Sunday, March 15, 2009

Straddling the Gap in Turkey

Coconot along Ankara’s fashionable Argentine Çaddesi is a very stylish place. The clientele is mostly youngish, professional and cosmopolitan. Especially the women are dressed to kill in outfits that are both fashionable and highly feminine. I am sitting in the wine bar at the back of the place, on a high stool at a table that is made of a thick slab of wood. The wall behind the long bar is lined with an impressive selection of fine wines. The elderly gentleman next to me—the exception to the rule—orders a pint of beer with his meal. I myself am enjoying a nice glass of red wine in a large aroma glass, Montes Cabernet Sauvignon. The price of the drink is comparable to what it would cost in a similar place in, say, New York’s SoHo district. At the sides of the cozy room are comfortable looking sofa groups. Merry chatter emanates from them. The walls are covered with artsy black and white photographs of New York, Paris, Audrey Hepburn. The waiter brings me a complimentary cheese plate. Almost all of the waiters are men, except one, a pretty young woman with a somewhat blasé demeanour. She is dressed in jeans and a white shirt with a tie, like everyone else working here, with her black hair tied into a thick ponytail. I watch as she pinches her finger in the fork drawer. The sound system plays the old lounge classic, Je t’aime (moi non plus), with Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin sighing lustfully. The front of the restaurant, too, is elegant yet informal in a simple way. It’s got plenty of pale wood. A group of five young women arrives for cocktails and takes one of the low tables surrounded by the comfy sofas. It’s all very urbane in a rather Parisian style. Now Bernard Laviliiers sings his smooth French bossa nova. Surely this must be Europe.

The next day, Sunday, I head for Ulus, the old town around the Citadel. I get off the taxi at the rider statue of modern Turkey’s founder and hero Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, in front of Turkey’s parliament building. I then walk up the hill until the cityscape changes completely: past the bazaar, down again on the other side of the mound. I want to explore the area as long as there is light and now the sun is setting rapidly. Below the Citadel stands a large and lively bus station where old blue and white buses sputter belching black exhaust fumes to the cooling air. They stand ready to ferry people between the capital and the provinces. Beyond, on the surrounding hills spreads the old town on steep slopes. Many of the houses are decrepit but I see people climbing eagerly to reach their homes at the end of the day. Here the men correspond to the classic image of a Turk, with thick dark moustaches and eyebrows. Most women wear headscarves and long coats, a few even entirely black Muslim coveralls. There is no doubt that many of these people are migrants from the countryside in the east and southeast, Anatolians. Even some of the signs in the area suggest this, like Otel Erzurum, an hotel named after the eastern city close to Mount Ararat where Noah’s ark allegedly landed after the deluge. But I also encounter more modern people: young women in jeans and with uncovered heads laughing cheerfully with each other.

I wander along the main streets, then dive into the narrow, steep alleys between the old houses. The advantage in Turkey is that I don't stand out from the crowds and can explore freely without drawing attention to myself. True, most people are darker than I am, but not all: there are Turks of a wide variety of colouring. With my solid build I could pass for a local. It is only when I take out my camera that people pay attention to my presence.

Poverty is obvious here in Ulus. Not the kind of desperate poverty one sees in real developing countries, but still people here are poor. Turkey as a whole has huge differences in poverty rates within: between regions, urban vs. rural, within different districts in cities.

I stroll along the shops and between the numerous street vendors. What strikes me is the number of stores, many of them makeshift, that sell music CDs and cassettes. Music is everywhere and exotic sounds blare from every corner. I am even more surprised to see many of the stores openly displaying pornographic DVDs, their explicit covers placed on stands right on the street for everyone to see. Next to an internet café, ‘VIP Erotik’ lounge has its sign.

The bazaar is thoroughly crowded and trade is clearly thriving. There are numerous stores selling delicious looking foods. At one end are the fishmongers in their blue coats. On the other corridor the butchers have their stalls with a huge variety of meats (although presumably no pork). Then the fruits, vegetables, sausages, nuts, lentils, beans, delicious looking breads, cheeses, olives—vats of many kinds and colours of olives—and the Turkish delights oozing with sugar and honey.

The evening is now getting bitterly cold and I could use a rest and a drink. No elegant wine bars here. Not even a hole-in-the-wall selling raki, the local anisette that is a version of so many similar liquors common around the Mediterranean, from Greek ouzo to French pastis. Just when I am about to give up, I decide to cross the main road to the parliament side. There I detect the sign of ‘Meekez Kafeterya’ where I sit down alongside three Turkish men all talking on their cell phones. The one in a dark suit and white shirt actually has two phones that ring constantly. Maybe he is a government official as this is the government area. I suspect this place may be popular amongst civil servants after working hours on weekdays. I am sipping an excellent Efes beer served to me by a friendly intellectual looking skinny man with a bald pate, rimless glasses and a red tie. I hear his colleague, the cashier, call him Ali. The place is rather large with mirrored walls, small square tables with shabby tablecloths and bright neon lighting. The air reeks of stale tobacco, although my fellow customers constantly contribute to making the smoke fresher. A well dressed middle aged couple enters and orders tea while the woman immediately lights up a long and thin cigarette. Their entrance adds cheerfulness to this melancholy place. Behind the cashier hangs a stern looking portrait of Atatürk on a square glass lit with a bulb from behind. Mellow music sounds from the pipes. I order a Yeni Raki. Everything is perfect.

That Turkey belongs to many different worlds is a cliché. Its largest city, Istanbul, a fabulous global metropolis, itself bridges Europe and Asia on both sides of the Bosporus straight. Ankara is the administrative city in the centre of the country. Not as large, exciting and varied as the legendary former centre of the Ottoman republic, but still a pleasant enough city surrounded by snow-capped mountains. But as evident from the above, there are large differences between the rich and the poor districts, the traditional and the modern. The country is polarized at many levels. It is a candidate for accession to the European Union with elites that are distinctly European in deportment. Except that the new elites, at least in the political arena, are Islamists. A debate rages in the country about whether women should be allowed to wear headscarves in schools or government buildings, which is inappropriate under the secular constitution instituted under the rule of the revered Atatürk. The current, charismatic prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has resolved this at the personal level by deciding that his wife—who does don the headscarf on a regular basis—does not attend state functions with him. But wait a minute, Erdogan and his AKP party that has been in power since 2002 are officially Islamist but they also support Turkey’s membership in NATO, the defence alliance that certainly does not have a good name in much of the Muslim world. The all powerful armed forces in Turkey have long been seen as the guardians of the secular constitution. But they are no great democrats, especially when it comes to the treatment of the Kurdish minority in Anatolia. Many years ago when I was in Turkey and travelling around Erzurum the army that was then in power in the country officially denied that there even were any Kurds: just mountain Turks. The conflict in the southwest continues till this day. Just in mid-March 2009 while I am writing this, investigators find fragments of a human skull, six other bones and a sock from an acid vat. Presumably remains of victims of extrajudicial killings. In the same days, Turkey’s air force conducts bombing raids across the border to Iraqi Kurdistan where alleged terrorists from the Kurdish workers’ party PKK have their bases.

Common notions of the religious right and the liberal, secular left do not hold in Turkey. Probably the biggest challenges for the country are the huge differences in socioeconomic development between the different groups and regions. When it comes to level of education and labour force participation, for instance, women still lag grossly behind men—despite of what one could presume by looking at the party goers in places like the Coconot. Regionally, particularly deprived are the nine provinces of Southeast Anatolia, the so called GAP region. Whereas the average per capita income in this middle-income country is some $5,477, the poorest of the GAP provinces have per capita incomes of just $918 (Adryaman), $983 (Mardin) and $638 (Sirmak)! While official unemployment in Turkey hovers just below 10 percent, it is much higher in the GAP: up to more than 17 percent in Batman province.

Turkey has a lot to offer to the world, as the increasing numbers of tourists and other visitors can attest to. Its culture is enormously rich and the common patrimony is unique. The nature between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea and the high mountains and wild rivers to the east is fantastic. But these differences in human development pose big challenges to the still fragile democracy that the country must urgently address. Local elections will take place at the end of March 2009. Unfortunately, as Washington-based Turkish researcher and blogger Ilhan Tanir wryly observes in his blog of 17 February 2009, “an assortment of white appliances and sofa sets” has started to appear as hand-outs to voters especially in areas that have traditionally been anti-AKP. Obviously, this is not a way to reach equality in any sustainable manner. The official Ninth Development Plan of Turkey (2007-2013) rightly recognizes the importance of reducing the inequalities between different groups of people and regions. It has amongst its central themes enhancing competitiveness as well as human and regional development. One can only wish the good people of Turkey best of luck in this endeavour.

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