Istanbul the ‘modal’ city

I was in Istanbul last week, chasing the shadows of the Palaeologi and the destiny of a city destined to be everything to everyone.

If Istanbul were a part of speech, it would be a modal verb. Not a model, but modal. Like one of those context-depending verbs indicating ability, likelihood or permission, such as can, may, might, should.

Everything in old Constantinople is pure potentiality, on the cusp of becoming something else, unpredictable, hitherto unknown. The pedestrian crossing, for instance, is a space for you could, you can, you may try to cross, but nothing is settled d’avance.

The same with shopping and prices. Haggling is a modal verb too, ungrammatically but phenomenologically speaking. The price is not won yet, but it may soon be. Or not. Perhaps, but not yet, though it should.

The same goes for deference and obeisance. People may give you the best service, but if and only if. They may also rescind it. No warning, no early awareness. Every social context is different, and reading it requires fluency in several social languages.

Where the west meets the east, the indicative meets the subjunctive mood. The grammar of social geography.

There is so much traffic and so few rules in Istanbul that anything is likely to happen at any given moment. The city breathes the shifting fragrance of likelihood. Every road junction is an existential juncture. The honking of the cars infuses some order, by means of unstructured communication, into an otherwise chaotic universe.

Any Istanbulite will tell you that everything in the city would work if only the right people were in charge. That if they themselves were in charge, things would be different. That is also a modal statement, the subjunctive mood of the subjective voice, conditionally acting upon the world.

The world would be a sad little place, ordered, grid-planned, predictable, over-rationalised, where all human behaviour would have already happened, if cities like Istanbul didn’t exist. If Istanbul didn’t exist, we would’ve had to invent it.

Of all the capitals of fallen empires, Istanbul is the only one where it feels like being at the heart of an imperium, the majesty and multilayered authority eclipsing the obsolescence of its rayonnement beyond its borders. A world unto itself, and itself belonging to all.

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