By the time you read this, Istanbul will still be riding the high from its reign as European Cultural Capital 2010. But the question still remains: Is Istanbul European? Well, yes and no. Geologically, Istanbul sits atop both Europe and Asia. But in every other facet -- history, culture, music, cuisine -- the delineation isn't so clear. What is clear, though, is that the city is fast becoming Europe's, Asia's, and even the world's most exclusive ticket. While the rest of the world hunkers down amid a global recession, Istanbul pulsates with the energy of popularity, progress, and its very own aggressive brand of capitalism. Upscale restaurants, cafes, and opera houses are packed, even on weekdays. New, über-deluxe ventures by celebrity chefs and hoteliers serve as magnets for the international and moneyed elite. And the artistic scene is growing, thriving, and nurturing the next generation of writers, directors, artists, designers, and filmmakers. Even environmental consciousness and a new attention on healthy living is taking hold via all-organic boutique hotels, organic groceries, and yoga classes around town.
Yet amid all of this, well, Europeanization, Istanbul is reacting like a microcosm of globalization: Every move upward, outward, westward, and forward is met with resistance and even backlash, most conspicuously on view via the struggle over the headscarf. As in any major cosmopolitan city, the economic (and especially here, the cultural) striations are pronounced. Women in chadors are increasingly strolling through Sultanahmet, down Istiklal Caddesi, or through the tony streets of Nisantasi; low-wage workers and craftsmen flood the streets of Eminönü, Karaköy, and Tarlabasi; adolescent shoeshine boys along Istiklal double as would-be gigolos; child-urchins hawk tissues and bottled water along the city's major arteries. And yes, the authorities do apprehend homegrown terrorists from time to time. It's a push-me, pull-me environment beneath the white-glove, "whatever, whenever" style service increasingly offered by hotels to their discriminating clientele. As the European Union wrestles with the prospect of Turkish E.U. membership, the European bloc is betting on Istanbul as a European front-runner by deluging the city with foreign investment and hosting (so to speak) Istanbul's 2010 debutante ball. The question then is: Who will take charge over the cleanup after the party's over?
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