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. A new law that alcohol can’t be sold within 100 meters of a mosque or educational building passed earlier this month. I thought there had been an ordinance like that since Ottoman times, and that it was clearly unenforceable.
This latest edict has got the bar and restaurant crowd running scared, however.
“I paced the distance myself,” said the owner’s son. “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 winding its way through the legislative process (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 a 100-yard law that New York apparently has too (see Sabah, here). 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!) 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.
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.
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.
Since he’s in Turkey and I’m not, I invited him to answer a few questions by e-mail and he not only did, but suffered a few follow-ups as well.
Pope has left journalism (but not writing) to work at the International Crisis Group, a group that studies areas of conflict and possible conflict, writes reports, and suggests solutions. He specializes in Turkey and the surrounding area.
Pope says that the work of the Crisis Group is intended more for policy makers than for travelers but are frequently used as background by reporters. The reports are free, and, he says, “Our take on situations is known to be (as far as is humanly possible) evidence-based, non-ideological, neutral, comprehensive, and long-lasting, being the product of meticulous field work and including interviews with all sides. Crisis Group hopes that by filling this information gap – backed by energetic advocacy with governments and opinion-makers based on our reports – warring parties will see new ways out of their conflict. It’s amazing how often people in conflict don’t listen to each other and misjudge each other’s intentions.”
As I noted in my review of Dining with Al Qaeda, Pope tried hard to see all sides when he was reporting.
“Working for International Crisis Group is everything I wanted journalism to be, but never quite was,” he says. “In media reporting, especially from remoter and less important parts of the world, a journalist is under pressure to frame the issue in an attractive and compelling ‘story’ – often a tall order on a short trip. In a Crisis Group report I can say exactly what I think the situation or problem is, without having the need to dramatize the narrative or dress it in a character-led story.” But he adds that his 25 years of experience reporting from 30 countries contributes to his present work.
Because of his book title, I searched the Internet for his reaction to the death of Osama bin Laden, and came up empty handed. In fact, he told me … (read full interview here)
This interview and concise summary of the themes of Dining with al-Qaeda appeared in one of Turkey’s own English-language newspapers, Hürriyet Daily News, on the day that HDN co-sponsored the Istanbul launch of the book. (Original here). Thanks again to editor David Judson, executive Michael Wyatt and associate editor Barçin Yınanç for all this unexpected rallying round your fellow Istanbullu!
Note for readers in Turkey: Homer Bookshop in Galatasaray (tel: +90 212 249 59 02) almost always has copies of Dining with al-Qaeda and can cheaply courier them anywhere in the country.
Veteran journalist Pope explores Mideast in new book
ISTANBUL – Hürriyet Daily News
Wednesday, September 15, 2010
Simplistic reporting that skirts deep-seated conflicts and cultural complexity has made it difficult for the West to come to terms with the Middle East, according to one journalist with long experience in the region.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been just one of the crucial issues Western reporters have failed to explain, said journalist-turned-analyst Hugh Pope, the author of the new book “Dining with al-Qaeda: Three Decades Exploring the Many Worlds of the Middle East.”
“As a reporter [for the Wall Street Journal], I tried to explain to Americans why it is that Palestinians feel they are so unjustly treated, but I could not get the story across,” Pope told the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review in an interview Monday. “There is such a gap between what Americans think is the case and what the case is on the ground.”
The author illustrates this phenomenon in “Dining with al-Qaeda” with a story he wrote about the plight of Palestinians. According to Pope, the published version portrayed a situation in which Palestinians and Israelis had lived happily for a long time until the Palestinians started shooting – failing to give the full picture of why they felt the need to fight. Such small, but critical, omissions made to cater to the assumed tastes of an American audience become bricks in a wall of incomprehension, he said.
“In order to reach readers, you need to communicate. In order to communicate, you need to find common ground. That forces you to compromise,” said Pope, who has spent more than 30 years in the Middle East, much of it based in Istanbul. “But while searching for that compromise on what the American reader can take, often you end up confusing the situation even further.”
Concerned about keeping readers on board, editors often avoid subjects seen as difficult for them to digest. To keep readers’ attention, journalists likewise feel obliged to appeal to expectations by focusing on Americans in the region, the spread of American values such as progress or democracy, themes of disaster and redemption and uplifting or happy endings – all things that are thin on the ground in the Middle East, Pope said. The lack of understanding of how every country in the Middle East has been to hell and back compounds the problem.
In a previous book, “Sons of Conquerors: The Rise of the Turkic World,” Pope took readers on a journey through a geography that spreads from China to Europe and even to America, introducing largely unknown figures such as the Turkish mufti in Sofia, Bulgaria, and the leaders of Uighur Turks in China. His latest book is equally vast. In it, he seeks to break down the broader Middle East, ranging from Sudan to Afghanistan – and better known to Western readers, whose deep-seated convictions based on simplistic ideological labels such as “Arabs,” “Islam” or “terrorism.”
“There is an overemphasis on Islam in understanding the Middle East,” Pope said. “There are ideologues who want you to believe that Islam is a monolith. They can be neo-conservatives in Washington, right-wing Israelis or Islamic fundamentalists. But look at the religious practice of core Muslim countries like Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and you see very different religious cultures, almost different religions.”
He added: “It is wrong to use Islam as a major analytical tool. You can’t explain everything with it.”
In his 329-page book, which devotes significant space to journalism in the Middle East, Pope gives examples of how some reporters distort news, or even make things up, to make their stories fly. He also reflects his frustration with those who try to give a genuine, full picture but often fail.
“As President Obama’s new American administration took office explicitly promising to listen and reassess its approach to the Middle East, I hope my observations can be a source of new ideas, empathy and change,” Pope wrote in the prologue.
U.S. and European understanding of Iran could be served by the book as they seek to engage Tehran.
“What you see in Iran is not what you get,” Pope said.
This photo — from Turkish photographer Sıtkı Kösemen‘s fun new album of Istanbul photographs Today is Today — sums up a lot about what I’m trying to say about the many faces of Islam in Dining with al-Qaeda. What do you think these girls represent?
To talk to Uygur leader Rebiya Kadeer has been a personal ambition ever since I visited China’s Xinjiang Province in 1999. It was a meeting with the first Uygur leader, the late Isa Alptekin, that inspired my travels through two dozen countries seeking to understand the essence of Turkishness in my 2005 book, Sons of the Conquerors. By chance, a discussion about Turkey at the National Endowment of Democracy in Washington DC – which bravely and rightly gives Mrs Kadeer a helping hand, despite great pressure from China — led me to her small office on Pennsylvania Avenue. Our hour together made me feel that those years of travel were worth it all over again.
I still find it remarkable that Mrs Kadeer understands when I speak my Istanbul Turkish, and that I can understand the gist of what she says in Uygur – even though the languages are separated by thousands of miles and centuries of completely separate development. Luckily, though, Omer Kanat was on hand to translate – as he had been when I last met Isa Alptekin in Istanbul in the mid-1990s. But many things about Mrs Kadeer need no translation.
Rebiya Kadeer has had an extraordinary career: she rose to become one the richest women and a member of parliament in China, became an activist for Uygur rights, was thrown in jail in 1999, won her freedom, took up residence in the United States, and even survived an apparent assassination attempt in Washington DC. 61 years old in 2009, she is the mother of 11 children, diminutive and wears a trim black long skirt and jacket topped by an embroidered black Central Asian cap. She often plays with her two traditional Uygur plaits of hair, thick, long and reaching down to her waist, and her serenely beautiful face and compelling manner are passionate and commanding.
Like Isa Alptekin, she insists on the non-violent nature of her increasingly successful quest to unify the squabbling factions of Uygur exiles and to win international recognition of the Uygur cause. Her goal is to win the same status enjoyed by the Dalai Lama. As a one-woman human force field, working the world from Washington, she certainly has a much better chance of doing so than Alptekin did in Istanbul.
Her people, the Uygurs (sometimes spelled Uyghurs or Uighurs), can only be included in the broadest of all possible definitions of the Middle East, since they are a distant Turkic-speaking Muslim people in Central Asia. Their claim to importance is that they are half the population of Xinjiang, itself one-sixth of China’s territory. The problem is that their 8 million population is a drop in the ocean of 1.3 billion Chinese. They are being crushed by fate, history, overwhelming immigration by ethnic Han Chinese and an extraordinarily strict and illiberal approach by Beijing, about which I wrote at length in Sons of the Conquerors.
Our conversation reminded me of a problem that is a theme of Dining with al Qaeda: the question of what makes a violent Islamist or a terrorist. For me, Islamism is closely bound up with nationalism, indeed I’d say these two phenomena are two sides of the same coin. Mrs Kadeer also saw them as closely linked, a reaction to the way the Chinese first neutralized Uygur religious leaders in the mid 1990s, then the intellectuals and urban commercial middle class like herself and her husband in the late 1990s.
When I visited Xinjiang in 1999, Chinese government bulldozers were driving great boulevards through Uygur neighborhoods in towns – work that is now nearly done, with the Uygurs pushed out of their old courtyard homes to soulless apartment blocks — but they had left alone the villages and the traditional, almost mediaeval lifestyle there. In recent years, Mrs Kadeer said, Uygurs felt that this rural repository of their culture was increasingly under threat from population transfers and work-seeking immigration of young Uygur women to the industrial towns of the Chinese east – according to her, a key factor behind the outburst of violence in Urumqi this year.
Given her feeling of being part of a culture under existential threat, she says she cannot bring herself to label the occasional Uygur “Islamist” militants who use violence as terrorists, at the same as she is trying to dissuade her people from using such tactics. “We have marginal groups, but we won’t say [they are] terrorists. China has put them in this state,” she said.
As a journalist, I faced the same problem when writing about the Middle East. Using the ‘terror’ label made it look as though I’d taken sides, whether in relation to Iranian policies, the Palestinians’ struggle against Israel, or the Turkish Kurd rebellion against the Turkish government. Militant groups’ actions could deliberately or inevitably kill civilians — my understanding of a terrorist act — but then so could the actions of the state they were fighting — which people called terrorist only if they disapproved its politics. I do use the word terrorist as an adjective to describe to individual outrages. But I try to avoid using the noun “terrorism” or “terrorist” as an adjective to describe groups that have real popular support, and among whom I live and report. There is no neutral path to take. Whether I use or don’t use the term, it makes one side or the other think I’ve taken sides against them.
The underlying point she made was about why young people sometimes turned to Islam. “The Uygurs were very desperate, so they embraced God,” as she put it. I’ve seen the same thing even in Israel, where my research assistant said her sister adopted the Orthodox Jewish tradition of a wig to cover her hair because she thought the difficulties faced by Israel were a punishment by God for lack of adherence to religious ways.
Those difficulties in Israel pale in comparison with the hopelessness of the Uygur fight for more rights – “our people are crushed” as Mrs Kadeer puts it. These days, when the world is increasingly turning to Beijing on many matters, it seems anachronistic to suppose that the Uygurs are “splittists” automatically seeking a separate and doubtless impoverished state of their own. In fact, Beijing would be well advised to seek some compromise with a charismatic, secular leader who can unite most Uygurs and better manage this aspect of the complex minority issue within China, rather than to scorn her and face the near-certainty of endless tensions and Islamist radicalization over the coming decades in Xinjiang. Any Chinese researchers who came to visit Mrs Kadeer in Washington and really talk to her would soon be convinced of that too.
(title note: News from Tartary is the title of one of my favorite Central Asia books, by Peter Fleming, elder brother of James Bond creator Ian Fleming. In it Fleming describes his daring journey through Xinjiang and China in the 1930s. The title’s evocation of utter obscurity reminds me of the way my account of visiting the Uygurs only saw the light of day in newsprint when a Sons of the Conquerors chapter excerpt appeared on the front page of the Wall Street Journal Asia as a news story a whole six years – yes, six years – after I had visited Xinjiang. Nothing had much changed in that time, and judging by Rebiya Kadeer’s and visitors’ accounts, I believe that today the situation is not qualitatively much different).