The Bridge by Geert Mak

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The Bridge by Geert Mak

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Category: History
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: Dutch journalist and historian Geert Mak meets the people whose working lives are eked out over this crucial stretch of water. Personal stories of love and loss, pride and hope are interspersed with vignettes from the country’s past and musings on its possible future.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 160 Date: March 2009
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 978-1846551383

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The current Galata Bridge in Instanbul is a concrete structure less than 15 years old. A bascule bridge of some 490m, it carries a four-lane highway, a tramway and pedestrian walkways on its open upper deck with arcaded market areas beneath on the outer spans. At first sight, it has little to recommend it. None of the grandeur of the Charles Bridge in Prague, nor the ostentation of Tower Bridge in London, nor even the elegance of the Golden Gate.

As bridges go it is decidedly unimpressive. Functional. Not exactly the kind of bridge that would inspire one to sit down and write a book. Unless one happens to be historian and journalist Geert Mak…since that is just what he did.

It is a short book, admittedly, only some 148 pages in pocket-book format, but none the less intriguing for that.

The important thing about this bridge is not the actual bridge itself – but the bridging. That itself is a relatively recent thing. True Sultan Mehmet II created a pontoon crossing way back in 1453 as he conquered Byzantium, but the first permanent bridge here wasn't established until 1845. It, and its equally wooden successor, lasted scarcely a decade each, and then the first iron structure was built, completed in 1875. That one went on to a second life further upstream when it was replaced in 1912 with the crossing that was to last until it was badly damaged by fire in 1992. No glorious reincarnation for that one, it was towed a little way upstream and left to rot.

The bridging matters because it crosses the Golden Horn linking the Asian heart of Istanbul with the western-looking commercialism of the north bank. It is this location at the very crossroads of North & South, East & West that has defined Turkey's history for the last half-millennium, and continues to define its people today. That Mak should choose a bridge as his focal point to examine that history and the people it has produced makes perfect sense.

With the journalist's sparse prose (assuming Sam Garrett's translation from the Dutch to retain the original flavour), Mak guides us through centuries of conflict, but only insofar as those events resolve into life as it is currently lived on the Bridge.

He takes us there to meet the people whose lives it dominates: the bookseller, the cigarette boys, the Spanish couple and other fishermen, the tea vendor, the lottery-ticket-girl… people not making a subsistence wage by the official national definition…but people with pride, dignity and honour.

Ah yes. Honour. It takes a while to get around to the subject, but written in 2006 as it was, the book could not avoid the issue altogether. 2006 was the year of the Danish cartoons. The year of demonstrations against what he calls the (putative) right to insult. By the time we get to this subject, we're beginning to get a feel for the real people behind the caricatures, starting to foment the beginning of an understanding of how they think living as they do within a world of so many contradictions. Contradictions which do not exist for those of us firmly planted in our Western morals and Northern living standards. All too briefly Mak edges into the question of religion and honour… and comes to the conclusion that much of what we lay at the feet of Islamists today (in fairness because the more vocal of them claim it) is not about religion at all. It is more akin to the further eastern concept of face. It is about family honour, community honour. You attack one of us, you attack us all. You disgrace one of us, you disgrace us all. Of course, that stance has some brutal consequences, especially for women, and Mak does not seek in any way to offer a justification for any of the events or choices made… but he does shed a tiny bit more light on the vehemence of some reactions and we ignore that illumination at our peril.

I should not labour this point, however, it forms but a small part of a book mostly given over to the atmosphere of the modern bridge and the personal stories of its characters. Stories of late love and homesickness. Stories of lawbreaking and hope. These are stories in which race and religion are merely backdrops. There is much warmth and humour. Above all, there is the stoicism that marks the Eastern Europeans from those of us in the west. Begging is rare. No-one begs while they have a craft they can exploit, or the strength to carry for others, or something to sell, or the patience to fish. And when one them hasn't… then there are friends and family to get him through. To that extent, these people earn their pride.

Probably not one for the serious scholar, but a welcome addition to the ordinary guidebooks for anyone considering visiting the city and a succinct introduction to the country for those of us still hazy on that part of our shared global heritage. As an insight into modern Turkey, and a potted history of how that came to be, it is exactly what the publishers claim it to be: charming, learned and unique.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

For those seeking further insights into the history of the area, Sea of Faith by Stephen O'Shea might be of interest. You might also appreciate An Island in Time: The Biography of a Village by Geert Mak.

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