Tracking Turkey’s future through its present
Part One:From Ankara to Kars through Kayseri, Sivas and Erzurum
By Evangelos Aretaios
Originally published in “POLITIS” daily newspaper in Nicosia, Cyprus May 7th to 12th 2018.
Table of Contents
CHAPTER One | Ankara
CHAPTER Two | The train of history
CHAPTER Three | Kayseri
CHAPTER Four | Sivas
CHAPTER Five | Erzurum
CHAPTER Six | Kars
In this period, where for many of us Turkey looks like an “unknown country”, in this Turkey of old but also more new contradictions, underground dynamics and the great transition to a yet unknown direction, “POLITIS” newspaper made a journey from Ankara to Kars, on the border with Armenia.
Traveling by train across central and eastern Anatolia, the heart of conservative Turkey, stopping at Kayseri, Sivas and Erzurum, “P” will try to take the pulse of Anatolia and its citizens, and record the dynamics and changes that are in full swing in the run up to the June 24th 2018 election.
Chapter One ANKARA
The city covers all the hills around the hilltop of the Anitkabir monument, as if trying to drown it. Ataturk’s massive mausoleum had once dominated Ankara, but for years, skyscrapers, red roofed apartment blocks, huge shopping centers and large mosques have changed the horizon of the Turkish capital.
The tour starts at nine o’clock in the morning, I am already there at eight thirty and a queue of school children and many families has already formed in front of the entrance. It is already sweltering hot. Retailers are selling water, as well as ribbons printed with the phrase “Our Father we are at your trail”.
As soon as the gates open, we all begin to walk towards the complex of the Mausoleum. In the centre a massive square structure encases Ataturk’s tomb and is surrounded by a square building that is the museum. Anitkabir, built over nine years and completed in 1953, is immortalized in the cultural heritage of the “national architectural movement”, combining elements from the Seljuk, Ottoman architecture and, above all, the massive public architecture of interwar Europe.
The crowd around me, I immediately realize, is a microcosm of Turkish society: elegant, middle-aged and elderly, western-style style ladies, men with ties and suits, military men with uniforms, women with stylish colorful headscarves, others with more traditional dark headscarves and loose overcoats, men with collarless shirts that are worn by the very conservative Islamists. In the space of Ataturk’s tomb, silence and devotion.
A forgotten reform
The museum is divided into two main sections. In that of the “War of Independence”, what we Greeks call the Asia Minor Catastrophe, everyone stops in front of the immense imagery of battles, especially the battle of Sakkarya. In the second section, covering the era of the deep and radical reforms that Ataturk tried to impose in order to modernize the then new Turkey, pause the western style ladies and their husbands, and students gather to listen to their teachers.
“For me, Anitkabir is a symbol of independence, Atatürk is our father. He gave us independence, he sent all our enemies to the sea,” says a forty-year-old with a heavy accent who came to the Mausoleum with his headscarved wife, his daughter and son. The “Reforms” section was walked through very quickly.
“For conservative Islamists, Atatürk is the great national hero, the one who made Turkey an independent state and not the social reformer. Most believe that the pressure on Islam and the conservatives by the Western-style elite began with Inonu, and they even accused the Kemalists of using Atatürk’s name to serve their own social and political interests” a friend very close to AKP tells me with inside knowledge of how its followers think.
In one of the Mausoleum sculptures, I read in a guide, a weak hand is depicted with a thin torch, passing fire into a sturdy hand holding a torch with a great flame. It symbolizes, according to the guide, the weak Ottoman Empire and the mighty Turkey that took a flame but strengthened it. Together with many of the reforms of the first period of Atatürk, from the imposition of the hat and the abolition of the fez until the abolition of the Caliphate, the Kemalist conception was quite clear: the Ottoman Empire was in a deep and ontological decline and every aspect of its heritage should be minimized. The new Turkey would have to cut down almost any ties. Changing the language and enforcing the Latin alphabet was perhaps the most radical rupture.
In the taxi on the way to the center, the driver tells me proudly that he is an “Erdoganist” and that many games are being played on the back of Turkey because the country has started to become strong again, like the Ottoman Empire. And he assured me, without being asked, that Turkey will resist all its enemies to the end.
A day before, a well-known islamist intellectual writing for the pro-government newspaper “Yeni Safak” published a much-read article explaining that the Ottoman Empire’s coexistence and internal social peace model should basically be the model of the future for all mankind.
“Turkey is deep in a transition period that started already in 2010 with the referendum and has reached a turning point today. It is perhaps the country’s second historical transition period, the first one being the establishment of the Republic. After Gezi and the June 2015 elections, the regime is in a mode to control the social dynamics on the basis of society, to change the cultural model by cultivating a historical revivalism, bringing back a distorted image of the Ottoman Empire, “says one intellectual while drinking tea at one of Ankara’s leftist cafes.
“But the problem is not only the Kemalists and the opposition who are trying abruptly to bend bridges to Islam and are constantly fueling nationalism. What is happening in Turkey, and perhaps will judge the future of the country and it’s society, along with the outcome of the Kurdish question, is that the new generations of educated conservative Islamists are changing. They resist - consciously or unconsciously - attempts to impose conservatism, a style of life that no longer suits them. And even more than the men, young women resist, those who we, the leftists and the foreigners put in boxes as “Islamic women with a headscarf.
All these youngsters who grew up in the early years of the AKP, who tasted the liberties and social status they never had with Kemalism, are educated, well traveled and want another type of lifestyle. And above all they want social peace and prosperity, not polarization. Without this necessarily meaning that neo-nationalism does not penetrate them, too, as horizontally and vertically as the whole of Turkish society, without this necessarily translating directly into a change of electoral behavior. But a lot is happening beneath the surface and the fermentations are unknown. Society has its own dynamics. And don’t look only in Istanbul and Ankara. What is going on in Anatolia for example? “
Chapter two THE TRAIN OF HISTORY
The green plains of central Anatolia are spreading around the train. Ankara is well behind us and the metallic sound of the wagons that pass over the rails is slow and reassuring.
The train, the “South Express”, crosses almost half of central Anatolia, then heads south to Mesopotamia, arriving in Diyarbakir in southeast Turkey.
The route I am going to take is the “Eastern Express”, which I will officially board in two days, crossing the entire central Anatolia from Ankara to Kars on the border with Armenia. A total of 1310 kilometers into the heart of Turkey.
The route to my first stop, Kayseri, Caesarea, was inaugurated in 1927 by Kemal Ataturk himself. As with the last true Sultan, Abdulhamit II, whom Tayyip Erdogan and his followers admire and eagerly adore, Mustafa Kemal also attached tremendous importance to the development of a railway network in the country.
The reasons were not exactly the same. Abdulhamit II, who was deeply reactionary, wanted the railroad within the framework of the alliance that had already begun with the new Germany of the Kaiser. From Berlin, the Kaiser envisioned a Germany that would spread its influence deep into the Middle East, Persia and India to offset the strength of the British Empire. The vision of Kaiser and his ideologues was an enormous railroad that would link Berlin to Baghdad. And that would carry troops, commodities, and later, just before the onset of World War I, it would also carry the ideas of Islamic jihad against the “imperialists” of the British and the French, which was essentially an idea of the German war propaganda ideologues.
Abdulhamit saw the alliance with Germany as a golden opportunity to offset the overwhelming influence of the English and the French on its already decaying empire, but also the ability through an advanced rail network to strengthen its central control over the Empire’s territory. As he did with the huge telegraph network he developed.
Abdulhamit was not the first Sultan to see the railroad as a political tool. The first railway line in the Ottoman Empire was inaugurated in 1856, the year of the second and most significant wave of profound reforms to modernize the Empire, the famous Tanzimat period. It was a small line, 130 kilometers from Izmir to Aydin. But with Abdulhamit, the railways became a tool of foreign policy, strengthening the control of the central state.
Kemal Ataturk was also a great fan of the railways. For Kemal and all his Western-style positivists, the railroad was progress, it was one of the main ways to spread the political and social reforms that Ankara decreed into the Turkish countryside. It was one of the great symbols and tools of the Kemalist revolution and economic development that he envisioned, along with the creation of a Turkish bourgeoisie in the towns of the province and especially of Anatolia. It was also a symbol of the new sovereignty because, unlike the Ottoman Empire that had granted the construction and exploitation of the railways to foreigners -Germans, French, British - the Kemalist Republic of Turkey had absolute dominance and control of the state-owned Turkish railway company.
With the train symbolizing the Kemalist Revolution and the domination of the Western-style Kemalists, conservative Muslims developed for decades an ideological rejection of the trains, which was exacerbated by the entirely Western-style restaurants in the stations and trains serving alcohol, and assisted by the development of the huge bus transport network.
Nonetheless, in the Turkish provinces, prior to the development of the road network and buses, the population traveled by train when they had to travel and many were working on the railways.
However, in recent years, a very important semantic and ideological mutation has been noted, as Islamists not only increasingly use trains but the Turkish government under AKP has embarked on an ambitious and successful plan to develop and modernize the rail network with high-speed trains crossing Turkey with international connections and agreements reaching up to China.
“As happened on many fronts with AKP coming to power, the Islamists felt a new self-confidence towards modernization, its tools and symbols which they successfully re-appropriate” says an academic who is concerned with the sociology of Islam in Turkey.
The fight with the Gulen movement
All this importance given by the AKP to the railway, shows that its economic growth model has taken place in the context of globalization and the modernization of transport. Since 2002, governments have devoted particular attention to major transport infrastructure projects, radically changing the major cities, where over fifteen years ago mass transport was still at an almost primitive level, but also the road network, the trains and Turkish Airlines, which today are among the best in the world.
“Rail policies, coupled with the impressive increase in the number of conservative Islamists using the rail network, show very clearly how Islamists now feel that they own the state, that this state is theirs. For decades, since the founding of the Republic, the Kemalist state, until the rise of AKP to power, the state had remained foreign to them and sometimes hostile, despite any opportunistic political alliances made by Islamic parties before the AKP for government coalitions with parties of the Kemalic Establishment,” says the academic.
Islamists now believe that their Turkish state belongs to them, that it is no longer foreign or hostile. And that they are not the second class citizens of a state where Western-style officials dominate, looking down at them contemptuously, as was their perception in the decades before. And one of the reasons why the struggle with Fethullah Gulen’s movement was and remains so ruthless is precisely because the control of the state, which for Islamists today has almost metaphysical dimensions, is jeopardized.
The depth of changes in modern Turkey, where Islamists are appropriating and re-inventing, are symbolically emerging from the railways. Alcohol is no longer served and some lines have become symbols of the new order of things in Turkey, for example the high-speed train line between Istanbul and Ankara, which was an unfulfilled dream of all previous governments. But perhaps even more so is the growing trend of the last two years of travelling on the “East Express”.
Thousands of young people, among them conservative young men and women with headscarves, make the journey from Ankara to Kars with the East Express to cross the heart of Anatolia, the heart of their country and their identity, and experience this journey, which for them is also a new opportunity for socialization and communication. Something that, for their parents, and even more so for their grandparents, would be not only unthinkable but also ideologically and psychologically reckless. Today, the major Islamic newspapers, from the traditionally pro-government and “elitist” Yeni Safak to the most popular and tough “Yeni Akit”, make special tributes to the “Eastern Express” route, becoming a must-have experience for all young Islamists.
Mount Erciyes, which overlooks Kayseri, now appears on the horizon, with its snow glowing under the afternoon sun. Anatolia, an integral part of the turkish identity, spreads around us. With its thousand-year history, the mosaic of the old populations, which after the First World War and later the Lausanne Treaty are virtually no longer here, the flame that Kemal Ataturk sparked here for his modernizing revolution for a new then Turkey, its Muslim brotherhoods, its conservatism, its industries, its universities, its old and new generations.
In the seats next to me are two girls who boarded the train with me and are also going to Kayseri. One of them wears a headscarf, a shirt not too wide and torn jeans as fashion demands. Her girlfriend is not wearing a headscarf, her jeans are tight and her blouse leaves her shoulders and bust in view. They are students at the University of Kayseri. Both come from very conservative families, one from Ankara and the other from a small town west of the capital. They take out small bags and spend a lot of time applying makeup, lipstick and fixing their hair in front of their mobile phone screens. As soon as the train enters Kayseri Station, a beautiful fragrance spreads in the wagon’s corridor just before the doors open.
Chapter Three KAYSERI
Two young women cross the central square of Kayseri in front of us. One is wearing tight fitting black trousers and a black shirt accentuating the lines of her figure , her dark hair waving. The other wears a headscarf, elegant heels and her clothes are almost as tight on her body as her dark-haired friends.
“Eight years ago there was no chance of seeing this, girls were not walking around like this. This started happening only in recent years. Also with the period of Ramadan and fasting. A few years ago, all restaurants, cafes, everything were closed during the hours of fasting and no one dared to eat or smoke on the street. Now more restaurants and cafes are open. Kayseri has changed a lot and is constantly changing. Yes, it remains a conservative city, but what conservatism means today has changed. “
We sit in a café on the main square with a friend of mine, born and raised in the city, who knows and has been recording its social dynamics for years.
Off the square lies the labyrinth of Kayseri’s old covered marketplace with alleys smelling of freshly cut pasturma, the sound of heavy folk songs that speak of unfulfilled love, and fabrics, clothes, tobacco and jewellery. In more than half of the shops, which are often only a few square meters chiseled into the old gray-brown stones of the market, the sellers are female. An unusual image in these areas a few years ago, women vendors in the so strictly conservative and male world of covered markets and micro-entrepreneurs. Today, however, it is routine for the inhabitants of the city.
The covered market is the economic and social heart of the cities of Anatolia but in the last twenty years in some cities, with Kayseri being one of the most emblematic, industry and international trade have completely changed the economic and political dynamics.
Kayseri is the city symbol of the Turkish Islamic social and economic mutation that has changed the political and social facts of Turkey over the past two, maybe more, decades. A mutation that is still in full swing, with this characteristic underground and slow but unstoppable pace of modernizing dynamics in conservative societies.
The profound changes in the way Islamic religious leaders and intellectuals in Turkey have seen the world and their place in it have laid the groundwork for this silent revolution since the 1950s. The basic preaching of Islamic leader Mehmed Zahid Kotku was that Islamists need to acquire technological knowledge, a growing economy and industrialization as only in these ways will they be able to shake off the kemalist yoke within the country and gain true independence and superiority towards the West. The iconic motto of Kotku was “bir lokma, bir hikra, bir Maza”: “what man needs is a piece of food, a piece of clothing and a Mazda,” with Mazda representing technology and industrial development. Kotku, who was deeply anti-Western, was the ideological inspirer of Turgut Ozal, who brought the liberal economic revolution to Turkey after the coup of Evren and the Islamic entrepreneurs who flourished in Anatolia with Kayseri as the centre, the so-called “ Tigers of Anatolia “.
In 2005, when Turkey was still in the first round of AKP and relations with the EU and the West were almost like being in love and extremely promising, the “European Initiative for Stability” had drawn up a flagship report then, comparing the “Tigers of Europe Anatolia “with the Calvinists.
“A new form of Islam is emerging here, a form that is in favor of entrepreneurship and the free market and is called Islamic Calvinism,” the report then wrote.
These businessmen had already been strengthened before the rise of AKP to power and were essentially one of the most important social and economic dynamics behind the break-up of the Islamic movement in early 2000 and the emergence of AKP as the moderate and modernizing wing which eventually prevailed.
The “Anatolian Tigers”
The “Anatolian Tigers” were open to the West, with the volume of trade and cooperation far outpacing all other regions and, unlike the old Anatolian economic elites, such as the Sabanci family from Kayseri who settled in Istanbul, they stayed in their city, invested there, preserved and strengthened their Islamic identity, an identity drawn from Anatolia and not from the Western-style Kemalism.
However, together with “Mazda” - technology - but mainly with prosperity, education, access to power and the state in recent years and the opening up to the world, conservatism - social Islamism - is changing, so the new generations of conservatives now want to live in the same way as their peers in the West.
The new generations
In a city like Kayseri with about a hundred thousand students from all over Turkey, the dynamics of changes are even faster and the ideological and social fault-lines between “Islamists” and “Kemalists” amongst the new generations have begun to withdraw in practice, in everyday life. Some scholars speak of “an inward secularization of Islam” in Turkey. And this, despite the increasingly persistent efforts of the AKP and the Turkish President to keep these dividing lines, encourage deep polarization and create an Islamic “religious generation”, as Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly stated.
In the evening, some friends take me to the area that has turned into a trendy neighborhood for Kayseri’s youngsters, mainly students but not only. The area is called “Ottoman houses”, which are old armenian manor houses, restored tastefully to coffee places and cozy venues where musicians, young people and many Alevites living in Kayseri and in the region hang out.
The alleys are full of people, boys and girls, with and without headscarves, and many couples with girls wearing headscarves and elegant, tight fitting clothes.
“Most of the girls you see are lying to their parents, saying that they are with their girl friends, doing work for the university and other excuses.So that they can be with their boyfriends, to go out and live like all young people in Europe, in the West. And they even reach sexual inter course before marriage, not all them of course but more than you can imagine. Young people from different social and political backgrounds are becoming more and more connected. And they are tired of the polarization and tension that the power is so craftily trying to feed them “, my friend in Kayseri tells me.
“There are many conservative families today in Kayseri but also in all of Turkey who do not want to send their children to religious schools,the Imam Hatip, which the government is proliferating at a crazy rate to build this ‘religious generation’. They know that the standard is not good and that their children will have even more difficulties going to university and finding a job.“
One day later, around the central square of Kayseri, I speak with a headscarved student. “I want to live free, that does not mean I’m immoral or want to do unethical things. But I want to be able to choose, to work, to go out with friends, to fall in love. I respect Tayyip Erdogan, he is a great leader for us, gave us the opportunity to go to universities, have a good economic situation,he built infrastructure,he made Turkey a country with its own policy. But I do not want anyone to tell me how to live my own life. And I want tranquility and peace “she says with a confident smile.
Today, in Kayseri, where the AKP is around 65%, the city has four industrial zones and thousands of workers.However, the state of the economy has provoked a lot of worry over the last period. Talking with traders in the closed market, their concern for the economy is obvious, although they do not want to open up much.
“Some believe that foreigners are the ones to blame for the economy, as the official narrative of the government and Tayyip Erdogan are trying to convince people, whilst others, far from few, believe that the policy of tension with the outside world has caused great problems in their financial activities. Without saying it openly, there are many who do not even want the war in Syria because they see that it indirectly affects the economy“says one of my acquaintances who knows Kayseri.
The day I walk in the center of the city, Tayyip Erdogan is also in Kayseri to inaugurate a hospital, obviously part of the election campaign.As its political opponents here say, the hospital is not completely ready and many residents are dissatisfied because they say it’s too far from the center.
Speaking to a crowd that seemed to be not as big as expected, he accused of hypocrisy those who are thinking of voting for him in the presidential election but not voting for AKP in the parliamentary election, using a clearly Islamic theological term that has bothered many of his Islamic voters.
“ Tayyip Erdogan will be elected President but the possibility of AKP not having the majority in the National Assembly is far from remote, or perhaps it will be the last elections that the AKP will have a marginal majority with MHP. There is an obvious fatigue in society, in some circles of conservatives, educated young people,we see it here in Kayseri.Today, however, they have no choice, no other alternative, but tomorrow who knows ... “, says my friend.
Tayyip Erdogan and party activists can control a lot, they can throw their shadow almost everywhere. But it seems they cannot control the underground dynamics that are in full swing between conservative young people, even in the heart of Anatolia.
These are new generations which became the way they are today thanks to what AKP did in the first years of its power, and which are now in the midst of an inevitable search for a new, hybrid identity away from imposed divisions and easy cliché.
Chapter four SIVAS
Our train traverses Central Anatolia at a pace resembling another, past era. Night has fallen and the villages and the towns are nothing but small signs in the old stations and flickering light amid the darkness. On the train many passengers are now dozing off, others are in the buffet car for food, but mainly for tea.
I am talking with three young students who are returning to their university in Erzurum, with twelve to fifteen hours of travel still ahead. They are all from smaller, provincial cities of Anatolia and are studying to become teachers. They tell me that the system of education is going from bad to worse because in recent years there are constant unsettled changes. And they fear that the spread of the Islamic religious schools will create even more problems. They have not traveled out of Turkey, they would like to go to Europe to visit but not to live.They like Turkey, they like to be close to their families, although they know that as teachers they will find themselves in different corners of their country. They know about ancient Greece, and when I ask them if there can be a war between Greece and Turkey they laugh with a little surprise and they tell me that it can happen only if the “foreigners” put us up to it. They don’t like Tayyip Erdogan, he is ubiquitous and is involved in everything, they tell me, he keeps the world in tension and gathers power by bypassing the opposition and the National Assembly. The two of them are thinking of voting for Meral Aksener’s Good Party, but they do not seem too excited, the third does not know.
I arrive in Sivas, Sebasteia, past eleven in the evening. The first train arrived here in 1930. My train was delayed. For the first time in this city, coming out of the station I feel nervously alert. My friends in Istanbul had told me to watch out, without telling me what to watch out for. In my mind, as in the minds of most Western secularist Turks of Western Turkey, Sivas is the city where, in July 1993, thirty-seven Alevi intellectuals were burnt alive when an angry mob of dozens of hundreds of Sunnis attacked their hotel. A reaction to the presence of the Turkish intellectual Aziz Nesin, who had translated Salman Rushdi’s “Satanic Verses” at a conference. A friend of mine, whose husband is from here, told me in Istanbul not to worry at all and had put me in contact with a friend of theirs, a local personality.
But that time, all these dark thoughts of the slaughter, and what I heard from most of my friends in Istanbul, provoked in me a strong sense of paranoia that I must cross an unknown city where extremes, cruel fundamentalism and nationalism dominate.
I take a few deep breaths and walk out of the station to find a taxi to take me to the hotel. The station is not far from the center, a straight line essentially, as in almost all the cities of Anatolia. Half past eleven, the streets are full of people, men, women, young couples hand in hand, lights everywhere, shop windows. The central square with the historical building of the Sivas Congress in 1919, where Kemal started the Independence Struggle, is illuminated and beautiful. Before I get to the hotel, I feel already relaxed. Things, once again, are not as we believe them to be and not as we believe them to be from Istanbul.
“ For many, Sivas is interwoven with the 1993 massacre, but this is not the case. It was something foreign to us, something we still regret even though it didn’t come from us. Who knows which centres of power wanted to make this provocation. Sivas has a great symbolic significance for Turkey, as it is here that the foundations of our struggle for independence and democracy have been established, “ a local man of influence tells me as we drink tea at his office, truthfully reproducing the predominant version of what was done at the time.
“There is no tension or polarization here, Anatolia’s culture is alien to them, we are hospitable, and if you go out on the square now you will see electoral kiosks of almost all parties. The culture of Anatolia is conservative, yes. We are not like the West, we are modernizing but we preserve our traditions and our roots . We are a mosaic of different peoples and cultures. “
He says the word “mosaic” with a broad and truly honest smile but in my mind comes a sentence that is attributed today to Alparslan Turkes, the founder of the Gray Wolves who once said in a TV show about Anatolia: “What mosaic? Marble, it is marble. “
“We are very similar to the Greeks, do not look at what is happening now, both sides are doing tricks to one another, whatever hostility there is now is temporary, we have no problem with Greece and the Greeks,” my interlocutor says.
He doesn’t have the same view however concerning Europe and the US. “The West played with us and is still playing”. “We want to get closer to Europe,” he says to me without being too convinced and continues: “Europe is the one that does not want us”.
At the office of another important man in Sivas, where the AKP took 68.7% in the last election, we are again drinking tea and he is explaining to me that Europe does not want Turkey mainly because of religion. And that Sivas is a conservative city but this conservatism is neither retrograde nor hard-lined, local society is changing, young people are changing.Levels of nationalism in Turkey are not higher than in Europe and, above all, it is not a hard-pressed, fixed nationalism, it has to do with the conditions and challenges facing the country today, he tells me. He is a follower of Tayyip Erdogan and tells me with a discreet pride that when he was studying in the Netherlands he worked as a student and had a Greek boss.
The threat from “foreign enforcement”
Kemal Atatürk stayed almost three months in Sivas in 1919, when the great national conference took place, the Sivas Congress, in September 1919, where politicians, intellectuals, military and religious leaders from all over Turkey participated.
In one of the halls of the old building that was then a school, where the conference was held, with the wooden parquet and the colorful decorations on the ceilings, is an impressive map of the time. With the locations of foreign powers and the dates of their occupation in almost all of its territory. The word “occupation” is everywhere on the map. The struggle for independence was fundamentally decided at the Sivas Congress and the Erzurum Convention.At that time it seemed something almost impossible, almost “crazy”. This is also where the decisions were made that led to the National Pact that set the borders of the new Republic of Turkey. Anatolia was the heart of the Turkish struggle, where everything began for the Turks, and this has been deeply engraved in the collective memory of its inhabitants.
Already since the Ottoman Empire, but mainly after the Turkish struggle for Independence, the “foreign powers” have taken almost fantastical dimensions for the Turks and today it is very easy to blame the “foreign powers”for almost everything that goes wrong in the country . With the most dangerous “foreign power” now for Turkey being the US.
My friend’s meek and courteous acquaintance who spends some time with me is an AKP supporter. He is sincerely convinced that precisely because Turkey under Tayyip Erdogan’s government has become a country with its own policy, the US does not want that.
The same view holds even for those who think that Tayyip Erdogan has accumulated excessive powers and does not support it.
“The United States and Britain, which is the US’s Trojan Horse in Europe, do not want Turkey to join the EU,” says a wealthy merchant who resents AKP’s divergence from its original dynamics and policies to bring Turkey closer to the West.
“ We have not yet decided with whom we want to be. With the East? With the West? Somewhere in the middle? However, the West is not honest with us, it supports the PKK and other forces and organizations against Turkey. “ Again, however, Greece is not included in this “West”. “We are neighbors, we look alike.”
Secret rendezvous and Erdogan
In one of Sivas’ three cinemas, some young couples are hiding in the corners of the waiting room. Boys with girls wearing headscarves. I am approaching a young man not more than twenty years old sitting next to his girlfriend, a girl with a serene face wearing a fine headscarf.
“ Our parents know that we are together,” he tells me not very convincingly and continues straight away: “We do not do anything wrong, we just go to the cinema, nothing else. It is difficult here in Sivas for such things, but I would not want to be in Istanbul, where they are drinking alcohol, going out at night. It’s not easy for us here, but these secret rendezvous have a lot of sweetness, “ he says shyly.
I ask him about the elections, he will vote for the first time. “My vote is given: To Tayyip Erdogan, he is the only leader who resists foreign forces,” he says with confidence, and the girl next to him shakes her head condescendingly.
Walking in the streets of the centre, full of people, there is a strange feeling of regularity, smoothness.
In the central square, opposite the building of the Congress, is the “mosque with the double minarets”, an architectural masterpiece of the Seljuk period. The Seljuk minarets are lower than those of the Ottomans, always giving a more human dimension to their mosques. Opposite the mosque is an old stone market.
Young people, couples, coffees, teas. Next to me is a group of young women who just graduated from the anthropology faculty at the university here. Short skirts, tops with low necklines, high heels, makeup.
“In some neighborhoods, it is difficult to get around like that, we are harassed, men are talking to us. But in the center it’s okay. Maybe some men will try to talk to us, “ says a beautiful brunette, smiling.
On the other side of the coffee shop sit two girls with elegant headscarves and glamorous makeup. They talk about friends and family, take selfies, gossip and make plans of what they will do later.
In the evening, it is drizzling but the people are still on the streets. I am with a group of leftist students in a hangout with old cinema posters, paintings, chess boards on a few tables, and books and magazines about Marx, Communism and the left. Among the people are two ladies wearing headscarves.
“ We have AKP friends, young people like us. We talk about politics, we fight sometimes but we are friends. Nor do they have a problem with us or we with them. We are real friends. And this is promising for the country. But today we can’t be sure that we will not see violence and weapons on the streets at some point. Not from these friends or others like them, no, they are OK people. But from other elements, from nationalists, extremists, who knows, “ says a young student.
Eleven in the evening. I’m trying to sleep as the train to my next destination, Erzurum, leaves at four o’clock at dawn. But I don’t fall asleep easily. From somewhere out on the street, a coffee place probably, I can hear the sound of Turkish and English rock music until late.
Chapter five ERZURUM
The river Kizilirmak, the red river, “Alys” in antiquity, has been accompanying my train for hours. The route from Sivas to Erzurum, the Byzantine Theodosioupolis, is perhaps the most beautiful rail route of Turkey.
The river, at times on the left, at times on the right of the train, turns yellow, greenish, and sometimes it looks like a mirror between the steep cliffs as it passes slowly between the green valleys.
Villages with houses with aluminum roofs, mud, children waving at the train. The route from Sivas to Erzurum is officially ten hours but we have already left two hours late and on the way at times the train moves so slowly as if it does not want to disturb the peace of nature and the life of the small villages and towns.
After Erzincan, we slowly begin to climb high. We leave behind central Anatolia for eastern Anatolia and the Caucasus. The first train arrived in Erzurum in 1939, the construction of the lines was becoming more and more difficult then around Kizilirmak due to the gradual increase in altitude.
At four o’clock in the afternoon, the train passes from Askale, a small town about two hours from Erzurum. We stay there for a long time because a boy tried to cross the tracks and was hit by the train. Luckily, as the passengers tell me after talking to local residents, he was only injured and was taken straight to the local hospital. The image of his mother or of his older sister who had fallen over him as the boy lay on the ground, begging him in pain to wake up and not to die, left everyone in the wagon frozen.
Waiting in the immobilized train, in my mind came what I had previously read about the hardships suffered by the Rums, Armenians, and Jews in the forced labor camp that operated in Askale from 1942 to 1943. The non-Muslims ho could not pay the terrible and unfair Property Tax (Varlik Vergisi) imposed in 1941, were sent to forced labor. In Askale, in the icy winter of 1942-43, young and old convicts cleared the area’s road network. According to historical research data, twenty people, mostly elderly, died in Askale.
With a shadow falling over me from the woman’s supplications to her boy not to die and from the images of forced labor in Askale seventy years ago, the train starts again with Erzurum as the next destination.
The first time I had been in Erzurum was in 1996, the Kurdish conflict was still on the rise, the emergency law and the curfew after a certain time in the evening were in force. I only remembered some old buildings and mosques and a city almost abandoned. My friends from Istanbul who had gone to Erzurum in the middle of the first decade of 2000 had described a city that is almost backward, hard nationalistic and Islamist.
I get off at the station after night has fallen.
When I reach the main square I do not believe what I’m seeing. Lights everywhere, cars, people on the streets, fashionable shops full of customers, men, women, young ladies uncovered or with headscarves, young people who make incredible manouvres with roller skates and skateboards on the steps of the spacious square next to an old Ottoman mosque. Young people speaking loudly, a shopping center on the top of the square, and underneath it signs in colored neon and small entertainment centers.
I sit in the middle of the square and stare at all the bustle and it takes time to get used to the spectacle.
“ Erzurum is a conservative place but it is changing. With the students, we have about one hundred thousand, and with winter skiing the city has changed, “ says my friend in Erzurum. Prior to the AKP, Erzurum voted for the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) and the Islamic Welfare Party of Necmetin Erbakan. In the last AKP elections he received 68.1% and in the vote of 2017 the “yes” received 74.5%. Following the MHP, the pro-Kurdish People’s Party (HDP) comes third, as in some Erzurum areas there are significant Kurdish floods.
My friend is a thirty-five-year-old, belongs to the AKP, is married, with two children. We eat in a downtown restaurant, a delicious kebab of Erzurum is on the table in front of me.
“ There are still some things that remain as they used to be, for example during the Ramadan fast, no one eats, neither drinks nor smokes on the street. Old men before ate in one room and women in another room. Now some things like these are not happening in the city anymore. But we are still conservative. “
He tells me that women-men relations in younger generations, like his own and even younger ones, have become easier, but they remain within the bounds of morality.
We talk about Islam and he tells me that Islam is both culture and religion, but that above all it is every person’s morality, personal. He has atheist friends doing sports together and he has no problem with that.
“ Because I love them, I would like that they find the way to Allah as I have found him, but I do not want to try to impose anything,” he says calmly.
“ What matters is what is happening within us. It does not matter to pray five times a day every day and to show that you are a Muslim outside, what is happening in you, how much do you follow the morals of Islam? “
The new generations of AKP followers are far from the older generations of political Islamist activists, and this allows them to manage modernity in a totally different way, remaining conservative, without this signifying that they are against change. Conservatism for these generations means a slower pace of change that has to be done within a “moral” context, but this morality is also constantly changing.
My friend wears a red shirt and a sleeveless jacket that makes him look like a Canadian lumberjack, he is eating with carefully, delicately. He skis, like almost all the new generations of Erzurum, has traveled to China, Bulgaria, Georgia and other countries in the region, and this summer he wants to travel with his family to Europe.
“ My son is ten years old and has started English and I want to visit and explore Europe and practice English.”
We leave the restaurant. Past ten and the streets are still full of people who are walking idly, seeming to enjoy the cold night. We are at one thousand eight hundred meters altitude and the temperature is eight degrees celsius. We pass a large monument, a plaque of red stone on which very cruel scenes of the last Russian-Turkish war in the First World War have been carved. Since 1821 and the then Turkish-Persian war until 1918, Erzurum has been a battlefield between three empires, but mainly between the Ottoman Empire and Tsarist Russia, which occupied the city for a short while and was able to build some buildings that still exist. After World War II and during the Cold War, when Turkey was closely linked to the Atlantic Alliance axis, Erzurum’s NATO code was “the Rock” because it was the last major NATO fortress before the Soviet Union.
“ NATO is a US marionette that now, instead of supporting Turkey, is supporting the terrorists of PKK and PYD in Syria. It is the first time that Turkey has its own policy, its own gravity in the world and the region, “says a thirty-year-old merchant in the old stone market of Tesbih selling jewels that come from a beautiful black stone only found in Erzurum.
The covered market is almost empty. “ With the dollar going up, people buy less.”
“ Tayyip Erdogan is the best leader because he has a vision, changed Turkey and changed the country’s position in the world.”
“ I am not nationalist, nationalism is something introverted, it excludes all else, I am a patriot, but above all I am a statist. I am referring to a state that includes all its citizens, independent of religion and nationality. As it is in the US, where there are dozens of different ethnicities but everyone says they are Americans,” he says. This gradual but clear identification of AKP executives and voters with the state is one of the most catalytic mutations in Turkey, and especially in Anatolia, where conservatism is embedded within the state.
My friend in Erzurum tells me something similar when we talk about nationalism. He explains to me that he is not a nationalist or an Islamist, I he is a patriot. And he tells me that the alliance between the Party of Nationalist Action (MPH) and the AKP began essentially on the night of July 15th, the night of the attempted coup, and is continuing to save the state and the country. And he is critical of the other parties as he regards it their obligation to support the salvation of the state.
AKP will not lose
I ask him what will happen if the AKP loses the election. He tells me that he does not believe this will happen. However, if it loses it will move to the opposition, but the new government should respect them as they respect the opposition.
“ One may be against AKP and Tayyip Erdogan, that is democracy. But if there is a bad intention or intent to harm the state and the country then it all changes. If criticism does not have a good intention then there is a threat to the state and the country and shouldn’t be tolerated. For example, Wikipedia and social media have been banned in Turkey. I am not in favor of the bans, but if there is a bad intention or a risk for the state then yes, let it be forbidden. “
This view is deeply rooted in AKP fans. Like the honest conviction that the Gülen movement, FETO, is still the greatest risk to the country and the state. And that the emergency law that allows the authorities to investigate all citizens and act accordingly and very drastically and quickly is still necessary.
“ FETO is like cancer and it has not yet been cleansed so the fight against it must continue. The attempted coup d’état has not yet ended, the country is still threatened. Only Tayyip Erdogan and the AKP can now face this danger against the country. And if there is a risk against the state and my country I will go out on the streets,“ my friend in Erzurum says.
“ The state is doing well and controlling everybody, I have checked and I am sure. The biggest threat to Turkey is FETO and it is also used by foreign powers. I am sure that the reason Greece will not return the eight coup d’état perpetrators is because it is pressured by the US not to do so. I feel anger with Greece but not hostility. We are very much alike, we are not enemies. “
Late in the evening we sit in a modern hotel complex in the ski resort of Erzurum. Two thousand meters altitude, one of the world’s largest slopes, thirteen kilometers in length.
“ Erzurum has had AKP mayors for fourteen years and has changed very much, the city is growing ” my friend says proudly.
We drink tea and below us the city spreads like an embroidery of lights between the dark plains. In the room of another hotel, I look out of the window, a bride and groom are dancing rhythmically with their friends, the the guests cheering with joy.
Chapter Six KARS
I am in the midst of light and darkness. The train is deeply into a tunnel penetrating the rock, and then it quickly emerges, only to enter another. Rocky mountains and a sky with gray clouds. I’m on the last East Express route, from Erzurum to Kars. In the plain after the tunnels, the town of Sarikamis opens out in front of us. The rail connection of one hundred and seventy kilometers between Sarikamis and Erzurum was completed in 1918. The train stops at the station for a while. It’s drizzling.
The town of Sarikamis had a dark role in Turkish history, even though the official historiography has heroicized it. In the winter of 1914-1915, about sixty to eighty thousand Ottoman soldiers from an army of ninety thousand died, most of the cold, in one of the most hurriedly organized military operations in history.
The nationalist and arrogant, Enver Pasha, one of the three leaders of the Committee of the Union and Progress, who then ruled the Ottoman Empire, had chosen to hit en masse the Tsarist army in the region. He needed internal legitimacy, was under unbearable pressure, and insisted on leading this operation, defying the intense warning of German General Linn von Sänder, who was Germany’s main military advisor and strategist in the Ottoman Empire within the alliance with the Kaiser. The Allahuekber mountains, where the long-running expedition took place, became the frozen grave of thousands of Ottoman soldiers due to the incompetence of Enver Pasha, who immediately accused the Armenian population of the region of wreaking havoc. Thus giving one of the main reasons for the Armenian genocide of 1915.
The train embarks on the journey to Kars without hurry. Endless green plains, with no trace of human life. The construction of the rail connection, the sixty kilometers from Sarikamis to Kars, began in 1910 by the Russian Railways and was completed in 1913.
After the Russian-Turkish war of 1877-78, Kars and the region was passed on to Tsarist Russia and called a province, Oblest, of Kars. It was to remain under Russian domination until 1920 when it was retaken by the Turks, after a brief period in 1919, when Kars was included in the then Armenian Republic.
The 1921 Kars Treaty gave Kars to Turkey, but Stalin would later try to challenge it, without success.
Kars was one of the most important cities and areas of the Armenians, but it also had a major Greek Pontus element, as thousands of Pontians had migrated there during the Russian domination, together with the Armenians and the Pontians, Kurds, Turks and other local and former ethnicities and tribes and, from the beginning of the Soviet Union, but mainly after its collapse, a significant Azerbaijany community.
A different ambience
I reach the city center in the evening. There is a smell of wood burning in stoves and fireplaces, it’s cold, I put on my jacket. The asphalt on the roads is worn and cracked. The houses are low, many people stand on the wide sidewalks and shops are open. It is a rather different atmosphere than in the previous cities of my trip. Fewer street lights, people more simply dressed, a lot of the shops seem to me a little old-fashioned. I leave my backpack at the hotel and go back on the streets.
On one of the city’s main streets, among old tiny cafes and kebab shops, built for vendors and farmers coming everyday to Kars to sell their crops, cheeses and meats, I discover a cafe-restaurant that could easily have been in a fashionable neighborhood of Istanbul, Brussels or London. With modern and tasteful design, with youngsters of all styles, its main specialty is milk based cocktails without alcohol. With the number of university students bringing the local population to about eighty thousand, I will discover in the next few days that there are many such places in Kars.
I return to the hotel. It’s past ten o’clock and I’m tired. Before I go to my room, I meet a young city resident who is deeply religious, he is very cordial and belongs to a very important Muslim brotherhood. We talk until after midnight about the tradition of Islamic mysticism, sufism, the Koran, the Prophet, and how, as he says, Turkey has to become a more Islamic country and lead the Islamic world.
I wake up very early in the morning to the sound of a heavy Turkish folk song blaring from a house in the neighborhood. I walk back into the streets. The sun is lurking just behind the clouds. I still need to wear my coat. The city is at one thousand eight hundred meters altitude and in the winter the temperatures fall to -30.Among the constantly moving crowd and the bland newly built buildings and houses , historic buildings emerge from time to time which the Russians had built during their nearly forty-year rule in Kars.Imposing due to their aesthetic, built according to the simple and elegant rules of Baltic architecture, most of them house state services and some elegant cafe-restaurants.
“Kars is the only city in Anatolia built with a strict urbanistic plan and bourgeois politics,” a friend of mine in Kars told me, very proud of the old tradition of cosmopolitanism and coexistence of different ethnicities in his city.
He explains to me that the mayor comes from the Party of Nationalist Action (MHP), although the majority of the inhabitants are Kurds and that the newly elected President of the Commercial Chamber is a Kurd who won the most votes from the Turks and the Azeris.
Polarization in Kars is not as great as elsewhere, not only thanks to this transition, but also because there are strong familial, friendly and commercial relations that bind ethnicities and political parties.
“The arithmetic is simple on the ground in Kars,” another friend tells me here. “The Kurds are more likely to vote for the pro-Kurdish People’s Party (HDP), which in the last election took 34.5%, then they voted also for AKP, which in the last election took 35.6% after the Republican People’s Party (CHP) which got 15.1%. The Turks vote for AKP and MHP, which in the last election took 12.5%. MHP is massively voted for by the Azeris who are very organized in the party and the Gray Wolves. But no politician here can be extreme. Otherwise he will lose. “
“For the Gray Wolves it must be very strange here in Kars,” he says, smiling.
“We never had violence here and the truth is that there are traditional and ethnic balances between us that keep the extremes away,” another interlocutor tells me.
“But do not look only at the surface and the myth of coexistence. There is an underground racism among the various communities. And most of all, in recent years, there is a change of mindset due to the culture of lumpenization dominating, which began with the AKP and the worship of Tayyip Erdogan and is being spread by the party and its followers. Also there is tension ahead of the elections that will only continue to rise “.
After the mostly homogenous ethnic, religious, ideological and political previous cities of my trip to central and eastern Anatolia, in Kars I hear again a lot of stories about thousands of arrests and interrogations, from military and government officials to teachers and subscribers of the Gulenist “Zaman” newspaper. I hear of convictions with many months of imprisonment for criticism of Tayyip Erdogan and AKP’s policies on social media. Of fear, of fatigue, of tension,of despair, of thoughts of leaving the country.
But I also hear of the opposition’s hopes that the Tayyip Erdogan and AKP period will end, along with the fear but that neither the Turkish President nor their party will leave power easily. I hear analyses about the candidate for the CHP in the presidential election, Muharrem Ince, who many here believe has hopes for a second round because, as estimated by the Kurds themselves, he will have the Kurdish support against Tayyip Erdogan.
“The Kurdish vote will influence a lot in these elections together with the Aksener dynamics,” says one interlocutor who knows the local dynamics in Kars but also the wider dynamics in Turkey.
“The Kurds will not vote for Aksener easily. She has a dynamic that depends much more on the local dynamics and balance between the Good Party and the MHP and the local candidates and less with her undoubtedly bold personality or the party’s agenda which is essentially has no alternative vision. Muharrem Ince may make the difference, but the truth is that the CHP remains connected with another tradition and ideology that does not “sell” to the Turks very much today. All in all, the odds are still much in favor of Erdogan.“
In the evening I’m in a coffee place together with two men who in recent years have left Islam and have become deists, they believe that there is a God or a deity somewhere in the universe but that it does not deal with what is going on down here.They are not very young, and until they became deists, both were in religious brotherhoods.
“I arrived at a point when I began to doubt everything they told us about Islam, this version of complete obedience that they impose on us, but mainly because I began to see that in the name of Islam parties were being formed, as well as regimes and political figures with the aim to control the people. And this gives another holy character to the state, making it easy to dispose of those who have different opinions, “ says one of them.
Lately deism has become a nightmare for the AKP and its ideologues, according to Turkish analysts and journalists and as seen by the reactions of AKP and Tayip Erdogan himself.
The new generations of conservatives are losing their faith in Islam, as Islamic intellectuals admit with horror, and are being led to deism, thus removing, according to the critics of Tayyip Erdogan and AKP, one of the most important “tools” of exercising social and political control over the young generation.
At night, in the simple room of my hotel, I think of all that I saw, heard and observed in the cities of Anatolia. All this dynamic of social change, Islam’s redefinition, conservatism, the state. All of these young people and old people living in the heart of Anatolia and consciously or unconsciously are being led to a lifestyle almost like that in Istanbul or Nicosia. They wear headscarves, but they flirt and pay attention to their femininity, they travel, they sincerely want peace and tranquility and prosperity, and fear and hope for the future of their own country and their own lives.
“The secularization and modernization of Islam and Islamists and Conservatives in Anatolia, but more widely throughout Turkey, has to do with economic growth and the creation of a new middle class. Which can only follow the imperatives of a modernized way of life, essentially western, remaining conservative but trying to re-appropriate modernization and give it its own cultural character, as is the case in Anatolia for example. And certainly the gradual replacement of Islamism by statism is a promising dynamic, as at the same time the Islamic backdrop can place some boundaries on nationalism. Without this automatically meaning it is a direct path towards democratization, in the pluralist sense of democracy and society. We are still in a process that we don’t know how it will end up “says an academic who specializes in social and political dynamics in Turkey.
“However, the populism of Tayyip Erdogan, which follows a more generalised and worldwide tendency of populism, as well as his “ sacralization “ and his identification with the re-empowered state, which precisely allows these new middle classes to shape and control their way of life and their social achievements, is like a grain of sand in the wider “machinery” of social dynamics. As it had been done earlier with Kemal Ataturk, under different circumstances and dynamics of course. A grain of sand that along with the collective mentality that the nation-state is permanently under the threat of external forces and their internal “accomplices”, can cause problems to the “machinery” causing unpredictable deviations and crises in society and politics”.
In the morning I come down from my room at the reception to pay and leave. This journey is over. I look at myself in the elevator mirror. I look tired. And I think how complicated it still is for me to understand Turkey.
Read “Tracking Turkey’s future through its present/Part Two:From Izmir to Diyarbakir through Konya and Adana” here