Thursday, June 13, 2013

Sultan of S.W.A.T.

Nearly three months have passed since our whirlwind tour of three countries in ten days, my ever growing need to quench my wanderlust stymied by the cost of flights to Europe. The trip grew from two countries to three for precisely the same reason – airfare was cheaper through Turkey. Of course, what we didn’t pay for in money we spent in time – long layovers that really cut into our vacation time. One layover, however, gave us the opportunity to walk around Istanbul for an evening, though we never got to Taksim Square.

Turkey has recently entered the global fray of the malcontent. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogen has been the PM for as long as I have been cognizant of Turkish affairs. The country was a punchline in childhood jokes, more often than not paired with Hungary. In reality, Erdogen took office in 2003, but ten years (and counting) is certainly a long time for a leader to be in power, long enough for his administration to step into the realm of authoritarianism. Police are attacking Turkish citizens at Taksim Square as I type this.

I had been to Istanbul a few years ago in a whimsical trip from Bulgaria, so I knew the general layout of the tourist areas, which is all we had time for during the layover. Unfortunately, the bulk of our time would be spent sleeping, as we arrived from Rome in the afternoon and Europe had yet to switch to daylight savings time. I hadn’t made hotel reservations, assuming the plethora of budget hotels and hostels would have an available room. I wanted to stay in the same place as the last time but couldn’t find it because, well, I don’t know. I’ve always been adept in the biological art of mapping (indeed, we have special neurons that help us find our way in the world). And though I could get to the area easily without a map more than five years later, the exact location of the hotel was elusive. We stopped in several places with no vacancy and that same feeling about bad hotel luck that we had experienced under the duress of food poisoning in Rome. That’s why we followed a shady stranger with a business card that seemed to indicate he was a proprietor of a budget hotel he said was “just around the corner.”

Istanbul is an ancient city. I mean ancient, the kind of it’s-always-been-there city that I like. Born around 660 BC as Byzantium and known as Constantinople for a time, Istanbul has survived nearly twenty-seven centuries, though ruins of a settlement dating back to 6700 BC were discovered during construction of a subway station. Even the rocks are priceless, because you never know what archaeological treasure they could have been chipped from. The Greeks founded Byzantium and settled all over Turkey. The sites of Troy (Trojan horse) and Rhodes (Colossus of Rhodes) are located in present-day Turkey. Wars, wars, Romans, wars, Persians, wars… Then came the split of the Roman Empire in the fourth century under Emperor Constantine (the guy who converted to Christianity from Roman paganism, moved the imperial city from Rome to Byzantium, and ordered the creation of the Bible from various sectarian religious texts), creating the Byzantine Empire. More wars, wars, Crusades, Saladin, wars, more wars…Then the Ottoman Turks took over the area in the mid-fifteenth century and ruled until they were defeated in World War I. Brutal at times, tolerant at others, the Ottoman Empire oversaw extensive development in many parts of the region; some areas were given autonomy or semi-autonomy, and municipalities were modernized and expanded.  Upon defeat in World War I, Ottoman lands were divided among the victors. Turkish nationalists fought a war for independence against Britain, France, Italy, and Greece, eventually gaining it with the Treaty of Lausanne. It’s been a secular democracy ever since, aside from a coup here and there.

I’ve spent a lot of my adult life traveling in other countries, so I know when to be wary of such shady characters as the man who said he had a hotel room for us. But we were also weary – the time change, three days in Lebanon, food poisoning, five days in Italy, five airports, and several trains and buses will do that to you – so we took a chance and followed him around the corner, where the hotel was supposedly located. These were busy streets, mind you; we weren’t going to follow the shady stranger into a dark alley. The hotel wasn’t around that corner or the next or the next – we winded our way through the ancient streets of Istanbul, descending a hill into the Zeyrek quarter with its derelict wooden houses that are barely standing 160-200 years after they were constructed. I pointed them out to Chris as objects of beauty without wondering why I thought they were beautiful. They reeked of poverty; many of their inhabitants are migrants from southeast Turkey who don’t have the money to maintain them. UNESCO finds them worthy of preserving, as its World Heritage Committee has undertaken restoration projects in an attempt to save a piece of history. The dark boards lend a certain harmony to the twisting streets; I tried to get Chris to notice them but he was too tired or busy worrying about where the stranger was taking us to listen to my history lesson.

We hadn’t really noticed we were descending a hill. The winding was intense, and when the liar had taken us around enough corners with no hotel around any of them, we turned to head back to the area from where we had started. But we didn’t know how to get back. Too many curves and corners had been turned. We’d have to get back by sense of direction and periodic glimpses of the towering minarets of the famed Blue Mosque. Eventually we got there and found a budget hotel with a vacancy as well, but we were now in the waning hours of daylight – the shady stranger had robbed us of an hour of precious sun on our last day of vacation. We’d have to see the sites under the cover of darkness.

Darkness. These are dark days in Turkey. Erdogen seemed to be good for the country when he was first elected. Per capita income has tripled and exports have increased nearly tenfold since he took office. Economically, people are better off than they were a decade ago. But his conservative views have increasingly encroached upon the secular state. He and his political party, AKP, want to force their religious views upon the country, just like American Republicans want to do to us. Erdogen is of the same mold as them – an ardent capitalist with little concern for anything but economic development. He’s an adherent to the international profitmonger ideology that views the world solely through economics. Indeed, I once saw him speak at the American Enterprise Institute, that capitalist propaganda organization whose board members include such luminous assholes as Dick Cheney and Daniel A. D'Aniello, co-founder and managing director of The Carlyle Group. They’re all part of the cult of economic growth that is responsible for turning so much of the world into stripmall hell. They care nothing for historic sites, for parks, for libraries, or for the residencies of human beings if they stand in the way of another shopping mall. These depositories of drudgery strip the soul from our lives. But it goes on because people just don’t get that going to these malls and buying their products allow it to continue.

We unloaded our bags in a tiny room in the budget hotel near the Blue Mosque and set out to see some of the city. I wanted to take Chris down to the water, where the Sea of Marmara met the Bosporus Strait, one of the busiest waterways in the world. (Indeed, the strait is so important that a Bond villain tried to nuke Istanbul to kill off traffic in The World Is Not Enough.) We descended the hill down to Kennedy Avenue, beneath the glow of Topkapi, the Ottoman palace that overlooked the water, and stopped to watch commuters drive their cars onto ferries after getting off work for the day.

Then we made our way to the Galata Bridge, with its fish restaurants and fishermen and the harassing merchants so characteristic of Istanbul. “Excuse me, excuse me, what’s your name? Can I ask you a question? Deal for you.” We just wanted to sit down for a beer, not a twenty dollar piece of mackerel.

In my previous trip I had eaten fresh mackerel sandwiches from street vendors for four dollars. Chris seems to have an aversion to street food; we had our first argument on a trip to New York over eating it. (I bought gyros from a truck and he realized I was right!) Instead of four dollar fresh mackerel sandwiches, we chose a restaurant on the bridge and overpaid for beers and appetizers, though the spicy mussels were delicious. We marveled at the giant shrimp and the fresh fish and then continued our wandering.

Tourism is a huge industry in Istanbul, and they milk you for every last penny. Everything costs ten bucks to enter, even the churches (though the mosques are free to enter, which makes the church entry fees feel like a modern-day dhimmi tax.) It was dark outside and everything was closed for the evening, but the plan was to get up early enough in the morning to visit the Hagia Sophia, which I had been unable to visit during my last trip. However, I was with Chris, so that never happened. Instead, we stopped in a bar where he showed a lack of understanding about the cultural differences of nations. Though we enjoyed our conversation with the bartender about various socio-political topics, Chris seemed to think the bartender would give us free beers because they were fellow "industry guys" and kept ordering them even though I told him not to. Thus went our Hagia Sophia budget!

As we walked back, we peeked into a hookah cafĂ©, where some kids let Chris smoke a hookah for the first time in his life. It was the last good experience of our vacation. We slept late and hurried to the airport on Istanbul’s wonderfully efficient public transportation system. They’ve made great improvements in that regard, largely driven by the city’s desire to host the 2020 Olympics. I wonder if Taksim events have hurt that cause. (Right now the Olympic Committee says it does not.)

The trip seems like it was so long ago and the city seems like a bizarro version of itself. The events in Taksim have been characterized as anti-government protests, but that isn’t accurate. While the protests have certainly moved on to more general actions of the government itself, it essentially goes back to the shopping mall. "Economic growth" at any cost. That’s what makes governments go bad, and that’s how Erdogen and American Republicans can get away with legislating religion into our lives. (Funny how so many conservative religious types are adherents to the free market ideology, isn't it?) Those who get rich off these profit-at-all-costs economic policies stop at nothing to keep these types in power, and the people, who forget their anger and shop in the malls anyway, don’t do much to try to stop them. Taksim protests and others like them have to happen if we are to save what's left of the soul of us.

Occupy Istanbul. Occupy Wall Street. Occupy Humanity.

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