If nothing else, I hope my last few posts have conveyed a sense of the deep affection I have for the Turkish people. That being said, I do have my problems with Turkey, just as they undoubtedly have complaints about the US. For example, there is the needless persecution of my church, even in inconsequential matters, such as this account. Similarly, God forbid that you get into a discussion in Turkey about Greece and/or Cyprus. Then of course there is their infuriating and continuing denial/equivocation/obscuration concerning the Armenian genocide, a subject which I have commented on several times in the last year. This determined stance seems to be cracking a little in the information age, and is becoming harder to maintain. In my view, all this can be laid at the feet of the sometimes suffocating Turkish nationalism--a belief that everything in the nation must be thoroughly Turkified. Anatolia has been many things in its long history, with the Turks being--considering the grand sweep of history--only the most recent manifestation.
With my friend, Hakan at the Apricot Hotel
Turkey is an increasingly important, and independent player in the Middle East. Its location, as always, makes it an essential nation, so to speak. And its status as a thoroughly Muslim nation makes this all the more intriguing. For we are in an era of history in which Islam is once more on the move. There is nothing inevitable about this, but it is part of a historical process that has happened before. Islam may be resurgent, or what we see may simply be the flailing and thrashings of an inflexible ideology in its death throes--or some perverse combination of each. Either way, a death cult as Thomas Friedman calls it here, and as exemplified by recent events in Britain, has embedded itself in Islam. So moderately Muslim Turkey has in effect become a laboratory to determine if Islam is compatible or adaptable to the modern, or post-modern world. I firmly believe that if the West and Islam ever come to an accommodation and/or truce, it will have to be on the Turkish model. But we are learning that Islam is no more monolithic than Christianity. And Turkey is very much its own thing. It's applicability to other Muslim nations remains to be seen.
The secular/Islamist debate within Turkey is not straight-forward to us. The secularists--those we would naturally be inclined to support--are the ones who have ridden roughshod over Turkey's ethnic and religious minorities, while presiding over governments much too comfortable with the military establishment and its accompanying corruption. Also, their interpretationn of what we see as the separation of church (or in this case, mosque) and state is more along the French model than the American model. On the other hand, the AKP, the current ruling party in Turkey, is "Islamist," but only in the Turkish context. The AKP, to put it in an 1990s American context, is the party of "family values." They believe that traditional Turkish values have been jettisoned by the secularists. Interestingly, the AKP is seen as the party of good government, opposed to graft and corruption. Finally, they are the party of the rising Turkish middle class. All that being said, the AKP is being watching closely. The fear of creeping Islamism is a real concern. Rod Dreher, in a column today, here, expertly analyzes this dichotomy.
Turkey is more than Istanbul. Visitors for a few days to the city can wildly miss the mark in drawing conclusions about Turkey as a whole. But on the other hand, you can see anything in Istanbul. In fact, the most conservative--Islamist, if you will--Turks I saw were not in far eastern Turkey, but in the Phanar of Istanbul. Since 2003, I have spent over 6 weeks in the country, and have visited 26 of its 81 provinces. So, my overall impressions of the country are tempered by my experiences in central and eastern Anatolia as well. I conducted my informal "head-scarf survey" again this year. Wherever I happened to be, whether in numerous disparate neighborhoods, on the Metro, the tram, the ferries, sitting in parks, I think I observed a wide spectrum of Istanbul. There were plenty of women in variations of traditional Turkish Islamic dress. And yet, compared to last year, noticeably less so. A crowded tram car I was on contained only 2 women in Islamic dress. On Istiklal Caddesi, a woman so dressed would walk by only occasionally. It was the same situation on the ferry. All women on Nevisadze Sokak were in western dress.
My friend Hakan and I went for dinner one night at a small establishment near his hotel. And by small, I mean 4 tables set out on the cobblestone street. Nevertheless, we feasted on marvelous salads and mezes, cheese--so fresh, as he said, "you could still smell the sheep's teats"--and sea bass, followed by fresh watermelon, grapes, apricots and other fruits, and all lubricated by good Turkish raki. Hakan is 35 or so, and quite the entrepreneur. He is very much the hands-on operator of one of the best little hotels in Istanbul. He hosts tour groups on occasion. For a time, he was investing in apartment flats, and in a small construction company. He owns a small building in Beyoglu where he leases space to an architect. He has plans for a wine bar there, and perhaps opening a seafood cafe in conjunction with his hotel. Hakan would like to live nearby in old Sultanhamet, but his wife prefers the suburbs. He speaks several languages. Hakan is Muslim by birth, but unobservant. He is Muslim the same way most French are Catholic. And yet, as part of the burgeoning middle class, he supports the AKP. In short, I find Hakan to be a good representative of the new Turkey.
I read somewhere that the whole "head scarf issue" was actually receding in Turkey; that is was more of a political statement and symbol than a religious sentiment. Now that they had carried the day politically, the head scarf was less in evidence. I told Hakan about this and asked his opinion. He said that is exactly what has happened. He compared the head scarf to the peace symbol worn by American hippies in the 60s. It was a simply a political statement.
Istiklal Caddesi at night
Istiklal Caddesi is the place to be seen in Istanbul--once the main street through old European Pera, it is now a pedestrian shopping street, a place where Istanbulis go to see and be see. The street stretches from Taksim Square on the north, to just north of the Galata Tower on the south. Its neo-classical architecture could fit anywhere in Western Europe. Since last year, there have been some changes not to my liking: the marvelous old Four Seasons Restaurant, operated by a soft-spoken Englishwomen, is no more. A gleaming new "Gloria-Jean's Coffee" has replaced it. A real Starbucks competes only 4 doors up the street. Three blocks further along Istiklal Caddesi, I found another Gloria-Jean's Coffee, with another copycat Starbucks 4 doors down.
Istiklal Caddesi street scene
A few streets intersect Istiklal Caddesi, but primarily there are pedestrian-only passages coming off the street. Here one can find some of the very best of the sidewalk restaurants. My particular goal on Istiklal Caddesi, was not to shop (horrors) or eat, but rather to search out the hidden churches within closed compounds along these passages. I discovered an Armenian Catholic Church (I didn't know there was such), an Armenian Orthodox Church and a Greek Orthodox Church. Although one could glimpse a bell tower occasionally, by and large they were hidden completely from view. If the doors were unlocked, you could stroll into the compound of offices and apartments surrounding the churches.
The Armenian church was right around the corner from Nevisadze Sokak. This was a pedestrian-only street, that intersected one of the passages. The street contained at least 50 sidewalk restaurants, with just enough room for two people to pass between the outside tables. At night, it was largely bereft of tourists, but filled to capacity with Istanbulis of all ages, male and female--eating, talking, drinking and smoking. It is a wonderful atmospheric spot to capture the feel of Istanbul. It doesn't matter which restaurant you choose; they are all excellent. Choose your meze, point to the fish you want in the refrigerated cabinet, then grab an outside table, enjoy your Efes or raki and be a part of the tableau. Again, the crowd up and down the street were thoroughly Westernized--you could have seen a similar scene in most any European city.
I enjoyed it so much, I returned a second night. An Efes Beer-sponsored "Beerfest," complete with live band, was occurring at one end of the street. With such a crush of people, I pulled away from Nevizadze Sokak, determining to return later for supper. While doing so, I bumped into another friend. We made plans to see each other later that night at a nearby nightspot. That is how I found myself, near midnight, at a Turkish club just off Taksim Square. I didn't really care for the blasting techno beat, but the dance floor was packed with young Turks who thought otherwise. Whether this is a good thing for Turkish society is debatable--just as it is debatable whether it is a good thing for our culture. But as I worked my way back to the hotel, I added this image, as well as that of Nevizadze to the montage I was forming in my mind. The composite picture came into focus for me. There is no turning back. These people are not going back. Secularist or AKP, no matter. Their eyes are firmly planted West. Muslim? Yes. Turkish? Absolutely. But Western, none the less.