The déjà vu, the familiar in the unfamiliar. I felt when catching a taxi into Shangai. I had spent 36 hours travelling right around the globe with a time difference of 12 hours, and here I was, back in a city that enormously resembled São Paulo. As does Istanbul. As felt Thomas and Aline as we caught a bus from Sabiha Gökçen Airport. An excess of concrete, ugly, rapidly built apartment blocks, a lack of green. A city which endlessly sprawls. And traffic fumes and crawls and hoots. Commerce spills out on to the pavements, which in turn are broken, full of cars, craters and rubbish. Except near the glittering high-rise futuristic banks.
The stories of the cities are parallel. São Paulo grew and grew from the Brazilian economic miracle of the late 1960s and 1970s; Turkey’s economic miracle started in the 1980s, and Istanbul’s streets were also paved with gold. Istanbul’s migrants came from poor rural Anatolia; São Paulo’s from the arid poverty-stricken Northeast. Older inhabitants of both cities hearken back to the old comfortable easy and pleasant days. Both cities are plagued by inadequacies of: public transport; sewerage systems; water in the outlying areas; pollution controls; noise; stress; housing and green areas. And a growing religiousness at grassroots level: Islamic here, Evangelical there. But much much less urban violence in Istanbul.
So where can one find the differences? Is life in one enormous conurbation just a replica of life in another? Is there still room for difference? I hear the muezzin calling, as he does five times a day. At secular Boğaziçi Universitesi we had a cocktail in daylight hours in Ramazan while most Turks fasted, and as I see the crowds streaming out of Friday prayers at the mosque just outside campus I realize we are in an Islamic country. A country which wears its Islam pretty lightly in general, but still, a country of believers. Where the forthcoming Bayram, public holiday, the Kurban, in commemoration of the ram sacrificed by Abraham in place of his son will be celebrated by many families even in urban Istanbul with the ritual slaughter of a lamb. In Muhammed‘s time a camel was usually the animal sacrificed, as it was at Atatürk Airport last week by maintenance workers to celebrate the return to the UK of troublesome Avro RJ 100 leased to Turkish Airlines. Though most people today take the lamb, not a camel, to the butcher’s to be killed, many backyards in Istanbul will be streaming with blood after the first day of the holiday, which this year coincides with New Year’s Eve.
Where alcohol is not often consumed. At least by the majority of the population. I look for a student bar or pub near the university and fail to find one. Well-behaved students drink tea and smoke in the local cafés. Alcohol is readily on sale in big supermarkets and in kiosks in every shopping area, even in Fatih, the most Islamic area of Istanbul. It seems most people buy to drink at home. Out for a meal with a visiting professor we ask for a beer. The restaurant sends out for bottles. Almost as if it is ok to serve the alcoholic foreigners but not to stock beer. Except in the old European area of Pera, now Beyoğlu, off Taksim Square: birahanes, Irish pubs, wine bars, German brew houses. Seedy and sophisticated joints; posh and poor; dark and light; noisy and quiet.
Remarkable parallels between Turkey and Brazil. Military dictatorships in recent years. In Turkey from 1960 to 1961 and the hardline coup from 1980 to 1983; Brazil from 1964 to 1989, the tough years of end 1968 to mid 1970s. Rapid industrialization, burgeoning cities; highly productive agrobusinesses; now political stability and economic growth under “left-wing” governments. Maybe their similarity is a factor which hampers economic contact.
Both societies are nowadays pretty free; you can do and say what you want. But with one striking difference. One which has given Turkey a very bad press in recent weeks: it is still a crime to insult “Turkishness”; to question the official denial of the Armenian massacres in 1915 and 1916. To insult the memory of Atatürk. To question the official fabrication of the concept of the integrated state. Such would be a joke in Brazil, where official nationalism only appears once every four years in June and July. Orhan Pamuk questioned the denial of the massacres and went to trial, but the case was thrown out on a technicality. Elif Shafak was stood accused of “insulting Turkishness” in her novel The Bastard of Istanbul, centring on two families – one Turkish, one Armenian – and including discussion of the mass killing of Armenians in the dying days of the Ottoman Empire in 1915. She was charged under Article 301 of the penal code, which can give a possible prison sentence of three years.
Neither do translators escape prosecution. Only yesterday the editors, Faruk Kurhan and Taylan Tosun, and translator, Ender Abadoglu, of Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, which criticizes Turkey’s treatment of its Kurdish minority.
And on Tuesday the attempted prosecution of Ipek Calisar, whose book on Atatürk’s wife of two years, Latife Hanim Ussaki suggested that Atatürk once dressed as a woman in order to flee from an assassination attempt. The charges were initiated by a reader of the nationalist newspaper, Hurriyet, Huseyin Tugrul Pekin: “To claim that … Ataturk, whom no one could even attempt to weigh his courage, would have done something like this … is the greatest insult,” he said in a letter to the prosecutor making his case for charges to be brought against the writer. But, maybe under political pressure, the attempted prosecution was thrown out. And Latife Hanim has now become a bestseller.