Deniz is like a lot of my students: Young, career-driven, smart, ambitious. That’s not especially startling, for the corporate world in Istanbul is no different from anywhere else.
What is different about Deniz is, that unlike most Turks, she and her husband are not keen on starting a family. Here, having children is more than expected. It’s almost a national decree, articulated by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan some years back, when he encouraged all Turkish families to have at least three children.
Never mind the economics (the spectre of supporting three kids on an Istanbul salary); that’s not what bothers her.
“My husband and I are just not sure we would want our child to grow up in Turkey,” she said, one evening while we waited for the service buses to arrive. “The future is very disturbing.”
Another of my students, Mufit, is at the other side of the predicament: He’s worried about his daughter’s future.
A recently retired journalist, Mufit spent some two decades covering the business beat, chronicling Istanbul’s rise to megacity status.
These days, the ex-newspaperman spends most of his time at his summer house on Aegean Sea. Like Deniz, and many others, Mufit forecasts a dire future for his country, especially in terms of the economy. His daughter, who this year started university, says she hopes to live abroad, in Germany or England, when she graduates.
“I think it’s a good idea,” Mufit says. “Maybe I could even go and stay with her.” Upon reflection, though, he changes his mind. He would definitely miss his summer house on the Aegean.
Deniz and Mufit’s stories capture, to some degree, the mood of uncertainty among many Turks these days. The causes are complex, and have been building up for years.
There was the Arab Spring, the waves of unrest that swept across the Middle East, crashing onto Syria’s shores some three years ago; the resulting civil war continues to tear the country apart; the rise of Islamic State … The endless stream of tragic Syrian refugees, not to mention horrific suicide bombings such as those in Ankara last weekend.
Within Turkey itself, there has been the rise of the ruling AK Party over the past decade, followed by allegations of corruption and autocratic rule, which have worried investors, divided and destabilized the country.
On top of everything else, an election is on the way, which could further complicate the equation. Certainly, it carries potentially wide-ranging consequences. President Erdoğan is hoping his ruling AK Party can secure enough of a majority to facilitate changes to the country’s constitution and allow him to consolidate his already (some say) autocratic powers.
Erdoğan’s dreams of an all-powerful presidency were already voted down by voters earlier this year, when the country’s Kurdish party made surprising gains. But the Kurds and the other parties were unable to form a coalition government, which has prompted this new election.
Taken altogether, the result is a mind-numbing cocktail, a volatile mixture of confusion, anxiety, frustration, and fear.
Take my wife, for example. While trying to rest off a case of the flu the other night, she lay on the sofa listening to news commentary about last weekend’s deadly bomb blasts in Ankara, which killed as many as 100 people. The reports suggested that the alleged suicide bomber was a brother to another suicide bomber in a similar attack in the city of Suruç a few weeks ago. Both brothers were reported to have IS ties.
“And the mother of the two boys went to the police and warned them!” my wife exclaimed. “Nobody listened to her. They said, ‘Your sons haven’t done anything …’ OK, but after the attack in Suruç, you would think that somebody would be investigating the mother’s claims. You would think that somebody would be checking on the other brother … but no!” She sighed, lay back on the sofa, and I went to apply an icy hot lotion for her sore flu-ridden muscles. In short order, she was feeling better. Oh, that there were such easy, quick balms for what ails the world!
Sometimes students ask, “So what about you, teacher? Are you going to go back to America?”
“Well, my wife lives here,” I say.
“Oh, right. So that means you live here, too.” Sometimes they look at me like I’m crazy. Some readers back home have also scratched their heads. Last week, one reader went so far as to suggest that anyone who would voluntarily choose to live in Turkey is an enemy of freedom, and that we deserve whatever misfortune falls upon our heathen heads.
But what can you do? I like my head, and especially my wife’s lovely head, very much the way they are.
I recalled an evening we spent recently in Taksim. It was a lovely evening, on a rooftop terrace, with the whole city spread out around us. That night, I remembered all the things I, and so many others, love about this great city: the feeling that you are in the city of the world’s desire, to steal the title of a very good book about the city.
But then, so many books have been written about Istanbul; I’ve written a few of them myself. This is a city for the ages, a city of destiny and legend. Here, history has been told, re-told, time and again. It has been conquered by at least three empires, shaken by countless wars and earthquakes, natural and otherwise.
Yet, the great city always rises again, and always greater than she was before.
“That’s the reason people have always fought here, especially over Constantinople,” an historian once observed. “Because so many long to possess it.”
James Tressler is a writer and former Lost Coast resident. He lives in Istanbul.