For the second time in its history, Hagia Sophia has been turned into a mosque. The first time was after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453. Atatürk turned it into a secular museum in 1934. Last Friday, a court ruled that conversion to have been illegal. The first prayers will be held on 24 July, the anniversary of the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne. The move is widely seen as the latest step in the Islamisation of Turkish society under Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the AKP.
Every hour in Pazarkule, the church bells told the migrants how close they were to Europe; and the shots told them they weren’t going to get in. On the Turkish-Greek border, where thousands are still waiting to cross, those who tried were repelled by tear gas and rubber bullets. And all day on Wednesday, as the ambulance sirens came and went, rumours spread of much worse, too: one dead and five injured trying to make it into Greece.
Last Thursday, President Erdoğan announced that he was going to open Turkey’s borders to refugees fleeing to Europe, apparently in order to put pressure on Nato to back him against the Syrian regime and its Russian allies. The Greek media were quick to whip up fear of invading ‘hordes’ of refugees. A four-year-old Syrian boy drowned in the early hours of this morning after a boat capsized off Lesvos. Those who make it to shore are often met by a mob that won’t let them land. Others are freezing on the Greek-Turkish border along the river Evros. Those who get across are pushed back by the army and border guards, firing tear gas and stun grenades. Greece has announced that it won’t process any new asylum claims for a month.
The last 16 people on trial for allegedly masterminding the 2013 Gezi Park protests were acquitted by an Istanbul court on Tuesday. On Monday, 230 Gezi activists in the small Thracian city of Kırklareli had already seen their charges quashed. It had seemed too much to hope for a similar decision in Istanbul. Outside the hearing, Republican Party (CHP) leaders waited, apparently ready to pronounce another day in the death of Turkish democracy. When the verdict came, Atatürk’s party seemed to find itself, once again, wrong-footed by the AKP. At least this time the surprise was a pleasant one. Within hours of his release, however, one of the 16, the businessman and philanthropist Osman Kavala, was arrested on a new warrant, accused of involvement in the coup attempt of July 2016. Others had old charges against them reinstated.
Turkey’s incursion into northern Syria has displaced tens of thousands of civilians, most of them Syrian Kurds. As with the Turkish army’s forays into Jarabulus in August 2016 and Afrin in March 2018, its reliance on Syrian Arab militias for the assault has not lessened the impression of vengeful marauding. (Many of the militias were once supported by the United States and Britain in their abortive attempt to bring down Bashar al-Assad.) As before, there are multiple accusations of war crimes. The difference this time is that the incursion and its consequences for the Syrian Kurds have clearly been tacitly authorised by the United States.
A second Turkish drillship arrived in disputed waters off Cyprus last month to begin gas exploration. The boat, Yavuz, takes its name – like Istanbul’s new, third bridge over the Bosphorus – from the Ottoman sultan ‘Yavuz’ Selim I, who suppressed minority unrest in 16th-century Anatolia. The nickname translates as ‘resolute’ or ‘grim’.
In the end it was never even close. Ekrem İmamoğlu was elected mayor of Istanbul yesterday for the second time in three months, taking 54 per cent of the vote, more than double the share of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan when he ascended to the post in 1994.
President Erdoğan, once such an astute political operator, should have sensed early that rerunning the March election was a mistake. After winning a spirited first campaign, and bringing political fresh air to Istanbul for the fortnight he was in office in April, İmamoğlu’s movement only grew as the second ballot approached. His unapologetically upbeat campaign slogan, ‘Herşey çok güzel olacak’ (‘Everything will be OK’), was popular beyond the metropolis. It was reported that people mistakenly showed up to vote as far afield as Diyarbakır, a predominantly Kurdish city in the south-east.
On 31 March, Ekrem İmamoğlu of the opposition Turkish Republican Party (CHP) was elected mayor of Istanbul at the head of a National Alliance coalition. He was sworn in on 17 April, but removed from office this week when the Supreme Electoral Council announced that the vote will be re-run on 23 June.
İmamoğlu and the CHP will not have been unprepared for the decision. In a city of more than fifteen million people, he defeated the AKP candidate, Binali Yıldırım, by 23,000 votes at first tally. The government ordered a recount. To protect against tampering, polling station officials – supporters not of İmamoğlu so much as of Turkish democracy – slept next to the sacks of ballots waiting to be recounted. İmamoğlu’s majority was reduced to less than 14,000. But he had still won
Yiğit Aksakoğlu has been in jail in Turkey for four months. He and twelve others were imprisoned last November, awaiting trial on charges of ‘attempting to overthrow the government’ during the Gezi Park protests six years ago.
The other twelve have been released, but Yiğit – pronounced ‘Yeet’ – remains in the maximum security Silivri prison, west of Istanbul. He is held alongside Osman Kavala, now in his second year of arbitrary detention, and 14 others whom the Erdoğan government accuses of insurrectionary ambitions in a 600-page document of which only a few pages, lawyers say, have any legal significance.
With audiences stretching from Poland to Kazakhstan and throughout the Middle East, Turkey has in recent times become a large exporter of soap opera. There is more than a touch of TV melodrama to the way the Erdoğan government has unfolded the story of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, engineering a rare deceleration in the pace of the world media, hooking global audiences on a drip feed of slow news. Nothing in the timing has been left to chance. Word that Khashoggi's remains had been found, and evidence of the act itself – three weeks ago now – was released to coincide with the opening day of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Future Investment Initiative, a.k.a. ‘Davos in the Desert’.
Jamal Khashoggi entered the Saudi Arabian Consulate in Istanbul on the afternoon of 2 October and did not come out. The local police think that Khashoggi, a prominent Saudi journalist writing regularly for the Washington Post, was killed inside the consulate building and his body smuggled out by car.
In Moria camp on Lesvos, 9000 people are trying to live in a space built for less than 2000. Children as young as ten are reported as suicidal. Sitting outside a cafe in Mytilene, UK Border Agency sailors seconded to Europe’s Frontex force drink frappés and talk about football, about a message to a girl back home that she has received but not replied to. In Athens, I had been told by someone recently returned from holiday on Lesvos that the arrival of the Royal Navy had suppressed the trafficker routes from Turkey, allowing the tourist island to return to a kind of normalcy. But the border officers – working two weeks on, two off – tell a different story: ‘Some nights it’s quiet, then there’ll be two, three rescues.’ I asked how long they’ve been stationed here: ‘Too long.’
One night, I went on a boat trip down the Bosporus with about a dozen models, fashionistas, several transvestites, someone who appeared to be wearing a beekeeper’s outfit as a form of daily wear, the editor of Dazed and Confused Jefferson Hack, and Franca Sozzani, the editor of Italian Vogue. We were in the European capital of culture, but it was like a fabulous night at the London club Kinky Gerlinky transferred to Istanbul and financed by the Turkish Ministry of Culture. At one end of the boat, in his wheelchair, was Gore Vidal. At the other end was V.S. Naipaul. It must have been June 2010 because I remember catching Frank Lampard’s ‘ghost goal’ against Germany on a TV in the hotel lobby just before we dashed out.
The outcome of the Turkish constitutional referendum to expand President Erdoğan’s powers was a foregone conclusion from the moment it was announced. The results were nevertheless surprising because they showed how resilient the opposition in Turkish society is. Turkey has been under an oppressive ‘state of emergency’ since 21 July 2016. Declared after the failed coup attempt on 15 July (and set to continue for the foreseeable future), it has given President Erdoğan nearly unlimited powers. Tens of thousands of people have been arrested and more than 100,000 sacked, including thousands of academics, judges, prosecutors and union activists. It is a good bet that anyone left in a civil service position in Turkey is either an Erdoğan crony or someone who knows how to keep their head down. The president has captured most state institutions which are supposed to be autonomous or free from political pressure, including the Electoral Board.
Alongside a Frontex vessel flying the Union Jack, a group of Afghan men sat dangling makeshift fishing rods into the harbour at Mytilene. It’s over a year since EU and Turkish leaders signed an agreement to ‘end’ irregular migration across the Aegean. Brokered shortly after a cascade of border closures along the overland Balkan route, the deal says that migrants who cross to Greece after 19 March 2016, if their asylum applications are considered inadmissible, will be returned to Turkey. In exchange for gatekeeping at its end, Ankara would receive €6 billion, visa-free travel for Turkish nationals and a promise to fast-track EU membership talks.
In the week the Netherlands goes to the polls, the irruption of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan into the Dutch election has wrenched the campaign out of its somnolence. At the weekend, the Turkish foreign minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, and the family minister, Fatma Betül Sayan Kaya, came to campaign among Netherlands-based Turks for next month’s plebiscite over extending President Erdoğan’s powers. The Dutch government banned Çavuşoğlu from entering the country and, after stopping Kaya entering the Turkish consulate in Rotterdam, kicked her out into Germany. Turkey has had a long-standing friendship with the Netherlands since Atatürk’s day. ‘Security’, that trusty standby for squelching political inconvenience, is cited as the reason for banning the ministers and their Rotterdam rally. Early on Sunday, police dispersed demonstrators with dogs and water cannon. Erdoğan has accused the Dutch government of Nazism.
Last summer, a young Syrian woman in Istanbul gave birth to a baby boy with a severe umbilical hernia, which required surgery. But after three months he still didn’t have an ID card, and doctors wouldn’t perform surgery without it. Songül, one of their Turkish neighbours, took the baby and his mother to all the hospitals and emergency clinics she knew of, to no avail. One hospital took a blood sample and gave them a referral for surgery, but they were turned away for not having an ID. They were told to go to the police station to get a copy of the baby’s birth certificate. They did, but the hospital wouldn’t accept it – only an ID card would do, they said.
At 7.05 p.m. Turkish time yesterday, the Russian ambassador, Andrei Karlov, was shot dead in an Ankara art gallery. The assassin, Mevlüt Mert Altıntaş, an off-duty Turkish police officer in a suit and tie, calmly shot Karlov in the back several times; spoke in Turkish about Aleppo, with his hand in the air, one finger pointed upward (a jihadi sign, symbolising ‘takbir’, the greatness and oneness of Allah); and then said, in accented Arabic, a few sentences associated with Jabhat al-Nusra. (We can be sure of all this because the shooting was captured by an Associated Press photographer.) Altıntaş was killed by security forces who stormed the building. Vladimir Putin was informed of the assassination while on his way to watch a play written by Alexander Griboyedov, Nicholas I’s ambassador to Persia, who was killed in 1829 when a mob stormed the Russian embassy in Tehran.
Since the failed coup attempt on 15 July, two distinct narratives about Turkey have emerged. Talking to Turks and non-Turks about the coup increasingly resembles travelling between parallel universes.
To outsiders, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan can appear to be a tub-thumping, monologic rabble-rouser, but he isn’t, or not quite. Childishly proud of having attended one of the Imam Hatip (preacher training) schools that were once a marginal but are now a central part of the educational landscape, he was also a semi-professional footballer; he can talk down to strangers and shout across at teammates. As the coup attempt unfolded in the early hours of Saturday 16 July and some of his teammates failed him, Erdoğan’s face appeared in public for the first time in six days – he was on holiday – on an iPhone held by a presenter on CNN Türk; with as much calm as he could muster, he appealed to his people to go out on the streets, confront the rebels and save democracy. Two hours later, at Atatürk Airport, flanked by his entourage and confident that he wouldn’t be deposed, he was more expansive, calling the coup a ‘gift from God’ and outlining plans for retribution.
The only travel agencies open in İzmir on a Sunday are in Basmane. A neighbourhood of former imperial splendour, it is now known as Little Syria. I was there on 20 March, the day that the deal between the EU and Turkey to deport ‘all new irregular migrants crossing from Turkey to the Greek islands’ came into effect. There’d been a suicide bombing in Istanbul the day before, and another in Ankara a week earlier. Basmane was the only part of İzmir where the streets were crowded.
In August 2012, Fadi Mansour, a 28-year-old law student from Homs, left Syria to avoid conscription. ‘I had to do my military service before the war started; after the war they called me to fight in the reserve army, so I escaped,’ he wrote to me yesterday. He told Amnesty International that he went first to Lebanon, where he was kidnapped and held to ransom. After his release he felt unsafe; in early 2015 he came to Turkey. He flew to Malaysia but was denied entry and sent back to Istanbul. ‘They caught me in the airport,’ Mansour said. ‘I asked for asylum here. But they rejected my request.’ This was on 15 March 2015. Since then Mansour has been detained at Istanbul's Atatürk Airport. He is living in the ‘Problematic Passengers Room’. It has no natural light and no beds. The electric lights are kept on around the clock. ‘Sometimes they let me go outside the room for one or two hours,’ he told me. ‘But nothing is different between here and outside.’
The Turkish publisher Aylak Adam announced on its Facebook page on 5 December that it would soon be putting out a new book that would ‘make the 76-year wait worthwhile’. In 15 days time, ‘the yearning would come to an end’. Readers began to speculate: was Hermann Broch’s Sleepwalkers finally going to appear in Turkish? Further clues from the publisher followed: the forthcoming work was a ‘crossword’, an ‘illustrated riddle’, a ‘multifaceted, massive obelisk’. Last Friday, three days before publication, the answer was leaked: the first volume of a translation of Finnegans Wake, by Umur Çelikyay of Istanbul’s Koç University.
The results of the election in Turkey on 1 November took analysts by surprise: the Justice and Development Party (AKP) received nearly half the votes, an increase of 9 per cent on its performance five months ago, and close to its best ever showing, in June 2011. When the party came to power in November 2002, after a long period of instability and economic crisis, it was with only a third of the popular vote. But it quickly captured a good part of the secular electorate when it went along with political reforms required by the EU in order to start membership negotiations. Centre-right business circles were attracted to IMF-inspired institutional reforms, and the AKP won the support of the poor with its health and welfare policies. By the end of the decade, the party’s mastery of the mechanisms of governance was complete. Even after jettisoning the liberals, it won the elections in 2011 with 50 per cent of the vote.
The copyright in The Little Prince expired in most of the world at the end of last year (it has thirty more years to run in France because Antoine de Saint-Exupéry died in the Second World War, 'Mort pour la France'). In the first two weeks of January, more than thirty Turkish publishers released translations of the 1943 novella. Between them they bought 130,000 bandrols, holographic stickers required for every book sold in Turkey.
Selahattin Demirtaş, one of the leaders of Turkey’s left-wing People’s Democratic Party (HDP), is tall, self-confident, strong and soft-spoken. When he ran for president earlier this month, some of his supporters tried to convince undecided friends to vote for him by asking them to choose the ‘most handsome candidate on the ballot paper’. A friend’s grandmother said Demirtaş may be handsome but she would ‘never vote for a Kurd’. He came in third, with just under 10 per cent of the vote (Recep Tayyip Erdoğan won with 52 per cent).
The rescue operation at the Soma coal mine in western Turkey came to an end on Saturday 17 May. Workers sealed the entrance to the mine with a concrete wall. The final death toll was announced on Sunday: 301 people had been killed and another 80 injured, making this the worst mine disaster in Turkey’s history. The Soma mine was operated through the so-called taşeron (‘subcontractor’) system. In 2003, the Erdoğan government passed legislation allowing publicly owned coal mines to be run by private companies. Production increased but costs were cut and safety standards dropped.
Istanbul's mayoral election is tomorrow. I wonder if rescheduling it for two month’s time would make a difference. I have a hunch that it might: 27 May marks the first anniversary of the beginning of the Gezi Park demonstrations, and the results of the election will in part reflect the way people here feel about last year's protests. My walk to the polling station will take me past Gezi, which is now a refuge for dozens of homeless Syrians. The continuing existence of the park is itself a triumph for the protesters. Had the proposed shopping mall been built there, the refugees would almost certainly not be allowed inside. There is a reason people want to preserve public spaces.
Erje Ayden died last month in New York. He was born Erce Aydıner in Istanbul in 1937. His father was a politician and, later, justice minister. Erce was sent to Robert College, a private American high school overlooking the Bosphorus. His family wanted him to be a lawyer but he dropped out and escaped to Paris, where Nato employed him as a spy (or so he claimed). He moved to New York in 1957, and worked as a bricklayer, waiter and gravedigger before writing down his experiences in a series of pulp novels.
There is a story about Mustafa Kemal Atatürk practising his signature in the Latin alphabet. The image is incongruous: the most powerful man in Turkey sits frowning over his own name, breaking in the unfamiliar strokes like a schoolboy. He had decreed in 1928 that Turkish would now be written in Latin rather than Arabic script – severing ties with the Ottoman past and making a generation of readers illiterate. In 1934 he passed a law requiring everyone to adopt a surname: Turks at the time tended to go by titles, patronymics or the name of their profession. It’s unclear how Kemal came by his name (he tacked on ‘Father of the Turks’ after 1934; it’s still illegal for anyone else to use it), but as for romanising his initials, the story goes that he tried spelling it first with a Q, then with a K – and deciding that he preferred the latter, banned the letter Q from the alphabet. The story is apocryphal; Kemal’s signature (now one of the most popular tattoos in Turkey) was designed by Hagop Çerçiyan, an Armenian calligrapher. And while it’s true that the letter Q was outlawed for 85 years, from 1928 until last month, the reason for the ban had little to do with aesthetic bias or onomastic whim.
The Greek-language newspaper
Adnan Menderes is the only Turkish prime minister to have been hanged by the generals. Others have been arrested (Süleyman Demirel in 1980), forced out of office (Necmettin Erbakan in 1997) or politely warned about a possible intervention (Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in 2007). Menderes, Turkey’s first democratically elected premier, governed from 1950 until the military coup ten years later. He was executed on 17 September 1961.
Now that the Gezi Park occupation is over, everyone wants to know who won. At first Erdoğan looked ready to compromise: after discussions with some of the participants, he said he would honour a court decision suspending the government’s plan to demolish the park, and added that, if his project to build a replica of the Ottoman barracks were cleared by the judiciary, he would take the decision to the public. At this point the protesters in the park had a brief opportunity to declare victory. But as in the various Occupy movements last year there was no central command; there were more than a hundred different groups camped in the park, and it would have been impossible to reach any consensus short of a very long forum. In any case, Erdoğan did not even wait until daybreak.
How it changes. When I was in Istanbul last April the mood was sombre. Even the most ebullient of friends were downcast. The latent hostility to the regime was always present, but the AKP’s hegemony, I was told many times, went deep. Erdoğan was a reptile, cynical but clever and not averse to quoting the odd verse from Nâzım Hikmet, the much-loved communist poet imprisoned by Atatürk. The poet had escaped in a boat and been rescued by a Soviet tanker. ‘Can you prove you’re Hikmet,’ the captain asked him. He laughed and pointed to a poster in the captain’s cabin which had his photograph on it. He died in Moscow in 1963. His remains are still in exile.
Recep Tayyip Erdoğan spent yesterday talking. On Saturday, the authorities relented and withdrew the police from Taksim Square, when it became clear that serious clashes would be unavoidable. Crowds were approaching from four different directions and the police were trying to stop them before they reached the square, but they kept coming; at around 4 p.m. news came that the police were pulling back. Many thought that this might be tactical. In the end, however, the demonstrators had Taksim to themselves. On Sunday morning, under a drizzle, they peacefully cleaned up the square while Erdoğan made the rounds, denouncing the extremists, justifying his actions and defiantly repeating his commitment to overhaul the social and physical space of the meydan.
I used to walk through Gezi Park every morning on my way to work. But on 1 May the park was closed. There are plans to build a shopping mall on top of it, and the mayor of Istanbul and the minister of the interior had used this as an excuse to cancel the May Day celebrations there. Trade unions and opposition political parties organised marches to Taksim anyway. The stand-off led to a curfew in all but name. On May Day I looked out the window of my flat and counted ten police officers on the street, one outside every building.
During the Istanbul Film Festival last month, police used water cannon, tear gas and batons to disperse a crowd, Costa-Gavras among them, who were protesting against the imminent destruction of the Emek Theatre. Built in 1924 as the Melek Sineması in the former Club des Chasseurs de Constantinople, the cinema closed in 2010. It has been an object of contention ever since plans were announced that the state-owned building would be torn down and replaced with yet another shopping mall, as happened to the nearby Saray Sineması. The government and the construction firm they leased the building to, Kamer İnşaat, say that the Emek will be preserved and moved to the mall’s fourth floor. This seems unlikely, considering that it’s an 875-seat, single-screen theatre.
Last year the Turkish pianist and composer Fazıl Say retweeted some lines attributed to Omar Khayyám: You say rivers of wine flow in heaven,is heaven a tavern to you? You say two huris await each believer there,is heaven a brothel to you? Say was accused of inciting hatred against Islam and taken to court. As a schoolboy fan of Khayyám’s epigrammatic rubais (Persian quatrains) about wine and women, I once wrote an essay entitled ‘From Omar Khayyám to Karl Marx: The Struggle for Freedom’, in which I made some bold claims about the revolutionary role I believed he had played in the middle ages, based on my selective reading of some of the more than thirty Turkish translations of Khayyám that appeared during the 20th century.
The Turkish publishing house İletişim (the name means 'communication') celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. It was founded in 1983 by Murat Belge, who had taught English literature at Istanbul University until he was forced out after the 1980 coup because of his socialist views. İletişim’s first publishing venture was the quarterly magazine Yeni Gündem (‘The New Agenda’), which reached out to people whose voices had been silenced, and campaigned for a return to democracy and parliamentary politics. It ran interviews with politicians whose parties had been shut down as well as with writers and artists who dared criticise the generals.
In Greek, istos means web; in Turkey it is the name of a new publishing house which is putting out books in Greek for the first time in half a century. There’s a long tradition of Greek publishing in Istanbul – one of the first presses in the Ottoman Empire belonged to the patriarchate in the 17th century – and the industry more or less flourished until 1964, when commercial activity by Greeks was prohibited and most of Istanbul's Greek community was forced to leave. The city’s current Greek population is thought to be around 3000.
Elif Shafak’s novel Iskender, published in English as Honour this week, came out in Turkey last August. Like her previous books, it sold hundreds of thousands of copies. Within days of its appearance, however, a blogger accused Shafak of ‘lifting’ themes and characters from Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. The blog post quickly went viral. Smith’s Turkish translator said that Shafak had used White Teeth as a ‘template’ which didn’t really fit with the Kurdish characters in her novel. One journalist suggested the book should be moved to the foreign fiction shelves of Turkish bookshops.
A message from the editorial board of Özgür Gündem, Turkey's main Kurdish newspaper: The police forces raided the building of our newspaper, Ozgur Gundem, two days ago, on 20 December 2011. They copied all our hard discs and took all the information in the computers. They prevented us to work, the publication of the newspaper was literally blocked for more than 20 hours. Our newspaper has been published with the solidarity of other dissident newspapers. We published a newspaper comprised of 4 pages yesterday. In the past, we also had to publish our newspaper comprised of 4 pages once, on 3 December 1994. It was the day after when our newspaper was bombed. From the beginning until today, 76 journalists, writers, distributors, editors of our newspaper, Ozgur Gundem, have been killed.
On 23 November, the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, admitted that more than 13,000 Kurds had been killed by the Turkish military in Dersim in the 1930s. Apologising for the massacre, he called it ‘the most tragic event in our recent history’. Liberals and leftists welcomed the apology, which appears to promise a more open discussion of the Turkish state's past atrocities. Ragıp Zarakolu, the 63-year-old head of the Belge Publishing House, was behind bars when he heard the news.
On Thursday, the Fatih Mosque in Istanbul held a funeral for the dead from the Mavi Marmara, one of the ships of the Gaza flotilla. Many of the mourners were activists from IHH, the Islamic charity that organised the flotilla. Children swung Palestinian and, in some cases, Hizbullah flags; women in black chador wore green 'We are all Palestinian' headbands; others were in Turkish headscarfs and matching outfits; still others, jeans and T-shirts. From the packed mosque courtyard came shouts of 'Katil Israil' and 'Kahrolsun Israil' ('Murderer Israel', 'Damn Israel'). It wasn’t the first time I’d heard those words in Turkey, but it was a striking moment. Turkey and Israel have always, at least officially, been allies in a region where Israel has few friends. The flotilla incident has probably changed their relationship for ever.