‘The Exception Which Proves the Rule’: Gurbet and Historical Constellations of Mobility in Istanbul’s Old City
Affiliation: University College London, GB
Chapter from the book: Rommel C. & Viscomi J. 2022. Locating the Mediterranean: Connections and Separations across Space and Time.
Regimes of relative location in much of the former Ottoman Mediterranean position migrating from one’s hometown or village as ‘going to gurbet’ – a term that best translates as ‘exile’ (Said 2000) – and those who leave are expected to perform exile in various ways. In contemporary Turkey, this expectation is particularly upheld among those who lack the social and institutional capital to navigate strict international visa schemes. In the Ottoman era, other mobile trajectories were available to peasants wishing to see more of the world, but these were lost in the structural upheavals of the transition to the modern nation-state era. However, the phenomenological descendants of mobile figures like bandits did not go extinct with the societal structures that begat them. Drawing on more than 18 months of ethnographic fieldwork in Istanbul’s touristic Sultanahmet district, this chapter identifies the disconnect between historical and modern constellations of socio-spatial movement, and explores how it renders the subjectivities of some young men ‘unintelligible’ (Butler 2009) to normative sociability today. These subjectivities are distinct for their affective detachment from gurbet, so their efforts to self-actualise mobile aspirations initially go unrecognised. Those who exhibit sufficient ‘performative excellence’ (Herzfeld 1985) to enact these aspirations, however, are then disparaged as upstarts and explained away as ‘exceptions’.