The sun glints off the waves of the Bosporus as the wind skims across the surface of the water, and power boats, tourist ships and ferries cruise between the shores of Europe and Asia on Istanbul’s great waterway. I’ve arrived to an Indian summer in this city at the crossroads of Europe, Asia and the Middle East after a PEN International Congress an hour and a half away in Belgrade where the theme was Literature—Language of the World.
I’m here with purpose and meetings, but for the afternoon I have a few hours to sit on the banks of the waterway and write and contemplate the bridges linking the two continents and consider what it takes to construct and maintain a bridge.
While I’m in Istanbul, the newspapers have been filled with headlines about Turkey’s Prime Minister Erdogan’s trip to Libya, Egypt and Tunisia and his message to those involved in the Arab Spring. He urges the citizens to adopt “laicism” and become “laic states” like Turkey. (‘Laicism’ is the secular control of political and social institutions in society.) The message from this Muslim leader has stirred controversy, especially from neighboring Iran which has warned against the Western secular state.
The bridge at question here is a mighty and lengthy suspension bridge between religion and politics, between the state and its citizens. It swings over centuries of history. The concept of “citizen” wasn’t applicable for a large swath of history and geography and is still problematic in many countries which perceive their residents as serving the state and those in power, which often include the clergy, rather than the state and its leaders serving their citizens.
All one needs to do is wander through the grounds of the splendid and opulent Topkapi Palace, which Sultan Mehmed built after he conquered Constantinople (now Istanbul) in the fifteenth century. He declared the city as one of the three capitols of the Ottoman Empire and proceeded to spend the state’s treasury on the palace. Later others spent it on a lavish harem filled with women who only the Sultan had the right to visit. The Ottoman Empire, which stretched over two million square miles at its height and spanned over 600 years, bore the motto: “The Eternal State.”
A decade after the Sultan finished his new palace at Sarayburnu, Spanish trading ships sailed across the Atlantic and ran into a land they named America. Here ideas of citizenship would evolve and the residents of this new territory would challenge, along with those from other nations, the monarchies and empires of Europe.
The role and boundaries of citizenship continue to evolve. I remain hopeful that the full rights of all citizens might emerge in the uprisings in the Middle East. On the Bosporus I’m sitting now on the European side, and I see that the ferry I’ve been watching has arrived on the Asian shore.