Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Taksim Square and Gezi Park

world-map istanbul


Every so often there’s a happening in the news which gets me thinking about some of my travels. It’s not surprising I suppose; after all, the vast majority of news that is interesting comes from exotic and unstable places and most of the trips that I take are to, well… rather and exotic and unstable places. However, for the majority of those trips, there is always a sense of catching up with the past: I went to Bosnia and Kosova to see the scars of war there and to Chernobyl to check out a disaster that happened almost thirty years earlier. This week however, I’ve had a sense of being there before the action.


Nowhere on earth has been in the media spotlight this week and last more than Gezi Park and Taksim Square in Istanbul, which have been occupied by protesters angry at Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan whom the protesters claim is a dictator.

Now, exciting and dramatic whilst all this may be, it has also been met by a certain degree of confusion by the rest of the world: if Erdogan is a dictator, then how come he was elected, three times. Indeed, he has seen some of the biggest election landslides in recent decades in Turkey and was seen as something of a popular choice. Popular choice PMs however, do not have thousands of people protesting in parks against them. So, what’s the crack?


Well, back in 2003 I made my first ever trip to Turkey and began to learn about a fascinating country that faces both East and West and is both secular and religious, modern and backward. Those who are protesting in the park are, by and large, not those who voted for Mr. Erdogan: they are largely young, educated and urban. His constituents tend to be none of the above. Now this is a split which may be found in virtually any society on earth but in secular-Muslim Turkey it is far more pronounced, and nothing demonstrates this better than the time when I met Elif in the restaurant of Haydarpasa Railway Station, just across the Bosporus from where all the trouble is at the moment.

I hope that it sheds some light.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt


istanbul map

Elif, The Most Loved

(an extract from my travelogue ‘Cold Turkey’)

Copyright © Matthew E. Pointon 2003

I had over three hours to kill before my train but decided not to attempt anymore sightseeing for several reasons. Firstly, Ahmed had told me that there was little to do on this side of the Bosporus other than gaze at the other side and although I had time enough to return to Europe, there was a lurking worry at the back of my mind that the weather would worsen and I’d be stranded on a different continent to my departing train. The main reason however, was that in the cold and rain, there was nothing that I fancied doing anyway. Indeed, all I did fancy was staying somewhere warm and dry and, ideally, with caffeine to hand. And where better to stay than the fine, blue-tiled station restaurant, a graceful bastion of imperial elegance with aforementioned caffeine sold at a very reasonable price?

haydarpasa Haydarpasa Restaurant: colonial elegance

And so I stayed put, planning to wile away the hours a la Somerset Maughan, sipping tea and writing books in a setting straight out of the 1920s. All that was missing was a white linen suit and a trilby.

I had not however, counted on meeting Elif. She was a dark-haired lady sat on the next table who, noticing my foreignness, asked in perfect English if I needed any help with menu translation. As it happened I did not since someone had already thoughtfully translated it into my native tongue, but the introduction sufficed and we fell into conversation and were soon sharing the same table.

And thus my epic novel of colonial intrigues with the climatic scene set in Istanbul’s Haydar Paşa Railway Station never got written, but to be honest, I was glad. It would probably have been of doubtful quality anyhow whereas my new table companion provided a conversation of a far higher calibre.

“I like it in here,” she said. “Here in Turkey trains are regarded as communist. All the money goes into roads. That’s why the trains are cheap, though they’re beautiful and the food is good. Trains you see, are communist in Turkey.”

I’d read this before actually, not only in my guidebook, but also in several travelogues about the country. Turkish State Railways are largely an organisation for ferrying government employees about.

“Yes, government employees, communists, poor people and artists or intellectuals,” she continued in her American-accent English. “I always prefer to travel by train though; it’s safer and much cheaper.”

This sounded like a lady after my own heart, but which of the Turkish train-travelling types was she?

“A communist and an artistic intellectual type I suppose.” This definitely was my kind of lady!

And so we talked about the prospects of a US-led war with Iraq, a plan supported by both our governments and unpopular with the majority of both our peoples. That exhausted, we moved onto the topics of minorities and religion.

“Do you know what you should really try to see whilst in Turkey?” said Elif.

“What’s that?”

“One of the Armenian churches. Do you know the choirs they have? They’re beautiful, absolutely unbelievable. I often go on a Sunday to listen; they even asked me to join once but I refused, after all, they’re a minority and it’s not polite to interfere too much.”

This sympathy and admiration for the Armenians surprised me. Was ‘Elif’ not a Muslim name?

“Well, yes it is, although only the Turks name girls ‘Elif’. It’s the name of the first letter of the Arabic alphabet, like Alef in Hebrew, but for the Turks it’s something else as well. Elif was the name of the woman whom Karacaoğlan, one of our most famous poets, loved most.[1] That’s why my mother named me Elif, as I was the most loved. But as for my religion, well, I’m not really Muslim, I’m agnostic.

karacaoğlan Karacaoğlan

Agnostic. I admired her reply. It is a word that one doesn’t hear often, yet we should, for is are not most of the world’s population truly agnostic? The fashionable, who declare themselves ‘atheist’ elicit no sympathy from me. To declare proudly that you know for sure that no God exists is just as arrogant and blinkered as those who state that their particular sect or creed is the one true faith and the followers of all the others are at best misguided and at worse damned for eternity. Agnosticism is an admittance of doubt. We are all a little agnostic I think, deep down. Few of us though, are brave enough to admit it.

Elif was a lawyer, or at least, she had been until Turkey’s recent economic woes had put her out of work in that field and she was now translating instead, a job that paid well but that she detested. “My three years working as an international lawyer were the happiest of my life,” she declared. It turned out that she’d worked for a Turkish firm and had dealt with cases in the Caucasus and Moldova which often required her to travel to those countries. The Caucasus she loved, perhaps due to her being a quarter Armenian in ethnicity. Moldova she said had the most beautiful girls on earth. This picqued by interest even more than her descriptions of the mountains and cultures to be found in between the Black and Caspian seas. Perhaps a visit to Chisinau should be planned one day?

Finally, we got onto the topic of women in Turkey. The Islamic conception of the female is radically different from the Western and it is something that has fascinated me for a long time and so I wanted to see how the situation was here in Turkey, a supposedly modern and secular state that had recently voted in an Islamic party.

“That is a big topic but it is an interesting one. Everyone says that we are a modern state and in law we are, entirely modern. But it’s only on the surface, underneath we are different. That is the problem with us women; we were given things, like the vote, but we were not ready for them. Take sex for example; we can sleep around alright, just like in any modern country, but the girls here don’t see it like the others; they don’t have sex as sex, they say, “Oh well, it was a mistake,” or, “Well, I’m going to marry him anyway.” It’s still not seen as an activity that you can just do. The government lets you do anything you want but there’s still the family at home with all its ethics.

This reminded of the Muslim girls that I’d met in Bulgaria. Perfectly modern in every respect, not even a headscarf in sight, yet sex was still taboo and you wouldn’t dream of marrying a different man than he whom you lost your virginity to.

“And what’s worse, they always blame the men!”

“What do you mean?”

“A guy meets a Turkish girl, say in a bar or something. She starts to be friendly with him and coming on to him. So a little later he says, ‘Shall we go back to my place?’ and she agrees so back they go and of course they go to bed and have sex. Then they go to sleep and yet when he wakes up in the morning, she acts like he’s raped her! Like I said, Turkish women have the freedom; the problem is, we don’t know how to deal with it.”

After Elif left I began to feel the effects of a şiş kebab and several çays on my bladder so I got up to go to the toilet. Standing opposite to the door to the WCs were two young women clad head to toe in graceful black khimars with only their eyes and noses showing. Artistic, intellectual, communist and agnostic Elif who freely admitted sexual relationships with non-mahram men was at one end of the Turkish female spectrum. These two, who stayed in a corner and turned to the wall as I passed so as to be free from prying male eyes, represented the other.

black_ghost1 Conservative Turkish lady in traditional dress

And entering the toilet cubicle I found that although it was spotlessly clean and well-maintained, there was no paper in sight and instead a jug under a tap in which to rinse one’s left hand afterwards.

I understood what Elif had said when she’d described her country as modern on the surface only.

Luckily, I had paper.

[1] Karacaoğlan was a 17th century folk poet who wrote many famous love poems. The story of Elif goes as follows:

‘In his youth, Karacaoğlan was passing through a town. Strumming his saz, he came upon a rose garden. As he grew ecstatic from the vivid colours and the exquisite smell of the roses, suddenly his eyes fell on an indescribably beautiful girl sauntering among the flowerbeds. He stood there, bewitched. He was already feeling in his heart the flames of love - - and, unable to restrain himself, he broke into song. The lovely young woman took a few steps toward him and listened with heart and soul. When the song was over, she started to walk away without uttering a word. Alarmed that he might never lay eyes on her again, the poet implored: “You are the loveliest of all lovely women. Please stay a while. At least tell me your name?” She hesitated. Then, in a barely audible voice, she said, “Elif.”

Karacaoğlan was struck by the symbolic significance of “Elif”, a name common among the Turks for many centuries: It is derived from “aleph”, the first letter of the Arabic alphabet, with the numerical value of l. Elif stood there, the epitome of gracefulness, dainty as a leaf. For the young poet, this slender girl was the beginning of all things.

They exchanged a few polite words. She had heard of the minstrel. After a few sentences, she revealed that she was married and had children. Karacaoğlan was distressed: He had found and lost his beloved in the same instant. He also found out that she came from a well-to-do family and could read and write.

Desperately in love at first sight, the young minstrel began to serenade this exquisite woman. He chanted a poem that has enchanted the Turks for more than three centuries now. The poem celebrates her among the many splendours of nature - - and bemoans the pain inflicted by unrequited love:

With its tender flakes, snow flutters about,
Keeps falling, calling out “Elif… Elif…”
This frenzied heart of mine wanders about
Like minstrels, calling out “Elif… Elif…”

Elif’s robe is embroidered all over;
Her eyes – like a baby goshawk’s – glower.
She smells lovely like a highland flower,
With those scents calling out “Elif… Elif…”

When she frowns, her glance is a dart that goes
Into my heart: I fall into death’s throes.
In her white hand she holds a pen - she knows
What she writes, calling out “Elif… Elif…”

Right in front of her home a trellis stands;
There’s Elif, holding glasses in her hands.
It’s as if a duck whose head has green strands
Gently floats, calling out “Elif… Elif…”

I am the Minstrel: your slave for my part.
There’s no love for other belles in my heart.
Unbuttoning the shirt, I tear apart
The collars, calling out “Elif… Elif…”  

Summary by Prof. Talat S. Halman. Found on http://www.turkishculture.org/literature/literature/poetry/17th-century-karacaoglan-465.htm

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