Camel greeting

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Queuing for One Scoop of Food

The following brief article appeared in our local Turkish newspaper today. I couldn’t find it in Hürriyet's English edition, so I’m supplying a translation:

Izmir’s Basmane  neighbourhood has long been a sanctuary for fugitives from countries like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Somalia seeking refuge from civil war. They have now been joined by Syrians hoping to escape from poverty in their own land.

Living in unsanitary conditions, the only hope for these Syrians desperate to put food in their stomachs is aid from humanitarian organisations operating in the area. Women with children, and men, wait in separate lines with empty yoghurt containers for the arrival, every day at 12.00, of a minibus with İnsan Der[1] written on the side. Every day the numbers of people waiting for food increases and the amount available for each is less. The food distributed with a little bread is their sole hope of sustenance. Families of five or six return home with one ladleful of food and a portion of bread.

[1] A voluntary group offering food, clothing, education opportunities to destitute people

Monday, 16 June 2014

YouTube’s back in Turkey!

Well, I’m not a big YouTube user – to my shame I have never actually uploaded any video content – but I did miss it while it was unavailable. It had happened once before, some years ago, and a younger, more technologically savvy colleague gave me directions to a site that was able to bypass the blockage. As one might have expected, the government was on to that this time around, so the bypass no longer worked. Still, I’m guessing the younger generation in Turkey weren’t unduly disturbed by the ban, except as a matter of democratic principle.

Anyway, I’m delighted to see YouTube up and running again. It’s a marvellous resource, and a further indication of how the Internet and social media have changed our lives in ways that we could scarcely have imagined in that distant 20th century.

The blocking of YouTube (and, I understand, Twitter, though to my greater shame, I haven’t got into that at all) did, however, get me thinking about larger issues to do with social media, the Internet and the big question of censorship.

Much was made in Western news media of the role played by social media in events collectively referred to as The Arab Spring that began in Tunisia in December 2010 and spread rapidly to Egypt, Libya, Syria, Bahrain, Yemen and other Islamic states. The anarchy of the Internet was credited with empowering a switched-on younger generation to achieve greater political awareness and organize themselves in numbers sufficient to overthrow despotic regimes.

Sad to say, a return to military rule in Egypt and the disastrous ongoing civil war in Syria have taken the gloss somewhat off that brave new vernal world of ‘liberty’ and ‘equality’ – and as for ‘brotherhood’, that seems to have become a dirty word rendering further analysis unnecessary. Those much-vaunted social media, it seems, have their limitations when it comes to producing meaningful long-term political change.

Nevertheless, it’s disturbing when governments use their powers to censor our activities. We have come to depend on the Internet and social media so much in our daily lives that it’s hard to imagine a time when people lived in relative contentment without them. It was natural for people in Turkey to feel angry when their government blocked access to YouTube and Twitter. Some are also complaining that the same government is taking measures to control the sale and consumption of alcohol in public places, and to limit the display of naked female flesh on roadside advertising.

Now I have to tell you, I have mixed feelings about these issues. I confess I enjoy the occasional tipple of fermented and even spirituous liquors for relaxation and social purposes. I can appreciate the sight of a well-turned ankle as much as the next red-blooded male. On the other hand, I am well aware that my own homeland, New Zealand, and our near neighbor, Australia, not renowned either of them for alcoholic moderation, impose quite tight restrictions on the sale and consumption of such beverages. As an example, in Melbourne a couple of years ago, I went to Federation Square with my daughter and her partner to watch Australian Open tennis on the giant screen. One would expect a typical Aussie to enjoy a frosty VB or Fosters on such an occasion – but eagle-eyed private security boys were circulating to ensure that they did not.

I can also say that, despite the importance given to eye-catching advertising in subways and other public places in Auckland, Sydney, London and New York, I don’t recall seeing large-size posters of fetching young lasses clad in skimpy underwear or bikinis, of the kind that are commonplace on the streets of Istanbul. Not sure if there’s a law against it – it just doesn’t seem to be the done thing.

Which brings me to the question of censorship – and I have to tell you, I’m against it, as a matter of principle, as, I suspect, are most modern, broad-minded, right-thinking adults in Western societies. At the same time, I can understand why some people feel there should be some control over the dissemination of child pornography, and material depicting actual physical abuse. I have some sympathy for the argument that says children under a certain age should not be exposed to visual material deemed to be ‘adult’ in nature. Google and YouTube actually include such restrictions as part of company policy.

So we have a paradoxical situation here: a conflict between theory and practice which is not easy to resolve. If we accept that some measure of censorship is socially desirable, the question shifts to one of where we will draw the line – and who will have authority to draw it. Again, few of us have confidence in the willingness of private enterprise to regulate its own activities, so in the end, most of us would reluctantly accept that governments have a necessary role to play.

But now, of course, we have given a dangerous power to politicians who, as we suspect, are not always driven by an altruistic concern for the welfare of their people. In the end, those of us fortunate enough to live in democracies have the power of the ballot box where we can call elected governments to account. Between elections, we have the responsibility of participating in the democratic process by joining pressure groups, working for social change though NGOs, even taking to the streets in protest.

I have written elsewhere on the complex nature of democracy. Most writers on the subject agree that there is a continuum from one extreme of absolute slavery to the other of absolute individual freedom – and most countries lie somewhere on the line between. In fact there may even be several components of democracy, such as press freedom, representative electoral systems, separation of church and state, limitations on corporate power, for example, and countries may be ahead in some while lagging behind in others.

The United States and Europe, for example, place, as far as I am aware, no restrictions on the use of social media such as Twitter and YouTube, and some of their political leaders have been outspoken in their criticism of the Turkish Government for doing so.

On the other hand, they seem to see no contradiction between their position on this matter, and what some might see as a greater danger – their willingness to persecute individuals who use the power of the Internet to question the activities of governments and corporations. I’m thinking here of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange – still, as far as I know, holed up in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, threatened with deportation if he emerges; Edward Snowden, epic whistleblower stripped of his US passport and similarly unable to leave Russia; Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning, sentenced to 35 years in prison for leaking information many of us think we had a right, even a need, to know. I wouldn’t put New Zealand’s very own Kim Dotcom in the same league as those guys, but nevertheless, I appreciate the light he is shining on the shenanigans of politicians downunder.

What is important, in my opinion, is the responsibility we all have to speak out against corruption and injustice wherever we see it, although doing so will not necessarily win us friends and public acclaim. Our voice of protest, however, will possess greater credibility if we nail our colours to the mast, rather than maintain a safe electronic distance via social media on the Internet. For me, the greatest figures of history are those who were willing to sacrifice personal comfort, even life itself, to achieve a greater social goal:

Not everyone will thank you
for wanting to change the world
Mahatma Gandhi in India, whose 32-year struggle brought no personal wealth, ending in his own assassination – but resulted in independence for his people.

Jesus of Nazareth, who challenged the establishment of his time in unacceptable ways, knowing that they would kill him for it in a most unpleasant way.

Even Turkey’s own Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Despite widespread public adulation, he assuredly faced opposition from vested interests in his own lifetime – and denied himself the important Turkish dreams of family and dynastic succession for the greater goal of building a nation.

And to be fair, that’s why I don’t rank Mr ‘Megaupload’ Dotcom with that other triumvirate of Internet heroes. I’m not convinced there is quite the same spirit of self-sacrifice underlying his actions.

Well, YouTube is back, and I’m happy. I would, however, make a plea to armchair political activists wishing to bring down the Turkish Government. By all means express your views, but at the same time show a little consideration for your fellow citizens who enjoy using Facebook, Twitter and YouTube for less controversial purposes.

Friday, 13 June 2014

Positive Signs for Turkey’s Economy

‘Turkey Plunges Down in Ultra-Rich Ranks Amid Growing Global Wealth’

The headline introduced an article I came across in the English version of our local newspaper Hürriyet:

‘With the number of millionaire households in Turkey remaining at around 22,000, showing no significant change from the previous year, Turkey dropped three places in the global rank to 42nd[1], according to the BCG study, “Riding a Wave of Growth: Global Wealth 2014.”

‘Turkey is also left out of the top 10 countries with the highest number of ultra-net-high-worth households, (households that have private financial wealth of more than $100 million), retreating from 9th to 12th place.

‘While there were 357 people worth more than $100 million in 2012, this number fell to 288 in 2013, according to the study.’

Syrian refugees in Turkey - Let them drive Lamborghinis
Well, sympathetic as I am trying to feel for those 69 citizens whose worth dipped below $100 million last year, I have to tell you, I’m not convinced that they (or the other 288 who are still in the club) are actually doing the country’s economy a whole lot of good. Another news item I chanced on the other day announced that German luxury car manufacturer Mercedes Benz was awarding Turkey the prize for being ‘Europe’s Most Successful Market’ in 2013. The Lamborghini people reportedly expect to sell seventy of their ludicrously over-powered and over-priced boyztoyz to Turkish boy-racers this year. Prices in the USA range from $200-550 thousand – double that for Turkish Liras and add another fifty percent to find the local price. Then there are the Ferrari buyers who will pay 550,000 (around 1.5 million TL) for a ride that’ll do 350 km/h and 0-100 km/h in 3 seconds flat. Tell me where you can actually do either of those things.

Getting back to that Hürriyet article, how do you read the tone? It seems to me that words like ‘no significant change’, ‘dropped’, ‘left out’, 'retreating' and ‘fell’ suggest that the writer implies there is something Turkey should feel ashamed of here. Interestingly, the article goes on to note: the report also draws attention to the substantial overall wealth boost that Turkish households have recorded over five years. The total assets of individuals in Turkey amounted to around 840 billion Turkish Liras in 2013, up from around 500 billion liras in 2008.’

What should we make of that? The ranks of the super-rich in Turkey have declined by nearly twenty percent since 2012 while average household wealth has increased nearly seventy percent in the five years since the 2008 global financial crisis. And these figures are not doctored stats released by the Turkish Government – they are published in a report presented by an outfit styling themselves the Boston Consulting Group (BCG). Check them out. If you thought the Trickle-down Theory of wealth redistribution was dead and buried, there’s a gang of corporate whizz kids who will put you straight.

I wasn’t able to read the full report on their website because you have to be a member of the club to do that. However, I did check out a couple of other items. One that particularly interested me was entitled: For Mining Companies, Productivity is the Key to Value Creation’. It grabbed my attention, of course, because of the tragedy in Soma, Turkey last month where 301 coal-miners died in a dreadful accident.

Read the BCG article, however, and you may come to feel that 'accident’ is the wrong word to use. In addition to BCG, I have now learned another useful acronym: TSR (Total Shareholder Return). The guys at BCG apparently analysed mining companies' profits over the previous decade, and found that they averaged sixteen percent per annum with the top ten companies averaging 35 percent. I’ll say that again in case you missed it – those mining companies made 35 percent profit on shareholder investment in a single year! Nevertheless, the Bostonian Consultants insist that there is a ‘profitability pinch’ in the sector with ‘the economics of mining under pressure’, and go on to suggest ways to ‘enhance productivity’. Well, you have to wade through a good deal of economists’ jargon here, which they use generally to avoid facing up to the reality that they are actually screwing real people by reducing wages, cutting back on work-force numbers and skimping on safety measures.

How about one of these? Click for a price
Another delightful press release you can read on the BCG site deals with the ‘Daunting Challenges facing Wealth Managers’ in the next few years. The text begins with the good news that ‘the growth of private wealth surpassed expectations in 2013’, but goes on to warn that ‘wealth managers nonetheless need to take action on multiple fronts if they hope to gain market share and increase profits over the next few years.’

“The key challenge in developed economies is how to make the most of a large existing asset base amid volatile growth patterns,” said Brent Beardsley, a BCG senior partner and a coauthor of the report. “The task in the developing economies is to attract a sizable share of the new wealth being created there. Overall, the battle for assets and market share will become increasingly intense in the run-up to 2020.”

I suspect that Brent B is not seeking ways to ‘attract’ the new wealth being created in those developing economies to the impoverished citizens of those countries whose children are dying of malnutrition and easily preventable diseases caused by lack of access to uncontaminated drinking water . . . but I could be wrong.

I am currently reading a history of Byzantium[2], the eastern Roman Empire centred on Constantinople back in medieval days. In the early chapters, the author, Cyril Mango, examines reasons for the decline of the Empire up to the 7th century CE. Let me share a quote or two.

‘Service in the army was a lifelong occupation and was meant to be well-rewarded. Even so, there was little enthusiasm for it in the more civilized parts of the Empire and evasion was widespread. By Justinian’s time recruitment had become voluntary and depended very largely on some of the ruder provinces.’

‘It is a commonplace of late Roman history that the municipal gentry was in a state of decline . . . [They] made increasing efforts to avoid their responsibilities which were openly regarded as a servitude . . . [T]he rich ones grew richer at the expense of their neighbours. They became magnates who bullied their fellow-citizens and usually had enough leverage at court to win for themselves posts in the imperial administration that exempted them from municipal duties . . . there was a staggering disparity between the rich and the poor . . . government service normally led to considerable riches . . . there must have been a very large number of people living on the subsistence level.’

Does any of that sound familiar? By good luck or good management (who knows?) Turkey managed to escape the worst of that 2008 global downturn. It seems to me that if a few local oligarchs have to make do with a little less than $100 million in personal wealth so that some others can get off subsistence level, it may not be altogether a bad thing.

[1] There’s that ‘42’ again!
[2] Byzantium, the Empire of the New Rome, Cyril Mango (Phoenix, 2005)

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Bodrum to Gallipoli - A week’s wandering in Aegean Turkey

A major benefit of receiving visitors from abroad – apart from the happiness of catching up with family and old friends – is the motivation they provide for getting out and seeing the sights of Turkey through fresh eyes. We had a family wedding in May which brought guests from the USA, and took us down to Bodrum a month or so earlier than usual. Then some old neighbours arrived from New Zealand, and together we took a slow trip through the Aegean region back to Istanbul.

Here are a few highlights:

Myndos is the ancient name for the modern village of Gümüşlük-by-the-Sea where our journey began. There is no evidence to indicate that it had much more importance in those days than it has today – which is perhaps its saving grace. The Bodrum Peninsula is in serious danger of succumbing to the curse of over-development, but the existence of classical ruins beneath its humble surface has so far saved Gümüşlük from the worst depredations. Its small natural harbour and sandy beaches lined with atmospheric fish restaurants and small shops selling tasteful handcrafts, and jams and marmalades made from locally-grown fruits, attract visitors desperate to escape the English breakfasts, English football and Turkish nightclubs that blight other resorts on the peninsula.

Recently archeologists from Bursa’s Uludağ University have been fossicking around remains of temples, churches, theatres and bathhouses – and council workers laying pipes accidentally turned up a Roman necropolis. So far, fortunately, nothing’s been found that’s likely to attract coachloads of tourists or titanic cruise liners.

Magnesia-on-the-Meander. Certainly there are other sites on the road deserving a visit, but this one is a little publicized gem. My previous visits had been in the heat and dust of July or August, so carpets of red, purple and yellow spring flowers made for an extra delight. The city was renowned for its temple to Artemis Leucophryeno which, in its heyday, was little inferior to the better known temple at Ephesus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Sadly, not much remains today, but a short walk will take you to a 20,000-seater stadium, wonderfully preserved as a result of being buried for centuries under a landslide caused by a 7th century earthquake. Incidentally, our word ‘magnet’ is said to come from lodestones found in Magnesia.

The modern town of Selçuk is a popular base for tourists wishing to visit Ephesus and other neighbouring cities of classical antiquity. Americans and touchingly credulous Roman Catholics climb a nearby mountain to pay their respects at a site purported to be built over an earlier house once inhabited by Mary, mother of Jesus (or of God Himself, if you are of that persuasion). The ‘purporter’ was apparently a stigmatised ecstatic visionary German nun who, despite never having left her home territory of Westphalia, provided directions to the said house, delivered to her in a visitation from the said Mary.

If you do go to Ephesus, I recommend shelling out a few extra dollars for admission to the terrace houses, a work in progress recreating the lives of well-heeled Ephesians back when the apostle Paul was writing to them (well, maybe not to those Ephesians). An international crew of dedicated archeologists is carrying out unbelievably painstaking work reassembling wall frescoes and floor mosaics from thousands of fragments that you and I would probably not even notice.

It is generally understood that carpet-sellers in Turkey are a local hazard to be avoided at all costs. However, an exception to the rule is a government-sponsored co-operative located behind the (currently closed) Selçuk museum on the back road to the 13th century Mosque of Isa Bey. We stumbled upon it by accident and allowed ourselves to be inveigled in. It did, however, turn out to be a worthwhile mishap. Apart from providing a place for master (or mistress) weavers to work and train young apprentices and market their wares, the centre also gives insights into the age-old art of silk production. One interesting fact I learned – the ancient Egyptians used silk threads to cut the stones used for pyramid building. Well, true or not, I have always wondered how those artisans of old were able to accurately cut thin sheets of marble for lining their temples and churches.

It’s a bit of a trek from Selçuk – and probably you need a vehicle of your own – but Aphrodisias is a magical site well worth a visit. At this point I have to give a plug to my friend Adrian. We were fortunate to find him in town, sipping a cold ale at Eksellans Bar on Saturday evening, and he was gracious enough to let us tag along on his Sunday tour. Aphrodisias is, of course, named for the goddess Aphrodite, since there was a major cult of followers located in the city in ancient times. I wouldn’t be the first to suggest a connection between the Greek goddess, earlier Aegean deities Cybele and Artemis, and the cult of the Virgin Mary that subsequently developed when Christianity became the state religion in these parts.

For my money, Aphrodisias is a more atmospheric site than the better known, and more accessible Ephesus. Precisely because of its lesser accessibility, of course, you will find fewer tour buses from the cruise liners of Kuşadası. The on-site museum is a treasure house of fabulous sculpture, and the almost intact stadium redolent of Russell Crowe’s ‘Gladiator’. If you are lucky enough to have Adrian in your party, you will be treated to translations of the many inscriptions for which this site is renowned.

The modern Turkish town of Bergama is located at the foot of the acropolis of the ancient city of Pergamon. Many of the best finds are more likely to be seen in the eponymous museum in Berlin, but still it’s a spectacular site with a breath-taking theatre built on the precipitous hill. Roman engineers brought water by aqueduct from 40+ kilometres away, and some local inventor came up with the idea of parchment. Apparently commodity traders in Cairo had started stock-piling papyrus in anticipation of a shortage thereby creating a shortage, and got their come-uppance in a big way!

A brisk walk from the bottom of the hill will bring you to the Asklepius Medical Centre, whose residents included the famous physician Galen. Among its patients were some with psychiatric disorders, who were treated with music, dream interpretation and the sound of a sacred spring burbling down the corridor. Incidentally, if you’re looking for place to stay with a little ambience I can recommend the Athena Pension, an old Greek house with a view of the acropolis from its walled garden.

Following our hosts’ recommendation, instead of retracing our steps, we took a back road through Kozak – according to locals, the richest town in Turkey because of its trade in pine nuts. The road brought us out a little north of Ayvalik where we stopped for lunch at a delightful little place called Zeytin Altı Kır BahçesiA Country garden under the Olive Trees. As with many of the best Turkish eateries, its menu was limited to what they do best: grilled köfte and gözleme, both of which were delicious! We also picked up a few local products, fruit juice and a kind of molasses (pekmez) made from mulberries, and some tasty sliced olives in tomato sauce.

Our final stopover was the town of Çanakkale on the southern coast of the Dardanelles, where we booked a tour to the killing fields and cemeteries of Gallipoli, that long-ago exercise in military futility that has nevertheless bequeathed a sense of identity to Australia, New Zealand and the modern Republic of Turkey. My guests and I felt a strong admiration for the Turks who have allowed former invaders to maintain cemeteries to their fallen heroes, to build a large memorial on the crucial ridge of Chunuk Bair, and have even erected a signpost directing visitors to Anzak Koyu (Anzac Cove).

One of our fellow travellers on the tour bus was a young Maori lad who told us that he intended to perform a haka in honour of his ancestors who had fought and died for a king and empire to whom they had little cause to feel obligated. It was an impressive one-man performance that brought a tear to my eye – and a little anger against an elderly Anglo-Australian woman who demanded indignantly to know why we had to be subjected to such a spectacle.

A curious incident occurred as we were about to board the ferry that would take us across the water to the town of Eceabat. One of our guides, a young Turkish lass calling herself Zuzu, with a Goth hairdo and numerous body piercings, announced that we would in fact take a later boat because there were a few Turkish police on our intended ferry, and ‘they kill people’. I wonder what what the short-stay tourists made of that.