It seems no end is in sight and, if anything, the Taksim Square protesters are digging in for the long haul. After my post of a couple of months ago praising Istanbul’s highly creative forces, this time I’m dropping in a few comments and pics from trips made over the years in order to reflect on Turkey’s current status.
I remember being there in 2006 soon after the E.U. had (mistakenly I think) refused Turkey’s application for entry. The reaction was forceful, in some cases even arrogant, along the lines of- “We don’t care, we’re a strong country and we can move forward on our own”. What is true is that we 21st century Europeans tend to forget that Turkey was once the head of the powerful Ottoman Empire which for 500 years stretched through the Near and Middle East into North Africa, leaving an indelible influence on food and culture. That all came to an end in 1918, after the First World War, but that is barely a century ago. Since then the majority view of Turks has been mainly formed by immigrants in our respective countries, plus the brilliant writer Orhan Panuk and some excellent films.
When I first went there in the early 1970s, I tasted sheep’s cheese for the first time ever, drank freshly squeezed pomegranate juice, haggled for a few days over kilims and revelled in the exoticism of it all. But sunbathing on a beach with my boyfriend proved impossible, as we were soon surrounded by curious locals, sitting silently around us. The largest street market I saw was in Istanbul, devoted to second-hand car-parts – a sure sign of the Turkish fascination and talent for mechanics. Those too were the days of large American cars, second-hand of course.
The next trip was far more in depth, as it entailed driving across the entire, spectacular country from Istanbul to the Iranian border – where we finally saw the legendary Mt Ararat (sadly my pics of that epic journey are grainy black and white prints, so below is Cappadocia, on a later trip).
Boys threw stones at our car as we traversed deeply rural, remote areas dotted with poor, very basic villages and herds of sheep, and one night somewhere up by the Black Sea we were even chased by bandits. Our escape was much thanks to an Italian friend at the wheel who showed off with panache in true Mediterranean macho style. On the way, it seemed we only ever ate grilled lamb and drank little glasses of bitter black tea. The language of communication was German, as these were the peaks days of the gastarbeiter(guest worker). All that is to say that beyond Ankara and Istanbul, Turkey was an incredibly backward country, cut off from the outside world. There were few tourists in contrast to today’s heaving resorts along the Med.
Fast forward a few decades and you have a society far more in tune with, and aware of, the west. Istanbul is one of the most beautiful, intriguing and seductive cities I’ve ever seen, embracing the Bosphorus, the Golden Horn and the Sea of Marmara, with pencil-thin minarets spiking the horizon, beautiful wooden houses, fishermen on the banks, seagulls swooping through the air and constant echoing hoots of boats. From traditional tea-shops to the glittery, vast and venerable Great Bazaar, to the splendour of Topkapi, Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, it’s a winner – but tourism is now suffering, and it’s time the government sat up.
I’m not going into the political complexities, as that’s not my field, but it did strike me that stalling entry into the E.U. in 2006 (mainly due to France) was a big mistake, although Turkey had been part of the Customs Union since 1995. Living in a part of London with a strong Turkish and Kurdish community, I know how industrious and good humoured the older generation is, but what is going on today in Taksim Square and adjoining Gezi Park is a sign of a different thrust by a younger, more educated, less obedient generation. Sparked off by commercial threats to this small park, the dissident movement has spread through the country, revealing all manner of discontented minorities from the Kurds to gays. Yet media is government-controlled, so maintaining the general TV-watching population in splendid ignorance.
Social media steps in yet again, bringing this eye-opening example of a new perception of over-development and of government repression and, on a much more basic level, of quite simply wanting to grow their own vegetables. Because apparently the protesters make, share and distribute their own food, partly sourced from tomatoes and peppers cultivated in the park, and some are now planting olive trees as symbols of their goal. I bet there are a few lamb kebabs out there too. This evolving green revolution of idealistic young people has gained a huge national and international impact, so hats off to them. Erdogan had better listen.