James Tressler / Sunday, May 14 @ 7 a.m. / Letter From Istanbul
LETTER FROM ISTANBUL: Life During War Time: A Self-Interview by James Tressler
Brilliant in that it’s the first time the sun has shown itself over
the city in several days. Brilliant, or Brill, as your British
Take the opportunity to gaze out the window of the taxi (you can afford a taxi today) at the bright pavements, the rosy tint bouncing off the windows of the shops and high-rises as we move along the highway toward Ataşehir, one of the fastest-growing commercial districts in what is now the world’s seventh largest city. The only major city that straddles two continents, and one that has emerged as a vital link between East and West, politically, economically, culturally.
The driver, thankfully, is not one of those who decide to practice their English with their yabanci passenger.
Time to daydream, drift, think about your evening lesson … An interview begins to play out in your head. The tape rolls … Wait, tape? Who uses tape anymore? Use your smartphone, kid. You can take pictures, too, while you’re at it. And upload the audio for the reading impaired, why not? This is the New Media, after all …
Interviewer: So, what’s the situation these days?
You: The ‘situation?’ What situation exactly?
Int: Come on. Dude. You know what I’m talking about. Don’t be defensive.
You: (sighing) OK, the referendum passed. Yes. Evet. Tayyip Erdoğan is King of the Universe. Long Live the New Turkey. There, I said it. Happy?
Int: Well, you’ll admit it was a lot closer than we expected. What did the ‘Evet’ vote get – 51 percent? We expected something like 65, even 70 percent, what with all those EVET signs all but redefining the Istanbul landscape. I mean, think about it. How much money and resources did – the government? Let’s call them the YES people – how much did the YES people spend on Istanbul. And in the end Istanbul voted ‘NO.’ That’s encouraging, right?
You: Well, yes. And Ankara, the capital, voted No as well.
Int: — And Izmir.
You: Well, what did you expect? Izmir is basically the California of Turkey. They’ll always vote Left, or at least secular. Ankara was a surprise, considering it’s the home of so many government officials, as well as those who make their living off of the current administration. But then again, Istanbul and Ankara are also home to the country’s best universities. Wouldn’t it make sense that the higher educated folk would vote against giving President Erdoğan even more power?
Int: We’ve been over this territory before. You’ve mantained that Erdoğan already has too much power …
You: Well, he has, hasn’t he? He’s already got the presidency, and a hand-picked prime minister. He’s got all his people in control of Parliament and the judiciary. All of the opposition have been rounded up and thrown in prison, thanks to last year’s failed military coup. Tens of thousands of people, ranging from civil servants, to judges, cops, academics, journalists, lawmakers. Anybody with even the slightest hint of sympathy with the Gulen movement and the coup attempt, they’ve all been rounded up. Just last week, some 4,000 more government workers were sacked. So it’s ongoing, never-ending. So my question,regarding the referendum was, indeed that – why does Erdoğan need more power when he’s already got the country firmly in his grip?
Int: Would you say that the 49 percent who voted ‘NO’ agreed with you then?
You: I wouldn’t presume that. You’d have to ask them. I’m just another yabanci with an asshole and an opinion. Let’s put it this way: those Turks with whom I have spoken about the issue have said things to that effect. Or to put it better: they wouldn’t strongly disagree.
Int: Well, let’s get to the heart of what’s bugging you. You’ll excuse me, James, but you seem a little on edge of late.
You: Do I? I thought it was just a lack of sleep.
Int: You are worried about what’s going to happen. That’s natural. We all are, especially those in the expat community. I mean, you saw that Wikipedia was blocked, for example, and on the basis of one article that reportedly alleged that Turkey’s 2016 coup attempt was manufactured by the government.
You: Yes, I saw that. I miss Wikipedia already! You know how much my students and I use it? That’s another issue, but it does point back to the basic, fundamental intolerance of the current administration. An inability or unwillingness to accept any criticism. To project the blame back on the accuser. It’s like during the referendum campaign earlier this year, when President Erdoğan made a big stir out of being refused to hold pro-referendum rallies in Holland and Germany, where millions of Turkish nationals live. Upon the refusal, Erdoğan as usual turned the rejection into political capital. The whole “The World Hates Turkey And Is Out To Undermine Turkey” propaganda that he has been using for years. And was it effective? Yes. Check the referendum results. Out of all the countries where Turkish nationals live, including most of Europe and North America, the majority of Turks rejected the referendum – except for Holland and Germany!
Int: You’ve lost me. What’s your point? What are you getting at?
You: Sorry, I did wander off the path a bit. You asked what’s bothering me. Well, it’s not so much the result of the referendum. Nobody was all that surprised that it passed. You weren’t, were you? Not if you’ve lived in Turkey the past decade or so. No what troubles me, I guess, is the overall trend in Turkey, the climate, you could say, where one party – and one man – seems to have complete dominance. And anyone who dares to disagree is intimidated – even outright beaten, as happened on a few university campuses at demonstrations leading up to the election – or else branded a “traitor” and thrown in prison. Is this the atmosphere of a dictatorship? I’m afraid to answer that, to be honest. And when you are afraid to answer a simple question, then maybe the answer is yes, you are living in a dictatorship.
Int: President Erdoğan has publicly and vehemently rejected this label.
You: Yes. After the Germany and Holland debacle, he branded them “Nazis.” Nazis and Islamaphobes. But that is Erdoğan’s singular talent. His ability to stir up a controversy, fan the flames, and use divisive language, forcing people to “take sides.” It worked for him in Germany and Holland. Turkish nationals, when asked to choose between he – the Turkish president – and so-called “Nazi, Islamaphobic” German and Dutch policians – they chose him. Turks have always been extraordinarily passionate nationalists (“Happy is The One Who Says, ‘I am a Turk,” as Ataturk said). Erdoğan is skillful at forcing issues to the point where this nationalism can be heated and served.
Int: But you’ll concede, James, that Erdoğan does have a lot on his plate. His country is at war – just over the border in Syria. He’s got millions and millions of refugees, some passing through Turkey on the way to points West, but many more in the streets, in camps, etc. And then there’s ISIS, and the arguments with NATO and Washington over strategy, the ever-present Kurdish question …
You: Yes, he’s a busy guy with a lot to deal with. Turkey as a whole has been under pressure from all sides for years now. You forgot to mention, for instance, the ongoing dispute with Russia. What was the term used, “vegetable politics?” Tourism in Turkey has been down the past couple years, ever since a Russian jet was shot down in south Turkey (and then a high level Russian government official was assassinated at a gallery, a horrifying event that was captured on video and shown around the world). The Russian boycott led to recipriocal action by the Turkish government (“We will freeze our vegetable exports to Russia? How will they survive without our tomatoes and lettuce and eggplant? That’ll teach them, for sure!” ) Actually, the more I think about it, I suppose I can emphathize a little bit with the president’s feeling of paranoia. With so many external pressures – not to mention the internal ones, specially the failed coup attempt – it’s no wonder that he thinks there’s a vast conspiracy …
Int: So what now? I mean, have you got plans to leave? Lots of people have left, you know.
You: My wife and I have discussed it. The short answer is, no. We’re too invested here. I suppose if worst came to worst, we could go to America. We could stay with my family for a while until I found something to do, some kind of work. We don’t have children, or a mortgage, so we’re mobile in that respect. But what about my wife? She has a good job here, and a pension waiting at the end when she retires. Would she give that up? What would she do in America? I’d hate to think of her sitting at home, bored and unfufilled, in some strange new land. And what about her family? What about them? I mean, if there was some extreme action in the near future, would we just abandon them? So it’s not so easy. If I were single — ? Yeah, I’d have probably left some time ago.
Int: Where would you go?
You: There’s a lot of work for teachers in China. Hell, all over Asia. South Korea pays well, Vietnam not so much, but the scenery’s great. Indonesia, Malaysia, Japan. So it’s not like I would starve.
Int: Asia, hmmm. Not America? If you were single?
You: Sure, why not? But you know the irony of it is that, having lived so many years abroad now, it actually would be harder for me to re-adjust to life in America. Isn’t that crazy? I would actually find it easier to move to Shanghai or Hanoi or Seoul or Somewhere tomorrow than to, say, California or New York, somewhere Stateside.
Int: Why is that? Is that what they call ‘reverse culture shock?’
You: Maybe. Actually I think it’s more like when you left home for college, then came back to see your folks during winter break. It was nice to be home for a few days, but then you got restless and were anxious to get back. America, for some reason, is like that for me. It feels like my parent’s house.
Int: Let’s move forward a bit now. Next week, President Trump is supposed to be meeting Erdogan in New York. That should be a good meeting, eh? What do you expect will come of it?
You: Well, they should get on famously, or else hate each other’s guts. I mean, they’re essentially the same guy. The Big Man, the Strong Man, the Alpha Male, you know. They share a lot in common, especially in their low opinion of the Press. I imagine Trump taking Erdogan up to his apartment in Trump Tower, showing off a bit, introducing him to the First Lady, to Ivanka and little Baron, the rest of the family. Erdogan will press Trump not to back Kurdish militant groups in Syria, try to convince him to fight the war in Syria his way.
Int: What’s ‘his’ way exactly?
You: I read something about arming Arab militants instead. Anyway, maybe I’m getting too far ahead. Maybe this first meeting is just a meet-and-greet, a courtesy call.
Int: You’ve said before that Trump is generally well regarded here in Turkey.
You: He is. For different reasons. Some respect him because he’s rich, famous, successful. Others because they recognize in him the same characteristics as Erdogan. Turks have always been drawn to the Sultan, the Big Man. They like that about Trump. Obama, for whatever reason, they saw as likeable, presentable, but perhaps too soft or something. It’s a tough neighborhood, this part of the world. I guess you could say they’re used to tough guys leading the way. But as I said, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Int: Right. Let’s wait and see.
The taxi exits the highway. The vast, spanking new skyscrapers of Ataşehir sparkle in the sunlight. Work on the Istanbul Finance Center continues – the construction, the hammers and jacksaws, the groan and exhaust of the cement trucks, the swing of the cranes. It’s almost like the pharoah’s vision, and all those slaves working to put the stones of the Pyramids in place. Work on the great, unfinished city never ceases.
The driver turns onto Ataşehir Boulevard, where the school is located. At a signal, he pulls over to the curb. The fare is about 30 lira (approx. 10 USD).
Int: I’ve got it.
You: No, let’s split it. Are you continuing on?
Int: Yes, gotta talk with some other people later this afternoon.
You: Other Turks? Expats? Government officials? ‘Yes’ People? ‘No’ People?
Int: I’m not sure yet. We’ll see. Anyway, nice talking with you. Take care and be safe.
You: Safe from what? Earthquakes? Floods? Drunken drivers? Serial killers? Cancer? Bad fashion sense?
Int: Remember what I told you about being defensive.
You: You’re right, sorry. I’m starting to sound like certain presidents.
Int: Hold on, driver. Wait, James. James!
Int: You never did answer the question. You know, are we living in — ? You know, that one.
You: What do you think? Ask yourself that one. The choice is up to you. Anyway, ciao for now! Au voir! Adios! Iyi gunler! Na shledanou! Bye!
James Tressler, a former Lost Coast resident, is a writer and teacher living in Istanbul.