The Interviewees

Interview with Giorgia Renata Taoussi, August 2021 - Türkçe

1- You were determined to study at the Italian rather than French school in Istanbul and later graduated from the Ca' Foscari University in Venice in Modern Italian language and literature. Clearly you love this language but was it also a way of connecting with your paternal ancestry who arrived from Italy in Ottoman times? Were the Italians suprised to see a ‘native Italian speaker from Turkey’ when you arrived?

For me, Italian has a very special place. Being of Italian origin is of course a big factor in this regard. The dominant culture among the Levantines was always the French culture, since the Levantines and most Italian-born Levantines had studied in French schools. Maybe I wanted to break this tradition that has been going on for years. I was educated in Italian schools. After graduating from the Galileo Galilei Italian high school, I went to Venice to study Italian Language and Literature. Because my accent was nothing like that of the Veneto region, and because I was dark haired, they often thought I was from Southern Italy and mostly from Sicily. When I told them that I came from Istanbul and that I was a Levantine of Italian descent, I was bombarded with questions. During my life in Italy, I met very few Italians who knew the word Levantine.

2- How much do you know about your first Levantine ancestors who arrived and their reasons for that move and their professions?

Unfortunately, I do not have very detailed information on this subject. All I know is that my father’s family came to Istanbul from Venice in the 19th century for commercial purposes. We know that they also lived in Chios (Chios) and Beirut for a while after they left Venice. In fact, our surname, Taoussi, means “from the peacock” in Lebanese Arabic.

3- Your master thesis was on the subject of the description of Levantines in contemporary writings such as Edmondo de Amicis (Constantinople book), Giovanni Scognamillo (The Memoirs of a Levantine of Beyoğlu book). What made you choose this subject?

Actually, I wanted to write my master’s thesis on the concept of foreigner in contemporary literature. But this was a very difficult and broad subject to deal with, and I could not gather my ideas and find a topic. So one of the professors who helped me with my thesis asked why you don’t write your thesis about your own culture. It was impossible for me to do this because I was not a historian. A friend of mine gifted me De Amicis’s book, Constantinopoli, at that time. While reading the book, I realized that De Amicis was talking about the Levantines, and I decided on my thesis position. I decided to write a thesis under the name of Literature and Levantines. While researching the author Levantines, I met Scognamillo.

4- The Italian Edmondo de Amicis came from a military background but he was a poet and a writer all his life as well. How important an element was Alessandro Manzoni, the giant of Italian literature, in shaping the later career choice and perhaps writing style of de Amicis in your opinion?

Alessandro Manzoni is a very important writer for Italian Literature and even for World Literature. A poem published by De Amicis, who was at the beginning of his writing career, was praised and admired by Manzoni. This, of course, would be an important turning point for De Amicis’ career. The appreciation of his writings by such an important writer was a very important factor for him to abandon his military career and devote himself entirely to literature.

5- Edmondo de Amicis was sent to Istanbul in 1874 as a newspaper correspondent and 3 years later he publishes the ‘Constantinopoli’ book and is reprinted many times till 1931. Is this book like a tourist guide of the time, pointing to places foreign visitors should visit or is it deeper than that, dealing with observations of the populations, manners and customs of its varied inhabitants as well? Does the descriptions in his book also ring a resonance with your own memories of a city that you came from?

Costantinopoli is a travelogue, a travel book. It’s definitely not a simple tourist guide, it’s much more. Because it does not tell the reader where to see and where to go. In this travelogue, De Amicis writes about the places he has visited not only as a tourist, but also as a historian from time to time, but also as a sociologist trying to understand this new culture he has seen. Although it was written in the 1800s, it is really surprising and beautiful to see that most of the descriptions of the city and the people living in this city are still valid today. Despite the passage of centuries De Amicis is able to still able to interpret the feelings of people who set foot for the first time or have been living in Istanbul for years is perhaps one of the biggest factors that make the book of Constantinopoli immortal. I think De Amicis succeeded very well in understanding the spirit of Istanbul, this unique city, despite the prejudices he carried in his pocket.

6- In a small section of this book de Amicis refers to the ‘local Italians’ is desparanging ways such as 'degenerated version of Italian spoken’, no interest in literature and regards with sadness the prospect of the young ladies of the colony marrying ‘foreigners’, so their offspring would lose all sense of their Italianness. Do you think de Amicis never really made the effort to meet up with the Levantine community and his own ‘Italianness’ was a product of his nationalistic outlook? In your research do other travel accounts of the period also paint a negative impression on the culture of the Levantine communities of Ottoman Istanbul?

There is a one or two-page section in this book that belongs to Italians, or rather to Levantines of Italian origin. In this section, De Amicis doesn’t say very nice things about his kin. He talks about not being able to speak Italian well, forcibly leaving their homeland to come to Istanbul, and not understanding literature. In short, there is a somewhat insulting tone in this segment. The reason for this is that he actually looks at the Italians there like Italians living in Italy. However, they were spending their lives in another country, in Istanbul, perhaps one of the most beautiful cities in the world, living together with other cultures. Being Levantine was not a citizenship but a cultural affair. The culture in which these Levantines of Italian origin lived was quite different. De Amicis’ military career and the fact that he was influenced by the nationalist movements of that period also prevented him from understanding and writing about the Levantine society correctly. Although, in other parts of the book, he also wrote that he understood very well why these Italians, who were his kin, left their homeland and came to Istanbul. De Amicis loved his Istanbul life very much and was saddened as the days of his return approached. In general, in most of the travel books of that period, the travelers did not write very favourable things about the Levantines. There are many reasons for this. Some of these are the orientalist point of view of the writers, they were influenced by the nationalist movement of the period, and they felt jealous when they saw that the Levantines were living comfortably in a beautiful city.

7- You interviewed the late Italian-Levantine Giovanni Scognamillo, the author, actor and Turkish film historian. His decision to write ‘Memories of a Levantine of Beyoğlu’, printed first in 1990, as you asked him was driven by his wish to paint a proper vision for his neighbourhood which was increasingly being commercialised and over-run with shoppers. Yet he also faced a back-lash from old friends of his where by detailing memories and events thus overlapping with other people’s private lives which were also exposed. Mr Scognamillo probably fore-saw that danger yet still went ahead with the project as he saw it as important. Do you think that perhaps the absence of any other autobiography of Levantines before that date was due to the social self-pressure of not disturbing and not revealing too much of the community to the outside?

Scognamillo is the first Levantine who wrote his memoirs in Turkish. He was a different personality. What I saw was very different from the Levantines I knew. He didn’t have much to do with religion and in my conversations with him he said that there was not much left of Levantine identity anymore. He lived at the tail end of the golden age of Beyoğlu and its Levantines. Beyoğlu was not the old Beyoğlu anymore. Since he considered the Levantine notion to be an environment issue, with the change of Beyoğlu, that Levantine identity was over for Scognamillo. It was these factors that pushed him to write this book. The fact that Beyoğlu had taken a completely different form and therefore moved to another dimension in its Levantine style pushed Scognamillo to write this book. He wanted to bring the real Beyoğlu together with the readers and of course he did this by describing the lives of Levantines. While describing the real Beyoğlu, its culture and the Levantines, he revealed not only his private life, but also the private life of many other Levantines. This, of course, was not well received by many Levantines. The Levantine community, which had been a closed box until then, was revealed with Scognamillo’s book.

8- In his book Mr Scognamillo paints a detailed picture of Beyoğlu of his youth with its shops, restaurants and arcades. Did your family have any roots in this quarter and does this picturesques description mean much to you as almost all these former establishments is now history?

My mother, who is Greek, grew up in Beyoğlu. My father, who was Levantine, was not from Beyoğlu. But I’m sure they had memories in Beyoğlu like many Levantines. Beyoğlu has a very important place in my life. Because my high school life was spent there. Therefore, “Beyoğlu Memories of a Levantine” has a very important place both because I am a Levantine and because I am a Beyoğlu lover. Unfortunately, I saw and lived through the ruination of Beyoğlu, where Scognamillo lived. Now there is almost nothing left of my Beyoğlu. This is also very sad.

9- Also in his book Mr Scognamillo describes the state of being a Levantine and its culture and the influence of the lived environment. Do you think this also fits in nicely with your own definition of being a Levantine?

Scognamillo made a very good and realistic definition of being a Levantine in his book. Levantineism was not a matter of citizenship but a matter of environment and culture. To be Levantine one had to be of foreign origin, be Catholic or Anglican or Protestant, and live in a certain environment. One of the reasons why Scognamillo’s book has such an important place is that it clearly explains what Levantineism really means.

10- 10 years ago you married and settled in Patras in Greece. Did you experience a ‘culture shock’ when you first moved to that country despite the fact that your mother is of the Istanbul Greek (Rum) community?

Being a minority means, I think, mitigating cultural shocks in the mildest way possible. So at least for me. As the daughter of a Levantine father and a Greek mother, I grew up in an environment that was very open to different cultures. As I grew up, I realized that it was not possible for me to be accepted as Turkish in Turkey, Italian in Italy, and Greek in Greece. What did it mean to belong to a place, a nation? Why was it so important to belong somewhere? Growing up, I always sought answers to these questions. And finally I found that answer. I belong to my own culture and I don’t need anyone’s approval for that. I feel that I belong to the culture I grew up in, that environment and Istanbul. I am an Istanbulite whose father is Levantine and mother is Greek. When I came to Patras, Greece 10 years ago, I actually had no trouble adapting. Since I know the language and culture of this country, I did not experience great shocks. Of course, some call me Turkish and some call me Italian. This is a result of being a minority, being Levantine. Wherever you go, you are always a stranger. But I got used to it. Like I said, I know very well what and where I belong. Therefore, those who want to fit me into a mold, not me, have more difficulty.

11- Patras in the distant past had an Italian Catholic and British Anglican community, as evidence by the old churches in the city. Would you be interested in investigating these communities’ history and culture, if you have the time of course?

There are both Catholic and Anglican churches in Patras. There is still a small Catholic community in Patra. Hence, St. Andrea’s Catholic Church is open to the public. The Anglican church has been closed for a long time. It is only sometimes opened as an exhibition space. Of course, I would love to research the history of these two communities. It’s on the list of things I want to do as soon as I have the time.

12- Do you find it sometimes difficult to self-identify and explain your origins to Italians or Greeks. Have you observed difficulties in Greeks today in dealing with their own history and relicts such as mosques from the long-periods of occupation by the Ottomans and Venetians?

As I said before, I no longer have any difficulty in defining myself. Mostly others, I think, have a hard time understanding me. Greeks are generally a somewhat closed society. Both you and the other person need to be very good at history in order to be able to talk and discuss certain topics.

13- You have 3 daughters. Which languages are you determined to teach them and can you see parallels in your own childhood between the ideal of multi-lingual ability and compromises in terms of time and fluency levels of language? Do other elements of your Istanbul past also creep in into your domestic culture such as food you serve and music you listen to?

I speak Italian with my daughters. Maybe the reason I don’t speak Turkish is that I grew up in a house where hardly any Turkish is spoken. The first language you learned was Greek. Like every Levantine, my father spoke Greek. Therefore, Greek was spoken in our house. Later, I learned Italian at school. Turkish was our street language. My sister and I learned Turkish on the street in Heybeliada in the summer. Maybe that’s why I chose to speak Italian with my kids. That they can learn Turkish by going to Istanbul and Heybeli Island anyway. But Covid has prevented it for now.

A mixed culture usually prevails in our house. Cooking is a great pleasure for me. The kitchen was a sacred place for Levantines and Greeks. Since I grew up with this culture, I maintain this perception. Turkish, Greek, Levantine and Italian cuisines are among our favorites. The music we listen to is also multicultural. My husband plays the oud, tambourine and saz as well as the piano. He is interested in Byzantine and Ottoman music. Therefore, at home, we synthesize the East and the West, both in music, in the kitchen, and in our daily life in general.

Interview conducted by Craig Encer