Review of Charles King's Midnight at the Pera Palace

Friday, July 19, 2019

Charles King’s Midnight at the Pera Palace: The Birth of Modern Istanbul is an excellent book that is highly enjoyable to read. Especially for readers with little or no familiarity with Turkey’s early republican history, Midnight at the Pera Palace provides a fascinating look into aspects of Istanbul in the 1920s and 1930s. Using examples that draw mainly from the lives of individuals from the country’s Jewish and Christian minorities, as well as the experiences of foreigners living in Turkey, King tells the story of what he calls the“hidden origins of modern Istanbul” (377). The book has seventeen chapters in all, as well as a prologue and epilogue, but no introduction or conclusion. The organization of the book is narrative-based and loosely chronological, using the lives of both the famous and relatively unknown to introduce the reader to the interwar history of Turkey’s biggest and most important city.

Midnight at the Pera Palace is primarily about arrivals and departures and has little to do with the Pera Palace Hotel itself, which largely disappears from the book’s narrative after the first few chapters. Rather, Midnight at the Pera Palace consists of a series of vignettes relating to border-crossers of various kinds. For the most part this border-crossing is discussed in contexts that are tragic, but not always. For example, the first way in which cross-border travel is presented in this book is in a passage that relates to tourism. “Grand Hotel”(chap. 1) describes the goings-on of Agatha Christie, the Orient Express, and the rise of the Wagon-Lits Company in connecting Istanbul to Europe in the late nineteenth century. From there, King spends most of the next threechapters—“The Gray Fleet” (chap. 2), “Occupation” (chap. 3), and “Resistance” (chap. 4)—alternating between descriptions of the ethnic diversity of Istanbulthat existed in Ottoman times and summaries of the major political events that took place in the Ottoman Empire and Republic of Turkey in the early decades of the twentieth century. This pairing of topics makes good sense,as the final years of the Ottoman Empire and early decades of the republicwere characterized by the destruction of much of Istanbul’s ethnic diversity, at least insofar as Turkey’s non-Muslim populations were concerned. 

The theme of displacement and starting over again pervades several of the four chapters to follow, all of which look at the lives of different types of migrants. “Moscow on the Bosphorus” (chap. 5) discusses the lives of White Russian refugees who fled to Istanbul following the Bolshevik Revolution; “Konstantinoupolis” (chap. 6) describes the vanishing of non-Muslim populations from Istanbul in the years after the establishment of the republic; “The Post-war World was Jazzing” (chap. 7) introduces the reader to the clubs, drugs, and booze of late-night Istanbul, paying special attention to the life details of Frederic Thomas, an African American who had traveled across Europe to Russia, where he had become a subject of the tsar. Now a White Russian immigrant in Istanbul, Thomas began anew in Turkey when he opened a new club not far from the Pera Palace.1 “The Past Is a Wound inMy Heart” (chap. 8) describes the life of the rembetika singer Roza Eshkenazi and other musicians whose lives and accomplishments represented a cultural dynamism that would soon be lost.

Chapters 9 through 12, meanwhile, go in a somewhat different direction, recounting the lives of well-known individuals who crossed borders in other ways. The first of these is a chapter on the reforms of Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk). “Modern Times” (chap. 9) is devoted primarily to a rather standard (for books on modern Turkey) recounting of the series of revolutionary cultural changes that Kemal imposed upon Turkey in the early years of the republic’s existence. “Beyond the Veil” (chap. 10) looks at the changing place of women in public while telling the story of the writer and “feminist” (to use King’s term) Halide Edip (Adıvar); “Living Like a Squirrel” (chap. 11) provides an account of the life of the exiled poet Nâzım Hikmet, who fled Turkey for the Soviet Union in 1951; and “Island Life” (chap. 12) is structured around Leon Trotsky’s brief period of exile on Buyukada, a small island located offthe coast of Istanbul in the Marmara Sea. The book’s thirteenth chapter is called “Queen,” and tells the story of Keriman Halis, Turkey’s first international beauty queen and winner of the Miss Universe contest in 1932. 

Turkish beauty queen Keriman Halis
The final four chapters of Midnight at the Pera Palace still focus primarily upon the life stories of individuals while also relating to broader themes.“Holy Wisdom” (chap. 14) is a discussion of Turkey’s Byzantine heritage,focusing upon the life of Thomas Whitemore, an American who sought and eventually won the right to restore the Hagia Sophia in 1931. “Shadow Wars”(chap. 15) discusses the World War II years from the perspective of intrigue,espionage, and diplomatic relations. Chapter 16 (“Paper Trails”) is dedicated to Turkey’s Jewish populations, recounting events such as the sinking of the Struma and the wealth tax, while chapter 17 (“At the Gate of Felicity”) describes the place of the Catholic Church in Turkey and the histories of Catholic communities in the Ottoman Empire.

There is a lot to like in this book. Displacement and mobility are important themes, and King discusses them in a creative and enjoyable way. I assigned this book in the upper-division undergraduate class on modern Turkey that I teach at Montana State University, and it was very well received. In particular, my students enjoyed the seedy tales of drugs, sex, and adventure thatKing recounts, and the fluidity of King’s writing also proved popular. King makes Turkey look cool, and his book pleasantly deviates from the typical focus upon prime ministers, presidents, pashas, and padishahs that dominate most other mass-produced stories of modern Turkey.

Because I found this book so interesting and engaging, I did find myself quibbling with it at times without changing my mind about the book’s fundamental value to readers. In some ways, for example, the overall presentation of Midnight at the Pera Palace is rather vague. King never really comes out and makes an argument to explain what it is that links all of the colorful characters who populate this book. The idea of a “modern Istanbul” is alluded to frequently with a rather hazy imagery—it appears to be a kind of art deco spectacle in King’s imagination, replete with evocative tales of jazz, beauty queens, and stylish men in tuxedoes—but is never really defined or explained. The book can also appear at times as basically a collection of interesting stories tied together by little other than the author’s repeated assurances that all of this somehow adds up to something “modern.” Even the theme of mobility is largely left implicit, with King usually focusing upon the colorful details in the lives of the individuals he describes, rather than explaining what their border-crossing has to do with “the birth of modern Istanbul” in particular. The lack of a well-articulated argument sometimes leads King to rely too much upon the power of his writing, especially in the book’s epilogue, where the tone becomes a bit overly sentimental at times without really clarifying the book’s purpose any further.

As King intimates in his epilogue, one common theme that many of the individuals in this book share is that they are now ghosts of a sort. Theyare people—at least in the case of Istanbul’s now largely vanished Jewish and Christian minority communities—whose absence from contemporaryIstanbul is repeatedly emphasized by King. But if this is what King is primarily interested in, then the chapters relating to Atatürk, Halide Edip, Nâzım Hikmet, and Keriman Halis seem a little out of place. Ultimately, my impression was that King was mainly concerned with telling good stories that would introduce readers to elements of Istanbul’s past that they might not be familiar with. While there is nothing particularly wrong with such an approach, it does not lend itself well to establishing a book’s intellectual coherence. Nor does the fact that, while King invokes the theme of “modern Istanbul” in this book, he never explains what this term is supposed to mean.

Nâzım Hikmet at his dacha
outside Moscow, mid-1950s. 
Something else that I found curious about this book was King’s lack of interest in expanding his discussion of dislocation to include Muslims. This is the case even in the relatively few chapters in which the featured characters are Turkish. Mustafa Kemal, for example, was born in Salonika (today’s Thessaloniki) and, like so much of the Young Turk elite that would go on to dominate Turkish politics until the 1950s, was a refugee from the Balkans. The themes of loss and displacement lay at the very center of Kemal’s life. Halide Edip Adıvar, meanwhile, who eventually became a critic of Kemal, spent much of the 1930s in de facto exile, only returning to Turkey after Kemal’s death in 1938. While this exile is noted by King, for the most part Adıvar’s inclusion in this book appears to have been for the purpose of discussing the changing public roles of women in Turkey, something that can also be said for the chapter on Halis. Similarly, with the chapter that features Nâzım Hikmet, for whom the theme of exile is an inescapable topic, displacement is touched upon but never treated with the sort of care or attention that King reserves for the non-Muslim figures in his book. It is almost as if, in this book about Turkey’s main metropolitan center, King has little idea how to integrate Turks into his narrative.

The relative absence of Turks in this story is confusing, however, given the great role that Muslims play in the broader theme of displacement that King associates with Istanbul’s erstwhile minority communities. During the very years that King discusses in Midnight at the Pera Palace, millions of Muslims—many of them non-Turkish—immigrated to what is today Turkey. The presence in Turkey of these Muslim immigrants, coming mainly from the Balkans and Russia, formed much of the raison d’être behind the aggressively assimilationist policies that Mustafa Kemal’s government adopted toward Muslims from the 1920s onward. In this respect, Kemal’s Turkish nationalism was a recognition of the fact that there were so many Muslim, but not necessarily Turkish, immigrants living in the country. This is a view that wasexplicit even in the slogan adopted by the government at the time, “Happy is s/he who calls her/himself a Turk.” Just call yourself a Turk, the government was telling these newcomers, precisely because many of them were not.

Muslim refugees fleeing Balkans in 1912
The uprooting of Jews and Christians from Turkey was not simply part of a much larger regional phenomenon that also involved Muslims. In fact, up until the interwar period that King focuses upon it had been mainly Muslims who were the victims of this phenomenon. Kemal Karpat estimates that5 million Muslims arrived in the Ottoman Empire from Russia and the Balkans between the time of the Russian conquest of the Crimea in 1783 until theYoung Turk revolution of 1908—this in an empire whose entire Muslim population numbered 14 million in 1914.2 In the decades to follow, millions more Muslims would enter the Republic of Turkey. Recent large-scale migrations of Muslims into Turkey have included those of Bosnian Muslims in the 1990s, as well as an estimated 3 million refugees from Syria since 2011. In this context, King’s focus on the departure of Jews and Christians from Istanbul constitutes just a small part of a much larger series of developments facing not only Turkey, but also the territories of the former Russian, Habsburg, and Ottoman empires more generally. It was the repeated expulsions of Muslims from the Balkans and Russia that created the setting for the stories of Christian and Jewish departure which dominate King’s book. The massive migration of Muslims from the Balkans and Russia proved decisive, moreover, in the formation of not only modern Turkey but also modern Turkish nationalism. This context is largely missing in Midnight at the Pera Palace, which instead embeds micro-narratives of non-Muslim departure alongside other features of Istanbul’s emerging “modernity” without ever really explaining why.

The points listed above notwithstanding, I very much enjoyed King’s first-rate storytelling. Without question, Midnight at the Pera Palace is one of the best-written works on modern Turkey to appear in recent years, and even the book’s occasional analytical holes provide useful grist for discussion. King has a great sense for narrative and relates some of the best stories to be found in early republican historiography. Readers only beginning to familiarize themselves with Turkey will love the way that King’s well-written anecdotes relate to so many fascinating individuals. Specialists may at timesbristle at some of the book’s simplifications, but nevertheless should learnfrom this book how to write a compelling story of modernization in Turkey. This brilliant book is a joy to read and provides some truly revealing insights into Turkey’s early history.

Review by: James Meyer
Vol. 9, No. 1 (2018), pp. 93-98
1. Thomas is the subject of Vladimir Alexandrov’s highly enjoyable biography from 2013,
The Black Russian.
2. Kemal Karpat, Ottoman Population, 1830–1914: Demographic and Social Characteristics(Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985), 66.

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