All photos by Bernard Weiner
RUMBLES FROM BELOW
Istanbul is a bustling, immense metropolis with a population of almost 14
million, and the Bosporus where it sits is constantly filled with boats and
ships, testimony to Istanbul's central role as a vibrant trading, economic
powerhouse. How could it be otherwise? The Bosporus is the
humming-with-activity funnel where all the Black Sea traffic from the north
(Russia, Eastern Europe, etc.) pours into the Mediterranean Sea.
Yes, even in this vibrant economy, very occasionally one might see a
beggar in Istanbul (or in Kapadokya), but nothing like what one sees
everyday in Paris or New York or in my home city of San Francisco. Turkey
has its poverty regions, to be sure, and unemployment is high, especially in
the rural areas and among the young. But the country as a whole seems stable
and relatively prosperous and progressive when measured against other
nation-states in the region. But even so, during our visit one could pick up
disquieting rumbles beneath the surface.
At a jazz concert we attended with a Turkish friend at a local park, the
young people we met, mostly in their 20s and 30s, clearly were nervous about
their country's, and their own, future. Turkey's prime minister, Recep
Tayyip Erdogan, projected an open, secular face to the Western world, they
said, but behind that friendly facade something else was going on.
(Turkey's application to join the European Union is still active, if
seemingly going nowhere because of EU reluctance to allow this Islamic
nation into the tent of Western culture, seeing it as a potential stalking
horse for Muslim activism or even extremism.)
But behind that copacetic facade, our young Turkish friends indicated, is
an increasingly Islamist-leaning Erdogan, and his rightist political party,
the A.K.P. After more than 75 years following the revolutionary
secularization of Turkish society by President Mustafa Kemal Attaturk, the
father of the Republic of Turkey, now there were disquieting signs of
Taliban-like extremism -- especially regarding the presence of alcohol in
the country's bustling cultural life, and the place and treatment of women.
Recently from Erdogan's party, there have been open verbal attacks on the
social policies of "Kemalism" and even on Attaturk himself -- especially
about the revolutionary Turkish leader's tendency to drink prodigiously.
One Attaturk story that is indicative of the man's political genius: When
he assumed power in 1923, there was a raging controversy over which religion
should have control of the massive Hagia Sophia Mosque. It had been an
Orthodox Christian (and later Roman Catholic) cathedral for centuries and
the Christians wanted to restore that control. But in the 15th century, the
Moslems had seized it and had maintained it as a mosque for centuries. The
dispute threatened to explode into violence in the 1920s. Attaturk had to
make the decision. So he defused the entire situation in 1931 by turning it
into a national museum. Brilliant!
WOMEN IN TODAY'S TURKEY
Photos and other images of Attaturk are seen everywhere in contemporary
Istanbul, and the Western-influenced culture celebrates that more relaxed
secular lifestyle in its with-it style and its active democracy. For
example, you'd be hard put to differentiate between women in Paris and women
in European Istanbul. The fashions and clothes are similar, and the face and
head hair are visible and trendily fashionable.
Even Turkish women who adhere to religious codes of dress are not immune
to Western-style fashion influences. Have a look at this photo taken at an
Islamic coat shop on the European side of Istanbul. The long coats, which go
demurely all the way to the ground, are adorned with Western accoutrements
in buttons, colors, design elements, etc. Almost flashy in religious-female
When visiting the more Asian part of Istanbul, women are much less
colorfully dressed -- more greys, black and dark blues in their coats,
hijabs and scarves covering virtually every woman's head and hair. But even
in European Istanbul, one can find Muslim women covered up in home-made,
burka-style fashions, as we did here at Topkapi Palace with these two,
tech-savvy Muslim tourists.
YOUNG TURKS' FRUSTRATIONS
The young Turks we spoke with in Istanbul and Kapadokya, many of whom
have lived in or visited the United States or Paris or Munich, seemed angry,
frustrated and discouraged. Some talked openly about emigrating to Western
countries because of the more restrictive direction Erdogan and his A.K.P.
were taking the country. They didn't see a free and active place for
themselves in an increasingly conservative, constricted Islamist society.
So I wasn't surprised when the protests erupted in Turkey a few weeks
ago, led in the main by young citizens resentful of the government's
crackdown on alcohol-drinking (many of the demonstrators are college
students and like their Effes beer) and its anti-environmental stances when
favoring more building-development on land designated for use as a popular
Below the surface of a seemingly stable society and once-popular
government was a roiling antagonism that was just waiting for a catalyst to
bring it alive in the streets. The catalyst was the way the Erdogan
government sanctioned extreme police rioting and brutality against the young
people and others who wanted to save the Gezi Park trees from the corporate
shopping developers in league with government officials. Police behavior was
like going after a gnat with a howitzer.
The battle was joined, the police continued their onslaught of tear gas
and billy clubs, and similar demonstrations began popping up all over
Turkey, directed at government policy and then at the government itself.
How this will resolve itself is not clear as of this writing. It seems
that Erdogan, who has been democratically elected three times in recent
years, thinks he can break the back of the protests with more use of
forceful police and militia violence, and so he's not in the mood for any
major compromises with his opposition. (As I write this, his forces are
moving back into the streets and squares with massive tear gas, water
cannons, rubber bullets, and swinging clubs. One has to anticipate deaths in
If Erdogan is able to crush the nascent rebellion -- which started out in
favor of trees and has by now morphed into calls for his resignation -- the
rightwing in Turkey (and beyond) will interpret the defeat of the liberal
opposition as a mandate to move further, faster in a more conservative,
On the other hand, it's possible that Erdogan, in his arrogance, might
well overplay his hand by unleashing massive force on the children of the
middle-class. That could provoke sympathy for the demonstrators and their
cause from more moderate factions in society. A "Turkish-Spring"-like event
is not out of the question, albeit unlikely, one that could have serious
ripple effects throughout the Greater Middle East.
The next few days and weeks will tell the
tale. Fasten your seat belts, it's going to be a bumpy Turkish ride.