Istanbul’s Metro makes the London Tube feel like a dirty, hot penance. It is clean! Surgically clean, beautifully air-conditioned and cool, the stations are immaculate and artistic, it is efficient and unbelievably cheap. And via this state-of-the-art transport system you arrive at the historical crossroads of the world – into a rubbish tip. There is litter everywhere. Everywhere.
We had found an unbelievably priced Airbnb stylish accommodation (off the tourist track), a rooftop terrace, with TWO air conditioners for R460 per night (Hello, Cape Town?). At sundown, the recorded muezzins went into fierce competition with each other to see who had the biggest sound system. Nothing came to a stop – children kept playing, and deliveries and shopping and visiting continued completely uninterrupted by the penultimate call to prayer. As the skyline was painted with soft watercolours against the silhouette of high-rise and history, religion and riches, we stepped out, turned left and in a little over 500m we were in squalor and dirt that we could find in any South African informal settlement.
The contradictions are everywhere. Young women with pink hair and multiple piercings walk alongside figures completely screened in black burkas, and grandmothers beaten down by life in traditional peasant scarves are overtaken by slim, high-heeled aspirants. The women are a parable, the Turkish past, (Byzantine, Ottoman, Christian, Muslim) with all of its contradictions, rubbing along smoothly with the present (Democracy, Autocracy, Secularism, and Islamic Fundamentalism).
A liberal like myself reads the articles about Turkey only to find headlines about the strongman President for Life Recep Erdogan who abuses people and policy. But let’s remember that 2.7 million refugees from Syria are given shelter, food, and protection in Turkey. Compare that with the richest countries in the world and their abysmal record of aid for those refugees, and maybe we should see that the world is not quite as morally black and white as we would like it to be. But that goes along with the suppression of the Kurds.
And the contradictions continue in tourism. For anyone who is fascinated by history, a trip to the centre of Istanbul should be a mind-blowing experience. Except it is not. It is just tourists overwhelming a fascinating historical setting. Visit the Blue Mosque (which is undergoing restoration and is not very blue at all) and the mental snapshot you carry away is of tour groups from China, Japan, Russia, Canada etc. racing around competing for a space to snap an arch above the crowd, or posing for preening selfies saying, “Been there, done that. It’s all about me.”
On the other hand, a poor Turkish family who befriended us on the Black Sea (more about that later) took us to Erdogan’s “vanity project”, the vast and magnificent Camlica Mosque, which was magnificent and moving. Beautiful handiwork, extraordinary scale and quality, not invaded by tourists, but full of Turkish worshippers and families – it lives in our memory far more vibrantly than the Blue Mosque.
Istanbul is vast. By comparison modern Athens, the “cradle of Western civilisation” and the focal point for so much Western tourism, has a total population of just over 650,000 people; Istanbul… 16 million. Aside from having no less than three large business centres packed with futuristic skyscrapers and countless mosques of every size – the overwhelming impression is of investment. Miles of beautiful housing complexes, set among magnificently tended parks, new roads, spreading metro rails, soaring bridges, new tunnels are everywhere among the crumbling, litter-strewn suburbs.
And of course, much of that is possible because in an “anocracy” (a new word which I learnt today meaning a mix of democracy and autocracy) the ability to cut through red tape and focus funds on big projects is greatly improved. Singapore is the best example of how “benevolent and efficient anocracy” can help people a lot more than inefficient and corrupt democracy. (Just look around South Africa).
But even the strongest anocracy has surprises, as President Erdogan found out in June. Istanbul is his home town and was the base of support for the overwhelming growth of his Justice and Development Party (AKP). However, last month after scrapping the municipal election results because his party narrowly lost the first vote, he suffered a devastating loss. In the “re-election”, the opposition party grew its lead from 37,500 votes to more than 800,000 votes, and so the opposition leader has been sworn in as mayor of Istanbul. Who knows what will happen as a result, but as Politico put it, “June was a bad month for autocrats globally”.
Getting out of Istanbul is equally full of contradictions. Most of us carry preconceived views of rural Turkey in our heads, that of aquamarine Mediterranean seas and quaint gulet sailing vessels, or arid hills around ancient monuments like Ephesus.
But travelling east out of the capital, within a quarter of an hour we entered a world of such soft, lush fertility that we were constantly breathless. Endless rolling hills of wheat, and orchards, and corn, and vegetables, set against plunging mountains covered in a dense temperate forest. The nearest ski resort to Istanbul is just an hour’s drive away. The earth is dark and rich, the breezes are cool, the sun is hot, the water runs in endless clear streams down the mountainsides.
And then you come to the Black Sea, where Turks flock in their hundreds of thousands, eating ripe red cherries, and wading into the warm water. And the litter. Every metre of the coast looks like a dump. Take a long walk down a remote forest path so you can have a huge empty crescent bay of sand to yourself where you can watch the sun sink slowly into the rippling sea, and you will pass an unending trail of paper, plastic, tin cans, bottles tossed everywhere.
Such constant beauty and such constant trash are bewildering and contradictory.
Even the colour of Turkish skin is a contradiction. They are generally pale people with dazzling blue, green and yellow hazel eyes. The sea was filled with pale bodies that looked like European holiday-makers, not the dark swarthy olive-eyed figures of legend and literature. Contradiction encapsulates the whole country.
There is no better contradiction than the gap between men and women. For all the cosmopolitan differences in women in Istanbul, the vast majority of Turkish women seem to live an invisible life. Put a Turkish man in his everyday clothes anywhere in the Western world and you would not be able to tell him apart. The coiffed and stylish teenage boys could come from New York, and their fathers look like relaxed South Africans from any town across the country. He dresses and walks like a man of the world.
However, his wife, his daughter, and his mother seem to belong to another era. All of the generations may be hunched over their cellphones but they are dressed like extras from a 1960s movie – headscarves, dark colours, covered by full-length simple floral prints that turn them into shapeless blobs. And yet, as my wife said, she has never been so warmly and actively welcomed into “a sisterhood” as she was in those few days in Turkey.
If I am confused by one overwhelming contradiction about Turkey it is this: Turkey is historically known as a fierce nation of conquerors; it is cinematically presented as decadent, harsh and intolerant; it is painted by the modern media in the dark colours of autocracy and corruption. But if I was to describe the Turkish people we met in one word, it would be: kind. Unfailingly polite, helpful and kind.
Oh, make no mistake there were magnificent misunderstandings. We managed to check into one small country accommodation only by walking into the landlord’s bedroom and waking him from his afternoon nap in his underpants by tugging on his toe. But even then – he was kind. Heartfelt and humane, as was his wife and every shopkeeper and person we met. And as were the other guests. They brought us snacks, and through the miracle of Google Translate, invited us to their son’s wedding – should he get married in the future. Admittedly the sight of two white South Africans in deepest rural Turkey was as bewildering for them as the whole trip was for us.
I have rarely left anywhere without an overwhelming impression – this was different. I still can’t totally comprehend our experience, but it continues to intrigue and fascinate, and reminds me that the headline takeaway about anything is almost never, ever, the truth. The truth is almost always a crescent of contradictions. DM