Fresh young flock

Some call him the only hope for leftist Turks: Mustafa Sarigül. He is the mayor of Sisli, a district in Istanbul, and he is about to start a new political party, the Turkey Change Movement. A real social democrat party, he promises, with the aim of justice and work for all.

So when the foreign press club announced a meeting with Sarigül as guest, I immediately signed up. I prepared some questions, some about the movement, but also one about himself, and that one had to do with his history in politics. Sarigül has been a member of another political party, the CHP, for years, and he was a rising star there. In 2005, he challenged for the leadership against Deniz Baykal, well into his seventies now, who has been in the leadership of the party for decades (I’m not exaggerating). He lost the battle, and was subsequently expelled from the party. I wondered if now, when he looks back on those events, he would consider that a blessing in disguise? Since the CHP had become a rigid, very nationalist, opposed-to-everything party that can’t be called social democratic any more. And now Sarigül is in a position to start a whole new movement.

But despite the promises, Sarigül didn’t show up at his first get-to-know-you with the foreign press. He had something more important to do at the last moment. A pity, but two co-founders of the (soon-to-be) party took over, a retired ambassador and a young female lawyer, which in fact immediately demonstrated one of the topics that Sarigül says are important to him: democracy within the party (which doesn’t exist in any party in Turkey), and a lot of space for youth and women (also non-existent so far).

The story of the Turkey Change Movement is good. They talked about justice, not only in the courts but also in culture, in politics, in the economy, in every aspect of life for every Turk, in every region of the country (read: also the Kurdish southeast). They favour a different secularism than Turkey has seen up to now, which is a secularism respectful of beliefs. They want more decision-making power devolved to the provinces, and not everything centrally governed from Ankara – a pretty daring thing to say in Turkey.

So far it’s all talk. The next general elections are scheduled for July 2011, and the movement is determined to win power from the AKP. in the polls they are already getting about 16% of the votes – you can say it means nothing, but for a party that doesn’t even officially exist yet, it’s not ‘nothing’. And, they said, many Turks vote AKP or CHP because they see no alternative, not because they like the party or their leader very much. True, I have heard dozens of Turks say so. CHP voters see their party declining under Baykal’s reign, but don’t know what else to vote. Many liberals voted AKP, but just to give them a chance, while they would prefer a party without Islamic roots. Turkey Change Movement thinks they are the alternative for voters from both parties.

Wiping the AKP away from power is not going to be easy. But I did feel their determination to make it happen. It would be exciting to see a totally new party, with a fresh approach and fresh people, make a spectacular entrance into Turkish politics. And then follow them closely and critically, to see if they live up to expectations. Like the AKP did in the beginning of their reign, but failed to do over the last few years.

The excitement and drive that seems to be there in Turkey Change Movement sort of answered the question I couldn’t ask Sarigül: I’m sure to him it’s a blessing in disguise not leading the CHP. It would have been like dragging an old, almost dead, horse forward. Now he can lead a fresh, young and alive flock to the 2011 elections. I’ll keep you posted!

Ultimate luxury

My love and I stand on the balcony of the house he grew up in. We look out over the village. It’s been snowing, everything is white, and the sun that has made the snow sparkle all day, is slowly disappearing behind the hills. It’s cold. Then I notice that only a few houses have a smoking chimney. It could be, says my love, that some people are trying to save some money and only use a heater in the morning. The chimney of ‘our’ house is one of the few that is smoking. ‘You know’, says my love, ‘this house has the most modern heating system in the village. We are lucky.’

Well, I didn’t feel lucky a few hours before. My love and I are alone in the house, since his family is visiting relatives in the south of Turkey. My love has taken over the family business for a few days. He left early in the morning. I kissed and waved him goodbye on the doorstep, shouting: ‘Don’t worry baby, I’ll get the heater going, no problem!’ He explained to me how to do it, and anyway I saw his mother do it some weeks ago. Half an hour later, I put on my boots, put on a warm hat and went to the natural cave beneath the house (Kapadokya is full of caves). There is a stove for the central heating. It’s lit with coal. The procedure is: you put coal in, then a layer of wood, then a layer of dried lemons (the village lives on lemons, see this earlier blogpost, and dried lemons burn well), then a layer of newspapers and then another of wood. You light the whole pile, it goes voooom and then the house gets warm. Piece of cake!

Three attempts and three hours later, I’m about to cry. A whole lot of smoke is produced, but hardly any flames. I try again and again, put more wood on, push in extra newspapers, but no, nothing. The whole cave has become smoky, it makes breathing hard and my clothes, my whole existence, is smelly, ultra smelly. No way I would call my love for help, but I surrender and get the phone. Help me! Please!

Two attempts and another one and a half hour later, the house slowly gets warm. I have a shower to get rid of the awful smell. Then we sit down with our backs against the heater and have a glass of wine – yeah, that’s how late it got in the meantime. We might have a house in this village in the very near future ourselves (besides our house in Istanbul), and we discuss the ways of heating it. Gas is not available yet here. Electrical heating is way too expensive. The only options are a wood stove and central heating working on coal. The last one is also not an option, since we will be renting a house and house owners never make the huge investment needed for central heating. So a wood stove it will be.

My love’s parents had one for decades, until this winter the central heating was installed. I remember my love’s mother carrying heavy iron barrels filled with wood into the house. To have a shower, you had to put a huge aluminium kettle on the stove to heat water, pour that into a bucket and pour the hot water over yourself with a small bucket. That’s what my love and I will do when we get a house here – it could very well be I’ll only have showers when we are in Istanbul 😉

Today, standing on the balcony, holding each other and drinking coffee to stay warm, he promised we will get four of these iron barrels and fill them up in the morning and put them in the house, to make the situation as easy as possible for me. You know, I grew up with central heating that worked in an instant after you turned a switch. And here, in this small village in central Anatolia, a coal-burning central heating system is the ultimate luxury. Again, I get a bit more conscious of the luxury and comfort I’m used to. I nagged and complained a lot today. I will not do that anymore. Or, at least I’ll try.

The empty hands of Tekel-workers

A crate is thrown into an iron barrel and the fire flares up. But it doesn’t get really warm: the ice cold wind blows along the plastic sheeting that it is hoped will offer some protection against the weather. The group of men from Batman, in the south-east of Turkey, have been living on the street in the city centre of Ankara for a few weeks now. Next to their tent are the workers from Izmir, and next to them is a tent from Aydin, the neighbours are from Bitlis and their neighbours again are from Istanbul.

You see, the workers from Tekel come from all over Turkey. Tekel, that is the state alcohol and tobacco company, founded in 1925 under the auspices of Atatürk himself. It has been producing drinks and smokes for Turks for decades, but in 2008 the company was privatized and sold to British American Tobacco. Many alcohol factories have already closed down for efficiency reasons. On the last day of January, two days ago, the last tobacco warehouses that were still under government control were closed down.

The workers were given a choice: either get fired, or work for another state company and earn half the salary and lose practically all your benefits. Since that is a choice between two evils and the government didn’t react to any requests from unions to talk about the workers rights, from mid December on the workers decided to protest. They left their warehouses in their home towns and came to Ankara. The protests get a lot of attention in the newspapers, and Tekel has become a symbol of the protest against the way the government handles privatizations. There is a general feeling of there being no respect for workers’ rights, and what makes it worse is that many state companies are sold to foreign companies. The resentment against that is deep: many of the state companies were founded by Atatürk, who gave Turkey its independence by kicking foreign powers out of the country. Now Erdogan sells the state companies and lets foreigners in again through the back door to take Turkey down.

The solidarity in Ankara was impressive. I was there on the day that the biggest union, Türk-Iş, organized a big demonstration, halfway through January. At first, I didn’t see any Tekel workers. Instead I saw, in the pouring rain, members of other unions: the mineworkers were there, the municipal workers, the shipyard workers, the steel workers, and of course, the ever-present hammer and sickle flag-waving members of TKP, the communist party of Turkey. And when I came to the tents of the workers at the centre of the whole protest, I saw solidarity too. Since the protest took place in the heart of Ankara, shop owners came to bring the workers all sort of materials they could burn to keep warm, like crates and shoe boxes, barbers were offering free shaves, citizens gave blankets and food.

tekelvrouwenI was especially struck by three women I talked to, from the province of Batman. I once visited the village they were originally from, Sason, and remember the disused Tekel tobacco premises there. These women worked there, but were transferred to Istanbul with their families in a previous reorganisation that was linked to the privatization. Life in Istanbul is hard, the women said. They were supporting their families with their 1200 lira income. Their husbands all worked but mostly in temporary and badly paid jobs. What would happen if all of a sudden they had to work for 650 lira a month, with hardly any benefits? And under the condition that they could be transferred every few months to any part of the country to work for the state? What would it do to the lives of their children?
Mind you, their transfer from Sason to Istanbul, 1200 kilometres away, was already a life-changing event for these women with only a primary school education. They left their families to go to the protest in Ankara. They made their own small tent, attached to a phone booth and one piece of plastic held up by an ever changing helping hand. They stayed there, day and night. And they were preparing for the 3-day hunger strike that the union was to start two days later. If that wouldn’t make the government have more regard for their needs, they planned an indefinite hunger strike, with hundreds of workers. Indefinite? ‘Yes, till death’, said the three women with a great determination in their eyes.

In the end, the government invited the union for negotiations. Erdogan put three ministers on the case, and they would see if they could make the law less harsh. Yesterday the plans were revealed, but Türk-Iş has turned them down: slightly longer vacations and an income based on how many years a person has worked for Tekel, is not enough. But the union, in my opinion, is weak. When I was in Ankara, people were really preparing for an indefinite hunger strike, but the union at the last moment backed down – not that I would support an indefinite hunger strike by the way, I think it’s blackmail, but for the workers, it must have felt like a betrayal. Even more so when the union instead announced a general strike for the 3rd of February if the negotiations with the government were to lead nowhere. And now, did the union immediately announce the general strike? No, they first need to discuss it further. They just don’t make a real fist of it.

At the demonstration in mid January, groups of demonstrators were already calling for the resignation of Mustafa Kumlu, the head of Türk-Iş. In their eyes he is too close to the government and too willing to make a deal, even if it’s a bad one. The reluctance to immediately call for a general strike looks like that is indeed the case – on the other hand, the government has to give permission for a strike, and if people strike without permission, repercussions can follow. Smaller unions, that are usually much more radical, are never a talking partner of the government, especially not the union for Tekel workers, Tekgida-Iş: the government tried to close them down due to having too few members, lost that battle but is giving the union no subsidy anymore, so Tekgida-Iş is lame.

I think the men and women in their tents will in the end have to go home with empty hands. The men and women from Izmir, Sason, Batman, Istanbul, from all over Turkey, they were ready and determined to stand up for their rights. But they need powerful shoulders to get support from, and it seems these strong shoulders are just not there.

Bitter journalism tears

Indignation all around: alleged military coup plotters wanted to use journalists in their plans to overthrow the government. Daily newspaper Taraf recently revealed yet another coup plan, and it contains two lists: one of 137 names of journalists who would be asked to cooperate with the coup plotters to help create a chaotic atmosphere in the country, which would ‘justify’ the coup, and one of 36 names of journalists who would be arrested after the coup.

Some of those on the latter list yesterday filed a complaint in court against the alleged coup plotters; the 137 journalists who were considered to be potentially pro-coup haven’t made themselves heard yet. And I can’t help thinking about the connection between the plans of the alleged coup plotters and the reality of journalism in this country.

You see, journalism in Turkey doesn’t have too much to do with trying to inform the public as objectively as possible. Practically every headline contains an opinion, and that way you can easily determine on which side of the political scene the paper is situated. Actually there are already journalists doing a good job in helping to polarize the country by being outspokenly pro-military, anti-military, pro-government, anti-government. I don’t criticize the columnists, whose job it is actually to voice their opinions, but the normal reporters who cover the daily news. Their headlines are not the news but their interpretation of the news. They hardly ever obey the golden journalism rule of letting both sides speak, they accuse people of crimes before any judge has spoken. And some of them easily change their political views if that is better for their business. So in fact, the situation the alledged coup plotters planned to create, already exists. (Also the arrest-part, by the way: there are dozens of journalists detained or convicted because they wrote articles with topics or views that are not in line with the wishes of the powers that be.)

So of course you can shed bitter tears over coup plotters who include you in their vicious plans to drag the country back in time, but isn’t it about time you upgraded your journalism to modern times as well? It would help to make Turkey a stronger democracy. With less space for coup plotters.


Pictures, people want me to take pictures of Istanbul in the snow. It’s been snowing rather heavily for a few days now, and I guess the people who request pictures imagine the most beautiful views: mosques covered with snow, the old city turned white, narrow streets with snow flakes coming down.

But that version of Istanbul in winter doesn’t exist. At least, I haven’t seen it, and I’ve been around town quite a bit over the last few days. With my camera ready, because I also thought I’d get prize-winning snaps. But there is too much traffic, too much salt spread, millions of people continuously walk on the fresh snow, there is too much city warmth, exhaust fumes, too much of everything to destroy the perfect winter picture. Which of course doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy myself. I sat in the bar of Istanbul Modern Museum and watched the view over the Marmara Sea fade away behind an ever thicker curtain of snow, till only birds remained visible and the boat from Kadiköy that slowly came through the white air. I walked in Üsküdar with the snow coming down on me. I shopped in Istiklal Street with the sleet in my face, and saw the great effort shopkeepers make to get customers into their shops without slipping – constantly cleaning the entrance, putting cardboard on the doorstep, or towels, or a kilo of salt. I took ferries and couldn’t see any of the view – and was happy that apparently the captain did. I passed by the tourist spots of Topkapi, the Blue Mosque, Aya Sofia: they didn’t turn into white fairy tale buildings, but it was nice to see the tourists around them deal with the snow. Istanbul: you shouldn’t try recording it, you should just live it.

Al Qaeda suspects arrested in Turkey

ISTANBUL – The police this week arrested more than 150 people in a raid against terror organisation Al Qaeda. The operation was speeded up for fear of terrorist attacks in the country. According to Turkish press agency Anatolia on Friday, around 120 suspects were arrested in more than ten provinces.

Before 2003 Al Qaeda was not known to be present in Turkey as a terrorist organisation. There was another Muslim terrorist organisation, Hezbollah (not related to the Lebanese organisation of the same name). Turkish secret services used Hezbollah in the nineteen-nineties against Turkish separatist movement PKK. The leader of Hezbollah was killed in 2000, after which the organisation lost most of its power. Mehmet Farac, investigative journalist at daily Cumhuriyet and specialized in Muslim terrorism: ‘It left a void in the field of Muslim terrorism and Al Qaeda filled that void.’

The group gained notoriety in 2003 with terrorist attacks on the British embassy, a bank and two synagogues in Istanbul. Research showed that some of the culprits were previously active members of Hezbollah. Farac: ”Al Qaeda has been very successful in recruiting Muslim extremists who were previously active for other organisations.’

That Turkey is a country of interest to al Qaeda is because of the structure of the Turkish state, says Farac. ‘Turkey is a Muslim country, but has no sharia law but is, on the contrary, a secular state. Of course that’s a thorn in the flesh of Muslim fundamentlists.’

Several of the around two to five hundred members of the Turkish branch of Al Qaeda were trained in Pakistan and Afghanistan, but financially they have to take care of themselves. That makes them vulnerable, says Farac: ”They rob jewellery, for example, to get money. The police can relatively easily track them down because of that. Al Qaeda has been under surveillance by police for two years now, but a big operation has been speeded up because of the attack on an American military base earlier this month in Kabul, in Afghanistan. It raised the fear that attacks could be expected in Turkey itself.’

Hrant Dink – three years after the murder

I was in an eye hospital for on an assignment when I heard the news: Hrant Dink had been killed. There were TV screens in the hospital, and I couldn’t stop watching, wishing my Turkish was better, wishing I could understand what exactly was going on. But the biggest news, that Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink had been shot dead, was clear enough from the images alone: you saw just his feet sticking out from beneath the sheet that covered his dead body.

İt was January 19th 2007. I spent the following days at the scene of the murder: in front of Agos, the newspaper Dink founded and of which he was editor in chief. I spoke to many people and published my first report from Turkey  – I had arrived in Turkey just three weeks earlier. I still remember those days as some of the most impressive in my life.

And now, three years later, where do we stand? Has the murder been solved, have those responsible been punished? Not by a long shot. Hrant Dink’s lawyers published a report drawing the conclusion that they are exactly where they were three years ago. Only the actual killer, Ogün Samast, is behind bars. Everybody knows who neglected intelligence reports about the threats against Dink’s life, but even though at first they were investigated, the cases against all these guys have been dropped. They all still have responsible jobs in, for example, the police force. What can we conclude, other than that inside the state apparatus, nobody gives a damn about justice in this horrible murder case.

May Hrant rest in peace.

Sure about the facts?

A journalist, says Fatih Özyar, doesn’t just write an article about something he isn’t sure about. True, that’s how it should be. But is that really what happened?

Özyar writes for the biggest daily newspaper in Turkey, Hürriyet. He is the correspondent for Hürriyet in the Netherlands. A few days ago he reported that a journalist from the Netherlands, Armand Sag, was fired from his job at a journalism website because he denied the Ottomans committed genocide against Armenians in and around 1915. Interesting, but the story didn’t contain any reaction from the concerned website, which is weird because it’s a journalism rule to always let the other side speak too. And this was quite an accusation.

So I decided to contact the website myself. I asked the editor in chief, Joshua Livestro, if it was true that Armand Sag didn’t write for the site anymore, and if so, why? Livestro’s reaction came in an email: ‘We never employed Armand Sag, he only contributed to our readers pages, like many other people. Since we didn’t employ him, we also couldn’t fire him. And if he wants to, he can still publish on our website.’

Livestro mentions that Sag was warned once after, in an articles, he selectively quoted a Dutch liberal politician, turning him into somebody supporting the Turkish stance on the Armenian issue, while in reality this politician believes there was genocide committed against the Armenians, thus actually opposing the Turkish state’s view. But that’s all. Livestro: ‘This story about me firing Armand Sag is totally made up by the Turkish nationalist press.’

My duty was clear: contact the other side. I sent Armand Sag (not a journalist, but a young historian) an email, and I called Fatih Özyar. Then I went to the opening of the festivities for Istanbul Cultural Capital of Europe 2010, and just as I got home, Özyar called me back. He said that a journalist of course doesn’t just write an article about something if he isn’t sure about the facts. ‘I got a press announcement from Armand Sag, with some attachments. There was an email from Joshua Livestro to a columnist at the website who also knows Armand Sag, and in that mail it is said that Sag should stop writing stories about the Armenian genocide. It turned out Sag had two options: either apologize for what he had written, or stop working for the site. Then Sag drew his conclusions and decided not to work for them anymore.’

But, I insist, the site says he never even worked for them and that Sag is still welcome to publish on the readers pages. Özyar says he doesn’t know the details about that. But yes, he admits that he based his story only on information coming from Armand Sag. How about asking the website for their side of the story? Özyar: ‘I mailed them several times but I couldn’t get any reaction from them.’

Weird, since the editor in chief mailed me back within an hour. And Armand Sag himself? Besides mailing him, I also contacted him via a fellow-student of his, with the request to answer my email within a day. The answer came, not from Sag but from his fellow student: ‘He is fed up with all the journalists and has turned his phone off till Tuesday.’

Istanbul starts one year Cultural Capital of Europe

ISTANBUL – Starting tomorrow Istanbul will officially be Cultural Capital of Europe for one year. On seven locations in the city events are planned for Saturday night, for example a big fireworks display in the presence of President Abdullah Gül and a concert by popular singer Tarkan on Taksim, the central square of the city.

Besides Istanbul, Essen (Ruhr Region, Germany) and Pécs in Hungary are also Cultural Capitals of Europe in 2010. Istanbul will be presented as city where many cultures have long come together: in the Ottoman period (1453-1923) Istanbul was a cosmopolitan city with, apart from Turks, also hosted big Armenian, Greek, Jewish, Polish and Albanian communities. Since the foundation of the Republic the city has been more homogenous, but this city of 16 million people still draws immigrants from across the globe.

In “Istanbul 2010” artists from all over the world will participate. Activities are not only organized for the city centre, but also in outlying suburbs, so that Istanbullers who live far away from the centre of activities can also join in the cultural atmosphere.

These kids will read

There they are in Radikal newspaper: three boys aged seven, nine and eleven. The arms of the kaymakam, a local governor, is wrapped around them as he says: ‘These kids will read’.

The kids have been in the news for days now. It started with the news that a five year old boy, Bedrettin, was found beaten  almost to death: he had a fractured skull, bad cuts on his left wrist, swollen eyes and a cable around his neck. He was lying under the Galata Bridge, and soon it turned out he was a street kid begging and selling handkerchiefs. And that he was beaten up by some other street kids, because he was selling and begging in their district. The kids were found, and those are the kids in the picture with the kaymakam. They will be taken to a state orphanage and taught to read.

There are around four thousand of these kids in Istanbul, begging, stealing and glue-sniffing their way through the days. Around the Galata Bridge is one of the places where you see them a lot, especially late at night when the tourists are gone. These three boys, brothers actually, and Bedrettin, were from a village in the southern province of Adana, where everybody makes a living begging. It’s their way of life, everybody grows up with it and the parents send their kids to Istanbul, for example, to make a living. Or the parents go to Istanbul with them, or they hire a kid to help them beg. The kids are drugged so they keep quiet and sleep in the adults’ arms. The punishment for these parents is not very severe: usually they get away with a fine. If they are punished at all, that is.

The faces of the three boys in the picture break your heart. Bedrettin’s pictures too – luckily he is no longer in intensive care and is slowly recovering But does it have to go this far before the state starts to protect you? Of course, from time to time kids are taken away from their official parental care and brought under state protection. But apparently it helps to practically kill or get killed to get some official put his arms around you and decide it’s time you start learning to read.