Istanbul municipality broom

Autumn in Istanbul, that means you can still now and then enjoy a nice sunny day. But unfortunately: the sea of outdoor seatings in Beyoglu, the heart of modern Istanbul, is gone. Wipes clean by the municipality. There was hope this summer that there would be a new policy for outdoor seating, but no: they are gone forever.

For who has ever been to Istanbul: picture Istiklal Avenue, the longe shopping street starting at the central Taksim Square. The streets left and right of Istiklal, and especially the small streets at the end, have been covered with chairs, wooden stools and tables. People drank there from early afternoon till late at night. Especially students and tourists would pour liters of beer in themselves there. Besides that, there were tea houses too, and outdoor seatings of restaurants with and without permission to serve alcohol.

The trouble was: walking was practically impossible there. Almost every square meter was taken bij a table, stool or chair. When you looked closely, you could see till where exactly till which point at the pavement the outdoor seatings were allowed. And if you looked even better, you didn’t see only bars, thee houses and restaurants, but also shops, galeries and appartments.

Who the hell would live there?, I sometimes wondered when I was having a beer there myself. You can ’t even reach your own front door! And how can you ever sleep at night with all that noise? And those are precisely the stories that could be heard after the municipality broom had done its work. People living in those streets, got crazy of the outdoor seatings, that only got really out of hand the last couple of years. Galery and shop owners got crazy too: when ever they put some info board or banners outside, the bar owners would take them away and replace them with even more stools and tables. Protesting seemed impossible. ‘Catering industry maffia’.

So, now there is now way to have a beer anymore in Istanbul? Of course there is. The bars are open. So you can drink inside. Or outside, in a bar or restaurant with a roof terrace. Or you buy a beer and lay down in the park. The weather is still good enough for it!

Yeah, I know, now that it’s cold and wet, that last sentence seems ridiculous. But I wrote this about five weeks ago, and publication was postponed because of the earthquake in Van.

Mass circumcision, and then it’s time to party

AKYURT – Ninetyfive boys. In four shifts they have been circumcised in a municipality mass circumcision. In the hospital, so efficient and hygienic. And now that all almost a hundred boys are competently released of their foreskin, its party time in Akyurt, a town close to the Turkish capital of Ankara. The mayor: ‘Your first step towards manhood is taken!’

Summer, that’s cicumcision season in Turkey. In the long summer holiday thousands and thousands of boys are being helped. Ever since the AKP took power in 2002 and put ‘service to the citizen’ high on its priority list, the municipality mass circumcision a growing phenomenon. Municipalities don’t only organize the circumcision, they also pay for it. Including a huge open air party. For the citizen it means a saving of about 3000 lira (about 1400 euro, three average monthly salaries) per son.

The party goes like this: the young boys are called on a huge stage one by one, they say their name and get applause. Then there is music, and the boys dance: armes spread, snapping fingers and stamping feet. In the group also a clown is dancing, and a man dressed as the legendary, old and funny wise man Nasreddin Hoca, and yes, Spiderman is present too. The traditional music is changed to stimulating Turkish pop songs, an energetic dance show of two young men who’s foreskin was cut off about seven years ago, and the declamation of a few suitable poems. After about who hours of dance less and less boys are on their feet and more of them sit on their mothers lap.

The brothers Ismail (11) and Ibrahim (10) Miroglu have been circumcised three weeks ago. They are rather good already at dancing, but have trouble explaining what this circumcision was all about again. ‘It’s for my health, isn’t it?’, says Ismail, and looks up to his father, Haydar. Haydar says: ‘Yes, that’s right, and for religious reasons.’ The circumcisions would have been impossibly dear if he would have had to pay for them himself, and now it costs nothing. Haydar: ‘The municipality also paid for the traditional costumes.’

AKP-mayor Gültekin Ayantas calls the generosity ‘just a social project’. ‘We take care of our children’, he explains, ‘and this is part of it. Especially poorer people use this service. If the municipality didn’t offer this, they might go to a cheaper, traditional circumcizer, and that has risks. Now these children can be helped safe and hygienic in the hospital.’ Till now only ten to fifteen percent of the Turks asks a doctor to perform the circumcision. The rest chooses a traditional circumcizer. Of two hundred boys who had to be taken to hospital because of complications in the last ten years, 85% was helped by a traditional circumsizer.

The municipality mass circumcisions could support safe circumcisions. Not having your son circumcized, is not an option: the tradition is rooted deeply into Turkish society. Every Turk, devoutly religious or strictly secular, has his son circumcized. An increasing amount of municipalities that are not governed by the AKP but by an opposition party, pays circumcisions for its poorer citizens.

At the end of the party – it’s already dark – mayor Ayantas climbs up the stage. He speeches about manhood, and about the three steps towards full maturity. The first step is taken, after that come military service and marriage. The boys are asked on stage again. Some cry, they are tired. But a bit later they descend the stage with happy faces. In their hands a big box with a remote controlled helicopter. Present from the municipality.

Turmoil over sex tapes in Turkey

ISTANBUL – First they kiss rather clumsily, then a bit later they are laying on the bed together. She – a young student – on top. She moves, and he – an older, married politician – slaps her bottom. The sex videos of two politicians from the ultra nationalist National Action Party (MHP) have caused turmoil in Turkey. The men have resigned, but that didn’t bring the affair to an end. It has revived a persistent conspiracy theory. Is the governing AKP party behind it? Or, more precisely, that immensely popular Muslim leader from the United States?

The party dignitaries and female students do nothing illegal and in fact the videos are hardly arousing: one video starts with a scene in which the couple put sheets on the bed, in the other no more clothes than a blouse are taken off. Still, there is great moral indignation in Turkey. The MHP voters are in general not only nationalist, but also devout Muslims, and cheating on your spouse is not accepted.

It’s a disaster for the MHP, exactly one month before the general elections of June 12. Until recently the party was pretty sure they would pass the election threshold of ten percent, but that’s no longer a certainty. If voters do indeed turn their backs on the MHP, they will move to the only (big) party that is even more devout: the AKP. A double gain for the AKP: more voters, and if the MHP doesn’t reach ten percent of the votes, their seats in parliament will go to the parties that did make it above the threshold.

Distasteful

The Turkish papers have already published lists of ‘other sex scandals in politics’, with Berlusconi and even Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. And an affair closer to home was recalled: a year ago Deniz Baykal, the old leader of the biggest opposition party CHP, had to step down after leading the party for eighteen years, because of a distasteful video in which he was caught with his secretary.

And as if the discussion wasn’t heated enough already, MHP leader Devlet Bahceli suggested that the attack came ‘from overseas’. And in Turkey everybody knows who is referred to with the term ‘overseas’: the Turkish Muslim leader Fethullah Gülen, who moved to the United States in 1999. He has a huge following in Turkey, but is also looked on with great suspicion. Gülen preaches a loving Islam and peaceful coexistence between all religions, but allegedly has a hidden agenda: to make Turkey a caliphate again. For years now the conspiracy theory has been that Gülen pulls the strings at the AKP from his estate in Pennsylvania. It is one of the reasons for the deep distrust of the AKP: the party and Gülen supposedly found each other in their joint goal to overthrow the secular republic.

Moral depravation

Whether the video was really first put online in the United States, remains unclear. The fact is that Fethullah Gülen reacted to the allegations: he calls it a ‘ruthless attack’ and adds that ‘he would never resort to such aggression and can only defend himself by filing a case for compensation’. No official complaint was filed though.

The still popular Prime Minister Erdoğan has made good use of the affair: during election campaigns in the country he expresses his aversion. Not only about the moral depravation of the MHP, but also about the allegations against his party and against Gülen. ‘It has no meaning to hold others responsible for an internal conflict within the party’, he said. And he directed a question to Bahceli: ‘Why do you ask the men for their resignations? What you should do is to expel them.’

One of the other election themes making headlines is the Kurdish issue and increasing PKK violence. And the irony is that this ongoing problem could save the MHP. Every PKK attack drives voters back into the arms of the ultra-nationalists of the MHP.

Dutch Zeynep Killi (53) sues Turkish generals

Thirty years ago, after the military coup in Turkey, Dutch-Turkish Zeynep Killi (53) was locked up in the infamous Diyarbakir jail. Because of a change in the constitution the coup plotters can now be prosecuted. Killi took her chance and travelled to Diyarbakir.

ISTANBUL – Whispering among each other the inmates talked about who, if they ever got the opportunity, would get to scratch out the eyes of the highest boss in prison, and who could tear out his heart. That was not hate, says Zeynep Killi, it was ‘horrible hate’. That hate has now, thirty years later, vanished. She doesn’t think anymore of ripping out eyes and heart. But she does think of getting a conviction. Together with 349 other former inmates of the infamous Diyarbakir prison, Zeynep Killi (who came to the Netherlands as a refugee 25 years ago) filed an official complaint against the generals who tortured her.

She must have been a Kurdish activist? Blood on her hands? Took up arms against the state? Nothing like that: Zeynep was 23 and worked as a nurse in the south-eastern province of Mardin. Paid by the state, she travelled to villages to provide medical care. She was married, her husband worked as an architect in Istanbul and they were preparing for the birth of their first child. A normal life.

Birth

That is, until the military coup of September 1980. A month later she was arrested, probably because she knew people who were members of the Turkish Communist Party. The Kurdish separatist movement PKK had nothing to do with it, says Killi: ‘I am Kurdish, but I was hardly aware of that at the time. We spoke Turkish at home; I wasn’t involved or interested in politics.’ Besides, the armed Kurdish struggle only started in 1984. The military rulers just arrested thousands of people, leftist and rightist, politically active or not.

She was held in the police station of Diyarbakir for some weeks and was released right before the delivery of her baby. Eight months later the military came to get her again. Killi: ‘I took my son to my parents-in-law, my husband and I were about to flee the country. I ended up in the prison of Diyarbakir.’ One of the most notorious prisons in the world from that time on, till far into the nineteen-nineties.

Soon it turned out Zeynep was pregnant again. Her son was born in prison all skin and bone. She could always keep him close to her. Which also meant that the little boy for three long years had to see what was done to his mother. Being thrown from guard to guard, naked, being raped repeatedly. Spend days in a kennel with a dog that shat all over the place. Being hung by her arms, for hours. Hit with sticks. Cigarettes on her thighs and breasts. In 1984 she was released and fled to the Netherlands.

Iron and stone

Inmates from those days came to Diyarbakir last week to file a class action. Zeynep, who is active in municipality politics in her home town of Voorburg, was amongst them. A huge stack of personal testimonies was handed over to the public prosecutor in Diyarbakir. And a conviction is not impossible: in September a change in the constitution came into force which makes it possible to prosecute the coup generals and their accomplices. ‘Whether all this really leads to a conviction’, says Zeynep, ‘doesn’t even really matter to me. Filing a complaint was a dream, and I have done that now. I’ve been heard, been seen as a human being. That’s a victory. I feel as strong as iron and stone.’

Gül the centre of Turkish attention

Many Turks suspect the just appointed Turkish president Gül of having a hidden agenda. Gül’s task is now to prove he is not an Islamist.

Finally Abdullah Gül is Turkey’s new president. Secular Turks resisted, the Turkish army threatened and manipulated, but to no avail.  Yesterday president Gül made his first speech to parliament. So what can the army do now? They will not just lean back now that what they didn’t want has happened, namely Abdullah Gül being the eleventh president of Turkey? Well no, maybe they won’t lean back. Over the coming months they will be closely watching the president’s moves from the wings.

Is that all? Yes. Over the last few months, the Turkish army has done more. Last Monday, they posted a strongly worded text on their website, in which they stated that the centre of evil was threatening the secular, democratic state of Turkey. In April they wrote something similar and threatened to defend secular Turkey. But the AK Parti of Prime Minister Erdogan stood firm. They were forced to announce early elections, and in the end these elections made their position stronger. Had the party not been so full of self confidence, they wouldn’t have chosen Gül to be their presidential candidate. Then they would have chosen an outsider, a compromise figure, as some opposition parties have suggested lately. But the AK Parti refused to be manipulated. The army made threats, but it knows that Turkey has become too much of a democracy for it to act on them. The generals have, in short, contributed to their own marginalisation.

The last few months have been months of fear. Months when people expressed their fear that soon women in Turkey would have to dress like their sisters in Iran and that alcohol would be prohibited. When the fear of ‘Iranian situations’ seemed to be as big as fear of the European Union, in which Turkey would, according to some people, lose its identity and independence. Fear, fear, fear.

Gül also mentioned the word in his speech to parliament. We should not fear, he said. Not for the freedoms of democracy, not for differences. All the differences that are heard in a democracy, are not a weakness, but a strength. And, he said: have faith in the democratic system.

That’s the only thing the Turks can do. They have spoken out over the last few months. In AK Parti gatherings, in pro-Atatürk marches, on noisy, sometimes busy sometimes quiet election campaign demonstrations, and they spoke out on 22 July, during the parliamentary elections. The outcome is that AK Parti now has the majority in parliament and that they can choose the president, who will no longer be aligned to any party. The party says is doesn’t want to transform Turkey into an Islamic state, but wants to take it forward, faithful to secularism and to Atatürk. The next five years are the ultimate test.  That’s democracy, exactly the form of state  the army says it defends. The Turks have to accept it. And so does the army.

Hrant Dink continues to inspire

Today in Istanbul Hrant Dink’s funeral will be held. The Turkish-Armenian journalist was killed last friday. Dink was, together with his weekly newspaper Agos, the voice of the Armenian community in Turkey. How will this comunity go on without Dink?

It’s too early, many Armenians say. To early to ask them what it means to them that Hrant Dink is no longer alive. These day’s between murder and funeral they grieve, express their anger, comfort eachother. But still: does this murder make them silent and scared, or, on the opposite, strong? That question is answered loud and clear. It will not be silent again, and there is no fear. Dink gave Armenians a voice en made their self confidence grow, is the general opinion. And nothing can take away that strength.

Continue reading “Hrant Dink continues to inspire”