My Turkish students who were born before 1980 have seen dramatic changes in their country. They recall a time when electricity to homes performed erratically, when outdoor toilets were commonplace, and housing was substandard and dilapidated even in the city. Only one television network was broadcast -- neighbors would crowd around to watch "Dallas" and to imagine an astonishing world beyond the nation's borders and across the ocean, giving them the sense they were way behind the material comforts some Western nations offered their people.
Since then, a frenzy of construction has created the reliable infrastructure of a late 20th century nation -- paved roads and superhighways, clean water, stable electricity, high-rise apartments filled with modern conveniences like washing machines. Some people even have dryers and microwave ovens. While it is still possible to find outdoor toilets in villages and the countryside, there has been a mass migration of citizens from rural to urban areas and the vast majority of people have indoor plumbing. Most roads are paved, and there are superhighways between major cities.
Turkey is hurling into the 21st century at break-neck speed with rapid economic growth. More than a million new jobs were created in Turkey in 2010, while Europe and the US emerged (barely) from recession and a shrinking economy. The Turkish economy is projected to confidently add millions more new jobs in the coming years.
I realize that what I observe of Turkey in 2009, 2010, and 2011 is only a snapshot. The old ways could all but disappear in a few years. Sadly, dreary high-rises and high-density developments are probably here to stay, replacing single-family dwellings, changing the ways people interact with each other, separating them from nature and natural environments. My students already say that they know the fresh foods that their grandparents grow in the village are far better for them than what they are able to get in grocery stores in the city.
I played for my students a video from Joni Mitchell's 1970 song, "Big Yellow Taxi," with the clever lines, "pave paradise and put up a parking lot." It seemed to resonate with them.
Photographer George Georgiou has sought to capture "the effect of rapid modernization and urbanization on Turkey's national psyche" in his book, “Fault Lines: Turkey East/West.” "A fierce struggle is taking place between modernity and tradition, secularism and Islamism, democracy and repression," he writes, "often in unlikely and contradictory combinations. Usually these tensions focus almost exclusively on Istanbul, the Kurdish issue, or religion, ignoring the far deeper complexities of a large country searching for a modern identity." While living in Turkey for five years,
"I was surprised at how quickly change was taking place: landscapes, towns, and cities reshaped, an extensive road network under construction, town centers "beautified," and large apartment blocks springing up at a rapid rate around every town and city. Almost always, the architecture and infrastructure follow the same blueprint. Cities are becoming carbon copies of each other."
Modernization, urbanization, and changes in national identity are "happening at breakneck speed against a rising tide of nationalism and religion," he writes.
In an interview with Hot Shoe magazine, Georgiou observes that people from the West and from less developed countries in Asia and Africa look at the book in different ways. Westerners look at the modern architecture and find it depressing -- "we had buildings like this going up in the 1960s...we know of the failure of this kind of architecture and have preconceived notions of what they represent." But when he showed the book to people in Nigeria, the response was, "I wish we had buildings like that in Lagos."
A New York Times review of Georgiou's book says he "has visually put his finger on a kind of listless alienation which at times can seem to pervade globalized society." In traditional Turkish society, men gathered in the community each day to socialize with each other, friends they had known since early childhood and whose families had known each other for generations. That is far more difficult in these high-rise complexes, possibly leading to a sense of alienation.
And yet, Georgiou describes himself as a "strangely optimistic person."
“I don’t believe that we are all going to end up the same because of globalization,” he said. “When I am in the States, it still feels like the States as opposed to Europe, which still feels like Europe. In general we are always making our lives better with each generation.”
As if to underscore this optimism, the book ends on a refreshingly hopeful note. After pages of bleak urban landscapes, the last few pages are devoted to a series of portraits of young people shot against blue sky. To the photographer, these images of youth — pictured as they walk through Taksim Square, the modern heart of Istanbul — seem to reject much of what has come before, and speak to the power of individuals to create their own destinies. “It is as if they are each saying, ‘We will not allow ourselves to be defined by others.’”