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Istanbul's last Levantine misses the old Beyoğlu

ASLI SAĞLAM – Istanbul | 1/22/2007 12:00:00 AM |

Giovanni Scognamillo, whose grandfather, together with his wife, immigrated to Turkey from Naples, was born in Istanbul in 1929. Growing up in Pera among the Levantines of Istanbul, Scognamillo says he has never felt lonely or like a stranger in Istanbul

Books spill over bookshelves and are scattered around on the floor, behind the doors…  A computer is on in the living room. Cigarettes are on the coffee table. These are the first details that strike one in the home of this prominent author, historian, and researcher. Born in 1929 in Istanbul, Giovanni Scognamillo is one of the last Levantines left in Istanbul.  After his graduation from the Italian High School's Literature department, Scognamillo started writing film critiques for the local, and then foreign press. He has written nearly 60 books since then.  He has lived on four streets in Beyoğlu – Asmalı Mescit, Kallavi, Postacılar and Bolahenk – where he has been living for the past 10 years. He talks about the old Beyoğlu with yearning and nostalgia. The Pera neighborhood, housing people of various nationalities, was constructed by Levantines and other minorities – including Jews, Greeks, Armenians – in Istanbul. Even though the Muslim-Turkish residents were the majority in the neighborhood, according to the historical population censuses, most of the entertainment venues and shops were owned by the minorities. Levantines and minorities were predominant in banking and commerce. While the total number of Italians living in Istanbul was between 5,000 and 6,000 during the 1960s, that number today has dwindled to only a couple of hundred. 

I never felt lonely or stranger in Istanbul:  Scognamillo's grandfather, together with his wife, immigrated to Turkey from Naples. He continued his profession as a chef in the Austrian Consulate, in French schools, and the Italian Consulate in Istanbul. According to the author, his grandfather's immigration was caused by the economic or social circumstances of the time. Having grown up among the Levantines in Turkey, Scognamillo says he has never felt lonely or like a stranger in Istanbul.  Scognamillo defines Beyoğlu as “a fortress of the west.” He explains that many western commodities, such as theater, cinema, the gramophone, the bicycle, western music, classical music, and opera, first arrived in this neighborhood, to be later absorbed by the rest of Istanbul and then by the rest of Turkey. He says, “Beyoğlu was a free zone.” Most Levantines would gather at church on Sundays and at their embassies or cultural centers on religious or national holidays. The history of Levantines, who also maintained good relations with the Germans and the French in Istanbul go as far back as the Byzantine era. The settlement of foreigners in Beyoğlu occurs as follows: Churches and high-schools were established next to consulates, and the citizens of that country locate around this center, and thereby quarters are created. Of course, entertainment is not forgotten.  Scognamillo speaks of two different organizations of Italians. The first is the Italian Workers' Association and the other is the Italian Cultural Center. Pointing out that the social events organized in the Italian Workers' Association, where national holidays and Christmas is celebrated, has decreased in number, Scognamillo says that, located in Tepebaşı, the Italian Cultural Center does not hold as many activities as it used to. He shows the decreasing number of the younger generation, most members of which have left Turkey to continue their education or work abroad and have never returned, as the reason behind the termination of the lively social life of the Levantines. 

Last Levantines of Istanbul:  Scognamillo notes that the Levantines still living in Istanbul are of his own age and that, as they are the last generation, there may be no more Levantines left in Istanbul in a short while. He has never considered living in Italy. He says, “My favorite city abroad is London.” Scognamillo, the author of seven books on Turkish cinema (“History of Turkish Cinema,” “Fantastic Turkish Cinema,” “Erotic Turkish Cinema,” “Turkish Cinema and Turks in the Western Cinema,” “Six Directors of Turkish Cinema,” “Şener Şen in Turkish Cinema” and “Mr. Cinema: Türker İnanoğlu”) is worried about the developments in Turkish cinema today. He says, “Yeşilçam (the Turkish cinema industry) was founded on an inflationist structure.” Saying that Turkish cinema did not have international distribution before, Scognamillo explains that the collapse of Turkish cinema was caused by the fact that the 200 to 300 films produced yearly had to do with only local distribution within Turkey. According to him, the popular films of today attract attention not because of their quality but because of the advertisements. Comparing films that become popular due to their well-known actors and those that receive awards or have won critical acclaim, Scognamillo concludes that “popular” does not mean “good” when it comes to films. The author likes the works of Turkish directors Yavuz Turgul, Yeşim Ustaoğlu and Kutluğ Ataman.  Saying, “We now live in a post-modern Beyoğlu,” Scognamillo reminds us that in the old days, while going out, a gentleman would wear a suit, a tie, and a felt hat. “Even we have kept abreast of the times and see wearing a felt hat as odd,” he remonstrates.    

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