Dear Blog Readers—I am on a three day trip to Istanbul and although it is a bit of a divergence from my Italy and Mothering themes, I would like to share a few thoughts on one of my favorite cities in the world, and a few comments on Turkey in general. I do not profess to be knowledgeable about Turkey, so mine are just thoughts and impressions.
Istanbul is one of the most exotic, exhilirating, romantic, and stimulating cities in the world. It is a mix of East and West, North and South, European, Middle Eastern and Asian. It is a riotous jumble of diverse cultures and religions, costume and traditions and it is spectacularly beautiful.
The city covers a series of hill-tops around the Bosphorus and one can sit on a hill sipping tea and stare out at the ferries making their way back and forth across the water way, there are minarets from Mosques pin-pricking the sky, modern office buildings and phone towers and spectacular bridges crossing the water.
Like New York, the seabreeze in Istanbul electrifies and stimulates….the tanker horns and the muezzin calls, the rush of traffic…
The last time I was in Istanbul was six years ago (2006) and the changes were noticeable immediately. While Europe is floundering, depressed and demoralized in its economic crisis, Turkey is flourishing, confident and energized.
When we stepped off the plane and made our way towards the baggage claim area there were airport employees zipping around on two wheeled segways. Gustavo and I were tempted to laugh – but they were clearly efficient, and environmentally friendly. The bags arrived on the carousel before we got there (unheard of in Italy or the US) and when we stepped out of the customs area a driver was waiting for us with my husband’s name “Mr. Piga” on a piece of paper. I couldn’t help noticing that the driver carefully put the piece of paper in the “paper recycling” bin before heading out of the airport.
As we drove into down, I was astonished by the change. Gone was the chaotic, crazed third-world traffic I remembered. There were no more legless beggars at the traffic lights and continuous honking. The road into town was filled with flowers — beautiful yellow and pink tulips. On one side swish new apartment buildings with elegant balconies and big glass windows with sea-views lined the road. I noticed many had the distinctive red Turkish flag hanging off their balconies. On the other side the city has fixed up a green sea-side park complete with kiosks and workout stations. Beyond the park was the only view that has remained unchanged, the dazzling Bosphorus – large tankers dotting the horizon—the rolling hills on the other side specked with buildings of the sprawling Istanbul metropolis and little green islands in the distance.
One thing I find fascinating about Istanbul is that they have neighborhoods dedicated to selling a particular type of product. Just coming from the airport we passed the bike shops areas—with bikes of all shapes and sizes lining the streets, the musical instrument area with windows choc-o-block with guitars and all sorts of instruments and the lamp and lampshade nieghborhood where store after store window was filled with lamps. From earlier trips to Istanbul I remember passing through a bathroom appliance neighborhood, where store after store had every type of faucet and toilet seat. I also remember seeing the wedding dress neighborhood where white dresses of all shapes and sizes were in every window. Although I have never heard of this anywhere else, I guess it makes a certain amount of sense. Shoppers only need to go to one area to search for a certain item.
In the afternoon I took a walk through the neighborhood where our hotel is located. It is the Besiktas area and clearly a place for the chic and wealthy. I was amazed to see so many Italian stores that appear to be thriving—Giorgio Armani, Massimo Dutti, Max Mara, and Gucci. There were also Mcdonald’s and The Gap, next to Kebab stands, Simit (a sort-of Turkish pretzel) sellers, and shoe-shine men.
Just across the street from this shoe-shine man, I took a photo of these unbelieveable shoes. I guess the Turkish women want to give the Italians a run for their money (see my post Teetering on High). This is what I love about Istanbul, the remarkable mix of old and new, poor and rich, religious and secular and on and on and on.
My husband – Gustavo Piga, an Italian economist (you can check out his blog www.gustavopiga.it) has been invited to participate in a conference on called “Forum Istanbul 2012.
In the evening Gustavo and I attended the conference dinner. The Minister of the Economy M. Zafer Caglayan gave the dinner speech. He was clearly bursting with pride over Turkey’s stable democracy and economic success story. He proudly spoke of the government’s targets for 2023, the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the Republic of Turkey.
Mustafa Kemal Ataturk was an Ottoman and Turkish military officer who led the war for independence and established the Turkish republic becoming its first president in 1923. He revolutionized the country turning what remained of the Ottoman Empire into a modern, westernized, secular democracy. He got rid of the Arab script and brought in Latin letters, he fought for women’s rights, abolishing the veil (it has returned) and promoting the education of women. His photo can be found everywhere in Istanbul. Below is a gigantic photo of Ataturk that I saw on the wall of a sporting club near our hotel.
But back to the Minister of Economy – in his lengthy and enthusiastic speech about the current economic situation in Turkey he noted that “the only pimple on our face is our deficit.”
I happened to be seated next to a prominent Turkish author and columnist, Osman Ulagay. He has published 14 books on Turkey, his most recent being –roughly translated into English– “To Whom will Turkey be left?” He quietly pointed out to me there is another “pimple on the face of the Turkey” and that is freedom of the press. He told me there are currently some 100 Turkish journalists in prison on a variety of charges who are being held in custody for years while they wait for a trial. It didn’t take me long to find a lot of information available on that. See this January article in The New York Times: “Turkey’s Glow Dims…
Osman Ulagay explained to me that the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is well respected in the region and abroad for maintaining a stable, secular democracy in a turbulent region. Erdogan’s government is seen as a key power-broker in mideast conflicts in Syria, Iran, Egypt and Iraq. But Ulagay explained to me there is no strong opposition so “for all intents and purposes Turkey has become a one party country.”
This morning I went to hear my husband speak at the conference. There was a fascinating line-up in the morning and I will just mention a few highlights. Andrew Leung of China gave a mind-boggling speech on the economic growth in China. He started out his speech by noting “There is an elephant in the room, or maybe I should say a Panda.” I loved that comment, as an American I am very aware that there is an enormous Panda sitting in the room. He spouted dozens of figures that were truly astounding. Here are a couple: China is building 97 new airports by 2020, China is building a high-speed rail across Asia to Europe, he called the the “renaissance of the old silk road”, China has the largest luxury market in the world with one million millionaires. He encouraged Turkish businesses to look into providing products for China’s burgeoning mega-cities.
Gustavo had to provide the European view. He described Europe as the “sick citizen of the world who needs morphine, medicine and therapy.” And went on to provide a powerful vision of how Europe can unite and get out of the crisis. His speech was inspiring and he had the audience in his hand by the end. He has an Italian talent for combining brilliance, charisma and passion that can win over crowds around the globe.
Fascinating as it all was, by lunch-time I had enough of economics and was eager to get out on the Bosphorus. For those who don’t know, the Bosphorus is the saltwater strait that divides Istanbul into a European and Asian side, and connects the Sea of Marmara to the Black Sea.
I headed out to the Besiktas ferry stop and bought a 2 Turkish Lira token (roughly $1.50) to take me over to the other side. As I stood on deck breathing in the cool Bosphorus breeze and marvelling in the view, as if on cue, a school of dolphins began jumping and diving near the ferry.
I was enthralled…
Tomorrow: A Peek at Turkish Women