The journey from the best to the worst of days in recent Turkish geopolitics was partly determined by a deteriorating diplomatic context. In this keynote speech for the Dutch Peace Research Foundation’s annual prizes for best new MA theses on peace on 9 December 2016, I look back on the highs and lows of two decades of change.
The best day of news I remember as a foreign correspondent in Turkey was seventeen years ago, in December 1999.
Turkey was at the end of a miserable decade, having suffered a upsurge of its domestic insurgency, hyperinflation, human rights abuses, a restive military and weak coalition governments. The country was staring into the abyss. Then the Turkish establishment decided to pull its act together. Amid many other steps that showed officials were getting a grip, by mid-1998 they had persuaded the International Monetary Fund to give them one more chance after more than a dozen failed programs to fix government finances. And this time it worked, a light helping the country out of the tunnel.
Looking back now, the outside environment was also extraordinarily benign. The shock of the mid-1990s Balkan Wars had made European leaders realise that they would get as much from a Turkey becoming closer to Europe as Turkey would. The U.S., seeing Turkey as a resilient, indispensable ally bordering numerous trouble spots, played a strong, quiet role behind the scenes in bringing Turkey back into the international fold. The Middle East was quiet (ahead of the second Palestinian intifada in Israel in 2000 and the 11 September 2001 al-Qaeda attacks on the U.S.). Similarly, to the north, Russia was busy adapting itself to the post-Soviet period and Turkey was charging into new markets there.
All this peaked on the 11 December 1999, when the French president lent his plane so that the European Union (EU) chief external representative Javier Solana and the enlargement commissioner Günther Verheugen could fly to Ankara to invite Turkey to become a candidate to join the EU. The talks were difficult. The Cyprus question was clearly still going to be very hard to solve. Turkey suspected it was being sold second-class status. Still, in the end, it accepted. Some senior members of the Turkish Cabinet, it was said, felt that this was at last Turkey’s chance to join in the prosperity and stability that Europe represented.
The result was the extraordinary scene plastered over the front pages of Turkish newspapers, Turkish politicians side by side with their European counterparts, all beaming with pleasure. It was as if Turkey had at long last got an official invitation to the grand ball in Brussels.
This triggered an extraordinary outburst of reforming energy. Turkey repealed the death penalty. Spruced-up corridors in some ministries in Ankara epitomised the new zeal for change. Within a few years, routine torture had ended. Political stability returned. As Turkey’s reality improved, and then its image, the country experienced a flood of foreign investment and growth. As much to the surprise of many in the EU as in Turkey, five years later, European leaders declared that Turkey could begin accession negotiations.
But, almost immediately, the relationship between Turkey and the EU began to run into trouble.
What went right?
It may be that the whole framework was hypocritical from the beginning, just another version of a cynical game in which Turkey pretended to join the EU and the EU pretended to accept it.
But even if there was an element of truth to this, it was only part of the picture. The more important question was the direction in which Turkey was travelling, even accelerating. The mere existence of the process was good for both sides, even if the end state was not clear. Over time, it changed Turkey, and it could have changed the nature of the game. It may be true that 1999 Turkey could never have joined the EU as it was in 1999; but it was always going to take decades for Turkey to be at the same economic level as the European average to make it a plausible full member of the club. By that time both sides would likely have changed even more, and a new generation of politicians would strike the right deal according to the conditions of the day.
Another part of the picture is the fact that Turkey is always somewhat at the mercy of international trends. It is on the crossroads of Europe and the Middle East, and the crosshairs of the interests of Russia and the U.S.. What went right in Turkey in the early 2000s, I would argue, is partly a by-product of the international system performing as it should.
- The EU was ambitious, united, visibly successful, attractive and believed in itself.
- The U.S. was acting as a multilateral security anchor behind the scenes.
- The UN was well on its way to crafting a settlement that could reunite Cyprus, which it delivered in 2004 (when the Greek Cypriots alone rejected it).
- Russia was by and large becoming part of the same international system.
- The international financial system and its rules were credible, as were the belief in the rewards for joining it.
- After the U.S. helped Turkey capture Abdullah Öcalan the chief of the insurgent Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the PKK declared a long-lasting ceasefire.
- For all its faults, Turkey had a relatively open, pluralist political culture.
Losing Cruising Altitude
Fast forward to the worst day in Turkey’s recent history: 15 July 2016. On that night, a rogue army faction tried to seize power and came close to capturing President Erdoğan. He managed to rally public support to face down the coup, but 250 people were killed, parliament got bombed and the aftershocks continue to be very damaging. If you were flying a plane, it would be the moment when all the dials suddenly be give off noisy alarm signals. There’s every reason to hope that Turkey will fly on – it has a resilient, functioning state with old traditions – but there is no reason for complacency. For a moment, the government teetered on the brink of civil war. The list of problems now is sobering and long.
- A reversal of the benign 1999 situation in all four of Turkey’s main foreign policy areas: the EU accession process on life support; the U.S. military openly cooperating with Syrian Kurds whom Turkey views as a terrorist enemy; a horrible year with Russia after Turkey ill-advisedly shot down a Russian military plane; and disorder on Turkey’s Middle Eastern borders ever since the ill-judged U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.
- Cyprus is still stuck. The Greek Cypriots revealed their hand when they alone rejected the 2004 peace plan, and little since then has made a bicommunal, bizonal federation look more likely.
- Domestically, there are unresolved tensions in the security forces, as evidenced by the 15 July coup attempt and subsequent purges.
- The economy is in grave difficulty as Turkey tries to go it alone, investors grow wary, the Turkish lira erodes, the government tries all kinds of unorthodox methods to keep interest rates down.
- Power is increasingly centralised around one person. Since the 15 July coup attempt, the government has removed more than 100,000 people from their jobs, freedom of expression is under threat, and many Turkish intellectuals are moving into exile.
- The army has pushed the PKK back against the mountains on the Turkish-Iraqi border, but at a terrible price. Fighting has killed more than 2,300 people in the past seventeen months. Many leading Kurdish nationalist politicians have been thrown in jail or have chosen exile. Whole districts of cities in the south east of the country lie in ruins and a new generation of urban Kurds is being radicalised in new ways.
- Turkey was already becoming isolated. Elected by 151 votes to the Western Europe non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council in 2008, a massive success, its campaign to repeat that in 2014 completely failed. It lost to Austria and New Zealand, which had barely even campaigned.
- Turkey’s leaders are calling for the reimposition of the death penalty and there are increasing reports of torture becoming official practice once again.
- The European Parliament is calling for a suspension of the EU accession process.
- War is spilling over from Syria in multiple ways: three million refugees; IS suicide bombings; and the aggravation of domestic ethnic and sectarian tensions.
Turkey’s clock now seems to be set back to some time in the mid-1990s. What makes it worse is that under the pressure of immediate crises, policymakers are overstretched by the immediate symptoms of this wave of instability, including mass displacement and the spread of transnational terrorism. They find it hard to focus on long-term solutions like development and conflict prevention.
Were each of these setbacks inevitable? Is Turkey just stuck on the crossroads of geography and history, doomed to take collateral damage when next-door countries stumble into wars? Or could more far-sighted policies toward and by Turkey have solved at least some of these problems?
Preventive diplomacy is not necessarily dead. There will always be chances to nudge the needle back to more collaborative methods. We have seen intense international engagement deliver the Iranian nuclear deal; progress toward peace in Colombia; and the high-level push to avoid election-related chaos in Nigeria in 2015.
There is no one miracle cure. But if politicians, diplomats and international officials invest in key dimensions of early warning and early action – analysing conflict dynamics closely, building sensitive political relationships in troubled countries and undertaking complex ‘framework diplomacy’ with other powers to create political space for crisis management – they still have a chance to avert or mitigate looming conflicts and ease existing wars.
At Crisis Group, we see five broad rules for governments to keep in mind, which are as applicable to Turkey and its partners as to any other set of relationships.
1 – Know what is happening on the ground
There are obvious red flags of trouble ahead, but it is useful to lay some of them out:
- Leaders losing legitimacy or desperate to hold on to power;
- Restless police and military forces;
- Regional or ethnic divisions;
- Economic strains in the broader public;
- Neighbouring countries that inflame situations by intervening, sometimes posing as peacekeepers.
For outsiders looking at Turkey, all these red flags are currently up. It’s definitely not a time to assume that all may go well. It is a signal for Turkey’s friends that action must be taken to help – and guard against those who would use these weaknesses to trip up Ankara.
Turkey is in no doubt in the grave situation it is in, but a lack of critical reporting in the country means that often politicians take refuge in blaming outsiders for the country’s woes. Clean, comprehensive sources of information are essential building blocks of policy. The EU Progress Report may be dull to outsiders, but its publication is a real event in Turkey, precisely because its impartial point of view is valuable. The same goes for other factual investigations, like the U.S. State Department’s Human Rights Reports, Human Rights Watch’s reports and those of Amnesty International. At Crisis Group, we see it as a critical part of our mandate to issue factual reports based on our longstanding engagement with all sides to Turkey’s conflicts, and translate them into Turkish so everyone has the same reliable data on which to base their judgments.
2 – Maintain relationships with all parties
Engagement is very important. We saw this clearly in Nigeria in 2015, when it seemed that Goodluck Jonathan would cling on to power whatever the outcome of the presidential election that year. A new election-time bloodbath seemed to be looming. We were part of a campaign that in the end included advocacy by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and many others who intervened to persuade whoever lost the election to accept the result. It worked.
In Syria, there were many reasons why the world turned sour on Assad. But a lack of contact underestimated his readiness to stick it out, as well as the depth of Syria’s support from Iran and Russia.
For outsiders looking at Turkey, engagement is especially important. The U.S., for instance, has usually one very narrow interest at a time and tends to treat Turkey as a one-stop shop. It is also vulnerable due to critical Turkish perceptions of its Middle East policies. However, it has shown some inspiration, for instance when President Obama called Erdoğan to offer condolences when his mother died. The EU in general has failed to see that its broad array of often lesser interests are in themselves an important reason to be engaged not just with Turkish leaders but a broad range of Turkish actors. They have also not appreciated just how much a disunited approach weakens Europe’s cause in Turkey, and a united, consistent and fair EU policy gets Turkey’s attention and respect. This lack of engagement is one reason why the EU was so wrong-footed when it suddenly had a major interest in refugees transiting Turkey.
In Turkey’s case, failures to manage relationships with all parties have been particularly damaging in the Middle East and Europe. Turkish leaders, like politicians everywhere, have tended to make all external engagements a subset of domestic politics. This has been damaging to relations with the EU, and a lack of balance in its relationships with leaders in Syria and Egypt has had enormous costs. For instance, a real effort by Turkey to reach out to Greek Cypriots could have made all the difference in persuading them to agree to the 2004 deal on reunifying Cyprus.
3 – Build frameworks to channel international diplomacy
With the decline of Western influence, power increasingly lies with multiple countries. But a lot of mechanisms, like the UN Security Council, have lost credibility in recent years. Superpowers are no longer so powerful, and mid-ranking states are now strong enough to step into their place. It is increasingly important to bring major players together through international institutions and frameworks as early as possible in a crisis situation to look for diplomatic ways out.
An obvious recent success for ‘framework diplomacy’ is the nuclear deal with Iran, which brought together Iran with the U.S. and five other major powers to negotiate a solution to the standoff. The group included Russia and China, which worked on the agreement with the U.S. despite other ongoing differences on Syria, Ukraine and the South China Sea.
Syria, on the other hand, had been a failure of framework diplomacy. For the early years of the war, the U.S. and Europeans tried to sort out the conflict through the UN Security Council. But they excluded Iran from negotiations until last year and Russia deliberately dragged out the diplomatic process to help Assad. This is now changing, but too late to save many lives lost in this collapse into chaos.
For the outside world, better multilateralism is a good way to work with Turkey. Turkey is never happier than when it has a walk-on role as a middle-size power – being the venue for some of the Iran nuclear talks, hosting the G20, ticking the boxes as part of an EU process while it worked. It is at these times that the country feels it has something to win from cooperation, and that its partners’ messages will be listened to. Naturally, Turkey feels more engaged in forums in which it is treated as an equal partner – NATO, the Council of Europe, the OSCE, and so on. Turkey may not be able to win any single battle for its Western partners, but having Turkey on the Western side is a force multiplier that helps in innumerable small ways, often unseen.
The 2014 failure to get elected to a non-permanent seat at the UN Security Council should have been a wake-up call for Turkey. It should recognise that reinforcing its links to multilateral institutions has demonstrably done much good in the past. Working alone will always leave it vulnerable to much stronger states.
4 – Strategic planning and communication
This is the area where most preventive diplomacy is going wrong. There is less and less time for strategic planning, and politicians and diplomats react on the fly. Militaries are at their best when they do NOT have to be used. But to pull off that trick, their deterrent value must be credible and correctly communicated.
Leaders and diplomats need to think through the potential ramifications of their statements, and gauge possible reactions by all parties. They should be mindful of the signals they are sending, and take care not to box themselves in down the track.
A message sent on the spur of the moment – like President Obama’s demand that Assad should go in 2011 – can make peacemaking much harder later on.
A better example would be when the Netherlands, Germany and the U.S. all backed up NATO-member Turkey’s worries about Syria with Patriot batteries on the border. Unfortunately, other aspects of the relationship were under pressure at the same time, and local frictions marred their deployment. Moreover, Turkey and the West completely underestimated the forces at work in Syria. But it did buy time and underlined to Turkish public opinion that the NATO relationship was meaningful.
In an example of real miscommunication, both the EU and U.S. completely underestimated how they should have reacted to the coup attempt – by giving immediate support to the democratically elected Erdogan, whatever they thought of him.
5 – Creating pathways to peace
Some conflicts are international, some are domestic, and many overlap. In a lot of cases, the essential pathway to peace is to carve out some sort of power-sharing agreement between leaders. A failure to do so is what can fuel the tensions that lead to war.
Good examples are from Kenya in 2008, when Kofi Annan mediated a power-sharing deal after contested elections, and Afghanistan in 2014, when the U.S. got Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah to work together.
Our Middle Eastern colleagues often say that in their contacts, officials are only looking for information that will help them win the battle of the day, not long-term peace. This is because political economies, and the elites that dominate them, can become shaped by conflict and even dependent on them.
Agreements on resource sharing – not just power sharing – are also important steps to resolving international flashpoints. We see deals on Libya’s energy wealth as vital to ensuring long-term peace there. Likewise, in the South China Sea, ASEAN and China need to come up with a common plan for sharing fishing and other resources too.
In Turkey, it is clear that Turkey’s decision to start building the Ataturk Dam on the Euphrates river in 1984 was one reason that pushed Syria to help start the PKK’s insurgency that same year.
Governments may not be ready to embark on pathways to peace for political reasons, yet their officials begin to realise that a change will have to be made. This is where Crisis Group’s reporting on Turkey has sought to create those pathways in advance, ready for the moment when the politicians and other conflict actors might be ready to take them.
For instance, we have put great emphasis on breaking down the resolution of the Kurdish rights problem in Turkey’s Kurdish-speaking south east and the PKK insurgency into stages: first, separating the question of Kurdish rights (which should be granted as a matter of course) from the insurgency (which any government would fight); second, how to reasonably define those rights through a legitimate political process under the roof of parliament in Ankara; and third, eventually, what a disarmament, demobilisation, and reintegration process might look like, including the question of transitional justice. Our contacts with both sides say they know there is no military victory, so we know that, bleak as the current all-out conflict now is, there must be a return to talks one day.
Another example is the Cyprus problem. After five major rounds of peace talks, we came to the conclusion that the UN parameters of a bizonal, bicommunal federation were out of date and unlikely to be the basis of a sustainable peace deal. So we fleshed out what a partition plan might look like. A sixth round is now in progress – which some see as very hopeful – but if it doesn’t work, an alternative pathway to peace is there for the taking.
Turkey’s rulers say the world does not understand how much the attempted coup in mid-July traumatized the country. To judge by three weeks in the rural backwoods of the southern province of Antalya, they are not far wrong. But the distress is not just because of the shocking acts of the night of July 15, but also the aftermath.
At first glance, much looked normal around my part-time village home in the pine- and cedar-clad mountains of the Mediterranean coast. Roadbuilding continues. Provincial markets bustle with people and overflow with fresh produce. The country’s politicians are even making a show of overcoming their partisan divides.
But daily life is moving visibly more slowly. And underneath it all, most ordinary people in this country of 79 million are in a deeply apprehensive funk.
Unless uttered among trusted friends, once free-flowing diatribes about politicians dry up or turn into worried whispers. Weeks after the coup was crushed, national television stations still broadcast feverish programming in the name of national unity. Business people say they feel paralyzed. Tourism had already been hit by an eight-month long travel ban imposed by Russia after Turkey shot down a warplane on the Syrian border in November, and the bombing of Istanbul airport in March. Nobody in the sector has a clue what to plan for next.
Keeping up appearances is a well-established art in a country that has long suffered rollercoaster swings of sentiment and boom-and-bust economic cycles. But Turks fear that many real, broad achievements of the past two decades are unraveling. While everything may turn out alright in the end, as everyone says they hope, the frightening forces now at work mean nobody knows how bad it will get before it gets better.
A long-running Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) insurgency is back with a vengeance. It is not just crippling the southeast of the country. Since the conflict span out of control again a year ago it has killed more than 1,900 people, including 650 members of the security forces from all over the country.
A typical funeral in August near Antalya for a commando killed by a landmine showed how each new casualty adds layers of trauma with female relatives weeping and kissing photos of the “immortal martyr,” officers wiping sweat from the brows of the honor guard in the sweltering heat, a huge Turkish flag leading a procession of thousands to the dead soldier’s family house, and a huddle of politicians in attendance, including the provincial governor, the mayor and several members of parliament.
The spillover of Syria’s war is no longer just the burden of 2.7 million refugees, a surprising number of whom are making new lives working in Antalya’s greenhouses, garages and workshops. Over the southeastern frontier with Syria, Turkish troops have in the past month been openly sucked into cross-border ground operations. And over the past year, the suicide bombers of Islamic State have kept relentlessly and skillfully probing Turkey’s ethnic, economic and religious fault lines.
And now there is the phenomenon of what the government and the newspapers call FETO/PDY, an obscure formulation meaning something like “Fethullah Terrorist Organization/Parallel State Structure.” This refers to a Sunni Muslim movement led by Fethullah Gulen, a former cleric now in exile in Pennsylvania. For years, Gulenists were opportunistic allies of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). But a struggle between the two broke into the open three years ago. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan plausibly blames the coup attempt on Gulenists who had infiltrated the military.
The problem is that Fethullah Gulen’s multitude of adherents have been working assiduously for four decades to be appointed to key posts in Turkish institutions. To outsiders, they talked little of their religious bonds. Those close to the network could often be worldly, moderate and progressive, part of an international network of hundreds of schools and civil society charities that supported each other in business and more recently in sponsoring political figures.
However, as early as the 1990s, Turkish military officers shared video evidence with reporters that appeared to show their leader’s explicit intent to win power. Now they are seen to have been behind the coup, and the government is acting to uproot what it regards as a mortal threat. Prosecutors say that Gulenists had risen to high levels in all provinces, except perhaps for Tunceli, known as Dersim in Kurdish, with its strong Alevi, or non-Sunni community. That means that national politics is no longer something remote that happens in Istanbul or Ankara, each a long day’s drive away from Antayla. Deep in the coastal mountains of a province like Antalya, it is has all become suddenly and scarily local.
Every day, local newspapers have pictures of glum lines of policemen being led away for questioning by other policemen. Teachers are being removed from their jobs, and a university in a neighboring province is one of 15 across the country that has been summarily shut down. Headshots show several local kayimakams (district prefects), normally the state’s first line of provincial authority, who have lost their jobs or worse. Even Antalya’s deputy governor has been removed from his post.
“It’s not like before. There are judges, prosecutors, even businessmen being taken away for no reason anyone can understand. It feels like anybody can denounce anyone. Our institutions may not have been great, but we knew what to expect. Now if you have a problem, you don’t know who to turn to any more,” one hardware store owner told me — once he’d stepped out of his shop.
These are not the only certainties under attack. The once all-powerful Turkish armed forces, which have seen their mighty prerogatives cut hugely over the past decade, are now suffering the indignity of seeing civilians take aim at their large urban property holdings. In Antalya’s city center, a demolition excavator made the front pages as it smashed down a gendarmerie-owned building as a symbolic first step.
But as the AKP leaders voice multiple and doubtless sincere apologies for having been “cheated” by their former Gulenist allies in power, there is a puzzle. The newspapers cheered as former football star and Gulen associate Hakan Sukur — a member of parliament for AKP before falling out with the ruling party — was stripped of scores of assets including a building in Antalya. But AKP’s loyalist former speaker of parliament Cemil Cicek begged for understanding for his past relationship with the Gulenists, and seemed to be getting away with it.
“Maybe I got the plague 90% … but Turkey is really the country of people who’ve been fooled, politically, religiously and commercially. And the easiest cheating is with religion,” Cicek told the newspaper Hurriyet. “[The Gulenists] are being cleaned out of the state now. If everything was transparent, this wouldn’t happen. What’s important is who will take their place. Otherwise it’ll all just happen again.”
The erosion of transparency and the rule of law is indeed what is possibly most disturbing thing for most ordinary people.
The move to start legal procedures against 80,000 suspects nationwide — in Antalya province alone, 257 people had been arrested, 345 detained and 149 were on the run by Aug. 13 — has had consequences beyond fears that people will try to settle local scores through random denunciations. Ugly messaging lurks behind the bruised faces of some of the suspects taken in, or the indubitable truth of the news story about a family retrieving the body of a diabetic FETO/PDY “suspect” who mysteriously died in custody. State institutions refused to offer his family its right to a normal burial.
As the uncertainty spreads, nobody can miss the economic downturn. One of my village neighbors normally manages big busy hotels, but cannot find work. Those of his peers who do find jobs have to accept nominal wages or even just room and board. The lack of visitors means that one of Antalya’s two airport terminals has closed, marooning a newly opened tramway station. The tramway extension was built for Antalya’s Expo 2016, an international horticultural and youth celebration running until end-October, but now struggling to make an impact after years of preparation. The British singer Sting canceled a planned concert at the opening because of the situation.
Some people in Turkey appear to think it is still business as usual. When she returned from a five-day trip to Europe, columnist Gulse Birsel wrote in the Sunday supplement of Hurriyet newspaper that “if Turkey is a holiday village with all-in entertainment, Europe is like an old age pensioners’ camp!” She added: “Turks who keep shouting ‘let’s get out of here’ should know that after getting used to this level of adrenaline, you’ll miss Turkey a lot…”
Would Turks really miss today’s febrile uncertainty? I reread the column and discovered I could not be sure whether the writer was being satirical. Many newspapers now appear to be communicating in code, but it is not clear what the key is. As my hardware store friend put it, “The biggest problem is, we simply have no idea what to believe any more.”
The bombs in my new hometown of Brussels didn’t go off close to me. But they did kind of wake me up.
In Brussels airport’s modest departure hall, the explosions were at places I’ve passed through a hundred times over the years. Many of my acquaintances have done so too. The boyfriend of the online editor who works at the desk beside me was on his way to check in, and a colleague was parking her car nearby.
Shortly afterward, a mile away from us, another bomb exploded on a crowded metro train between Schumann and Maalbeek stations, killing 20 people, ripping the carriage into twisted metal and filling the underground with screams and choking smoke. My 12-year-old daughter had taken a nearby metro to school just an hour earlier.
Brussels is not a big town. My former home of Istanbul has as many people as the whole of Belgium, and it probably takes more time to drive across. As my neighbour said as I met her walking her dog that morning, when something bad happens you always know somebody connected to it. I’m new here, so luckily for me, I knew nobody who was hurt. But my daughter’s schoolfriends did.
After 33 years living in the Middle East, I’d have thought I was immune to shock. I’ve seen plenty of bombs. My reporting job took me to warfronts, and once trapped me for ten weeks in a Sudanese town under rebel siege. The 2003 car bomb at Istanbul’s British Consulate-General sent its gatehouse up in smoke before my eyes. In 1983 I even witnessed one of the Middle East’s first suicide car bombs, when, as I describe in my book Dining with al-Qaeda, “a shockwave of explosive force whomped through the office … a column of evil, yellowish smoke and debris was spiraling up into the sky … ” (I’ve reproduced the page below).
But somehow these Brussels bombings shook me up, even though I didn’t go near them.
Perhaps it’s because just three days before, an apparently Islamist suicide bomber attacked the Istanbul street where until recently I had lived for 15 years, the latest of several such attacks in Turkey. We could pass the spot several times a day. At the moment of the blast, our caretaker’s son was taking an exam opposite. He sent pictures of what he saw, gruesome, guts-spilling-over-the-pavement images of the four crumpled dead and the stunned gaze of the injured .
Perhaps it was because I thought that by moving to Europe, I was coming somewhere safe. Perhaps I underestimated the angry sentiments of the pro-Islamic State element in the Brussels inner city districts; a journalist friend told me of residents stoning and harassing him as police arrested the organiser of the Paris attacks in the Moroccan district, telling him: “What are you doing? Belgians shouldn’t come here”.
Perhaps it was because I’ve started to identify with one charming Belgium, and have now learned that there is another, less predictable country inside it.
Perhaps my anxiety was also because of the throw-away comments I’ve been hearing in meetings with Western political leaders, or listening to those who mix with them. They are a steady drumbeat of defeatism: “the situation is catastrophic”, “things are out of control”, “my generation was spoiled, and has failed”, or “the crises are piling on top of each other like we’ve never seen before”. After a meeting with the German chancellor during the euro crisis, one German party leader confided that the worst part of it was a sense that nobody knew what to do.
In Brussels on Tuesday 22 March, though, my unease was definitely because I knew I was watching conflict spread. Pale-faced people around me were going through the painful initiation into what what the denizens of war zones have to get used to: calling family and friends as news of real attacks mix with false rumours; discovering the narrow escapes of partners and colleagues; sharing shaken feelings as old certainties crumble; and staying anxious until you learn that everyone connected to you is safe.
Normally, too, my work has long been to pronounce on what’s best for far-away countries. Even Istanbul often felt like a spaceship hovering alongside the rest of Turkey. But on the day of the Brussels bombs, it was reporters from Africa, China, Lebanon and, yes, Turkey, who called up to seek comment on the twin attacks that had paralysed Brussels for much of the day. Perhaps I was still in partial denial about the meaning of the 9 September 2001 attacks on the U.S., and the ones in London, Paris, and Madrid. Now I live here, I get it. The angry Middle East’s conflicts really have gone global.
It’s not only the new reach of the so-called Islamic State that make Belgium feel inter-connected. The country is a famously close neighbour to France, Germany, the UK and the Netherlands. On top of that, my new house in Brussels feels as though it is in the midst of a neo-Ottoman empire, within short walking distance of a Bulgarian cafe, a Macedonian Turkish bar, a Moroccan furniture shop, a Greek corner store, and streets of Turkish butchers, tile merchants and grocers. Beyond them is a veritable casbah of Egyptian, Tunisian, Algerian and other shops spilling their cheap clothing, bedding and wedding finery onto the street.
The languages spoken around me on Brussels trams make the city feel like every nation within a radius of one thousand miles is represented. Forty nationalities were represented among the bombing casualties. Indeed, the refugee influx of the past year is no great conceptual shock. The city is not just the geographic heart of Europe, but in terms of its population, it has Russia, the Middle East and north Africa coursing through its veins.
For me, in short, Europe and the Middle East overlap in Brussels, and indeed in many other European cities. I like Brussels all the more for that diversity and energy, and feel I should understand both sides. As an adopted Middle Easterner, I know the role the West, actively or negligently, has played over the past century in stoking up the mayhem that is now biting it back. And as a convinced European, I wish more could be done to integrate communities that could contribute much in the long term, and in any event, cannot be wished away.
I hope my new European neighbours can learn to feel that way too, and to tell the truth, many of the ones I know do. But for now, violent conflicts, bombings and wailing sirens in the streets are an increasing part of both sides of the Europe-Middle East equation.
The page in Dining with al-Qaeda describing the first bombing I witnessed, with my then colleague David Zenian, as a news agency reporter in Lebanon in April 1983:
“Just a fug of smug”, said one friend when he heard that I was being dispatched by my organisation to the Davos World Economic Forum in 2015. I guessed he was slightly jealous. From the outside, Davos seemed like an amazing chance to see and perhaps even dine at the top table of global geopolitics, business, arts and glamour.
Things looked different when I actually stepped out of the train onto a midnight station platform high in the Swiss mountains. I hadn’t found a room anywhere near my budget in Davos itself (although I was offered half a villa for 13,500 euros for the week). I only learned later that WEF veterans book months in advance. Here in Klosters, half an hour away from Davos, my bunk bed in a hostel was going to cost $250 a night. I scrambled up an icy road in a freezing gloom and briefly got lost in a moonscape of snow and dark wood-fronted houses. Right then, I’d have been happy with a fug of anything.
The Limits of One Per Cent
I hoped the frozen-out feeling wouldn’t last. I had experienced the all-together-under-one-five-star-hotel-roof embrace of WEF events in Istanbul and Central Asia in the past, in my guise as a discussion-leading expert on Turkey and its hinterland. Back then, I had felt as if I too was included in WEF Founder Klaus Schwab’s hypnotically expansive “we”.
This time I hadn’t been invited. I was a late addition as a folder-carrier for International Crisis Group’s President & CEO Jean-Marie Guéhenno. For non-paying NGOs like ours, however noble, Davos just gives one entry ticket to the group’s president and partner. Even paying corporations struggle for more than a pair of tickets. That’s the magic of the Davos inner circle: it really is very exclusive.
The next morning, the weather cleared and my spirits revived. For all its complicated bunks and cupboard-sized showers down the hall, my hostel was a cosy gem. My train from Klosters to Davos turned out to be included in the room price. The old line looped between soaring mountains and fir forests weighed down with snow.
Still, I had only half an eye on Switzerland’s beauties. The carriage felt like the school train to boarding school, with newbies like me warily checking out confident old-timers. They didn’t look out of the picture windows much, swiping through their electronic calendar schedules, doubtless overflowing with Class A meetings.
Before long, the tracks skirted round a half-frozen lake: Davos could be glimpsed beyond the opposite shore. Suddenly, I had an unexpected first decision to take: does the newcomer alight immediately in Davos Dorf, or proceed to Davos Platz?
I chose Davos Platz. Wrong. Hours of false starts later, I found myself back at Davos Dorf station, in an icy car park front of two portacabins overflowing with reporters, support staff, caterers and drivers. Badges, it turned out, are handed out according to a rigid caste system. In addition to the 2,500 full participants, each year the WEF organisers have to cope with more than 5,000 hangers-on like me.
Badges of Rank
Since everyone was muffled up to the gills, it felt like a ski lift queue without the breathing space afforded by skis. Ironically, opposite us was a real Swiss ski lift, nearly free of skiers because the WEF had crowded out normal holiday makers. And WEF attendees had only eyes for each other, not the smooth slopes shimmering against a blue sky high above. After an hour more waiting, phone calls to headquarters, and messages to and fro, I won my badge.
It was a nice, satisfying, high-quality name tag that made me feel I’d been granted entry into a club. Now that it hung from my neck, people started looking at me as if I had potential. Some grandees might look on over my shoulder after they clocked my first-rung-of-the-ladder colour code, but not all of them. Davos honoured its traditional and probably illusionary reputation of grandly egalitarian etiquette surprisingly often. Still, there were many subtle signals of rank, like curious crampons fixed on black city shoes to crunch across the ice: arrival gifts from the WEF, bestowed upon full participants only.
As a non-participant I could not attend any of the main WEF meetings in the main Congress Centre. But I could do what I was expected to do: meet people connected with my non-profit organisation, be they reporters wanting to interview our president, representatives of governments, donors actual and possible, our partners and our well-wishers. Back offices spend weeks lining up meetings for hardened Davos-goers. “It’s like speed dating,” a veteran Europe media commentator told me. “You wouldn’t believe how it opens the door to meetings afterwards when you can tell the secretary: ‘say that we met at Davos’.”
My calendar began to fill up with new encounters. There was one problem, however: I had to find somewhere to meet them. For the good hotel cafes and bars, I had to have another badge to secure me access; one hotel seemed to be auctioning off places on its lobby sofas. Even inside the Congress Centre itself, participants told me that tiny rooms were available just 15 minutes at a time, with much banging on the door if you over-stayed.
A university student’s instinct for gate-crashing parties was clearly an essential survival skill. After getting our president filmed for the social media fad of 2015 – Vine, the six-second soundbite – an old acquaintance took pity on me and gave me a pass to his organisation’s lounge. (Thank you, Bank of America). This meant that I also had somewhere warm and friendly to go in-between meetings, rather than having to trudge among the many surprisingly unappealing concrete buildings in Davos’s freezing cold streets.
Highlighted on my calendar was a sliding scale of parties I might be able to attend outside the Congress Centre, usually given by Crisis Group’s past, current or possible future benefactors. My lowly status either got me denied, accepted, or told that “Susie will let you in at midnight”. Twinkling chat followed bright-eyed encounter, often, I suspected, with people who were just as much at a loose end as me.
I was made welcome at the Kenya night. I was invited to a Mongolian party. I watched as the understated Canadians staged easily the most impressive reception of all. I would have given them first prize in all WEF categories of good governance and economic prospects. Except that, just as Ottawa’s chief dignitary was about to reach the swelling “invest now” climax of his speech, the lady next to him fainted and thumped to the ballroom floor like a felled Douglas fir. The minister just kept on going, sounding more and more wooden by the second. When shaken by a nearby misfortune, even in Davos, one should definitely be empathetically stirred.
To relax, I sipped cosy drinks with a supporter in the bar of the Berghotel Schatzalp. Built in 1900, the former sanatorium inspired Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, and could easily have been the model for the film The Grand Budapest Hotel, complete with its plug-and-cable phone exchanges, peeling paint, 19th century washbasins and its own funicular railway. Things began to feel like fun.
I jotted down snippets ofDavosian conversation. Something in the mountain air inspired people to breath-taking metaphors:
“The Internet is like the rain forest. You can’t control it. But you can damage or destroy it”, opined a digital magnate from Brazil.
“I’ve met the worst of humankind. I’m used to shaking hands with thugs,” confided a former UN director.
“Geopolitical ‘black swans’ are inevitable. Surprises have got to happen. They follow the same rules that apply to celebrities in Hollywood”, said a comfortable dignitary.
There was not much time for niceties to make an impression. “My Dad was director of Iranian intelligence”, one woman blurted out to her new counterpart from the chair next to me in the Bank of America lounge. “You know, like the KGB”.
“All governments want a back door [to secret encryption programs] to stop criminals, to pursue investigations. But the path to hell is through back doors”, said one wise expert, who had clearly rarely needed one.
My favourite overheard conversation, though, was an angry alpha male American business tycoon berating his harassed PA: “I don’t want to meet just anyone who has time to meet me! Anyone who says they don’t have time, that’s the one you want”.
A Parallel Universe
Davos’s sense of otherworldliness extended to my own area of expertise, Turkey. Its Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu was going to address investors at a hotel outside the hallowed Congress Centre. No badge was needed, so I turned up at the appointed 7am to see how this indefatigable optimist would distract his audience from an increasingly cloudy outlook for his country. Twenty tables for eight were weighed down with Swiss plenty. Two or three were half-filled. I introduced myself at one and sat down.
Soon the nearly empty room and my predictions of stormy weather ahead for Turkey began to disturb the lean fund manager sitting next to me. He had boasted of making big profits in the 2000s with his first Turkey investment fund, and was mid-way through another, clearly less propitious cycle. “You’re talking to the wrong people,” he snorted. “You should change the people you talk to.”
If he’d been eavesdropping on the table next door, like I was, he’d have been even more annoyed. An American was telling off the chief of the Istanbul Stock Exchange about the many things he thought Turkey’s government should be doing better.
Meanwhile, Davutoğlu was getting very late. One of the only potential new investors, a well-padded American at my table, got up and left. And a lady from a giant Zurich reinsurance company. Eventually, so did the fund manager too.
Finally, an hour and a half after the scheduled starting time, Davutoğlu appeared. His entourage was surprisingly small, three ministers and a dozen flunkies; a Turkish friend on the delegation had already told me of the trouble they had getting badges. By that time,the audience of interested outsiders was, as far as I could see, basically just me.
No matter: two huge studio TV cameras were on hand to beam Davutoğlu’s buoyant speech about the limitless possibilities of investment in Turkey, live to television viewers back home. He’d been drinking in plenty of the Davos spirit: he saw “stability and order” in the country’s ever-heavier authoritarianism. He talked of a “dynamic Mediterranean spirit”, a concept that would have astonished my Turkish friends, for whom the word ‘Mediterranean’ conjures up lazy hedonism. In another flourish, he reminded his tiny audience that Napoleon had thought “Istanbul should be the capital of a world state”.
Then, wearing the same indelible smile that rarely left his lips, he shook some hands and headed off for his next date, pursued by an Indian businessman who was imploring him to accept an invitation to attend his grandchild’s wedding.
I had nowhere to go and stayed for the discussion, in which the panel nearly outnumbered the guest audience, although the TV cameras kept transmitting. Ali Babacan, Turkey’s upright minister of the economy, did a creditable job in talking up Turkey’s place on a global crossroads. Still, I knew that he knew that Istanbul’s role as a regional hub is hardly a novelty: I myself warmed up this old chestnut for the front page of the Wall Street Journal back in 1997, and obviously Napoleon, not to mention the Byzantine Emperor Constantine, had heard about it too.
Then came a real shock: I recognised the American who had criticised Ankara’s rulers at the table next to me on the panel, and he was now blowing big Davos bubbles. “What you are attempting to do,” he said in the midst of a river of glowing endorsements of Turkey’s economic prospects, “is breathtaking”. No wonder Turkey loves Davos, and invests in it to polish its image every year.
It would be unfair, however, to present Davos as an empty echo chamber. During one lonely interlude in the Bank of America lounge, I listened in on a scientist’s exhilarating discussion of her West African field work on Ebola with an apparent funder. The official participants’ agenda in the Congress Hall was full of fascinating and inspiring-looking lectures on new ideas for helping the blind, artificial intelligence or aid to developing countries.
At a time when civil war was tipping the Syrians further into the abyss, an activist team made a cogent and moving plea for attention and support for Syria’s “white helmet” paramedics. But of all the hundreds of official participants, just a sobering handful made it to the “Saving Syria Roundtable” at the Strozzi’s & Spenglers eatery on Davos Platz’s Promenade.
Far more energy was consumed in a frenetic rush to see everyone and be at the most fashionable parties. I marvelled at servings of Krug champagne and slaked my curiosity about $200 bottles of wine, surprised at how much like a good regular bottle they tasted, but enchanted to find that the person chatting to me as he poured another glass had actually produced it. There seemed no limit to the star quality of people who one might bump into, from George Soros rallying his supporters over dinner, to speakers like Kofi Annan, Helen Clark, Katie Couric, Peter Gabriel and Bill Gates.
The convening power of Klaus Schwab’s World Economic Forum is formidable indeed, even if my high-level Davos networking mostly happened in the back of shared luxury minivans, which ferry WEF denizens from snowbound pavements to snug firesides to concrete conference halls. Everyone who boards these shuttle buses feels morally obliged to chat and exchange cards, including the CEOs of globe-straddling corporations. But chance meetings clearly aren’t everything. Barely five of the one hundred or so people I must have met turned out to need to speak to me again, or I to them.
Finally, after six days of exhausting rush, the carnival-like corporate stands started to pack up their wares. It was Saturday afternoon. I called it a day and asked the way to the Davos ice rink. It is the size of a football pitch and smooth as glass, and it gave me one of my most exhilarating hours in the town, along with the next morning in Klosters, where I managed a couple of hours cross-country skiing past antique wooden farms and horse-drawn sleighs making their way through pristine Swiss mountain countryside.
I doubt I’ll volunteer for Davos any time soon, even if I enjoyed the sheer intensity of it all. I’d love to go again as a participant though, perhaps when I can have a partners’ ticket to all the interesting lectures when my wife achieves her ambition to be a globally famous healer of the spiritual energy of corporations. And, of course, it would be nice to have one more go at tobogganing crazily down the long, unlit, icy mountain road from the extraordinary Berghotel Schatzalp.
To say goodbye to Istanbul after 28 years of living in the city, I take one of my favourite walks, from Pera’s Tünel square, wandering down the hill through Galata and then along the Golden Horn sea inlet. For me, this jumble of shops, alleyways and quaysides best conjures up Istanbul’s heady mix of peoples and history: Byzantium, the Ottoman Empire, republican Turkey, and a global megacity on the make.
I head off from my much-loved century-old apartment building, with my wife, my youngest daughter and, passing through like so many others, a childhood friend from South Africa. Some of these travellers are lucky, some not: outside the castellated gateway of my neighbour, Sweden’s two-century old consulate general, Syrians stand in line hoping for visas to Europe.
On the same street, tourists are busily clicking off photos of one of Istanbul’s red and white, Belgian-built electric street tram, restored to service in 1990 and now practically a symbol of the city. We pass by the arches of the Tünel short underground funicular railway, the first metro in continental Europe when it opened in 1875, and still the city’s only real metro in the city until 1999. We continue past the gates of the Galata dervish lodge and its hidden oasis of grand plane trees and mystical whirling.
The main street downhill, named for the 18th century dervish sheikh and poet Galip Dede, is well-cobbled, fitting its new role as a thoroughfare for the more adventurous tourist. The old lamp and car part shops have morphed into outlets for Chinese-made knick-knacks, thin, overpriced hamam bath towels and fresh-pressed pomegranate juice. But many of the old musical instrument shops are still doing well, selling everything from tambourines to white grand pianos and Istanbul’s contribution to the world’s musical vocabulary – the handmade brass cymbal.
Spare parts for almost anything
Half-way down the hill is the noble old stone cylinder of the Galata tower, part of the fortifications that protected late Byzantium’s Genoese colony, topped since the 1960s by a roof in the shape of a pointed cone. Here we part ways with the travellers who are juggling to fit both the tower and their own image into cellphone selfies, and head toward Perşembe Pazarı, a warren of shops that supply Anatolia with spare parts for almost anything.
There are countless places to pause: to trace parts of the pre-1453 Ottoman conquest fortification walls propping up lines of houses; duck into a diminutive early Ottoman courthouse turned aluminium depot; admire the curving street of grand Ottoman banks now becoming boutique hotels, fancy restaurants and cultural centres; and make another attempt to photograph satisfactorily my favourite survivor, a centuries-old stone and brick building colonised by electric motor repair workshops, whose angular first floor rooms jut out into the narrow street.
Toward the bottom of the hill come all manner of premises, from the unexpectedly cavernous to glassed-in cupboards in the wall barely bigger than the men inside them. They display their products proudly: sawblades as big as cartwheels, stacks of metal ingots, rubber seals of all sizes, mammoth industrial fans, and amazing varieties of nuts and bolts. Finally, just before reaching the shore of the Golden Horn sea inlet, a last jumble of ships chandlers sells great chains, yachtsman’s gadgets, and anchors that would take a crane to lift.
I lead our group to a place I’d spotted a few days before. Tables and chairs of a new generation of impromptu and entirely illegal restaurants have for a couple of weeks been spreading rapidly along the Golden Horn’s worn-out parks and quaysides of battered tour boats and fisherman’s skiffs. It looks popular and enchanting, and I want to have my last Istanbul dinner here.
The waterfront is already busy with an organised, illicit chaos. After a few minutes of bobbing and weaving, I see waving arms call us to a miraculous space at the water’s edge. A plaid-shirted maître d’ quickly has us balanced on rickety chairs, sipping Turkey’s aniseed-flavored raki, accompanied by slices of ripe honey melon and a slab of rich white cheese. There is no arguing with this director of operations; from a kitchen that looks better suited to a campsite than a restaurant, we are told that we are going to be served grilled sea bass.
An eternal rhythm of the ad hoc
The pop-up restaurant is the embodiment of alla turca, summing up a city that is so many contradictory things at once. Istanbul’s many beauties are often islands in a sea of concrete ugliness. The new can be piled in layers on top of the deeply ancient. A day cannot be planned and is therefore lived ad hoc; nevertheless, days pass in a rhythm that is apparently eternal. It is impossible for anything to be 100 per cent legal – the jumble of laws is too complicated for that – but a paternalistic, interconnected state discipline somehow keeps everything in harness. And personal touches of generous kindness are an essential oil that helps everyone to survive the increasingly tense pressures of a city with teeming millions of people.
This was the spirit that attracted me to the rough-and-ready city I stumbled upon 28 years ago. Thereafter I made many active choices to stay in Turkey. As a base, Istanbul is the heart of a wide and active geography, and as a home, the country offers everything any reasonable working person could want. The only missing part, perhaps, is something I never asked for: a legal sense of rooted, long-term, rightful belonging. I’d just keep extending my annual residence permit, making the most of life as a voluntary pot plant, always grateful for my place as a foreign guest.
Fasting is Cleansing
Sitting at our wobbly table on the bank of the Golden Horn, a bright star snugly fitting into the curve of a perfect Turkish crescent moon above our heads, I contemplate how much Istanbul has changed. In the 1980s the Golden Horn was filthy, devoid of marine life and reeked of sewage. In winter, the city’s mists and lignite coal furnace emissions used to mix and malinger as thick, sulphurous smog that choked me up as practically the sole, lunatic jogger in town.
Now, the Golden Horn is clear and bridges are lined with fisherman pulling up lines of silvery sardines. Natural gas has cleared the city’s lungs, and recreational walking and running are even fashionable. The city is at last planting some trees and grass, and fixing up the public spaces, even if some renovations are stripping the ancient patina from the city’s finest buildings and making them look like newly tiled public conveniences. Over the water, as for every holy Muslim month of Ramadan, bright lights strung out between the minarets of one of the Ottoman imperial mosques enjoin the population to obey the dawn-to-dusk fast. But now the call to the faithful has an almost health-fad ring to it: “Fasting is Cleansing”.
When I arrived in 1987, there were almost no buildings higher than ten stories and just two five-star hotels: a boxy, cookie-cutter 1950s Hilton and an angular, ugly glass-fronted Sheraton. Now the city has countless luxurious lodgings, from Bosporus-side boutique hotels to restored Ottoman mansions. One financial district has created a completely new skyline half-way up the European side of the Bosporus waterway, and a second one is rising on the Asian side of the city.
Three decades ago, there were no supermarkets at all, and restaurants served excellent but almost exclusively Turkish foods. Shopping was an art-form that required an encyclopaedic memory for what I might find where in the city; the guidebook of the day was like an 18th century Larousse, a jumbled, glossy, barely comprehensible volume that fell apart days after you bought it. Now, sleek new shopping malls reach up to the sky, crackling with brand names and glamorous eateries that attract customers from all over the compass, from Senegal and Riyadh and Paris and Omsk.
Turkey’s new manufacturing prowess has moved it away from the two main exports it had when I arrived: hazelnuts and dried figs. There’s no going back to the days when we huddled for an hour a week to see the outside world on the first live link to CNN on television – complete with simultaneous English broadcast via a radio channel. And I doubt I will ever again see the sour face of the lady at the Istanbul post office’s now defunct “small package service” as she dissected a gift of Swiss chocolates in search of contraband. Turkey feels more and more ‘normal’.
A self-conscious separateness
Yet, I cannot believe Turkey will give up on its self-conscious separateness. Even today, with its long Black Sea, Aegean and Mediterranean coastlines, the country can feel like an island, well-deserving its ancient name of Asia Minor. Endowed with water, sun and a vast, fertile hinterland, it has never had urgent needs from the outside world. As with geography, so with politics. Bruised by the imperial carve-up of its predecessor state, the Ottoman Empire, Turkey’s governments and elites still seem to feel safer keeping the world at bay with customs barriers, residence permit requirements and a sometimes prickly, go-it-alone foreign policy.
The Turkey I came to in the 1980s guarded one third of the Cold War iron curtain with the former Soviet Union and its satellites, cutting it off from its natural Balkan, Eurasian and Middle Eastern economic hinterlands. Visitors and tourists mostly seemed to be western Europeans, north Americans and Japanese. International sea traffic on the Bosporus was most often Soviet warships being checked out by the white launch we all called the “CIA boat”.
Now, the Bosporus is filled with oil tankers and freighters servicing the many states of the Black Sea. The tourist crowds have been joined by Russians, Chinese, Balkan peoples, Central Asians and above all Arabs, as befits Istanbul’s historic role as a crossroads of east and west.
The new Istanbul is also huge, perhaps double the size it was in 1987, and an official population of 14 million seems plausible. Hundreds of thousands of people walk each day along Istiklal Street, the boulevard outside my house in the centre of town. If London is the great metropolis at the western end of Europe, Istanbul is the continent’s eastern bookend, making everything in between seem provincial or suburban.
A different set of historical data
The changes are intellectual too. In the early years I learned to bite my tongue on many subjects – whether it was the Kurds (officially “mountain Turks” when I arrived), the role of the military (almost sacred, protected by all manner of laws), Turkishness (ditto), Armenians (victims of a “so-called” genocide), or the Greeks (“spoiled by Europe”). It wasn’t just that I didn’t want to run foul of the law, or offend my Turkish friends. I also came to realise that people educated in Turkey worked from a quite different set of historical data than what I had been taught.
Over the years Turkey found out how others saw it and I learned why Turkey felt as it did about its history and neighbours. Most people stopped viewing me automatically as the agent of a foreign power, and the constant litany of conspiracy theories abated. The Gezi park protests around Istanbul’s Taksim Square in 2013 marked the point where for the first time I felt on the same wavelength with politically active Istanbul, perhaps because this time the young middle class raised its voice instead of extremists from left or right. At last, slogans were actually funny rather than reflecting dark layers of despair, victimhood or oppression. The same social courage guards ballot boxes from tampering at election time, empowers independent reporters to defy sometimes massive government pressures and keeps parliamentary debate alive.
This robust spirit gives me confidence that Turkey will ultimately keep moving in a positive direction. The Justice and Development Party (AKP), which came to power in 2002, with its leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, now president, deserve some credit for that. Erdoğan and AKP won legitimate majority governments in three elections in a row. They improved the health care system, built fine new roads and public transport systems all over the country, ended routine torture and broke many taboos in search of the right settlement of Turkey’s Kurdish problem and interconnected rebel insurgency. Of course, AKP got on a train that was ready to leave the station, thanks to reforms that their opponents, including the military, had already put in place to get Turkey in line with international standards.
In fact, despite setbacks in the 1980s and 1990s, Turkey’s defining events were mostly stepping stones towards a future more deeply anchored in the West and European institutions. As a journalist, I reported on the 1987 application to join the European Union, the 1995 Customs Union with Europe, and the 2005 opening of negotiations for full EU membership. The 1999 acceptance of Turkey as a candidate to join the EU was the happiest national moment I can remember in the country, alongside, perhaps, the day a year later when Istanbul’s Galatasaray club won soccer’s UEFA cup.
Even today, despite the love-hate nature of Turkey’s ties with Europe, this relationship remains by far the strongest it has, powered by five million Turks in Europe (compared with just a few hundred thousand expatriates elsewhere), and the fact that European countries are responsible for half of Turkey’s foreign trade and three quarters of Turkey’s inward investment.
A lost sense of direction
For now, though, both Turkey and its European partners have lost their sense of direction. Nobody on either side expects Turkey to join the EU any more. Turkey is abandoning some of the building blocks it fashioned in the hope of a more prosperous, European future: freedom of expression is under attack again, the judiciary is under assault by the government, respect for contracts and the rule of law is slipping, educational achievement remains shockingly low, the 31-year-old insurgency in the Kurdish east is heating up again, and President Erdoğan is wrapping himself in an ever-more authoritarian cloak.
Nevertheless, anyone can still drink rakı on the banks of the Golden Horn. Surrounded by hundreds of others who are enjoying the balmy evening we toast Turkey as the waiter puts a big tray of exquisitely grilled fish on the table. He turns out to be a migrant newly arrived from the southeastern Syrian border city of Mardin and is very happy to have found this job. It won’t be for long, however, he predicts with a certain gloom.
A perpetual roller-coaster of change
Two mornings later I walk down the hill one last time. From a distance I already see the little wooden fishing boats and metal passenger ferries bobbing up and down by the quayside. To my shock, however, the sea front is covered in splintered tables and chairs, bulldozer-churned earth and piles of broken plates. All the restaurants, impromptu kitchens and subdivisions have been smashed. A nearby line of fish merchants, who for as long as I can remember have been selling fresh fish to Istanbullus catching the ferry to the Asian side, have also been levelled. Scruffy kids already are scavenging for anything of value that is left.
“What happened?” I ask one of the plain-clothes young men, apparently from the municipality, who are putting up a fence around the devastated scene.
“We’re cleaning it up, making it better, proper,” he replies.
Another tells the man not to bother with me. “He’s some dirty foreign agent.”
My cheeks and ears burn at the old insult and I stalk off towards the Galata bridge and its warren of shops. I’m also filled with indignation over the random way that the lightning bolt of state-sanctioned destruction has hit a part of town that has given me so much pleasure to live in.
“What on earth happened to the fish market and the restaurants?” I ask the owner of a shop selling batteries, radios and highly realistic air pistols.
“Thank God they took care of those fly-by-night places at last!” he replies. “Those eastern mafia guys were taking over. It was putting tax-payers like us out of business. The state should show who’s in charge.”
Even if I’m pretty sure that in this case the “state” is just the municipality seizing control of a lucrative piece of territory that will be handed out to its own partisan supporters, any anger I have soon seems pointless. A few more exchanges with phlegmatic shopkeepers along the way persuade me to view the debris as typical of a city that is constantly breaking and reinventing itself.
This perpetual roller-coaster of change is part of what makes life in Turkey both exhausting and addictive. By the time I’m back up the hill and home, I am reconciled that there will always be another new pop-up restaurant to try out on some unmarked Istanbul quayside. The trick is only to be able to find it in time.
Note: An earlier version of this article said that Galatasaray won the European Championship in 2000. In fact it won the UEFA Cup. This is the secondary cup competition in Europe behind the Champions League, and used to be called the European Champion Clubs’ Cup or European Cup. Many thanks to Alexis Rowell!
A belated posting of a talk that I did in Istanbul in May, trying to explain in a TED Talks lookalike why after 28 years in Turkey I felt that somehow the country will likely always do better – and more slowly – than its Middle Eastern neighbours. Turkish Review also published a cleaned-up text of the speech.
“The Turk Does Not Exist” – for sure, I was set a provocative assertion to address in my speech at Amsterdam’s De Balie cultural centre. But in fact there are lots of ways to answer that question, given the dozens of layers of Turkic cultures, 1,500 years of history, and an ethno-linguistic geography that literally girdles the globe. Here are the answers, maps and slides I brought to my 3 June talk, which was part of the 2015 Holland Festival.