Camel greeting

Sunday, 27 April 2014

The Vero Centre – a Turkey-New Zealand connection in a globalised world

I have to tell you I'm not a big reader of Forbes magazine, nor do I visit their website much. Occasionally I want to check whether Bill Gates is still the richest man in the world or if not, which Mexican, Indian or Russian oligarch has temporarily knocked him off his perch. Maybe someone I know has sneaked into the Top 500 and I can seek to renew an old friendship. Apart from that, I guess my income has never really put me in the bracket for readership or invitations to join the club.

Two NZ poets with a message for the world
 - Glover and Tuwhare
My recent visit was the result of following a link from a New Zealand news site I use to keep up with what's going on down there in the land of my fathers - and also, I confess, because I had been stung by a barb from a friend who suggested I needed to broaden the scope of my reading.

The news item was summarising an analysis of the New Zealand economy by a bright young man calling himself Jesse Colombo (his real name?). The essence of his argument is that NZ's economy has all the hallmarks of a bubble and is likely to burst before too much longer. Commentators in the Land of the Long White Cloud have been quick to make light of Mr Colombo's assessment, but interestingly, they don't seem to disagree with any of his evidence - merely the conclusions he draws.

I used to take a more serious interest in economic conditions in NZ, but since I have been living in Istanbul, my main concern has been the depreciating exchange rate of my Turkish Liras when I have to travel or send money back downunder. This is indeed one of Colombo's points: that the Kiwi dollar is overvalued, not only against the TL, but against all the major world currencies.

Other indicators he discusses are:
  • The financial sector has replaced farming as the largest contributor to the economy;
  • Home mortgages represent an uncomfortably high percentage of bank portfolios. Most of these have floating interest rates – fine while rates are low, but Colombo predicts that they will rise, and soon;
  • NZ has one of the most over-valued property markets in the world;
  • The ratio of household debt to GDP is even worse than the United States;
  • Government debt, which fell steadily through the 1990s and early 2000s, has nearly tripled in the last five years.

Well, it’s many years since I had a mortgage in New Zealand. On the other hand I do try to visit once a year, and I too have long considered the $NZ absurdly over-valued. Not many years ago there was parity with the Turkish Lira – now I need nearly 2 TL to buy 1 $Kiwi.  And although I love my hometown Auckland, I cannot understand how an average house there can possibly be worth the current selling price of $NZ 700,000.

Auckland is not quite the one-horse, one-street town I remember from my youth. These days the CBD is making efforts to extend at least a block east and west of Queen St, and on my last two visits I have strolled up Shortland St (no connection to the long-running TV soap) to a café in the Vero Centre, a 40-floor tower block its website informs me is New Zealand's premier business address.’ This year, with a little time to kill while waiting for the friends I had arranged to meet, I wandered around the lobby with its ‘distinct South Pacific feel . . . a showcase of New Zealand art’.

Probably I should have trod a little more carefully. Centrepiece in the lobby is a 6-7 metre high structure resembling a tyre-less bicycle wheel, the work of one Andrew Drummond, an exponent, so I’m told, of performance art. Well, the wheel does indeed perform, rotating slowly on its axis – or at least it did until I edged alongside it to get a photograph of something on the wall. It was only later that I noticed a line drawn on the floor and a sign advising visitors not to step inside the demarcated zone. I felt grateful that I hadn’t set off an alarm attracting security guards to throw me out into what I understand has aspirations to become Auckland's version of Wall Street.

What I wanted to photograph was a quotation among many by well-known local and international personages covering one of the lobby walls. There it was, in raised brass lettering, Times New Roman font – the much-quoted words of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, founder of modern Turkey, addressed to the mothers of the young lads from the British Empire who had left their mortal remains on the killing fields of Gallipoli so many years ago. I was touched, I can tell you – not merely once again by the magnanimous words of the victorious commander who harboured no resentment against those who had invaded his homeland; but that some influential people in my own country have recognized this significant gesture of goodwill.

On the wall nearby were the words of John Clarke, aka Fred Dagg, reminding us that ‘We [New Zealanders] don’t know how lucky we are.’ Some clearly need reminding, particularly those who were ungratefully throwing eggs and stones at the Prime Minister a few days ago. Clarke was a local comedian popular in the mid-70s for satirizing NZ politicians and way-of-life at a time when the country had been cast off by Mother England and was struggling to find a new place in the real world of post-oil shock economics. From an earlier and arguably more traumatic time came lines from one of the country’s most-quoted poets, Denis Glover:

Tom’s hand was strong to the plough
Elizabeth’s lips were red,
And Quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle
The magpies said.

The refrain is much loved by schoolteachers of English literature as encapsulating a fine example of onomatopoeia. You’d have to say, though, that, by accident or design, the quotation selection panel chose the least significant lines from the poem for their display. I don’t want to read too much into the fact that Vero Insurance is owned by the Suncorp Group, ‘one of the largest financial and insurance operations in Australasia’, having swallowed most of New Zealand’s historical insurance companies.  I will suppress the cynical response that rose within me when I read, in the lobby near the lifts, a list of the building’s tenants, at least twenty-one of which are involved in banking, insurance and finance, and a further nine are law firms.

Wikipedia, however, tells me Suncorp’s Chairman and CEO are two gentlemen with the interesting names of Dr Ziggy Switkowski, and Patrick Snowball. I haven’t got around to checking out Mr Snowball, but Dr Ziggy seems to be a fascinating character, an unusual combination of businessman and nuclear physicist – having been awarded the ‘Advance Australia[1] Award’ in 1995 for ‘outstanding achievement in industry and commerce’.

Prior to his association with Suncorp, Switkowski had been CEO of Optus and later, Telstra, overseeing the full privatization of the telecommunications giant. He apparently generated some controversy in Australia when a Commonwealth Government inquiry, of which he was the chairman, recommended that Australia increase its exports of uranium and also work to develop its own nuclear power industry.

In 2011 he also became a director of Lynas Corporation, a company involved in the mining, in Western Australia, of what are known in the trade as ‘rare earths’. Without getting into too much scientific detail, rare earths are chemical elements with scary names like Dysprosium, Ytterbium and Thulium that are essential ingredients in key modern technologies such as colorants for glasses and enamels, self-cleaning ovens, lasers, PET scan detectors, nuclear batteries and ultra-powerful permanent magnets.

China has long been the world’s major producer and exporter of rare earths, but has recently looked to scale down its operations for economic and environmental reasons. Well, when China starts having environmental concerns about an industry, it is surely time for others to take notice. Despite the fact that Lynas mines its rare earths in Western Australia, it seems they have chosen to set up their processing plant in Malaysia, citing cost benefits. What that generally means, in corporate-speak, is that local labour can be employed for wages far below those acceptable in the home country, in a market where health, safety and environmental protection conditions are considerably less demanding. Local politicians in Pahang province and environmental groups have apparently been protesting against the plant since 2008, and concerns were even raised in an article in the New York Times – in spite of which, LAMP (an innocuous-sounding acronym for the controversial rare earth plant) entered production in 2013.

Denis Glover published his poem ‘The Magpies’ in 1941, when the Second World War was helping to pull New Zealand out of the disastrous economic depression of the 1930s. Glover had a reputation as something of a radical inclining towards anarchic left-wing political views. Apart from the catchy avian sound effects, ‘Magpies’ tells of a young couple, Tom and Elizabeth, who, having worked for years to carve a farm out of the unforgiving bush, lost everything to the bank that foreclosed on their mortgage, though was subsequently unable to find another purchaser willing to take it on. Elizabeth died and Tom went a little ‘light in the head’. . . and the last word belonged to the magpies, whose ‘quardle oodle ardle wardle doodling’ is probably as fitting a comment on today’s financial system as it was 70-odd years ago.

[1] The word ‘fair’ omitted, you’ll notice.

Friday, 25 April 2014

Edward Snowden and Abdullah Gül - Influencing the world!

Amidst the doom, gloom and despondency that seems to fill a large part of the news media's daily output, it is  occasionally reassuring to see some glimmer of hope for a positive future. I was delighted to see that Time magazine has included Edward Snowden among its 'Pioneers' in its latest list of the World's 100 Most Influential People. Also on the list is Abdullah Gül, President of Turkey - though sad to say, not Julian Assange, whom the world seems to have forgotten about. I assume he is still holed out in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London. Time magazine and Rafael Correa - brothers-in-arms in the fight for freedom!?

By Daniel Domscheit-Berg
The renegade in exile
Edward Snowden’s story is one of choices. He is said to be a computer genius, but he has chosen to do what is right rather than what will enrich him, and he has chosen to do what is right rather than what is lawful. Showing a sense of great responsibility, he has exposed a global system of surveillance whose sheer dimensions are unfathomable.

This system threatens the very foundation of individual freedom throughout the world. And it threatens the basis upon which our democracies are built. Cynically, it does so by undermining and exploiting the very tools of communication and sharing that are meant to enable, engage and enrich us.

Snowden has given us a window of opportunity in which to make an informed, self-determined choice about this system. Our responsibility is to make sure it will not be the last choice we make. We must not waste time—for his sake, for ours and for the sake of our children. Our future is at stake.

(Domscheit-Berg, a German technology activist, is a former spokesman for WikiLeaks)

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Beauty and the Beast – An Ottoman fairy tale

‘How much more interesting is this place than Dubai?’ The words were spoken by a tourist holding the door for his wife and teen-aged daughter as they boarded a taxi near the waterfront at Eminönü. Dilek and I had just descended from the terrace of Rustem Pasha Mosque, and the sentence wafted to my ear on a gentle breeze as we strolled towards the Marmaray Metro station for a train that would take us under the Bosporus back to the Asian side of the city.

I didn't hear the reply our anonymous tourist received from his female companions. Possibly stony silence was the best response to an insensitive male unable to comprehend the joys of seven-star hotels and 24/7 duty-free shopping. Certainly Istanbul has no kilometre-high mega-skyscrapers, artificial islands in the shape of the world's major landmasses, fully enclosed climate-controlled football stadiums or multi-million dollar tennis tournaments featuring Federer, Djokovic, Nadal and their globetrotting ATP buddies.

Sinan the architect and Princess Mihrimah
What Istanbul does have is a recorded history of more than two thousand years, evidence of human settlement going back a further 6,500, and a geography that is home to locations featuring in the myths, legends and folk tales of at least four major civilisations. What Istanbul does have is religious and secular structures dating from centuries when the 600-year Ottoman Empire was the major Mediterranean power and terror of Europe. What Istanbul does have is columns, mosaics, statuary and churches from the days when, as Constantinople, it was capital city of the Eastern Roman Empire – first in the latter years of its pagan existence, and later in its Graeco-Christian embodiment. I could go on, but you get the picture. Istanbul is a real place – a multi-cultural city whose geo-political significance stretches back into the dim mists of time immemorial.

Dubai, on the other hand, as Wikipedia informs us, receives no mention in anyone’s records until 1095 CE, and ‘the earliest recorded settlement in the region dates from 1799. Dubai was formally established on June 9, 1833, by Sheikh Maktoum bin Butti Al-Maktoum when he persuaded around 800 members of his tribe of the Bani Yas, living in what was then the Second Saudi State, to follow him to the Dubai Creek by the Abu Falasa clan of the Bani Yas. It remained under the tribe's control when the United Kingdom agreed to protect the Sheikhdom in 1898 (from what, I can't help wondering) and joined the nascent United Arab Emirates upon independence in 1971 as the country's second emirate.’

Maşallah! as Turks say. Good for them! And you have to appreciate what those Bani Yas tribesmen have achieved in the intervening 43 years. As for me, however, I willingly pay a little more for my annual airfares to and from New Zealand to avoid stopping over there. I may be wrong, but it seems to me that those United Arab Emirates represent just about everything that is wrong with the modern (or post-modern) world. And I think that’s what our anonymous English tourist was getting at, whether or not his wife and daughter agreed with him.

But let us retrace our steps just a little. Dilek and I were descending the stairs from the elevated terrace of Rustem Pasha Mosque to the Levantine chaos of Hasırcılar Street – and I want to tell you why.

In fact we were rewarding ourselves for a successful journey to the outer reaches of European Istanbul. Our building has been declared an earthquake risk, and we have had to find alternative accommodation for a year or two while it is demolished and rebuilt. In such a case, the government, God bless them, will pay some compensation for expenses and inconvenience incurred. To lodge your claim however, you must make your way to the one and only office authorised to process it – situated in Küçükçekmece, a little-known and less-visited location some 50-plus km from our new abode. The expedition did at least give us the opportunity to make use of Istanbul’s much-vaunted public transport system, and we rode four Metro lines before taking a 20TL taxi ride for the last stage.

Our reward, then, for finding the office, lodging our claim and getting back to civilisation, was a delicious lunch and a wander around the ancient streets of old Istanbul. Eminönü stands near the mouth of the Golden Horn, a deep inlet of the Bosporus which divides the old city from the ‘newer’ European enclave of Galata/Pera, and provided a second watery defence for the triangular Seraglio Point, site of the Roman, Byzantine and later, Ottoman, capitals. In Ottoman times, Eminönü was the commercial port of the city, and the Egyptian, or Spice Bazaar (built in the 1660s), a bustling outlet for the riches of the Orient.

A modern visitor to the Egyptian Bazaar may emerge from its western gate, lured by the irresistible aroma of freshly roasted beans emanating from the premises of Mehmet Efendi, purveyors of coffee to discerning Istanbul residents since 1871. From here you may force your way (politeness will get you nowhere) through the teaming throngs in Wicker-workers’ Street to a shopping experience unlikely to be met with in any air-conditioned Dubai commercial fantasyland. You may sample the indescribable gourmet delicacies of Namlı Pastırmacısı; purchase balloons, paper hats and other party essentials in wholesale quantities; or pass through a time warp to ironsmith workshops selling knives, axes, billhooks, scythes, forks, ploughshares and other agricultural implements from a bygone age.

After a hundred metres of this you may need a breath of fresh air. Keep an eye out for a dingy timeworn stone staircase on your right. Lay aside Western fears of muggers and rapists lying in wait, ascend two flights through the gloom and you will find yourself in one of the less-frequented gems of Imperial Ottoman Istanbul – the mosque of Rustem Pasha, Grand Vizier of Suleiman the Magnificent, husband of the Sultan’s beloved daughter, the Princess Mihrimah, and one of the richest men in the richest city in the richest and most powerful empire of 16th century Europe, possibly the world.

Rich he may have become, but Rustem was born a simple swine-herding OpukoviĆ in the Croatian town of Skradin. His path to unimaginable wealth and power began when he was whisked away from family and hearth in the grip of the devshirme system, whereby likely young lads from remote regions of the empire were brought to the capital to be educated and trained as future civil and military leaders. Fabulously rich he may have been, but Rustem, it seems, was no fine figure of handsome Ottoman manhood. He did, however, have the major advantage of being held in high esteem by Suleiman, Sovereign of the House of Osman, Sultan of Sultans, Khan of Khans, Emperor of Rome and Successor of the Prophet. In consequence, this ‘squat ugly man’ won the hand of the Sultan’s seventeen-year-old daughter, gaining at the same time, and in true Turkish fashion, the support of her mother, the legendary Roxelana (Hürrem Sultan).

Suleiman, contemporary of English Tudor monarchs Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, is generally considered to have reigned over the Ottoman Empire at the peak of its power and influence. His death, on a military expedition to Hungary in 1566, began the slow decline that concluded, some 350 years later, with defeat and dissolution at the end of the First World War. Many reasons have been offered for this decline – but few focus on the role played by our man Rustem.

One of the strengths (and weaknesses) of Ottoman sultans was the system of royal succession. The imperial harem housed a bevy of fair women at the beck and call of the padishah. The first male offspring produced therein was the natural successor to the throne (Shehzade), and any subsequent boy children born would be quietly strangled, when the time came, to ensure a calm and peaceful transfer of power.

Suleiman, the tenth Ottoman Sultan, was the first to break with tradition and honour his favourite concubine Hürrem (Roxelana) by making her his one and only official wife. Inconveniently, however, one of her harem sisters, Mahidevran (also known as Gülbahar) had already given birth to the senior heir, Mustafa. Needless to say, the favoured royal wife was having none of that, and contrived, with the aid of her son-in-law Rustem, to have the young Mustafa done away with, allegedly by five hitmen whose tongues, as a precaution, had been slit and their eardrums broken so that they would hear, and subsequently speak, no evil.

The way was thereby cleared for Hürrem Sultan’s eldest son Selim to ascend the throne on the death of Suleiman. Sadly for the great empire, he was not half the man his father had been. Sometimes referred to as ‘the Sot’, Selim II, it seems, was a little too partial to drink, and not much inclined to military exploits or affairs of state. Apart from the unflattering epithet, he is best known for presiding over the Ottoman naval defeat at Lepanto, considered by some historians as the turning point in their hitherto successful advance into Europe.

No blame, it seems, was ascribed to Rustem Pasha during his lifetime for his hand in the fateful conspiracy. According to Wikipedia, when he died in 1561 ‘his personal property included 815 lands in Rumelia and Anatolia, 476 mills, 1,700 slaves, 2,900 war horses, 1,106 camels and 800 Qur'ans’. One thing he not have, however, was the love of his wife Mihrimah. Legend has it that the royal princess was beloved of the illustrious architect Sinan. Although thirty years her senior, Sinan outlived Mihrimah and immortalized his vain love for her, if the tales are true, in the construction of two beautiful mosques, one near the city walls at the gate of Edirnekapı and the other on the Asian shore of the Bosporus at Üsküdar.

'Mihrimah' means 'sun and moon' in Persian, a language that made a significant contribution to Ottoman Turkish; and the royal princess is said to have been born on 21 March, the spring equinox. The stories, which I have so far been unable to verify personally, say that Sinan constructed the two mosques in such a way that, as the sun sets behind the single minaret of the one at Edirnekapi, Mihrimah's birthday will be celebrated by the moon rising between the two minarets of the other at Uskudar - a touching and very Turkish tale, given that the great architect carried his unconsummated love to his grave at the age of 98.

Find your way to the Rustem Pasha Mosque
If by chance you ever find yourself in the vicinity of the New Mosque (1660) and the Egyptian Spice Bazaar in district of Eminönü, and you feel you can brave the jostling multitudes in Hasırcılar Street, do climb that stairway and pay a visit to the mosque of that erstwhile Grand Vizier. The building is sheathed inside and out with spectacular glazed tiles from the workshops of Iznik, famed for the colour and beauty of their ceramics. A particular secret guarded by those Iznik craftsmen was production of the colour red, which features prominently in the Rustem Pasha tiles. There are many larger mosques in the Islamic world - probably one or two in Dubai for all I know - but few more beautiful and historically interesting.