The Bridge: poverty and pride

‘Without the bridge you cannot know the city. The bridge is, in fact, a city, though one must not take that too literally; the bridge is not the city and the city is not the country, not by a long shot.  The bridge is, above all, itself, and we shall leave it at that.’

Several years ago I read and enjoyed In Europe by the Dutch writer Geert Mak. Now I’ve been reading his latest short book, The Bridge, which powerfully evokes the atmosphere of Istanbul through vignettes of the traders who eke out a bare existence selling improbable items such as insoles on the Galata bridge straddling the Golden Horn, the inlet of the Bosphorus that divides the city. It was Mak’s eye for the personal stories that illuminated Europe’s 20th century that made In Europe a rewarding read, and here he achieves the same effect: interweaving stories based on encounters on the bridge with an account of the city’s long history from Byzantium, by way of Constantinople to the days of the Ottomans and down to the present.

In 2006, Geert Mak spent weeks on the Galata bridge, one of Istanbul’s busiest, getting to know the pavement merchants: the tea vendor, the book salesman, the peddler of orthopedic soles and the boys who trade in illegal cigarettes.  Most of them are from villages in Turkey’s far east and are desperately poor, barely able to their keep their heads above water; they live from one day, one hour, to the next. And they all have their own worries, their strategies for survival, their hopes, their own stories. The result is ‘a travelogue covering 490 metres’, in the author’s words.

Galata Bridge around 1900

Mak spends day after day with those who frequent the bridge, listening to what they have to say: about free speech, about Islam and the West, about headscarves and honour. Together, these stories paint the portrait of a complex society, of the city of Istanbul, a melting pot that is home to ten million people: Muslims, Armenians, Jews, Greeks and Westerners; liberal urbanites and migrants from remote villages; the secular and the deeply religious.

Mak weaves together the stories of the street traders with the history of the bridge, and so with that of Istanbul itself. This city that was once the heart of a vast and powerful empire. In the twentieth century, however, that traditional, multiethnic, multi-religious Ottoman Empire was transformed into a modern, secular state, and Istanbul was transformed along with it. Today, in Mak’s words, it is a metropolis ‘largely cut off from its own history’.

Before the 19th century, there was no bridge on the Golden Horn connecting both sides of the natural harbour around Istanbul. Small boats and ferries were the only means of transportation between the two shores. The first Galata Bridge over the Golden Horn was constructed in the mid-19th century. It was replaced successively by newer structures in 1863, 1875, 1912 and most recently in 1994.

Galata bridge 1880-1900

While Mak is on the bridge he writes that ‘a mad controversy arose between East and West’.  It’s the time when a Danish newspaper printed cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed, when people across the Muslim world rose up in outrage and anger, and when the Dutch film-maker Theo Van Gogh was murdered.

Mak is excellent here at challenging preconceptions, just as he did in his 2005 pamphlet, Doomed to Vulnerability, in which he challenged the view that the Netherlands was ‘at war’, a statement attributed by one journalist to the deputy-prime minister at the time.  In that pamphlet Mak insisted that the murder of Van Gogh was the work of a single religious fanatic, a disturbed individual; it did not constitute the implosion of a multi-ethnic society. Mak countered the hysterical tone of many politicians and journalists with calm statistics and a lesson in Dutch sociology. In late 2004, he stated, there were some 900,000 Muslims living in the Netherlands, most of them Turkish and Moroccan. Of all these Dutch Muslims, Mak wrote, no more than twenty percent ever visited a mosque on a regular basis. Most of them were familiar with Islam only from a distance. The widespread adoption of fundamentalist beliefs, a fear evoked by many at the time, was a complete myth.

In The Bridge, Mak explores the reaction to these events of those on the bridge. He certainly finds anger: ‘They have no right, this is our faith, and they have to respect that’…the insole vendor said.  ‘I’m a human being, you’re a human being.  God gave us the Koran and the Bible, and we have to respect each other like that.’ But he also comes to realise that this is not, as one might suspect at first, a question of religious enmity.  ‘During those weeks I never heard a bad word about Christians or other non-Muslims’.   What he realises is that the anger is about wounded pride: ‘and when you are as poor as a church mouse, honour is one of the last assets you have left….Anyone who mocks their god, therefore, is not insulting an institution or even a religious feeling; no, he is dealing a blow to their deepest sense of personal worth, the last bastion against total humiliation’.

Geert Mak is a Dutch journalist and a non-fiction writer in the field of history who contributes actively to Dutch public debate, as a staunch defender of the values of an open and tolerant society. He first became known to the general public with his book Jorwerd: the Death of the Village in the Late 20th Century (1996; to be published in the UK later this year) on the changing culture of a farming community in the 20th century, based on an account of a village in Friesland and the people who lived there. In Amsterdam: A brief life of a city (1995), he gave an account of the people of Amsterdam and their city down the centuries. My father’s century (1999), a history of the Netherlands in the 20th century, based on letters and memories from Mak’s own family, became immensely popular, selling over half a million copies. His best-known work, In Europe, a combination of a travelogue through the continent of Europe and a history of the 20th century, has appeared in over a dozen languages and has been turned into a 35-part Dutch TV series.

This was the review in the Independent:

An unremarkable concrete structure spanning the Golden Horn, the estuary on Istanbul’s European shore, Galata Bridge links the two oldest districts of the city. To the south lies historic Sultan Ahmet, which contains Hagia Sophia and Topkapi Palace; on the other shore Pera, with its imposing embassies and merchants’ mansions, the heart of European Istanbul. With its traffic-clogged highway, crowds of commuters rushing to catch the ferry, fishermen hanging over the parapets, restaurants affording magical views, and a dingy underpass with stalls selling guns, dancing dolls and counterfeit luxuries, the bridge is a microcosm of the city in all its rich variety.

Geert Mak’s thoughtful travelogue sketches out Istanbul’s past, and provides a touching portrait of its present inhabitants that explores, and challenges, the clichés of a bridge between East and West. He brings the city’s multicultural history to life and introduces us to the inhabitants of the bridge, from the itinerant card sharps, pickpockets and glue-sniffers to the hawkers of cigarettes, condoms, umbrellas, roasted chestnuts and lottery tickets. Mak has the the acuity of a novelist and the sensitivity of an anthropologist.

The young in one another’s arms, like the headscarfed girl canoodling with her pierced and tattooed boyfriend, defy our stereotypical expectations; but, as Yeats observed of his Byzantium, this is no country for old men. A 77-year-old porter complains that he’s been swindled out of his life savings by a femme fatale pushing 60. Many are lonely divorcees living in shabby boarding-houses. Poverty is a constant in their lives. “I smoke a lot, that always helps to still the hunger,” says Ali, an in-sole vendor.

They are outsiders bound by regional loyalties; the cigarette boys are Kurdish, and divided by political allegiances. Some are nationalists, while the umbrella men “form a fledgling socialist enclave”. Honour “has value as a social currency”, and poverty brings with it a sense of failure and shame.

It is pride, rather than ideological fanaticism, that fuels their anger. “My village is full of people who don’t know a thing about the Koran. But … they’re prepared to die for Islam,” a waiter tells Mak. His intimate portraits disrupt tidy European prejudices, and this thoughtful, beautifully written book is suffused with a respect for the richness of the inner life of individuals that transcends tired metaphors. The bridge is a city, but is “above all, itself, and we shall leave it at that”.

3 thoughts on “The Bridge: poverty and pride

  1. Loved your review and your thoughts. Just finished “In Europe” which I actually bought in Istanbul a few weeks ago – at Robinson Crusoe 389 bookshop in Pera! Geert Mak is a wonderful writer and The Bridge will be my next read, before returning to Istanbul next April.

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