Holland’s enfant terrible of Middle East journalism, Joris Luyendijk, proved the law of unintended consequences back in 2006 when he blitzed the Dutch news-reading public about the shortcomings of his adopted profession. He had hoped that his book Het Zijn Net Mensen (published in English as ‘Hello Everybody!’ but roughly translatable as ‘they’re almost human, aren’t they?’) would stir the media to raise their game and prompt wider intellectual curiosity about the region. As sales soared, however, he found he hadn’t counted on one common reaction.
“People would come up to me, clap me on the shoulder and say, ‘I always wondered if the media was lying! So since that you say that they do, I’m just going to cancel my [newspaper] subscription’”, Luyendijk told me on his whirl through Ankara to promote the Turkish version of his book (Herkese Merhaba!) – its 14th language translation.
The account of his five years reporting from the Middle East – on top of years of Arabic study — came out four years before my own Dining with al-Qaeda. The narrative of journalistic self-criticism comes from different perspectives, but the conclusions of our two books are so much on the same wavelength that when Hello Everybody! came out, the Guardian newspaper reviewed them together.
I’d never met Luyendijk, however, and it proved a delight to share a podium with him in Ankara last week at a lively outpost of Dutch civilization, Leiden University’s NIHA Institute. We discussed our pet loves and hates in journalistic coverage of the Middle East, and his book’s central arguments: that Western coverage of the Middle East is superficial, misleadingly uprooted from its context since it is purveyed by a crisis-hopping class of “presenters”; that few of these talking heads speak local languages; and that time pressure forces many to work from agency copy forwarded by their headquarters. It points out that few spend much time outside their hotels, omit the human context and have little special knowledge of local peoples who are caught up in long, complicated disputes that are not all of their own making.
Some in the Dutch media establishment rejected this newcomer’s lèse majesté, and indeed what makes the book so readable and hard-hitting is its funny mix of oversimplification, exaggeration and iconoclasm. Luyendijk claims an outsider’s legitimacy, insisting (often with a thump of his fist into his hand) that he has been first and foremost moulded by his first career as an anthropologist. His study of journalists in action, he believes, is scientifically analogous to the work he’d really like to be doing: studying Dutch-speaking grandchildren of the arrow-shooting aboriginals of the Surinam rain forest.
For our audience in Ankara we argued over whether to blame television or parti pris op-ed columnists for the Middle East’s wars and the shortcomings of Western reporting of them. I found his book over-envious of the well-funded correspondents of the great U.S. media outlets, a position which I (mostly) greatly appreciated during my decade on the staff of the Wall Street Journal. In fact, I was jealous of him, I said, because any story he wrote would have a head start in getting closer to the truth because he was writing for an open-minded, well-educated, relatively neutral country like the Netherlands. We sparred over whether to blame the reporter or the audience for journalism’s lack of far-sightedness and nuance, and found a useful scapegoat in the editors. Then we wondered if more editors wouldn’t improve a brave new Dutch initiative of collaborative, crowd-funded journalism, de Correspondent, which allows writers perhaps too much space.
Luyendijk kept his insights flowing at another launch event at the Dutch ambassador’s residence, acknowledging how much had already changed in the business since he was having agency copy faxed to him. Back then, not having images from, say, Chechnya, meant that the deaths of thousands never even got on the TV news. At the same time, the neatly choreographed if sometimes deadly daily Arab-Israeli ballet of Palestinian stone throwers vs Israeli troops in a small corner of Ramallah – filmed by the global media and watched by spectators, both served by falafel sellers – made it seem as though the Middle East was ablaze with violence.
Now, he said, leading blog sites are helping editors frame their ideas on the Middle East (he singled out the “excellent” website Arabist, for instance). An articulate modern-day Dutch embassy dragoman in the audience noted the paradox that there is now a plethora of film from Syria, but that these cellphone shorts have done little to blunt the violence ripping the country apart. Luyendijk doubted that this holy grail of 100 per cent truth or objectivity could ever be attained. (“A report is always going to be either ‘Ajax beat Liverpool’, or ‘Liverpool lost to Ajax’”). He proposed a better gold standard would be trustworthiness. In journalistic terms, we agreed, that could be defined as “an honest best shot”.
Both maybe it’s easy for us to talk. We are no longer burdened with the intimidating task of making sense of day-to-day Middle Eastern turmoil for a non-expert audience. I’m now with International Crisis Group, and find its research, reports and advocacy method far better suited than journalism for detailing, explaining and ultimately trying to do something to end Middle East turbulence. But, illustrating Luyendijk’s point about simplification, even the best-intentioned broadcast media still often find it easier to keep calling me a journalist, as here on Dutch TV news last week.
Fed up with requests to come in on the fourth day of every crisis to criticise the media coverage, Luyendijk has moved to London and reinvented himself as an anthropologist of the banking business. He has blogged from the front lines of finance for the Guardian (here), an experience he’s now turning into a book. After hearing him retell some of the stories whispered anonymously to him by apparently self-hating Masters of the Universe, I’m looking forward to reading it — if he survives the the English food, out-of-body encounters with the British intellectual classes and all-year-round swimming at the open-air Lido lake on Hampstead Heath.
After that Luyendijk says his next project will be the European Union and its native species, the Eurocrat. He has his work cut out. Europe’s often self-imposed sense of slow decline means that even NIHA, the Dutch centre of learning in Ankara where he and I talked, will close down this year. But I parted company with him with a reinvigorated belief in the qualities and energy that Europe still has, if only Europeans could articulate it better.
Thinking too about Luyendijk’s insistence on the importance to his work of his scientific background, I feel even more flattered to remember how an elderly Canadian professor once came up to me after I’d presented my last book Sons of the Conquerors at Montreal’s McGill University. After listening to me talk about this account of my search through two dozen countries for the soul of the Turks, he told me: “you know, Mr. Pope, you could almost have been an anthropologist”.
A full video of our debate can be found here http://youtu.be/BdLqFqOCiRs
Inspired by a paragraph in Sean Singer’s fine article in the American Interest on the historical background of Turkey’s current unrest, I started looking for more reasons for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s insistence on rebuilding an Ottoman-era barracks on Taksim Square. Yes, it was partly intended to reverse an outrage against the fabric of the city by one of Istanbul’s many destructive modernisers, who leveled the barracks in 1940 to make Gezi Park. And surely the prime minister feels that he would lose face and a patronage opportunity by giving up the project. But is restoring it worth the high current domestic and international damage to his image? Perhaps there’s more to it than meets the eye. As Singer wrote:
Erdogan had addressed the protestors directly earlier in the day. “Do whatever you like”, he told them. “We’ve made the decision, and we will implement it accordingly. If you have respect for history, research and take a look at what the history of that place called Gezi Park is. We are going to revive history there.”
Erdogan was not referring to the Armenian cemetery that once stood nearby, but the Halil Pasha Armory Barracks, built in 1803–06. In 1909 the barracks were the site of a mutiny against the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), the ideological predecessors of the nationalists who founded the Republic of Turkey. The CUP had come to power in the name of constitutionalism in 1908 but eventually succumbed to the authoritarian temptation. It used the mutiny to justify the deposition and exile of Abdülhamid II, the last Ottoman Sultan to wield total power.
In other words, the barracks was the site of a pro-Islamic, anti-CUP Turkish nationalist revolt – and even today, Erdogan’s ruling party remembers Sultan Abdulhamid with fondness. I hadn’t realized that the ideological struggle over this barracks went back this far! One of the Turkish Wikipedia article on the barracks – and the “31 March Events” of 1909 – even tells how the “Action Army” that marched in support of the CUP nationalists and crushed the uprising in the barracks was accompanied by Bulgarian “çapulcus”, irregular looters/marauders, the same name that Erdogan gave to the mostly secularist, nationalist demonstrators that occupied Gezi Park in June 2013.
Most of these photos come from a May 1909 copy of the Ottoman “Resimli Kitab” (‘Picture Book’) magazine, a random volume I inherited from the late French writer Jean-Pierre Thieck, who must have found it in a flea market and realised that the events described in it would one day be relevant again. The big photo below shows how even back then, the international media was in the thick of things. This reporter certainly conducted himself with some style, and was no doubt also accused of being behind all the trouble. And yes, as on the left, there was an environmental angle too, with a picture of a tree that got damaged by the shelling.
[This post written on 10 June, the day before the 7am police intervention that took control of Taksim Square, the Atatürk monument and the Atatürk Culture Centre. On 16 June, the police took control of Gezi Park as well. For the aftermath, see below].
I still couldn’t believe my eyes as I wandered this weekend round Taksim Square, along with thousands other visitors who thronged there this weekend to take in this extraordinary moment in Turkey’s political life. Even a few days ago there were just a few people camping out in what was once the small, unfrequented park, from where Turkey’s protests over the uprooting of a few trees blossomed into a national protest movement. A carnival atmosphere has now spread out from the park to include most of the square itself, a fair in which an alphabet soup of often little-known Turkish organizations have set up shop. There are revolutionaries, Marxists, Kurdish insurgents, anti-capitalist Muslims, environmentalists and many, many more.
Like all new-borns, a rush is on to name and define the wave of protests. Are they “a few looters”, in the inimitably dismissive comment of Prime Minister Erdogan? But if not that, then what? A Turkish Spring, a poll tax turning point, an “occupy” movement, Piraten or indignados? A political earthquake, sure, but on which of Turkey’s many fault-lines: secular-Islamist, rich-poor, new urban vs old urban, left-vs-right, Kurdish nationalist vs Turkish nationalist, Sunni Muslim vs Alevi, authoritarian vs anarchist, environmentalist vs shopping mall builder? Of course, the answer is all of the above and all of no one of them. As some leading lights of the small old leftist opposition parties put it, the demonstrators themselves probably have as little idea as the government about what exactly the protests are about. Whatever the final judgment of history, there is already a “revolution museum” in a commandeered hut from the now suspended roadworks around Taksim. And while they wait, protestors take time out at “The Looters’ Cafe and Reading Room”, stock up on supplies at the “Brigand Market”, and get their souvenir stickers from the “Taksim Commune”.
A “Taksim Solidarity Platform” has built a stage in the heart of the park for hosting groups like the “Looters’ Chorus” and is trying to rally its disparate members to agree reasonable demands – 35 groups mid-week, 80 groups now – and its officials rush about in union-style printed overshirts. Merchandising is putting its mark on proceedings: Turkish flags with secular republican founder Ataturk superimposed are popular; a T-shirt saying “don’t bow down” is everywhere; there is also a a scarf demonstrating unity in protest between all three of Istanbul’s main rival football clubs. There are many references to the “looters”, or çapulcu, including a T-shirt with the Turklish phrase “Everyday I’m chapuling”.
This is a rare time in which international media are interested in Turkey as Turkey, not as part of the usual effort to pigeon-hole the country as part of the Middle East, Europe, or the Islamic World. The only other time I can remember this happening is during the massive 1999 earthquake around Istanbul, when more than 40,000 Turks were probably killed and the outside world forgot its prejudices about the country and real empathy was on offer. Similarly, visitors from Europe say the “Occupy” atmosphere is suddenly making Turkey looking very European. Unfortunately, the muzzled way Turkey’s national media initially covered the events was a reminder of the non-European limits Turkey’s places on freedom of expression.
Something in the scene reminds me of the liberated atmosphere in 1996, when the UN’s Habitat Conference was held in Istanbul and Turkey’s non-governmental organisations were allowed to gather in an Ottoman barracks opposite the Hyatt Hotel . The idea of anything being allowed to organise legally outside direct state supervision was then very new (Turkey is still digging its way out from being so long the West’s own East bloc government). It was the first time many of the NGOs were really aware of the existence of other such groups, and all derived a great sense of solidarity as they met and talked. Another comparison would be with the first political chat shows in the early 1990s, when Turkey stayed up until dawn to watch people debating their way out of the country’s old black-and-white, enemy-or-friend view of life.
Today, the whole country is now talking about the protests, the new generation of students who are its leading element, and the way there is a sense of happy, humorous liberation in the air. If only for this reason, I hope the authorities take a European view of this and continue to let this outpouring of democratisation run its natural course in Taksim Square – and that the protestors do find a consensus to take down the barricades, open the square up to traffic and allow all normal municipal functions to resume.
Still, nobody knows how this will end, only that how it ends will define much of the next decade. There are hardline revolutionaries among the protestors’ groups who do want to smash the Turkish establishment in the name of various ideologies. Still, they are far from the mainstream of the protestors, and it seems inconceivable that the security forces should launch sudden violent action against the currently large group of people in the square; yet everyone knows that one day the other foot will fall, perhaps not directly, but indirectly through the ongoing arrest-and-release campaign against social media ‘provocateurs’ or leaders’ public threats and intimidation of domestic and (openly now) foreign media.
The problem for the authorities is that now the protests are not just about Taksim, nor one small social class in Istanbul, nor even Istanbul itself. This movement has taken root all over the country. I was passed on the Istiklal Street pedestrian boulevard leading to Taksim by a band of young men who’d travelled all the way from the southern Taurus Mountains to march to Taksim to protest a dam being near them. And in the working-class dock district of Hasköy, I watched a squad of forty schoolchildren set off for the miles-long march to Taksim with matching blue flags and outfits.
So here are some more photos of the big party, even as we all wonder what form the hangover will take.
The day after these photos were taken, on June 11, the police pushed the protestors off Taksim Square. The protestors responded with stone throwing, fireworks and in the case of one small group, Molotov cocktail throwing. The police then used high-pressure hoses and tear gas and tore down flags and banners. The police said they wouldn’t intervene in Gezi Park itself, but eventually, on the evening of June 16, they pushed them out of there too. Both sides accused each other of bad faith – the government saying protestors gave into radicals who only wanted a fight and refused to leave the square, and protestors who said they needed more time and commitments from the government. Once again, the police used force and tear gas in overwhelming measure. Protestors tried to win back the square on June 17, when the photos below were taken, but the police took strong measures to prevent that happening.
The world’s media has descended on Istanbul to find out more about our Turkish unrest, an extraordinary long weekend in which the secular middle class lost its complacency, overcame its fears and discovered political protest. A new sense of humour joined the usually stern-faced national narrative, people are somehow walking taller and it is amazing to hear great, spontaneous waves of clapping spreading among pedestrians walking up and down Istiklal St outside my house. Everything changed, even if the baleful music from the music shop opposite unfortunately emerged from the day of rioting stuck the same gloomy rut (Ol-muyooor, ooool-muyor, “It just isn’t happening…”).
The analysis is flowing fast. Here are just some good pieces in English I saw flashing past: Frederike Geerdink in Diyarbakir excellently explained why Kurds feel detached from the Istanbul excitements – a perspective that shines light on where Turkey as a whole really is today. Piotr Zalewski gave a fine account of the big day on Taksim. Henri Barkey pointedly noted how much he thinks this is about Prime Minister Erdoğan and his “yes men”, and the sharp wit of Andrew Finkel laid out how the PM needs to open up to local involvement in local decisions. Claire Berlinski’s acid take is a bracing antidote to mainstream news on Turkey. Nadeen Shaker had a fascinating interview with a perceptive activist, Ozan Tekin, about what the Taksim Square protests do and do not share with Cairo’s Tahrir Square.
At Crisis Group’s Istanbul office, we couldn’t resist adding our voice to the hubbub, putting together what we hope is a balanced distillation of how we find ourselves answering questions from the sudden inrush of new and regular visitors. You can find our “Turkey Protests: the Politics of an Unexpected Movement” on the Crisis Group website here. I also did a commentary for Bloomberg urging Mr. Erdoğan to engage the protestors. Watching the novel, calm, empathetic outreach of Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç at a news conference on 4 June, I felt that if Prime Minister Erdogan can execute one of his famous U-turns and do the same, it would do much to absorb the tensions.
I also attach some images from the scene on Taksim Square and Gezi Park, mostly from Monday 3 June. The upbeat mood was much the same in most places in Turkey. The country is an amazingly resilient place that actually enjoys a good crisis – it’s normality some people have trouble with! Still, ordinary folk are almost competing to get things ‘back to normal’ wherever they can by cleaning up and fixing the few broken shopfronts.
Still, nightly police-protestor confrontations that last for hours on the front lines have been frighteningly violent at barricades in Istanbul’s Beşiktaş district near the prime minister’s office, and in central Ankara. The new slogan rolling up from my street last night was a boisterous one: “Tyrant, Resign!” So for now we wait for the prime minister to return from his north African tour, and to discover whether we are now looking at the aftermath of an emotional outburst of popular sentiment, or whether the current precarious stand-off is just an interlude.
At dawn of the morning after the night before, a flock of pigeons was picking on the debris from an amazing 48 hours outside my home on Istiklal St, the pedestrian boulevard through the heart of Istanbul. It was littered with trash, broken beer bottles and the odd ornamental tree yesterday’s protestors dragged into the middle of the road to act as a barricade against police forces. A few stragglers were still drifting away from a boisterous all-night celebration in Taksim Square of what they see as their victory over the police and government. Protestors and police apparently have clashed again briefly in at least one place elsewhere in the city, Beşiktaş, but for now things are quiet here, although a tang of tear gas lingers in the air.
By 10am this 2 June, municipality cleaning trucks had got most of the street clean. Vans are coming to restock shops – or perhaps to see if the shops survived. Every few minutes in the blue sky above us, as they did even when clouds of tear gas billowed down the street during the battles yesterday, passenger planes make their final approach to Istanbul airport. But absorbing what happened on 1 June – and getting back to business as usual – is going to take a while longer than that.
What are the long-term implications of having the heart of Turkey’s touristic, commercial and cultural capital captured by young people walking up and down most of the night shouting to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan: “Tayyip, Resign!”? How impressive is it that these demonstrations spread to half of Turkey’s 81 provinces? Is this the beginning of a new democratic era of brave youth confronting an inflexible authority, or should we focus on an early taste of some frightening anarchy and looting? How much real political water is there behind this dam burst of secular sentiment in Istanbul, a flood which swept the flags of innumerable marginal and not-so-marginal left-wing groups to the heart of Taksim Square? How did a polls-obsessed government misjudge the mood so much? Does an ideology that consists in part of turning Turkey into a country in shopping malls linked by dual-carriageway highways not satisfy the people?
I’m not yet sure about all these big questions, except to note once again that the government still won power in 2011 with 50 per cent of the vote, that it did not order its own probably far more numerous supporters out onto the streets of this city of more than 10 million people, that its cementing over of green spaces is nothing new in Turkish urban planning, and that under this administration, the parks and roadside flowers have looked better than anything previously. And for once in the first three days of the demonstrations themselves, the security forces and police, however excessive their use of tear gas and despite more than 100 people injured, miraculously killed nobody.
So while thinking about those big unknowns, I think I’ll just share some pictures from the Istiklal St scene at about 11pm last night.
Living right on Istanbul’s main pedestrian boulevard of Istiklal St, 1km south of central Taksim Square and the now legendary Gezi Park, has given me a ringside seat to the wave of unrest that has gripped the city over the past 48 hours.
At times everything seemed normal, even if the passers-by were fewer than on a usual weekend. Until late last night the music shop opposite was still churning out its usual Istiklal St. dirges. Then a group of protestors entered stage right, retreating from Taksim (slogans included: “We are the soldiers of Mustafa Kemal [Ataturk]”, “You’re all sons of whores”, “Government Resign”, “Shoulder to shoulder against fascism”…), the first of several waves usually pursued with a strange theatricality by a group of police with an ugly water cannon truck — water from its high pressure hose scattering people like the whip of an angry mythical beast – and a posse of riot squaders. A few explosive pops from the tear gas launchers, and gas would stream out of canisters where they landed, the smoke unfurling in ribbons down the street. At our third-floor height it usually only burns the eyes and nose. We closed the windows for a few minutes before opening them up again for a better look at the next wave of attack and counter-attack.
Early this morning, all seemed quiet. Municipality cleaning trucks had left the pedestrian precinct immaculately clean, the vans that restock the Istiklal St. shops turned up, and middle-aged north American tourists wandered down in new white sneakers & their pink, plum, and orange cottons, taking in the sights. But there was an odd silence in the street that did not bode well for the day ahead.
At 10am, a first group of protestors came running down the street, chased by another police patrol spraying water left and right, popping off gas canisters and chasing demonstrators into side-streets. One group who took refuge in a shop got a special, almost casual gassing by passing police. At 10:30am, small groups of demonstrators gathered again. One came from the south, built a barricade outside our building to try to stop the police vehicles chasing them, and then headed off for Taksim. Throughout this, the seller of Turkish simit sesame bagels from a little red nostalgic ‘Beyoglu’ cart remained firmly at his post – doing steady business just meters from where the skeins of gas fumes were floating around. But even he fled at 1:15pm, when the police charged more strongly and fired a dozen gas canisters, some aimed high and sent spinning down this late 19th century boulevard like javelins on a battlefield. Everyone scattered into sidestreets. (My wife Jessica Lutz filmed it, here). Ten minutes later, they were back with even more people filling the pedestrian district, with even more scornful slogans about “Killer AKP” (the ruling party). At 2pm, the police counter-attacked, even more dramatically. The crowd regrouped, its slogans turning into low howls of anger; at 2.45pm the police pushed back again from behind a thick screen of gas. This time they also faced a barrage of stones from some protestors, among the very front lines of which could be seen the red flag of the Turkish Communist Party and even a lone flag of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
At 4pm, after a last flurry of gas canisters near Galatasaray, the police reportedly received orders to allow demonstrators through to Taksim. Gradually the crowd – mostly cheerful, ordinary folk with no obvious political affiliation who filled the breadth and length of Istiklal St’s southern half – moved forward to Istanbul’s central square in celebratory mood.
So what’s new in all this? Social media, for a start. Many of my Turkish friends are glued to their Facebook accounts, sharing pictures of the worst police outrages – a remarkable one shows a policeman dousing a protestor with a device like an insect spray gun, as the protestor holds up a sign saying “Chemical Tayyip” [Erdogan] — and spoof posters like an ad for the “Istanbul Gas Festival”, “We can’t keep calm, we’re Turkish” and so on. The spontaneous look of the small groups of protestors coalescing and dispersing in the street outside is quite unlike the usual formal protests organized by unions and political parties, and lacks the angry, violent edge to the pop-up parades by radical left-wing groups. Mostly young and middle class, they include people in shirts for all Istanbul’s big rival football clubs, young women in headscarves, groups of white-coated medical volunteers, and a young man with a big bag of lemons, selling them to the crowd as an tear gas antidote.
On the other hand, Turkey had the same banging of pots and pans in anti-government neighbourhoods in the 1990s, which was widespread on the Asian side of Istanbul last night; and in my district of Beyoglu, every year or two a big issue brings angry demonstrators and policemen with gas weaponry that is used to clear people away. While the government is clearly rattled this time round, after four days, perhaps the only obvious long-term political consequence I can predict so far is that all this will be remembered when Prime Minister Erdogan launches his expected quest for the presidency in an election next year.
The demonstrations are already about a lot more than sympathy for condemned trees in a street-widening scheme at the Gezi Park, and have taken on a distinctly anti-government tone. Reasons for the protests I’ve heard from friends over the past 48 hours include: a reaction to the ruling party’s focus on building shopping centers everywhere, even in Istanbul’s last patches of green, like the future mall planned for Gezi Park; how the half of the population that didn’t vote for the government resents what it sees as its increasingly high-handed, majoritarian, we-know-best style; among secularists, a sense that the ruling party revealed a Islamist agenda that could infringe its lifestyle with sudden new regulations this month on alcohol consumption (my blog on that here); among the 10 per cent Alevi minority, anger at this month’s choice of Ottoman Sultan Selim the Grim’s name for a third bridge over the Bosphorus, since he killed many Alevis; the general feeling that there is little transparency in what the government plans and does, and that the media is under great pressure not to discuss real events or who benefits financially from projects (one mainstream TV program during last night’s was about radiation on Mars!); and above all, a sense of powerlessness, and frustration at the inadequacy of the main political opposition parties, which have left the bulk of secularists of Istanbul with a feeling that they’ve had no real political representation for years.
There’s a lot of talk among my Turkish friends of the Gezi Park demonstrations being a “turning point”, and today it feels that way, with growing numbers of demonstrators in the streets, many cities in Turkey protesting in sympathy, and the unscripted nature of proceedings. Normal patterns have been drastically changed in recent days, not just in traffic but also in many peoples’ lives. Phone calls with friends in the center are often about “my street is all mixed up now, can’t talk for long”. If anyone gets killed, rather than 100 or so already injured, that will sharply escalate the situation. Here’s hoping the government manages to handle the next 24 hours more sensitively than the last. A good first move would be to get some traction by letting state television give a full version of events – currently, people are consuming a diet of wild rumors and partial views on social media, which can only add to the current escalation.
I got a surprise yesterday at lunch at the restaurant round the corner from my office, where I’d agreed to do a book talk for half a dozen of the city’s journalists from Spain. The surprise was not so much that each of them graciously bought a copy of Dining with al-Qaeda. (This makes Spain my country of the week!) Rather, the shock was caused by what suddenly was not on the menu, in one of the touristic hubs of Istanbul.
“Beer?” asked a Spanish TV correspondent, newly arrived in Turkey from China.
“Maalesef (sorry),” said the waiter.
“Can’t do it.”
“But here …”
“It’s the new law.”
So the axe has fallen at last. Or has it? I could see the Spanish reporter looking at the menu in puzzlement, not yet used to the way that in Turkey, what you see is not always what you get. I think I’m accustomed to that after 25 years in Istanbul. When I read in the papers that parliament in Ankara is talking about new laws, for instance, I assume it will make little difference to my daily life, or at least not anytime soon. Yes, the new law said that alcohol can’t be sold within 100 meters of a mosque or educational building. But I thought there had been an ordinance like that since Ottoman times, and that it was evidently unenforceable.
This latest edict has got the bar and restaurant crowd running scared, however.
“I paced the distance myself,” said the son of the establishment’s owner. “We’re 70 meters from a mosque that way, and less than 100 meters on the other side.”
“Did you get a written order to stop serving drinks?”
“No, we saw it on TV. We’re trying to work out what to do … This will mean quite a loss.”
Indeed, it’s not just this restaurant under the Galata Tower that may suffer losses from the new law now awaiting approval by the president, and which also foresees a ban on shop sale of alcohol between 10pm and 6am and a complete ban on advertising (see Today’s Zaman on its acceptance by parliament on 24 May, here). It looks like being in Istanbul may — officially at least — really get a bit more bracing and clear-headed for everyone.
Pro-government newspapers disingenuously present the change as the adoption of either European rules or a 100-yard law that New York apparently has too (see Sabah, here); apparently the law will only apply for new licences. But just because the late leader Turgut Özal gave Istanbul a 212 dialing code two decades ago doesn’t make the two places the same. New York is a place designed on entirely different scale to the jumbled maze of inner Istanbul. Perhaps some spots in the historic central mahalles are more than 100 meters from a school, mosque, church or synagogue, but these look like pretty obscure dead angles on a map speedily drawn up by Turkey pundit Dov Friedman here.
I hardly ever drink anything at lunch, and I don’t want to be defined by alcohol consumption. But I’d certainly like to have the right to order a beer if I wanted in this multinational heart of Istanbul. (Postscript: I should add that many parts of Turkey today don’t have the European culture of drinking alcohol in public places, and most people in the country don’t drink it anyway – the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development says Turks drink one seventh to eighth the average intake of Americans and Europeans!) I also wondered too whether the new law was also the reason that my local supermarket recently ran down its stocks of wine, which new taxes and exploitative wineries have been making steadily more expensive in recent years.
“We’ll fix the problem”, the owner’s son said, in that vague tone of “it’ll all be fine” fatalism that plagues so many projects in the country. After all, the law’s regulations will probably exempt tourism areas. Turkey may be a religious-minded place, but there are limits to how much damage any government can do to business. Also, at a next-door-neighbour restaurant – still serving alcohol, but worried about the effects of the new ban – the head waiter thought that in fact my usual restaurant had never had a full alcohol licence, hence its owners’ extreme caution now.
Whatever the exact truth of this particular case, the anti-alcohol drive is unquestionably gathering momentum. I accepted a serving of my delicious foamy yoghurt-and-water ayran, the age-old Turkish refreshment that the prime minister recently announced is now Turkey’s national drink. This new title was a clear swipe at the heady old aniseed liquor, rakı, the lions’ milk beloved of republican founder Kemal Ataturk and the national drink for many other secular-minded Turks.
Devout Muslims, of course, believe alcohol is banned by the Qoran. But one of the endearing characteristics of the Turks is that many would take offense if someone said that occasional indulgence in it made them any less Muslim than the rigorously abstinent. Indeed, I told the group from Spain that when I wrote Dining with al-Qaeda I tried to minimize using the word “Islam”, preferring the more individual “Muslim”, since interpretations of what Islam means vary so much between persons and countries. But the arrival of the anti-alcohol campaign on our street corner may mean that a decade after the Justice and Development Party came to power, I may at last have to start conceding that the government does sometimes have an Islamic religious agenda. Indeed, justifying the government’s measure to his party on 28 May, Prime Minister Erdoğan said there was no question of banning alcohol but asked “why do people respect a law made by two drunkards [presumably, republican founders Ataturk and Inonu], but feel the need to reject a law ordered by religion?”
As my new Spanish book club and I philosophized over fine lentil soups, spicy kebabs and soft Turkish pide pizzas, however, I wondered again. Maybe this anti-alcohol gambit is just a clever political smoke screen to hide new Byzantine intrigues. Presidential elections are in the offing, a daring constitutional change is in the air, and the government’s Syria policy has provoked much unease. The opposition is gaining a little traction. At similar junctures in recent years, the prime minister has briefly distracted the national agenda and made gestures to his core constituency with “Islamic” initiatives about divorce, abortion, headscarves and the like. He seemed in similar form in support of the anti-alcohol campaign, waxing rhetorical about saving a generation from being one that “drinks day and night and wanders around in a haze.”
A couple of years ago, after all, the government banned outdoor tables from the pavements of Beyoğlu, despite scuffles with angry restaurant owners. Now, as if nothing had happened, the tables that don’t get in pedestrians’ way are back on the street, including outside my local restaurant. It’s democracy, Turkish style: the government shoves, the people push back and the state re-adjusts — but only so much. With small steps those at the top can keep advancing a cause, and ten years in power, after all, is a long time.
Other informative stories on this question can be found here, focused on the drop in Turkish beer companies’ outlook by Bloomberg’s Benjamin Harvey, and here, by the Wall Street Journal’s Emre Peker about reactions to the ban.