbul today there are open-air markets for instance, which specialize in goods sold by people who travel back and forth to the Central Asian Republics. Similarly, there are neighborhoods in Istanbul where you can find a variety of goods coming from Iran or various Arab countries. What I am trying to emphasize is that the "globalization" of trade networks in Istanbul has proceeded at the "formal" and "informal" levels simultaneously. The expansion of formal and informal trade networks with Iran and Arab countries of the region is also a very important component of the growing visibility of Islam in Istanbul. To come back to so called "tourist trade", "border trade" or "suitcase trade", whatever you may choose to call it, its impact on the consumer economy in Istanbul has been momentous. It has become a major component of Istanbul"s thriving urban economy itself. Its most immediate impact has been on the garment industry of Istanbul of course.
G.K.: And it mainly depends on women's labor.
A. Ö.: Yes it depends mostly on female labor. But the "tourist trade" has impacted on the garment industry in paradoxical ways. The traders who come mainly from Russia and various Balkan countries trade on a cash basis, they literally bring vast amounts of cash in their suitcases. They buy in large volumes. But they want the goods immediately to take back with them. This kind of trade involves the personal appearance of a "tourist-trader" in Istanbul, who demands on short notice vast quantities of material or readymade clothing, and has the cash to pay for it on the spot. So the garment industry in Istanbul has increasingly become oriented to the short term and often unpredictable demands of the "tourist trade", at the expense of long term strategic planning which is necessary to maintain a share in European and world markets. The inflow of hard cash has created a market "bubble" which is very vulnerable to the shifting winds of inter-governmental politics. It has also led to increasing fragmentation among manufacturing enterprises, since many skilled craftsmen have left their jobs to establish their own small workshops and to capture a share of the "tourist trade". Of course, the proliferation of such small-scale enterprises means that more and more young girls are drawn into employment under "sweatshop" conditions in Istanbulís garment industry. Small enterprises can evade labor laws, social security regulations and tax requirements much more easily. So it is currently the young female labor force who bears the burden. We must remember that parallel to the growth of the "suitcase trade", there has been a substantial increase in the volume of "illegal" labor migration across borders as well.
G.K.: This is what I also witnessed lately while I was wandering around the border trade market areas in the city. You can easily spot groups of foreign young people waiting for illegal jobs.
A. Ö.: So cross-border networks include trade in consumer goods as well as illicit labor migration. They also include trade in people, of women basically. Buying and selling of women.
G.K.: Do you mean a kind of prostitution?
A. Ö.: Inter-linked with networks of labor flows. At the moment it is mainly Rumanian laborers who are coming to Istanbul. To Greece there is also a labor flow from Rumania, but it is mostly domestic women, domestic female labor that is travelling to Greece. In Istanbul it is mainly young male laborers who come to work under 'sweat shop' conditions. With very low wages, totally unprotected by social security legislation and literally "illegal", they have to hide from the police. The police makes periodic raids when there are complaints, but simply ignore it most of the time. On the whole, these various networks are reshaping Istanbul in ways that we have yet to understand. What we are observing is an increasingly fragmented city. This is obvious, one doesn't have to undertake extensive research on Istanbul to know that it is becoming increasingly fragmented. But the notion of "fragment" suggests unrelated or unconnected pieces. Yet these cross-border networks have now penetrated the fabric of the city. They have become interconnected with theeveryday lives of people in a variety of ways that we have not yet began to explore. What I should probably add is that this issue of "mobile populations" is in need of more broadly theorizing in literature as well. Various mobile populations have always existed. Pilgrims have always been part of the city, migration has always been part of the city. But the current mobility of population across national borders - as suitcase traders, as regular tourists, or as migrant laborers - is historically unprecedented. We know little about how these mobile populations transform cities in cultural terms. There is much research on the economic implications of cross border trade and labor mobility. It is the cultural implications of this process that needs to be explored further. We have not yet moved beyond very broad generalizations about cultural hybridization.
Finally I should add that the cross-border networks between Istanbul and Eastern European countries are themselves changing. Initially the movement of people back and forth relied upon a variety of personal relationships and individualized connections. This picture seems to be changing as Mafia type organizations move in. The "informal" or "illicit" nature of the transactions involved provides fertile ground for criminal organizations which offer protection for a price. For instance, large numbers of women traveling in search of work, have been forced to sell themselves in Istanbul. Today however, the question of prostitution is not confined to these women, many of them housewives, who are forced into it because they have picked up their belongings and come to Istanbul to work for three or four months, and cannot find any other employment. The whole affair is now organized by vast multinational criminal gangs. The age of women who are prostituting themselves has become progressively younger, they are recruited as professional workers in this domain. So increasingly cross-border flows are being taken over by "professional criminal groups" which operate as intermediaries in the process. This seems to be the case whether we are talking about immigrant laborers, "suitcase traders", or women being sold as commodities.
G.K.: It is very interesting to discuss those issues with an academic. The way you look at things and, as an artist, the way I look at things seem a little different. My ideas were mainly built on impressions, but you are talking on the basis of facts. Thank you very much.