Last week it was very cold and snowing half-heartedly in Istanbul. I sat in my hotel room reading the press online. The British media showed they were waking up to the realities of situation in Turkey, featuring bitter clashes between the government and Kurds (BBC News) and an interview with a Nobel prize-winning Turkish author in The Times.
‘PKK defiant over the long war with Turkey’ proclaimed the headline on the BBC website (http://bbc.in/1Qyb9DL). The PKK is the Kurdistan Workers Party which is branded as a terrorist organization by the Turkish government, NATO and the EU. There has been a long war between Turkey and the PKK with more that 40,000 deaths.
Last summer the Turkish government launched air strikes on Kurdish camps, on the grounds of renewed insurrection, and that abruptly ended a near three-year ceasefire with the PKK. In the BBC article last week a PKK representative told the BBC: "No-one can choose what they are, and we are Kurds. Please, don't not forget… this war has been going on for 40 years. People should stop thinking about us as terrorists. We are just people who want their human rights."
Meanwhile Orhan Pamuk, an Istanbul novelist who won the Nobel Literature prize in 2006, was profiled in The Times. While Pamuk bemoans the growing authoritarian nature of the current regime under President Erdogan, he notes that it was ever thus. After the 1980 military coup more than 600,000 people were detained, including some leading politicians. When these politicians returned to power, Pamuk tells The Times, “they did not improve free speech, they only improved their own conditions. Not very different from Erdogan, actually.
“All the people who complain — and they’re right, and I’m with them — the secular opposition with whom I feel I’m in the same boat, unfortunately when they were in power they were also repressive. The whole national culture of intolerance should change.”
Hospitable and polite
The irony is that Turkish people are polite, hospitable and caring in an old-fashioned way when you meet them on the street, on public transport or at social gatherings. Tourists feel less jostled and threatened than in Arab countries.
Entertaining guests is a key part of Turkish culture – they enjoy conversation, parties, the ‘craic’ as the Irish call it – and visitors must learn to accept tea whenever it is offered as a matter of common courtesy. There is a big gulf between this natural courtesy and the intolerance of the Turkish governing class All over the world, that gulf between governments and their electorates gets wider than ever.
The picture shows treasured Turkish tea, traditionally served in a glass with no handle. In the background is the Bosphorus and Rumeli Hisari, the castle built in four months by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed in 1452. The following year saw the fall of Constantinople, which Mehme re-named Istanbul.