City on the Brink

Justice and Development Party supporters climb up trees during a rally in Istanbul on March 23, 2014. (Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images)

Justice and Development Party supporters climb up trees during a rally in Istanbul on March 23, 2014. (Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images)

Friday dawn, March 21, 2014

Istanbul these days is suffused by a sense of the absurd. Its effervescent fin-de-sièclism assails the newly arrived visitor to the city from their first steps through the Babel-like mix of nationalities queuing at passport control—Iranians over for Nowruz, the Persian New Year; tall, fair couples from Eastern Europe and Russia standing alongside each other like paired giraffes; Arabs hailing their relatives as they shuffle through the line—to the seaside drive into the city past a sprawling artificial promontory jutting out into the Sea of Marmara and spookily illuminated by hundreds of lamp-posts in the misty pre-dawn. This is where Turkey’s most controversial man, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, would address the nation on the last stop of his electoral campaign.

As the taxi drives through the Byzantine walls encircling the imperial peninsula, the slumbering city emerges from the mist, its seeming muteness amplified in the early hours by the silence of those within it reeling from a shock ban on Twitter that went into effect a few hours earlier.

Later, people crowd into mosques to attend Friday prayers. Volunteers for Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) are busy handing out leaflets to the congregation, reminding the faithful of their almost religious obligation to attend the Istanbul rally on Sunday. But the news on open radios and televisions is of a bizarre attack mounted by three Eastern European jihadists belonging to (ISIS), the Syrian civil war’s mutant child, on a Turkish police checkpoint. Apparently the militants were headed towards Istanbul, intending to strike a country they deplore for its secularism. Commentators saw it as predictable spillover, given Turkey’s involvement in the Syrian civil war.

But talk in the mosques centers on the series of leaked tapes purporting to reveal top-level ruling party officials, including the prime minister, engaging in corrupt practices. Rumors sweep the city that the next escalation in the campaign will involve two more tapes featuring Erdoğan: one described as a ‘sex tape’ featuring a mutaa wedding, a religiously permissible temporary marriage, and another one allegedly implicating the prime minister in the death of a far-Right Turkish politician in a 2009 helicopter crash. The majority of AKP supporters are convinced that the highly damaging recordings of telephone conversations are false, even though the prime minister has admitted some of the conversations are real.

Saturday night, March 22

In Beyoğlu, the center of Istanbul’s nightlife, you wouldn’t know that the economy and currency are faltering for all the packed bars and restaurants. The once-multicultural district has been the epicenter of tensions between opponents of the government and police, with most weekends featuring protests and teargas intruding on the dancing and open-air dining.

Just the previous week, a fifteen-year-old boy succumbed to wounds sustained from being shot in the head with a tear gas canister during the Gezi Park protests after lying comatose for months. Huge crowds came out for his funeral even as Erdoğan shocked otherwise-hardened observers by dismissing the dead boy as a “terrorist.” Clashes followed the funeral and a Marxist group shot dead an AKP supporter. But escalating violence and polarization were avoided when the fathers of the two dead men met and called for unity.

“I feel as if we’re living the calm before the storm and everyone appears to be preparing themselves for the next day, after March 30,” said Yanni Gigourtsis, a long-term resident of Istanbul and Turkey observer.

On İstiklal, the city’s main pedestrian shopping street, crowds are thick with plainclothes policemen who hardly bother to disguise their crackling walkie-talkies. Riot police vans are parked in the side streets, and policemen lounge at cafes drinking tea and playing backgammon. But, unlike other weekends, there is a conspicuous lack of protesters.

“They’re avoiding the trap the prime minister is trying to suck them into,” said Zeyno Pekunlu, an Istanbul-based artist and activist. “They know that it plays to his interests now to set off civil strife.”

At a bustling top-floor tavern called Tavanarasi, a group of journalists and NGO workers dealing with the Syrian refugee crisis in Antakya sit down for dinner.

“I’ve seen jihadists, recognizably jihadists, transiting through the airport in Antakya on their way to fight in Syria,” said one New Zealander who was formerly posted in Pakistan. “There’s no way the Turkish government doesn’t know what they are there for.”

Even as she speaks, on the other side of Turkey’s southernmost border with Syria, at least three jihadi groups are attacking the village of Qasab. Turkish media publish evidence over the coming days that the rebels received covert logistical support from the Turkish state. The village’s terrified inhabitants, descendants of Armenian refugees of the 1915 Ottoman campaign, flee for their lives. A few months short of the hundredth anniversary of the systematic slaughter of Christians in Turkey, over a thousand of them are made refugees once more. Behind them, the jihadists raise the black flag of Al-Qaeda over the village’s dome-roofed church.

Sunday morning, March 23

Breakfast is arguably the most important meal in Turkey, and shops in the bohemian neighborhood of Cihangir specializing in spreads so opulent they can only be properly attended to on lazy Sundays, are already creating lines of eager brunchers. A few streets away lives a journalist and translator from Istanbul’s Greek community. Weekend-edition newspapers are spread across a living room whose windows catch a glimpse of Bosporus blue.

The papers run coverage of President Abdullah Gül’s statements that any threats made against the mausoleum of Süleyman Shah, the founder of the Turkic Seljuk Empire, will be taken as a reason for Turkish military intervention in Syria.

“It will be protected the way our homeland is protected,” Gül said. “It’s Turkey’s land and it will have its flag there. I want everybody to know this.”

The mausoleum stands on a sliver of Turkish territory inside northern Syria negotiated under a 1921 agreement and is guarded by a detachment of twenty-five Turkish soldiers. Recent threats from radical Islamist rebels resulted in Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu saying that “any measures” will be taken to defend it, prompting Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the head of the opposition Republican People's Party, to claim that “Erdoğan will cause even a war in order to remain in power . . . I have information that he will use an attack on Süleyman Shah’s mausoleum as a pretext.”

My head spun with the implications that a war against Syria would have as I left the apartment. On the sunny pavements, the extensive breakfasting was still in full swing, though the queuing crowds had disappeared.

It was the day of Erdoğan’s speech and the streets were empty. Buses belonging to the AKP were bringing in the party faithful from across the city. Foreign journalists at Yenikapı, the site of the landfill development touted as accommodating 1.25 million people, were receiving mild harassment from party faithful.

A few kilometers away, close to a Nowruz celebration organized by local Kurds, a group of dozens of men were in the process of vandalizing a Greek Orthodox church. A flag belonging to a liberal pro-Kurdish party that has itself been the target of nationalist mobs recently was left in the church. The guardians of the church, who escaped to the nearest police station, were told by the police that they wouldn’t intervene for fear of further enraging the crowd.

Sunday afternoon

Clouds scudded nervously across the sky as morning pushed into afternoon. I walked over to have a coffee with a journalist working for one of the mainstream, pro-government channels. Walking into her office, she announced that a Syrian airplane had just been shot by the Turkish Air Force. Over at Yenikapı, the news could not have come at a better time for Erdoğan, who mid-speech twirled the information into a rabble-rousing snippet: “Our response will be heavy if our airspace is violated,” he said to cheers.

Leaving the television station, I headed up the Bosporus to meet a psychiatrist friend who had just moved back to Turkey. We sat by the water as the March evening wind rose, sipping cups of tea. Erdoğan’s speech had finished and boats decorated with glittery AKP paraphernalia drifted up the channel, pumping out traditional kemençe music. We watched the party supporters dance on the decks as if already celebrating victory.

“Erdoğan’s behavior can be explained by examining the role he used to play as the mediator between his authoritarian father and scared mother and older siblings,” the psychiatrist said. “He both learned to emulate his father and to feel contempt for the weakness of his mother and siblings.”

“Today he finds it impossible to move even an inch—he interprets it as showing weakness.”

Monday dawn

The taxi raced to the airport. Hundreds of broken stones were strewn around the Kazlıçeşme area where the Nowruz celebrating and church vandalizing had taken place, as if it had been the scene of a riot rather than a celebration.

Queuing at passport control, I tried and failed to access Twitter. It occurred to me that Erdoğan, who has been dubbed a neo-Ottoman padishah, is engaging in behavior reminiscent of the paranoid Sultan Abdul Hamid II. His efforts to modernize his tottering empire were offset by an extreme fear of conspiracies that resulted in the grounding of the navy and the obliging of the army to conduct training without bullets.

Fearing how technology might be used against him, Abdul Hamid banned the introduction of electric trams, telephones and electrical appliances, in what might be called a 'Twitter ban' moment. Is history now repeating itself?

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