Turkey Struggles for Balance

At the crossroads of Asia and Europe, this progressive Muslim nation strives to carve out a major role in a diverse region beset by post-Cold War turmoil, Page 2

COVER: Whirling toward a mystical union with the divine, dervishes in Istanbul add their 13th-century traditions to the spiritual and secular mix that is modern Turkey. Photograph by Reza.

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THOMAS B. ALLEN has written numerous articles for the GEOGRAPHIC as well as nine books; this is his third article published this year in the magazine. Arduous assignments appeal to Paris-based freelance photographer RIZA. His most recent story for the magazine was on Cairo (April 1993).

Along the coastal highway Turkey’s Black Sea towns are awakening to a sunny fall day. The roadside blurs by: mustachioed men and kerchiefed women, car wrecks and donkeys, chickens and cows, mosques and concrete mixers, laundry drying on a line, tobacco drying on a fence, bus shelters full of kids going to school and adults going to work. Then the traffic knots up, and we sit in the fumes and honkings of ears, trucks, minivans, tractors, buses, and motorcycles. Now Umit Niron, my interpreter of Turkish words and sights and smells, can turn his eyes from the road and tell me what I see.

The schoolkids wear uniforms, blue smocks for the little girls and boys; shirts and ties, blue blazers, and slacks for the older boys. Most of the older girls wear white blouses and plaid skirts. Others are buttoned into long, dark blue coats, and they hide their brows under pale blue kerehieþs. “Religious school,” Umit says. “That is what the girls must wear.”

Stuck in the traXfie with us is a grimy, battered bus, its windows smeared with yellow paint. The Turkish buses I have seen all sparkled, inside and out. This one, Umit explains, is not Turkish. It is a Russian bus, the rolling home of traders from former Soviet republics.

Men and women are climbing into tractorhauled wagons. They are harvesters, heading to the mountains for tea, to the orchards for hazelnuts, to the fields for corn and sugar beets.

“We must go to a wedding,” Umit says. “The end of harvest is the time for weddings.”

JOURNEYING THROUGH the rich weave of history and geography that is Turkey, I did go to weddings, and to mosques, and to Russian bazaars. In villages, cities, and factories and on farms and waterfronts, I found a nation on the move, led by Tansu (;flier, the first woman to become prime minister of this Muslim nation. She intends to build on the economic boom of the eighties, and, looking toward the future, she promises her people: “We will not walk, we will run.”

As ever, Turkey is a bridge between Europe and Asia, between West and East (map, page 13). Today the bridge strains against waves of change. Jobless vfllagers pour into cities already packed with people and problems. New nations emerge where the mighty Soviet Union once loomed. Militant Muslims, within and beyond Turkey’s borders, challenge Turkey’s long-held determination to be a secular nation. And in the bloodstained southeast corner of the country the government hopes to win a guerrilla war against Kurdish separatists, using the energy and opportunities created by hydroelectric dams and irrigation canals. Here the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party has been fighting since 1984 to form a Kurdish state.

“When I meet someone, I wonder in the back of my mind, is he a Kurd?” a government official in Ankara told me. “This is a sad byproduct of the struggle.”

Another is criticism of Turkey’s human rights record in the southeast. A 1993 U.S. congressional report accused Turkey of acting under a “broad and ambiguous definition of terrorism” that authorized torture, permitted “use of excessive force against noncombatants,” and restricted “freedom of expression and association.”

Officials try to play down the troubles, preferring to talk about Turkey’s role in the post-Cold War world. Home of ancient Greeks and Romans, heart of the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires, Turkey is claiming the right to lead a new economic domain stretching into Central Asia.

Out of that region came the nomads who settled in Turkey in the 11 th century, establishing an Islamic realm in Christian Anatolia. Today’s Turks speak a language akin to those spoken by people in five former Soviet republics– Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan. Black Sea Turks can usually manage to understand people from a sixth, Georgia.

“The politicians call all those people ‘our brothers,'” a Turkish journalist said as we talked in an Istanbul caf~. “Turkey wants to be a regional power, and I quote, ‘from the Adriatic to the China Wall.'” That was a phrase spoken by President Turgut Ozal, who died in April 1993, just after completing a triumphant tour of Central Asia.

Turkey is promoting itself to these republics as the model of a modern, democratic nation. The president of Kyrgyzstan has said that Tu rkey is “the morning star that shows the Turkic republics the way.” And in Tajikistan, where the langu age is Persian, one Muslim leader has urged his followers to emulate Turkey, not Persian-speaking Iran.

The brotherhood campaign is paying off. Turkey has formed an alliance on economic and environmental projects that joins together the six nations bordering the Black Sea, plus Moldova, Azerbaijan, Albania and two old enemies, Greece and Armenia. Another Turkey-fostered economic bloc brings together Central Asian nations, along with Iran and Pakistan. Turkey is also working on a scheme for a 663-mile pipeline that would carry oil from Baku in Azerbaij an to Turkey’s Mediterranean coast. Oil-rich Kazakhstan would hook on later. While Turkey declares solidarity with the Muslims of Central Asia, it simultaneously seeks full membership in the European Union, formerly the European Community. Turkey joined the West during the Korean War as a United Nations ally and in 1952 became a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Turkey and its powerful army were welcomed as a buffer against the Soviet Union on NATO’s far eastern flank. But, with the end of the Cold War, neither NATO membership nor alliance with the West in the Gulf War has earned Turkey complete acceptance in the European Union. “Europeans,” a Western diplomat in Ankara told me, “do not see Turks as Europeans .”

WHAT IS A TURK TODAY? The question went around the table of an outdoor restaurant in Ankara where Umit and I were having lunch with several of his friends. “I don’t believe anybody is Turkish, whatever that means,” he said. Then, swinging his arms to take in the lunch crowd, he exclaimed, “Look at us! A mix of Turks, Arabs, Jews, Greeks, Iranians, Armenians, Kurds.”

This is the legacy of the Ottoman Empire, which lasted more than six centuries. Umit’s grandfather lived in what became Lebanon; when the empire collapsed after World War I, some of the family moved to Turkey, some stayed behind. “I have relatives I cannot talk with,” he said. “My mother is Turkish, but her mother was from RomaRig.” Another man broke in: “My mother is from Greece, but she speaks Turkish. My father was born in Georgia …. ”

MAPS

TURKEY

AREA: 300,948 Sq mi. POPULATION: 60 million.

CAPITAL: Ankara, pop. 2.5 million.

RELIGION: Islam (99.9 percent).

LANGUAGES: Turkish (official), Kurdish,

Arabic, pci: $2,620.

EXPORTS: Textiles, metals, electrical equipment, fruits, nuts, cereals, and tobacco. Thundering out of Central Asia in the 11th century, Turks battled the Byzantines across what is now Turkey. Under the Ottoman Empire they took Constantinople in 1453 and reached west almost to Vienna at the height Of their European expansion (above). World War l put an end to the empire, clearing the way for Ataturk’s republic.

Modern Turkey is the creation of Mustafa Kemal, or Ataturk, “father of the Turks.” He led a war of independence against occupying powers after World War I. Creating a republic from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire in 1923, he tried to shape a Western country from this amalgam of cultures. He curbed the civil power of Islam, insisted that Turkish be written with the Latin alphabet, and guaranteed rights for women. Even today, 56 years after his death, the image of his stern, ascetic face is everywhere in Turkey. His bust looks down in parks and plazas. Paintings, photographs, and tapestries of Ataturk hang on the wails of offices and homes.

Many Turks I talked with believe that the nation’s veneration of Ataturk helps defend Turkey against Islamic fundamentalism. So does prosperity. “if you have a litfie money, you live better,” a magazine editor remarked to me. “It’s true for a family–money helps keep it together–and for a country. It’s difficult for fundamentalists to get anywhere because of the economic revolution.”

For the past five years that revolution has produced the highest economic growth rate of any major European nation. It also triggered a 60 to 70 percent inflation rate. Despite their drastically devaiued currency, most Turks I met are optimistic about the future.

When I tried to cash a traveler’s check at a branch bank in a small city, I was ushered into the manager’s office. He served me coffee and a chocolate candy, then sprinkled lemon cologne on my hands. He proudly told me this was the first traveler’s check ever cashed in his bank. The bank was founded in 1863.

WE HEADED for a wedding in Findikli, on the eastern Black Sea coast, in the heart of the country an ancient people, the Laz. Umit slipped a cassette into the car’s tape deck. Pounding drums and male voices burst from the speakers. Paced by the drum and backed by the wail of bagpipes, men tramped through a dance. The tempo increased. We heard background shouts and rifle fire and envisioned the Laz men’s dance. “We may see that dance at the wedding,” Umit said. “But there will be no guns tonight because this wedding is in a town .”

One of the wedding guests, a local businessman, led us to an outdoor pavilion on the edge of town. Under strings of lights young men and women danced to the rhythm of Turkish pop, an East-West music scramble. EIders sat at tables or occasionally tried a few turns around the dance floor. Women in kerchiefs refrained from dancing. The drink of the night was fruit juice, though at a couple of tables I did see Scotch being discreetly poured.

The kerchiefs and the fruit juice suggested Islamic practices to me, and I asked Umit if there had also been marriage rites in the mosque. He seemed puzzled by the question but relayed it to one of the guests, who answered: The bride and groom were, of course, married at the municipal offices in a civil ceremony. The businessman vehemently added, “In Findikli you will notice that the voice of the muezzin is not loud.”

Here, as in several other towns I visited, people measured the influence of Islamic fundamentalists by the decibel level of the man giving the five daily calls to prayer over the mosque’s loudspeakers. I realized that in FindikliI had barely heard him.

Islam, the religion of nearly 100 percent of the population, gives Turks their identity, though this is not the Islam of many other Muslim states. Again and again I heard the slogan “Turkey will never be Iran!” Secularism in Turkey is complicated. The government’s department of religious affairs, for example, helps arrange trips to Mecca and pays the salaries of religious leaders. The ministry of education controls religious schools.

Enrollment in those schools has been increasing in recent years. The Welfare Party, which backs Islamic fundamentalism, has 40 seats in parliament and is reaching out to countryfolk who migrate to Istanbul and Ankara. The fundamentalists appeal to conservative Turks who decry what they call moral decay. Their targets include Penlhouse and Playboy, both published in Turkish editions.

Around us, a dozen or so men began stomping, shouting, and singing the Laz song that I had heard on the tape. They threaded through the crowd and, arms grasping one another’s shoulders, circled the dance floor. In the darkness beyond, someone fired a gun several times. Omit smiled, as did several other men around me. Blanks, I thought. Then I saw the shredded leaves fluttering down.

The bride, Tesrife Ufak, broke into the circle of men, along with several other women, young and old. After a few whirls Tesrife decided she had had enough. She stepped out, waited for her new husband, Ildeniz Ufak, and when he did not join her, tugged him away. Times have changed for the dance of the Laz men.

Tesrife and Ildeniz are settling about miles from Findikli, in a city near Izmir where Ildeniz has a job as an accountant. Tesrife hopes she will find work in the same firm.

Job migration is common even in the bustthng Black Sea region, the source of nearly all of Turkey’s tea and 70 percent of the world’s hazelnuts. Mountains rise close to the sea. Hazelnut groves march along narrow fiatlands and veer up the slopes. Rivers course through valleys crosshatched with stands of pine and gleaming green patches of tea. Each long, one-road valley is a world of its own, its timbered houses perched high and scattered far apart. Tea harvesters work fields so steep they sometimes sling tethered ropes around their waists to keep from slipping.

In a co-op factory at Giresun, west of Findikli, machines hulled and packed hazelnuts grown by 221,000 co-op partners who own orchards along the Black Sea coast. People say the hazelnut is the source of life around Giresun, but a teacher I met there said, “Our young men are workers without work. They work only three months–harvesting from morning to night. So they go to Istanbul and find work, or they go to Germany or France. But when a man wants to marry, he returns with money.”

Near Rize, truckloads of tea tumbled into a plant for crushing, drying, sorting, and shipping. “In ten days we will be finished here, and the workers will go away until May,” the plant manager told me. And what will the workers do then? “Sit in the coffeehouses and play cards,” he replied. Some of the idled workers were landowners, who had earned enough money to while away the next six or so months. Others were not so lucky; they played cards and lived frugally because they had given up looking for jobs.

I went to several smoky coffeehouses (misnamed, since hardly anyone ever drinks coffee), watched the swiftly dealt card games, and over countless little tulip-shaped glasses of strong tea heard the men talk and talk and talk. About what bees make the best honey. About going to or coming from jobs in distant places. About politics (an intricate subject in the land that gave English the word “byzantine”). And about the Russian traders.

THE TITLE Of a popular song — “Natasha” –echoes the common name for one type of “trader.” The song tells the tale of a Turkish man who lost his family to the wiles of a Russian Natasha, only to have her take all his money and coldly leave him. This has happened so often in real life that in some places Turkish women are working to throw the Natashas out of town.

“The Natashas I see are young, usually divorced, and need money for their children,” a hotel owner in a Black Sea town told me. “They stay a few days and go back with some cash.” He introduced me to Lily, who entered the hotel lobby looking at her watch. She said she was supporting a 12-year- old daughter in Georgia. Lily spends a month in Turkey as a tourist, then goes back to Georgia for 15 days and gets another tourist visa. She hoped soon to be able to stay in Turkey longer because, she said, “My boyfriend is getting me a special visa for trade .” She looked at her watch again and, pale and shaky, hurried into the night. Like many Natashas, she had a steady client, a man who arranged for her to stay at the hotel until he summoned her.

Turks usually refer to Natashas and other border crossers as “Russians” whether they come from Georgia, Azerbaijan, or the Russian Federation. These traders along the Black Sea coast are the vanguard of new economic partners. Turkey already is shifting trade away from Arab nations and looking east.

Most Russian traders begin their journey at what had been a Cold War frontier, the Turkish-Soviet border at the Black Sea. Turkey once confronted the Soviets at a checkpoint in the village of Sarp with a massive rolling gate. Now the gate, rusty and off its track, marks the porous border between Turkey and the Republic of Georgia.

Several long trucks, including two that once belonged to the Red Army, are piled high with logs destined for Turkey. Heading back to Georgia is a low-riding yellow car. A ropeddown stack of packages totters on its roof. Boxes stick out where the windshield used to be. The driver peers around dozens of loaves of bread. Behind him in the maelstrom is a rattling car stuffed with cartons of chewing gum and chocolate bars. These use the individual entrepreneurs, who drive alone because they are foolhardy or have paid off the predators on Georgia’s roads.

Most of the “suitcase traders,” as the Turks call them, pool their expenses — including protection money–and travel in tired old buses that carry their passengers and cargo to bazaars in every port along the Turkish coast. The men and women usually live on the buses while they spend a few days selling. They stand in covered stalls, offering a bewildering assortment of merchandise–from used doorknobs and Taiwan-made toys to Red Army generators and uniforms. They usually speak little Turkish, getting by with nods, frowns, and hand signals.

Reflecting their nation’s brotherhood policy, Turkish shopkeepers tolerate the traders and make money from them. “They usually buy a lot of food to take home, especially pasta and margarine,” a Turk told me in Trabzon, site of a bazaar half a mile long. Across from the stalls another Turk had set up a travel agency for traders who did not want to ride a traders’ bus. “The Russians don’t like the Georgians,” he said. “They feel safer on a Turkish bus .”

Trabzon, a Black Sea port for at least 24 centuries, is a good example of the East-West bridge in action. At a dock there the bow of a Turk-owned ship gaped open to accommodate Russian buses. Driven onto the ship at the Russian port of Sochi, they had fanned out from Trabzon to ports as far away as Istanbul. A few days later the buses returned, presumably with richer passengers. By taking a round-trip sea route to Turkey, the Russian buses avoided “the bandits in Georgia,” a ship’s officer explained. And the ship holds far more cargo than a bus does. Stacked around the dock were unmarked crates and hundreds of Turkish carpets covered with plastic. Abdullah Malas, a Lebanese trader, was also using Trabzon as a bridge and safe harbor. “I prefer dealing in Turkey,” “It’s dangerous across the border” hetold me over tea. He was awaiting a ship from Sochi carrying Russian iron, aluminum, water pipe, and electric cable. After Malas certified the cargo, the ship would sail on to Lebanon to pick up sugar, lemons, aspirin, patentmedicines, and baking mix for the return voyage to Sochi. The barter transaction was only the beginning. “1 am hoping for a deal on oil,” he said.

SOUTH Of the Black Sea coast, in the stone and solitude of Anatolia, is an older, poorer, and visibly Islamic Turkey. In villages and in large cities like Erzurum and Erzincan the voice of the muezzin is very loud. Raki, an anise-flavored alcoholic drink, rarely flows in public. Many women wear the hooded, full-length carsaf. An ancient stillness fills even the sky; for days at a time I never heard an airplane.

This is what urban Turks call the countryside, the Turkey that was. When Atatiirk rounded the nation, about 80 percent of the people made a living working the land. In the 1970s and ’80s, as the population rapidly swelled, more and more Turks headed for the cities and for foreign lands in search of jobs. Today cities and towns shelter 60 percent of the country’s population, and two million Turks live in Germany alone. Turks who still toil on their land look like people of the past, families woven into a beautiful old tapestry.

Late one afternoon we drove out of Erzincan and soon entered a high-walled valley dotted with olive trees. Layered rock gave way to scree and then to crags that loomed like fortresses. We came upon a mosque and a cluster of houses that seemed to grow from the earth. We slowed down, and a boy suddenly appeared at the side of the road, holding. out a basket of bittersweet cherries. When Umit haggled over the price, the boy, Mustafa Altmsoy, said, “I’m a student. Don’t cut my money.” After a little more haggling, Omit also bought the basket.

Toward the end of another day we were on a stony road that climbed a darkening mountain near the Black Sea coast. Somewhere in the mountains was Tulay Ann, the kind of teacher who gets kids like Mustafa ready for Turkey’s future. I had last seen her at the main bus station in Ankara, waving to friends as she set off for her first job. We finally found Suleymaniye, the village she had gone to. It was not on my map.

We could see the silhouette of a small mosque clinging to a ridge. Nearby was the inevitable coffeehouse and the only phone in the village. Umit asked a man for directions to Tulay’s house. The talking stopped. Men eyed him suspiciously. He assured them he was a family friend, proving this by describing her father and his occupation. He then explained why I was there. After a discussion a village leader led us by flashlight down a muddy lane to the school supervisor. He pondered our request awhile, then took us farther down the lane to a substantial mud-brick house: There Tulay and another young teacher, Zehra Asan, were living with a family.

NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAY 1994; By Thomas B. Allen Photographs by Reza