How long can the country keep up its balancing act?

BENOIT AUBIN July 22 2002


How long can the country keep up its balancing act?

BENOIT AUBIN July 22 2002




How long can the country keep up its balancing act?


IT IS A TELLTALE SIGN of the state of affairs in this huge, quirky, lovable city that a few decades of neglect and decay would suffice to produce a landmark. The Pera Palas, the turn-of-the century luxury hotel of Orient Express fame—celebrated by Agatha Christie and Ernest Hemingway, and frequented by the diplomats, dictators, tycoons and spies who gave Istanbul its enduring cachet as a cosmopolitan nest of wealth, decadence and intrigue—is still gleaming in its original beauty. It had been forgotten, amid the decrepit old buildings of the Pera neighbourhood, and thus saved from alterations. All it needed was a serious cleaning, from hand-carved ceilings and rickety mahogany lift to vintage furniture, to become a favourite destination again. It is now frequented by tweedy British scholars and assorted Euro-sophisticates happy to pay a premium to sleep in the rooms— same furniture, same plumbing—once used by the likes of Sarah Bernhardt, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Mata Hari and Graham Greene.

Mustafa Kemal had a suite at the Pera Palas too. He’s also known as Atatürk—the Father of the Turks—the Republic of Turkey’s visionary founder and first president. And dictator—the man who ousted

the sultans, fought and deported Greeks, Armenians and Kurds, and established the frontiers of modern-day Turkey. Atatürk died in 1938, but in a sense still runs Turkey to this day. He created the ideology and political system that have assured the survival of this most volatile of countries since 1923, as well as most of its problems and paradoxes.

Turkey is at a crossroads—that is what you hear in almost every conversation in Istanbul. Will the country remain secular and eventually join the European Union, or will it instead turn its back to Europe and become an Islamic state? Or will it fall apart or go bankrupt before being able to make a choice? “Heady times all

the time here,” says Ned Pamphilon, a British painter who moved to Istanbul to pursue the tradition of European artists fascinated by “the contrasts, the contradictions, the soulful energy” of the city.

I run into him at a rather extravagant dinner party, in the richly decorated former library of an 18th century sultan. It sits on the grounds of a private park overlooking the Bosporus, the strait that connects the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara—and separates Europe from Asia. Pamphilon and his fellow guests extol the virtues of Atatürk, who decreed that Turkey would survive only as long as it would be able to suppress the expression of the various religious, ethnic and cultural yearnings of its individual citizens. Atatürk also mandated the military to make sure elected politicians would see to that. “The remarkable thing about Turkey is that it did not explode like the Balkans, or implode like the Soviet Union, or go down the road of religious fanaticism like Iran and Afghanistan, because it has the ingredients for all that,” one dinner guest says. “Here’s to Atatürk!” Pamphilon declares, raising his glass. “Here’s to salvation through enlightened dictatorship!”

He is serious. Nobody around the table thinks he might be joking. Most even seem to agree. Only in Turkey.

Hearing rich, educated, Western-style liberals sing the praises of a regime watched over by a politically minded military with an awful record on human rights is just a sample of the paradoxes here. Istanbul, which straddles the Bosporus, is the largest Muslim city in Europe. Turkey is one of the few Muslim democracies in the world. It is a secular Muslim country, where women are prohibited from wearing the chador at school or work, and where religious parties are barred from active politics. Turkey does not recognize the existence of its sizable Kurdish minority—they are Turks, period, as are other ethnic groups. Kurds are not authorized to teach their children in their language. Recently, Kurdish parents were accused of sedition for giving traditional Kurdish surnames to their offspring.

What makes for radical-chic declarations at Istanbul dinner parties plays out for much higher stakes in the capital of Ankara, where at week’s end an ailing and aged Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit was trying to hang on to a disintegrating coalition

government. Ecevit has seemed to be all but sidelined in recent months in the ongoing negotiations over his country’s bid to join the European Union. In Brussels, Turkey is seen as alone among 13 prospective members to have failed to meet the criteria for opening membership talks. Europe is waiting for Turkey to clean up its act, economically and in the area of human rights, before even considering its candidacy—a prospect over which Turks themselves are deeply divided. The National Security Council (i.e. the military) recently agreed to human rights demands from the EU, including lifting emergency rule in two Kurdish provinces. This prompted a threat from one of

Ecevit’s coalition members to dissolve the government if further reforms are adopted, which only underscored Turkey’s difficulty in making inroads in Brussels.

Now, after a string of resignations by cabinet ministers and legislators, Ecevit’s coalition is on the verge of collapse. Amid the turmoil, there are voices calling for change to the Atatürk doctrine. Mehmet Sevket Eygi, an aging and erudite writer, has been jailed on several occasions for advocating religious freedom and denouncing what he calls the repression of the Muslim majority by the Turkish regime. “Muslim women are allowed to wear the veil if they choose in all civilized countries, but not in Turkey, a nation 99 per cent Muslim,” he says, sipping tea in his study that, with its collection of ancient Ottoman artifacts, looks like a bazaar. According to Eygi, Turkey is run by a shadow state that is “above the parliament, and which discriminates against even moderate Muslims.”

But Gül Erbil, a freelance TV director in Istanbul, has little patience with questions about repression. “You are not the one who could be forced to wear the chador,” she says. Like all westernized Turks, she is

nervous over the prospect of seeing Muslim fundamentalists make political inroads in Ankara, despite the army’s decree that political parties cannot run on a religious platform (polls show that, if the government falls and Turkey faces elections in the fall, a moderate Islamist party would likely make large gains). For Erbil, a watchful army dedicated to preventing the country from skidding into extremism is the lesser of all evils. “I have just turned 40, but I have witnessed three military coups, one president deposed and shot, three terrorist waves—one left-wing, one nationalist, and one religious—two major earthquakes, three big economic crashes,” she says. Her point: in Turkey, the worst is indeed possible.

ISTANBUL IS A THRIVING megalopolis of eight million people that is a bridge between Europe and Asia. It’s also a place for nostalgia—although for what era is left to the dreamer. In the cosmopolitan Istanbul of the 1900s, sizable communities of Greeks, Jews, Armenians and assorted Levantines lived side by side, speaking their own languages, practising their own religions. That is a thing of the past now. Those who were not killed or deported during the Atatürk revolution of the early 1920s have become Turks by law.

A dry martini or two at the fabled bar of the Pera Palas is enough to evoke the era when British and German spies, Russian generals and American ingenues all rubbed elbows there in the years

before the Second World War. But that’s recent history. Istanbul was once the Greek city of Byzantium. In 330, it was renamed Constantinople by the emperor Constantine and became the capital of the Christian, eastern half of the Roman Empire. In 1453, it fell to the Ottoman Turks and became Istanbul, the centre of yet another empire, this one Muslim.

Before Byzantium, there certainly were people here, in this spectacular and strategic landscape, doing pretty much what they are doing today: catching fish—or, more importantly, trading in goods and commodities. In a clear but unspoken division of powers, politics belong to Ankara. Istanbul is into making money. Money wants to join the EU. “Istanbul is one of the most entrepreneurial cities in the world, with Hong Kong and New York,” says Gurçan Kinagi, a successful businessman.

Money? A glass of beer at a modest watering hole, where merchants from a nearby fish market come for a change of smell, sets you back 1,250,000 Turkish lira. You hand over two million and tell the waiter to keep the change—you already have enough coins to sink a ship and block the Bosporus. Istanbul is a city where you have to learn to think in big numbers.

On my first visit here, I did the sensible North American thing, and walked into the nearest bank to change money. The clerk handed me a few hundred million lira but, talking fast and furiously tapping on his

adding machine, he also ripped me off for about 20 per cent. “Of course!” says Kinagi. “Nobody here goes to a bank for cash. They can’t be trusted.” Instead, people change their cash in hole-in-the-wall shops where money traders speaking French, English, Turkish, Russian or German do a pretty good job of dealing in euros, dollars, pounds, rubles and stacks of Turkish liras. They give printed receipts too, although reluctantly. Istanbul would always rather close a deal with a handshake than leave a paper trail for the revenue department.

In Istanbul, people trust the people they do business with, but not the institutions—banks, ministries, government. “Turkey is plagued by the last Soviet-style government in Europe,” says Ishak Alaton, a Jewish contractor in the city whose firm undertakes projects in several countries of the former Soviet Union. “A corrupt government, in which the state is always right, and the citizens are at the service of the state.” One businesswoman tells me, “There are plenty of good opportunities to make serious money here. The problem is with the people in Ankara. The problem is misallocation of resources.” She means bloated public service and corruption, but she will not say it for the record. That too is Istanbul.

EVEN BEFORE IT forces you to reconsider your basic certainties about banks or the role of the military in a democracy,

Istanbul forces you to learn to walk. Cars parked up narrow sidewalks, deep gutters, uneven pavement, tram tracks, sidewalks carved like irregular staircases along steep narrow streets teeming with dense crowds of shoppers, street vendors, cart pullers, kitchens on wheels offering kebabs or pastries, thousands of honking yellow taksis— it all makes walking in the city an obstacle run. If you don’t learn how to move in sync with the compact ballet of the street you will topple a cart, step on a cat’s tail, bump into an old woman, catch the strap of your bag on the mirror of a passing cab, step in dog droppings or fall down a trap door leading to a basement shop.

The streets smell of herbs and spices, of fresh fish and grilled meat, of diesel fumes, sweat, jasmine and sea breeze. You run into stern, observant women wearing the chador—you can offend them by just looking at them—and beautiful women in miniskirts who can be equally offended by being ignored. There are peasants and elegant city slickers. Europeans and Asians. Turks and Arabs. Azeris. Chechens. Kurds, Jews and Iranians. Slavs, Greeks, Armenians, Albanians, Iraqis or Afghans—all are officially Turks now, and nothing else. “The various communities are doing fairly well, provided they don’t raise a flag,” says Nicole Pope, a Swiss-born journalist, Istanbul resident, and co-author of the authoritative book, Turkey Unveiled: A History Of Modern Turkey.

Most of all, you run into young people.

By some estimates, more than half of

Turkey’s 66 million people are under the age of 20. “And you think Europe is ready for them?” asks Halit Refig, a filmmaker. “There are three million Turks in Germany and they are driving the Germans crazy. If we become part of the EU, millions of young Turks will swarm westward, calling Europe theirs. It will never happen.”

Nor should it, according to Refig or Erol Manisali, a nationalist who teaches economics at Istanbul University. Turkey is already losing its traditional industrial and agricultural economy and is being “sold out to multinational consortiums by local businessmen,” Manisali says. “Entering the EU would only accelerate the dismantling of Turkey.” Like many nationalists, Manisali thinks Turkey should look to countries like Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Iran or Iraq—all former parts of the Ottoman empire—for trade and influence. “It does not sit well with the Turkish heritage to take orders from a superior power,” Refig says, pointing to the fact that the Ottomans ruled for centuries over a vast empire that was never conquered before its final collapse.

NEXT TO THE PERA PALAS, the street has been barricaded to traffic. Armed guards patrol the walled-in compound of the U.S. consulate. The extra security is a by-product of Sept. 11. And many here discuss the fallout of the terrorist attacks with a knowing smirk. “The Americans are learning the hard way what we have known for years—that radical Islamists are bad news and have to be dealt with expe-

diently,” says Cüneyt Özdemir, a young news anchor with CNN-Turk.

But Sept. 11 has had a beneficial side effect on Turkey, a country that lost a good part of its strategic value with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Before, it was a buffer between the free world and the Communist bloc. Now, Turkey is a buffer between radical Islam and the West. “The U.S. must have talked to the International Monetary Fund because Turkey suddenly became a little more equal than the other countries,” says Mehmet Ali Birand, an influential columnist and TV personality. Earlier this year the IMF loaned an extra US$16 billion to help Turkey through fiscal and bureaucratic reforms. That, Ali Birand says, probably spared Turkey the horrors of an Argentinian-style monetary collapse.

It is hard to imagine what such a scenario would have wreaked on a city like Istanbul. For now, given its size, it is remarkably serene and safe—I have often seen men counting big wads of money in public without fear of being attacked and robbed. There are very few drunks on Istanbul streets, which also seem to be drug free. And there are very few beggars compared to large North American cities.

Instead, there are people like Mehmet. He is a poor man, but proud. He is not begging. For a few coins, he is offering passersby the opportunity to step on a scale and check their weight. A good image of Istanbul, that man. Poor. But proud. Not begging, working.

An entrepreneur of sorts. [i'll