With its colorful streets, it has lately been the setting scene of several TV series. But the traditional Jewish quarter whose history goes as far back as Byzantine times hides in each corner a different story that can inspire many films and TV series.
Some of the principal actors in these stories are women, yet, as it is the case with other parts of the city, their tales are unknown to the larger public.
That’s why walks organized by Sabancı University in this legendary city’s most historic quarters come as social archeological excavations are digging deep into the historic layers of Istanbul and bringing to the surface figures that have left a mark on the city.
Since 2014 Sabancı University’s Gender and Women’s Studies Excellence Center (SU Gender) has been conducting “Curious Steps: Gender and Memory Walks,” aimed at contributing to our understanding of the city and its neighborhoods from the perspective of gender and memory.
The walks’ gender perspective enables us to discover prominent female figures who, despite their accomplishments, have remained in the shadow because of their gender.
One such figure is Eleni Fotiadou Küreman. She was Turkey’s first professional female photojournalist.
Starting her career as a press photographer in 1947 at the Associated Press agency, she then worked as a photo reporter for several newspapers.
She had to resort to different methods to outsmart her male colleagues.
“When I was a sports reporter, everybody would wait at the goal posts opposite the famous goal keepers whilst I would stand behind them as they were unlikely to let a goal slip in. Male photo reporters would tease me for this but it was me who always caught the best shots. It would always be Eleni who got the only picture when a good goal keeper failed to hold the ball,” she had said.
Her relationship with Balat? She studied in the Ioakimio Fener Greek High School, located in Balat, which is believed to take its name from palatiyon, meaning “palace” in Greek. When you google this high school, you come across another one, the Fener Greek Orthodox college. Built in the early 1880’s the institution within predates the Ottoman arrival, making it Turkey’s oldest educational body.
Still in function, the Fener Greek High School for male students overshadows the Ioakimio High School for female students not only in the cyberspace but also in physical standing too. Ioakimio’s building is barely remarkable in contrast to the Fener Greek High School, which is locally known as “red castle” for its castellated red-brick facade.
Established in 1879 for the education of Greek girls, Ioakimio, which had around 590 students, was closed in 1988 as it could no longer find students to enroll. From that time on the Fener Greek High School transitioned to mixed education.
Küreman, meanwhile, ended her professional career abruptly in 1964, after she became the only photographer to witness the fire at the Veli Efendi Hippodrome. “She left her studio for a while and when she came back she found her dark room in shambles and saw her friends looking for the pictures. She was terribly affected by this incident. She has never forgiven her friends and said goodbye to the profession,” her husband had explained.
We learn all this thanks to the storytellers, some of which are the researchers themselves who accompanied a group of journalists during the walk that took place last month.
The walk started from the Women’s Library in Balat first with the story of Selma Emiroğlu, Turkey’s first professional female cartoonist. As her cartoons became highly appreciated in the mid-1940’s when she was still in high school, Emiroğlu was asked to drop out from school to dedicate more time to the magazine she worked for at the time. As the creator of the Black Cat Gang, which was a children’s favorite, she was promised to be sent to Walt Disney on a scholarship. But once she left the school she never heard about the scholarship ever. As her workload increased, each time she asked for a pay raise she was told, “Shame on you. Why would a child like you talk about money?” She was, however, 17 at that time. As she was not rewarded for her work andpromises were not kept, she turned sour and shifted toward music, according to Mevhibe Yalçın, who made the research about her.
Gentrification of Balat
The next stop in the walk was the Blue Pencil Association whose board of directors is made up entirely of women.
“I have told the story about this association during the walk three years ago. Today I had trouble finding the location,” said the researcher and story teller Ayşegül Özadak. Nothing better than this observation can summarize the changes that the neighborhood has been undergoing. Having entered UNESCO’s World Cultural Heritage list in 1985, Balat has seen some rehabilitation and restoration projects in the 1990’s. Starting from the 2000’s, it became the target of big investors and urban transformation projects that risks the destruction of the quarter’s multi-cultural texture.
As it could not avoid partial gentrification, the shifting focus of Blue Pencil Association’s activities shows us how the neighborhood continues to be the entry point for new migrants. Having started in the 2000’s to work with children and women from low-income families that migrated from different parts of Anatolia, the association now works largely with Syrian children and women.
Just as in the gender perspective of the walks the memory dimension of the walks can turn into an exercise of remembering the sad past. Balat hosts several abandoned buildings belonging to non-Muslim minorities. One of them is Khorenyan School, which started to function in 1866.
“In 1922 the school turned into a girls’ school, because after the 1915 incidents 300 orphan girls were brought to the school,” according to Garbis Horasanciyan, who was born in Fener in 1948.
The researchers tried to dig more about the girl students who came after the WWI massacres of Armenians at the hands of the Ottomans, but the head of the Kandilli Armenian Church, İkran Kevorkyan, did not want to talk much about it, as, according to him, it would only serve to make old wounds bleed. But he did stress to the researchers that in the last 70 years Fener/Balat’s Armenian, Greek and Jewish communities have dwindled significantly.