Les voyages informent la vieillesse: Travel notes from Istanbul

Once known for its cosmopolitanism and thriving ethnic Greek, Armenian and Jewish communities which all disappeared in the midst of ethnic cleansing of the 1950s, Istanbul has taken on a new sophistication very different from what it lost but equally authentic. Read on…



                                            by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.



In response to the well-known French saying that “les voyages forment la jeunesse” (travel educates the young), I would postulate as well that “les voyages informent la vieillesse” or travel informs seniors, like myself. And while I strongly believe that it is very useful to speak the language of the region where you intend to spend some time in order to penetrate the culture and the nuances of local thinking most profoundly, as a practical matter that principle becomes too limiting and we must be prepared to make do with local speakers of English or other major world languages and with the respective language editions of local media insofar as they exist.

 An attempt to reach out and engage the ‘natives’ in conversation that goes beyond small talk can pay off handsomely, as my just completed nine day visit to Istanbul and the Princes Islands proved.  On the one side of the political spectrum, I encountered among upstanding Turkish citizens of roughly my own age a critic of Prime Minister Erdogan for toadying to U.S. interests on Syria (and much else) in a scenario he expects is likely to end badly for Turkey’s leader and for the country at large when the U.S. undergoes one of its periodic changes in mood and priorities, as Hosni Mubarak, Saddam Hussein and Colonel Gaddafi all might attest.  This same informant was delighted that his country had escaped the warm embrace of the European Union thanks to the rising anti-Islamic feeling in the West and so had avoided the fate of the neighboring Greeks with their short-lived basking in the cheap credit of the euro.

 On another side of the political debate, I heard from a successful jeweler practicing his trade in the shadow of the Blue Mosque that the popularity of the Turkish television serial “The Magnificent Century” is unfortunate, because it gives respectability to a despotic and imperial past his country had done well to forget.  For this artisan, whose son is well established in Mallorca, carrying on the family trade in traditional Turkish-crafted jewelry among the Spanish, the Turkish future is in Europe, with its democratic acquis.  These and other straws in the wind provided anecdotal evidence of a vibrant competition of values and positions worthy of exploration on future visits.

 Meanwhile, the art of triangulation and sifting reports and commentary in the press available in-country produces far more stimulating results than relying on the coverage of international news purveyors from the comfort of home.

Thus, I found that even the English edition of the tendentious pro-secular and anti-Islamist mass circulation Turkish daily ‘Hürriyet’ had many insights to offer on the complex political and economic interests at play in this populous, increasingly prosperous and self-confident land. Whereas military and humanitarian issues in the unfolding civil war in Syria have taken over the front pages of the world press, Turkish reportage and commentary deal extensively with collateral issues which provide essential depth to understanding actors in the regional situation. And what emerges is a picture of Realpolitik practiced by Prime Minister Erdogan which takes a page from Henry Kissinger’s playbook in the closing years of the Vietnam War.

The snapshot of the foundation piece of current Turkish foreign policy that I am about to set out is my own, though it draws on elements separately identified and discussed in depth in ‘Hürriyet.’ But before going into that, I point to a fact and observation from a commentary article in the newspaper which bears on my characterization of the Erdogan foreign policy as falling into the realist school. The paper called attention to the results of a recent public opinion poll in Turkey sponsored by the German Marshall Fund:  57% of respondents came out against any Turkish military involvement in the Syrian crisis, which would be an inevitable consequence of implementing the PM’s call for creation of a safe haven for refugees from the Syrian government forces on the other side of the Turkish-Syrian border.

 Of course, the fact that the Turkish government is pursuing a foreign policy that lacks popular support is hardly exceptional in and of itself even if it challenges the notion that a pro-Muslim party in power is the democratic expression of the populist majority.  It would be difficult to name a major world power where foreign policy is driven by the majority of the population today. Certainly the world’s champion of democratic values, the United States, does not deviate from that rule:  for decades public opinion as reported by generally respected polling institutions has been heavily against the interventionist world policeman posture being practiced from Washington.  But it is interesting to see that current Turkish policy with respect to its neighborhood is driving rather than driven by the Muslim street.

I contend that several key elements of current Turkish diplomatic and foreign economic policy are in fact interrelated parts of the country’s policy towards its number one domestic security issue: the terrorist PKK Kurdish independence movement. As ‘Hürriyet’ commentators perceptively observe, the Turkish government two years ago had prematurely proclaimed victory in its policy of ‘zero problems’ with its neighbors in the Middle East and had undertaken a role on the world stage befitting its status as a member of the G-20. Hence its joint initiative with Brazil to negotiate a settlement to the confrontation with Iran over its nuclear program independently of the United States, which raised eyebrows in Washington and elicited remarks about the ‘authoritarian’ style of Mr. Erdogan. However, as the ‘Hürriyet’ now pointedly remarks, the escalating death toll from military clashes with Kurdish insurgents within Turkey under a crackdown enforced by the Prime Minister and his party and the growing humanitarian catastrophe in nearby Syria which is abetted by Turkish support for the anti-Assad forces there have hijacked the attention of Ankara and eclipsed most other concerns about the wider world

The harsh crackdown on the Turkish Kurds is accompanied by the Realpolitik of an outstretched hand from Ankara to the autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq. ‘Hürriyet’ has given extensive coverage to deals representing stepped up Turkish cooperation with Mosul for the sake of energy imports from this gas-rich region which has perhaps 40% of Iraq’s total hydrocarbon reserves. And the Turks are now dealing directly with their Kurdish counterparts over the objections of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad.  By acting as a major patron of the Iraqi Kurds, Ankara is taking out two birds with one stone: it is aiming at removing safe havens for the PKK on the other side of the Iraqi border with the complicity of the Iraqi Kurds while diversifying Turkey’s energy resources and opening rich hydrocarbon deposits to operations of Turkish petro-businesses.   

In parallel, Turkey is fairly cynically championing the human rights of Syria’s anti-Assad forces which include Kurdish populations forming the largest single minority in the country, many of whom are located just across the border from Turkey. The policy of safe havens on the Syrian side of the border would keep these Kurds, which number almost 2 million, from joining their 14 million brethren in Turkey’s Kurdish homelands and further exacerbating Turkey’s nationalities problem.

If there is a common denominator in Turkey’s present-day stance with respect to both its immediate neighbors and major world powers, that seems to be attention to shifting national interests rather than loyalty to friends. While nominally pulling America’s chestnuts out of the fire in Syria at the moment, Turkey is also meddling in an Iraqi domestic tug-of-war between regions which Washington would well prefer to dominate on its own.  And while it has done the Russians an enormous favor by approving the route of the South Stream gas pipeline project through its waters and by siphoning off gas from Azerbaijan which otherwise would have fed the American and European backed Nabucco project, it is otherwise engaged in a number of foreign policy initiatives which clearly irritate Moscow, as news programs on Turkish television caught by featuring critical articles in Russian newspapers.

 Among these actions is the Turkish silence over Azerbaijan’s scandalous hero’s welcome for an officer extradited from Hungary, where he was held for the murder of a fellow trainee from Armenia.  Turkey’s green light to Azerbaijan’s irredentism over the Karabakh may bring it into direct confrontation with Moscow if the two client states go to war, which remains a distinct possibility at present.

These various loose ends of Turkish foreign policy may yet put to the test the perspicacity and wisdom of Mr Erdogan’s Realpolitik.

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When researching the Princes Islands just offshore in the Sea of Marmora from Istanbul as our resort destination to enjoy in early autumn some lazy summer days on the beach, I paid attention not only to the romantic eccentricity of the ‘no cars, only horse-drawn carriages’ policy on the islands announced in tourist brochures, but also to the hint of a long forgotten and different worldly-wise Turkey that predated the Second World War.  ‘Le Monde’s travel feature article published just a year ago said it all: “Les îles des Princes, dernières traces de cosmopolitanisme en Turquie.”

When the amusing popular song ‘Istanbul (Not Constantinople)’ was launched in 1953, it appeared just two years before the anti-Greek mob actions that finished off any remaining pre-war cosmopolitanism in a city once famous for its Greek, Armenian and, yes, Jewish communities. Indeed, the Istanbul which I first visited on a year’s travels around Europe following graduation in 1967 was a very Turkish-only place.

What ‘Le Monde’ chose to feature in its article about the Princes Islands was precisely the vestiges of those communities – monasteries, churches, buildings once associated with thriving communities which have largely disappeared.

However, following our stay on the Big Island (Büyükada) and, our further stay in the Old District of Istanbul, Sultanahmet, I am delighted to affirm what a great many Western business people surely know from their gut feelings, that the ‘Big Fig’ is once again a very cosmopolitan city. This is due not to the long-gone minority communities but to the massive flows of tourists from all over the world.  The major tourist attractions of Istanbul now boast annual visitor populations on the order of 37 million.

These tourists support not merely a splendid hospitality industry infrastructure with vast numbers of young staff who have passed through foreign language classes. They also support traditional handicrafts and decorative arts industries which operate at the highest level of sophisticated taste. Globalization has not meant homogenization. 

Moreover, there is another operative factor in this new cosmopolitanism which bears mention: the significant influx of visitors and immigrants from the Former Soviet Union. Their numbers and social status may not match the contingent of White Russian officers and their dependents who landed in Istanbul as the civil war in Russia wound down. But from my own encounters in the markets, in public transport, I can vouch for a significant presence of Russian speakers, both from Russia proper and from the former Soviet republics. The last contingent stands out due to their heavily accented and often ungrammatical speech.  At the same time, there are also Turkish speakers who have arrived from Central Asia since the collapse of the USSR in 1992 and now are settled in jobs and with families in the capacious 20-million strong region that is Istanbul.  

Our beach attendant on the private island of Sedef was one such settler. He came originally from Uzbekistan, has behind him years of labor in St Petersburg and Moscow and now his children and grandchildren are living in points across that vast expanse as well by his side in Istanbul.  Our young Russian and Turkish speaking waiter in the charming restaurant adjacent to the Aya Gyorgi monastery at the highest point of Büyükada arrived there from Batumi on the Black Sea coast of Georgia. How many of these newcomers are there and how have they changed the ethnic landscape of Istanbul?  Now that would be an interesting bit of research.



© Gilbert Doctorow, 2012


G. Doctorow is an occasional guest lecturer at St. Petersburg State University and Research Fellow of the American University in Moscow. His latest book,Stepping Out of Line: Collected (Nonconformist) Essays on Russian-American Relations, 2008-12, is available in paperback from Amazon.com and affiliated websites worldwide. An e-book edition will be issued shortly.