Turkish Delight: A Sour Delicacy

Turkey poses particular problems for the foreigner attempting to make sense of it. Istanbul, especially, appears to be quite Western, and in many ways it is. This seduces the observer into thinking it is more intelligible than it is. It is easy to believe that you know what’s going on and who stands where on the political compass. Quite often, you’re wrong.

Spring 2008

I never planned to live in Istanbul. Like so many things in my life, it just wound up that way. From my window I see massive and glittering cruise ships setting sail on the Golden Horn, sunrise over the Topkapı palace, glowing like fire, tankers coming down from Odessa, pleasure craft coming up from the Sea of Marmara. I read somewhere that having a beautiful view adds years to your life expectancy.

My relationship with Turkey is not unambivalent, however. Lately, I have been walking down the street and wondering if the warm, kindly people I’ve long known as my neighbors—pudgy Uncle Mehmet, who sells pens at the corner store—are nodding with satisfaction at the scenes on the news of their fellow Turks waving Hamas flags, calling for the eradication of the Zionist Entity, and driving the visiting Israeli basketball team from the court with anti-Semitic curses. They probably are.

My friendships here have come under strain since the war in Gaza. Some of my Turkish friends have proved shockingly credulous, willing to absorb every crude slander they hear about Israel on the news and in the street. I’ve fallen out bitterly with Turks whom I viewed, until now, as liberal, Westernized moderates. And in fact, some of my Turkish friends have fallen out with their Turkish friends, having fallen victim to the same error.

That there has been an outpouring of anti-Semitism in Turkey recently should come as a surprise to no one; there has been an outpouring of anti-Semitism around the globe, as there is every time the Israeli-Palestinian conflict goes hot. But it did surprise me to discover it among friends whom I thought particularly unlikely candidates for these sentiments. I have been forced to realize that I didn’t know them—or Turkey—as well as I thought.

Turkey poses particular problems for the foreigner attempting to make sense of it. Istanbul, especially, appears to be quite Western, and in many ways it is. This seduces the observer into thinking it is more intelligible than it is. It is easy to believe that you know what’s going on and who stands where on the political compass. Quite often, you’re wrong.


In the past two years, at least 16,000 civilians have been killed in Somalia. I have never seen demonstrations on the streets of Istanbul protesting the incursion of Ethiopian troops into Mogadishu, nor have I received e-mails from Turkish friends likening the Ethiopians to the executioners of Auschwitz, nor have I read newspaper columns offering prayers and solidarity to the women and children of Somalia—who are, I note, just as much the Turks’ co-religionists as the Palestinians, and certainly suffering no less. There have been no government-mandated minutes of silence in the classroom for the children of Mogadishu; no signs have been placed on the doors of Turkish shops declaring that Ethiopians are not welcome; the newscasts here have not featured round-the-clock coverage of the conflict in which photographs of Somali children screaming in fear and agony take pride of place. There have been no virulent anti-Ethiopian articles in Turkish newspapers, there has been no anti-Ethiopian graffiti on the walls. There have been no graphic billboards in Istanbul showing a bloody and smoldering Somalian baby’s shoe next to the words, “You cannot be the children of Moses.” Indeed, I doubt that the average Turk even knows there is a conflict in Somalia.

At roughly this time last year, Turkish fighter-bombers began flying nightly past my window, terrifying my cats. The Turkish military, under instructions from Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an, invaded Northern Iraq. Turkey used jet planes, armored vehicles, and its extraordinarily disproportionate military power to overwhelm Kurdish villages across the border. It was, Erdo?an said, a “limited operation to weaken Kurdish militants.” The television news stations here broadcast the assaults with great pride. Iraqi officials claimed the air raids had damaged hospitals, houses and bridges; Kurdish sources insisted there had been massive civilian casualties. This is of course what they would say, but it is probably true. Air power is a crude instrument; it is hard to imagine so many bombs could have been dropped on inhabited areas without incurring harm to civilians. The claims cannot be confirmed: Journalists were not permitted to explore the question. Turks, generally, do not much worry about the deaths of civilians in foreign lands. Unless Jews are involved.

I have a close friend here, a highly educated, thoughtful journalist who generally possesses an enormous capacity to draw fine moral distinctions. He is someone with whom I’ve spent hours discussing Turkish politics, someone I imagined to be an ardent enthusiast of Enlightenment values, an enemy of radical Islam, and, if not precisely a philo-semite, certainly not ill-disposed toward Jews. He has lately taken to flooding my e-mail in-box with Hamas propaganda. His newspaper columns bear headlines such as “You Wonder Why They Hate You? Look at Gaza.”

Appalled, I sent him a copy of the Hamas charter alongside Israeli drafts for a proposed constitution, submitted to the Knesset in 2006. Compare and contrast, I suggested. Do you seriously mean to tell me that you’d rather see Hamas come to town than the Israelis? “I see that Hamas is much less sophisticated in its rhetoric, and says the stupidest things that will put itself into trouble,” he wrote back. “Israel, of course, is very smart and is using a very delicate rhetoric. But I am not falling for that.”

What shook me here was not the sentiment—we have all heard this before, and not just in Turkey—but the source. This was not some hick from the villages or some partisan clown; this was my friend. This was someone I had hitherto regarded as being fundamentally rational. But beneath the cool-headed exterior ran a deep vein of crazy.

I asked another Turkish friend why Turks are not concerned about Somalians in the way they are concerned about Palestinians. He looked puzzled, then said, “Well, the Africans have always been killing each other.”


Behind the histrionics lies a deep insecurity, and its source is etched clearly into the landscape of Istanbul itself. I remember vividly my first impressions of the city. Arriving at night and walking up the alley to my apartment brought to mind the words of Odon de Deuil, who visited the city in 1147 and declared it “extremely dirty, disgusting, and full of filth; there are even such places to which daylight does not penetrate and under the cover of the darkness that reigns murders and other foul deeds can easily be perpetrated.” It still feels so. In a way, this is the appeal.

1,500 years from now, long after the decline of the American Empire, an ancient New York will feel like Istanbul—the Gotham of the East, the Byzantine set of a Batman movie; haunted, dark, brooding, ruined, a city clearly once at the very center of the world, its beating heart of commerce and trade and power and passion, but no more. It can be powerfully spooky, this omnipresent sense of eclipsed glory, and terribly sad.

Parts of the city, the skyline chiefly, are breathtaking, with turreted walls and towers and mosques; but much of the city is slightly more ugly than it is beautiful, made of hastily slapped-together concrete—the aesthetic of the developing world. Of the old architecture, most is in a state of shambling decay. There is construction everywhere, but rarely is anything fully constructed. Construction is simply a perpetual condition here, like revolution.

The ruined architecture combined with the teeming vitality of the street life gives the sense that this is a place where millions of men and women are born and live and work and fight and suffer and rut and whelp and decline and then die; a city, not a museum. But evidence that a former greatness has been lost is everywhere; you cannot escape it. If this is the key to understanding the German psyche and German history, it is also the key to understanding Turkey’s.

It is understood by everyone here that Turkey has been reduced to an insecure, tentative half-power on the periphery of Europe, supplicating for acceptance, ever-rejected. If Turkey is unusually vulnerable to populist demagoguery and anti-Semitism—the disease everywhere of the anxious and the resentful—it is for the same reasons that the Weimar Republic, too, was vulnerable.

Not that this thought should bring comfort to anyone. It certainly doesn’t comfort me.


Prime Minister Erdoğan knows this perfectly well. Hence, his behavior at Davos. “When it comes to killing, you know very well how to kill,” he sneered to Shimon Peres. He used the general form of the word “you,” which could mean either Peres himself or Jews generally. He quoted with approval the writings of an obscure Jew turned anti-Semite named Gilad Atzmon, who has said that “the Jewish state is the ultimate threat to humanity and our notion of humanism.” Then he stormed off the stage, complaining that he had been paid insufficient respect by the moderator and announced that “Davos is over for me.” He returned to Istanbul to a rapturous welcome, telling the crowds at the airport that “I only know that I have to protect the honor of Turkey and Turkish people. I am not a chief of a tribe. I am the prime minister of Turkey!”

These remarks were enormously popular, just as they were enormously revealing. Since when does the leader of a self-confident, developed, modern nation need to explain to his people that he is not the chief of a tribe? No one here seems bothered by the contradiction and the irony at the heart of this speech: It is tribes who care passionately about their honor being protected, and this species of mythomaniacal nationalism is tribalism writ large. Erdoğan’s behavior at Davos far more closely resembled that of a tribal chieftain than the prime minister of a mature state dispassionately seeking to advance his nation’s interests. The Ottomans, who understood this distinction perfectly, would have laughed down their noses at his display.

His outburst was deliberate, of course, and cynical. It was intended to ensure that his party sweeps the upcoming municipal elections. The Turkish economy—until now the AKP’s great point of pride, and the reason for its political success—has been tanking. The party, which came to power promising to wipe out corruption, has been mired in corruption scandals. If the AKP fails to do well in these elections, its aura of inevitability and invincibility will be lost. The rivals will smell blood. The knives will come out.

Erdoğan’s eruption at Davos has been described in the press as “erratic,” a “tantrum,” as if it reflected a loss of emotional control. But it was premeditated and scripted. Before traveling to Switzerland, Erdoğan told both his deputies in Parliament and the Turkish media that he intended to use the forum to humiliate Peres. His briefers had armed him with those quotes from Gilad Atzmon, as well as the other sources to which he appealed. If that was an unscripted outburst, where did all those slick banners applauding him as the Conqueror of Davos come from? Go try to get thousands of banners printed in the middle of the night in Istanbul. Tell me how it goes for you. The props were obviously prepared days in advance, the cheering throngs were readied.

The press described Erdoğan at Davos as “red-faced” and “ardent.” He was not. Watch the video. He is perfectly composed. He addresses the cameras, not Peres. He knows just what he is saying and doing, and just what effect it will have.

It worked exactly as planned. A columnist for Akşam, Hüsnü Mahalli, wrote that “Erdoğan has shown that Turkey is not a banana republic … it is the most important country in the region as the heir of the 700-year-old Ottoman Empire!”

It has scarcely been reported here that Erdoğan also held inconclusive talks at Davos with the International Monetary Fund—from which Turkey desperately needs yet another bailout—and that he, together with the leader of Azerbaijan, was kept waiting at one session for the more important panelists to arrive. His vigorous attack on Israel deflected attention from this ignominy, just as it was intended to do.


There are two main schools of thought here about Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party, known by its Turkish acronym, the AKP. According to the AKP party line, there is no reason for the West to be alarmed by the party’s Islamic orientation. There is no tradition of Islamic extremism in Turkey, never has there been, and never could there be: Turkish Islam is historically unique; it is and has always been a form of Islam compatible with democracy and Western values. Pro-AKP commentators in the Turkish press will concede on occasion that, yes, there are a few lunatics in the AKP ranks, but they always point out (not unfairly) that the secularists here are not exactly models of sanity, either. Seriously, they ask, have you heard the crazy things they say? About the Turks being the original Sun People from whom the rest of the human race has descended? About the prime minister and his wife being crypto-Jews and Mossad agents? No, they insist, the overwhelming majority of the AKP simply want the same religious freedoms any Muslim in America would enjoy. As Erdoğan said in June 2005, to CNN: “My daughters can go to American universities with their headscarf. There is religious freedom in your country, and we want to bring the same thing to Turkey.”

This is rubbish, according to the AKP’s opponents. They contend that Erdoğan merely knows what the West wants to hear. Even as he assures foreign observers that he represents the voice of moderation and human rights in Turkey, he quietly and patiently erodes the power of institutions that guarantee those rights—the army, the courts, the secular educational system, even the press, which has increasingly come under the control of the AKP’s allies and financial backers. Once he has finished emasculating the institutions that function as checks on his power, his real plan—to turn Turkey into another Iran—will become obvious. By then, alas, it will be too late.

To accept at face value the AKP’s argument that it seeks nothing more than “human rights” for Muslims, say the critics, is appallingly naive. Surely by now the West ought to understand the nature of radical Islam, the willingness of those who embrace it to lie in service of its aims. Is there, anywhere in the world, an example of a truly liberal and Western-oriented Muslim democracy? No? Then exactly why do you believe Turkey will be the exception to the rule? Because you imagine it would be a terrific example to the rest of the Muslim world if it were? Great, reply the skeptics. Go make your own country into a terrific example.

Erdoğan’s behavior at Davos has given his critics here a kind of grim satisfaction. But it has not caused me to revise my own opinion of the AKP. My view is that the leadership of the AKP isn’t so much radical as cynical. If appealing to Islam helps them power and keep it, they are more than happy to do so, whatever the consequences. They have discovered how to use religious sentiment to get votes, and thus to get rich, without bringing the hammer of the secularist military down upon themselves. They assume they can now use anti-Semitism in just the same way.

Many of the AKP’s senior figures rose to prominence in the now-banned Refah Party, led by ousted prime minister, Necmettin Erbakan. Refah, and the larger Milli Görüş movement associated with it, unquestionably did represent a deeply sinister strain of Islamic radicalism, giving the lie to the claim that there exists no such tradition in Turkey. Erbakan came to power promising to “rescue Turkey from the unbelievers of Europe,” wrest power from “imperialists and Zionists,” and launch a jihad to recapture Jerusalem. One of his first acts, upon taking office, was to fly to Iran and fawn over Khomeini.

In 1997, Erbakan was ousted by the army. Refah was banned. The AKP’s senior figures, including the prime minister and the president, have publicly renounced Erbakan and his ideology. But the AKP’s enemies find it frankly preposterous to imagine that the leaders of the AKP have experienced some kind of road-to-Damascus conversion (so to speak). Necdet, as I will call him, a middle-aged man in the construction business, put it to me this way: “Once an Islamist, always an Islamist. There’s no such thing as moderate Islam. You Americans don’t understand that. That was your biggest mistake, supporting the Taliban against the Soviet Union. You can’t make Muslims into your allies. It isn’t possible.”

I sympathize with this view, but suspect the truth is closer to this: Erdoğan used Erbakan for so long as it was convenient—Refah was the only party that would allow a ruffian from the slums like Erdoğan to get his foot in the door. When Erdoğan realized that he would never attain power through Refah, he ditched it and the rhetoric associated with it. Power, not Islamic hegemony, motivates him. He is afraid of losing it now that his Potemkin economic miracle is on the verge of exposure, and if he needs to return to the gutter to keep it, well, one does what one needs to do.


The danger is that Erdoğan and his intimates may be cynical, but the people to whom they are now appealing are not. They believe what he says. The AKP is conjuring up a genie it may not be able to master.

Erbakan, Erdoğan’s former mentor, now heads up of the Saadet party, which picked up a mere two percent of the vote in the last general election, but which has been organizing massive rallies against Israel and has consequently been gaining ground in the polls. Although the crowds at the airport following Erdoğan’s trip to Davos were not massive—there were no more than a few thousand people—they were filmed by every organ of the Turkish press and played over and over on the news. By contrast, the Saadet party’s rallies have attracted genuinely massive crowds: I have heard estimates ranging from 20,000 to 100,000 people. This has scarcely been reported at all. No doubt Erdoğan felt it important to claim the political territory into which Saadet, and other extremist parties, have lately stepped.

I visited the Saadet party’s office, on the Anatolian side of Istanbul in Üsküdar, not long ago. They couldn’t have been friendlier or happier to see me. They were clearly grateful to talk to anyone who would listen.

They offered me cup after cup of tea as they explained how they saw the world. “America wants to change the borders of the Middle East and create a greater Israel,” one of them explained. “The Zionists, like Rockefeller, General Motors and Ford, control the US. Is it a coincidence that three years after the formation of the UN, Israel was formed? The Israeli flag shows what Israel really wants—a state from the Nile to the Euphrates! That’s why there’s a game going on to divide our people into Kurds, Turks, Alevis.”

“Don’t get me wrong,” another interjected. “We distinguish between people and their governments.”

I was curious about this point. “Why?” I asked. “After all, Americans elected their government.”

“Yes, but we did too!” The room collapsed into mirth.

I asked about Iran. Everyone began talking over each other. “Ahmadinejad only says the crazy things he says about wiping out Israel in response to Israeli behavior. He’s on the defensive. It’s understandable: Look how America manufactured this war on Saddam, and killed one million people! Little babies!” He made a cupping gesture with his hands to show how small the babies were. “The US used to support Saddam! The US created all these lies about weapons of mass destruction so they could invade Iraq. They’re going after each nation, one by one, and Ahmadinejad knows he’s next on the list, that’s why he talks like that. They’ll go after Turkey, as well. They know they can’t fight Turkey directly, so they’ve found internal collaborators to destroy us from the inside. All the parties here are collaborating, except the SP. Look at the history—the Masons, Herzl. The Jews and Zionists established the capitalist system. Their God is the Israeli flag. Everything between the lines is part of the Greater Israeli Project. They believe it was promised to them! Just as I myself believe in God, the Israelis believe they have the right to control the whole world. They’re really smart. Zionists control Lloyd’s of London, just like it says in the Kabbalah. They’re smarter than everyone else, except one person: Erbakan. That’s why they had to get rid of him.”

Until recently, people in Turkey who believed these things might have voted for the Saadet party, or simply not voted. Now they will probably vote for the AKP. That’s what Erdoğan was angling for at Davos.

These lonely, voluble conspiracy theorists in Üsküdar seemed disappointed when I insisted that it had been a terrific afternoon, but I really had to be moving on. I had mostly been quiet until then: I didn’t want to inhibit them. But before I left, I made an attempt to set them straight. “Now look,” I said firmly, “everything you’re saying about Jews is wrong. I myself am Jewish. I grew up around American Jews. I have met far more of them than any of you have. I have never once heard any of them express the views you say they hold. I believe none of the things you say all Jews believe.”

They nodded pleasantly. “Oh, yes,” said one. “We knew you were Jewish from the moment you walked in, because you said you were a journalist and the Jews control the media. Would you like some more tea?”


But as I said, just when I think I understand how things here work, I realize that I am still quite some ways from getting a handle on them.

During the first week of the war in Gaza, I hailed a cab in my neighborhood in Istanbul. After the usual fruitless search for the seat belt and the usual pointless conversation with the driver about seat belts and the laws of physics—to which he replied, as usual, that he put his trust in God—I too put my trust in God.

“Where are you from?” he asked.

“I’m American. I’m from California.”

“Oh really! Which do you like better, California or Turkey?” This is what cab drivers always ask. There is always in their voices an obvious, poignant yearning to hear a foreigner praise Turkey.
I always offer the same reply. “Well, I’m from San Francisco, and actually, Istanbul and San Francisco are very similar! They are both very beautiful. They are both built on seven hills, they are both mostly sunny but sometimes cold and foggy, and in both cities you can see the sea!”

“Really! How interesting! And what do you do in Istanbul? Are you a student?”

I’m forty, so I’m always pleased when they ask that, just as they are always pleased to hear me laud the beauty of Istanbul.

“No, I’m a writer.”

“Oh, how beautiful! What do you write about?”

“Lots of things. Novels, biographies—”

“Do you ever write about politics?”

“Mmmm. Sometimes.”

Suddenly he became deeply serious. “Things are bad in the world
these days. Terrible.”

I sank into my seat with a sigh—I could see where this conversation was going. “Yes, there are many problems in the world.”

He turned, looking at me rather than the road. “You’re American. You understand lots of things. Explain something to me.”

I offered a non-committal “Mmmmm.” I was, of course, expecting him to ask me why the Americans were helping the Jews to kill Moslem babies. I didn’t want to have this conversation. I wished he were looking at the road.

“Coca-Cola,” he says. “You know Coca-Cola?” He was now very intense. Eyeballs fixed me in his rear-view mirror. Right, I thought. We’re about to have a conversation about why Americans, in concert with multinationals and Jews, are killing Muslim babies.

“Yes, I do.”

We stopped at a light. He swiveled around to pin me in his gaze.
He looked at me as if nothing could be more important and grave than what he was about to ask. He hesitated. Finally, he came out with it. “I bought it at 16. On Friday it was down to 13. Do you think I should sell, or should I hang on a bit longer?”

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