The Soul in the City – Orhan Pamuk’s 'A Strangeness in My Mind'

Words like “comforting” and “reassuring” don’t seem sufficiently “sexy” praise for a literary work on this scale, but these are the only words to describe its effect (on this reader, at least).


“Boooooozaaaaaaaaa!” “Booooooooooozaaaaaaaa!!”

This cry rings out through the backstreets of Istanbul, from 1969 to 2012 in Orhan Pamuk’s grand, sprawling new novel A Strangeness In My Mind. Words like “comforting” and “reassuring” don’t seem sufficiently “sexy” praise for a literary work on this scale, but these are the only words to describe its effect (on this reader, at least). For all of its 624 pages, I felt enveloped in a sense of deep calm, anchored by Mevlut, a street vendor and the main character, who for four decades, through political convulsions, economic upheavals, and family dramas finds his sense of belonging in wandering the city streets at night selling boza, a thick, spiced, wheat-based, semi-alcoholic winter drink from Ottoman times, and a symbol of all that is sad and beautiful about civilization.

Mevlut is not exactly what you’d call a “go-getter.” Born in a small Turkish village, he follows his father to Istanbul as a teenager to sell yogurt in the streets (a profession soon to be doomed by refrigeration and mass production). Like tens of thousands of other poor workers, they colonize a square of land in one of Istanbul’s growing shantytowns and build a “gecekondu” (“night condo” — so called because they’re built literally overnight) with a dirt floor. For a while Mevlut goes to school, but growing political tensions in the city between nationalists and Kurds soon tear his high school apart, and Mevlut’s too exhausted from nocturnal work anyway to be much of a student. Ultimately, inevitably, he drops out and becomes a full-time street vendor.


Boza, a mildly alcoholic Turkish beverage traditionally sold by street vendors

There is a Turkish cultural trait — a sweetly melancholic emotion called huzun, which Pamuk writes about at length in his memoir Istanbul — Memories and the City. As an outsider from the chipper, forward-looking US of A, my best understanding of huzun is that it’s a kind of sweet surrender to fate, a cultural shrugging of the shoulders in response to the inevitable suffering of daily life. It’s hard to imagine an outlook more antithetical to the “Go West, Young Man!” entrepreneurial spirit of the country in which my own worldview was forged, although our traditional music — blues, folk-country, Appalachian high harmony — draws from a similar well of wistfulness and sorrow at things lost.

Mevlut is kind of the embodiment of huzun. Throughout his 40 year career and the rise of Istanbul from a city of 2 million to more than 9 million people, he sells yogurt, rice with chickpeas, and boza, always making barely enough money to get by. Relatives advise him to get into some other line of work, but he cheerfully refuses, stoically shouldering his baskets each day and setting forth with a sense of inevitability and belonging. In selling boza (a constant nocturnal activity throughout his life), Mevlut is consciously calling out to and from Istanbul’s ancient past, stitching together its fragmented social fabric.* And after 200 pages of feeling frustrated with him for not being more ambitious (silly American!), I ultimately had to accept the fact that Mevlut is happy. Happy with his job, happy with his wife Rayiha and their two daughters, happy with his little life, in part because of his huzunlu acceptance that it’s his lot in life — his fate.

Meanwhile, all around Mevlut, the city is changing. One subtheme of the book (and a fact of life for Istanbul’s millions of residents) is the tectonic inevitability of massive earthquake that is expected at any moment to level the entire city. The earthquake never happens, of course, but all around Mevlut political revolutions and aggressive waves of industrialization repeatedly tear down and rebuild the city around him. Through it all, Mevlut is the constant, the only reliable thing in a world that’s constantly reinventing itself. And while contempt is an easy reaction to his intractability, his personal conservatism, he is also in a sense the soul of the city, the thing that makes Istanbul Istanbul, and that no amount of progress can erase.

*One fun note about boza: Its typical alcohol content is around 3 percent, which made it popular in Islamically strict Ottoman Turkey (prior to the establishment of the modern Republic in 1923) because people could pretend it was non-alcoholic. Even in Mevlut’s day, the few remaining boza vendors won’t admit to customers that boza contains alcohol, although everyone knows that it does. Like Istanbul (or any great city), boza is subtle, sublunary, not always what it seems.

-- 

@jgots is me on Twitter

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Maps show how CNN lost America to Fox News

Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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