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OInterviews and Personal Narratives

A small number of in-depth interviews have also been conducted with elderly inhabitants of Kasap ƒlyas. Nine of them were with Kasap ƒlyas-born men who were still in touch with their mahalle of origin, and one was with the wife of a former muhtar. The interviews were conducted either in their homes or in a coffeehouse in the mahalle where elderly people regularly met on Sundays. We attempted to obtain informants from as wide a range of social strata as possible but the paucity of the numbers involved invalidates any claims of “representativity.”
Not surprisingly, we have had difficulty in obtaining precise chronological information about occurrences in the neighborhood. The temporal construction of each of the biographical narratives hinged on the remembrance of a past and lost “imagined community.” Nevertheless, these interviews have provided very useful general information on daily life in the neighborhood and on its inhabitants in the first half of the twentieth century. We have thereby also obtained important clues on intracommunity relationships, on the self-image of the neighborhood community as a whole as well as, more generally, on twentieth-century local identities in Istanbul. Local myths and legends seem to have played an important role in the definition of the inhabitants of the mahalle.
The interviews also provided us with insights into the values and aspirations of men and women living in the integrated atmosphere of a traditional Istanbul neighborhood before the Second World War. During the interviews, most of the older Kasap ƒlyas inhabitants have spontaneously referred to the “foundation myths” of their mahalle with a mixture of pride and nostalgia, and have all expressed deep regret at the disappearance of the local ‘asabiyya in Istanbul. Many of the interviewees, for instance, took great pride in the “authentic old Istanbul” nature of their mahalle of origin, which they viewed as a proof of aristocracy. They all missed and deeply regretted the former internal solidarity networks.
The Istanbulites, in their public life, often saw their mahalle as a direct extension of their untouchable individual private space, of their inner personal domain. Their doorstep, their (often dead-end) street, and their mahalle were indeed transitional stages between their private and public spheres of activity. Therefore for many people, to talk about a mahalle implied conducting, in a sense, a first-person narrative discourse.
On the other hand, Ottoman historians have sufficiently stressed the fact that there was no widespread tradition of first-person narrative writing, no “personal” literature, or autobiographical materials worthy of that name in Ottoman times, at least not before well into the second half of the nineteenth century.
There are exceptions, of course, but the exaggerated value attached to them is of a kind that tends to confirm the rule. The dearth of Ottoman/Turkish historical sources centered on the singularity of individual lives has been sufficiently underlined. The personal voice, the distantiation of the observer to the observed, the autobiographical touch, and the opinionated observation of daily events is something that is virtually impossible to find before the winds of “Westernization” could seriously affect daily social life in Ottoman cities.
As to the very few available personal narratives, they do not furnish sufficient material for the construction of personalized histories. Nor are they numerous enough, or do they constitute a fruitful perspective leading to a view of society “from the bottom up.”39 This state of affairs, for the time being, erects almost insuperable barriers to the detailed study of Ottoman popular life and culture in past centuries. The building of a meaningful, consistent, and continuous Ottoman/Turkish histoire des mentalités is, by the same token, a formidable enterprise. As things now stand, therefore, an Ottoman/Turkish equivalent of a Montaillou or of a “Merchant of Prato” seems quite impossible to reconstruct.
Take, for instance, our exceptionally conscientious late nineteenth-century Kasap ƒlyas muhtars and imams. These two officials have very carefully noted down hundreds of local events, filled up pages and pages with notes of local occurrences, and kept a personal archive full of various official matters of sometimes minor local importance. Some of the events that happened in the neighborhood didn’t even require the official seal and did not even need to be officially registered.
Nevertheless, these two people, through pages and pages of local records, never give as much as a single clue either about themselves, their families, or their daily lives. Besides, they have never put down in writing a single personal opinion or viewpoint. The tone that prevails in their handwritten documents concerning the mahalle is a totally flat and impersonal one. The events that took place in Kasap ƒlyas were uniformly related in a crisp, dry style, often evocative of shorthand notation. Nowhere does the mental attitude of the muhtar and the imam toward these events, their work in general, their immediate social environment, or themselves transpire in any way. The tone is that of a zealous scribe who does his job well, often does more than what is required of him, and puts down in writing a maximum of information. But the scribe never distantiates himself from the duty of officially recording events. That these events in the Kasap ƒlyas mahalle were taking place in a very close environment and that almost all of them involved people who were well-known both to the muhtar and to the imam have made no difference.
The selectivity among the types of recorded events is not revealing either. All social and demographic events, whether a birth, a death, the arrival to the mahalle and the registration of a newcomer, or even a simple signature apposed on a sales contract, get exactly the same flat and impersonal treatment.
Besides, these zealous and careful scribes always chose to remain incognito. Not once do they directly sign their books or documents, or mention their own names and identities, which we have had to discover by following the changes in handwriting, by cross-checking with other sources, and by capitalizing on minor textual hints. Official or unofficial local chronicles are a type of historical source that is not to be found in Ottoman Istanbul. Whether all of this constitutes sufficient reason for explaining the absence, especially before the second half of the nineteenth century, of any documentation on life in the Istanbul mahalle, is a matter to reflect upon. Microscale social and economic studies have not yet managed to appear as a promising research area for Ottoman and Middle Eastern historians.
We do not go so far as asserting that the Kasap ƒlyas mahalle was, in any sense of the word, representative of the whole of traditional Istanbul—or even of its more modest portion; nor can we say that it was a “typical” Ottoman/ Turkish urban community neighborhood. Whether such a thing as a “typical” Ottoman city, which would also impose unique characteristics upon their various quarters and their inhabitants, ever existed is doubtful. To situate and describe a precise Ottoman local urban identity and to document its demographic and social evolution is, in itself, a sufficient challenge.
Otherwise, it might well be that Kasap ƒlyas has followed a strictly individual and inimitable path, that it has had an evolution that is totally sui generis. The highly unusual set of historical documents that have survived for this mahalle would, if anything, tend to set our neighborhood apart from the
others. The care with which the successive imams and muhtars of nineteenthcentury Kasap ƒlyas took note of the demographic events that occurred in the mahalle is truly surprising. This is even more of a contrast when set against the background of a total absence of any Ottoman/Muslim habit of registering, reporting, or centralizing vital events. The impressive collection of local waqf documents that the local imams carefully preserved is just as unusual.
These quite exceptional local headmen might well have been the products of an exceptional mahalle. The lesson, if any, to be drawn from Kasap ƒlyas would be to emphasize the extreme diversity and dissimilarity of urban neighborhoods, as well as their fluidity.

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