Published: May 23rd 2011May 22nd 2011
Things are not always as they seem
Our visiting grandson Taulby is disguised as a parrot who is disguised as Harry Potter
Welcome to Bill and Carol's travelblog from Turkey. As we come to the end of our first year here, we are becoming more aware of the intricate layers of intrigue in Turkey's social/political life. We can't pretend to really understand the deep implications of all that we read in the Turkish press and hear from friends. What we know is that many, many things are not as they seem. Thus, this blog's theme: "Golgeler" (Shadows).
Does this entry sound already dire? Then, let me be clear. We continue to be delighted to be here--happier in a drastically different culture than we ever imagined possible. The "shadows" we refer to offer us endless fascination. It's like living in a Dan Brown novel sometimes--except that we feel thoroughly safe.
I just referred to the first awareness that has been growing over recent months: This IS a drastically different culture! "Of course" you say. "You're in Turkey--what did you expect?" Well, after the first weeks of absorbing superficial differences (call to pray five times a day, many more women in headscarves) we slipped into thinking we were in a culture much like the U.S.--just more Islamic, not as commercial, and with a
Turkish Political Rally
The Parliamentary Election is June 12. This is Ataturk's Party, CHP
friendlier, slower pace. It's a secular democracy, right? What could be more familiar? So, over the first six months here, while we were distracted with broken appliances and employment pursuits, we fell deeply in love with Turkey and with what we imagined to be its culture. Recently, though, as we read more and talk more deeply to a wider range of people, the scales have begun to fall from our eyes: things in Turkey are not as they (at first) seemed. While we still have huge appreciation for many aspects of Turkey, we recognize some very unsettling characteristics as well. It's kind of like gradually realizing that the one you love deeply has a dark, secret life!
Living in Turkey is teaching us a great deal about what democracy is. (Funny that I've never thought about this so deeply before; it's like exploring one's own elbow for the first time.) The drive toward democracy began with Ataturk (founder of the Turkish Republic) in the 1920s and 1930s, when he got rid of the last corrupt sultan and began to implement a long list of sweeping changes. For instance, Ataturk changed the Turkish alphabet (which gave rise to a huge
Kate Roach and Andy
Kate and Andy visited in March
increase in literacy) and required different styles of dress, abandoning the fez for men and the headscarf for women. Ataturk was also adamant about the need for Turkey to embrace secularism. His reforms certainly brought Turkey out of a dark, backward period, and he deserves to be much more revered than he is in the history of the modern world. But Ataturk did not institute these changes in a democratic environment; he had absolute power. No doubt, in a full democracy, Ataturk probably could not have implemented drastically-needed reforms with such speed and effectiveness--if at all. As we all know so well, democracy can be slow and messy.
But Turkey's democracy, at least in its current form, is limited. Those limitations may result from its history. Democracy here did not grow out of the demands of its people, hungry for individual freedoms. There was no "Tabrir Square of boiling masses" risking themselves for the democratic future of Turkey. Nope...Ataturk "instituted" democracy here, and maybe that's a partial contradiction in terms. As a result, the Turkish Republic has a primarily top-down government, which--while elected--does not stress democratic values, such as respect for diversity and freedoms of religion, speech, and press.
Istanbul's Hagia Sofia at Night
Once the largest church in Christendom, then a mosque and now a museum
More than 100 journalists are currently in prison for expressing their views in writing, and women who wear headscarves are forbidden from attending public universities or holding government jobs in Turkey. Every day we hear of other incidents. In our own city, a man getting his haircut made an idle remark unflattering to the ruling party and landed in jail. (The man in the next chair was a prosecutor.) An example from yesterday's paper is particularly chilling: a university professor's research detected extremely high levels of mercury and arsenic in breastmilk and in the feces of infants in Kocaeli province--where the cancer rates are three times the world average. What was the result? Government officials are accusing the professor of inciting fear and panic among the population. He, too, may be arrested!
The real "shadow" events in Turkey are evident in the layer upon layer of conspiracy theories, real or assumed violent plots--and plots against those plots. The "shadows" are evident in the widespread and deep distrust, not only among political parties but also infiltrating broad segments of society, even including the native attitudes of many fine people we know well. "How can such warm, friendly, and generous people
be so suspicious?" we ask ourselves. One group (name withheld in hopes of avoiding government censorship filters) is said to be plotting against the current government from a network of clandestine positions inside the government. Several other large and organized groups--referred to as "criminal" or "terrorist"--are said to be organizing the government's downfall from the outside. Many of the top military generals are currently in prison (yes, really!) on charges that they are part of one or more of these groups. From where we sit, it's impossible to know whether these plots are real. Is it possible that the excessive surveillance and widespread arrests are needed to protect the integrity of the state? Is it possible that jailing so many is just a convenient way for the ruling party to get dissenters out of the way just before an election--or just before a policy change that would incite a military response? Sometimes the shadows have shadows.
And yes, in Turkey, the military can cause more than an inconvenience to the ruling party. That's because here, the military is charged (originally by Ataturk himself) with protecting the Turkish nation again "enemies from without and within," which explicitly includes "those in
Kate Leslie and Lisa
Kate and Lisa visited in April
power." During the 20th Century, every time the Turkish government was led by a party deemed to be at odds with the strict tenants of Kemalism (the ideology that Ataturk instituted), the military has staged a coup--several of them extremely brutal and far ranging. Since the Turkish republic was founded in 1923, there have been four military coups in all--the last one in 1997.
What seems to have shaped up here is a battle of orthodoxies that reminds us of the political insanity in the U.S. One the one hand, Turkey has the Kemalists, or secularists. At first, this group seemed to us more in line with western thinking about human rights and other freedoms. But, from our perspective, at least, there is a blind spot. The secularists are so desperately frightened that the current Islamic-leaning government will take Turkey down the road of Iran that most support the strict policy that prevents women who wear headscarves from attending universities. Some secularists--perhaps most--say that they would support the military in enforcing strict secular policy--even if it would require yet another coup. The secularists include an ultra-national group who are quick to call for the arrest of any person who
Found in the vacant lot next to our apartment
suggests that the 90-year-old principles instilled by Ataturk might benefit from some tweaking. In fact, "Insulting Turkishness" is a felony, resulting in harsh punishment. (Of course, we Americans observe all this through our own biased lens. If we faced the possibility that our country's government might soon institute shariah law, maybe we too would be defending Kemalism with our lives!)
The strict Islamist group comprises the other orthodoxy. The current ruling party--likely to be re-elected next month--are strongly Islamic though they are thought to be moderates. The Islamists are understandably alarmed that women are not allowed to attend universities while wearing headscarves. But they are not much focused on guaranteeing other individual freedoms for Turkish people as a whole. In Turkey, the dominant group who practice Islam are Sunni, and the Sunni deny some basic rights to the Alevi, who practice the Shia form of Islam. And don't get me started about the complex and bloody relations between the Turkish state and the large numbers of Kurdish people, including its violent separatist wing, which has been deemed a terrorist group by Turkey, the U.S. and the E.U.
Though my fingers are aching to continue, I have to stop
our of respect for the one or two readers who have indulged me this long. These thoughts, though, are very much about what has been happening with us during the past few months. These issues are what we read about, discuss, and obsess over.
That said, the real highlights of recent months have had nothing to do with intrigues or shadows. Between all the conspiracy theories, we've loved visits from our family: Kate Roach and her guy Andy came in March; Kate Leslie and Lisa were here in April. And Matt, Kara, and our grandsons (Jude, 8 and Taulby, 6) came in May. We had different adventures with each visit, but even when we returned to a spot we'd seen before, it was wonderful to see it through different sets of eyes.
And the feast of long-anticipated visitors continues. Jane and Bill Corriston arrive next week for three glorious weeks. Later, Catherine Crain arrives for two. What a treat! It's an honor that folks are willing to come so far to see us...and, well, maybe to see Turkey too.
This summer, we're escaping the heat for several months: on the Black Sea coast of Turkey, then in
Matt, Kara, Jude and Taulby
The Wallingford Roach-Mattaini's came in May
Hungary, Austria, and Slovenia. We will end with a quick trip to the states for a family wedding. But by late September, we'll be eager to return to Turkey, we're sure. The blog will resume--probably in late summer. Hope you'll come along and share the adventures of your own lives when you can. Nothing pleases us more!
Carol (with Bill by my side!)
There are more photos below