Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Turkey, Revisited

“On a recent night at a bar in one of the narrow alleyways of Istanbul’s European quarter, not far from Taksim Square, Duygu Duman said she was so exasperated with her government that she might finally take the green card for the United States that she won in a lottery and pick up and move. 
“ ‘The perception of Turkey has changed dramatically under this government,’ said Ms. Duman, 36, drinking Jack Daniel’s Lynchburg Lemonade while a Bon Jovi song blared from the bar’s speakers. ‘And now it’s getting worse.’ ”
The New York Times, “Resisting By Raising a Glass,” June 10, 2013

The young woman in the window seat was reading a comics magazine. Stan was eyeing it from his seat on the aisle, but he couldn’t read the captions.

“Excuse me,” he said, leaning across me to the woman. “Do you speak English?”

“Yes, of course,” she said.

“Could you tell me what that says?”

She pointed to the image of a woman going into a toilet stall. A man in a suit appeared to be following her.

“He is saying, ‘How can you be trusted if you’re in there by yourself?’ ”

We were on a Turkish Airlines flight last June from Istanbul to Selçuk, preparing to visit the colossal Roman ruins at Ephesus. We had just spent a week in the beach resort town of Bodrum and in Istanbul with the Aydan Doğan Foundation’s International Cartoon Competition, for which My Beloved was serving as a juror. (I wrote about our experiences during the competition here.)

With the Turkish cartoonists on the judging panel, we had discussed censorship, freedom of the press (or the lack thereof), and the difference between the secular Muslim country that Turkey used to be and the increasingly conservative, religiously driven mandates of the government led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Many of the cartoons, entered into the competition post-Arab Spring, focused on themes of revolution.

Now the cartoon competition was over and we were traveling by ourselves to Ephesus, then to the phallic moonscape of Cappadocia, and then back to Istanbul before heading home to New York. The young woman next to us on this flight was a psychiatrist who worked with patients at a hospital in Istanbul and with residents of a poor community in the city.

As we discussed the political cartoons in the magazine she carried, she described with emotion and heat the changes she’d seen in her country in the ten years that Erdogan had been Prime Minister.

“It’s frightening,” she said. “Especially for women.” She cited some of the things Erdogan had done or vowed to do: ban abortion; “reform” education so that girls could leave school earlier, effectively lowering their marriageable age to about 14; increase religious education in schools. We've since heard about other edicts—restrictions on the sale of alcohol, forbidding public displays of affection, exhorting married couples to bear at least three children.

She also described a distrust of professionals on the part of the more conservative, less educated Erdogan supporters—to the point that her boyfriend, an ER doctor, had been kicked and had his ribs broken by a patient who thought the doctor was plotting against him because he read his scans on a computer screen instead of on old-style x-rays.

“Do you think about leaving the country?” I asked the woman.

“Many of my friends have already left,” she said. “But this is my country. My ancestors are here. Why should I have to leave?”

I’ve been thinking of her—and of our impassioned tour guide, Suleiman, who had said, “I have to speak out for my son, who is one year old”—as I’ve watched the coverage of the protests in Istanbul’s Taksim Square over the past week. Last year, I had wondered if or when the anger we heard in conversations would bubble up into physical protest.

So when the environmental protest over plans to raze Gezi Park and build a shopping mall evolved into a passionate demonstration against the government and for democracy, I wished I were back in Taksim Square to support the protestors.

On our first visit to Taksim Square last June, we had only been in Istanbul one day. I'd heard that the square was a center of political protest, and imagined it as something like the Federal Building in West Los Angeles, where you'll often see crowds with Iranian flags or placards lined up along Wilshire Boulevard. When we saw a march coming up Istiklal Cadessi, the famous pedestrian shopping thoroughfare that leads into Taksim Square, I got my hopes up that we were about to witness citizen outrage in action. But no—the marchers were carrying banners for cell phone companies and corporate brands.

I was continually flummoxed by the contradictions in Turkey—how the country seems to be moving forward and backward at the same time.

In the seat-back pocket on the flight from the U.S., a thick and glossy publication laid out in spectacular detail the hospitable infrastructure that Turkey offers to potential international business partners—including the country's growing young work force. (That three-children mandate seems to fit neatly with Erdogan's business plans.)

Shopping was already a thriving industry in Istanbul, from the historic Spice Market and Grand Bazaar... the rushing river of Turkish lira-bearing humanity along Istiklal:

Yet on the societal front, the increasing religious conservatism seemed to be sending Turkey back to the dark ages. Marry girls off at 14? Ban abortion? Imprison opposing voices? As of June 2012, Erdogan's administration had jailed more than 100 journalists and 30 mayors—including the mayor of Bodrum, who was therefore unable to attend the closing night dinner of the cartoon competition as he had planned until two nights before.

I loved Turkey. I adored Istanbul. My heart broke for our plane companion and our gregarious young tour guide, who were watching the country they'd grown up in disappear into a dark tunnel.

“My parents feel guilty,” said the young psychiatrist on the plane. “They said, ‘We should have stopped this years ago. We failed you.’ ”

Now a new generation is trying to succeed in Taksim Square.
Istiklal, June 2013.  Photo: EPA  From The Telegraph

For a more complete photo album of our trip to Turkey in June, 2012, click here.