Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Field Notes: Istanbul, Turkey

Field Notes: Istanbul, Turkey

As the world witnesses the largest rural-to-urban migration in human history, many great international cities have started to feel like carbon copies of themselves.  New York, London, and Sydney have more in common with each other than than with neighbors like Rochester, Liverpool, and Brisbane.  In these powerful global city-states, their relationship to other centers (or centres) of international culture seems to matter more to defining a city’s identity than its geography.  Their homogeneous efficiency makes us wonder: what cities, by virtue of geography alone, will endure in their importance?

No global metropolis feels more geographically timeless than Istanbul.  Since mankind first set sail, the Bosphorous Strait has connected the Black Sea to the Mediterranian through the Sea of Marmara.  Then, as now, ships passes between old and new worlds; for 2,700 years, civilizations have traded culture, religion, and commerce along it’s shores. Originally called Byzantium, then Constantinople, today’s Istanbul still straddles the same strategic location it did when King Byzas founded the colony in 660 BCE, connecting Anatolia as the bridge between Asia and Europe.  Modern Istanbul remains poised to unite these worlds; and the 20th century’s two suspension bridges across the Bosphorous offer a physical window into the challenges of achieving cultural unity while accomplishing national ambitions.

If the Ataturk Airport passport control line offers any indication, many Istanbul visitors are, like me, passing through as part of an extended Turkish Airlines layover.  With a motto of “Globally Yours” and athletes Lionel Messi and Kobe Bryant as spokesmen, Turkey’s national airline appears to have structured most international flight connections with 12-18 hour wait times.  This encourages travelers who have snapped up cheap air fares to enjoy a local meal, coffee, or bath before catching their outgoing flight.  One reason Turkish Airlines has built these tourist-friendly itineraries is to highlight Istanbul’s bid to host the 2020 Summer Olympic Games.  With Madrid mired in deep recession and Tokyo as the reported IOC favorite, the airline has partnered with authorities to increase Turkey’s chances for obtaining the Olympian spotlight. 

My taxi driver, a spirited impromptu tour guide, illustrates Istanbul’s paradoxes.  “Ataturk,” he says as we cross Taksim Square, pointing six or seven times to monuments, edifices, and spires reflecting the Father of Turkey’s post-World War I achievements.  “Ataturk very good!” He flashes a thumbs-up.  I smile, returning his thumbs-up and gesturing with open, upturned palms that encourage him to continue.  “Ataturk!” he says again, pushing up his jean jacket’s left sleeve and revealing a tattoo of the Turkish leader’s signature.  We point to the tatto and smile conspiratorially, increasing the driver’s enthusiasm.  “Ataturk…” he pauses, trying to find an English word… “… cowboy!”  He rolls his sleeve back down and lifts his arms touchdown-style, dancing a little jig in his seat.  “Yes! Ataturk cowboy!”

The driver wasn’t simply a passionate Turkish nationalist.  As a secular Muslim, both his forearm tattoo and allusion to John Wayne reflect a certain social risk that goes with opposing Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s pro-Muslim cultural policies.  For Erdogan’s opponents, one common (if simplistic) barometer of Turkey’s recent cultural shift has been an encouragement for women to wear the headscarf, or hijab.  Although the veil remains rare in tourist areas like Taksim Square, longtime female residents said they are routinely pressured to cover their heads in local neighborhoods — a pressure not present in Istanbul since pre-Ataturk.  Erdogan’s supporters argue truthfully that since Turkey has never been exclusively West, embracing a “neo-Ottoman” and pro-Islamic policy strengthens the Turkish state.

Recently, the Erdogan government gained favor in some Western corners after its early support for Syrian rebels against President Basher al-Assad’s Alawite regime.  My taxi driver might suggest more caution, given the Erdogan government’s wonton imprisonment of political critics.  Until recently, the most public face of these political prisoners was Fazil Say, an internationally renowed pianist charged with insulting Islam.  On April 26, the pianist, who had been convicted and given a 10-month jail sentence, opted instead for “retirement” and a retrial.  

Istanbul will always represent a connection between civilizations.  For this reason, Westerners should not hesitate to demand the right of Turkish political dissidents to breathe free as a minimal precondition for Olympic glory.  As Turkey’s Islamist tendancies and geopolitical ambitions wax and wane, the Istanbul air will still be saturated with the mystique of merchants and mariners, emperors and sultans, vanquished and visionaries.  

Ultimately the driver was right, not only about Ataturk, but about his city.  Istanbul will always be the singular Eurasian bridge.  And, thus, it is a lone ranger.