“Are you a Christian?” The question was trapped in the amber of the Muslim call to prayer ringing out all around. It was asked by an old man as we stood across the street from the Armenian Orthodox Patriarchate and in front of St George Church in the Fatih area of Istanbul on a golden Sunday evening a few weeks ago.
I said I was free of faith. He looked bemused. “Free of faith? Free of faith! Hmph! But without faith you cannot live.” I did not argue the obvious. Here I was, alive, well and happy. Probably, in significant part, because I was free of faith.
He didn’t pursue the issue, no doubt considering me a lost cause. Instead, he unfurled priest’s vestments, all but disappeared into their billowing blackness as he donned them with a flourish, bade us farewell and marched theatrically into the church to solemnise a wedding. Father Elvis, not his real name, had entered the building.
In a restaurant in thoroughly hipsterised Karaköy, a young woman sat among friends who had gathered to mark one of their birthdays. Only she wore hijab. But like everyone else at the table, she smoked and swigged beer from the bottle.
Was she rebelling against her culture? Was she a subversive in disguise trying to undermine the faith that signals that culture? What would the Istanbullus who are adamant that the nation is divided strictly into those who drink alcohol and those who do not make of her? She had faith, it appeared. Would Father Elvis have approved?
Layers of society
Like baklava, Turkey has many layers. It is more probable than possible, in only a few of Istanbul’s teeming streets, to find cafés serving muddy Turkish coffee alongside those offering the jet fuel that is Antipodeans’ gift to espresso.
Or classy bars and restaurants showcasing some of the 61.5 million litres of wine the country produces annually – much of it of high quality, but only 5% of it exported – to a nation of more than 82 million, 99.8% of whom call themselves Muslim.
Or nostalgic shrines to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk – the modernising secularist who was galvanised by leading an army to victory over the Allies, commanded by Winston Churchill, at Gallipoli in 1916 into becoming the founding father of modern Turkey in 1923 – within sight of staunchly sacrosanct places of worship.
Or tight-topped transgender sex workers leaning out of first-floor windows and trying, loudly, to fish customers from the streaming pavements leading to a market frequented by conservative Kurdish women, identifiable by their penchant for snowy, delicately tassled, almost gossamer hijab.
Or 3.6 million Syrians, having fled the war at home, transposing their lives – complete with cardamom-laced coffee, a type of dried spinach called molokhiya and restaurants using the same names, offering the same menu, staffed by the same chefs and waiters, serving the same customers as they did in Damascus and Aleppo – on to a city that has shape-shifted through the ages, from being called Lygos, Augusta Antonina, Byzantium, Stanbulin, Constantinople, Islambol, Polin, Bolis, al-Qustantiniyya, the New Rome, the New Jerusalem and the Throne of the Romans.
Where power abides
Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has mastered separating the layers of the baklava just far enough – while also keeping the whole in one piece – to stay in power.
Born on 26 February 1954 in Kasımpaşa, an ancient section of Beyoğlu on Istanbul’s European side whose hills tumble into the Golden Horn, Erdoğan grew up selling lemonade and simit – a kind of crisp, sesame-seed bagel that is the breakfast of choice for almost every Turk – in the streets, where he also played football.
Rather than a prolific scorer, he was blessed with the foresight to create goals and played professionally for Kasımpaşa. These days the club’s stadium, immaculately appointed but small with a capacity of only 14 000, bears his name.
That doesn’t fit with the rest of the Erdoğan story though, because what he does, he does big. Bridges swoop and gleam. One, across the Golden Horn, comes replete with a metro stop, another is the third suspension bridge across the Bosphorus. A mosque in the grand imperial manner, big enough to hold 63 000, looms lumpily in the distance. A vast new international airport is slickly efficient and almost an enjoyable place to be. A tunnel has been burrowed under the Bosphorus to relieve car-clogged Istanbul.
Erdoğan holds a Trumpian perspective laced with Putinesque overtones, which never fails to quicken the patriotic pulse, particularly of Turks outside the main centres. At the Bosphorus bridge’s opening in August 2016, he presented a Turkish proverb as his own profundity: “When a donkey dies, it leaves behind its saddle. When a man dies, he leaves behind his works. We will be remembered for this.”
Not all it seems
But as with US President Donald Trump, there is dodginess in the details. The running track that hugs the shore under the bridge over the Golden Horn looks like something out of user-friendly Brisbane in Australia. Alas, it peters out in less than a kilometre.
Similarly, kiosks flutter with all manner of newspapers, 45 of them national dailies and another 15 exclusive to Istanbul. And few will say less than a glowing word about Erdoğan, not least because 231 journalists have been jailed in the wake of a failed coup on 15 July 2016. The hand of Erdoğan the closet Islamist – some accuse him of practising neo-Ottomanism – trying to subvert Turkey’s decades of secularism is plain to all who want to see it.
Mosques are built in spaces previously dominated by churches and, like all the others in the country, they are funded by the regime, which pays everything from the salaries of clerics to the cleaning bills – and controls what is preached.
Every Thursday evening, the sermon for the next day’s juma service, the week’s most important and best attended prayer for Muslims the world over, flutters into the inbox of every imam in Turkey. That’s not to say the men of the cloth don’t have a choice: either they relay the message as is or they follow the themes outlined, helpfully, in the same document.
Lessons on evolution and Atatürk and his successor, Ismet Inönü, have been removed from the school curriculum amid promises to teach “from the perspective of a national and moral education” to “protect national values” – code for a more conservative, religious approach.
And it’s working. Turkish flags displayed prominently in the streets, and there are many, have been put there either by overt nationalists or migrants desperate to proclaim their affection for the country.
If you want to research why that has happened, and you are in Turkey, don’t bother with Wikipedia. Since April 2017, the site has been banned there in the wake of articles that said the country was a state sponsor of terrorism.
“My motherland, my beautiful but bruised motherland, is not a democracy,” Turkish author Elif Shafak wrote in an article for politics and policy news organisation Politico last year. For views like that, she is routinely rubbished in Erdoğan’s press, and never given the right of reply. Yet erudite, impassioned opposition to the president and his government’s policies is as easy to find in Istanbul’s streets as crisp baklava and muddy coffee.
People speak openly about their fear of where Turkey might be after Erdoğan, who has ruled since 2003, is no longer in office; when his powerful allies in the construction industry finally run out of money. But some of those same people decline to accept the fact of the genocide, perpetrated by the Ottomans, that claimed the lives of 1.5 million Armenians between 1914 and 1923. On that score, they are one with Erdoğan’s regime, which protested petulantly in April when France and Portugal officially recognised this systematic mass murder for what it was.
The Kurds will know how the Armenians felt. Erdoğan has long labelled their organised structures as terrorist and there is evidence that in their attempts to raise funds, they operate in a more clandestine fashion than most political groups.
But Turkey’s army didn’t ask who was a member of what when they began driving the Kurds out of northern Syria on 9 October, which they were free to do after Trump withdrew a small force of strategically situated American troops. Erdoğan wanted a buffer 30km deep and 480km long on Turkey’s southern border with Syria and, by 28 October, his troops had displaced an estimated 130 000 people and left 400 000 without access to clean water. How many have been killed in the cause is unclear.
On 29 October, the anti-Trump US Congress decided, by 405 votes to 11, that the Armenians had indeed been victims of genocide. As a position of principle it came a century too late. As a backlash against their own president it was clear, and derided by the Turks.
“Circles believing that they will take revenge this way are mistaken,” Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, posted on social media. “This shameful decision of those exploiting history in politics is null and void for our government and people.”
The brutality and bloodletting has ceased, at least until Erdoğan makes good on his threat to chase the legions of Syrian refugees back from whence they came. But the damage has been done. It didn’t help the Kurds that most of them are, like Erdoğan, Sunni Muslims. Not that they would have been spared had they been something else. Because Erdoğan is, at his core, once all his artifice is stripped away and his ambition exposed, that thoroughly human thing: free of faith.