Saturday, May 17, 2008

Tram Cars and Armenians

I've been reading David Fromkin's excellent history of the Middle East, A Peace to End All Peace. The book is riveting in its accounts, but depressing in its grim assessment of the obliviousness and short-sightedness of the politics of the time. This is, admittedly, a good thing, but it is, after pages and pages of reading, disheartening. It almost feels like some kind of voyeurism or schadenfreude is necessary to keep moving through the thing.

Meanwhile, as a kind of break from the heavy-handedness of Fromkin's history, I've also been reading Orhan Pamuk's autobiography, Istanbul (late at night I will literally switch between the two on and off). A passage at the end of the chapter I was reading struck me in particular last night. Pamuk writes,
"The trams had been going up and down our street since 1914, connecting Maçka and Nişantşı to Taksim Square, Tünel, and the Galata Bridge, and all the other old, poor, historic neighborhoods that then seemed to belong to another country. When I went to bed in the early evenings, I'd be lulled to sleep by the melancholy music of the trams. I loved their wooden interiors, the indigo-blue glass on the bolted door between the driver's 'station' and the passenger area; I loved the crank that the driver would let me play with if we got on the end of the line and had to wait to leave...until we could travel home again, the streets, the apartments, and even the trees in black and white." (p. 33)
I had literally just put down Fromkin's book, which had just been explaining the massacre of the Armenians, starting around 1915, perpetrated by the Young Turk government. I had just been reading about international negligence that led to the deaths of thousands of mostly innocent people--and then here I was reading this nostalgic, waxing account of a tram car.

And as I read it somehow warmed my heart to think that amidst all these sweeping historical changes, these massacres and these political upheavals, this turbulent time, that the quotidian reality of that tram car didn't change. It went up and down, up and down the street, with its "melancholy music," oblivious to the context of its time, simply moving back and forth as it should. The consistency of this tram car, I thought, at the very least might provide some kind of facade of normality--as the fall of the Ottoman Empie, and the destruction of the Pasha's mansions (the chapter's title) drew nearer.

So I found myself inexplicably mollified, but even more than that fascinated. I have decided that this is the best way to delve into historical moments: interpolating two vastly different accounts of a period. The interpolation of these two books is incidental at best but nonetheless amazing--on one hand is a cut-and-dry macroscopic history, and on the other is a microscopic, personalised ode to a city and a country.

The real joy of the book--aside from Pamuk's endearing and honest prose, obviously--is the photographs, slid easily and effortlessly throughout chapters. And so here, dear readers, I present to you the tram car: stoic and oblivious.

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