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Annalisa Monfreda - reporter


reportage > Turkey, August 2007
Special Award - EU journalist award 2007 Special Award - EU journalist award 2007

Geo Italy - n. 20

Istanbul, the double
life of the Mistress
of the Bosphorus

To the west, a day marked by the cadence of the mosques. To the east, a cosmopolitan spirit forged by numerous ethno-religious minorities: Jewish, Greek Orthodox, Armenian… I travel through these two moods of a city shaken by elections that decide the country's future. And discover that what frightens the Turks today is not Islam, but an erstwhile demon: nationalism.

Father Dositheos' black tunic darts among the narrow passages of Fatih, a quarter in the ancient heart of Istanbul, and disappears behind the walls of a stone palace. The elderly clergyman has no time to lose: there's a patriarchy to manage. Of course the flock here in Fatih is rather scanty: 80 followers in all. But an additional 13 million 500 thousand Orthodox Greeks in the world look to this palace as their Vatican, a legacy of the ancient Eastern Roman Empire. And they must not be disappointed. Dositheos returned to Istanbul in 2003 for this very reason. "We have very few priests", the patriarch Bartholomew I kept telling him. And so, after thirty years in Germany as a biologist in a pharmaceutical company, he donned the long garment and tall headdress. Today, from the windows of the patriarchate, he looks out and sees how changed his city is.

In 1923, when general Mustafa Kemal Ataturk decreed the death of the Ottoman Empire and the birth of the new Turkish Republic, Istanbul was a metropolis of a million inhabitants. Turks, Russians, Genoese, Balkans, Serbs, Armenians, Greeks, Kurds: one out of three professed a religion other than Islam. Becoming part of Europe was not an issue, because all of Europe was there, assembled in one city. Today, the Istanbul known as Alem Penah (refuge of the world) no longer exists. In its place is a sprawling giant that houses ten million inhabitants, only 1% of whom believe in a god other than Allah. A percentage that reflects the rest of Turkey: 99.8% Islamic. Higher than in neighboring Iraq, in Syria and in Lebanon. Yet it is also the only country where State law prohibits entering any public place wearing a veil or other religious symbols. A paradox that today is borne out in the streets, when millions of Turkish demonstrators defend the secularism that Ataturk established as a pillar of national identity. But they are at odds with the country's growing Islamization. Evidenced by the Prime Minister, Tayyp Erdogan, a devout Muslim. Who was imprisoned on charges of inciting religious hatred and who sent his daughters to study in the United States, so that they could flaunt the veil even in the halls of the university. The future of Turkey will depend on the outcome of the ongoing clash between secular and Islamic factions (amplified by the elections of July 22).

What happened to the cosmopolitan Istanbul of one time? To find out we have come to Fatih, one of the oldest quarters of the city, on the southern edge of the Golden Horn. The history of that cosmopolitanism has been written here since the Muslim Mohammed II conquered Constantinople in 1453: he christened it Istanbul, but allowed it to remain the capital of Eastern Christianity, granting freedom of worship. Since that time, under the protective wing of Allah, Orthodox Greeks have prospered and become educated, wealthy and powerful. In 1923, there were 150 thousand of them in Istanbul alone. Today there are barely 4 thousand, 80 of them here in Fatih. "All elderly, poor and nostalgic," says Father Dositheos. "The churches are open on alternate Sundays, the priests say Mass there on a rotational basis. The seminary, instead, which closed in 1971, never returned to operation. And for the Turkish government, Bartholomew I is the leader of a parish, certainly not the Ecumenical Patriarch of world orthodoxy."

How did things get to this point? The fact is that Ataturk founded the new Turkish Republic on secularism, but also on the ethnic nationalism expressed in his famous words: "Happy is he who calls himself a Turk". Consequently, in 1923, one million 350 thousand Greeks were sent back to their land of origin and the same thing happened to thousands of Turks living in Greece. It was the first act of an ethnic cleansing that would continue throughout the century. Father Dositheos' face darkens. I ask him whether the growth of Islam and the attacks against Christians in recent months worry him. He replies with an illustration: "Not far from here is the church of Meryem Ana (Mother Mary). We will go there: you will see Muslims and Orthodox praying side by side. The truth is that five centuries of Islam failed to drive us apart. A century of nationalism, however, has reduced us to a voiceless minority. And this is what worries me: today I see a new, dangerous nationalism advancing".

Father Dositheos' black tunic slips out of the walls of the patriarchate and is lost in the crowd, blending in with the chadors teeming in Fatih's winding streets. Here all the faces are veiled. And as we move further and further on, the veil becomes increasingly enveloping, until it is transformed into an immense black sheet, leaving visible only the eyes, that never focus on anything. We are in Çarsamba: the domain of Muslim fundamentalists. To get there, we ask directions from a street vendor. "Are you going to see the women with the veil?" he asks us, as if it were a protected wildlife preserve. Then showing us the way he adds: "Good luck". Appropriate wishes, since a BBC crew had been beaten for violating the extremely religious quarter. Fatih is the Islamic face of Istanbul, but also its poor one. In the early morning, on Malta Carsi street, Mehmet's bar is shrouded in a cloud of smoke. In a little while a man will come through the doorway and choose those who will bring food home. "Every day at least 50 people come here looking for work", Mehmet says. "But I have seen people sit for a month without being hired for even one day". We lose ourselves in the streets of the quarter. Off the beaten track, the eyes capture snapshots of slums on the outer reaches: gutted facades, children playing in the rubble or sniffing glue amid the garbage, run-down shacks. The smell of burnt rubber permeates the air.

"At one time Fatih was Istanbul. Now it's just a district: the poorest and the most fundamentalist", says Yahya Koçoglu, director of the quarter's monthly. "It all began in the Fifties, when the wave of migration from Anatolia poured into the city. Men and women abandoned their reassuring farming community to find themselves lost in the metropolis. Where could they go? What work could they do? To welcome them here in Fatih, they found the mosque. That offered food, clothing and education in exchange for faith, or better yet, external signs of faith: a long beard and a chador. Behind the mosque were the ancient religious brotherhoods, the tarikat, that today are charitable institutions, supported by prosperous Muslims living in Turkey or abroad". The tarikat were abolished in 1925 by Ataturk, as part of the package of reforms that were to secularize Turkey. But, in actuality, they never disappeared. Indeed, in 1980, when the military government thought of using religion as a shield against the threat of communism, they attained public legitimacy. And so the army, assigned by Ataturk to be the watchdog of secularization, suddenly found itself in the role of guardian of traditional values. By the time the military realized that it was time to do an about face, it was too late, the process of Islamization had already been triggered.

Tayyp Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) is heir to this Islamic revival, maintaining strong contacts with the tarikat and conservative movements. Still, in his five years of government, Turkey has made more progress along the road to modernity (and toward Europe) than in recent decades. The Kurds are allowed to speak their own language, a right denied them since the dawn of the Republic. And the army, which in the last 50 years has performed four coups, has been put on a leash. "Islam is growing because it is championing the cause of Europe and of democracy", Yahya tells me. "Do not be fooled by the black veils".
Absorbed in conversation we arrive at Balat, in the northern part of Fatih. It was Istanbul's ancient Jewish quarter, but today it is hard to find even one remaining family. Even in the hospital, the only Jewish element is the kosher cuisine. The cooks, all Muslims, point us to an old greengrocer's shop, not far from one of the quarter's two synagogues. David Behar, 80 years old, is sitting amidst crates of cucumbers and bunches of bananas. "Are you Spanish?" he asks us with eyes full of hope. "Italians", we reply. He does not hide his disappointment: his family, along with tens of thousands of Jews, came here from Spain in 1492, when the Catholic Isabella decreed the expulsion of all Jews who would not convert to Catholicism. The Ottoman Empire took them in without trying to convert them. And like the Orthodox Greeks, the Jews too prospered under the Ottoman Empire. In 1923, there were 200 thousand of them in Turkey, 60 thousand in Istanbul alone. "Fine times, those…" David recalls. "Today there are ten of us in the synagogue, counting the children. There isn't even a Jewish butcher anymore for me to be able to eat kosher". Where have they all gone? "Out of the country or to other quarters of Istanbul, like my children: Fatih has become too poor for them". Or too Islamic? "I've lived next door to Muslims since I was born, I've been in business with a Muslim for half a century and now you want to make me think that I should fear Islam?", he breaks off abruptly, irritated.

Ataturk stares down at us from the walls: the father of the country protected the Jewish community for the entire period of his rule. During the Second World War, Turkey was one of the few countries where Jews felt safe. Nevertheless, today only 25 thousand of them remain, almost all in Istanbul. "After the war, many Jews emigrated to the United States or Israel", Tilda Levi, a journalist from the Istanbul Jewish weekly Shalom, tells me. "Not because of hostility on the part of Islamic Turks, but rather for economic reasons: hoping to find a better life there". Did something change in 2003, when two car bombs killed 25 people in Istanbul synagogues? "Yes, what's happened is that, like all the Jews in the world, we have become a target for Al Qaeda, certainly not of Turkish Islam".

We leave Fatih and also Europe: the gateway to Asia is an arm of the sea 500 meters wide and 32 kilometers long, the Bosphorus. We cross it on a ferry, headed to a quarter called Moda. There is no reason why a traveler arriving in Istanbul should delve into the sedate, Fifties atmosphere of these streets. Except one: to find a remnant of the old empire, a place that has never awakened from the cosmopolitan dream. Where Jews, Greeks, Armenians, Islamics and Syrians continue to live next door to one another. Moda is a sort of village on the Sea of Marmara, where the gory news reports of recent years seem like a radio crackling in the distance.

The limpid notes of Grieg greet us in the pharmacy at Moda Caddesi 133. The wooden counter frames the face of an old man with small eyes and enormous eyebrows. Melih Ziya Sezer, 75 years old, invites us into the back, to a small studio where he writes poetry. A small mirror cleverly positioned allows him to keep an eye on the entrance to the shop. He has lived in Moda since 1937 and is the historical memory of the quarter. "At one time, nobody said Muslims, Greeks, Armenians: we were all Turks, who grew up together and lived side by side together. But I do not see a growth of Islamic fundamentalism. If there is, it's manipulated from outside Turkey by powers that do not want us in Europe. We Muslim Turks are very moderate". An elderly lady has materialized in the little mirror. "Come", Melih gestures to us, "I will introduce you to a friend". A distinguished 70 year old woman greets the pharmacist warmly and looks at us questioningly. Emilia Pandelera is Greek Orthodox, and her eyes widen in astonishment at our questions. "Forgive me, it's just that I find it so strange to have to talk about religion", she says. "It's new to me, being asked what God I believe in. Here in Istanbul it has never happened".

We leave the pharmacy to knock at number 3 Bademalti Sok, a few streets further on, where a 50 year old Armenian conceals the sale of pirated disk and film copies behind a front of blank cassettes. Extremely nervous, he refuses to tell us his name. Then he relaxes: "My name is Cem", he mumbles. "But no photographs". His family moved to Istanbul three generations ago. "I was born in Moda and have always lived here", he tells us. "I attended the Armenian school, but my best friends are Muslims. Put two Armenians together and they end up fighting. That's how we are. Well, to tell the truth, I also fought with my wife, who is an Azeri Muslim, and so we separated. She raised our son in the mosque, but I take him to church as well".

The Armenians are the largest minority in Turkey, after the Kurds. They almost all live in Istanbul, where they came in the Sixties-Seventies because they did not feel very safe in the countryside. Here they have churches, schools and hospitals. There are around 60 thousand of them: very few compared to the period of the Ottoman Empire, when they were renowned as artisans and fine jewelers, silversmiths and traders. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, the seed of ethnic nationalism infected them too. Like the Greeks, Serbs, Romanians and Albanians, they began to dream of an Armenian nation. But, unlike the others, they were much more vulnerable, because they were in the heart of the empire. And they paid the price for it: in the last decade of the nineteenth century and in 1909 tens of thousands of them were killed. The reason why, at the outbreak of the First World War, many Armenians sided with the Russians against the Ottomans. Just as many fought in the ranks of the imperial army, but that was not enough: the entire community was accused of treason. In 1915, the government of Young Turks ordered the mass deportation of Armenians from eastern Anatolia. On April 24, the date of the Genocide, hundreds of Armenian politicians and intellectuals were arrested in Istanbul. Mass murders, torture and violence followed. Missionaries told of mass graves, rivers filled with bodies, deportations to concentration camps in the Syrian desert.
At least one million Armenians died in the span of a few years. But that genocide is still taboo in Turkey. Just to name it is to risk imprisonment. "When I heard about the murder of the Armenian journalist Hrant Dink last January, I thought that it is not easy to be Armenian today in Turkey", Cem goes on. "But then I looked at everyday life and I realized that nothing has changed in the relations between people".

Cem shuts the door of the shop and walks with us through the streets of Moda. He slips into a covered passageway, peers through the window of a shop with yellow walls and gestures for us to go in. Alì is the most popular barber in the quarter. His name reveals that he is an Alevite Muslim. That means that on Friday he does not go to the mosque, but makes up for it by spending the entire weekend in the cemevi: the community prayer and cultural house. He goes there with his wife, his children and 400 Alevites. They eat together, listen to the spiritual leader (dede) and pray, but in their own way, that is, with singing, dancing and the music of the saz, a kind of lute. The Alevites do not have to kneel to Allah five times a day. They do not impose the veil on their women and are not required to abstain from alcohol. They are descendants of Anatolia, of that plateau where the Turkomans, fleeing from the steppes of central Asia, converted to Islam, but continued to keep alive the shamanic practices of the eastern plains and Zoroastrianism, without denying the influence of Christianity. A thousand years have passed since then, but Turkish Islam has not forgotten that syncretism. Like the Shiites, the Alevites revere Alì, grandson of Mohammed. Like the followers of Zoroaster, they worship fire. They are opposed to religious hierarchy, like the Sufi mystics. And they do not eat rabbit meat, as the shamanic tradition of the nomads of the steppe dictates. There are 20 million of them in Turkey, one third of the population, with 2 million in Istanbul alone.

Alì's father was from Tunceli, in eastern Anatolia. "When nationalism began to spread through the multiethnic empire", he tells us, "our ancestors scattered in the mountains, because they were considered allies of the Persian Shiites. But one fine day Ataturk arrived with his banner of secularism, and for them he was a new Alì". But the situation soon changed: "Beginning in the Fifties, and even more so in the Eighties, nationalism sought support in a Sunni identity and for us it has gotten steadily worse. In 1974 I moved to Istanbul because I no longer felt safe". Four years later the dramatic persecutions against the Alevites on the border with Syria began. In 1993, in Sivas, 37 Alevite artists and intellectuals died in a fire caused by Sunni extremists in a hotel where they had gathered. Alì, who has meanwhile said goodbye to his Armenian client and is getting ready to trim a distinguished Sunni professor's hair, concludes: "Of course, fundamentalism is on the rise, but what country does not have its extremists?".

The point is: which radicalism will be victorious in Turkey? The conservative Islamism supported by the powerful tarikat, or the neo-nationalism that months ago legitimized the army to again have a say in political life? Perhaps only one thing could curb them both: Europe. Which however, exactly 30 years after Turkey put forth its request to enter it, appears increasingly remote.

Text by Annalisa Monfreda © Geo Italy, August 2007
Photographs by Paolo Verzone
English Translation by Anne Milano Appel