We’ve had quite a procession of big name visitors to Istanbul recently, from Jennifer Lopez (who apparently was so taken with the city that she purchased an apartment) to Dr Dieter Zetsche, the Chairman of Daimler AG and Head of Mercedes cars. Well, we’ll return to 'Jenny from the Block' and Dr Dieter later, but first I want to direct your attention to the words of another VIP, IMF Director for Turkey, Mark White Lewis, speaking at the Active Academy 10th International Finance Summit. Mr Lewis had clearly done his homework on Turkish culture, and illustrated his laudatory comments on the local economy with a tale from the Nasrettin Hodja canon.
Probably you know that Nasrettin Hodja was a 13th century Sufi teacher much-loved in Turkish culture for his down-to-earth populist philosophy. Many tales are told in which the Hodja presents an unusual angle on an everyday situation. Mr Lewis’s chosen tale refers to a funeral where one of the pall-bearers asks Nasrettin Hodja where the best place is to support the coffin as it is carried - at the front, the back, the left or the right. Doesn’t much matter, replies the Hodja, as long as you’re not inside it.
I haven’t read the full text of the IMF man’s speech, so I can’t confirm whether he actually said what our newspaper’s headline announced – that the global economy is dead. Nevertheless, it was clear enough that, in his opinion, there is a global economy coffin, and many countries are (God rest their souls) inside it. The point Mr Lewis was making was, that Turkey is one of twenty countries in Nasreddin Hodja’s recommended location, i.e. outside the coffin.
Now I’m not sure what Jennifer Lopez’s credentials are as a commentator on economic matters, so I’m going to leave her aside in the mean time, and return to the Mercedes Benz man. Dr Zetsche didn’t, as far as I am aware, recount any tales of Sufi wise men. However, he did express positive feelings about Turkey’s economy, and he too, had clearly done some research on how to strike a harmonious chord with the locals. The generously moustachioed German doctor (who, according to Wikipedia, was actually born in Istanbul), quipped that his abundant facial hair did not mark the limits of his ties to Turkey. Any positive reference to the founder of the Republic by a foreigner is received by most Turks with great appreciation – and Dr Zetsche noted that Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was the first customer of the newly opened Mercedes franchise in Turkey. He also had nice things to say about Turkish coffee, and the scenic beauties of the country’s beaches – before going on to suggest that his company is very keen to make further investment in the local economy.
Another yardstick of Turkey’s burgeoning economic growth is the art scene. Friends in America recently sent me the link to an article on artinfo.com. Apparently ‘the Tate Modern’s curator of international art, Jessica Morgan, had just been there [Istanbul].’ The article goes on to report that ‘the market for Turkish art has soared, both within and without the country. The inaugural sale of Turkish modern and contemporary art at Sotheby’s London in March 2009 was a bright spot in an otherwise tanking global market, with 50 of the 71 lots selling, nearly all within or above estimate. The total climbed from £1,307,400 ($1.8 million) to £2,436,850 ($3.8 million) in 2010. By the following spring, Phillips de Pury & Company was in on the action with a selling exhibition of contemporary Turkish art at the Saatchi Gallery in London. New York galleries like Paul Kasmin and Lehmann Maupin were testing the waters of the Istanbul market. Judging by the number of special fair sections and exhibitions devoted to the country’s artists this year and next, interest in Turkey appears to have reached a fever pitch.’
In a similar vein, our local paper reported that a gentleman by the name of Regis Krampf, said to be of some repute in New York art circles, has recently relocated to Istanbul. He was quoted as saying he simply couldn’t stay in New York with the Turkish market developing as it is!
Still, we’re talking about the top end of the market here, I guess – those who can afford to buy Dr Zetsche’s company’s products, and whose disposable income can comfortably accommodate the purchase of contemporary works of art. It doesn’t necessarily reflect how things are going at less ethereal levels of the economy.
Another news item that caught my eye over the weekend announced that Turkey’s neighbour Greece, with whom relations are not always the most cordial, is planning to channel some of the bail-out funds received from the EU into restoring a few of its neglected mosques, with a view to attracting more Turkish tourists. As one who has been critical in the past of Greece’s attitude towards preserving uncomfortable relics of its pre-independence history, I can only applaud this turnaround, even if it took a disastrous financial crisis to effect it. In fact my wife and I benefited last summer from this more relaxed approach to visitors from Turkey, making a day visit to the Greek island of Kalymnos with a fast ferry-load of Turkish day-trippers.
And it seems it is not just Greece looking to free up access for Turkish visitors. The UK Immigration Minister, Mark Harper, paid a visit to Istanbul and Ankara earlier this month, fairly bubbling with enthusiasm at the prospect of doubling trade between the two countries by 2015. London City bankers are, apparently, casting favourable eyes upon investment opportunities in Turkey, and the British Government is looking to streamline visa applications and approvals for Turkish businessmen, and who knows, perhaps others. Again, having visited the UK with my Turkish wife, and having seen the hoops she was required to jump through to obtain a short-term visitor’s visa, I can say it’s not before time.
OK, I know not all of you get as excited about economic matters as I do, so, as promised, I’m going back to Jennifer Lynn Muniz (née Lopez), according to Wikipedia, one of the highest paid actresses in Hollywood. JLo performed a string of concerts here recently and, as noted above, decided to buy a luxury apartment so that she has somewhere nice to stay when fulfilling her wish to ‘spend more time in Istanbul.’ Nothing wrong with that. I can fully understand JLo’s captivation with the city, being myself the owner of a (somewhat less-than-luxury) apartment here.
Still, it’s not that long ago that Ms Lopez held a different view about Turkey. On July 20 2010, she was booked (for a $3 million fee) to perform at the opening of a new hotel in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Less than two weeks before the event, Ms Lopez cancelled her appearance. Her official website carried the following explanation: “Jennifer Lopez would never knowingly support any state, country, institution or regime that was associated with any form of human rights abuse. After a full review of the relevant circumstances in Cyprus, it was the decision of her advisors to withdraw from the appearance. This was a team decision that reflects our sensitivity to the political realities of the region.”
Well, anyone’s entitled to change their mind, of course – or maybe Jennifer decided that she had punished Turkey enough. But all these reports of the rich and famous falling over each other to benefit from the booming Turkish economy reminded me of another tale of that perceptive Sufi sage. Nasrettin Hodja was invited to a feast, and being an unpretentious sort, he strolled along in his everyday Sufi garb. Apparently the hosts were unimpressed and ignored him. Suitably chastened, the hodja went back home and changed into his best outfit, complete with a plush fur robe. On his return, he was welcomed with open arms and given pride of place at the head of the table. As each choice dish was served, the hodja took his cloak by the collar, saying, ‘Eat, my fur cloak, eat!’ His neighbour at the table asked, ‘What’s this, my hodja. Can a fur robe eat?’ To which the hodja replied, ‘What can I do? The host is offering these rich morsels to my fur cloak. I’m warning it now in case it gets angry with me later for eating all the food myself.’