Archive for February, 2007

Güle Güle Istanbul

February 19, 2007

The bus stops in freezing Bingöl, half way between Diyarbakir and Erzurum. The young guy washing the bus begins to speak to me in German. Sprechen Sie Deutsche. Ein bissen. Ich habe vier Jahre in Deutschland gewohnen, und jetzt, was mache ich? Ich wasche Bussen. But he doesn’t seem too sad. Why did you come back, I ask him. Family, family… He orders me some free tea. The owner of the restaurant also comes out to chat to me in German. Many Turkish Gastarbeiter returned; many didn’t; and the Turkish community in Germany now numbers more than three million.

The great majority of women I see on the icy streets of Erzurum are covered: headscarf and long coat; or full black chador with a mere slit for the eyes; and a new variation for me: women in a brown sackcloth, sometimes begging at the mosque door who even cover their eyes completely. Few couples on the streets, even on St. Valentine’s Day. Men spend time with other men, often walking along with their arms lightly linked. The mosque, the barber shop, the tea house where they play cards, are the focal points of the lives of many men. Separate rooms at many Internet cafés. On long distance buses the conductor will juggle passengers to make sure strangers of opposite sexes will never sit next to each other.

Diyarbakir is near Kurdish territory and has attracted many Kurdish migrant workers. Traffic is stopped at checkpoints in the region. The men wear Arab-style headscarves and the baggy shalavar trousers. The bus driver and conductor on the bus from Mardin tell me they are Kurds. They warn me of the many thieves in the alleys of the old town, but the only problem I have is the fatigue from the excess of “He-llo, What is your name?” I even pass a mother restraining her children from popping the question.

There is a ceasefire now in the Kurdish part of Turkey, and the situation is relatively quiet, though the government is worried about the activities being organised from outside Turkey, in France, Blgium and Germany, where the Kurds get a good press and the Turks don’t. I read that the Mayor of Diyarbakir has been posting up signs in Kurdish, but I fail to see any. Instead I read that civil servants writing official material in Kurdish have been prosecuted.

Turkey fears a break-up of Iraq and that a separate Kurdish state will fuel demands for Kurdish territory in Iraq to be included. But what we must do, says Hussain Sinjari, a former Kurdish member of the Iraqi caabinet, is to support Kurdish democracy within Iraq and help them to set up democratic institutions.

In old Diyarbakir I visit the Syrian Orthodox Church and a new evangelical church opposite. The fresh-faced American who shows me around tells me it’s a tough job. Difficult with the authorities. He’s been there for six years and is proud to have a congregation of some sixty, both Kurds and Turks.

The Erzurum Conference of 1919 with Atatürk presiding was one of the founding moments of the Turkish state. It set in motion the Republican movement and defined the boundaries of present-day Turkey. In the Municipal Museum I see a section on the Armenian massacres – those committed by Armenians against Turks during the First World War. Mass graves were bug up, and bodies were examined to expose the Armenian cruelty. Armenians had been treated very well, the exhibition tells us, they had never suffered discrimination in the Ottoman Empire and had occupied some of the highest posts, and now they saw a chance of founding their own state and were supporting Russian rather than Turkey, which was fighting on the side of GermanyThey were becoming a fifth column inside Turkey.

Streets in Turkey are extremely crime-free, but take care with the little boys selling paper handkerchieves. “Istemiyorum”, I don’t want any, I say. “Istemiyorum”, the 12-year-old corrects. I buy a couple of packets to thank the for the pronunciation class. His gang crowd around, but they are shooed off by the locals.

Every city has its citadel which usually dates from Roman times. Old Diyarbaakir is completely surrounded by its black basalt walls. Erzurum has its 13th and 14th century medresses, Koranic schools. And in the East the mosques are often square or rectangular, unlike the domed mosques of Istanbul. Every city has its museum, its ancient pottery and coins, its ethnographic section with its portrayal of life in Ottoman coins, and maybe, as in the case of Gaziantep, Roman mosaics, here from the Roman town of Zeugma.

My time is up, and I fly back to Istanbul. Back in Taksim Square, Istanbul. Tourists, hardly any covered women, and no one saying “Hello, what’s your name?” Now, after my ttrip to the East, I am more aware than ever of the sense of openness and freedom which many from the provinces find in Istanbul.

Turkey: a country divided between Islam and Secularism; between Turkish nationalism and cosmopolitanism; between East and West; between social and regional differences; between Europe and Asia.

I pack and catch a taxi to Atatürk Airport along the ringroad, past the huddled apartment blocks, the intersecting freeways, the warehouses, office blocks, glitzy banks and shopping malls. I glimpse the domes and minarets of the Blue Mosque and Aya Sophia for the last time, at least for the time being…

Güle Güle Istanbul

Go smiling Istanbul


Postcard from South-Eastern Turkey

February 11, 2007

Friday is the best day to be in Urfa, or, since about 1990, Shanliurfa, “Glorious Urfa”. It is a pilgrimage town, where the Prophet Abraham, very important in Islam, is believed to have been born, in a cave beneath the citadel, where we queue up to drink the holy water, men and women in separate parts of the cave. I arrived in Urfa on Thursday night, hardly a soul in town, But come Friday morning, and everyone is strolling round the gardens, sitting in the tea gardens, feeding the holy carp, taking out a rowing boat, or being told they can’t picnic on the grass.

Many of the older men wear the baggy shalavar trousers, similar to gaucho bombachos, but with a very low crotch, and tapering at the ankles, and on their heads a Yasser Arafat headscarf. Nearly all women are covered. Some in Istanbul fashion with a close-fitting cap to cover all the hair, for in Islam women’s hair is considered an erotic zone, and with a colourful headscarf on top. But the locals all wear light mauve scarves and a variety of colourful dresses. Some older women have tatooes on their faces and fingers. And men in their long Arab robes; women in complete black chadors, with just an eyeslit; and a benchful of trendy uncovered girls looking slightly out of place.

I hear Turkish with an Arabic accent, Arabic, what I think is Kurdish. And I, the lone gringo in Urfa, am assailed with “Al-lo. What is your name? Where are you from?” That exhausts the English of most, but the monotony is broken by the occasional “David Beckham very good player”. 

Of course, mostly the boys and young men, even the guard outside the prison, and the only very occasional little girl. We are in conservative Eastern Turkey. But today, on my way back from the Syrian Catholic Deyrulzafran Monastery outside Mardin, a girl of 12 or 13 rushed out of her house and greeted me with a well-rehearsed: “Welcome to Mardin!”

From Urfa across the fertile plains of cereals, olive groves, almond and fruit trees, to Mardin, 175km east, just 50km from the Syrian border, but there seems to be no contact here with Syria. We are also near the territory of the PKK Kurdish separist movement, but at the moment there is a ceasefire, and things are very quiet. Police with machine guns patrol the streets. but it seems the most peaceful of places. There are a few Istabullu tourists, but foreign tourists are still staying away: the Kurdish problem, and we are pretty near Iraq… My 1999 Lonely Planet warns me to stay away… By the looks of it, the latest one does too…

A bust of Atatürk in the main square; Atatürk’s words cut into the hillside: “I am happy to be called a Turk”; men of all ages hanging around all day Sunday fingering their prayer beads between their visits to the mosque; kebabs and more kebabs; plenty of Internet cafes, fortunately! But we are in a slightly different place. I notice no supermarkets. Shopping is centred on the bazaar and small shops, almost hatches in the wall. I visit beautifully preserved medresses, Quranic schools, from the 13th and 14th centuries; I am staying in an inn, a caravanserai, from the 12th century. Equally old mosques and churches, either Syrian Catholic or Syrian Monophysite, a breakaway Catholic sect. Carved stone houses, often with sheep on the lower floor. I am woken up by an oinking, but there are no pigs in Muslim Turkey! I then realise it is the braying of a donkey, for on the very steep hillsides of Mardin the donkey is still the best form of transport.

To use a well-worn cliché, we are at the crossroads of history. Urfa, formerly Edessa, was an outpost of the Holy Roman Empire. Then conquered by the Arabs in 637. From 944 to 1098 Turks, Arabs, Byzantines and Armenians fought for the city. But in 1098 Count Baldwin of Boulogne set up the Latin County of Edessa, which lasted till 1144, when it was conquered by the Seljuk Turks. Mardin was occupied by Assyrians in the fifth century, then Arabs between 640 and 1104, then a succession of Seljuk Turkish, Kurdish and Mongol. Both cities were taken by the all-conquering Ottomans in 1517.

On Churches and Mosques

February 7, 2007

I have spent the last four months at the cusp of the division between East and West, between Islam and Christianity. Nowhere can this be seen better than in Cyprus.

In Famamagusta, or Gazimagusa as it is known in Turkish, I see the 14th century twin churches of the Templars and the Hospitallers, the Nestorian Church, the ruins of St Francis, St George of the Latins and other churches, all showing the enormous wealth of the Byzantine and Venetian republics. In all, 365 churches were built inside the old city walls. As in Istanbul, when the Ottomans took Cyprus, they converted churches to mosques. The 14th century St Nicolas Cathedral is now Lala Mustafa Pasha Mosque.

In Islam there is a kind of logic to convert churches to mosques as the Quran is the final complete revelation and testament of God, given to the Prophet Muhammad. Thus the incomplete Christianity is superseded, and the minaret “completes” the church.

Although Northern Cyprus does not seem particularly religious – few women cover their heads, and those that do are mostly from the Turkish mainland; alcohol is on sale in every cafe and shop; and there are no crowds outside mosques – it was religion, or rather the desecration of Greek orthodox churches that is one of the points that still fuels hatred. “Enjoy yourself in the land of racial purity and true apartheid. Enjoy the sight of our desecrated churches” is one of the signs that welcomes those crossing over the border from Greek Cyprus.

I drive up to St Hilarion Castle, built by the Byzantines between the 7th and 14th centuries at the highest point in the mountains as protection against the Arabs, and then through the olive groves towards the village of Kazanköy. It is late afternoon, and the goatherds are coming out into the hills to collect their charges. I stop at the Greek cemetery. The marble crosses are all broken, and most are piled up in a heap. I make out their names: Vasilidis, Stefanou, Karagounis;  died 1972, dıed 1970, died 1969. Nothing after August 1974 of course. I drive on into the village. Overripe lemons are dropping off the lemon trees along the road. The village looks wealthy. Lots of cars, extra storeys built onto houses. In the square the small church has now become a mosque. A bust of Atatürk, as in every village in Turkish Cyprus, adorns the square, next to the Spor Külübü. Pointing to one of the great ironies: portraits of the human form, sculpture more than any other form, are strictly forbidden by the Quran.

The scars run deep in this divided island. What happened to the Greek villagers? Many went to Southern Cyprus; others emıgrated to the mainland, the US or Australia; others dısappeared. Almost certainly kılled. As did many Turkish Cypriots: “Armed Greek Cypriots came to our villages with policemen on 14th August 1974, and took all the men of the village away … Suddenly the man at the bottom of the retaining wall shot one round. This was a sıgnal. They started shooting like crazy. I was slightly ınjured in my side, and I fell to the ground. A friend of mine’s corpse fell on top of me. I stayed where I was wıthout moving” (Trapped in the Green Line, Tony Angastiniotis, Rustem, Lefkosha).

The story has been repeated many times in Belfast, Beirut, Bosnia and many many other places…

From the country that doesn’t exist

February 3, 2007

Don’t write to me at the Pansyon Aksaray, Lefkosha, Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), for the letter will be returned. Northern Cyprus is formally recognized by only one country in the world – no prizes for guessing which! Indeed, your letters have to be sent through Mersin 10, Turkey. It has no international football team, no international dialling code, no Internet country code, and no international air companies come here, but life carries on quite normally. Indeed, the economy is going through quite a boom, growing at nearly 10% for each of the last two years. Brits have been buying up cheap property on the coast near Girne, or Kyrenia. Northern Cyprus Airlines goes to the London airports, Manchester, Glasgow and Belfast. Even Cherie Blair got her fingers burnt, for, in her profession as a solicitor, she represented a couple who bought property that may have belonged to displaced Greeks in a country that is not formally recognized by her husband’s government. The Turkish economy is itself burgeoning, and the UN and USAID have been throwing money at the regeneration of the war-torn historical centre of Lefkosha, in Turkish; Nicosia in Greek. I was here three years ago and notice the change. Much is still wasteland, bomb sites, but there are more cars, cafes, rebuilding, and small workshops are returning to the abandoned areas next to the UN controlled No Man’s Land. 

Cyprus, originally part of the Byzantine Empire, belonged to the Republic of Venice from 1489 to 1579. They built its famed city walls, as they did in many Venetian cities like Palmanova, for defence against the Ottomans, but they did not prove enough when the Ottomans came in 1570. The Ottoman Empire came, turned churches into mosques and left fountains, hans, or inns, and hamans, baths. Then, as the Sick Man of Europe’s health worsened, control of Cyprus was given to Britain in return for support against Russia in the 1854-6 Crimean War. And the Brits have left their heavy three-point 240V plugs; traffic on the left-hand side of the road; Cyprus pounds, still in use in Greek Cyprus, the euro is not king there, and the Cyprus pound is worth more than the UK pound; fish and chips; and English spoken nearly everywhere, together with Greek or Turkish. 

Independence from the UK came in 1960. But there was never any agreement on powersharing between the two communities, 70% Greek and 30% Turkish. In 1963 Archbishop Makarios, leader of the Greek Cypriot community, and the religious leaders were often community leaders, supported by Greece and paramilitaries, staged a coup. Violence erupted between the two communities. Many Greek Cypriots wanted to get rid of the Turks, and houses were burnt and bulldozed. Turkey prepared to invade to protect its people. The British military presence was reinforced by the UN, who controlled the No Man’s Land, rather the Buffer Zone, the Green Zone, running right through the middle of the walled city of Lefkosha, Nicosia. Makarios got guns from Nasser in Egypt as well as Greece. It was the time of the Cold War. The possibility of Cyprus exploding into a Cuba was the worst scenario of all for the US.  

An uneasy peace reigned till 1974, when the generals took over in Athens. They wanted Cyprus to be reunified with Greece and replaced Makarios with paramilitary leader Nikos Sampson. Seven days after, on 20 July 1974, Turkey invaded, claiming it was upholding the 1960 Treaty of Guarantee. Talks failed, and Turkey took over 37% of the island, as in the map, the present limits. 200,000 Greek Cypriots were displaced, and thousands were killed or massacred on both sides. There are still many unaccounted for.   

A divided country. A divided capital city. Belfast, Beirut, Berlin of old. The rather snooty website of the British Commission in Cyprus tells me it is completely illegal to enter the EU from an unrecognized country and I am liable to a fine, but there is no hassle at all as I walk through Checkpoint Charlie. A cinch, and now open to Turkish Cypriots. Visitors are returning with their shopping bags from Nicosia, for there is not yet a Debenham’s in Lefkosha.  

At the end of the main pedestrian shopping street, Lidras Street, after the boutiques, Starbucks and Macdonald’s we see photos of those who are still unaccounted for, “The missing persons as a result of the Turkish invasion of Cyprus”. We can climb the wall, patrolled by a lone young soldier and look out over the waste No Man’s Land, where one shop sign, reminding you that this was a thriving economic area in the 1950s and 60s, advertises “Harrison Worsted”, and onto the poorer Turkish side. Look at all this, just look at what you are missing. The Greek banner accuses the Turks: “Hundreds still missing, no evidence. Turks refuse to give any information”. And the Turkish Cypriots retort with: “To those who are watching from the wall of shame this is the bridge of Grace”. But No’s Man’s Land, the Buffer Zone, or the Green Zone, is coming to life. UN posters tell us about the excellent habitat it provides for undisturbed wildlife. The Goethe Institüt, the Fulbright Foundation and the International Press Club have all occupied the fine old unossupied houses there. There is an exbibition of the regeneration of the inner areas of Lefkosha/Nicosia. Let’s get it all going again, it seems to say.  

But the reunification referendum in 2004, which would provide a federative system, was rejected by a majority of Greek Cypriot voters, though not by the Turks. The Kofi Annan Proposals did not provide for the recovery of property taken over by Turkey in 1974 and Turkish demilitarisation. And for its EU talks to progress Turkey must open its ports to Greek Cyprus ships.

Map of Cyprus at