Saturday, April 15, 2017

The Crescent Moon is Absent as the Sun Sets - Thoughts From Istanbul

I wish I could have got a better photo of the moonrise that night. It came up over the Bosphorus, blood red; mirroring the colours of the western sky as the sun died away. A beautiful end to a beautiful day.

I had just returned from my first trip into the centre of Istanbul, emerging at the local Metro station which sits at the top of a nearby hillside in the north-west of the city. I wandered through a local neighbourhood which had shown a bustling high street, quiet backways and the call to prayer echoing up from the valley below. I descended towards the water down steep slopes populated by stray dogs, wild cats and domesciled saloon cars from Central Europe, and along winding roads that snaked through the Mediterranean greenery. When, suddenly, it rose - not crescent but crimson.

The whole scene was so close to Provence that it might have just been another stretch of the coast down beyond Nice. Though, from space, the Bosphorus looks broadly straight, on ground level it seems to never stop curving and bending like the Riviera coast; every now and then giving way more drastically to create beautiful, blue bays - sometimes wide and sometimes narrow - with little marinas here and there, and always a seafood restaurant or ten going on as they always have done. "They've been here forever," my host tells me.

It is an area that lives off the water. You see it in the many men who can be found fishing from morning to night, or through the constant stream of container ships sailing north and south. They are strangely majestic through their ugliness: gliding serenely in the sunlight, or proceeding quietly and darkly in the night. They are constant but they do not detract from the beauty of the strait.  A local billionaire - who has made his money out of the often dubious real estate trade - scoffs at Brits who might compare the Bosphorus with the "shitty River Thames". He is quite right. Whereas no money on earth could induce me to take my chances in London's river, this waterway is so inviting that I would gladly take part in the Cross-Continental swim that happens in the summer (unfortunately, swimming is forbidden for the rest of the year owing to the strong currents and heavy traffic). The waters are clear and, just a short stretch of coast up from where I am staying, they meet the third of three mighty bridges traversing the Bosphorus. Beyond there, the blue water gives way to the Black Sea and beyond there... unhappier lands.

Or, perhaps, I am too quick in that comparison. Istanbul is vibrant, grand and hospitable, but it is one that shows its turbulent history visibly and tangibly.

Some cities are scarred. Take Berlin which, for all its grandeur, both new and old, bears a deep wound which is two bricks wide and runs through the middle of the city where the wall once stood, and it is left there as a lesion - a clear sign of where the city was marked by history. Istanbul has that too. Or, rather, should I say that Byzantium has it too? Or Constantinople? For this is a city that wears its scars beneath centuries-worth of plastic surgery.

As we all know - or as we all hope - time heals all wounds, and the oldest ones in this city are the best healed. The day of the moonrise, I climbed the Galata Tower which is nearly 1,500 years old. It was built by a Byzantine Emperor as a lighthouse. From it, you can see the all of the historic places. Chief among these is the Hagia Sophia, the Basilica which is roughly as old as Galata. In 1054, that holy sight was the place where the Christian church split between East and West. 400 years later, the Ottoman Mehmet II had conquered the city. The Hagia Sophia was changed from being the heart of the Greek Orthodox Church to a Mosque that was the crowning glory of the Ottoman Empire's conquests. It is there that one sees the cosmetic surgery that the city has been given. Old Orthodox mosaics of Christ and Mary have been revealed underneath the crumbling Islamic decorations that still cling on above. The sight is no longer used for worship. The politics are too intractable, and it is now a museum.

Meanwhile, the Galata Tower had been rebuilt by the Genoese and was called Christ Tower. By 1580 however, the tower was being used to detain "forza": the name for Christian POWs. From its giddy and unique perspective, that building saw some of the greatest divisions and bloodshed that religion ever engendered. What pain must this city have endured?

Then, when the Ottoman Empire fell and Ataturk eventually succeeded not as an Emperor but as a President, Turkey began a new age, but a far from settled one. A man on my plane from London said that Ataturk was "more than a prophet to the Turks". The new Republic's first President introduced sovereignty of the people, secularism, the Latin alphabet and surnames - his own meaning "Father of the Turks". However, he did not introduce a modern democracy, and whilst the will of the ballot box has steadily gained respect, the "state" of Turkey has remained a battleground of competing institutions that are frequently opposed to each other. For instance, whilst Turkey has been governed by numerous governments of different colours, many of them have been overthrown by an army which often sees itself as the true guardians of the secular Turkey. The most recent such attempt was last summer, when the army vainly sought to remove President Erdogan.

However, perhaps they were not mistaken in standing up for the secularism that so many Turks hold so dear. Though he would deny that he is doing so, the current President is threatening that national character. Recep Tayip Erdogan is a uniquely successful politician, and his sense of the mood of the people is unparalleled. When he was running for Mayor of Istanbul in 1994, he was caught in a scandal - he had built houses without planning permission. At a debate, he was challenged on this and asked if he would destroy illegal housing. He did some straight-talking, honest politics and said "No, I live in illegal housing." Those who study Turkish elections have a clear consensus: this served to help Erdogan. Why? Because many citizens also lived in illegal housing, and others didn't care.

Erdogan's Islamist, socially conservative, Justice and Develoment Party (AK) speaks for many of the traditional Muslims, especially from the country's more rural areas. Erdogan champions "traditional Muslim values" and (whilst he is seemingly keen on joining the EU), he is not so keen on Western ways. For instance, although alcohol remains legal, it is illegal to advertise alcoholic beverages. It should also be noted that Erdogan has a terrible attitude towards freedom of speech and the press, but this doesn't make him unique amongst his predecessors. This is a country where it is a crime to insult Turkishness and, throughout the history of the Republic, journalists have frequently been tried and media outlets closed by a vengeful state.

Erdogan is mercurial. Across his fifteen years of dominance in Turkish politics, he has at times seemed like the hope for secular liberalism. Now, however, he is anything but. Come Monday morning, he may be the most powerful President in Turkey since Ataturk. The referendum this weekend could abolish the role of Prime Minister and install President Erdogan as Head of State and Government. The role of Parliament will be greatly reduced - they will not even have that most basic of parliamentary rights: control of the budget. In terms of reform, it seems close to the ones enacted by President Medvedev so that Valdimir Putin could resume his position as the ruler of Russia.

Such a move seems thoroughly un-Western. Certainly, it will serve to immobilise Erdogan's ambitions to join the EU, though many speculate that he has never had any intention of joining. The theory is rather, that he uses the hope of doing so as a political tool: he pleases liberals by saying that he wants to join, and then berates the West for stringing Turkey along when it suits him, to the delight of traditionalists. Erdogan's large support seems likely to translate into a referendum victory but (like all the fashionable referenda of this day and age) it looks like it could be tight. Many are wary of the fundamental change this might make to Turkey's character.

From this outsider's perspective, it seems to jar most keenly with the character of Istanbul, which is overwhelmingly a city of the West. This may not seem immediately apparent. English speakers are hard to come by, and the language itself - whilst not a million miles away from continental tongues - is from a totally different family. Whereas in Spain, Italy and even Germany, a native English speaker would have a good chance of deciphering a sign, here you have no touchstones that you can use. As you wander through the landscapes of the suburbs, you are immediately struck by how many minarets you can see. Mosques are alien to a Westerner's eye and they sprout out of the landscape on either side of the Bosphorus like dandelions out of grass. They are beautiful, and your eye is immediately drawn to them. I wondered whether - if I paid attention to how many spires there are in London - I might discover that churches are as ubiquitous at home. My suspicion is that I would not, but of one thing I am sure: whereas Mosques continue to proliferate here, we are not building new churches at home.

But beyond all of this superficiality, on the ground and in the centre of this place, this city harkens to the West. There is a grand financial district that has been copied and pasted from London or Frankfurt or Paris. Think of that island of skyscrapers you can see from the Eiffel Tower - that is what we get in Istanbul.

Meanwhile, the city itself continues that Mediterranean theme. There are times that you could be in a Tuscan town if it weren't for the undulating, urban thrum that accompanies every breath of the town. There are cobbled streets, shaded alleyways, shops that are dedicated to selling the craftwork of the artisan and, despite the disapproval of Mr Erdogan, there are bars. They are not regular, and in the suburbs it is rare to see wine or beer being drunk. However, more people than not drink the local tipple - Rakı - a softer version of absinthe, served with still water and ice. Nevertheless, you can be surprised by the sights you see in the watering holes and eateries. I had not really thought about what I had expected from the drinking culture here, but I never expected to see a Muslim woman drinking a hard-earned Guinness at the end of a day; good things come to those who have had enough of rakı. And then, talking of Western extravagances, I encountered in the suburbs a truly stunning thing - a genuine E-Type Jaguar. If that was not enough, the next car along was a vintage Ferrari. What is more than this, they prove to be utterly civilised by standing on the right of escalators, and doing so far better than Londoners do. The people of Istanbul would fit into any European city with consummate ease, and you sense that their compass pulls them away from the East.

But then, of course, the East is another country. On the other side of this nation, there are the terrible forces of division, war and racism. Syrians pour over the border to refugee camps that (whilst they are made to look like a Holiday Inn in comparison to Calais' jungle) are straining with the pressure. Tensions with the Kurds have rarely been higher - and that really is saying something. The whole picture is a world away from this metropolis that is so comfortable in its modern and peaceful ways that we have the time to spend hours in traffic jams.

Turkey has always been a bridge between two worlds and something of a misfit. We don't know whether to be welcoming or wary, and Turkey itself is torn between the Islamic world and the European. All of which underlines that this country is a key, strategic ally.

Which makes Sunday's referendum all the more troubling. One can see Erdogan's personal conflict - he is not your typical megalomaniac. His family comes from the country's East (though he was born in Istanbul, he regularly returns to the the family home and has opened a Mosque there) and, in an overwhelmingly Muslim country, he represents a large number of conservative Muslims for whom assimilation to the West is terrifying. But there is more at stake here than such fears. An Evet (yes) vote on Sunday will make this country very distant from Europe. Meanwhile, Mr Erdogan's roots as a champion of Islamic values have been trampled under the weight of his ego. His poster adorns the city and his is the biggest cult of personality since Ataturk's. Erdogan appears to be to Turkey and its Republican history what a stray dog is to Istanbul. You see him everywhere, and he is shitting on everything.

So, this land stands on another historical turning point. Though I began writing this on my second full night here, I end it on my last at the Suleyman Mosque - the most majestic and stunning of Istanbul's grand places of worship - and it is bathed in light at the dying of the day. I sip my chai and stare out across to the Golden Horn and to the Galata Tower, and then to the Bosphorus and beyond to Asia. The light is turning from orange again, and any moment now the red moon will rise once more. And it shall be strange and fearsome and grand. But it only rises when the sun is setting.

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