Mahalle (engl. neighborhood, quarter) denotes the smallest unit of societal organization in the city in much of the geography once subjected to the Ottoman Empire, in parts of Central and South Asia and beyond. Orientalist scholarship singled out the mahalle as an important reason why communities in this part of the world did supposedly not integrate into society and thus failed to create cohesive units. I will argue for the exact opposite: Mahalle constitutes not only a very important repertoire of living together in these diverse societies, it also organized welfare and redistribution.
In his quest to delineate ideal types, the German sociologist Max Weber distinguished between the city of the Occident and the Orient. According to Weber, urban community (“Stadtgemeinschaft”) did only exist in the “West” (Weber, 2000: 11), because “Asian Cities” were devoid both of their own, city-wide legal procedures and autonomous courts as well as financial institutions (Weber, 2000: 12). Urban community (“Stadtverbrüderung”) did therefore only emerge in the “West” and was - from his point of view - rendered impossible by the caste system in India and clan organization in Asia. The non-Western city in plain terms was according to him only a collection of relatively isolated communities that did not aggregate into (urban) society.
Outright copying, the lack of any empirical or source-based research and other academic malpractice for many years left Weber’s stipulations about the city unchallenged until quite recently; his reasoning informed generations of researchers who wrote bookshelves on the definition of the city of the Orient, of Islam and of Asia.
The mahalle as a repertoire of living together
The study of mahalle as a transregional repertoire that informs living together in many parts of the world is intriguing and difficult at the same time as over-generalization of this very fluid term has been at the core of Orientalism. To allow for the necessary precision, this article focusses on the genealogy of the term in the context of the Ottoman Empire and especially Istanbul as this is the region and city I am most familiar with - not without a repeated warning that the concept is in flux, continues to change in time and locality and allows only for approximation. So, what is a mahalle?
The mahalle is an administrative unit in urban and rural settlements led - in case of Muslim majority neighborhoods - by the imam who functioned as a prayer leader and tax collector in the neighborhood. The imam and the kadı constituted the judiciary on the local level to solve inner- and intra-mahalle conflicts. The mahalle was held collectively responsible for crime committed by one of its members and had to pay as restitution (diyet) to the collective of the harmed side. Mahalle were thus both financial and legal units (Alada, 2008: 125, see also 136) that regulated the (religious) rules of living together. Often members of a mahalle founded their own endowments (vakıf or waqf) that created collective urban infrastructure like fresh water provision, schools or served as some sort of collective emergency savings fund (avariz akçası vakfı) (Tamdoğan-Abel, 2000). A high density of endowments in a mahalle if not “a sure indicator of a relatively high degree of social cohesion" (Behar, 2003: 12), is at least a sign that the mahalle had wealthy enough members to create endowments who also wished to share their wealth with their neighbors.
Even administratively the borders between mahalles were only defined in the twentieth century, making the perception and use by their inhabitants the prime definer of demarcation (Behar, 2003: 9). Mahalle were organized around oftentimes religious, but also occupational communities or by networks of fellow-citizens that shared common decent from a specific rural area (Behar, 1997: 19). The postulated religious homogeneity of the mahalle at least for the Ottoman Empire is a rule with many exceptions (Kreiser, 1974: 207). Socio-economic segregation, especially class- or income-based differentiation, in the mahalle was very unusual until well into the twentieth century (Tuman, 2010: 74, Bryant, 2016: 17, Behar, 2003: 5).
Even though the mahalle cannot be well demarcated by attributes like class, religion or ethnicity, they were “cohesive units [that] fostered a durable sense of local identity” (Behar, 2003: 4) whose protection, “its honor, and its reputation” (Bryant, 2016) was very important. Maybe the only “general truth” (Tamdoğan-Abel, 2000) is that mahalle created collective identity.
A strong sense of local identity in combination with collective legal responsibility often combines into the policing of neighbors both back in the Ottoman Empire and known as mahalle pressure (mahalle baskısı) in contemporary Turkey (Boyar & Fleet, 2010: 122). This mutual observation of neighbors’ behavior and the careful watching who enters the mahalle from the outside may both create a collective excluding every “other” and communities that accommodate or even protect otherness (Tamdoğan-Abel, 2000).
The constant eyes on the streets of the mahalle produce a space that is both controlled and appropriated and as such often only semi-public in the sense that outsiders of the mahalle would be treated as guests. As an extension of this public-private space, the mahalle is in many cases also a designated female space (Mills, 2007). Men during day-time follow commercial activity often outside the mahalle (Kuban, 1996: 209), while care work is performed in the house and the street.
Forms of sociability and everyday life
Everyday life in the mahalle is connected to forms of sociability that organize this living together. They include customs like sharing food with neighbors despite religious (or other) difference and sometimes even as an act to establish good relations (Duru, 2016). Especially during the month of Ramadan the poor of all ethnic and religious backgrounds could expect to be fed by their richer neighbors (Georgeon, 1997). Female neighbors come together to “do a day” (gün yapmak) where they both cook and eat together, but also circularly exchange money gifts that allow women in this collective to pay for bigger-than-normal expenses and that constitute a circulating savings group.
These forms of everyday diplomacy (Bryant, 2016: 9) were until the turn to the twentieth-century underpinned by a system of landownership that divided the right of usufruct from the ownership of land. Land and real estate in dense urban areas were in their majority parts of endowments that both served the community and were at least in theory inalienable and not for sale. Seldomly anybody owned anything or at least not on one’s own. This “distributive-accommodative state environment” (Islamoğlu-İnan, 2004: 292) of landownership made living together an economic necessity. While such a system was not devoid of conflict, it was not an inter-ethnic conflict and rarely took a violent form beyond legal disputes.
In the vibrant and increasingly segregated Istanbul of today, the old days of the mahalle are often longed for with nostalgia for peaceful cohabitation and intact community. Especially the religious-conservative have taken up the idea of the mahalle where life as an observing Muslim would be supposedly again possible (Çavdar, 2013). Mahalle at the same time functions as a unit of collectivity and solidarity for their inhabitants in their struggle against unwanted urban regeneration and displacement. The mahalle is thus a repertoire of many different and often conflicting imaginations of living together and a place where these imaginations are negotiated.