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Turkey’s Armenian Ghosts

July 19, 2013 31 comments

For many years in Turkey, conversations became awkward if they turned to defining what used to be called the “events of 1915”. Basically, I had read one set of history books, which discussed the genocidal deaths of 1-1.5 million Armenians who died in the Ottoman Empire during the First World War deportations. Most Turks had read a completely different set of books. If there was a mention of the Armenian question at all, it was suggested that some unfortunate wartime accidents had been exaggerated by Turkey’s enemies as part of great conspiracy to do the country down.

Ergen, in Dersim/Tunceli. Photo by Antoine Agoudjian

This old lady in Ergen (Dersim/Tunceli, Turkey)  is an Armenian who converted to Alevism, the heteredox faith influenced by Islamic Shia thinking that predominates in that province. Photo by Antoine Agoudjian

Discussion, therefore, would usually soon choke up, having revealed a genuine absence of knowledge of what happened to the Armenians, accompanied by a naturally offended sense of personal innocence; a counter-assertion of the never-addressed trauma of the wrongs done to millions of Muslims expelled from their homes in the Balkans and elsewhere in the 19th and early 20th centuries; legalistic arguments about how by the 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide cannot be applied retrospectively; and among a few who worried that something awful could have happened, fears that any recognition of an Armenian “genocide” would result in expensive reparations, awkward atonement, and, not least, odium or worse for contradicting the official narrative of denial.

With such minefields to cross, therefore, I found I alienated less people by discussing basic facts of the case rather than how to label it. I agreed with the advice of Hrant Dink, the late Armenian newspaper editor, who would say it was counterproductive for outsiders to insist upon one label or another until Turkey was ready to debate fully and reach its own conclusion. He believed that processes like Turkey’s EU accession would bring freer information, and with that, understanding of what really happened. The trouble is, Dink was murdered in 2007, perhaps precisely because he represented what should have been a joint Armenian-Turkish road to reconciliation. Sadly, Turkey has yet to get far in undoing the official ideology of denial and hostility to Armenians that formed the mind of the young nationalist who pulled the trigger – let alone bring to justice acts of official negligence and even official complicity with this killer.

CouvNow a new book by the Turkey reporters of France’s Figaro and Le Monde newspapers has done an electrifying job of filling Turkey’s information gap. Surprises lurk under every stone turned over by Laure Marchand and Guillaume Perrier’s “Turkey and the Armenian Ghost: in the steps of the genocide.” (La Turquie et le fantome Arménien: sur les traces du génocide, Actes Sud, March 2013: Arles, France). It will be published in Turkish by İletişim in January 2014, and deserves to find an English publisher too.

The authors’ inventory of discoveries shows just how much that is Armenian has carried through into modern Turkey. They then use these to make a controversial yet compelling argument: that the Turkish Republic founded in 1923 shares moral responsibility for whatever happened to the Armenians. They contend that Turkey’s many decades of denying that there was anything like an Armenian genocide is actually part of the continuation of a pattern of actions by the Ottoman governments responsible for the Armenian massacres and property confiscations of the 1890-1923 period. For instance, the judicial “farce” of the investigation and trial of Hrant Dink’s murderer is, to the authors, proof positive that “since 1915, impunity has been the rule”.

There are other rude shocks. Some Turks now realize they were being misled by the old official narrative of denial, thanks to a new openness about and better understanding of the Armenian question in Turkey over the past decade. But how many appreciate that Istanbul’s best-loved Ottoman landmarks are often designed by Armenian architects? How many know that the famed Congress of Erzurum, corner stone of the republic’s war of liberation, was held in a just-confiscated Armenian school? And how many have heard, as Marchand and Perrier allege, that even the hilltop farmhouse that became the Turkish republic’s Çankaya presidential palace was seized from an Armenian family – and that descendants of the family, some of whom were well-enough connected to escape with their lives — can calmly be interviewed about this “original sin” of the republic? (The official history of the palace simply says that Ankara municipality “donated” it to republican founder Kemal Atatürk in 1921).

It seems apposite that the authors quote Çankaya’s current incumbent, the open-minded President Abdullah Gül, as saying while he toured the ruins of the ancient Armenian capital of Ani on Turkey’s closed border with Armenia: “That’s Armenia there? So close!”

Amid such evidence that Turkish perceptions can be naïve, one problem with the book is its unrelenting insistence that Turkey end its “fierce” and “obsessive” denial that a genocide happened (unlike, the authors point out, Germany, Serbia, Rwanda and others). This tight argumentation leaves the impression of a Turkey that is deliberately calculating and somehow evil, rather than the more likely case that it is clumsy, embarrassed and a prisoner of its own contradictions. A preface by U.S.-based Turkish academic Taner Akçam, a once-lonely pioneer who calls for Turkish recognition of the Armenian genocide, sets a trenchant tone and outlines the problem. “To recognize the Armenian genocide would be the same as denying our [Turkish] national identity, as we now define it”, Taner writes. “Our institutions result from an invented ‘narrative of reality’… a coalition of silence … that wraps like a warm blanket…if we are forced to confront our own history, we would be obliged to question everything”.

Marchand and Perrier brush aside any need for a transitional commission to study the history of the genocide, as suggested in the still-born 2009 protocols between Turkey and Armenia, because the genocide “is a fact that that is barely debated in scientific circles”. Even though the study of Russian archives on the matter is still in its infancy, for instance, the authors dismiss valid elements of the Turkish narrative as yet more ghosts whose abuse has made them an extension of the earlier misdeeds. Parts of the Turkish story are therefore mentioned in passing or only partially, like the massacres of Turks and Muslims by Armenian militias operating behind Russian lines, the 56 people were killed by Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA) terrorists during their 1970s and 1980s terrorist campaign against Turkey, or the fact that most of the one million refugees from the fighting in Mountainous Karabagh are Azerbaijanis who fled conquering Armenians. Also, there may be some ill-judged memorial ceremonies, but Turkey does not have a “cult” of Talat Pasha, a probable principal architect of the Armenian genocide. As the authors themselves point out, the site of his grave in a small official memorial park for the Committee of Union and Progress leaders of late Ottoman times gets little official or popular attention.

Guillaume Perrier and Laure Marchand

Guillaume Perrier and Laure Marchand

Still, Marchand and Perrier state early on that their mission is not to write history, but to “give visibility to what has been erased … to gather together an antidote to the poison of denial … because impunity is always an invitation to reoffend”. And here they succeed to a remarkable extent, finding much that remains of Armenians, even as Turkey nears the 2015 centenary of when they were effectively erased from Anatolia: survivors, converts, crypto-Armenians, derelict churches, descendants of ‘righteous’ Turks, artisans’ tools in second- hand shops, flour mills, abandoned houses, songs and traditions. “Turkey”, they say, “is still haunted by the ghost of an assassinated people”.

Indefatigably, the authors travel to remote mountain villages and with President Gül to the Armenian capital for a football match that was part of the ill-fated late 2000s reconciliation process. They listen to the Armenians of Marseilles, France’s second city where 10 per cent of the population are descended from Armenians who fled Turkey, and explain why France and its parliament are so sensitive to the Armenian question. (They also suggest that some in the Armenian diaspora have constructed a counterproductive dream of a “fantasy Armenia, a promised substitute land”.) They interview the grand-children of a brave Turkish sub-prefect, Hüseyin Nesimi, who tried to stop the massacres in 1915, but was quickly assassinated near Diyarbakir, presumably at the orders of an alleged local organizer of the killings. They sit with the family of an Armenian citizen of Turkey killed by a far-right nationalist fellow soldier while on national service – on April 24, 2011. They slip into the mountains and show in a feast of detail how the spirit of the Armenian ‘brigands’ of yore lives on with the left-wing TIKKO group (Turkey’ Workers’ and Peasants’ Liberation Army, founded, you guessed it, on April 24).

In Sivas, they visit the last few rat-infested ruins in the once-thriving Armenian quarter. In Ordu, they find the old Armenian quarter rebaptised “National Victory”, and the old main church now turned into the mosque. In another town, an Armenian protestant church survived as a cinema and now an auditorium, with no sign of its provenance. Elsewhere, the dismantled stones of Armenian monasteries and houses have become the building material for new houses, sometimes with their religious symbols becoming decorative features. State ideology, they think, “even wanted to assimilate the stones”.

They join an Armenian guide who arranges tours for diaspora visitors to find the many souvenirs of Armenian-ness in eastern Turkey – and inhabitants who are not as hung up about their Armenian connections as might be expected. This picaresque explorer has tracked down 600 former Armenian villages, in some of which 1915’s survivors occasionally lived on for decades (the authors even stumble upon one during their travels). Other small Armenian communities “hidden, forgotten or assimilated” still live in thirty small or medium-sized towns. They show how village names have been changed and the memory of Armenians has been expunged. Very few people in Turkey are aware that the now iconic and ubiquitous signature of “K. Ataturk” was one of five models of signature dreamed up for the new republican leadership by a respected old Armenian teacher in Istanbul – whose son tells the story to the authors.

The authors discuss the impact of Fethiye Çetin’s 2009 book ‘My Grandmother’, which lifted the veil on Turkey’s many Armenian grandmothers, saved from the death marches to become servants or wives. In Turkey there are now, the authors believe, “millions of grandchildren of the genocide” who, because of the way Armenian-ness has been denigrated, have not wanted to be identified “more out of shame than fear”. In a province like Tunceli/Dersim, “it’s rare to find a family that doesn’t have an Armenian grandmother or aunt”. Shared saints’ days, common dances and music have blended into a new Armenian-Turkish-Kurdish mix in which it is hard to tell where one ethnicity ends and another begins. The book recounts touching scenes from Armenian churches as some of the descendants of Armenian converts try to return to the Armenian church and community. Indeed, the picture that emerges gives new meaning to the sign held up by many in the massive funeral procession in Istanbul for Hrant Dink: “We are all Armenians”.

Marchand and Perrier do not spare Turkey’s Kurds, who they say need to accept not just that there was a genocide but also recognize their part in plundering and kidnapping from the Armenian death marches. Still, a mainly Kurdish-speaking city like Diyarbakir has played a leading role in trying to make amends for what happened to the Armenians, rebuilding a church that had fallen into ruins, and bringing the language back into official use at a municipal level. Much of Diyarbakir actually used to belong to Armenians – more than one half, the authors suggest.

Indeed, the authors point out that many of Turkey’s grand companies today got their start in places where Armenian businesses had been forced out. Crucially for their argument of continued responsibility, appropriation continued into the republic, with the wealth tax that crushed the “minorities” in 1942 and the state-tolerated actions that took successive tolls on minority properties in the decades thereafter. (This continues: the front page headline of Taraf newspaper today, 19 July 2013, is an angry denunciation of municipal plans to appropriate, knock down and redevelop the last stone houses of the abandoned old Armenian quarter in the eastern town of Muş). It’s not all grand state policy: they meet the family of an Armenian convert to Islam who came back from his years of military service to find that his lands had been peremptorily seized by his neighbours. There are harsh words about the energy that goes into the search for gold and valuables thought to have been hidden by Armenians as they were forced out of their homes: “pillaging is still today a national sport … a prolongation of the plundering.”

At first the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan looked as though it would lead Turkey out of this dead end. But it failed to see through normalization protocols with Armenia in 2009, and later it was Erdoğan himself who ordered the demolition of a monument to friendship with Armenia in the border town of Kars – on another 24 April. The authors give little credit to his government’s restoration of some Armenian churches and reinstatement of at least some Armenian property confiscated by the republic. Perhaps this reticence is because of the bad grace sometimes on display. At the reopening of the Armenian church of Akdamar on Lake Van, favorite of Turkish tourism posters, the envoy from Ankara managed to make a speech that mentioned neither the words “church” nor “Armenian”. Also, there were more than 3,000 active Armenian churches and monasteries in Anatolia before the First World War; now there are just six.

“Turkey and the Armenian Ghost” ends by conjuring up the changing spirit of the Armenian history debate in Turkey. This is largely thanks to the determination of Turkey’s academics since 2000-2005 to end what they knew to be an unacceptable and professionally untenable official policy and culture of denial. Clearly, it is real and trusted information developed by such experts at home, not the grandiose and sometimes hypocritical declarations by foreign legislatures, that has the best chance of changing the Turkish public’s mind. Marchand and Perrier’s stiletto-sharp impatience with the Turkish state’s slow pace or lack of official change may alienate many of those who most need convincing. But people can increasingly see more elements of what happened, and the deeply researched, convincing reportage in this book can help open up minds. “Of course it’s a genocide, but that’s a word that doesn’t work,” academic Cengiz Aktar tells the authors. “The only way to block the narrative of denial is to develop a policy of remembering, and to start the process of informing the population.”

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Some old battles never die – the case of Istanbul’s Taksim barracks

June 14, 2013 7 comments
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The old Taksim Barracks

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.

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Artillery damage done to Taksim barracks in the fighting

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A ‘revolutionary disguised as a preacher’, arrested by the CUP.

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.

IMG_7686IMG_7689Most 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.

"American Journalist wounded during the Taksim fighting"

“American Journalist wounded during the Taksim fighting” (the Ottoman text seems to say he works for an English newspaper)

Turkey’s Taksim Carnival Commune

June 10, 2013 1 comment
Revolutionary flags on the Taksim monument

Revolutionary flags on the Taksim monument

[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”.

"Don't bow down" T-shirts being advertised by a penguin on Taksim Sq (a national symbol after Turkish TV news channel aired a penguin documentary instead of the peak of the protests).

“Don’t bow down” T-shirts being advertised by a penguin on Taksim Sq (a national symbol after a Turkish TV news channel aired a penguin documentary instead of the peak of the protests).

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.

A line of stands in Taksim Square in front of the old Ataturk Culture Centre, now a corkboard of revolutionary slogans

A line of stands in Taksim Square in front of the old Ataturk Culture Centre, now a corkboard of colourful protest and revolutionary slogans.

Gezi Park on Taksim Sq is now full of people sleeping in tents, often students, and drew tens of thousands of visitors from all over the city over the weekend.

Gezi Park on Taksim Sq is now full of people sleeping in tents, often students, and drew tens of thousands of visitors from all over the city over the weekend.

Student activist networks from his tent. Gezi Park now has its own FM radio station too.

Student activist networks from his tent. Gezi Park now has its own FM radio station too.

A pick-up truck overturned in the first night of protests has become a wish-list of protestors' demands - typically, an end to the concrete covers up 98.5 per cent of the city.

A pick-up truck overturned in the first night of protests has become a wish-list of protestors’ demands – typically, an end to the concrete covers up 98.5 per cent of the city.

This group arrived from Antalya Province, 12 hours by bus, to protest a hydroelectric dam that will destroy their Tauros Mountain valley.

This group arrived in Istanbul from Antalya Province, 12 hours by bus, to protest a hydroelectric dam that will destroy their Tauros Mountain valley.

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Sample slogans from the political fair on Taksim Square: “Damn the Wage-Slave Order” (from an organisation called ‘Sweat’); “Against the New Sevres [a 1920 Treaty carving up Turkey by the imperial powers] – Long Live Our Second Liberation War” (from the People’s Liberation Party); “Long Live Revolution and SOCIALISM”; “Political Status to the Kurdish People [unreadable]…Mother-Language [Education]” (from the Freedom and Socialism Party); Hope is in You, the Organization, the Revolution; Forward for Revolution, Socialism or Death” …

The Museum of the Revolution

The Museum of the Revolution

The Kurdish nationalist movement has carved out its own corner of the square, where flags showing the jailed leader of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) are waved as here from an overturned police car.

The Kurdish nationalist movement has carved out its own corner of the square, where flags showing the jailed leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) are waved as here from an overturned police car and activists dance in long lines.

Left-wing groups are rushing to show their relevance by handing out free copies of their hard-to-read publications against capitalism and shopping malls - here delivered to the Taksim Square in a doubtless liberated supermarket trolley.

Left-wing groups are rushing to show their relevance by handing out free copies of their hard-to-read publications against capitalism and shopping malls – here delivered to the Taksim Square in a liberated supermarket trolley.

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Merchandising the revolution: The “We are looters but we feel good about it” scarf scores points off Prime Minister Erdogan’s dismissive labelling of the protestors

The square is 'defended' by numerous but pretty flimsy barricades put up by protestors.

Taksim Square is ‘defended’ by numerous but pretty flimsy barricades put up by protestors.

Paper hot air balloons lit with big candles float into the air each evening from Taksim Square, here seen rising over the 19th century bulk of Istanbul's Russian Consulate-General.

Paper hot air balloons lit with big candles float into the air each evening from Taksim Square, here seen rising over the 19th century bulk of Istanbul’s Russian Consulate-General.

POSTSCRIPT

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.

A tough column of protestors from the Turkish Communist Party moves through Nevizadeh restaurant street after a confrontation with police.

A tough column of protestors from the Turkish Communist Party moves through Nevizadeh restaurant street after a confrontation with police.

Middle-class girls fix their gear as they try to find a way past police lines to recover Taksim.

Middle-class girls fix their anti-gas gear as they try to find a way past police lines to recover Taksim.

Police in control of Gezi Park

Police in control of Gezi Park

Gezi Park and Taksim Square, back under government control

Gezi Park and Taksim Square, back under government control

Fixing the Gezi Park flowerbeds, the morning after the Taksim Commune was ejected.

Municipal gardeners fixing the Gezi Park flowerbeds, the morning after the Taksim Commune was ejected.

The debris of the revolution

The Taksim Commune RIP

Turkey’s anti-alcohol cocktail of intrigue, dodgy licenses and moral rectitude

May 23, 2013 6 comments

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.

The pavement tables are back, but the booze has gone.

The pavement tables are back, but the booze has gone.

“Beer?” asked a Spanish TV correspondent, newly arrived in Turkey from China.

“Maalesef (sorry),” said the waiter.

“Wine?”

“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.

Dov Friedman's map of the district of Beyoglu, with the 100m from a religious establishment and school shown in red

Dov Friedman’s map of part of downtown Beyoglu, showing in red which streets are less than 100m from a religious establishment and school

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.

Camel owners in western Turkey toast each other on the eve of a camel wrestling tournament. Photo by George Simpson

Camel owners in western Turkey toast each other with rakı on the eve of a camel wrestling tournament. Photo by George Simpson

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. 

POSTSCRIPT: The restaurant mentioned at the top of this article did in fact finalise its alcohol licence a few months later – despite it’s proximity to a mosque – under a provision to encourage touristic establishments. So all’s well that ends well there, especially since it now serves draft Guinness. But farther from the touristic beat, I suspect that the new puritanism is still spreading.

Of Istanbul caught between West and Middle East

June 2, 2012 2 comments

Turkish men dressed in chadors get ready for the ‘Hands Off My Porn’ protest against internet censorship on Istiklal St in Istanbul, 2011

Outside my window overlooking Istanbul’s main pedestrian Istiklal St. rowdy recent demonstrations have given vocal testimony to the fragmentation of Turkey’s self-image between the West and the Middle East: secularists condemning America, Islamists condemning Russia, others decrying Syria, Israel, Kurdish insurgents, the ruling government in Ankara (and lots more besides, see right). At the same time, Istanbul is also acting as an incredible magnet for a new generation of young adventurers from Europe, America and beyond.

This new diversity of Istanbul has a digital dimension too. The term “expat” makes my orientalist toes curl, but it took breakthrough expatriate website Istanbul Eats to catch the spirit of Turkish street food , and a new launch, Yabangee (from the Turkish for ‘foreigner’, yabancı), seems to me to be the first English-language publication ever to be written entirely by and for the city’s English-speaking residents. (A true mirror to the narcissism of Turkey’s political culture, Turkey’s English-language newspapers are mostly translated from Turkish source material, and, remarkably, most of their readers are actually Turks seeking to improve their English). Anyway I hope their enterprise fares well and here’s my interview with one of Yabangee’s up-and-coming editors:

Expat Interview: Hugh Pope, Crisis Group Writer and Author of Turkey Unveiled

“People are always asking ‘Where’s Turkey headed?’”. Author and journalist Hugh Pope and I are sitting in one of Beyoğlu’s packed bars, and he’s shouting so that I can hear him above the almost deafening combination of music and chatter. “But I’ve stopped worrying,” he continues. “Turkey is Turkey – and it will just carry on being itself.”

Pope certainly is an authority on the subject of Turkish politics. He’s lived in Istanbul for 25 years and speaks fluent Turkish, in addition to the Arabic and Persian he picked up while at Oxford University. He first came to Istanbul to work as a journalist in 1987, but had visited Turkey a few times before, first as a student in 1980 and on breaks from Middle Eastern conflicts. “After so long, do you become Turkish?,” I half-jokingly ask. “No, you become a sort of semi-Levantine!,” he replies.

A British national but born in South Africa, Pope never really felt at home in England after moving there aged nine. “When I left university in 1982 there was a deep recession, and it was difficult finding a job,” he explains. Yet I suspect he’s making excuses; he probably would have been eager to leave even if the economy had been stronger. “I was offered a job working as a journalist at the Tehran Times, but I couldn’t get a visa”. Rather than return to London, Pope booked a one-way ticket to Syria, aged 22.

He covered the region working as a freelance journalist until, in 1987, Reuters offered him a position based in Istanbul. “They put me in this amazing flat in Arnavutköy, overlooking the Bosphorus.” But it wasn’t all positive. The traffic at the time was terrible – worse than it is today, he tells me – and the brown coal pollution in winter was so bad that sometimes you couldn’t see more than a few metres in front of you. “It was like the London smog of the 19th century,” Pope explains.

Old Istanbul from the Golden Horn

Leaving Reuters in 1990, Pope returned to freelance work. “During that time I worked for a range of media; the Independent [a British newspaper], the BBC, the LA Times, and the Wall Street Journal.” But it was with the Independent that Pope felt he could write stories as he wanted, and he leapt at the chance when the paper retained him as a nearly full-time Istanbul correspondent in 1992.

In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s there was a lot of coverage on human rights and other ‘bad news’ stories, so Pope would look for more positive stories to try to break up any negative stereotypes. And life as a foreign correspondent was certainly busy, especially since, before live TV news, seeing things mattered. “Once I went to Ankara twice in one day,” he tells me. “That was when Turkish Airlines gave journalists flights for $30. I went out to do a story in the capital, then there was a bomb in Istanbul, which I raced back to cover, before heading back out to Ankara”.

I ask him whether he ever thought of leaving Istanbul. He not only thought about it, but did leave; it was 1995, and he left Turkey to return to South Africa as the Independent’s correspondent. But the move didn’t bring what he was looking for, and so he returned to Istanbul three months later.

“I came back with a contract to write a book about modern Turkey, which I did with my ex-wife Nicole. I loved the chance to research for that book, reading for a year.” The result was Turkey Unveiled, which was recently released in its fourth edition, is an account of Turkey’s politics from Atatürk up to the present day. What was it like to have co-authored a book? “We shared the same views on Turkey so it was no problem. And we had a great editor; the text flows even though there were two authors.”

Turkey Unveiled was first published in 1997, following which Pope started an eight-year stint working full time for the Wall Street Journal. The thoroughness of their editing came as a shock. “Americans are much harder working than Brits,” he says. “And they’re obsessed with getting every factual detail. But the editing process did sometimes remove nuance, ‘flattening’ the articles.”

But it was a positive experience, and Istanbul was his base for covering, at one point, 30 countries in the region; at least, up until the Iraq War in 2003. Pope says he lost heart covering the story, and that the Journal’s editorial pages went ‘war mad’. “I became disillusioned,” he explains. By 2005, he had become fed up with traveling to the Middle East to write stories in which the American audience expected a viewpoint that Pope found it increasingly difficult to deliver.

Pope took an unpaid year off, and got out of Istanbul. With his wife Jessica Lutz, a Dutch novelist, he built a house in the mountains above Olympos, in south-western Turkey, expecting to have the option of returning to work at the end of the year. However the Journal had other ideas. Following a downsize, the job was no longer there and he was demobbed with a half year’s pay.

But as the saying goes, it’s darkest before dawn. The negative stereotypes of the Middle East that had formed since 9/11 gave Pope the inspiration for his next book, Dining with Al Qaeda [published 2010]. This memoir brought to life his Middle Eastern adventures; in one instance, Pope had to ‘argue’ for his life with a Saudi cleric who had tutored several of the 15 suicide bombers of 9/11. That Pope is still alive today is surely testament to his Arabic skills. But the fact that he then made friends with the cleric and took him out for a Chinese meal in Riyadh makes me think there’s more to Pope than meets the eye.

Nowadays Pope seems content with life here in Istanbul. But the pace hasn’t slowed. Since 2007 he’s been the Turkey / Cyprus project director for the International Crisis Group, which seeks to prevent worldwide conflicts. Does have he have any thoughts of England? Pope, “the semi-Levantine”, threatens to visit his brother in the South-West of England, where he went to school. “I love the countryside there and I keep promising I’ll visit soon. I have to take up a voucher for a free lesson at Sherborne’s croquet club”. But I can see he’s in no hurry.