Turkish Journey

Turkish Journey

Mini Teaser: For seventy years, Turkey has been looking to the West, but things are changing.

by Author(s): Herb Greer

For the Westerner in Trabzon the problem is orientation. This ancient Black Sea port, where Xenophon rested after the Anabasis, has nothing classical about it now. Except for the Turkish and Russian signs, you might be in a flyblown French provincial town. And where are the Asiatic Turks? So many passers-by have blond or red hair and blue eyes, with features that are more European than Levantine. You are in an Islamic country and yet you are not. The local mosques are obscured, indeed all but buried, in the profusion of tacky new breeze-block construction. These unfaced red boxes even scar the inland villages, up among the peaks and valleys.

Only a few tourists gather outside the Hotel Usta but they have not come to see Trabzon; buses will take them up into rocky foothills behind the coast where the ruined Byzantine monastery of Sumela clings to a cliffside in the mist. As for the port itself, there is a boom-town air about the place, currents of bustle and dust. People hurry along, preoccupied, mostly ignoring the thin scattering of foreigners.

Meydan Square in the center of town is a concrete expanse with trees, the usual cafe, and a statue of Atatürk. Here the locals relax, do business, and make assignations with the prostitutes who have come down route 20 from Georgia to make money on the fringe of the Western world. Recently Time magazine featured these women in a report on international sex; they are called Natasha Yatasha, from the Turkish yatak, which means bed. (Every Turk I speak to in Trabzon seems to know about this Western spurt of notoriety. Most are sarcastic about it.)

"The real story for you," says my new acquaintance Serdar Bey, a jeweler, "should be the Rus Bazaar." This is a market on Trabzon's waterfront where dirty, desperate travelers from beyond what used to be the Iron Curtain come with loads of junk, fake booze and toiletries, tools, cameras, textiles, or stolen hospital and school supplies, hoping to make a profit that will keep body and soul together in the political and economic chaos beyond the frontier. The Georgian mafia preys on these travelers and then comes west to spend its protection money on Western goods and women in Trabzon.

Serdar Bey is not fully occupied with the gold and silver trade. With the Turkish economy in trouble and inflation high, investors prefer to speculate in building; hence all those ticky tacky boxes. This means bricks and mortar, brought in cheaply across the Black Sea from Sochi, where Serdar Bey keeps an office and a villa. I ask him about the drug trade and he waves the question away. "That's further South, on the border with Iran," he says. "The PKK controls it." He means the Marxist Kurdish Workers' Party, which likes to kidnap tourists and has just massacred more than thirty Turkish civilians in the streets of Van in Southeast Turkey.
There is the other question of fundamentalist influence in Turkey. Serdar Bey shakes his head. "It is true," he says, "that they have managed, more or less, to unite the Shiites with the Sunni in Turkey. That is only possible because religion is not as important in Turkey as it is to Iranians and Arabs. Turkey is not the Ottoman Empire. Turkey is a nation now, a secular nation. AtatŸrk took us away from Islam. Do the journalists know that in the West? Do they care?"
Erzerum has the same breeze-block buildings and a bright new hotel rising up amongst the tacky provincial streets. But in the back alleys old Ottoman houses stand sagging among the ruins of others, and Islam is on view in the Tchifte Minareli Medrese, the twin minaret Muslim seminary. This is a stunning thirteenth-century Seljuk building in brick and blue tile, beside the Ulu Djamii, the twelfth-century Great Mosque. To be honest though, we are more interested in the rŸstem pasha market and its galleries of dŸkkanlar selling hand-sized strings of black oltutashõ prayer beads. In one of these tiny shops we encounter a stray group of starving and unshaven Georgian refugees who are trying to sell an old Russian velvet and solid silver belt for dollars. They bargain feverishly with my wife, and we get it for a good price. As the last call to prayer sounds we return to our lodging. At five the next morning we are awakened suddenly by the accumulated braying of muezzins all over Erzerum. Perhaps Eastern Turkey is not quite as secular as Serdar Bey insisted.

The road to Sivas is dusty and hot, rolling through dry but magnificent quasi-Biblical scenery, like the background of a Holman Hunt painting. The company around us on the big Mercedes bus is convivial. A jolly, heavy-set clerk and a doctor just behind us have heard me compliment a village woman across the aisle on her beautiful child--a little boy, dark, shy. They are surprised at my Turkish and eagerly strike up a conversation. (This happens everywhere we go: a Turkish-speaking yabandji--foreigner--and especially an American, is a pleasant curiosity for Turks.) The doctor, who knows a bit of English, asks to see our guide-book. For several minutes he and the clerk joke about mistakes in the text, and they make recommendations, mostly focused on Southeast Turkey where we do not intend to go because of the PKK.

The woman with the child across the aisle is striking: a Byzantine face the color of polished oak, with bright intelligent gray eyes. She is, my wife whispers, clearly dying to chat. I offer her child some of the black cherries we bought in Erzerum, and make small talk. Her husband is waiting with their other two boys at a village up ahead. The conversation lasts until she looks out the window and begins to wrap herself in a black yashmak. Isn't that hot? I ask. Yes, she says, but it has to be worn because of the men. In the towns like Erzerum and Trabzon things are more atchõk (open), but not out here. We shake hands in farewell. Her fingers are like a laborer's, brown and leathery.

Sivas is noisy and dusty, provincial-urban and vaguely worrying. A couple of weeks ago Islamic fundamentalists here burned down one of the hotels on our tourist list and killed several people in a demonstration over Salman Rushdie. But they were arrested and now the town seems calm. We stroll to view a Seljuk ruin and back to a garden cafe in the town center for a cool glass of delicious, tart morello cherry juice. The next morning we board another huge Mercedes rolling palace, taking the road across the high plateau to Kayseri. Bus travel is agreeable in Turkey. A steward patrols the aisle with a bottle of lemon cologne; you rub it on your hands and face: very refreshing in the heat. The landscape outside is rolling, golden, blasted with the sun.

In Kayseri a pleasant young Turk with a badly smashed nose picks us up, shows us through a local mosque, and steers us to his uncle's carpet shop. The uncle is chatty, and we talk politics, especially about the West and America. He repeats something I have heard several times: the Turks do not trust the Americans. We have, he says, used Turkey as it suits us, and look down on the Turks as primitive, Asian, brutal. This is bad enough in a strong country, but America looks weak now. Europe is telling Clinton what to do in the Balkans, and that means do nothing, and he accepts it. He leaves the Moslems to be killed like dogs. A weak man! Who will respect a weak man? But Ahmet Bey is less interested in politics than in selling us a carpet. And indeed the quality of his stock is tempting. We are careful because we have to carry what we buy. But four small djedjim, light embroidered rugs, make a good portable bundle.

Leaving Kayseri in late afternoon, two and a half hours later we disembark at Ürgüp, and find a small hotel. This used to be Greek country, Kappadokia, and the local temper is different: more gentle, brighter, and well organized for tourism. Several of the young Turkish guides speak fluent Japanese. Kappadokia was a great center of Byzantine civilization, and the site of one of the surviving wonders of the ancient world --the vast underground cities. We join a tour of one of these, and are stunned: it is literally a city, a complex of rooms, halls, chapels, dwellings, schools, chambers for making wine, all engineered with cross-ventilation from the surface so that cooking fires could be used underground. We are ten floors down, and there are another eight below us. All this was dug out with simple hand tools, and no one knows how it was engineered. Such marvels are scattered all over Kappadokia, refuges for whole villages in troubled times.
If Ürgüp is pleasant, Konya is not. This old Seljuk capital is the fundamentalist heart of Turkey, a shrine for Dervishes, and you can feel hostility in the air. For the first time we are insulted by teenagers in the street. But one friendly boy takes us to visit the Mevlana Museum, where the power and dignity of Islam at its height can be seen in the gold and velvet-shrouded Seljuk tombs of Rumi, founder of the Dervish sect, and his followers; we are astonished at a room of beautifully illuminated Korans and other texts, and a huge glass-cased string of ninety-nine prayer-beads as big as eggs. The Dervishes were almost but not quite suppressed by Atatürk, and this museum is very impressive; but Konya is not an ideal resort for foreigners. In a mosque not far away from the museum I speak to a Mullah who is watching us with narrow eyes. "Salaam aleikum, Amdjah!" (Peace be upon you, Uncle!) He starts, roars with laughter, and regards me keenly. "Ingiliz?" I say yes. He nods, but his smile is not friendly and we do not stay.

As our vacation approaches its end, we follow the coast south of Troy up to Ayvalik, a pretty little town where old friends have invited us for our last week. About twenty minutes out of town, they have a summer-house near the beach.

Our hosts, a Turkish professor and his wife, who teaches English, have studied in Britain and worked in America. Their young daughter with her American English might have stepped out of a middle Western junior high school. On the beach, at dinner in the evening, on the terrace over a beer, we discuss our Turkish journey. Our friends too are disgusted with Clinton and Europe and the Balkans. But they do not ascribe the inaction to weakness. The brother-in-law reckons that neither Americans nor Europeans waste much thought or sympathy or aid on Turkey, and naturally thinks that this is a mistake. Fundamentalists mean to take advantage of Turkey's economic problems, with wild promises; Western indifference makes those promises more attractive. The fundamentalists are now damning Atatürk's anti-Islamic reforms as the work of Satan, and intend to force Turkey back into the world of Middle Eastern Islam if they can. "Surely," I argue, "they can't, not after all this time?" Will the Turks find another secular leader like Atatürk, maybe from the Army, to get through today's troubles? The brother-in-law shakes his head. "No. Whatever the West thinks, we want a democratic country. We need a team, not a leader."

We move on to talk of lighter and happier things, but pessimism returns when the conversation again touches on America and the Balkans. "Turkey and Israel have been allies of the Americans. That means strong American influence in this region which the Europeans, especially France and Germany, want to remove. And Mr. Clinton is helping them with his flabby leadership. The Americans don't care about Turkey since the end of the Cold War. We provide a convenience now and then, like the base at Incirlik." Then, with some irritation, "We are not treated like a modern country but like some remnant of the Ottoman Empire." Everything now, my friend believes, depends on the economy. "We need trade, we need to be closer to Europe. But they do not want to be closer to us, not until the Americans are gone and the Europeans can do what they like here."

"If the fundamentalists won" he goes on, "there would be nothing here for us, or for America or for Europe either. I would take my family and come to the West. For seventy years, Turkey has been looking to the West...In the 'fifties, you know, we worshiped America. That has changed now. We don't quite trust you. The Cold War is over, and other things are changing. Many things."

Essay Types: Essay