Camel greeting

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Rebetika, and Zorba the Turk

‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’ These, I now know, were the actual words (frequently misquoted) of the Spanish-American writer George Santayana. Well, quote or misquote, the message is clear. Sadly, I see this failure of memory all around me. I read an interview the other day with a Turkish artist who, talking of recent political demonstrations in Istanbul and elsewhere, claimed that respect for human rights, women's rights, freedom of expression and freedom of speech had declined in this country in the past ten years. As a close observer of events over the past eighteen years, I was surprised. If he had kept to the issue of the preservation of a green area in Taksim, I could have understood his anger - but to make that claim in a country with such a recent history of military coups, civilian disappearances, torture, suppression of minorities, honour killings, and corruption in government, civil service and football is beyond laughable.

Still, there it is. The guy said it, the female interviewer recorded it, the Western media published it, and their public, for lack of an alternative point of view, or perhaps just because they want to, probably believe it. What is sadder, however, is I imagine that guy, as an artist, had a fairly good education, and a lot of other educated young people in Turkey also seem to believe it.

Well, I have written my last words about the Taksim protests. What I want to talk about here is music, and its power to bring people together, if only we can hear its message. I want to talk about a musical genre whose history and origins, even in its homeland(s), are little known or else misunderstood. The reason, in fact, is not solely attributable to the ignorance of the local people. Rather, it is that the history of these people, over the past two centuries, has been so full of trauma and upheaval that they have willingly chosen to forget, and their governments have actually encouraged this process of forgetting, in the interests of building new nations from the ashes of old. So, first of all, a little historical background.

Zorba the Zeybek? - Watch
The 1964 Hollywood movie, ‘Zorba the Greek’, helped to popularise, at home and abroad, a genre of folk music and dance accompanied by a stringed instrument commonly known as bouzouki. Well, Hollywood is Hollywood, of course – and in our heart of hearts we know we shouldn’t accept as gospel all we see on the silver screen. Nevertheless, in the absence of personal knowledge or experience, we may unintentionally incorporate the celluloid tale into our world-view.

A theme I find myself often returning to is the question of how to define a Turk. I have dealt at some length with the complex fabric of history in this part of the world, into which the Turkish invaders wove themselves after their arrival in the 11th century. I have touched on the intermarriage and intermingling of the Ottoman elite with their Christian and Jewish fellow citizens over the course of their 600-year empire. I have discussed the huge influx of refugees from the Crimea, the Caucasus, the Greek peninsula and the Balkans over a two hundred and fifty year period as neighbouring states gained independence from and/or expanded into Ottoman territory, displacing as they did so, their Muslim neighbours who had lived there for centuries.

Parallel to this theme, I have found myself criticising the modern state of Greece, and its Western supporters for what sometimes seems a deliberate distortion of history. Part of the problem, as I have been at pains to explain, stems from the use in English of one word, ‘Greek’ to refer to three quite distinct historical and even geographical entities: first, the Ancient Greece of Homer, Socrates, Herodotus and Pythagoras; second, the medieval Byzantine Eastern Roman-Greek Empire; and finally, the modern Kingdom/Republic founded, with the help of Great Britain, France and Russia, in 1830.

Our lack of satisfactory English words to distinguish these three entities, coupled with a sometimes deliberate blurring of the distinctions for political purposes, has made for serious misunderstandings that continue to bedevil international affairs, as, for example, in the case of the Cyprus issue. What I overlooked, however, in my sympathy for the plight of the Republic of Turkey, was the fact that, quite understandably, the government and citizens of modern Greece also experience ongoing problems of identity as a direct result of their traumatic history.

I read recently a book entitled ‘Greece, the Hidden Centuries’[1] which described the period from the fall of Constantinople in 1453 to the establishment of the Kingdom of Greece in 1830 – a period of nearly four centuries when Christian Muslim and Jew lived together in an Empire that did not suppress religious, linguistic or cultural identity. In reality, the period of cohabitation extends several centuries before the final conquest of the Byzantine Greek capital. The implications of that time span make nonsense of most attempts to separate ‘Greek’ and ‘Turkish’ cultures.

Another theme running through these posts is the idea that the same historical event may be remembered, described and interpreted in different ways depending on how it impacted on those involved. I have written elsewhere of my surprise at learning that Turks celebrate 18 March as their victory day in the campaign we refer to as Gallipoli, when New Zealanders and Australians remember 25 April as the day we (Anzacs) arrived on the scene.

Turks and Greeks have a similar problem with the event known to historians variously as the Liberation War, the Turkish War of Independence, the Greco-Turkish War or the Asia Minor Catastrophe. For citizens of Turkey, victory in that three-year war opened the door for the establishment of an independent republic. For Greeks, on the other hand, defeat meant the bitter end of their Great Dream - the reincarnation of the once mighty Eastern Orthodox Christian Byzantine Empire centred on the legendary city of Constantinople.

But that's not all. Military retreat from Asia Minor in 1922 was a huge reality check for the Greeks who had begun their campaign with encouragement from the European powers victorious in the First World War. Subsequently, seeing the writing of Turkish nationalist victory on the wall, Britain, France and the others abandoned the Greek cause and left their little neo-classical brothers to their fate. That fate they still remember as the Asia Minor Disaster, when up to 1.5 million people identified as Christians were uprooted from their ancestral homes and shipped across the sea to be resettled in mainland Greece. Who were these people?

Sea-faring tribes speaking a language we think of as Ancient Greek spread around the Aegean and Black Seas from the early centuries of the First Millennium BCE, settling on the islands and the mainland coasts. Sometimes conquering and sometimes forming neighbourly relations with the local peoples, they developed cultures classicists know as Hellenic, Aeolian, Ionian and Dorian, which non-academics tend to unite under the blanket term ‘Greek’. This culture is characterised by distinctive features of literature, architecture, sculpture, food and music which, of necessity, incorporated earlier local elements.

Their literature tells us of struggles against their powerful neighbours, the Persians, and the triumphs of the Great Hellenic hero, Alexander, in the pre-Christian millennium. Less well-publicised was their forced incorporation into the classical Roman Empire in 146 BCE. Their history re-emerges somewhat murkily into European consciousness after the adoption of Christianity as that empire's state religion, and the subsequent fall of the city of Rome, leaving Constantinople as capital of a now Christian, largely Greek-speaking Eastern Roman Empire.

Aman aman - click to listen
It also brings us, after a lengthy but necessary introduction, to real subject of this post: the musical genre known as rebetika. When the Greek army entered Anatolia in May 1919, they were welcomed as liberators by the predominantly Greek Orthodox Christian inhabitants. When, three years later, the Turkish nationalist forces drove out the invading army, the position of those Christian citizens of the Ottoman Empire, now perceived as traitors, was clearly untenable. I have not the time or space here to examine the claims and counter claims of property destruction and human atrocities that took place in these years. Suffice it to say that an exchange of populations took place, whereby Christians from Anatolia (Asia Minor) went to mainland Greece, and vice versa Muslims from the other side of the Aegean.

Those Christians, numbering, it is generally agreed, around 1.5 million, arrived in a poor country with a total population of around seven million. Many of them were educated middle class people with a good standard of living who know found themselves homeless, jobless and destitute. They brought with them little besides the cultural identity forged by twenty-five centuries in Asia, the last six of them, side by side with Muslims of Turkish ancestry.

The musical genre that flourished in the sub-culture inhabited by these ‘Asiatic’ Greeks is known as rebetika, and attained its peak of artistic expression in the 1930s. It has been called the ‘Greek Blues’ – not because of any similarity of sound, but because it was the musical expression of the soul of a dispossessed people. Performers and audiences were alienated from mainstream society by their poverty and foreign identity, their association with crime and prisons, with drug use and alcohol, and with disreputable bars and cafes.

The very word rebetika is problematic, and has spawned its own academic field of study, rebetology. One problem for the layperson is the alternative form rembetika. This has come about in typical English fashion, whereby scholars or other intellectuals employ peculiar features of spelling in an attempt to represent the derivation of a word. Words of Greek origin suffer particularly from this affectation, as in the use of the letter ‘c’ to represent the Greek letter kappa, and ‘ph’ to represent Φ (F). The Greek letter that looks like a B is actually pronounced as V. The B sound is represented in Greek by the digraph ‘MP’. Well, scholars love to show off their knowledge, so in goes the M to the English word. Unfortunately, P is P in both languages, so with a patronising nod to actual pronunciation, B was substituted. Stick with rebetika, and you'll be fine.

Then there is the Greekness of the music, which, according to Hollywood's Zorba, is essential and fundamental. However, in the light of the history outlined above, we will be not at all surprised to find the same songs being sung on the eastern coast of the Aegean, and clearly not because they were imported from Greece. Again, unsurprisingly, Zorba's famous dance and some key vocabulary associated with Rebetika music, reflect the genre's Anatolian origins - though the use of Greek or English versions of Ottoman place names in the literature tends to mask this. The folk dance known as hasapiko is said to have originated in Constantinople (Istanbul); zeybekiko and tsifteteli are clearly derived from Turkish words. The zeybeks were irregular militia of nomadic yörük origins with a kind of Robin Hood reputation for protecting poor villagers from rapacious landlords. Their charactistic male dance is well known in Turkey, as is the çiftetelli, a chain of dancers, often performed at weddings and other social celebrations.

One source I read claimed that the bouzouki was unknown in Asia Minor - but a more credible writer gave the origin of the word as the Turkish bozuk, which was apparently applied to a kind of tuning. Certainly the bağlama is everywhere seen and heard in Turkey, and its origin has been traced to ancient Mesopotamia. A feature of Rebetika is the taksim, a kind of improvised solo often introducing the song and setting the mood, as well as demonstrating the virtuosity of the musician. That source above stated that the word comes from Arabic, which it may well do - but it is nevertheless used in Turkish, and undoubtedly came to Greece with those Anatolian refugees.

Well, this is not a competition. It doesn't really matter whether you call those small cups of strong coffee with the annoying centimetre of sediment, Turkish or Greek. Gyros or döner kebap, they both taste good in a sandwich. The simple fact is that people who live as neighbours and intermarry for centuries will inevitably share aspects of their separate cultures, taking and giving until whose is what and what is whose will be lost in the mists of time.

Unfortunately for the majority who just want to live their lives, raise their children and wash down their gyros with a Turkish coffee, history, like religion, can become a political football. Politicians and other seekers after power love using ‘-isms’ to divide and rule, to unite their supporters and manufacture an enemy.

The concept of nationalism that blossomed in Europe from the romantic movement of the late 18th century began as a search for cultural roots lost in the modernisation and urbanisation of the agrarian and industrial revolutions. It was quickly seized on, however, by political leaders, to unite and divide. The Ottoman Empire, consisting as it did, of diverse religious and cultural groups, and occupying territory coveted by rival empires, was particularly vulnerable.

It's hard to lose an empire. Ask the Brits. When you've once ruled an empire on which the sun never set, it's not easy to adjust to being the world's sixth largest economy and a relatively minor player on the stage of international affairs. You can't help hoping the good times will come again. For the Greeks, the loss of their imperial capital Constantinople and their subservience to the Ottomans were wounds that never healed. As Ottoman power declined and powerful 'friends' in Europe encouraged them to imagine that their former lands could be recovered, it was all too easy to believe.

The Asia Minor Disaster was brought about by the manipulation of European powers for their own political and economic ends. Greeks were encouraged in a highly questionable enterprise, and left in the lurch when the project went sour. Sadly, albeit understandably, the Greeks subsequently focused their anger and frustration on their Turkish neighbours rather than on the foreign powers who should by rights shoulder the blame. If you want to read more about rebetika music, I can recommend two articles, Rebetika: An Historical Introduction and Rebetika, A Brief History. They do, however, contain certain statements that contribute to misunderstanding about the historical background. Muslims were expelled from Greece, the first writer says, mainly because the Greek government needed land and homes in which to settle the refugees’, suggesting that the process was begun by the Turks. The second writer goes a stage further. Greek-speaking Turks from the present entity of Greece were shipped en masse to Turkey, and Greeks from what is now Turkey were shipped to Greece (many of them in the face of murder, rape and torture at the hands of the Turks, intent on repeating their massacre of the Armenians).’ The Greeks, we are to understand, were innocent angels in the business. Are we also to assume that the atrocities they committed against each other in their own civil war of the late 1940s they had learnt from Turks?

History and music have lessons to teach us, if we approach both with an open mind. Name-calling and finger-pointing, on the other hand, produce little but misunderstanding and hatred. Listen to the sad voices of rebetika. Try to bridge the gulf and heal the wounds.

[1] Greece, the Hidden Centuries, David Brewer, (IB Tauris, 2012)

Saturday, 15 June 2013

BBC Interviews Turkish Citizens about Protests

In Turkey tens of thousands of people have taken an active part in protests, voicing their anger at what they see as the increasingly authoritarian government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
But he won a landslide at the last election and still has high levels of support across the country.
This weekend there are expected to be big rallies backing the prime minister.
Here, some of his supporters give their views on the current crisis. Read more . .

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Artists, Protesters and Bare Naked Ladies

Perhaps surprisingly, and contrary to what some people inside and outside Turkey would have you believe, local newspapers and TV channels here are full of reports and comments criticising the government of Tayyip Erdoğan for its handling of the Taksim Square protests and pretty much everything else, from the actions of a 16th century Ottoman sultan, to the civil war in neighbouring Syria. Maybe the writers are being secretly thrown into prison, but you’d think their families might have got the news out somehow. My Turkish colleagues at work are all alternately crying and laughing over Youtube, Facebook and other social media postings, none of which have been closed down by the government. Still, Western media seem convinced that Turkey’s oppressed citizenry are rising against an autocratic dictator, along the lines of Egypt’s Mubarak, Libya’s Gaddafi and Syria’s Assad. I’d like to comment on two of these articles.

The first is an interview, entitled 'Turkish Artists Respond to the Wave of Protests Rocking their Country' which appeared in an online artmag Blouin Artinfo (thanks Margie). The italicised lines are direct quotes. My comments follow.

Taner Ceylan and his fellow artists are supporting the democratic protests against unwarranted police violence. What makes them especially democratic rather than just ordinary protests, I wonder?

“The result of the last ten years has been a lack of respect for human rights, women’s rights, freedom of expression, and freedom of speech,” Taner explained. I have seen no evidence of this. On the contrary, I would say all these areas have seen considerable improvement in the last ten years. Generals and other military officers who presided over coups, killings and torture in the past have been brought to trial. Another group who were planning a coup to oust Erdoğan’s democratically elected government were caught and put on trial. It is now possible to discuss openly issues surrounding Kurds, Alevis and other minority ethnic and religious groups in a way that was forbidden when I first came to Turkey in the 1990s.

He [Ceylan] mentioned the disproportionate number of journalists currently imprisoned in Turkey. I keep hearing this. Journalists is an emotive word in this context. The Turkish mainstream media seem to publish criticism of the government with impunity as far as I can see – though there are issues where you need to be careful. Turks don’t like people slanging off MK Atatürk, the founder of the republic, or siding too publicly with expatriate Armenian pressure groups, for example. Incidentally, PM Erdoğan himself, while serving as mayor of Istanbul, spent four months in prison in 1999 after the parliamentary Islamic party, of which he was a member, was banned by Turkey’s Constitutional Court, and he spoke out about it.

Upper section of a Taner Ceylan painting.
No prizes for guessing what the lower section shows.
He said he and other artists had received death threats as a result of the content of his work in recent years. Well, you can’t really blame the government for that. I received a death threat once myself, as a teacher back in New Zealand. There are crazy people around in every country, I guess. Still, if you deliberately set out, as an artist, to challenge people’s religious beliefs, you can’t reasonably be shocked if you get the occasional extreme reaction. One of Taner Bey’s paintings features a veiled Ottoman lady juxtaposed with the work of French artist Gustav Courbet known as L’Origine du Monde. The interviewer coyly and somewhat euphemistically describes the female figure in Courbet’s picture as naked from the waist down. She certainly is! And no doubt Ceylan’s painting would upset some people – but I have to assume that was the point of the exercise in the first place.

“Cultural centers are being closed and censored,” he added. “Big projects, such as mosques and bridges, are being realized without asking citizens for input.” Ceylan said the government’s decision to replace a park in Taksim Square with a replica of an Ottoman-era army barracks was a breaking point for many citizens. In fact I see new cultural centres springing up everywhere, along with commercial and residential skyscrapers, shopping malls and, yes, mosques. There is a huge building boom going on all over Turkey, not just in Istanbul. In addition, there are major public transport projects completed, under construction or planned, aimed at relieving Istanbul’s and Turkey’s notorious traffic problems. The vast majority of ‘citizens’, I believe, are happy with these. Central and local governments have been building, and are continuing to build,  parks and recreation areas on a phenomenal scale, providing free open-air fitness centres, cycle and running tracks, picnic areas and sports facilities which are enormously popular. Should every project, public and private, be opened for public debate? It seems to me there is unrestricted opportunity for groups or individuals to express their opinions – the Marmaray underground project, for example, is years behind schedule because of the need to allow archaeologists access to the excavations. See my previous post for a picture of the Ottoman army barracks and a comment on the plans for Taksim Square.

The whole affair represents the way in which the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has slowly strangled all opposition while making sure to remain within democratic lines. Sounds impressive until you try to figure out exactly what the sentence means.  As I often say, Turkey’s biggest problem is the lack of a credible and effective opposition party to provide a legitimate voice for protest and alternative proposals, without which a democracy cannot properly function. Once again, however, it’s a little unfair to blame the democratically elected government for that. Should they start up a puppet alternative party as Atatürk himself did once or twice in his day? You’d think it was really the responsibility of responsible, democratically minded citizens to do that for themselves, given that, as far as I am aware, there is no prohibition on doing so.

The second article I would like to comment on was published the other day in Foreign Policy Online, entitled How Democratic Is Turkey?

Under the AKP and the charismatic Erdogan, unprecedented numbers of Turks have become politically mobilized and prosperous -- the Turkish economy tripled in size from 2002 to 2011, and 87 percent of Turks voted in the most recent parliamentary elections, compared with 79 percent in the 2002 election that brought the AKP to power.  Well, yes. So what seems to be the problem?

Yet this mobilization has not come with a concomitant ability to contest politics. OK, I see. But whose fault is that? See above.

Replying to criticism, Spokesmen and apologists for the AKP offer a variety of explanations . . . from "it's the law" and the "context is missing," to "it's purely fabricated." These excuses falter under scrutiny and reveal the AKP's simplistic view of democracy.  They also look and sound much like the self-serving justifications that deposed Arab potentates once used to narrow the political field and institutionalize the power of their parties and families. Once again, it sounds good, but what does it actually mean? Why don’t AKP’s opponents get their act together and organise a party capable of providing Turks with a genuine alternative in parliamentary elections? There are plenty of issues of vital interest to citizens that such a party could address. And what, pray, is the relevance of deposed Arab potentates to a popularly elected and successful political party?

Turkey's new alcohol law, which among other things sets restrictions on alcohol sales after 10 p.m., curtails advertising, and bans new liquor licenses from establishments near mosques and schools, is another example of the AKP's majoritarian turn. I don’t know about your country, but New Zealand certainly has restrictions on alcohol advertising in newspapers and cinemas, and the sale of alcohol in stores late at night. I seem to recall some restrictions in the UK on selling alcohol on Sundays – no problem buying it from supermarkets etc on Fridays (or Sundays) in Turkey. There are certainly restrictions on the consumption of alcohol at large public gatherings in NZ and Australia. In Turkey there have always been limits on licensed premises near mosques – and why not, one might think? Schools too, for that matter. Majori-what? Is that even a word? If so, what does it mean? Maybe the writer would prefer minoritarian rule, as Turkey mostly had in the past.

Over the last decade the AKP has built an informal, powerful, coalition of party-affiliated businessmen and media outlets whose livelihoods depend on the political order that Erdogan is constructing. Those who resist do so at their own risk. Resist what? At the risk of what? Tell me Republicans don’t have such an informal coalition in the US, the Conservatives in the UK, and the National Party in New Zealand. It seems to me the AKP would be mad if they didn’t try to get business interests on their side. And if they didn’t, it’s very likely those interests would tend to coalesce of their own accord around a government as successful as this one (see the statistics above). Besides, I have seen no evidence of anything in Turkey resembling Silvio Berlusconi’s media empire in Italy, for example.

Turkey has essentially become a one-party state. In this the AKP has received help from Turkey's insipid opposition, which wallows in Turkey's lost insularity and mourns the passing of the hard-line Kemalist elite that had no particular commitment to democracy. Well, I think I dealt with this one earlier. However, I would go further, and say that, if Turkey has become a one-party state (whatever essentially means) the blame can be laid almost entirely at the door of the opposition Republican People’s Party and that hard-line Kemalist elite who ruled the country with insipid coalitions and military support before the appearance of AKP on the political scene in 2001.

The AKP and Prime Minister Erdogan might have been elected with an increasing share of the popular vote over the last decade, but the government's actions increasingly make it seem as if Turkish democracy does not extend farther than the voting booth. What can you say to that? What percentage of eligible voters turn out for elections in the United States? And ask the ‘99%’ who occupied the parks last year what they think about post-ballot box democracy.

By the way, for a shorter and more balanced piece in the same online magazine, click here.

Monday, 3 June 2013

Days of Rage - in Turkey

I get angry sometimes. I try not to, but occasionally I can't help it. It's a natural human emotion. Mostly I get angry about things I can't control - which is stupid, I know, but again, I think, quite normal. I hate it when I see people in power abusing their positions of responsibility. I get angry when I see the powerful oppressing and exploiting the weak. I feel frustrated when I see weak people kowtowing to those in authority in order to advance their own careers.

Years ago in New Zealand I stood as a candidate for parliament. I tried to work through the system to bring about meaningful economic and social change for the benefit of the country. I saw close up the dirty tricks of the wealthy elite determined to hold on to power no matter the cost. I saw smear campaigns, electoral gerrymandering and control of the media. I saw the government of the day deliberately stir up an issue which polarised the nation and provoked violent street demonstrations leading to a crackdown by the forces of law and order. The result infuriated me. If I hadn't had a wife, three young children and a mortgage, I might have been tempted to violence myself.  Gradually the fury gave way to sadness, and eventually to resignation.

Well, donkeys live a long time, as a former colleague used to observe (thanks Alan). On Sunday morning I took my bicycle over to Taksim, the main centre of Istanbul's entertainment industry, five-star hotels and foreign diplomats. My plan had been to take part in a ride across the Bosporus Bridge, organised by environmentalist groups. I knew it would be cancelled, but I went anyway. Partly I was psyched up for a good bike ride, and partly I was curious. I wanted to see for myself the situation in the square after the previous day's demonstrations.

Demolished buses by Taksim Square
Taksim Square and the surrounding streets looked a little like the pictures we saw from the recent tornado in Oklahoma: footpaths torn up, bricks and stones lying thick all around; makeshift barricades, shells of buses, overturned cars and minibuses, burnt out police vehicles, everywhere graffiti (much of it obscene), bottles, beer cans, vast quantities of rubbish, and one or two small bands of determined protesters – a few supporters of the Kurdish BDP, a larger group of Marxist Leninists around the flag-draped Statue of the Republic in the centre of the square, homeless sleeping off the excitement or sitting around fires still burning in the disputed park.

I saw a couple of young students picking up rubbish around the statue, and I joined them with plastic bags purchased from a nearby supermarket. In the store, my eyes and throat were burning from traces of the pepper spray or tear gas employed by police the night before. As I filled my bags with the detritus of democracy, I was approached by a young man who identified himself as a reporter from 'Foreign Policy'. I guess he was happy to find someone he could interview in English. ‘Do you think Turkey has become increasingly polarized?’ he asked.  ‘Do you think this event has united all the disparate opposition groups in Turkey?’ No, and no again - and I'll tell you why.

Cleaning up after the party
Since I came to Turkey, in fact, pretty much since the beginning of the Republic, Taksim Square has been off-limits for large political gatherings. Apparently there was a brief experiment in the mid-1970s. On 1 May 1977 there was a huge gathering known to history as the Taksim Square Massacre. Forty people were killed and 120 badly injured. Some, including the Leader of the Opposition, Bülent Ecevit, claimed links to the undercover Gladio organisation. Prime Minister at the time was Süleyman Demirel, later removed from office by the military takeover of 1980. He remained, or perhaps became, a staunch Kemalist and republican, returning to office in 1991, before resigning in 1993 in favour of his protégé, Turkey’s first woman PM. In gratitude, Tansu Çiller had him appointed to the Presidency, a role he filled for the next seven years.

In 2009, the Turkey’s AK Party government made 1 May an official holiday. However, there was anger in some circles this year when they refused to allow a commemoration of the 1977 incident to be held in the square. Good call or bad? Who knows? A government may not feel that large political demonstrations under the noses of well-heeled foreign tourists are good for the country’s image.

To be fair, the AKP government has achieved much since taking office in 2003. They curbed Turkey’s banana republic hyperinflation and have presided over a period of unprecedented economic growth, evidenced by a rapid increase in the proportion of citizens in the middle classes. They have provided the longest period of political stability Turkey has seen since free elections began. They kept the country out of the Iraq invasion while staying friends with the USA, and more recently have applied some much-needed pressure to the Israeli government over its intransigent attitude to the Palestinian question. Internally, they have opened up discussions addressing the country’s problems with its large Kurdish and Alevi minorities. They have maintained interest in European Union membership while making it clear that Turkey is not desperate to join. I could go on, but you get the picture.

Getting back to the build up of rage. Turkey’s (Istanbul’s) secular Kemalist elite have had things their own way pretty much since Day One of the modern Republic. Atatürk himself managed fifteen years as President without troubling himself to hold an election. His successor, Ismet İnönü held two – the first in 1946, more for show than anything else – the second, in 1950 leading to the election of a new governing party, the Democrats, and Turkey’s first popularly elected Prime Minister, Adnan Menderes.

Saying unkind words
about the Prime minister
There was a bit of a roller-coaster ride in the country’s politics for the next fifty years. Menderes himself was ousted by a military coup in 1960 and subsequently hanged along with two of his ministers. Elected governments were again removed by direct military intervention in 1970 and 1980; and once less violently when the generals had a quiet word in PM Necmettin Erbakan’s ear in 1997, following which he quietly left of his own accord.

One of PM Erdoğan’s more controversial achievements in his ten-year stewardship has been the trial in civilian courts of senior military personnel accused of plotting another coup to remove him – and overseeing amendments to the constitution allowing the courts to try officers involved in the brutal 1980 coup. Undoubtedly Tayyip Bey has made a few powerful enemies.

Again, from pretty much the first day of taking office, Erdoğan upset the secular Kemalists by appearing in public with his headscarved wife Emine Hanım. A good number of his ministers committed the same offence, arousing the fury of the Istanbul urban elite. To make matters worse, his government lifted the ban on the wearing of headscarves by female university students. Tayyip Erdoğan is a devout, practising Muslim – a fact which, in a country where ninety-nine percent of the population are of that faith, certainly helped him to become the first Turkish PM in living memory to lead a government with a parliamentary majority.

Ironically, their parliamentary ascendancy is perhaps one of AKP’s major disadvantages. Turkey’s biggest problem in the last ten years has been the lack of a credible parliamentary opposition. Underlining the dearth of ideas in the secular urban elite camp, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) returned from the political wilderness in 1992 (whither it had been sent by the generals after the 1980 coup). With little going for them other than their claim to be the direct descendants of Atatürk’s very own party, they became the second-largest group in parliament after the 2002 elections. Since then they have distinguished themselves by saying ‘NO’ to pretty much everything proposed by the government, and doing their best to stir up popular unrest, while, at the same time, failing to come up with a single positive idea of their own.
This is just the beginning, it says

Predictably, this seems to have led to a growing arrogance by the Prime Minister and his party. As English politician and historian Lord Acton famously said, ‘Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’ No doubt this arrogance has been encouraged by the fact that Turks actually like (and perhaps need) a strongman. Nevertheless, the number of Turks getting p---d off with the government has undoubtedly been increased by a feeling that self-righteous religiosity has begun to replace reasoned public debate.

Who would ever have thought that Turks could be stopped from smoking a cigarette whenever and wherever they chose? Now smokers are under threat of extinction and, even as a non-smoker, I am starting to feel sympathy for them. While I agree that smokers, alcohol-drinkers and drivers of huge SUVs should contribute to the environmental and health costs associated with their addictions, it does seem unfair that Turks, with an average income at the lower end of the OECD spectrum, should have to pay the highest petrol prices in the world. A little study of US history would show that banning alcohol will inevitably have undesirable social consequences – and driving prices sky-high with exorbitant taxation will stimulate a black-market whose main beneficiaries will be organized crime syndicates and political dissidents.

Personally I have no problem with the building of two or three symbolic mosques in high profile locations on the Asian side of Istanbul – but I’m not happy to be woken every morning before sunrise by five minutes or more of highly amplified Arabic chant summoning to prayer a public, large numbers of whom intend exercising their democratic right not to go.

Artillery barracks demolished
in 1940 - to be reincarnated
as a shopping centre,
museum, arts centre . . .
However, I apologise for straying from the main point of this post, which was, I admit, to address the matter of the protests in Istanbul’s Taksim Square and in dozens of other cities around Atatürk’s Republic. Ostensibly, the protests were triggered by the plan to rebuild an Ottoman military barracks on a not-very-large park adjacent to the iconic meeting place. Now if you know Istanbul you will be aware that Taksim Square is a singularly stark and barren concrete space whose most interesting feature is a large sculpture representing Mustafa Kemal Atatürk himself. On one side is the 1960s soviet-style Atatürk Culture Centre, adjacent to another relic of the tasteless 60s, a 20-storey hotel from the glass-box school of architecture, thankfully known as the Marmara. Opposite the culture centre is a windowless brick structure that I think is a reservoir, and on the fourth side a kind of bus terminal behind which, and largely invisible unless you are in it, a small park generally occupied by homeless individuals and itinerant alcoholics. In the middle of the square is a large island where you can access a major line of the city’s underground Metro system – if you can reach it, given that the island is isolated by a circular speedway around which hurtles an unbroken torrent of buses, yellow taxis, minibuses and private cars.

As far as I can understand it, the plan was to divert traffic underground and turn the whole area into a vehicle-free zone which would then be landscaped. The bus terminal and little-used park area would be redeveloped by building a replica of the architecturally striking 19th century artillery barracks demolished in 1940. The intention was to utilize the rebuilt structure as hotel accommodation, shopping, a museum, cultural centre, whatever. Not such a bad thing, you might think.

The problem seems to be that the cutting of trees in the park became a focus for the pent-up rage that has clearly been building up in Istanbul and other Turkish cities for several years. To return to the questions posed by Justin, the reporter from ‘Foreign Policy’: ‘Has Turkish society become polarised in recent years? And has this event united the political opposition? In the sense that opposition to the present government has brought together a host of unlikely bed-mates, from residents of Istanbul’s plushest districts to the most radical of communist ideologues, yes. But if you are asking whether this ‘unity’ will translate into anything resembling a credible political party with a serious alternative political agenda, I fear not. As the 16th century Protestant reformer, Martin Luther said, 'The mad mob does not ask how it could be better, only that it be different. And when it then becomes worse, it must change again. Thus they get bees for flies, and at last hornets for bees.'

Nevertheless, citizens of Turkey have ample grounds for dissatisfaction. Workplace rights, conditions, wages and salaries are substandard, especially in the private sector where collective bargaining is a no-no. The education system is in a sad state with little chance of fulfilling Atatürk's dream of producing a modern educated populace. There is an appalling gulf between the extremes of rich and poor. I am currently reading 'The Histories' of Herodotus, and I came across a delightful solution for this last problem: The Egyptian Pharaoh ‘Amasis,’ he says, ‘established an admirable custom which Solon borrowed and introduced at Athens . . . this was that every man once a year should declare before the provincial governor, the source of his livelihood; failure to do this, or inability to prove that the source was an honest one, was punishable by death.’

On the other hand, conditions for the majority in Turkey have improved out of sight since I first came to the country. What worries me now, in fact scares me would be a better word, is that the country may descend into a chaos from which only another period of martial law will save it. Sadly, I also fear that there are forces outside of Turkey who would welcome that, and have been working behind the scenes to make it happen.