Beyond the Glitter: Belly Dance and Neoliberal Gentrification in Istanbul

Peer Reviewed


With manifold projects of historic preservation, gentrification, and urban renewal, Istanbul has transformed over the last two decades into a preeminent metropolis and tourist destination against the backdrop of an increasingly neoliberalized and moderately Islamic, yet secular, E.U.-aspirant Turkey. In this article, Potuoğlu-Cook examines through an embodied lens the complex interplay among shifting practices of belly dance, new Islamic veiling, and urban space in contemporary Istanbul. Inan analysis grounded in a series of ethnographic sites that include an elite concert hall, a tourist restaurant, a dance class, a local nightclub, and a retail store, Potuoğlu-Cook argues for a performance-centered and gender-sensitive examination of urban gentrification that is often missed in recent political economic analyses.

"Istanbul 2010 cover." November 20, 2012 via Sarah Kinna.

Editorial Footnotes

Cultural Anthropology has published a number of other essays on cities and neoliberalism. See William Cunningham Bissel's essay about the relationship between neoliberalism and colonial nostalgia in Zanzibar, "Engaging Colonial Nostalgia," Ahmed Kanna's "Flexible Citizenship in Dubai: Neoliberal Subjectivity in the Emerging 'City-Corporation," and Emanuela Guano's essay, "Spectacles of Modernity: Transnational Imaginaries and Local Hegemonies in Neoliberal Buenos Aires."

Cultural Anthropology has also published a number of other essays on performance and globalization including: Damani James Partridge's essay, "We Were Dancing in the Club, Not on the Berlin Wall: Black Bodies, Street Bureaucrats, and Exclusionary Incorporation into the New Europe," and Teri Silvio's "Remediation and Local Globalizations: How Taiwan's 'Digital Video Knights-Errant Puppetry' Writes the History of the New Media in Chinese."

About the Author

Öykü Potuoğlu-Cook is a cultural anthropologist, working on urban social movements and political aesthetics in the globalizing Middle East. Her ethnographic research on the interplay between performance and informal economies in contemporary Istanbul has appeared in Cultural Anthropology and Music and Anthropology after receiving AFA and dance history awards. Potuoğlu-Cook’s recent research focuses on the role of embodied expression in shaping (ethnic) partial citizenship, governance, and intimate forms of dissidence under Turkish neoliberalism while negotiating EU harmonization and Islamic revivalism. She is currently working on a manuscript entitled, Charging the Orient: Performance, Power, and the New Modern in Turkey, that is under review by multiple presses.

"Ortakoy - Istanbul." November 20, 2012 via Sarah Kinna.

Multimedia and Links

Orient House

Questions for Classroom Discussion

1)  What role can performance practices play in illuminating class and religious differences in urban Turkey? What unique perspective does performance enable in discussions of social and economic change?

2)  According to Potuoglu-Cook, how has belly dancing traditionally been regarded in Turkey?  How do such connotations compare to modern day views of belly dancing in Istanbul?  What events have precipitated such shifts in people's understanding of belly dancing?

3) What are the dilemmas of Islamic resurgence in contemporary Turkey? How does Potuoglu-Cook's focus on belly dance articulate those dilemmas?

4)  What does Potuoglu-Cook mean by "neoliberal gentrification?"  What has this process meant for Istanbul in terms of urban space and local residents? Which kinds of people in particular are at the heart of Potuoglu-Cook's discussion and why?  How then, as Potuoglu-Cook writes, do "urban and cultural gentrification mutually constitute one another" (635)?

5)  What was the motivation for redevelopment projects in Istanbul during the 1980s and how has Turkey's international image (in sharp contrast to other Middle Eastern countries) played a role in this project?  What is "neo-Ottomania?"

6)  How have the construction of modern architecture and the preservation of Ottoman architecture been justified in gentrifying Istanbul?  What are some other things--e.g. images and practices--that have been marketed for similar reasons?

7)  What does Potuoglu-Cook argue lies beneath Istanbul's image of a "world-class global city" that wears a "facade of material and moral orderliness" (650)?

8)  How do different social groups define "cosmopolitanism" in modern Turkey and what are the real costs of clashing cosmopolitan ideals on-the-ground?

"Ortakoy at Night - Istanbul." November 20, 2012 via Sarah Kinna.

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