Then and Now in Turkey

Here’s an excerpt from my humorous travel memoir,Turkey: Bright Sun, Strong Tea. (The previous episode was Some People Never Learn.)

The entire world has changed substantially since that champagne-soaked Pan Am 707 filled with eager young PCVs flew eastward from New York to Ankara after the Summer of Love, but the change in Turkey has been nothing short of astounding.

Significantly, in 1990 the entire country waited with bated breath to see if the generals would need to take over again. They didn’t. The fact that nothing happened gave a significant psychological boost to Turkish citizens, who saw it as a sign that their democracy was maturing.

Despite the ceaseless sturm und drang of Turkish politics, some government programs seem to have had an effect after all:

— Our students at Izmir Koleji actually learned English and moved on to useful careers, some of them becoming quite prominent in the burgeoning tourism industry where knowledge of English is essential.

— The Ministry of Tourism’s programs did (and still do) promote Turkish tourism effectively, and have made tourism one of Turkey’s top revenue-producing industries.

— Much of Side was preserved from development

Istanbul‘s Bosphorus bridge, so hated by the radical students of the 1970s as a symbol of American imperialism (even though America had little to do with it), paid for itself in record time, and now no one can imagine the city without it. A second bridge, the Fatih (Conqueror’s) Bridge, was built farther up the Bosphorus, and a third bridge is planned.

The sleepy “underdeveloped” country I landed in has become the economic powerhouse of the eastern Mediterraneanand a stronger, more important Western ally than ever.

Political crises are still common, but political violence is not. University students study hard rather than march in the streets.

Although the socialist ideal of common effort for the common good is still respected, free enterprise has been eagerly embraced by the very generation which so loudly denounced it a few decades ago. The same thing happened in the USA and in many other countries that lived through the Big Boom summer of 1968.

Resurgent Islam

Among the most surprising changes in Turkey is the resurgence of Islam. It’s not surprising that people should turn to religion as a spiritual anchor when radical change sweeps through their society.

Consider this: when I first arrived in Turkey it was against the law (though rarely enforced) for a man and woman, even husband and wife, to hold hands in public. Now many Turkish girls wear skimpy bikinis, and there are even topless beaches.

Or consider that the residents of Çamuslu Köyü, out near the Iranian border, had never seen a foreigner, an American, or a non-Muslim before I wandered in, but now they can press a button on a remote control and see “Baywatch” and “The West Wing,” not to mention “reality TV,” (which must strike a Turkish villager as incomparably bizarre).

In 1995, by a mere 21% of the vote, an Islamist party was elected to lead the country because the centrist political parties, each of which had received about 20% of the vote, were incapable of forming an effective coalition government. Apparently many people voted for the Islamists because they were sick of the traditional parties’ corruption and incompetence. It was the Islamists’ big chance, but the right wing of the party blew it by saying and doing things guaranteed to upset the military establishment. Accused of unconstitutionally bringing religion into politics, the Islamist party was toppled by the military and an uneasy civilian coalition government was cobbled together.

Despite the noisy Islamist segment on the right end of Turkey’s political spectrum–not all that different from the religious right in America–most Turks don’t want an Islamist government. They want nothing more of religion than to bring its solace and wisdom into their private lives. The last thing most Turks want is a return to Sharia, Islamic religious law.

Just as they reject religious extremism, Turks accept religious moderation. In 2002 a reformed Justice and Development Party with Islamist roots but a moderate political program won a majority in parliament.

I can’t help contrasting my first low-key Ramazan in Bornova (1967) with a recent one. I was in Istanbul in December, 2001, near the end of the holy month. Only a few days of fasting remained. I visited the office of my friend Ersan Atsür who runs a travel company called Orion-Tour. About half of his staff–young, well educated, modern and mostly female–were keeping the fast, a far greater percentage than I had observed at Izmir Koleji.

These “modern Muslims” wore standard European office garb, without Islamic head coverings, and worked normally in the office all day. When the customary urge came for a glass of tea or a snack or a cigarette, they thought twice, resisted, and turned their thoughts instead to the deeper meaning of life, to the care of their souls.

Am I being a good person?” they asked themselves. “Am I helping to fulfill God’s plan for humankind? Am I being a good Muslim? Do I care for other people, give alms, deal honestly with everyone?”

One day I arrived at Ersan Bey’s office around sundown, the time of iftar, the breaking of the fast. If Westerners hear anything about Ramazan it’s about the fasting, but that’s only half the story and I was about to see the other half.

A staffer cleared Ersan Bey’s big desk, spread a tablecloth and laid out the simple “break-fast” meal of soup, flat pide bread, olives and vegetables. Everyone, whether fasting or not, whether Muslim or not, was invited to share in the celebration. It was a time of warmth, friendship and heartfelt thanks for the goodness of life.

In the evening during Ramazan the Istanbul city government sponsored special concerts, amusements and shows. All the mosques were floodlit and packed with worshippers and sightseers in a holiday mood. The ancient Hippodrome was engulfed in a carnival atmosphere with strings of colored lights and little booths selling snacks, crafts, religious books, trinkets, and souvenirs. There were smiles everywhere.

Imagine a month in which denial of small pleasures during daylight helps you to consider life’s big, important questions. It’s no wonder Muslims look upon Ramazan as a blessing: it helps them to prioritize, to discover what’s important and what isn’t, to figure out what we’re all doing here–in short, to ponder the meaning of life.

At the end of my stay I went to Atatürk Airport‘s new international terminal to catch my flight home. Above the passport control booths was a line of big sparkly red letters spelling out WE WISH YOU A MERRY CHRISTMAS & HAPPY NEW YEAR in English and also BAYRAMINIZ KUTLU OLSUN (Happy Ramazan Holiday).

That pretty much says it all.

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(Excerpts from Turkey: Bright Sun, Strong Tea copyright © 2004 by Tom Brosnahan. All rights reserved.


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