Sexy red thingies

Yesterday I even saw it in my part of town, conservative Üsküdar: ultra sexy lingerie in bright red. Bras, panties, garters, all tiny and made of (often fake) lace and with small woolen balls on it here and there. I was with a Turkish friend and asked her in amazement: are these things really sold, or just meant to draw attention? Is it a new hype, that I see these things everywhere nowadays?

Her answer amazed me even more, and I had to stop myself from shouting out loud: ‘Really?’ Her answer: ‘It’s only these days of the year, women wear it for their guy around the turn of the year.’ ‘Really?’, I asked with big eyes and with my voice down. ‘Even the covered Üsküdar women, they wear these thingies under their baggy clothes on the last or first day of the year?’ Well, we can’t prove it, but yes, it seems so. Not all of them of course, but even so. My friend immediately added that she of course didn’t follow the tradition. I won’t either. Red is just not my colour.

Sabiha Gökçen and Dersim

She lived a long life, the adopted daughter of Atatürk, Sabiha Gökçen. Istanbuls second airport is named after her – I was there this week, recently a brand new and huge terminal was opened. Of course there is a reason why the airport was named after her: Sabiha, born in 1913 and deceased in 2001, is very well known in Turkey and in the world of aviation because she was the first female combat pilot in the world. Her first combat was against an enemy that had no means to defend itself against the overwhelming power of the Turkish army: Sabiha bombed the province of Dersim (nowadays called Tunceli) and its Kurdish-Alevi inhabitants.

It was 1937, and there was a rebellion going on in Dersim against the ‘Turkification’ of the country. Dersim had always been a rather independent region, inhabited by Kurdish tribes following a different kind of Islam than the majority of Turks, “Alevism”. They didn’t care much about the new republic and its laws, since they had their own system of taxation, of law and of (feudal) government. Officially the military operation against Dersim was meant to supress an armed rebellion, but in retrospect everybody knows it was meant to destroy the Kurdish ethnic identity. Dutch expert Martin van Bruinessen calls it ‘ethnocide’ in this interesting text (in English).

Thirteen thousand people were killed, and no distinction was made between armed rebels and innocent civilians,  men and women and children. People were shot and thrown into rivers, villages were bombed and there is speculation that gas was used too, for example to kill women and children hiding in caves.

There is a lot of discussion going on in Turkey about the events in Dersim in 1937 (and in 1938, when the military operation continued after the winter). It started when an opposition MP recently suggested the ‘Dersim method could be used to bring the Kurdish issue to a conclusion’, and of course he was widely criticised. There have been demands to let the truth about Dersim really come out, to discuss it and also discuss the role of Atatürk – who died in 1938, and who called Dersim ‘Turkey’s most important internal problem’ in a speech to parliament in 1936.

When Dersim isreally openly discussed, surely Sabiha Gökçen will be mentioned too. It is said that in the bombardment of Dersim gas bombs were used too. But Sabiha was 23 at the time, she had a real passion for flying, was of course under the influence of her ‘father’ and followed orders. I don’t think she can be held in any way responsible for what she did. But it would be good to put her fame as the first female combat pilot in perspective a little bit. Sabiha was brave, she was smart, her career was inspiring, but the times she lived in and the events that took place, can be regarded as one of the blackest pages in the modern history of Turkey.

All-in journalism package

Let me explain something about my work. Some people who react to my websites, both here and in the Dutch version, don’t understand that there are actually opinions published here. ‘You are a journalist aren’t you, so you have to be neutral and objective!’ The thing is that,  as a journalist, you can’t do more than try to be objective and you will never succeed, and second, one of the tasks of journalism is to analyse the news, put it in perspective and comment on it.

Objectivity doesn’t exist. In a simple short news article, you can seemingly stick to the facts easily. Still, even when you write about the smallest news item, there are choices to be made: what to put in the article and what not, which details are relevant, which words to chose, which sources to check. The art of the profession is to choose which things are relevant to mention and how to give the best description of what’s happening. And always limited by the space you have.

There’s another reason why even a news article can’t be objective: for a start the choice of what to write about and about what not to write about, is subjective. What’s relevant news, for whom? In background stories this is even more so: which big stories are worth telling, which are not? That’s based on what magazines want to buy, but also on what you find interesting and important subjects as a journalist, and of course also by the news and current affairs. I love writing about politics, human rights, minorities and women’s lives and less about, for example, economy, tourism and showbiz. Totally subjective, even more so as I chose Turkey to work in, because I think these themes are important issues here. For Turks that’s sometimes hard to get: their definition of the term ‘minorities’ for example is already different than mine, let alone the consideration of how much importance the subject needs to be given. A similar story can be told about human rights subjects, and for women’s issues too.

So what am I going to do? Quit writing about these subjects because every choice I make in it is so subjective? No, of course not. I came to Turkey because I want to let people know what’s going on here, I want to share the views of different groups and individuals with my readers, I want my readers to get to know Turkey better. All based on information that I bring to you as honestly and professionally as possible. While doing that, I get to know the country better and better – and of course, all this knowledge raises new questions again, only complicating matters ;-). I develop my opinions, and feel so lucky I’m a journalist in an era in which it is so easy to create my own platform. I publish my stories on old fashioned paper and here, but anything I can’t sell, all the opinions I cannot publish in paper form, I can express in the blog posts on this website.

You could see this site as an all-in journalism package: news in short articles, backgrounds in long reports, opinions and observations in blog posts, and if you follow me on twitter, you also get news flashes, tweets about some private things, and snap shot pictures about the news and life in Turkey. It all reflects on how I practice journalism in Turkey. Developing and expressing opinions is not a lack of professionalism, it’s an inevitable and inalienable part of it.

Maker of Atatürk film sued

ISTANBUL – The  in Turkey well known journalist and documentary film-maker Can Dündar will be sued for the film ‘Mustafa’, a biography of Turkey’s founding father Atatürk. The film is said to insult Atatürk, as daily newspaper Vatan writes today.

The documentary drew more than 1 million viewers in Turkey at the end of last year. Immediately debate about the film started. Dündar wanted to show a more personal side of Atatürk. He did that by, among other things, showing the statesman smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol, and by not shunning images about Atatürk’s contacts with women. A thorn in the eye of strict Atatürkdevotees, who also argued that the founder of the Turkish republic was portrayed as too dictatorial, godless, arrogant and ambitious. In other words: the documentary was insulting the memory of Atatürk. The criticism damaged the image of Dündar, who was, because of his former work, always known as a faithful admirerof Atatürk.
A group of civilians filed a complaint against the film, but that complaint was at first brushed aside by the prosecutor. A higher court has now annulled that ruling and is taking the case to court and demanding a prison sentence of 7.5 years.

A total lack of unity

No, it’s not a civil war. Newspapers in Turkey like to use those words these days, refining them with such expressions as ‘looks like’, or ‘could lead to’, or ‘reminds of’. But it’s definitely also more than just a few demonstrations getting out of hand.

Ever since the Constitutional Court closed down the pro-Kurdish DTP last Friday, there have been demonstrations and riots all over the country, but especially in the south east. Usually it starts with Kurdish demonstrators throwing stones and Molotov cocktails at the police, at buildings that represent the state or occasionally even statues of Atatürk, which is considered quite unthinkable in this country. The police react with water cannons or tear gas. But sometimes, it goes further than that. Last Sunday in Istanbul, shop owners who felt threatened by the violence of Kurdish protesters chased them with kebab knives, guns and axes, but luckily nobody was killed. Yesterday something similar happened in the south east, but with a different outcome: two Kurds were killed by a shop owner.
It’s not always fair to call the people who react to the protesters ‘nationalists’, as many (foreign) newspapers do. They must often be ordinary hard-working people trying to defend their property and their livelihood. That doesn’t mean, by the way, that I approve of any violence. There are also ordinary people who don’t react violently. There is always a choice.

However, I can understand why emotions are so enflamed. There is a desperate power struggle going on that involves more than the Kurdish question, a struggle being fought in parliament and even more so in the highest courts of this country, but affecting the lives of ordinary people, who feel insecure. For some people it affects their basic livelihoods, like small businessmen who get a Molotov cocktail thrown into their shop. For others, it affects their identity, like Kurds who are once again no longer represented in the parliament of a country that calls itself democratic. And for still again others, the power struggle makes them question (or hold on stronger than ever to) the truths about Turkey they have always believed in: is the unity of the state no longer sacred? Did the Kurdish opening in the end lead to more violence by the PKK, and will it lead to more deaths?

The violence is exaggerated in the media, with inciting music accompanying reports of the violence and endless repeats of the same violent images. It stirs people up even more. What I don’t see are politicians asking people to calm down. Somebody has to show some unity and set a good example. I know it’s way too much to ask for, but I dream of a video of President Gül, Prime Minister Erdogan, opposition leaders Bahceli and Baykal and banned politician Türk as a group asking everybody in the country to refrain from violence. In real life, unfortunately, Baykal doesn’t speak to Erdogan, Bahceli and Türk once shook hands but that was it for friendly gestures, and any constructive talk about the state and the future of the country is out of the question. When politicians who speak with such dedication about the unity of the state show such a total lack of unity themselves, how can you expect any better behaviour from the citizens?

New Kurdish party active

ISTANBUL – After the banning of the DTP last Friday, Kurdish activists have formed a new political party: the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP). The party was founded last year to take over the activiteis of the DTP in case the DTP was closed down. According to DTP leader Ahmet Türk, the BDP is a new party with new people and no parliamentarians will transfer to the BDP.
The DTP was closed down because of ties with the PKK. Two MP’s of the DTP, including Mr. Türk, have to leave parliament on court order. The other 19 DTP MP’s are also resigning in protest, which results in 27 empty seats in parliament. When there are 28 seats unrepresented, new elections have to be held within 3 months.
Committee members and parliamentarians from the DTP have announced they will travel to Diyarbakir tomorrow (Monday) to protest against the banning of their party. Diyarbakir is the biggest Kurdish city in the sout east of Turkey.

Turn the tide

The BDP, that’s the Barış ve Demokrasi Partisi, the Peace and Democracy Party. Never heard of such a party in Turkey? You soon will, because it’s the new pro-Kurdish party, established already in the spring of this year because there was a closure case pending against the pro-Kurdish DTP party , represented in parliament by 21 MP’s. And yesterday it happened: the Constitutional Court closed down pro-Kurdish party DTP because of its ties with the PKK. ‘A party that has ties with a terrorist organisastion has to be closed down’, said chairman of the court Kılıç (meaning ‘sword’, by the way). Furthermore, 37 DTP members were banned from politics for five years, among them leader Ahmet Türk and member of parliament Aysel Tuğluk.

Now the BDP can take over. That is if they can find enough qualified people to work for the party, now that experienced Kurdish politicians can’t help out. Not banned from politics is prominent DTP member Emine Ayna. I reckon there is a chance she will get a good position in the BDP. Emine Ayna is known as being one of the more extreme and ideological DTP spokespersons, whereas Ahmet Türk was known to be moderate and pragmatic. If this happens, then the closure of the DTP will lead to even more polarisation in Turkey – if that were possible.

It’s only speculation, but in general no good can come of closing down political parties. Where will the Kurdish opening lead to from now on? How violent will the protests against the closure be, not only in the south east of Turkey, but also in cities with a large Kurdish population, like Istanbul, Izmir, Adana and Mersin? How will Turkish nationalists react to that? The good circle that was started with the Kurdish opening, very quickly turned into a negative circle. Will anybody be able to turn the tide? I don’t see who and how.

The promised land – refugees in Turkey

Turkey is trying to bring its laws on refugees into line with Europe’s. In the meantime, refugees and asylum seekers who reach safety in Turkey live in a legal and social wasteland.

(published December 2009)

Several Turkish newspapers called it a disgrace last spring, when in Didim, a town on Turkey’s west coast, 65 people were forced to camp in the garden of a government building. These people were refugees from Palestine, Eritrea, Somalia and Iraq. And the pictures didn’t lie: there were children among them. And even though the authorities gave blankets and mattresses, the children were cold at night, wrote the papers with chocolate-thick letters. And, they added, the fact that the government didn’t offer these people a roof over their heads was a disgrace.
As if this was an exception to the rule. The Turkish authorities never provide shelter for refugees, and showed their humanitarian side only by handing out blankets and mattresses. The really exceptional aspect of the situation in Didim was that the deplorable situation of refugees in Turkey hardly ever becomes so visible. Usually refugees stay in a hovel in a dilapidated part of Istanbul, or with whole families in old, dark and smelly buildings in remote Anatolian cities.

Sometimes, they make it into the papers because they are found dead, for example in the sea between Turkey and Greece, (the refugees in Didim were also on the way to Greece when their boat broke down). Or in a field somewhere, dumped by a truck driver who discovered he was no longer transporting living people but dead ones. Or in the mountainous area between Iran and Turkey – where they are sometimes found frozen to death by shepherds reaching meadows high in the mountains where the snow has just melted.

The next procedure

It sounds unbelievable, but it’s true: according to Turkish law, asylum seekers are Europeans who need protection. Anyone coming from a non-European country to seek asylum doesn’t have chance. That’s the amazing consequence of the so-called ‘geographical limitation’ that Turkey has used since 1967 under the Geneva Convention of 1951. At the time, numerous other countries decided to limit the regions from where they would admit asylum seekers, but only Monaco and Turkey still maintain that policy.
As a result, asylum seekers go through the whole procedure at UN refugee organisation UNHCR, which has several offices in Turkey. For the months (or years) that the procedure takes, they have no rights. No right to income, no right to a roof over their heads, no right to health care. But they do need to obtain a residence permit every half a year for every family member, costing 300 lira (about € 150,-) per person. If they are recognised as refugees, then the next procedure starts: resettlement in a ‘third country’, usually Canada, the United States or Australia. Staying in Turkey is impossible, because of the geographical limitation. The problem is that if a third country is willing to accept the refugee, then Turkey only lets him or her go when the residence permits for the whole stay are paid for. For a family, this can reach thousands of lira. Until they are paid, the refugee has to stay in Turkey – and the cost of the residence permits keeps mounting up.

Open air prison

‘Turkey should take more responsibility when it comes to asylum seekers and refugees,’  says Metin Çorabatir, spokesman for UNHCR headquarters in Turkey’s capital, Ankara. ‘A geographical limitation isn’t fitting for a country that is such an active member of the international community and at the moment even has a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council.’
The situation now is ‘messy’, says Çorabatir. Just a minute ago, he got a phone call from a man from Iraq. He was recognised as a refugee by the UNHCR and was now waiting for resettlement in a third country. ‘The people he shares a house with are also from Iraq and they are about to leave for Canada. He also put in a request for Canada, but now it turns out that Canada has already reached its annual quota for ‘invited refugees’, so this Iraqi can’t get away from Turkey this year. Another year without rights, another year without a chance to build a new life. Turkey is effectively like an open air prison for asylum seekers and refugees.’

Since 2005 Turkey has had a ‘national action plan’ for refugees. A group of civil servants at the Ministry of Internal Affairs is busy adapting refugee laws to European standards. Quite an operation, because besides a law, a whole ‘refugee infrastructure’ is needed: refugee centres, centres where the first application can be made, training personnel and civil servants, educating the public. Inevitably the last move will be to abolish the geographical limitation.

Turkish fears

Originally, lifting the geographical limitation was planned for 2012, but it has been delayed indefinitely. Fear is the problem, says Professor of Migration Studies, Ahmet Içduygu of the Koç University in Istanbul: ‘Turkey is scared that enormous numbers of refugees will come knocking at its door once it becomes a settlement country. And this fear is not without reason, as Turkey borders Iraq and Iran, and Afghan refugees also enter Turkey through Iran. These are the very countries from which many refugees have been fleeing for decades.’ The number of asylum seekers registering at the UNHCR in Turkey is rising: in 2008 there were about 13,000, up from 4,550 in 2006. By comparison, in the Netherlands in 2008 about 15,000 people applied for asylum.

A deeper Turkish fear arises from the troublesome relationship with the EU. Negotiations were opened in 2005 with the set aim of Turkey entering the EU, but since then a lot has changed. Influential countries like France and Germany don’t support Turkish membership any more, the European people have shown in the last elections that they are not looking forward to further expansion of the EU and also the Turks are no longer as enthusiastic as before. In other words, what if Turkey lifts the geographical limitation and after that does not become an EU member? Then the EU borders a country where asylum seekers can be kept outside Europe with a clear conscience. That’s exactly why Turkey has decided to lift the geographical limitation only when the accession date to the EU is set firmly. ‘The EU’, says Içduygu, ‘doesn’t sufficiently acknowledge Turkish fears. You can not on the one hand demand that Turkey lift the limitation and at the same time keep the country at a distance when it comes to EU membership.’

Many small roads

From Van, a city in the east of Turkey with half a million inhabitants, it’s less than 100 kilometers to the Iranian border. In the city many signs point the way to ‘Iran’, but all lead to the only road that goes direct to the neighbouring country. The many small roads in this inhospitable area, covered under a thick layer of snow from autumn until spring, are full of gendarmes.  Anyone with no business here – and that includes journalists with an official press accreditation – is ordered to return to the city right away. And asylum seekers who choose these roads to leave Iran are sometimes literally picked up and deposited back across the border. This is a breach of the deal the Turkish authorities have with the UNHCR: anybody who seems to want to apply for asylum has to be told of the opportunity to register at one of the UNHCR offices in Turkey.

Glittering jewellery

Van has such an office. That’s why asylum seekers from Iran and Afghanistan who manage to get past the gendarmes settle down here. They add colour to the city, especially the Iranian women: where Turkish women with a headscarf in this part of the country choose grey modesty, the Iranians draw attention with scarves in bright colours that only cover the hair half-way, and with make up and glittering jewellery.

This is in sharp contrast to their houses. In a street in the city centre, a steel door unexpectedly gives access to a big building intended to house small businesses. Now asylum seekers are crammed into it. The walls of the former offices, nine to twelve square meters in size, were once painted pink, but are dirty now. There is just enough space for a bed, a small carpet, a hat stand, a few boxes for storing things. A hole in the back wall leads to another few square meters, and only a curtain screens off the toilet and a tiny cooking area. No windows, no fresh air. If you see children running around on the landings of the first and second floors, you hold your breath: the balustrade is not really close-meshed and a child could easily fall through. The steep rickety iron stairs appear life-threatening even for adults.

Nasrin Hasannahah (36), her husband Ismail (37) and their toddler daughter Niyoşa might be forced to move here soon. At the moment, the family has a place of their own, but they haven’t been able to pay the rent of fifty lira a month (about 23 euros) for six months now. Nasrin shows their little house and seems to be a bit ashamed. On entering, a big hole in the ceiling draws attention; underneath it on the carpet are pieces of reeds that keep falling down from the hole. The walls and the ceiling of the living room are partly black from moisture, and she really doesn’t want to show the kitchen. ‘There, around the corner’, she points. Around the corner a dark space, on the floor one gas bottle to cook on, no kitchen sink unit but a small tap with a bucket underneath. ‘In Iran we were not poor. We had a spacious apartment, with washing machine, and dishwasher, we were short of nothing. And now look at this.’

Pay the rent or buy diapers

Nasrin and Ismail have been living in Van for two years now. Nasrin learned Turkish rather quickly and earns part of the family income by translating for Iranians and Afghans who ask for help at the women’s centre in Van. Ismail takes any job he can get, like carrying things and painting, but it doesn’t earn much. Recently they were recognised as refugees by the UNHCR and are waiting for resettlement in a third country.
In the meantime, the landlord is getting impatient. ‘He is kind and takes our situation into consideration’, says Nasrin, ‘but of course, he can’t rent his house to us for free, I understand that. But we have to choose: pay the rent or buy food and diapers.’ The rent in the former office building is higher – but where will they ever find something cheaper than 50 lira per month? ‘Maybe we will have to share a room with others’, she says.

For a few years now asylum seekers in Turkey have been allowed to work. But the conditions for a legal job are absurd: it’s only possible if the potential employer applies for a work permit, and that is only granted if there is no Turk available to do the job. It leaves asylum seekers no other choice than to work illegally. To a certain extent the Iranians and Afghans in Van are lucky. Van is the biggest city in the region and offers some possibilities for work, and the civil servants in charge are not the strictest: they are rather well-informed about the situation asylum seekers are in, know most of the faces and are willing to turn a blind eye to illegal work.

A stamp every other day

The situation of many other asylum seekers is quite different. After they have registered with both the UNHCR and local police, the Turkish authorities send them to one of the thirty so-called ‘satellite cities’, provincial towns that are designated as living places for asylum seekers who are proceeding through UNHCR channels. Ibrahim Kavlak, head of the Association for Solidarity with Asylum Seekers and Migrants (ASAM) in Ankara: ‘Tokat, in the north of central Anatolia, is one of the satellite cities. I know a young asylum seeker who lived in Istanbul for some time. He was good with computers and in Istanbul he could earn a reasonable income with that. Then he was forced to move to Tokat. But even Turks leave Tokat because there is no work there. So what’s an asylum seeker going to do there? Overnight the guy was left without any income.’

The police in each satellite city define how often asylum seekers have to come to get a stamp to prove they actually stay in the city. ‘In some cities, this stamping has to be done daily’, says Kavlak, ‘in others once or twice a week. If you have to go get a stamp every day or every other day before five o ‘clock, you can’t combine that with a job. The working days in Turkey are long, and of course illegal work is insecure. What asylum seeker would ask his boss to leave work early that often, what boss would agree to it? This way, asylum seekers are not given the opportunity to earn an income.’


And little or no income means sleeping in a barn or in a hovel, or sharing a space with too many people. In some satellite cities there are charities that rent houses for the use of asylum seekers. The women’s organisation in Van, for example, has a building where about 25 women can stay temporarily. The UNHCR in Van regularly sends single Afghan or Iranian women to the shelter. But usually they don’t stay there long: they prefer to find a place to live together, for example in the few bigger rooms that the former office building has available. In such rooms, women come and go, visitors are offered a beer – strict Muslims seem absent here – and children run and crawl around freely.

In Istanbul, a metropolis of 16 million inhabitants, the foreigners don’t form a group in a building, but populate whole neighbourhoods. Katip Kasim is such a neighbourhood. If you walk westwards along the waterfront from Aya Sophia and Topkapi Palace, you will certainly come across the first signs of asylum seekers and economic refugees: Africans who try to earn a living selling fake watches and perfumes in the parks alongside the Marmara Sea. Katip Kasim is old, poor and dilapidated, and the houses in the worst condition are where the immigrants live, most of them from countries like Nigeria, Somalia, Eritrea, Sudan. A few of them took the effort to apply for asylum at UNHCR, but the majority prefer to map out their route to the west by themselves.

Sleeping in shifts

Staying in Istanbul is not an option for these Africans. Whoever you speak with, nobody has been in Istanbul longer than about eleven or twelve months. In other words, the African community renews itself all the time. And unlike the UNHCR- recognised refugees, they don’t leave for ‘third countries’, but for Europe. Ali, who is in his twenties and from Mali, has been in Turkey now for six months. He says: ‘In Turkey you don’t have any rights and Turks speak only Turkish. In Europe, you can get a lawyer and there is more work.’ Makiyo (25) from Somalia: ‘I’ve been in Istanbul now for 29 days. I have family in Western countries, they send me money. I try to save that as much as possible, so I can leave here after not too long.’ Bashir (18), also from Somalia: ‘I paid a lot of money to come to Greece, but ended up in Istanbul instead. So now I have to try to get some money again, so I can still go to Greece.’

They seem to put up with the awful living conditions. In a room with four bunk beds 32 men are living: they sleep in shifts of six hours. On the upper floor of the house there are rooms for women and children. The women don’t sit up straight on the beds, because there is not enough space on the lower part of the bunks. Children – with carefully braided hair – stick to the dirty floor with their hands and feet every time they make a move, and now and then stumble over broken electrical wires and multiple sockets that are lying everywhere. Don’t lean against the walls here: they are only thin, made of cardboard.
Of course it’s this group that especially worries the European Union. As soon as they have enough money, they book an illegal trip to Greece and off they go. From several places on the Turkish west coast, it’s only ten or twenty kilometers to a European country. The discussions between Europe and Greece are often heated: in 2002 the countries agreed that Turkey would take back asylum seekers who obviously came through Turkey to get to Greece, but of 25,000 cases Turkey took back only 1,600, according to a Greek migration institute.

Turkish passport

There is something peculiar about Iranian Nasrin and her husband Ismail. They say they are waiting for resettlement in a European country. They turned down an offer from the United States, (Nasrin: ‘My ex husband lives there with many members of his family and I’m terrified of them’) and they also declined offers from Australia and Canada. Just why, remains totally unclear, or it must be that they simply want to go to Europe. But Europe doesn’t accept UNHCR-recognised refugees from Turkey. Does she know that this means that they will have to stay in Turkey, without rights? ‘Well, if it has to be that way, we have to accept it’, says Nasrin. ‘Niyoşa was born in Turkey and can get a Turkish passport later on, so for her everything will be okay.’

You could see it as an early sign of the change that will be inevitable in the long run. The geographical limitation will not exist much longer, and if everybody keeps promises made earlier, Turkey will become an EU member. By then Turkey will surely have developed into a country where life is good, in terms of both material prosperity and human rights. Then Turkey will no longer be a springboard to the West, but will itself be part of the West. And Turkey will have become a country where refugees will want to stay.

Lucky woman

I went for drinks last night with the International Professional Women of Istanbul. I have never really wanted to join in these expat things, because I want to mingle in normal Turkish life and was afraid that getting too much into expat life would hinder that. But now after three years just one expat thing would be ok, I decided. So off I went.

After a few hours with some nice, funny, interesting women, I came home feeling a lucky woman. One of the activities IPWIN plans to organize is a theme day on changes in your professional life. How to deal with it if you come to Istanbul with your husband and you can’t get a work permit yourself, but want to keep up your professional skills anyway? What if you come here for a job, you want to quit the job after some time but find out your work permit is only valid for that particular job, not any others? What if you can’t find a job in your own field and have to change careers? What if the only jobs you can find are illegal and pay shitty wages?

They asked me if this activity would suit me, and I said yes. You never know, do you, when your life might change, or when you want your life to change. But for now, this is all not applicable to me. My press visa is my working permit, I earn hard Euros, I do the job I love.
The women I met who had good jobs didn’t really have the easiest life either. One of them goes to the gym at 6.30 in the morning, then drives to work in the traffic jam that Istanbul is, to get home again around eleven at night. Yesterday, she left her job around 9, and called it ‘knocking off early’. I was almost reluctant to say that I have a home office, stumble from bed to my working corner and if I want to get some exercise, I go to an Istanbul park at any time I want to. I am indeed a lucky woman!

Where would I stand?

I had an interesting discussion this week with some Dutch friends who all live in Istanbul and follow politics here closely. We wondered: what if we had grown up here in Turkey, where would we stand politically?

One of my friends didn’t hesitate about his answer for one second: he would be a Kemalist. Or in other words: he would be part of the group of Turks that want to strictly follow the path of the founder of modern Turkey, Atatürk. They are afraid Turkey is Islamizing, and see their fear vindicated in every effort the government is making to, in the government’s words, create more freedom of religion. They want to continue the state control over religion and want no place for religion in public life. He was convinced, no doubt in his mind.

I was pretty surprised about him being so convinced of his choice if he grew up here. Because how can you really know? We were not educated in the Turkish education system, we didn’t have brothers serving in the army or even losing their lives for the country, we were not raised in total admiration of Atatürk – just to mention a few things that would have influenced us deeply. We look at Turkey with all our Dutch eyes genes, our history, the things we learn in school about our country, our part of the world, our cultural and historical heritage. I remember how confused I was when I first came to Turkey and started talking to people. Nothing, really nothing matched with what I knew before. You can be leftist and nationalist at the same time here. You can be a democrat and at the same time be in favour of a coup in certain situations. You can be a secularist and because of that support the state version of Islam. You can be a feminist and demonstrate against more freedoms for Islamic women.

Slowly slowly I started understanding the ways people think, what makes sense in their minds and why, but I can never internalize these sorts of mind-patterns. I was just programmed differently. So how can I ever say where I would stand politically if I grew up here? I can only speculate. I don’t agree with the feminists here who are against more rights for head-scarved women, but who knows, maybe I would have been one of them. Nationalism disgusts me, but maybe it’s in me too and who knows a Turkish education or upbringing would have triggered it to come to the surface – or it might have had just the opposite effect, if the family I grew up in would have stimulated me to think for myself and encourage me to have my own opinions, like my family did. The Dutch family I grew up in was not very religious, although my parents tried to provide us with some Catholicism – what if I grew up in a moderate Islamic family and chose myself to wear a head scarf? I can’t imagine, but who knows?

A liberal, that’s what I would choose to be in Turkey – but that’s my Dutch perspective talking, because I just recognise my own beliefs the most in their opinions. It relates to what the liberals are criticised for: they speak too much with western words, they didn’t find their own Turkish paradigm yet and therefore don’t appeal too much to Turks and can’t get any political power.

In the end of the discussion, I didn’t speak out. It’s just too hypothetical. But now that I think of it again, maybe this doubt, this always trying too look through so many people’s eyes, leads me to an answer after all. The Turkish political landscape is polarized very much, and part of the population is too, but not everybody takes sides. I know enough Turks who are confused by all the dynamics of their own country and don’t know what to believe anymore, what to fear, who to trust, which party to vote. Somehow, I feel connected to these people. I could be one of them.
And you, my fellow foreigners in Turkey, where would you stand? The reaction field is open!