Geert Mak – The Bridge: A Journey Between Orient and Occident (book review)
June 5, 2012
[Hürriyet Daily News (21st May 2012): http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/the-bridge-a-journey-between-orient-and-occident-.aspx?pageID=500&eid=53]
Geert Mak – The Bridge: A Journey Between Orient and Occident, Random House UK, 2010, 160pp
The Galata Bridge is one of the more obvious metaphors for all those oppositions that Istanbul is famously caught between: Occident and Orient; east and west; tradition and modernity. The half-kilometre stretch across the Golden Horn connects the “historic” old Stamboul – with the imperial mosques, palaces and bazaars – to the “modern” Galata and Pera – originally settled by Genoese merchants and later the quarter of European ambassadors, diplomats, traders and artists. Geert Mak roamed the entire European continent for his impressionistic 2004 travelogue “In Europe,” but this book offers a complete contrast in terms of scale.
As Mak himself wryly states, “The Bridge” is “a travelogue covering 490 metres,” his focus having infinitely narrowed to one bridge, in one corner of the old continent. The book is subtitled “A Journey Between Orient and Occident,” but I suspect that’s a marketing decision from the publisher, rather than from the author. Mak is wise to the cliché, and he makes sure not to labour it. Instead, his book mainly focuses on the vicissitudes of today’s bridge-dwellers, and in this it is a triumph of understated sensitivity.
Over the years a total of five bridges have been built on the site: two wooden, two iron, and one (today’s) concrete (“not a pretty sight”, Mak laconically observes). Istanbul, he says, “is a classic city […] poverty has pitched its tent in the heart of the old city, the middle classes, ring after ring, live further and further away from [it].” As the city’s breakneck modernisation continues apace, this old arrangement is coming under increasing pressure, but it still largely holds true. In a sense, the Galata Bridge is the centre of this pitched tent, so much of the book concerns itself with giving the reader a vivid sense of the consequences that an urban hand-to-mouth existence, (“an economy of spare change”), has on those who spend their lives on the bridge. “The lives of the tea seller, the cigarette boys and the insole vendor are set against the backdrop of a remarkable corner of the globe, but precious little good that does them,” Mak suggests.
To anyone who has crossed the Galata Bridge recently, or got trapped in one of those underground shopping tunnels that take you across the roads on either side, the sights described in the book will be familiar. Those knock-off children’s action figurines crawling mechanically in the lids of cardboard boxes; the fake perfumes; the fake mobile phones; the cheap sets of pens; the cheap tea; cheap shoes; jeans; umbrellas; insoles; shoelaces; smuggled cigarettes; condoms. However, I doubt anyone has stopped to take such an interest in the people behind these items as Mak, and this is where “The Bridge” is a revelation. We are introduced to the drifters selling those petty goods, as well as the indefatigable fishermen dangling rods (with steadily diminishing returns) over the bridge’s rails, the lottery ticket sellers, glue-sniffers, and pickpockets. Most are displaced migrants, having come to Istanbul from somewhere in eastern Anatolia, perhaps from a village now deserted, or one that simply can’t support them anymore. This mass of rootless internal migrants makes up an ever increasing proportion of Istanbul’s uncontrollably booming population, and Mak gets most of his material by simply mining them for stories, painting an authentic picture of the bridge’s unique fauna. He lets the people he meets on the bridge talk about their backgrounds, their daily routine, the starkness of their prospects, the financial knife-edge that a living scraped by selling cheap plastic umbrellas from a cardboard box entails, the psychological contortions required to maintain some sense of personal dignity or honor. As one man (and this is a resolutely male landscape) says: “Everyone here, almost all of us come from the back of beyond […] But there’s nothing there for us. Unless you want to go into the mountains, to join the terrorists. If you don’t want to do that, you have no choice but to make the best of things here, to sell tea, or flog pirated CDs, or shift stolen mobile phones, or sell fake perfume…” Almost all harbor dreams of migrating to Europe. One of the umbrella sellers once tried to smuggle himself into London, but was detected by the immigration authorities at Heathrow and sent back to Turkey, and now dreams of suing Britain.
The narrative is divided between these personal ruminations and more widescreen historical vignettes, which elegantly sketch the background that has shaped the way the bridge – and the city itself – have come to be the way they are today. Mak vividly describes the historical, Ottoman Istanbul, a city of all creeds of Christians, Jews and Muslims. It was, he says, “perhaps the most multicultural city of all time,” but at the same time it was run according to strictly defined lines of demarcation: Istanbul “consisted of communities that worked and did business together, but were otherwise imprisoned in their own compartments of neighbourhood, house, family, gender, rank and standing […] all these peoples and cultures inhabited worlds of their own. The city’s tolerance depended on looking the other way; contact with those other worlds was devoid of all curiosity.” Interestingly – and perhaps a little fancifully – Mak finds some kind of continuity between those historical hidden lines of division and modern ones constructed by the displaced internal migrant drifters. The bridge has its own intricate sociology of “economic compartmentalisation.” “Countless tightly knit immigrant communities exist in this way, all of them operating in isolation from the others and within the strict borders allotted them […] The fishmongers all hail from the eastern city of Erzincan. Most of the professional anglers come from Trabzon, on the Black Sea. The rods and tackle, on the other hand, are sold generally by immigrants from Kastamonu […] And if you’re Kurdish there is no sense in trying to rent a space and fry fish, for that monopoly is in the hands of another group.”
Mak is never boring, but he is on less sure ground when trying to chart a course through the choppy waters of the city’s modern political situation. One pages-long section in particular – attempting to unknot the delicate “headscarf question” with little more than platitudinous observations – feels too deliberate, like a hunk of meat thrown only because he knows the audience back in western Europe is interested in these things.
Describing the brutal realities of a life spent in perpetual, unbreakable poverty, it would be easy to slip into mawkishness, but “The Bridge” never does. This is an admirably warm-spirited, well-judged book. It’s occasionally lyrical, but never patronises or succumbs to sentimentality. Mak spent his time on the bridge wisely, observing and talking to the people he found, always with an eye on the history that has formed the city. It is this dual vision that makes the book a success. He pulls off a smart trick: by focussing on a small geographical area and a limited cast of characters, he is able to give us a convincing, holistic portrait of a wider society and its conflicted place in history.