When East Meets West

Weaving words to spread the magic of the Middle East, Persian-Canadian writer Amy Nina Pugsley looks to one of Istanbul’s oldest traditions to explore the impact modernisation is having on a region too often marred by negative perceptions.
words – amy nina pugsley
location – cairo, egypt

Stretching from Morocco to Iran, the area known as the Middle East or the Middle East North Africa [MENA] region is now more than ever subject to curiosity from the outside world. The region invokes intrigue for the vast amount of history that has taken place in it: it is the cradle of civilisation, the birthplace of the three Abrahamic religions and home to vast swimming pools of oil. Whilst much of the outside world considers the entire area to be homogenous, the truth is that it is the diversity of the region which has created so much mystique and foreign interest – even before the obsession with weapons of mass destruction took hold. Tragic world events including the September 11th attacks have created a string of negative associations with the area; anyone with any familial, religious or ethnic connections to the region or the global diaspora has undoubtedly felt the far-reaching negative effects of this tragedy and the seventeen years of war that have subsequently ensued. In light of this, certain countries have had to work overtime to redefine their image in the West. Turkey is one of the countries that is socially and culturally tied to the MENA region, but is situated in both Europe and Asia – deeming it too Western for some, too Eastern for others. Where does Turkey fit in this not so ‘new,’ but remixed, global paradigm of East meets West?

This dichotomy is what makes Turkey unique, attracting up to 40 million foreign visitors a year. By tapping into new tourist markets in Georgia, Germany, Bulgaria and other Persian Gulf countries, Turkey hoped to mark the dip in tourism during 2014/5 up as nothing more than a bad dream. And yet, the numbers seem to be far beside the point; when stepping off the plane in Istanbul it becomes apparent that the sense of modernisation met with antiquity is the perfect binary to define the capital city, all statistics and reports aside. Walking down the busy streets, one’s senses are overloaded with old and new in a way that is undoubtedly Eastern whilst simultaneously strikingly Western. It almost seems as if it is too good to be true.

Shisha cafes fill street corners where old men are spotted meeting up with tea in their hands and smoke in their lungs,

right next to large shiny shopping malls where the newest designer labels are plucked off the shelves as they would be in Rodeo Drive. Amidst the recent issues the country has faced – including terrorist attacks, a currency crisis, political unrest and a sharp decrease in tourism dollars – there is a sense that the Turkish know exactly who they are and what they want. Modernity has not conformed to Turkey; the Turkish have put their own spin on it, forging their future by their own set of rules.

Whilst there are many tangible examples of this in Istanbul, the hammam arguably stands out the most. One of the oldest traditions that has withstood the test of time, it continues to be a beacon of old in a city that is starting to look newer and newer. How and why is such an ancient tradition still being practiced today in a city that has running water, electricity and examples of modernity on every street corner? It would seem that surely there is no need for this type of tradition anymore, and yet the Turkish bath’s popularity shows no signs of dwindling.

The hammam was brought to the Ottoman Empire by the Romans, reimagining bathing habits and establishing a new cleansing ritual. This ritual was in adherence with Islamic practice and the blend of Eastern and Western tradition meant that the act of public bathing became an important social activity for all classes and genders.

As time passed, the role of the hammam in social life changed and adapted; more and more hammams opened on the streets of Istanbul welcoming men, women and children. One of the most breathtaking is the Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamam, created by the architect Sinan between 1578 and 1583 as part of the mosque and school complex that flank it today.

The hammam is a symbolic building famous for its architectural ingenuity, majestic dome and rich history providing those on the inside and outside with a reminder of all that has been and all that is to come.

Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamam was lovingly renovated for seven years to restore, refresh and revive a public space that had been a pillar of the Ottoman Empire. Now, as the silence of the hammam engulfs visitors they are swallowed up into the architectural masterpiece with its high white walls, marble floors and domed roof; there is no denying that this is much more than a luxurious bath. Now, more than ever, the hammam feels like a small act of defiance towards those that hold negative sentiment towards the region. Disrobing, lying naked and vulnerable on a heated slab of marble before having a stranger wash and scrub you brings to mind just how important these small acts of resistance are. Smoking a shisha pipe, adorning oneself with oud and stripping down to be cleansed in a hammam are all ways in which the Turkish people take a stand to maintain their identity, regardless of what anyone else thinks or understands.

Modernity in the oldest region on earth does not need to look like it does in the West; this need not be the goal. There must be space for variation, nuance and diversity across the region. What Dubai has done in a short span of time has set its own groundwork for Middle Eastern modernisation, creating a paradigm which is pushing boundaries. In 1900 only 10,000 people lived in Dubai; today’s population sits at over two million with 10 million visitors per year. From desert to cosmopolitan centre, this marks a particularly progressive narrative of modernisation occurring in the MENA region: a narrative of keeping the old and adopting the new that fits into the socio-cultural lifestyle of the people it will affect. But Turkey is not Dubai; you need only look to recent headlines to recognise this. As the latter fought to become the world’s most sustainable city by 2020, Turkey is coming to terms with its own path to modernity and revitalising the iconic landmarks, neighborhoods and places that have made it the treasure it is today. ‘Modern’ need not be synonymous with ‘Western,’ and having to conform to other’s standards is no longer the case in many MENA countries as a new generation of architects, artists and innovators are taking back their culture and the history embedded within it. Turks are proud of their home and open to sharing its hidden gems with any willing to learn. Entering a hammam is an act of resistance, an act of preserving history and an act of solidarity.

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