Letter from Istanbul: Wealth in a Hot Place
ISTANBUL, August 23 – With Bayram, the three-day holiday marking the end of Ramadan, the city is unusually quiet. Those with cash and good sense have left the city in search of the resorts in Bodrum, in Fehtiye, in Antalya.
I, of course, lacking both sufficient cash and good sense, am stranded in the abandoned mega-city.
It’s actually not too bad. The normally traffic-choked streets are quiet, and you move and breathe easier.
“Istanbul, minus 5 million or so, and you’ve got the perfect city,” says Berkin, an old friend, over beer at the Hera Bar in Kadiköy on the city’s Asian side. Usually popular with twenty- and thirty-somethings, Hera Bar is stone-cold dead this afternoon, except for the barman showing his girlfriend the brand new snake tattoo coiled around his forearm. With envy, I summon the distant image of people cooling themselves in the refreshing waters of the Turkish Riviera.
Later, I decided to pack up and go for a walk. The late afternoon is still very warm, but the sultriness has gone, the humidity that makes for groaning, sleepless nights. The shops are mostly quiet and empty, the proprietors sit outside and sip tea, eyeing the streets for customers.
I arrive in Moda, which is, as its name suggests, a fashionable neighbourhood. Fine white apartment buildings with wide balconies look out placidly at the sea. In the cafes, a few desperate housewives (why aren’t they down South?), dressed in Daisy Dukes, light tops, sandals, sip lattes, grip their Louis Vitton bags. Teen-age girls pass in giggling flocks past the French lycee they will attend in September.
In Moda, a visitor is aware of the proximity of money, of education and privilege. The housewives spend their husbands’ money in desperate pursuit of Western, Continental chic. Their children, like the passing teen-age girls, attend the lycee to learn English and French, and even go to courses on Saturdays and Sundays, and in the summer many attend summer camps that mix volleyball and horseback riding with intensive language lessons.
The point of all this Fitzgerald-like focus on the accoutrements of wealth is to convey aspiration, the search for one’s place in the sun. Also, it provides a stark contrast to last weekend, when I spent an afternoon on the European side and ran into an anti-US protest staged by the Turkish Communist Party: Angry protesters one week; desperate housewives the next.
Anyway, an LA Times reporter once gave me a valuable piece of advice. Whenever you want to understand a community, he told me, it’s not enough to know it’s problems. You also have to understand a community’s aspirations. Applying this philosophy in California, where one debates over issues such as growth versus sprawl, is one thing. Applying it in a developing country that sits astride two continents, that embodies modern and ancient cultures, a country that is Islamic and yet secular, is a more complicated affair.
Last week’s protest in Taksim square against US-Turkish military intervention in Syria, was enough to reinforce to me some of the problems facing Turkey. As many as 75,000 Syrian refugees have already crossed the border into Turkey while civil war rages in their country. For some, the Syria issue is a kind of litmus test of Turkey’s commitment to its NATO allies in the West, as well as to human rights, but also a test of its long-standing “Peace in Turkey, Peace in the World” policy of non-intervention in foreign conflicts.
So that is a problem facing the country. But let’s get back to the fashionable shores of Moda, our fashionable desperate housewives. No, that’s boring. Let’s take a walk instead out to the park on the tip of Moda. There’s a nice outdoor café where we can sit under the trees, sip tea and look out at the sea. If you don’t feel like talking, feel free to read a book. I brought along “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72,” by Hunter S. Thompson.
With so many Istanbullus down south, we’ve got practically the whole café to ourselves. The garcon comes over with the tea.
“Kişıler değıl,” I say. No people.
“Evet, evet,” the garcon says. “Çok sessiz.” Very quiet.
Getting back to this theme of aspiration. In a sense, you’re looking at it, sitting here in Moda. This is what most hard-working Istanbullus aspire to: a comfortable flat here, or perhaps one of the palatial waterfront villas in Bebek, over on the European side, and a retirement home on the South Coast. They want their children disciplined in the ways of the West, in a private French lycee, later the prestigious Koç university or, even better, Robert College or, best of all, studying abroad in England or the States (Of course, one could also note, as an aside, the rise in the number of religious schools in Turkey, but that’s a whole other story).
These thoughts remind me of Ahmet, one of my students. He’s 45, a manager at the corporate headquarters for Migros, a supermarket franchise. Ahmet’s daughter already knows English, and is learning Spanish. Ahmet plans to send her to England for six months, but not now. Maybe in a year or two, she’s only 15. Ahmet’s wife, who teaches piano and voice, politely disagrees with her husband (Why not send her now?)
Both agree, as many of my students do, that today’s young Turks must have not only English, but a modern, Western-style education. And people like Ahmet are willing, if necessary, to pay through the nose. I asked Ahmet how much he spends a year on his daughter’s education. He had me guess. Now, understand that in Turkey, the average monthly salary is about 1,000 lira (about $700). As a corporate manager, Ahmet probably makes three or four times that. But per year, he and his wife pay nearly 30,000 lira for their daughters’ education.
Of course, he wouldn’t have to pay if he sent her to a public school, but Ahmet won’t have that.
“She won’t get a good education in a public school,” Ahmet insists. He shakes his head, smiles in a tired way. “I tell my wife, only five or six more years – then our daughter’s education will be paid, our job will be finished and my wife and I can retire to Bodrum and go travelling in Europe. I would like to visit America too.”
Five or six more years. Now I remember why I never had children. But I admire Ahmet’s devotion as a parent. He wants his daughter to have her place in the sun.
I keep coming back to this metaphor. Well, from a broader standpoint, Turkey is like the Montgomery Clift character in the 1951 movie with Elizabeth Taylor. Monty plays a poor boy who falls in love with Liz Taylor, the beautiful rich girl, but he’s also haunted by another woman (Shellie Winters) who has a dark secret that could derail Monty’s hopes of finding love, riches and respectability.
Turkey is quite the bounder these days. Over the past decade, Turkey’s economy has grown remarkably, at a rate that is second only to China. It emerged from the 2008 crisis largely unscathed, with a burgeoning export economy.
Such growth has not gone unnoticed. Recently, a United States ambassador, when asked about the long-standing question of Turkey joining the European Union, quipped that maybe the EU, with its ongoing Eurozone woes, ought think about joining Turkey. He was only half-joking.
The EU question we can save for another day. In the context of this letter, we can borrow a frequently voiced sentiment:
“What could we possibly gain by joining the EU? All it means is that all our money goes to pay for countries like Greece and Portugal, while losing our independence.” Ah, famous Euroskeptics like Czech President Vaclav Klaus would be proud!
With all this newfound wealth, Turkey seeks now to acquire prominence and respectability. It seeks to take its place as the pre-eminent power in the Near East, to share equal footing with the Great Powers in the West, while preserving its historical, economic and religious ties with the Middle East.
What we are seeing in the Syria conflict is a classic case, as they would say in any classic California city council meeting, of “the rubber meeting the road.” A common mistake many Westerners, particulary Americans but not just Americans, make is that Turkey is in the Middle East. It is not. It is Eurasia, the Near East, straddling both the European and Asian continents. It is a next-door neighbor to the Middle East. As one can imagine, here there is a blend of cultures. You will see a woman in a mini-skirt and high heels sitting side by side with a covered woman on the same bus in Istanbul. In day to day life, these paradoxes, the old and the new, the religious and secular, blend nearly seamlessly. But in politics and wider issues, they can frequently come into conflict.
“Turkey is a country with the West on its mind and the East in its soul,” is how I have heard it expressed, and to a large extent I agree. That is why today, we are sitting in this cafe in Moda, looking out at the sea. It is a view that Istanbullus are ready and willing to pay a lot of money for. Anything to get their place in the sun.
But something seems amiss. As we sit at the cafe, an old Gypsy woman approaches the table. She offers a tiny package of tissue paper in exchange for a couple of coins. For a moment, until the woman takes the coins and walks away, the mirage of perfect modern splendor vanishes. Often one sees these women sitting in the streets, with infants in their arms, begging passersby. One reflects that not two kilometers away are some of the poorest streets in the city. They aren’t vacationing on the Riviera. Their children probably won’t be going to the French lycee, if they go to school at all.
The questions, then, could be, are Turkey’s aspirations in the right place? And what “dark secret,” as in the Monty film, possibly derail them? OK, we’re not talking about some old Hollywood film. Beneath the lull of the gentle sway of the trees, outside this empty café, beyond the calm sea, beyond this rare quiet day in Istanbul, there is high drama, and a lot at stake.
James Tressler, who covered politics for the Times-Standard, is now a teacher and writer in Istanbul. His books, including Conversations in Prague, The Trumpet Fisherman and Other Istanbul Sketches, are available at Amazon.com and Lulu.com