NO 33 AUGUST 2003

Over the Sea and Far Away

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ISTANBUL? YES, ISTANBUL

Karen-Claire Voss No. 31 June 2003

What is it really that makes this city so utterly compelling?  Is it the sense that one always has of there being some hitherto unknown wondrous something just around the next corner?  Is it the ubiquitous presence of birds everywhere or their sound?  Is it the marvelously shifting waters—the Bosphorus, the Golden Horn, the Sea of Marmara?  Is it the shocking beauty of some of the people or the infinity-filled eyes of the children one sees?  Is it the lilting, beautiful sound of Turkish when it is spoken as it should be?  Is it the music or the treasures that can always be unearthed in tucked out of the way shops? 

Whatever it is, the city is compelling.  Now that it is so familiar to me I never cease to be amazed and amused when I hear foreigners refer to Istanbul because unless they have visited here it still remains—perhaps especially for the Americans—this far away, exotic place with dubious ontological status at best; definitely "Other." (1) For me, however, Istanbul has become the center of the world.  And this leads me to the topic of this month's column.

If Istanbul has become the center of the world for me what are the implications of that?  (I've been thinking about this quite a lot and as is my wont I'm going to subject my readers to what's occurred to me during that thought process.) 

The most obvious thing this implies is that in my case I will never really be able to "go Home" again, simply because there isn't any other 'Home' to go to.  In my case this is further complicated by the fact that I am an only child with no living mother or father, uncle or aunt.  There are two cousins whose mindset and lifestyle are so far right politically there is no basis for connection.  And there is a third cousin with whom I did have a largely long-distance relationship with until ten years ago when I lost contact with him during my transition from Paris to Istanbul.  By the time I got settled enough to try and re-initiate contact with him he had moved house, changed his phone number, and there are too many Paul Johnson's living in New Jersey to hope to find him again.  (What happens with this one is completely in the hands of Allah.)  I do have an ex-spouse and three daughters.  My closeness with the three daughters is a constant variable because each is a uniquely and beautifully complicated creature and so their feelings for me ebb and flow like the tides.  (I realize that having me for a mother cannot be simple and straightforward.  In that sense I am certainly to blame for this.)    Anyway, what it all means is that except for my partner and my daughters I am pretty much on my own in this world. 

It certainly seems as if my years abroad mean that I can never again go back to the United States and feel truly comfortable (and even now there are signs this is true; for example, on the rare occasions when I find myself in a room full of Americans I get a claustrophobic feeling and have to get out, and I remember once, when we had to go to the consulate to renew my passport, my Turkish partner remarked that I was the one acting like the foreigner because I was the one who was nervous.  He, on the other hand, was quite at ease, having worked for the consulate many years ago.) it is equally true that I can never be completely comfortable here, either.  For one thing, there is the fact that I am and will always be a 'yabancý' (and my Turkish readers know full well—provided they are completely honest with themselves—what that means really.  I know, too, you see.)  For another, there will always be things that I just don't "grok" (2)—i.e., there will be meanings and nuances that will elude me.  Forever.  As a person who had become used to being able to quickly pick up on any and every nuance in her immediate environment this prospect is discomfiting, to say the least.  So my question these days is: What does all this mean?  I think that one thing it means is that I have entered into the space that Basarab Nicolescu refers to as the ‘transcultural.’ (3) I’ve already mentioned some of the drawbacks but I want to turn the focus and look at some of the positive aspects of this.

As the prefix ‘trans’ suggests, transcultural means beyond culture; i.e., beyond any one single culture.  Now, for something (or someone) to be transcultural definitely means that it (or he or she) is in a liminal state.  We get the English word liminal from the Latin word for ‘threshold’ which is ‘limen’. I talked about liminality here at length a few years ago. (4)  In that column I wrote:  “Anthropologists Edith and Victor Turner coined the term ‘liminality’ to refer to the state of being that pilgrims find themselves in while they’re enroute to whatever holy place they’re headed for. (5)  Pilgrims are indeed in a ‘liminal’ state. Say, for example, you’re a duchess who decides to go on a pilgrimage.  Once you’ve set out, your former condition is no longer relevant.  Just imagine it–no matter what title, status, possessions, wealth, reputation, or influence you have “back home,” once embarked on the way of the pilgrim, those things count for nothing.  In other words, they lose all of their former significance, all of their former meaning.  The only thing that counts is your being (or lack of it).

I went on to explain that when you find yourself on a bridge (and remember that Istanbul is often referred to as a bridge because of its unique geographical location) or standing on a threshold “you’re definitely in an ‘in between’ place -- you’re neither in one room (the one you came from) nor the other (the room you’re about to enter).  ‘In between’ places are, by nature, ýll-defined, fuzzy;  their outlines are blurry  Being ‘in between’ can provide the impetus for all kinds of transformation.   Being ‘in between’ means being in a state of fecundity, of potentiality.   Being ‘in between’ is a positive condition . . .” And I closed by saying that all the foreigners living here (as well as Turks who have moved to Istanbul from other parts of Turkey) were “all beings poised on the threshold of our own futures living in a country that is in the same condition.  We’re aligned.  The very fact of being aligned with something means that each thing supports the other on a deep, deep level, a fact that may be important for persons who consistently feel they are foreign, disenfranchised, and ‘Other.’    Living here can actually help us do something meaningful with our life.”

My realization about my having become a transcultural being is another step toward being able to create a life which maximizes meaning and which is essentially and continually creative.  Since I personally happen to think that creating a meaningful life is the alchemical work par excellence, and moreover, that this is our only reason for living, realizing how the transcultural fits with the liminal in the course of putting together this column has made me pretty excited.

And now here we are.  It’s June in Istanbul, and gorgeous and all.  And it's column-writing time.  And the whole time I’ve been sitting in front of the computer laboring over this column its incredible beauty has been hitting me over the head and I know and therefore must close by reminding all of you that it's time to enjoy the warm air on your skin, the breezes in your hair.  It's time to sit in your favorite seaside café and drink tea and dream.  If you have someone you love, it’s time to treasure that person, to take a moment to look deeply into their eyes and see him/her—really—and thank the universe for having bestowed on you the precious gift of your relationship.  It’s time to listen to music on a warm summer night and dance and luxuriate and be grateful for—both—the feeling of being alive. 

 Notes:

 1.  Ontological (adj.; noun form- ontology) means of or pertaining to being.  Here it means something that has being, something that really exists.  It's a very useful concept and helps you talk about stuff that's really important.

 2.  The verb 'grok' was coined by Robert A. Heinlein in his book Stranger in a Strange Land.  It is a Martian word and means literally 'to drink' and metaphorically 'to be one with'.   The word is generally used to mean something that is understood profoundly by means of intuition or empathy.   

3.  See Chapter 15, “The Transcultural and the Mirror of the Other,” in Basarab Nicolescu, Manifesto of Transdisciplinarity, translated from the French by Karen-Claire Voss (New York: State University of New York Press, 2002), pp. 101-108. 

4.  See Column No. 4, September 2000.

 5. Victor Turner and Edith Turner discuss the concept of liminality at length in Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture: Anthropological Perspectives (New York: Columbia University Press, 1978).

 

No.1- April 2000 No.11 April 2001 No. 20 July 2002 No 29 April 2003
No.2 June 2000 No.12 May 2001 No. 22 September 2002 NO 30 MAY 2003
No.3 July/August 2000 No. 13 June 2001 No. 23   October 2002  NO 31 JUNE 2003
No.5 October 2000 No.14 July 2001 No 24 November 2002 NO 32 JULY 2003
No.7 December 2000 No.15 August 2001 No 25 DECEMBER  2002 NO 33 August 
No.8 January 2001
(No. 8 Ocak 2001 - Türkçe tercume
NO 16 September 2001 No 26 January 2003 No 34 September 
No.9 February 2001 No. 17 April 2002 No 27 February 2003 No 35 October 
No.10 March 2001 NO 19 JUNE 2002 No 28 March 2003 No 36 January 2004

No 37 February - March 2004 No 38 April 2004

 

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