In the beginning of this year, we proposed an exhibition project to the 9th İstanbul Biennial to be presented in a museum in Europe and wrote down the following position paper:
Our initial proposal was based on the comparative visual study of three distinct spaces of activity in Karaköy region of İstanbul: the brothels (Genelev), chandelier makers and the ablution space in a mosque.
The Production of the Chandeliers:
Several disruptions came in the way since then. First, we sensed that this artistic proposition contained a higher dose of cynicism than we intended. We try to be sharp and utterly autonomous in critique of neo-liberalism, of the state in all its forms, of the military in all its guises, of religious fanaticism and other local/global elements of oppression and control in whichever context. For this, a direct confrontation is necessary and allegory softens the manifestation, tames and appropriates it within the ‘world of art’, despite that it initially succeeded to make the point. Still at this early stage of (complex and multi-layered) artistic inquiry, we continue the process of pointing to “that object of archaeology” (the monument, Foucault would say) so dear to us, on which the catastrophic existence carved its mark. However, the concepts of ‘contamination’, ‘containment’ and a ‘transfer’ holds in continuation with xurban’s general research and production, as shall be discussed below.
Secondly, we were denied the permission to photograph and work in and around the Karaköy brothels (a complex of several dead-end streets lined with houses), through a contrived process of negotiations in between the İstanbul governer’s office and the police department. In the end, in response to our written request (which went through The İstanbul Foundation of Culture and Arts, organizer of the biennial), ‘The Government of İstanbul’s Commission on Regulations for Registered Sex Workers and the Brothels, and the Prevention of Venereal Diseases due to Prostitution’ denied permission on the basis of two codes of the ”Decree for the Prevention of Prostitution”. Both of them are based on the issue of privacy (but more, secrecy), that any information (and documentation, like photographs) regarding the registered sex workers and other involved parties cannot be made public or declared to any other parties but the ‘Commission’ itself and to some unspecified offices of the government. Thus, we could not ‘officially’ take photographs of the space, and ended up receiving some legal documents instead. The documents are the official rejection letters from the commission. For us, the significance of this assignment becomes more visible at this moment of postponement: a suspended experience on being accepted in or not. Therefore we adopt this result to our process as re-adjustment.
‘Investigative Journalism’ is never the mode of operation for xurban and aggressive investigations for the ‘hard core truth’ rarely yield the artistic outcome we look for in our works. However, even with an arbitrary look at the city of İstanbul, we can see that the major part of prostitution takes place outside the jurisdiction of the local government, that is, outside the brothels of Karaköy. In fact, this does not mean that the ‘officials’ (ie. the police) get by without their informal and regular cut of the trade all over the city. As had been the case in the west, outlined in Nickie Roberts’s excellent book titled “Whores in History”, the history of prostitution since after medieval times had been marked by hypocrisy, extortion, regulation, taxing and cycles of criminalisation and laxity by different elements of institutions (ie. of the church and of the state.) The book cites two women from the English Collective of Prostitutes who reject the outsiders’ definition of the ‘pimp’: “…The biggest pimps, the people who make money directly or indirectly from prostitutes, operate with the blessing of the law –owners of chains of nightclubs, … hotel owners, the government through fines and taxes... The state is the biggest pimp." (Nickie Roberts, Whores in History: Prostitution in Western Society. London: Harper Collins, 1993. P.301) We have no reason not to believe this is also the case in Turkey. By denying access to merely photograph the buildings and streets of Karaköy brothels (as we never asked permission for portraits or ‘people photography’, but to photograph during the off hours of early morning) the commission -whose members are representatives of the police and several medical doctors- had cordoned off and ‘contained’ an already tightly controlled area (ie. like a military zone), and we were further given the excuse of the ‘touchy situation of brothels’ informally over the phone by a member of the police. And this, we believe, rather than protecting the vulnerable girls from being lured into Karaköy and prostitution (as had been stated in the above mentioned legal codes), criminalizes and segregates the sex worker into extreme isolation and leaves them at the mercy of the clandestine cooperation between the mafioso organisation and the local officials.
The ‘lore’ of Genelev in the literature and cinema of Turkey goes back for decades, and in the past it mostly dwelled on the pity for the sex worker seduced into her existing condition without any future and against her will. In the end, it was usually the good guy that pulled the fallen woman out of her misery. Through a patriarchal hypocrisy, it is never acknowledged that these women may be selling sexual services by their own free will and more importantly, for their ultimate economic freedom and welfare. Given the dismal wages and conditions of women contributing to the work force in this country, the double farce of pity shown by the state and the intelligentsia lead to an incurable repression and a final eviction of the registered sex worker on the basis of bourgeois morality and the totally invalid claim of preventing the ever changing modes of sexually transmitted disease. As documented in Roberts’s book, sex workers in the west are the most cautious when it comes to sexually transmitted disease and we believe this is also the case in İstanbul. Statistics show that the rate of HIV infection among prostitutes are around five percent overall in Europe and the USA (probably less in Turkey) and it is usually the men that demand sexual services without the necessary precautions (more so in Turkey). The myth that sex workers are the sole carriers and distributors of venereal disease opens the way for tighter control, intervention and oppression. The legal codes of The Republic of Turkey regulating prostitution date back to 1961 without any updates, and among the complete legislation there is neither one single reference to HIV infection, nor to the word ‘AIDS.’ Instead, it is filled with commanding language on the frequency and conditions of medical check-ups, and with intimidations of both ‘registering’ (read branding) any woman remotely believed to be selling sex, and then of revoking the license (livelihood) of the sex worker who fail the medical examination: a double hold-up by the morality that represents the state.
Thinking further on the issue of the ‘transfer of contamination’ (the garbage from the brothels) we came upon a retro-contradictory case of etymology. In Turkish, ‘Frengi’ means ‘syphilis’ and the word designates what came from the west, ie. Europe (Frank). One renown case belongs to Gustave Flaubert in 19th century as he toured the orient. Flaubert believed to have contracted syphilis in Beirut, before coming to İstanbul, but apparently this did not prevent him to seek pleasure in the brothels of Beyoğlu, although to his embarrassment when asked to show his badly disfigured genitals beforehand. The orientalist connotations of Flaubert’s affairs notwithstanding, in a conservative/Muslim milieu the venereal disease is still the sign of sin worthy of the infidel, and one can deduce how this feeling of immunity and hypocritical fatalism act on the sexual practices of Muslim men. Meanwhile, when we hoped for the delivery of the Karaköy garbage to be exhibited in Europe, we were not planning for an extensive medical analyses of the contents of the hazardous material container. It was basically a gesture of metaphoric dimensions.
The antiquated discourse on the peaceful co-existence in Ottoman İstanbul, observing the multi-ethnic and multi-national demographics up until early 20th century, is still being revived, and to a large extent it is used as hard evidence to claim a cosmopolitan/European identity and a Muslim tolerance. But the oppression/expulsion of different nationals set in motion by the State of the Republic of Turkey overwhelms even the best of apologists: İstanbul had been re-conquered at different times in the last century by Turks of pure blood, by Sunni Muslims and more, again by their lethal combination. Thus, nowadays the pitiable official benevolence and concessions to the ‘minorities’ plays around the prospect of an approving nod from future partners in Europe. The urban area concerning this research, namely from Karaköy to Galata and Pera (Beyoğlu), happen to be the axis in İstanbul where the European nationals were once concentrated. The retrospective re-thinking of the placement of brothels and the urban setting, however, does not give us any illusions about the course of our mission: We are not able to say that Genelev is already European territory, even when the idea tickles our imagination. The best we can do is to pinpoint the local context in which the main Ashkenazi Synagogue of İstanbul (built in 1900 on the former site of the Austrian Temple) shares a wall with the brothels; Saint Benoit college and its chapel (located there since 1400s) and the Surp Pirgic Armenian Catholic Church being in very close proximity; and churches, synagogues and mission schools all in the vicinity, together with the most venerable Tekke of Mevlevi Dervishes and the tomb of Galip Dede. Otherwise, today the exclusively national co-existence, unity and solidarity in this busiest of İstanbul’s hubs is located among varied trades and businesses: lighting fixtures, satellite dish antennas, sign-makers in neon and perspex, offices and retail shops. Around the corner and down the street from brothels is the İstanbul headquarters of the National Reserve Bank of Turkey (Merkez Bankası), accompanied by several other national/international bank offices and insurance companies. The sirens from the armoured vans carrying ‘cold hard cash’ to and from the Reserve Bank agitates the busy transaction in the area with an aphrodisiac effect: Money can’t wait.
One of the main objectives of the proposed project was to observe visually, through photographs and video, the spatial analogies of an urban setting (inner city, in this case) used for two distinct modes of labour: sexual and material production. We would not know if the male pride of workers (at the workshops for lighting fixtures, for example) would be offended, given the fact that their working space is compared vis-à-vis to that of the sex workers’. Meanwhile, through various conversations it was revealed that the majority do not have qualms about working in the vicinity of the brothels. Some say that the facilities better be moved outside the city (lately a general trend for the state licensed brothels in other cities in Turkey), and this, we tend to believe, has other motivations than exclusion. Overall, we surmise the issue is class-based: The state licensed brothels, with the low fees of approximately 17 to 22 Turkish Liras (13-17 USD) per visit caters to the working class and it obviously appears that these men tend to regard sex workers to be hard labourers, who receive 40 to 50 percent of this fee. Although never acknowledged, we can even go further to assert that the working class men sympathise with the licensed sex worker bearing the extreme hardship of labour. And this unacknowledged bond, transcending the machismo of a certain brand of Muslim men, set the rules of interaction inside the brothel. Our observation is that the contained brothels at Karaköy is the turf in which the sex worker is on an equal footing with men (the prospective customer), if not stronger. This is one of the distinguishing features in the mentioned spatial comparison, and outside the brothel the sex worker is always prone to male violence as had been the case all over the world.
In Karakoy brothels, for instance, men wait around the entrance of each house. As their eyes scan women, they keep an appropriate distance from each other and from sex workers. They move and act together in silence; they navigate from one house to another. On Saturdays and Sundays, packs of off-duty soldiers are flowing into the neighbourhood. They are young, inexperienced and they appear to be scared. In these instances, sex workers have control over their territory, aided by their semi-naked postures. They sometimes aggressively call their men: “Sssht, why don’t you come? I am going to say something to your ear!” Silence for a moment, he goes to hear, she puts her arm around his shoulders, asks some questions, awakens interest. If he turns around and leaves, she challenges his sexual capacity. If sex workers don’t like their customers’ attitude, they yell at them. In return, men obey the unwritten rules: they have to maintain certain respect.
While we were waiting to get the official letters from the Governer’s office, we decided to take some photos, ‘secretly’ and of course from outside the main gate, as no belongings are allowed in, other that what you would carry in your pocket (no bags, luggage, and indeed no cameras.) One man approached us. He realized (heard) that we were taking pictures through the gate of the Genelev, and got very angry! He was no official but he took the initiative to protect the brothels, like a hero, putting himself on the frontline, in the name of Turkish Republic. We explained that we were photographers with no bad intentions. He asked us not to publicize the brothels to the world. He strongly and angrily suggested us to go and take photos of historical buildings, not the brothels.
Indeed, we did! We went to Fatih Mosque neigborhood, one of the heavily Islamic districts of İstanbul. (We felt that heat is something quite democratic, no one can escape.) Everybody were sitting and waiting around the religious compound. Fatih Sultan Mehmet, the sultan who conquered Constantinople, is the emperor to end East Roman Empire.
Now we are waiting, with all the institutions, the gates are wide open: you can come in but you better keep silent, no recording allowed.
On one hand, Turkish duplicity becomes even more apparent when considering the rupture between the militarized secular state, the Islamists, the Nationalists and Europe. Of course, the encompassing powers of business, now read as neo-liberal economic discourse(s), play an important role, like that of a glue, acting as omnipresent truth, continuously telling old stories in new ways. The state has the de-facto role to keep and mediate the newly established neo-liberal rules and it protects them from the lower classes. The working class in general has to be contained and controlled in factories, in hospitals, in small workshops, in prisons, and then of course in the brothels. Democracy is pushed forward by the neo-liberals, fuelled by the dream that one day Turkey will be accepted to join the club. In this context, democratization is rather presented as a managerial issue, not a right that all the citizens of Turkey deserved long ago.
On the other hand, as we stated earlier, European conservative camp and nationalist left present the issue as a demographic, cultural, economic and political impossibility. Here, our intention is in no way to defend or prove that Turkey is European, or to claim that there is a possibility of ‘cultural’ integration. We rather want to show that the European camp, charged with certain nationalist morality, wants to keep the distance intact. And with similar prudence, the Turkish state, nationalists and Islamists in Turkey rely on the moral status quo for separation from the lower classes (only in this case the lower classes are citizens of Turkey as well.) It is not the ‘clash of civilizations’ that restrict the mixture but the bourgeois morality that wants to control and contain the working classes and eliminate the freedom of movement, while intending to keep the land and people open to exploitation.
Reflecting back, what we have tried to do until this time had always a sense of urgency, embedded in particular time and space. The urgency is the way we perceive the life-world bound by the present, to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger in the finite continuum of space, and that space is always ideologically charged. As trivial as the problem of European integration is, and as burdensome the past weighs on us, the curve they trace once more point at the paths of resistance on the globe: Justice for all!
this article is xurban_collective's contribution to publication: Art, City and Politics in An Expanding World Writings from the 9th International İstanbul Biennial. İstanbul: 2005