Can Europe Make It?

Turkey down the slippery road: stories of people in Izmir

"He has lost his mind and drags us to the abyss. I think, if I meet him somewhere and have a gun, I would shoot him. No kidding." says Aydin*.

Mirela Zarichinova
23 May 2016
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Izmir, Turkey. Pixabay. Some rights reserved.

I shudder. It’s not just the words but the fact that I’ve heard the same sentence for a second time this week in Izmir, Turkey. If you were here, in this small fish restaurant next to the sea side, you would be surprised as well.

Aydin looks like a polite, peaceful man, in his late 30s. He is originally from Istanbul, an engineer who moved to Izmir to open this restaurant where he welcomes tourists from all over the world. While he is telling us about Turkey’s current political situation, his eyes gently cross the tables in the almost empty restaurant. The above words put an end to our conversation about Izmir’s current tourism conditions. They are aiming at the president – Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The latter’s name quickly jumps into the conversation after we ask Aydin about his business.

Izmir is a beautiful 3-million-strong city by the Aegean Sea. It attracts guests with its beaches, architecture, history, with Turkey’s typical colorful and diverse atmosphere where tourists are left to wonder – are we at the Mediterranean or are we somewhere deep inside Asia?

Tourism under attack

“I am afraid for the season this year. It hasn’t really started yet, however, one can clearly feel that there are fewer tourists”, Aydin tells me. According to him, this is due to a few factors. After Turkey’s downing of a Russian plane, Aydin’s Russian clients have suddenly disappeared. In January the Turkish Culture and Tourism Ministry announced that it expects to lose 4.5 million tourists from Russia this year due to Moscow’s sanctions against Ankara.

Aydin points at other factors too – the refugee crisis and the terrorist attacks.

While we are picking up souvenirs from Izmir’s bright street markets, just metres away from us in the Basmane neighborhood thousands of Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans live on the streets, in overcrowded apartments or camp on the beaches waiting for a boat which would take them to the Greek islands, a step closer to their EU dream. Today many have lost their hope, the EU-Turkey deal is already making a big change and they are stuck on the islands, the streets and the illegal camps.

While we walk in the hills above Izmir, American, German, Israeli diplomats spread messages to their citizens to leave the country immediately due to a high terrorist threat.

While we sleep near the beautiful coastline, Turkish security forces announce that they had caught 15 Daesh members active in the city. On the streets uniformed men with machine guns pass around us, and in the public transport we randomly see civil agents who walk around the trains checking the passengers.

Last October in Ankara, 100 people were killed during a suicidal attack against a peace rally of pro-Kurdish and trade union activists; January in Istanbul, another terrorist act, 10 tourists died; March in Ankara, almost 40; a few days later, again Istanbul, 5 dead. Bursa also suffered in the beginning of May. Attacks are either connected to Daesh or to Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK), a militant group, believed to have split from the Кurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

However, Aydin doesn’t care about the particular perpetrator. In his view what matters in this case is not who but what provoked these attacks. And for him this violence serves the authorities.

Freedom of speech

“Today, here in Turkey, you have to be very careful with the sources of information you use. Most of the media are controlled by the government and are exceptionally manipulative. It is not enough to read the anti-governmental media either, nor just to follow the social networks. You must open your ears and eyes and trust your own judgment for each event. I am lucky to have a brother who is a freelance journalist and travels a lot, in Anatolia’s most isolated parts, around the border with Armenia and Iran, in the Kurdish areas in the south. Thanks to him I have a very clear idea of what is happening in Turkey”, Mariam* explains to me. This dark beautiful girl speaks slowly and calmly paints a picture of contemporary Turkey while smoking her cigarette.

A few weeks earlier, in March, the Turkish authorities started another assault on the media in the country. Security forces raid the offices of “Zaman”, the biggest Turkish newspaper and its editorial policy got sharply changed in the days that followed. The authorities also closed down other media such as TV channel "Kanalturk" and the newspaper "Bugun”. All of them considered to be linked to the Islamic scholar and preacher Fethullah Gülen who has lived in exile in the US since 1999.

Mariam is staying at our hostel; we meet accidentally on the balcony where we share a beer. By the way, we do that after verifying that it is permitted to consume alcohol on the premises. In the recent years, Turkey had begun to impose high excise taxes on alcohol, and by all means to tighten the restrictions on sale and consumption. The owner of our hostel, a testy, short guy reacts to the question as if it is highly offensive. "On the territory of this hostel you can drink as many beers as you like - 20-30! What kind of an attitude has formed in foreign tourists already! It is not Iran here", he mutters while shuttling around the kitchen in search of a bottle-opener.

The Kurds

Mariam is doing a PhD in political science. She is originally from a city where Arabs form the majority of the population. Her family has Arab roots. However, her parents have nationalist views and prefer to vote for the AKP party of Erdogan. She tells us the latter while shaking her head disapprovingly. Mariam herself is a supporter of HDP (Peoples’ Democratic Party), a pro-Kurdish Socialist Party, which gained popularity during the Gezi Park protests in 2013. In the two 2015 parliamentary votes they surprisingly managed to overleap the high 10 percent party barrier in the Turkish parliament, the first time they even stopped AKP’s plans for a majority government.

"Ethnically I have nothing to do with the Kurds, nevertheless I vote for HDP because this is not just a pro-Kurdish party modeled along the lines of the PKK, they reject violence, have genuine progressive policies, have gay people for candidates, unprecedented gender equality and respect for all national minorities”, Mariam describes. According to her, the aforementioned attack against the peaceful march in Ankara was precisely directed against HDP.

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A faded picture of Ahmet Davutoglu. Photo by Mirela Zarichinova.

"Explain to me how, in this police state, where one cannot bring a bag of weed from the centre to their home without police checking up on them, someone from the other part of Turkey goes all the way to the capital, loaded with explosives, without nobody actually stopping them, and without causing any suspicion stands up in the city centre, in the middle of the central station and blows themselves up! …", Mariam’s calm, even voice quiets down. She pulls deeply on her cigarette and abruptly releases the smoke through her nostrils. "Bullshit", she says.

We ask Mariam how she would defend the Kurds in the context of PKK’s violence - a major criticism of Kurdish politicians, whether from the PKK, HDP or elsewhere. According to her, HDP does not support terrorist acts and, to the contrary - they had distanced themselves from the teachings of PKK’s founder, Abdullah Öcalan. She becomes thoughtful for a moment but then continues, "However, if you want my sincere opinion - I have so many Kurdish friends, they are nearly 20% of the population and have always been treated as second class people, especially down there - in the south, they have suffered so much that I can not blame them for any of their action", Mariam explains.

Coming from a non-Kurdish Turkish citizen this sounds surprising at the very least. I ask her how far her support can go - support for more civil rights, support for the creation of an autonomous region, support for separation and creation of an independent state? "I dont care. Seriously - I don’t. Kurdish areas already function as a state separate from Turkey. If you want to get into the south-eastern areas, you must pass through military checkpoints, you must carry your passport with you, this is a separate country which has been separated not despite, but due to the restrictions imposed by the central government. And yes, I have nothing against them creating their own state one day. It will not affect me at all”, the young woman says categorically. Later she adds that her words are not the result of youngish rebelliousness but of a sober assessment of the reality.

Indeed, it seems that the Kurds have never been so strong – they have their own party in the Turkish Parliament, they manage autonomous regions in Iraq and Syria. I ask Mariam if she expects tension to erupt in Turkey soon. "What tension? In Turkey there is already a war. The south-east is at war, people are dying daily - both military personnel and citizens, there is curfew, all kinds of civil restrictions. You must write about Suruç, about Diyarbakır, death is a daily routine there, you must write about Cizre where the Turkish army did not allow ambulances and left wounded people dying in basements, with no help, not even water. And you expect me to call all Kurdish people terrorists, and see my country as a white angel? I'm not so naive", Mariam looks nervous already, she apologizes to me and soon goes to bed.

According to human rights organizations and Kurdish sources in February this year 178 unarmed civilians were killed by the Turkish authorities in Cizre, their bodies found in three basements. Mariam was talking about this.

A bit later in a crowded bar in the neighborhood Alsancak I continue the conversation about the Kurds where Mariam had stopped it. A group of youngsters from Ankara traveling to the coastal town for the wedding of a friend try to explain to me the pro-Kurdish obsession of young leftists in Turkey that struck me in Izmir these days: "We are against the idea of the nation-state. We are against forced imposition of ethnically homogeneous society. We are against conservative values foreign to us. And because this is what is done by the state of Turkey today, we support the Kurds. We believe that there would be nothing more painful for Erdogan than young ethnic Turks supporting Kurdish independence”. This is what a young couple tells me while they interrupt and add to each other’s statements, smoothly mixing them with quotes of modern philosophers and rolling cigarettes with tobacco (and who knows what else).

The intellectuals

“If I end up with a gun in my hands against him, I would not hesitate to shoot him”, says Emir* between his teeth, he comes late in the bar. I can’t quite believe I’ve heard the same thing two days later in the fish restaurant. I raise my eyebrows. Emir was born in Izmir but has spent the last years studying in a master programme in Europe.

Every day of Erdogan in power pushes us towards less and less freedom”, he continues – “it pushes Turkey towards a new Syria, forcibly polarizes the society to the extreme, closes down media, jumps down on the academicians’ throats, throws them in jail, together with the separatists and the military… The Turkish authorities are trying to entrench themselves in power to the maximum and are preparing for a final attack, for an authoritarian power”, says Emir. He goes on talking about the investigation of about 400 university professors suspected for terrorist activities.

Actually their “terrorist act” was the signing of a petition, called “We will not be a party to this crime”. This declaration criticizes the government for the military operation against the Kurds in south-east. More than a thousand academics, calling themselves “Academicians for peace” publicly declared that they will oppose the governmental policy against the Kurds.

Certainly, the above academicians, the people to whom I talk could not be defined as a representative sample of Turkish society. Aydin, Mariam, Emir, the wedding guests from Ankara are bright people with good education, coming from big cities. The fact that they speak English, which is rare in Turkey, should not be disregarded either. Izmir, and the whole west coast of Turkey, is traditionally considered to be the stronghold of the Republican People's Party, founded by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. It is undisputed that Erdogan enjoys a very broad public support. He is popular both in smaller towns and in big cities. Several months earlier 49.5 percent of voters in Turkey chose AKP, his party. However, so many radical anti-governmental voices sound disturbing, they sound alarming.

Aydin's voice breaks the silence around the table: "What is most scary to me is that this slipping into the abyss is supported by the EU." According to him, due to short-term political goals such as pleasing nationalists at home and not distributing the burden of the refugee crisis, in the long run European leaders create another huge zone of instability. "It seems shortsighted. I wonder if Turkey becomes the new Syria, where will we escape", he tells me and is about to continue when a friend of his enters the restaurant.

We leave Aydin’s place with a heavy heart. As if we hear the roar of the world cracking, roar that sounds particularly strong in Turkey today. The state which abruptly fell in the epicentre of all the twenty-first century’s century’s major issues - religious fanaticism, terrorism, in the middle of the Great Escape from the east to the west, which increasingly entangles itself in nationalism, separatism, sliding into the slippery road towards authoritarian rule.

We leave Aydin’s fish restaurant. But his name is neither Aydin, nor does he have a fish restaurant. When we leave he asks us to change his name and identity. He fears for his security.

* The marked names have been changed due to reasons related to the security of the interviewees.

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