Though we head into 2016 without a direct war between the US and Russia, such a conflict still hovers over mankind. It’s hard to imagine Uncle Sam relinquishing his supremacy without a crazed fight. By abetting Turkey in shooting down that Russian plane, the US achieved one important objective, at least, and that’s scuttling the Russia, Turkey natural gas pipeline, the Blue Stream. Through its EU vassals, the US is now trying to block the expansion of Nord Stream, a pipeline that goes directly from Russia to Germany. The American-directed regime change in the Ukraine was also an attempt to interfere with Russia’s gas export. Energy is Russia’s economic lifeline and its political leverage. Rupture that advantage, and you cripple Russia, make it compliant to your wishes. It ain’t gonna happen.
Say, is there a bigger weasel in world politics than Recep Tayyip Erdogan? With him, a yes may be a no, and a warm hug is a prelude to a backstab. On September 23rd, Erdogan went to Moscow for the opening of the grand Cathedral Mosque of Moscow, partly built with Turkish money, and while there, he called Putin “dear brother.” Shaking the Russian leader’s hand, Erdogan also grabbed the man’s elbow, such was his affection for Putin. (I’m reminded of how Berlusconi used to lean all over Bush.) On November 24th, however, Erdogan gave the order to shoot down that Russian plane. Two Russians died. At first cockily claiming credit for this near trigger to World War III, Erdogan is now blaming it on Abidin Üna, his Air Force chief. What a weasel. With such men, though, words mean nothing. They can be contradicted from one moment to the next.
Erdogan, then, sounds like any recent US President. Shameless weasels all, they will arm, fund, train and do business with terrorists while pretending to fight terrorism. Triggering a horrible refugee crisis, they will pose as protectors of these poor wretches begging in Turkish cities or overwhelming Europe. There are already 2.3 million Syrians in Turkey, with 220,000 in Gaziantep, and at least 330,000 in Istanbul. Only 261,000 Syrians are in refugee camps, with the rest left to fend for themselves. Most are penniless, unable to speak Turkish and legally prevented from working. These miserable Syrians are only slightly better off than the stray dogs and cats you find all over Turkey.
Next to Turkey, Lebanon has the most Syrian refugees with 1.1 million, Jordan with 633,000 and troubled Iraq, incredibly, with 245,000. Remember that 250,000 Iraqis fled to Syria after the US devastated that country. Now Syrians are escaping to Iraq. Americans seem unfazed, though, at their country’s status as the world’s leader, by far, in destroying other people’s homelands when not killing them. History will curse our cold-bloodedness. Come election time, we will enthusiastically vote for another butcher. America has become a nation of cold-blooded butchers.
As the left shout “refugees welcome,” the right cynically pretend that most of these refugees are merely economic migrants or potential terrorists, but almost no one is demanding with any urgency that the US, the EU, Israel, Turkey and the Gulf States stop their criminal war against Syria. How can all these nations gang up to terrorize and destabilize Syria for nearly six years without creating a massive refugee crisis?
On a recent visit to Istanbul, I found Syrian mothers with infants silently sitting on sidewalks. I saw entire families huddling in the cold. Not used to begging, they were meek and spoke in whispers. Shooed away by shop owners, many occupied poorly lit, less trafficked spots. I saw a lone child of about eight on the concrete, looking stunned. He had three packets of tissue paper he was trying to sell. Street cleaners swept around these human detritus.
Many had plastic sleeved signs, “WE ARE FROM SYRIA / GAN YOU HELP US!!! Thank You,” “I AM FROM SYRIA / PLEASE HELP,” “PLEASE / ME AND FAMILY NEED HELP / (WIFE AND 3 GIRLS) / WE ARE FROM SYRIA / WE CAME HERE BECAUSE OF WAR / WE HAVE NO PLECE TO BE SAFE / THANK YOU / MAY GOD HELP YOU / HELP US,” etc. They showed passports to prove that they’re really Syrian. Like most Americans, however, many Syrians never had a passport. Fleeing from the war zone, others have lost all papers.
On Cadirci Cami, I think, I saw a couple with two kids, one an infant. It was extremely cold. Sitting on the ground in darkness, they had a sign, “WE ARE FROM SYRIA !! / WE SLEEP IN PARK / CAN YOU HELP US !! / THANK YOU.” He showed me his Syrian passport. While looking at me, she picked up the empty box of Bebelac powdered milk and shook it a couple times. With no shared language, we couldn’t talk. I gave them some money and tried to indicate that I would return shortly with some more, but when I came back, they were gone.
Living so precariously, many Syrians naturally dream of escaping to Europe. Greece seems so close, with Lesbos right there. In several Istanbul neighborhoods, stores stock inner tubes, life jackets or even boats for Syrians. These brightly orange symbols of survival dangle outside grocery and hardware stores. The cheapest inner tube can be had for $5, and the most suspect life jacket for 15. It’s estimated that 5,000 Syrians have already drowned in the Aegean Sea. That’s nearly 1 percent of those who’ve attempted to reach Greece.
Living in limbo, Syrians have no permanent legal status in Turkey, and their children born there are stateless. Turkish politicians have threatened to send them all back home. Riots have already broken out against refugees, with Syrians beaten up and their store windows broken. Turks, one must remember, are adept at the wholesale removal of an unwanted people. Their Armenian and Greek populations, once so numerous, are almost entirely gone. The expulsion of Greeks came in a population exchange after a Greek invasion had been repulsed, so Turks shouldn’t be blamed, but the Armenian Genocide that killed 1.5 million is a huge black stain on the Turkish soul, though Turkey still refuses to acknowledge it. Turks also murdered or chased out nearly 300,000 Bulgarians in 1913.
A poor Turk, though, sees no reason why he should have to compete against Syrians working illegally. More than a third of Turks have had to survive on only $343 a month, the second lowest minimum wage in Europe. (There are talks to raise it to $446.) Unemployment is over 10 percent. In Mardin, near the Syrian border, unemployment has doubled within four years to at least 21 percent, with the increase blamed on the Syrian influx. There are also regular complaints about crimes committed by refugees. Staging war against Syria, Erdogan brings social chaos to his own country.
A graffiti in English, “fuck israel REAL TERORIS.”
A graffiti in Turkish, “DEATH IS AFTER YOU WHAT YOU GONNA DO… A LIFE OF FAITH AND JIHAD…” [“ÖLÜM SENIN PEŞINDE SEN NEYIN PEŞINDESIN… HAYAT IMAN VE CIHAD…”]
By the Golden Horn, two teenaged boys sniffed glue as ferry commuters hurried by. Like most Turks, they were neatly dressed. I saw scavengers of plastic and glass pull heavy carts containing huge, tent like bags. Roaming all over at all times, including way after midnight or before dawn, I spotted almost no homeless Turks, however. I did run into an old man who slept sitting up with his feet wrapped in white, plastic trash bags, fastened to his calves with yellow strings. For a city of 17 million, Istanbul has almost no visible homeless population save its war refugees.
Besides Syrians, Turkey also hosts large numbers of immigrants from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and Bulgaria. Wandering through Kumkapi, formerly an Armenian neighborhood, I saw plenty of foreigners from Central Asia, Africa and the Middle East. At numerous call centers, signs display dozens of flags, and per minute rates are posted for countries like Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Georgia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Syria, Nigeria, Iraq and Cameroon. At night, African whores lurk and smile, while in adjacent Laleli, you can also find Ukrainian, Romanian, Belarusian and Russian prostitutes. I asked a whore with dirty blonde hair if she was Turkish. Guessing my preference, she declared quite unconvincingly, “Yes, I am Turkish girl.”
Though street walking is illegal in Turkey, prostitution itself is not. With some restrictions, the making of pornography is also legal, and anyone can buy it, there is no age limit. Homosexuality was legalized by the Ottoman in 1858, way ahead of other countries. Unusual for a Muslim nation, Turkey also makes a fine pilsner, Efes. Beer is sold widely.
Writing in 1963, Paul Bowles tied beer drinking to Westernization and perhaps even to democracy, “Alcohol blurs the personality by loosening inhibitions. The drinker feels, temporarily at least, a sense of participation. Kif abolishes no inhibitions; on the contrary it reinforces them, pushes the individual further back into the recesses of his own isolated personality, pledging him to contemplation and inaction. It is to be expected that there should be a close relationship between the culture of a given society and the means used by its members to achieve release and euphoria. For Judaism and Christianity the means has always been alcohol; for Islam it has been hashish. The first is dynamic in its effects, the other static. If a nation wishes, however mistakenly, to Westernize itself, first let it give up hashish. The rest will follow, more or less as a matter of course.” Tellingly, the title of the essay is “A Man Must Not Be Very Moslem.”
Until a month ago, Laleli was swarming with Russian tourists. Many shop signs feature Russian Cyrillic. Making up the second largest nationality to visit Turkey, Russians were second only to Germans, though many of the latter were just Turks returning home. Getting on the Turkish Air flight in Leipzig, I could clearly see elation on the faces of many Turkish passengers, and when the plane landed in Istanbul, I anticipated applause before it happened. I knew the phenomenon from seeing Vietnamese returning home. It’s as if a weight had been lifted and they could jettison the double life of the immigrant. For the duration of their stay in Turkey, these folks could be fully themselves. There is no deception implied here, for the same dynamic affects all transplants, even a city-based country boy heading for the blue hills, corn rows, bayous, sticks or trailer park.
A displaced person knows that home is also a matter of degrees. Chanced upon the Goethe Institute in Istanbul, my heart gladdened because it made me think of my temporary home in Leipzig. When I lived in Certaldo, Italy, I took a train from Paris to Florence by way of Geneva. Hearing Italian at the Swiss train station, I also cheered up because I knew home was getting closer, and I would be there soon.
Just in 2014, 4.48 million Russians visited Turkey and spent nearly $4 billion. That cash spigot has suddenly gone dry thanks to Erdogan’s hubristic insanity. Ninety-thousand Turkish workers will also be kicked out of Russia, and Turkish agricultural exports, chicken in particular, will have to find new markets.
Erdogan thought the war with Syria would be over by now. Foolishly, he didn’t think the Kremlin would intervene, but a war against Syria is an attack on Russia.
Turks used to storm into Europe as conquerors, not treated as scorned immigrants or be rebuffed, repeatedly, as a European Union aspirant. Surely this rankles. Dissed by the West, Turkey could have retaliated by pivoting East and aligning itself with Russia, but Erdogan had to shoot that plane down.
Reacting to a Greek-sponsored coup in Cyprus, Turkey invaded it in 1974 and was accused by Greece of “Neo-Ottomanism.” It was a hyperbolic tag flung by a war adversary. Ottoman glories, though, have served as a nagging reminder of what Turks used to be, how far they have fallen and, if only one would draw deeper from that shisha pipe, can become again. In 2012, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu declared, “Without going to war, we will again tie Sarajevo to Damascus, Benghazi to Erzurum and to Batumi.” No ephemeral, fringe politician, Davutoglu is now the Prime Minister.
From January 2011 to September 2013, Turkish television viewers were mesmerized by 139 episodes of The Magnificent Century, a series focusing on Suleiman the Magnificent. It was also hugely addictive in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia and Serbia. See, see, they’re all coming back into the Ottoman folds! Even the Greeks were hooked, leading Bishop Anthimos of Thessaloniki to bark, “No one should watch The Magnificent Century. By watching the Turkish series, we are telling them we have surrendered.”
Five centuries ago is like yesterday to a Turk. After seeing Suleiman’s execution of his oldest son, Sehzade Mustafa as dashingly portrayed by Mehmet Gunsur, a 47-year-old man in Bursa went to the prosecutor’s office and demanded that all of the murder’s plotters be punished, and Mustafa’s honor restored. Who wouldn’t be outraged by the three-minute killing scene, much of it shown in slow motion? Employing some mean ass kung fu moves, Mustafa fought back gamely against six goons before two finally overwhelmed and strangled him. With fierce eyes, his father stonily watched. In death, Mustafa’s handsome, bearded face filled the screen of practically every home in the former Ottoman Empire. Dude kissed the carpet, all right.
While using terrorists to do go after both his foreign and domestic foes, Erdogan poses as a shield against terrorism. A blood red poster announces, “LET’S UNITE AGAINST TERRORISM / REPORT TERRORISTS TO MAINTAIN PEACE AND SECURITY.” Someone should turn in the President. At the Kale Outlet Center in Gungoren, I saw airport style security at each entrance. At the risk of starring in the next Midnight Express, I had to photograph the walk-through metal detectors with McDonald’s advertising. Outside mall, a security guard peered into the trunk or rear hatch of each car before it entered the underground garage. At the touristy Grand Bazaar, cops waved metal detector wands at selected visitors.
Erdogan’s charisma, working class background and even stint as a semi-professional soccer player have endeared him to ordinary Turks, but too many devious moves have exposed the weasel, and his terrorism sham has been called out very publicly, most noticeably by Russia. Inside Turkey, however, one can’t state the obvious, for it’s a crime to “insult” the Mad Man of Ankara.
A Turkish friend emailed me, “Erdogan is an absolute disaster. The great strength and beauty of Istanbul, and also Turkey in general, have been the subtle ways the secular and religious forces in the country have been held together in exquisite balance. It has always been a place that looked chaotic, but also was intensely alive. Erdogan is destroying this. He has become a megalomaniac with hopes of resurrecting the Ottoman Empire (in that way, his attempts are not unrelated to ISIS’ idea of the caliphate). Erdogan’s insanity is also similar to Trump’s—a dream of grandiose power. Let them both rot in hell.”
Thanks to the United States and Israel, one Muslim society after another, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, etc., has been fractured and ruined, but the unraveling of Turkey has been primarily accomplished by one of its own, and a duly elected leader, no less. In this, Turkey also resembles the United States. Perhaps it’s not too late to save this still magnificent country.
Editor’s Note: This essay originally appeared on December 26, 2015, on State of the Union, a website featuring commentary and photography by Linh Dinh. It was reproduced here with the consent of Mr. Dinh.