The plan has only been presented this week, but when you say 4x4x4 these days in Turkey, everybody knows what it’s about: a new education law drafted by the AKP government.
The idea is to increase compulsory education from eight years to twelve years. Nothing wrong with that, but there is something wrong with the way the AKP wants to do it. They want to create three blocks of four years: two blocks of four years for primary education (one from age 7 to 11, one from 11 to 15), and one block of four years for secondary education. Officially, there can be no break between the first and second block, but there are vague exceptions, and it will also be possible for kids to become apprentices after the first block, or to learn from home.
In practice, this means that girls will have a shorter school career. Now, compulsory education lasts eight years, starting at age 7. The AKP has managed to increase the number of girls enrolling in school, but not necessarily the number of girls graduating from primary education: there are many drop-outs. Girls are needed at home, or there is not enough money to send them to school, or they need to contribute to the family income. Or it’s about time they got married, or at least prepared for it.
What will the effect be of a new school system that makes it very easy to stop sending your girl to school after she has completed the first block, at age 11? It gives parents a logical moment to reconsider their choice of sending their daughters to school or not. When their daughters are eleven years old, they will have to choose whether or not to enrol them in the second block. In the current system, there is no such opportunity before the eight years of compulsory education are finished. Result: girls will drop out earlier.
Some people call the draft law the ‘Come on girls, be a bride!’ law. It’s a variation on the government slogan used for some time now: ‘Come on girls, let’s go to school!’. The new plan totally undermines all the efforts made to enroll more girls in school. The next step should be an effort to keep girls in school, encourage them to do well, convince their families of the benefits of education, convince the families of the negative effects of early marriage and early motherhood. The AKP seems to skip all that by introducing this plan.
Not only women’s organisations, but also the biggest and most powerful businessmen’s organisation TÜSIAD has called on the government to withdraw the plan. I sincerely hope the AKP for once will listen to its critics. And I hope it gives them a signal: the effect of laws on girls and women must always be considered. I am left wondering. Does the AKP aim at girls aged eleven leaving school, do they just don’t care, or do they totally not consider the effects laws have on girls?
Istanbul (ANP) – The public prosecutor in Turkey has withdrawn the arrest warrant for four highly placed members of the national intelligence service, MIT. The highest-ranked MIT boss, Hakan Fidan, doesn’t have to testify anymore either. This was announced on Turkish media on Monday morning. A week ago the arrest warrants and the call to testify caused a huge uproar in Turkey.
The prosecutor came to his decision to withdraw earlier charges after parliament last week amended the law with unprecedented speed. The law now allows MIT employees to be interrogated only with the Prime Minister’s permission. On Monday morning the law appeared in the official state gazette after President Gül approved it, again with unprecedented speed. The prosecutor had no choice but to stop his investigation into MIT.
The prosecutor wanted to hear the the testimony of MIT employees in the so-called KCK case, in which mostly Kurdish politicians are being prosecuted for alleged ties with the Kurdish armed movement, the PKK. MIT employees did indeed have such contacts: up until last summer they held talks with the PKK, on government orders, in the Norwegian capital Oslo.
Whether the five MIT employees were indeed facing legal trouble because of the Oslo talks is not clear. Employees of the prosecutor’s office said anonymously through the media that infiltration by the MIT in the KCK, an umbrella organisation of Kurdish groups including the PKK, got out of hand: they claimed that nobody took responsibility, and infiltrated spies would have blood on their hands.
Rumours about a struggle between the AKP government and followers of the Islamic preacher Fethullah Gülen, who allegedly holds increasing influence within the judiciary, have largely ceased. As well, speculation about staunch nationalists who want to cripple the talks with the AKP meet with less response. They are also less relevant, now that the AKP has again taken control by changing the law. During the debates in parliament on the new law, Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin stated that talks with the PKK could continue if necessary.
‘Of course I am angry’, says Member of Parliament Gültan Kisanak. We are sitting in a room in the Istanbul head office of her party, the Peace and Democracy Party, BDP. Outside, the smell of tear gas can still be vaguely detected. Yesterday afternoon, the BDP tried to organize a protest against the capture of PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan on 15 February 1999, and against the solitary confinement he’s been held in now for some nine months. Police effectively blocked people from protesting. Kisanak and her fellow MP Sebahat Tüncel kept the people who did manage to gather calm. Kisanak: ‘I feel responsible for keeping everything calm, so I have to keep my own anger under control.’
Only about two hundred people made it to the protest on Istiklal Street. The group could only be reached by journalists: with a press card, the police let you through without any problem. The few hundred protesters came early enough not to be hindered by the police blockade. We – my assistant and I – hear from protesters that in many places around Istiklal and Taksim Square, people are trying to reach the protest. Identities are being checked, and people who look like they are coming to protest are not let through, people say. The protest in Istiklal remains peaceful.
In the closeby neighbourhood of Tarlabasi, where many Kurds live and where the Istanbul headquarters of the BDP are located, there appear to have been clashes with the police, as we smell (tear gas!) when we get to the area after the protest at Istiklal is over.
We see Gültan Kisanak and Sebahat Tüncel enter the building. We enter too, who knows who we can speak to. It’s busy inside, the BDP headquarters are like a community centre. Tea is being served, and a TV is tuned in to channel ‘Newroz’, where some glorification of Öcalan is going on. ‘Who do you want to talk to?’ my assistant asks. ‘Gültan Kisanak of course, if possible’, I reply. Two minutes later, the man responsible for press contacts appears. Fifteen minutes later, Kisanak comes into the room where we were told to wait.
She speaks softly at first. About how important the 15th of February is for the Kurdish movement, how they protest Öcalan’s detention every year, and about how they face difficulties with police on a daily basis. She says: ‘You saw how big the police presence was. Thousands of police, way more than there were people. I tell you, there would have been many more people if there hadn’t been so many police. And if the police had kept their distance, I’m sure it would have been a huge, peaceful and calm demonstration, and we would have released our press statement.’
I tell her I just saw some boys outside putting stones in their pockets. Is she sure she and her colleagues could have controlled the anger and prevented people from throwing stones? Kisanak: ‘Throwing stones usually only starts after the police start their violence. I have seen that so many times. But people have patience only up to a point. We are not always successful in keeping everybody under control.’ (And I have experienced both: some months ago in Diyarbakir the police started using teargas with no reason, and earlier in Istanbul a (very) few young men started throwing stones before the police took action.)
She doesn’t think the situation of Öcalan, who has not seen any of his family or lawyers since the spring of 2011, will change any time soon. ‘The AKP is even preparing a bill that makes it legal to keep detainees from having contact with their lawyers or family for up to six months’, she says. ‘It’s been on hold for a few weeks. I think they waited for today to be over, to not spark more anger among Kurds.’
‘The AKP’, says Kisanak, ‘knows that this situation will not lead to a solution. People are loyal to Öcalan, they will always support him. Sooner or later, the strategy of isolation has to be given up. Of course, we want it to happen soon.’
She mentions, among other things, the situation in the Middle East and North Africa as reasons why the Kurdish issue is again being treated by the government as a security issue. ‘The change came two, three years ago. The first few years that the AKP was in power, they needed to spread their influence over several state institutions. During that process, they couldn’t stir up too much trouble around the Kurdish issue. They needed time. Now they are strong and secure. Also, they extended some personal freedoms of the people. They hoped that would diminish the demands Kurds have as a people, but that didn’t happen. We will never give up our cultural and constitutional rights.’
The Arab Spring added another dimension, claims Kisanak: ‘There is fire there, everything changes. The Turkish government knows the Kurds have a potential to cause big trouble.’ Would you like to see that potential realised?, I ask. Kisanak: ‘The Arab Spring of the Kurds started already a long time ago. We protest almost every week, for a long time already. The reason the Arab Spring carried on is because of international dynamics: it suits what the international community wants. For the Kurds, that is different. On the contrary: the international community gives Turkey a role in managing the situation in the Middle East, so they feel the need to stay silent on the Kurdish issue.’
What is, in her opinion, the way out? ‘There is only one way out’, she answers without hesitation, also louder now. ‘We have to be insistent in demanding our rights’. How is the process towards a new constitution going? I ask. ‘Kisanak: ‘It’s a rather technical process at the moment, but it’s continuing.’ The BDP is part of the parliamentary commission that is working towards a new constitution, which must replace the one written by the military rulers after the 1980 coup. Kisanak says a really fresh constitution can contribute a lot to solving the Kurdish issue. ‘We basically need three things: equality for everybody, education in the mother tongue as basic right, and local autonomy.’
The door of the room opens slightly, and somebody whispers: ‘They have been set free!’ The man refers to the head of the BDP in Istanbul, who was detained this afternoon together with 22 protestors. “Good’, Kisanak smiles. She was talking to the police about that during the protest in Istiklal: she wanted them to be set free and allowed to join the protest. That didn’t happen, but at least now they are free again.
Gültan Kisanak needs to go, but I want to ask her one more question. What is needed for her personally to consider the Kurdish question solved? Besides policy changes, like a new constitution? She talks about nationalism and discrimination that need to be wiped out, and how the current strategy of the government feeds people’s anger, and nationalism on both sides. Then she says: ‘You know, when I was 19 (in 1980, FG), I was a student and I endured serious torture in jail. Later I experienced more injustice. Twenty six friends of mine have disappeared. Of course, I am angry. Besides a new constitution, I need an apology from the state.’
Now and then, I publish a guest blog post on my site. Usually from Turkish journalists, but this one is from my Dutch colleague and friend Marc Guillet. He came to Turkey for the first time in 1983. He knows the country, and he knows Istanbul. That’s why I asked him to write about Istanbuls central square, Taksim, and the plans the municipality made for it.
Marc has a great website about Istanbul. Enjoy Istanbul is the English version, Geniet van Istanbul the Dutch one.
(This blog post is written by Marc Guillet – see boxed text)
I’m angry. Angry about the plans of the city authorities to destroy little Gezi Park next to Taksim Square. And I am even more annoyed that not a single representative in the Metropolitan Municipality Assembly has voted against it. The vote was unanimous last September. That means that also the representatives of the CHP opposition, a party that claims to be progressive and social democratic, agreed with the destruction of that little piece of public green in Taksim.
It is all part of the “Taksim Project” that claims to make the square more pedestrian-friendly. Yes Taksim Square is a pedestrian nightmare if you are in a hurry and don’t want to wait for the traffic lights. But to rebuilt Ottoman Barracks – that were torn down in 1940 – on the spot where we now have a park? Crazy! Creative, cynical planners of Istanbul twisted laws to preserve a historic building (military barracks) that isn’t even there!
Authorities try to calm down protesting and worried residents by saying they want to turn the barracks into a cultural center. Aren’t there enough historical buildings in Istanbul that you can turn into a cultural center? I have seen more than enough empty and neglected Ottoman buildings that could be used for that purpose.
‘Taksim Platform’, a group of architects, civil servants, representatives from civic organizations and concerned citizens, is creating awareness about the negative consequences of this project.
When I first mentioned it on Twitter I didn’t only get supportive reactions, but several negative one as well.
“The Turkish Government is just rebuilding our history, they are not demolishing green spaces”, wrote one. And “Excuse me; do you have any idea what happens at night at Gezi Park in Taksim? It’s not a safe place, it’s really dangerous”.
Well, if it isn’t safe at night the municipality and police should take care of that. It cannot be a reason to erase it!
You can’t compare little Gezi Park with Central Park in the center of Manhattan (843 acres – 3.41 km2) or Hyde Park in London (350 acres). But it is a cozy oasis for young mothers with kids, old people who chat and sip Turkish coffee or tea, and others who just want to escape the constant noise of the city. This park, like all parks, is one of the vital components of urban existence.
What does the proposed Taksim Project involve?
It calls for the construction of enormous ramps –10 meters deep and 100 meters long– leading to subterranean tunnels directing traffic under Taksim Square. The ramps will be located at seven points near the square, including Gümüşsuyu, Sıraselviler, Mete, Tarlabaşı, and Cumhuriyet Boulevards. High concrete walls will be erected, and the existing sidewalks along the boulevards will be transformed into service roads. The trees in the hood will be cut down. And it will still be difficult to reach Taksim Square by foot.
Am I against a transformation of the Square? No. But as in any public project, financed by citizen’s taxes, citizens should be informed of and consulted about it. Taksim Square will never be like San Marco in Venice or the Red Square in Moscow. But it can be improved and be made more pedestrian-friendly without destroying the Gezi Park. I would even argue that there are enough architects in Istanbul who can beautify the park up to modern day standards.
I have to admit that successive mayors did their best to improve the quality of living in Istanbul since the first time I visited the city in 1983. They cleaned the shores and the water of the Golden Horn. Heavy industry is gone. The water of this historic inlet of the Bosporus isn’t used anymore as an open sewage. There is much more public green in the city. Clean LPG engines in taxis were promoted. And since 2006 we got buses Euro III environment friendly engines. A new Metrobüs system was introduced in September 2007. A growing number of the current IETT fleet of approximately 2,800 buses is ‘green’.
Tramway T1 has been expanded and modernized. Since the 1990s there is a new and slowly expanding metro system. Much more should be done. We need more metro and tram lines in all directions, not only along the north-south axis from Atatürk Airport to Sarıyer on the European shore of the Bosporus.
One of my objections against the “Taksim Project” in its current form is also the lack of transparency of this transformation project of architect and mayor Kadir Topbaş. The municipality has invited the public to express their opinions about the color and the models of new ferries and trams. But doesn’t give the public a chance to participate in more important decisions like the transformation of Taksim Square.
Dr. Kadir Topbaş, who was elected in 2010 as President of the United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) for a period of three years, is obliged to give an exemplary performance in handling transformation projects in his city in a democratic and transparent way. Therefore I urge the mayor and the Metropolitan Municipality Assembly to inform and consult residents, experts and civic organizations about the details of the project in public hearings. The authorities of the city should not ignore the voices of various groups and individuals who have the expertise to evaluate the effects this project will have on the urban fabric of Taksim.
The news in Turkey sometimes just doesn’t make sense. But as a foreign correspondent, you have to write about it anyway. Promptly. Usually you manage, but sometimes, I admit, you don’t. Like last week. The news was so utterly confusing, I couldn’t, as the Dutch saying goes, make chocolate of it.
I am talking about the news that started on Wednesday and came to a climax on Friday. On Wednesday, the special prosecutor in the KCK case – where mostly Kurdish politicians and journalists are being arrested for having links with the PKK – summoned Hakan Fidan, the head of Turkey’s intelligence organisation MIT, to testify. ‘Testify’ in Turkey usually means: as a suspect. The head of Turkish intelligence questioned for links with the PKK? Yes, he had those contacts, since in recent years the MIT talked to the PKK in the Norwegian capital Oslo. On government orders. So now those contacts were going to get Fidan in trouble?
Fidan refused to come to testify, and on Friday he was summoned again and arrest warrants were issued for four high-ranking (former) MIT employees, also in connection with the KCK case. The country was basically dumbfounded. What was happening here?
Nobody knew exactly. But I work for, among many other media, Dutch news agency ANP, and I knew this was such big news that I had to mail them about it. I hesitated though: what if they actually wanted the story, help! And of course they wanted it. I thought, I’ll just stick to the news, that’s the easiest, then I don’t have to get involved in speculation. So I wrote:
*** ISTANBUL (ANP) – The public prosecutor in Turkey has issued an arrest warrant on Friday for a number of senior employees of its own intelligence service, MIT. Four of them seem to be suspected of having ties with the Kurdish armed movement PKK. The MIT up until last year was holding secret talks with the PKK on behalf of the Turkish state in the Norwegian capital Oslo. ***
But of course, I couldn’t send it in like that: articles are supposed to answer questions, not raise them. So I had to add something. A sentence starting with: In Turkey, speculations have started about what is behind the arrest warrants and the summoning of Fidan. But then what? Which rumour to take seriously, which one not?
The first rumour going around: Fethullah Gülen! The popular, and at the same time highly disputed and elusive Islamic preacher, a Turk residing in the USA, had always been on good terms with the AKP government of PM Erdogan, but over the last couple of months, some cracks appeared in the friendship, especially with Erdogan. Supposedly, that is, because everything about the Gülen movement is always totally vague. Was there a power struggle going on within the AKP between people close to Gülen and people less close to Gülen? Did Gülen want to obstruct Erdogan, and more particularly his strategy regarding the Kurdish issue?
This raises (at least) two new questions. One: which AKP strategy would that be then, because there seems to be only chaos in the handling of the Kurdish question these days. And two: what would be the Gülen alternative then? Does Gülen have a stance worked out for the handling of the Kurdish issue anyway? Does he have enough power – if any – in the judiciary to pull the strings this way? Yes, I know some things about Gülen are taken for granted by many in Turkey, like the ‘fact’ that Gülen has taken over the judiciary, but like I said: everything about Gülen and his followers is always totally vague, so in the end, it’s all speculation.
Another speculation is about a bitter struggle between doves and hawks within the AKP and within several state institutions. Hard line nationalists being fiercly against any talks with the ‘terrorists’ of the PKK, wanting to return to the violence-only strategy of the last few decades. Maybe even the remains of the “deep state”, which has been weakened since the AKP has been in power, showing they still have some influence within the judiciary. The top man of MIT, Hakan Fidan, was appointed by Erdogan personally. Hitting Fidan is hitting Erdogan.
And that’s only the two most basic speculations, omitting a lot of other interesting (possible) background scenarios. Add to that that I had to deliver my story quickly, and couldn’t exceed 1,500 characters – that’s the same as the first four paragraphs of this blog post. The audience: Dutch readers who have no particularly deep interest in or knowledge about Turkey.
Poor me. What followed were a few news articles within a couple of hours, with partly the same information but with in every version some new info (read: rumours) added. Call them updates. And they were written in the ‘we are not sure’ style: some people say…. who is supposedly…. with the alleged…. etc. Very, very unsatisfying. You cover the rumours, and you have to, because without them the news makes even less sense, but it’s all too vague, too fast, too far from the facts.
The MIT, Gülen, Erdogan and the deep state have kind of haunted me this weekend. How could I have covered this better? How could I have gotten more facts instead of rumours? But now, I have let it go. On Friday afternoon, this is how it was. Nothing I could do about it. Being a foreign correspondent in Turkey is sometimes just a near-impossible task.
Imagine, you don’t know too much about Turkey’s past and present, and you read this opinion article that opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu wrote yesterday in the Washington Post. He writes about how ‘the AKP is systematic and ruthless in its persecution of any opposition to its policies’, and uses the sentence: ‘Turkey today is a country where people live in fear.’ Kilicdaroglu draws the picture of a totalitarian state, with himself as the shiny centre of the opposition, who would lead the country to freedom for everybody if only the brutal leaders of the country would allow him to. If you wouldn’t know any better, you’d nominate Kilicdaroglu for the Nobel Peace Prize.
No no, I’m not going to defend the AKP. I wouldn’t dream of that, since the AKP government just doesn’t serve democracy right – proof of that all over this website, like here, here, here and here, just to mention a few. There is no need to talk about the AKP to show how totally ridiculous the writing of mr. Kilicdaroglu is.
The opposition leader likes to display his party the CHP as a good choice for Turkey to get back on the democratization track. He even mentions his party is the ‘vestige’ of Turkish democracy. The truth is however exactly the opposite: the CHP is at the very roots of the basic problem that Turkey has with democracy: the main goal of the Turkish state is to protect the state, not it’s citizens. It is one of the basics of Kemalism, which is the fundamental ideology of the CHP, that was founded by Atatürk.
Kemalism is not an ideology that serves democracy. On the contrary: besides not protecting it’s citizens, Kemalism for example orders ‘modernism’ (or what the state considers modern, which is pretty outdated by now and for example hampers freedom of religion) and nationalism (and thus excluses people). For decades, Turkey was a one party state ruled by the CHP. No opposition allowed, and Atatürk, who introduced changes 100% top down with no say for the people whatsoever, even executed people who opposed his vision – all for the sake of the country, of course.
I don’t know the general sentiment at the time, but I can imagine people who opposed Atatürk were living in fear – which means, being afraid to lose your life. For Kilicdaroglu to suggest that Turkey is nowadays a country ‘where people live in fear’ is so utterly shameful. It is a flagrant and evil exaggeration, a lie that does not serve any purpose but his own parties strategy – whichever strategy that may be. (And, mr. Kilicdaroglu, look at what is happening in Turkey’s neighbour Syria: that, sir, is a country where people live in fear.) It is just a big a lie as his remark that the AKP systematically and ruthlessly persecutes any opposition to it’s policies. To put it simple: crap.
The CHP has nothing to do with democracy, not in the past and not in the present. They are unable to reform themselves into a real social democratic party, which they are in name. Kilicdaroglu shows no sign of wanting to reform the party, and even if he wanted to, he couldn’t do it, because the mastodon Kemalists still hold a lot of power in the party behind the scenes. We will see that again in a big party meeting that is planned for later this month.
I would even like to go one step further. For Turkey to get back on track and democratize further, the best thing that could happen is the abolishment of the CHP. Hop, straight into the history books with it. As long as this anti-democratic institute covering up as social democrat party exists, a genuine and appealing opposition can never emerge. And only a genuine and appealing opposition, that really puts democratic values at the top of it’s priorities list, can do something against the too powerful AKP.
‘You can’t go there’, two police officers in a car tell us. I pretend to be a tourist and say: ‘But I know the view from there is so nice, why can’t we go and see it, I was here before with no problem’. ‘Maybe so’, they reply, ‘but now you can’t go.’ I smile and tell them they make me so curious about what is going on. ‘Don’t be curious’, is their final answer. ‘Just, something happened there and you can’t go.’
Of course, I knew what was going on there, and why my assistant and I couldn’t go. Right in the middle of Diyarbakir, at a historic tourist site, a mass grave has been found by accident. There were archaeological excavations going on, and all of a sudden, skulls were found. Initially organisations like the Human Rights Association could go and take a look, but soon the site was closed off and excavations controlled by the state. The bones that are found are being sent to a forensic lab in Istanbul. The first speculations are that the bones are of people killed by Jitem, an illegal group within the gendarmerie that is responsible for many killings and disappearances in southeast Turkey, mainly in the eighties and nineties. Not hard to imagine: the mass grave is right next to a building formerly used by Jitem.
The Human Rights Organisation (IHD) doesn’t trust the state excavations. Turkey doesn’t allow any independent supervision of the sensitive investigation of mass graves, of which there are a lot in Turkey, as you can see on this IHD map. The work is often done with digging machines, destroying evidence that could shed light on the way people died and, when murder is involved, who the killers were. The unsubtle investigations also affect the quality of DNA samples that could lead to identifying the bones, and thus give the families of missing persons information about the fate of their loved ones.
For this reason, IHD no longer tries to push the state to open mass graves. As long as international standards are not followed when excavating mass graves, they think it’s better to leave the graves untouched. Only when the state is one day willing to seriously and openly investigate the mass graves, then it will be time to open them.
But Tahir Elci, a lawyer that represents many families of missing persons, doesn’t agree. He tells me that he believes as many mass graves as possible should be opened as soon as possible. ‘The DNA of the remains have to be secured, so we can get the best samples possible’. He is less pessimistic about the efforts of the state to research properly: ‘It is true that international standards are not being followed, but I have no reason to think the forensic lab or the state willingly frustrate the investigation and cover up evidence.’
I decided to ask a forensic expert about which story makes more sense. Is it better to keep the graves closed until all standard procedures are being followed, or should they be opened despite the bad research, just to secure DNA? I soon got an answer from Professor Sue Black, an expert on human identification. ‘It’s a Catch 22’, she mails me. ‘If mass graves are to be investigated, then they have to be to the highest evidential standard, especially if you seek to prosecute perpetrators and achieve secure identifications. It is also true that DNA degrades with time, so the longer you leave the remains in the ground, then the less likely you are to extract a full profile. However, if the excavations are done badly, then your chances of extracting source rather than contaminant DNA is lowered and your chances of a successful identification being achieved are lessened.’
‘The solution is’, Sue Black continues, ‘to plan well and not waste time – but both (planned excavations and source DNA extractions) are expensive’. IHD and lawyer Tahir Elci plea for an independent expert institute to investigate Turkey’s mass graves. That such an institute doesn’t exist, is not a matter of money, since the government always manages to find enormous amounts of money to invest in, for example, (disputed) infrastructure and city development projects. It’s a matter of choice. Turkey is obviously not ready yet to make concrete steps into solving the Kurdish issue and thoroughly investigate the horrors that happened in the recent past. It makes the talk of Prime Minister Erdogan about democratisation sound very hollow once again.
An utterly sad low in the trouble over fishing the Bosporus: the head of a fishermen’s cooperative was shot because he opposed the way some of his colleagues scrape the Bosporus fishing grounds with their nets, contributing to certain fish becoming extinct. The man lost his left eye. It’s about time the government takes responsibility.
If you didn’t know any better, the fishing boats in the Bosporus would look simply romantic. Rough, of course, but romantic against the scenery of the city and with the ever changing weather conditions on the water. The truth is, there is a fight going on for economic survival, and it’s getting out of hand.
Years ago, the Bosporus offered tuna fish and sword fish, but these species have become extinct already. Nowadays, the discussion is about lüfer – or should I say defne yapragi, cinekop or sarikanat? All names for the same fish in different stages of its life, the defne yapragi being the baby, the lüfer being the adult. The key question is: why is the lüfer on the verge of becoming extinct? Overfishing!, some people say. Too much city light!, others say. Too much maritime traffic!, is sometimes heard. Or: pollution!
Who is right? Nobody knows, because the flabbergasting fact is that there is no research whatsoever into the problem. Amazing, of course, for a city where fish is so loved and so anchored in daily life, and where so many people make a living from it. Despite the lack of research, all kinds of restrictions are imposed on fishermen. For some months now, they have been banned from taking cinekop shorter than 20 centimetres, so they are not caught before they reproduce. Still too short!, shouts Greenpeace, which demands a 25 centimetre limit. In the fish markets, you find small cinekop everywhere: the fishermen in general don’t obey the rules, the government isn’t enforcing them.
Greenpeace’s campaign to raise awareness to the lüfer problems are attracting quite a bit of attention, largely because of the funny slogan: how many centimetres is yours? The fish you catch, that is. But how fair is it to make the fishermen responsible for the balance of the fish populations that swim en masse through the Bosporus from the cold waters of the Black Sea to the warmer Aegean Sea?
Fishermen are the easiest target. What if research finds that the heavy vessel traffic is the problem? What if city pollution is the biggest cause of fish becoming extinct? That would mean the government would be faced with the immense task of tackling these problems. Which is not easy, especially when you are about to start building megalomaniac projects like a third Bosporus bridge and two new cities on the Black Sea coast.
There is no excuse whatsoever for violence in the heavy competition between fishermen. But the responsibility of the government is to create funds for decent research into the problems of fish stock in the Bosporus and surrounding waters. And then act accordingly to tackle the problem, instead of just blaming the easiest target.
The gay men in the film Zenne Dancer kiss on the cheek, not on the mouth. The only time they go further than that is when they need photographs of gay sex, to convince a military committee they are actually gay and for that reason get exempt from doing their military service (which is not a procedure invented for the film but still common practice in the army). Then, when they ‘have to’, we see full kisses, and then the suggestion of sex. The funny thing is, one of the men, the German Daniel, is bisexual, and a girlfriend visiting him does immediately sit down on his lap and starts kissing heavily, as lovers do. He rejects her: he is in love with his Turkish boyfriend.
It must have been very hard for the director and producer to make a film for a broad audience about a gay honour killing and about how gays are treated in Turkey. To find a balance between telling a true tale of gay love and friendship and not shock the audience with too explicit images. Because in Turkey that is what still shocks mainstream audiences: real love, including sex, between two men.
The other shock in the film is the tragedy the film is based on and which happened in 2008: Ahmet Yildiz, a student in Istanbul from the conservative south-eastern region of Urfa, was killed by his own father because he was gay. The murder is known for being the first gay honour killing that drew widespread public attention. The father has still not been arrested, and is most probably hiding in northern Iraq.
In short, you could say that Zenne Dancer (meaning ‘male belly dancer’) tries to find a balance between what shocks Turks in general – gay love – and what is condemned often but nevertheless still happens and often even understood: honour killings. Some statistics: a survey at Bahcesehir University showed that 88% of the Turks object to a gay or atheist neighbour or an unmarried couple living next to them. Stats from the Turkish government show that in Istanbul alone every week an honour killing takes place (and usually women and girls are the victims), and about thousand were carried out in the whole country between 2003 and 2008.
Turkey as a society is not primarily based on freedom of the individual and seeking happiness in your personal life, but on protecting the family and tradition you are a part of. Individual choices are subordinate to that. Who challenges the order, can get into serious trouble.
In the film, that is very well shown by a conversation between the two lovers, Daniel and Ahmet. Daniel encourages Ahmet to be honest to his conservative family about being gay. ‘Honesty is always the best way’, he says. ‘In the end, your parents love you’. Especially that last sentence made me giggle: it is so utterly typical of a western way of thinking. Your parents will at most be shocked for a while about their child being gay, but if you give them some time, they will adjust and welcome you into their arms again. Ahmet replies: ‘You don’t understand. Honesty could kill me.’
Ahmets parents do love their son, that is clear throughout the film, but that love is not strong enough to wipe away traditional convictions. Ahmet refuses to come back to his family and get ‘help’ from the Imam to overcome his ‘sickness’. So then the father sees no other way: he travels to Istanbul and guns down his son. In a later scene, we see Ahmets mother, who encouraged the murder, crying uncontrollalby.
The film won a series of awards at Turkey’s most important film festival, in Antalya. It is now in cinemas all over the country, also in conservative cities like Trabzon, Konya and Diyarbakir. I do wonder what kind of audience it is attracting, and about how they feel afterwards. The message of the film is clear, and what should be the most shocking part is the honour killing. How big a part of the audience has to admit that deep down they are more shocked by the one vague but unmistakably gay sex scene? How much will the film contribute to changing attitudes towards gays in Turkey? Can gays really kiss in the next big release film about gay rights?
Young Dutch men and women with Turkish roots who try their luck in Turkey. Away from the political climate in the Netherlands, on the way to the country of their parents and grandparents, where the economy is flourishing and where they are fully at home. The reality is sometimes quite different.
Pictures by Ahmet Polat. Picture of Cengiz Caglar soon to come!
Metin (25) (his real name was used in the magazine but he didn’t want it to be used on internet as well, and he also requested to publish it here without the picture) shows the advertising agency where he works. Top location in the heart of Istanbul, broad staircases with red tapestries, high ceilings, light spaces. He points to where his desk is: there, in the hall by the stairs, against the wall. It seems a bad place, but for Metin it is just right: ‘I don’t want to sit among my Turkish colleagues’, he explains. ‘I close myself off from the working environment as much as possible. The hierarchy, the fear of the boss, the gossip, I don’t like it.’
Metin, born in Istanbul but relocated to the Dutch town of Masssluis when he was three months old, doesn’t feel at home in Turkey and he knows that will never change. He says: ‘I don’t feel I’m a Turk.’ And later even: ‘I’m not a Turk’.
Metin is a Turk of course, because he was born with two Turkish parents. But ever since he decided to move to Istanbul four years ago, he knows that’s all it is: he has Turkish parents. His father died shortly after he was born, his mother raised him without Turkish nationalism. In the Netherlands he mainly had Dutch and Surinam friends, not Turks. Even when he was a boy: ‘They didn’t like me because I didn’t want to play soccer in their Turkish neighbourhood team.’
Still, in the Netherlands he felt himself to be a Turk. That is how he was seen by others, and through his mother and her Turkish friends he got acquainted with Turkish culture. Or so he thought – until he returned to the city where he was born. ‘I thought I would fit in without any trouble’, he remembers the first period in Istanbul, ‘but that was totally not the case. My Turkish turned out to be bad, I was seen as a Dutch man and that’s how I felt. I only stayed because I found the job that I wanted.’
In 2007, the year Metin left Maassluis and flew to Istanbul, according to Dutch statistics bureau CBS 91,287 people migrated in the same direction. It was the last year that the migration from the Netherlands to Turkey increased: from almost 60,000 in 1999 to more than 91,000 in 2007, then decreasing to just over 85,000 in 2009, the last year for which statistics are available. How many of those people have Turkish blood running in their veins, like Metin, is unclear, but a fair share of them are young, often highly educated Dutch men and women with Turkish roots.
‘Holland is my first own country’
The ‘political climate’ is in general seen as an important factor in the decision to leave the Netherlands, but when you talk to young Dutch-Turkish people who took the step, it often turns out that it plays only a small role. Metin for example, came for work. ‘In the Netherlands I was not admitted to the creative education I wanted’, he says. ‘I didn’t feel like enrolling at another school, and I thought that with some guts I would easily find a job, with my Dutch background.’
That’s exactly how things went – with not ‘some’ guts, but a lot: as a 21 year old and practically without any preparation, Metin boarded a plane, went directly from the Istanbul airport to the most important advertising agency in Turkey, asked to see the boss and talked himself into a job. ‘I had a small portfolio with my own work, but he was mostly charmed by my Dutch bluntness. Somebody who was not afraid of the boss, that seemed to him like an asset to his company.’
For 29 year old Nurten Durmus too, politics played no role in her decision to move to Turkey. ‘I never felt discriminated against in Holland’, she says. ‘I was just curious what it would be like in my own country.’ She hesitates saying those words, ‘my own country’, and then says: ‘Turkey, I mean. Turkey is my own country. But still, Holland is my first own country.’
The Turkish population is quickly becoming better educated
Nurten was, like many in her age group, drawn to Istanbul by the flourishing economy. It is growing at 5 to 8 % a year, the population is young, Istanbul is bubbling with life. The point is: highly educated European Turks tend to think that the Turkish labour market is yearning for them, but that is less and less the case. The Turkish population itself is quickly becoming better educated. An increasing number have even studied in Europe, since Turkish universities joined the international exchange program Erasmus. And they have what a Turk from the Netherlands usually lacks and what is still essential in finding a good job in Turkey: a wide network. Besides that, although the economy may be growing, a spectacular decrease in unemployment hasn’t started yet.
Nurten too saw the Turkish labour market through rose-tinted glasses. ‘I knew that Istanbul is a very big city, where there are many companies which do business with the Netherlands. I have a good administrative education and a nice CV, so I thought I would find a job very easily.’
That her first job was not at her level but at a call centre didn’t really discourage her: she would find something better soon. And she did, but then the conflict started between her Amsterdam inclination and the Turkish work floor culture: ‘I am really not going to tell the boss every day that she looks beautiful and that she has such a marvellous bag. But, well, others do, because …. sucking up to the boss is obligatory in Turkey. So the bosses here never like me.’
She is moving. Two men from a furniture shop walk through her house on the Anatolian side of the city, Nurten tells them where exactly cupboard, bed and couch have to be placed. It’s November, but the window is open and there is lovely sunshine coming in. She serves tea, with a typical Dutch treat that a friend from Holland brought when she visited her. She is searching for words that properly describe how she feels, but that’s not easy. One thing is clear though, four years after leaving the Netherlands: ‘I don’t feel at home in Turkey.’
She remembers an incident from when she had just arrived in Istanbul and had some official paper work to be arranged. She had to be at some office at 2pm. She appeared on time, but was asked to return the next day. The next day she was sent away again, well, to cut a long story short: her Amsterdam nature caused her to explode. ‘I really didn’t understand what was happening’, she says with a heavy Amsterdam accent. ‘What did they want from me really? I got angry, the security had to come to calm things down, I started crying, my God what a scene.’
She has just quit her fourth job, again because she wears her heart on her sleeve and still has trouble working for a Turkish company. ‘No, I’m not going to adjust myself. I am happy that I have the Dutch culture in me. I consider it important to talk about things. But I never expected it to be like this. When I made plans to move to Istanbul, four years ago, I was looking forward to being a Turk among Turks. But it turns out I’m an Amsterdam woman, and I will always be.’
‘My parents didn’t want me to go to Istanbul on my own’
She shares the rent of her new apartment with a friend, so financially she can make do without a new job for some weeks, but not too long. While talking she evaluates her reasons for staying in Istanbul: ‘I need something here that holds me back from returning to the Netherlands. When at some point I have a good job that gives me strength, then I think I will feel at home. I don’t have that yet. But I’m not going back to Holland. Life is exciting here, I like that. In the Netherlands you go from home to work and then back home, here there is less routine, you can do anything at any moment of the day. Istanbul is always alive.’
Then she says: ‘You know, my parents didn’t want me to go to Istanbul on my own. Especially my dad was against it, he doesn’t like it that I make my own choices as a woman. I have this uncle, he laughed about my decision to leave. ‘She’ll be back before you know it’, he said. Every time I consider returning to the Netherlands, I hear this uncle laugh in my mind, and I stay where I am.’
‘In the Netherlands I was considered a Muslim, a Turk’
Nurten is hanging on. But there are also migrants who soon change their minds and return to Holland almost instantly. Cengiz Caglar, born in the north-eastern Turkish city of Erzincan 27 years ago and taken by his parents to the Frisian village of Buitenpost when he was ten years old, survived in Turkey for exactly three months in the west coastal city of Izmir. He did leave the Netherlands because of the political climate – at least, that’s what he thought when he left in 2008.
The murder of Theo van Gogh in 2004 turned Cengiz’ life upside down. He was twenty years old, was studying International Business and Languages and also Media and Culture at the University of Amsterdam, and he didn’t bother too much about religion. Because of that murder by an Islamic extremist, he was forced to speak out about his religion. ‘My parents are Alevi, a liberal path in Islam. When I was asked about my religion in connection to the murder of Van Gogh, I always started to explain I was raised in an Alevi family. But then it looked as if I thought that Sunni or Shiite Muslims would approve of the murder of Van Gogh, so then I felt the need to explain that I didn’t mean to say that. I was dragged into a polarisation I didn’t want to have anything to do with.’
For his studies he had to go abroad for some time. He left for Scotland, then to Mexico, then to Vancouver. Back in the Netherlands for the final year of his studies, he couldn’t take it anymore. ‘We had a discussion in class about freedom of expression. I was shocked by how strongly people were speaking out against Islam and against Muslims. That even at that level people could think like that! In the other countries where I had been, I was considered a Dutch man, but in the Netherlands I was considered a Muslim, a Turk. I also found it pretty weird to notice that I apparently did care after all about how people looked at me.’
‘I wandered through the city and felt so lonely’
Longing for peace in his mind he decided to go back to his country of origin. There he would come home to a warm bath, there he would be among his own people. But he soon found himself in a huge identity crisis. ‘There I was, two diplomas in my pocket, without goal, with a total emptiness inside me. I was going to make a film and do research for it in Izmir, but now I know I was mainly trying to find myself. I wandered through the city and felt so lonely. I was with family, but I didn’t really feel connected to them. After all these years in the Netherlands, I was no longer one of them.’
The most confronting question came from his grandmother. ‘She said: “My boy, what are you doing here exactly?”I couldn’t explain it to her. I felt I had to leave Turkey, that I didn’t fit in anymore after all these years in Holland. But then where was I to go? Where would I be home then?’
By coincidence he had to go back to the Netherlands. During his studies he also worked with film, and his short film, ‘Uittocht’ (Exodus) was going to be screened at the Netherlands Film Festival. He was on the couch in his brother Deniz’ house, pondering whether to go to Australia or South-America, when Deniz said: ‘Cengiz, you know what, let’s send your CV to this traineeship committee of the Amsterdam municipality. I think that would really suit you. Come on.’
‘I have learned identity is not a fixed thing’
And that’s how he ended up as a happy man in Heemskerk, not too far from Amsterdam. The Amsterdam municipality invited him for an interview, and ‘of course I couldn’t say that I had an identity crisis and was considering going to Australia or Mexico’. He showed himself at his very best, and to his own surprise after a long procedure he was selected, together with 23 others, out of 1100 applicants.
The traineeship period of two years just ended and has been replaced by a contract for one year. He is looking for a word that can describe how he feels. ‘Yes, I know it, I’m blooming’. Then: ‘The political climate in the Netherlands is still the same, but I have developed myself over the last two years. I don’t let it bother me anymore, I have accepted that I am not seen as a Dutch man. And I have learned that your identity is not a fixed thing, at least, mine isn’t. Who you are is always developing. Now I found a balance. I don’t run away from myself anymore, like when I left for Turkey.’
Does he consider himself a Dutch man now? ‘No, I don’t think so. That is difficult if others see you as a foreigner. But it’s okay. I found a job in which I can develop myself, in Amsterdam, a city that I love. This year I got married, we are saving money to be able to one day buy a house in Amsterdam. I do hope our children will be accepted as being Dutch.’ And Turkey? Nice for holidays, and that’s it.
‘I have a whole group of Dutch friends here’
The chance of you running into Metin the advertising guy in the Netherlands is pretty strong. He may live in Istanbul, but he can’t live without Holland. How often does he go back? ‘For private reasons’, he says, ‘I go about ten times a year. Three, four days. Meet the down-to-earth Dutch family and friends, get a chance to think clearly and quietly, which is not possible for me in the chaos of Istanbul. I eat Dutch fries and a good croquette, and I fly back to Istanbul again. Apart from that, I go to Holland seven or eight times a year on business. I have my own projects that I work on at the advertising agency, and it’s up to me to decide who I work with. So I work with Dutch people, like with the famous Dutch artist Johan Kramer. Dutch people come in time you know, and they pay in time.’
When he is in Istanbul, he is surrounded by other Dutch men and women living there. Metin: ‘Living and working like a Turk seems like a horror to me. Work till eleven at night, then watch soccer or go to the tea house. Turks don’t have hobbies, but I do: I play squash, I film. And I don’t only want to socialize with men, but also with women. So I have a whole group of Dutch friends here, both men and women.’
He laughs at the suggestion that he lives in Istanbul but has created his own Holland around himself. ‘Yes, I guess that’s true. And I have to. Istanbul is such chaos, without some Dutch orderliness it’s impossible to live here.’