Archive for October, 2006


October 29, 2006

No one who visits Turkey can fail to miss the omnipresence of Atatürk. You will probably arrive in Atatürk Airport in Istanbul. Your bus or taxi into town will pass along the Atatürk Avenue. You may see a concert or a ballet at the Atatürk Cultural Centre. Or an international football game at the Atatürk Stadium. In every town in every school, university, sports centre, post office, tax office, public and private foundation and institution, bank, most offices, many shops, you will see pictures and busts of Atatürk, but never in any mosque or Islamic foundation.  

Today, October 29th, the day which commemorates the foundation of the Republic of Turkey in 1923, the brass bands are practicing for the parades, and bunting and banners , pictures of Atatürk, and the red flag with the white star and crescent are flying from houses, apartments, office building, often covering the whole side of a twenty-storey building, all over Turkey, especially here in Etiler, middle-class Republican district of Istanbul par excellence.  

There is an exhibition of photos of Atatürk in the nearby Akmerkez Shopping Centre; Atatürk young at cadet school in Salonika with twirling moustaches, Atatürk in uniform, smart in tails, plus-fours, a natty cap; Atatürk with the King of Afghanistan, the Shah of Iran, Edward VIII and Mrs Simpson; Atatürk swimming; Atatürk with his adopted daughters or groups of women, unveiled, of course; Atatürk looking up, Atatürk looking down; a paunchy Atatürk a year or so before his death through liver cirrhosis on Nov 10 1938, aged 58; and, inexplicably, Atatürk leaning out of a train window fingering a set of Islamic prayer beads. Well, maybe he was traveling through a particularly religious area. Many of these are on permanent exhibition on the walls opposite the Dolmabahçe Palace. 

The Atatürk foundation has been active on the streets and in the shopping malls selling magnets, bookmarks, paperweights, mirrors, heart-shaped pill boxes, calendars, cigarette cases, jewellry boxes. Atatürk has become a symbol, an icon. Liberal Turks I have met, especially women, university teachers, have on their desk or walls small framed pictures of Atatürk. 

But wait a minute, you tell me, wasn’t Atatürk a dictator: Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini… and Atatürk? How can this possibly come about?  

I am told: if it had not been for Atatürk, we would still be in the Dark Ages. We would still be wearing the veil; we might not have the chance to work; Turkey might be like…, well, Iran. And because of Atatürk we can work, wear what we like and live much as women do in the West. And they may quote Atatürk: “Human kind is made up of two sexes, women and men. Is it possible that a mass is improved by the improvement of only one part and the other part is ignored? Is it possible that if half of a mass is tied to earth with chains and the other half can soar into skies?”  

Mustafa Kemal, who took the name of Atatürk, “Father of the Turks” in 1934, when, through his own decision, all Turks had to take surnames, gained fame as the Ottoman colonel at Gallipoli in 1915 who held back and prevented the British and ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) landing. Then on the Syrian border in 1917 he managed to hold onto as much territory as possible before the inevitable defeat of the flailing Ottoman Empire, allied to Germany, before the Anglo-French forces.  The Ottoman Empire had crumbled. With the Treaty of Sevres in 1920 the European powers gave themselves slices of the cake of Turkey. Greece was to administer the west, Italy the south, Britain the south, France the Syrian border, Armenia got the far east, and only a rump Turkey in the north and east of Anatolia was to be maintained. 

The defeated Sultan Mehmed VI, Vehideddin, sent Kemal as an army inspector to eastern Turkey, to inspect the troops. A piece of luck, as he raised the call to get rid of the foreign invaders.  He organized the Erzurum and Sivas congresses of 1919 and called for a Turkish state. He was elected Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces. The task was arduous. Equipment and supplies were lacking. Brigandage was rife. A Kurdish uprising was put down. Agreements were made with the French and Italians, and eventually the English, but the Greeks wanted to hold on to territory which had been part of the Ancient Greek Empire. Defeats were suffered. But, playing on patriotism, the desire for a Turkish nation, a new sense of patriotism, Kemal’s own enormous prestige and charisma, the Greeks were eventually defeated and left Syrrna, Izmir, in 1923. Atrocities took place on both sides. The Armenians were forced back, and now the killings of the Armenians by Turks in 1920 has become the greatest problem for Turkey to enter the EU. The Turkish Republic was proclaimed on 29th October 1923. Kemal was elected President.  The country was unified at last. Borders were just about fixed, to include an apparently unified Turkish speaking population. 

Differently to Stalin, Hitler and Mussolini, Kemal did not embark on any attempt to conquer other territories. Despite opposition from those who thought he wanted to become another Sultan, he, with the support of the armed forces, managed to hold onto power through the 1920s and 1930s. An opposition party was attempted in 1924-5, but when it was looking too successful it was withdrawn. Its leaders were linked to an unsuccessful assignation attempt in 1926, and some were hanged. 

Kemalism became established with its distinctive traits: republicanism, nationalism, populism, statism, secularism and reformism. And Turkey never became a Stalinist state with “the dark menace of the concentration camp” (Volkan and Itzkowitz in Atatürk, A.L. Macfie, p.190). 

Socially, Kemalism brought about great changes. The Caliphate and religious courts were abolished in 1924. Religious symbols were outlawed: the fez was banned in 1925. Men were ordered to wear European headwear: European companies dumped their unsold stock of pink bowler hats in Turkey.

The Swiss legal system was adopted in 1926. Atatürk encouraged de-veiling, held mixed dances and dinners, and may even have been the first ever Turk to have danced (the foxtrot) with a woman, at least in public. Polygamy and repudiation of wives became illegal in 1931, though, ironically, this was how Atatürk had divorced his wife, Latife, Hanim, in 1925, after just two years of marriage. Women were given the right to vote and could stand for elections in the same year. 

Almost overnight, the alphabet was changed. Few, less than 10%, could read the Ottoman script, which mixed Turkish, Persian and Arabic. On 3 November 1928 Turkey began to use the Roman alphabet. Illiteracy improved almost immediately, and, where possible, Turkish words were introduced in place of Arabic and Persian, and future generations would be unable to read anything written before 1928. Indeed, today, very very few can, even at Boğaziçi University. 

And Turkish gained the status of a national language. The Koran was translated into Turkish in 1931. The Turkish Historical Society emphasized that Turks were “citizens linked together by a community of language, culture and ideals”; and in 1932 the Turkish Linguistic Society identified Turkish as the sun-language, “the original language, from which Semitic and Indo-European languages had evolved”. 

In the middle-class suburbs of Istanbul and Ankara the flags are waving, but there will be much less celebration in the working-class Islamic suburbs.


A Demonstration in Fatih

October 22, 2006


Just after midday in Fatih, the most Islamic district in Istanbul, on this warm autumn Saturday near the end of Ramazan, not a morsel of food or a drop of water can be seen passing from hand to mouth, but in Butchers’ Lane, queues are buying up a freshly slaughtered goat, lamb or calf for their post-Ramazan bayram, or feast. The boy with the barrow of goats’ heads doesn’t seem to be doing much business, so I buy a bagful to send to friends. 

In the central square near the municipal offices I come on a demonstration, apparently organized by young Islamic women on their right to be covered, that is, wear headscarves, where and when they like. They are showing a poster of a policewoman ripping off the headscarf of a young woman. The posters and banners call it a “Disgraceful and Offensive Personal Insult”, and “We’re Sick of the Headscarf Law”. Indeed, the policewomen standing by are the only uncovereds in the square. There are about 200 demonstrators, equally divided between men and women. The women make the speeches and carry the banners. They get vocal support from the men. 

Though 95% of the Turkish population is Muslim, Turkey is, like France, a secular state with non-religious institutions: schools have no religious education; universities contain no mosque; no iman can ever be heard praying on television or radio; airports contain no prayer room; and the military is the staunch upholder of the secular state.

Any form of obvious religious manifestation in public institutions is strictly forbidden.  Secondary schools wear a British-style school uniform – no headscarves of course. And at universities they are officially prohibited, but, at least at Boğazici, Bosphorous, University, they are allowed, probably not to provoke ire and wrath, indeed, a similar demonstration. On campus maybe some 5-10% of female students wear headscarves, rather, in many cases a 60s style cap or hoodie woolen hat over a close-fitting headpiece that will cover all the hair, for not a strand must be left uncovered. Polo-neck sweaters or blouses, for Islamic modesty forbids showing neck or legs, and frequently a long denim coat over a Mother Hubbard. Tennis shoes are the preferred footwear. Make-up is not forbidden, but few campus covereds use it.

Off-campus Islamic dress varies. Patterned scarves are favoured by older ladies, as by girls at the demonstration. In Fatih many women go around in the full black chador. Many covered women are following family tradition; Istanbul has received many hundreds of thousands of migrants from more traditional areas. But I hear and read that an increasing number of girls from non-Islamic middle-class families, subject to no family or peer pressure, are covering. Why? 

A frustration with and aversion to Turkish middle-class values, which have been becoming more and more materialistic. I see them here in the very middle-class area I live, where live revolves around the Shopping Center, Macdonald’s and Starbucks. 

The desire to live a more spiritual and less worldly life. 

The desire to help and do something for the impoverished classes. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), with its strong Islamic roots, has picked up the majority of its votes from the poor. As in Morocco, Egypt, Algeria, Pakistan, unwieldy, often corrupt, nationalist, secular parties have lost support at grassroots level to Islamic parties. Many covered women are involved in welfare projects to help the poor. 

But the day of a covered female PM here in Turkey seems a long way off. The wife of PM Recip Tayyip Erdoğan is covered, but she is hardly a Hillary Clinton, and stays in the background.  Jenny B. White writes on women playing a big part in the electoral machine of the Virtue Party, getting the votes out, but they play little part in the upper party echelons*. Still the Islamic ideal of the woman is that of wife and mother. Education, yes, but to become a better wife and mother. 

Shenaz tells me of one of her best Interpretation students, a covered girl, who uncovered to work as an interpreter, felt undressed and exposed, covered again but then found the job market much more difficult. Companies were reluctant to employ a covered interpreter. It doesn’t look quite right for the modern, Westernized European Turkey. 

* In “The Islamist Paradox”, in Fragments of Culture: The Everyday of Modern Turkey, ed. Deniz Kandiyoti and Ayshe Saktanber. Rutgers Univ. Press, 2002.

A Stroll around Istanbul

October 22, 2006

I  look once more from Boğazici, Bosphorous, University over the Straits of the Bosphorous, students smoking, chatting, a few girls in their headscarves, maybe more than when I was last here, in September 2005. I see the schooners and yachts of Bebek, the Russian container ships passing through the strait, the mansions of the Istanbul middle-class.

 I climb the hill out of the university, leaving my material to be copied in the Photocopy Shop between the mosque and the pastry shop. I catch a bus past the Etiler: Jaguar and Mitsubishi showrooms, Starbucks next to Gloria Jean, craft boulangeries and London pubs. The bus edges past, for Istanbul traffic is tough, and eventually I get off in Shishli, partly glitzy and multinational headquarters. Also the old Armenian and Jewish district. But the Armenian cemetery, the Greek cemetery, the Italian Jewish cemetery are all locked up today. I fail to enter: “Gelmeyin”, “You can’t come in”, the attendant tells me. 

In Nishanlishi, an older middle-class area developed in the Republican 1930s and 1940s, I see in a TV shop Orhan Pamuk has won the Nobel Prize. Minutes later I pass the Pamuk Apartments, where he grew up. Fashion shops, the Armanis and Guccis. Paris, Milan, Istanbul. The American Hospital, the Museum of the Army, the defender of the Republican regime.

I arrive in Taksim Square, the Hilton Hotel, Atatürk Cultural Centre, the meeting place of foreign football fans. South of the square, just off the Istikal Caddesi Street is the huge Greek Orthodox Church, closed as usual. Along the street are the former Armenian and Greek schools, but no Armenian and Greek children there now. Not many since the 1950s. When, according to Pamuk’s Istanbul: Memories of a City: “Nineteen fifty-five was the year the British left Cyprus, and as Greece was preparing to take over the entire island, an agent of the Turkish secret service threw a bomb into the house where Atatürk was born in the Greek city of Salonika. After Istanbul’s newspapers had spread the story in a special edition exaggerating the incident, mobs hostile to the city’s non-Muslim population gathered in Taksim Square, and after they had burned, destroyed and plundered all those shops my mother and I had visited in Beyoğlu, they spent the rest of the night doing the same in other parts of the city” (p.157). 

Istikal Caddesi is Las Ramblas of Istanbul. Everybody comes here. Tourists, the rich, no longer in their Sunday best, the poor, the spivs, the Turkish Gothics, this is the place to show off, or just walk up and down. In February 2000 I visited Turkey for the first time. I had no idea what to expect. From  Poland the flight was slightly cheaper than that to Athens, so I came. At Atatürk Airport the rain changed to snow. I got off near the Istikal Caddesi and found lodging at the Büyük Londra Hotel, the Big London Hotel, where Hemingway stayed when reporting on the Greek-Turkish war of 1920-22. And then on the Istikal Caddesi, La Grande Rue de Pera, carnival in the snow, office workers taking part in snowball fights.

 La Grande Rue de Pera with its Parisian arcades is flanked by Les Grandes Embassies of the Beyoğlu district, designed by Genovese and Venetian architects as the European powers set up shop in the second half of the 19th century to seize a limb of the Sick Man of Europe, the dying Ottoman Empire. It was almost a different city: multilingual – Greek, Yiddish, Armenian, Ladino of the Spanish Jews, Italian, French, even English -, cosmopolitan Pera. But the Republican government had a strict policy of promoting the Turkish language. “Speak Turkish”, people were told in the street. And today the French Consulate is heavily guarded by police to protect it from protesters after France has just passed the law stating that denying the Armenian genocide is now a punishable offence. 

I pass the Galatasaray Lycée, founded by Sultan Abdül Aziz in 1868 to encourage the introduction of Western ideas. Just off La Grande Rue de Pera is the Pera Palas Hotel, built in 1876 as the terminal hotel for the Orient Express. Atatürk regularly stayed here, and his room is now preserved, and Agatha Christie may even have written Murder on the Orient Express, or at least some of it, here. Down to the Tunnel, the funicular railway built by French engineers in 1875 to allow European merchants to get home without climbing the steep hill, but I climb down past the music shops, and a salesman sings a long strained note to accompany the Turkish lute-like guitar he is trying to sell. Down to Pershembe Charshi, Thursday Market, electrical drills, bathroom appliances, and across the Galata Bridge over the Golden Horn to Old Stamboul. 

It is Ramazan, Ramadan, four in the afternoon on a warm day, nearly two hours to go to break fast. In Pera you hardly notice it, but now it’s more obvious. Outside the mosques men are hanging around, playing with their beads, chatting, just waiting…  I take the tram up to Laleli, the garment district: Russians, Kazakhis buying goods to sell back home. Most shop signs are in Russian. I stop at the Beyazit Mosque. The mosque is empty, but there is a long queue at the Breaking of the Fast, the Iftar, Tent. Others have brought their picnics. Twenty to seven. The muezzin calls, hundreds of other muezzins then call from distant mosques. A cannon sounds. Some say a quick prayer. Others just tuck straight in. 

A little later, down at Sultanhamet Mosque, right in the middle of Ancient Byzantium, at the end of what was the Roman chariot stadium, looking towards Santa Sophia, I get caught up in the crowd of women, scarfed and long-skirted, just having eaten, who are queuing to get in to their special section, at the back. I enter and look at the beautifully decorated mosque, light red patterns on white ceilings. The courtyard is full of stalls selling Islamic devotional works, but outside, the candy-floss sellers, the kiddies’ rides are doing much better trade.