Who are the Terrorists? The search for justice in Jerusalem

Back in January 2009 the then Prime Minister of Turkey, Tayyip Erdoğan, made international headlines by publicly confronting his Israeli counterpart, Shimon Peres. The stage was a debate at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Among other things, Mr Erdoğan accused the Israeli regime of murdering children, referring to the 6th commandment of the ‘Ten’ sacred to Jews, Muslims and Christians – ‘Thou shalt not kill.’

Turkey's president Tayyip Erdoğan

Turkey’s president Tayyip Erdoğan

Mr Erdoğan was mocked in some circles in his home country for his limited English, and his insistence on his right to speak by repeating the phrase ‘One minute!’ Subsequent events in the Middle East might suggest, however, that world opinion is moving towards support of his position. Most recently, in the last few weeks, events in Jerusalem, particularly focusing on the Al-Aqsa Mosque, have highlighted the injustices perpetrated against Palestinian Arabs by the state of Israel, supported by the United States of America.

Jerusalem is, and has long been, a major focus of conflict among the world’s three great monotheistic religions. Jews, Christians and Muslims all ascribe enormous significance to the city. For Jews the Temple Mount is ‘one of the places where God’s divine presence was manifested . . . from here the world expanded into its present form and where God gathered the dust used to create the first human, Adam’. It is the site of the legendary Temple of Solomon, though archaeologists have as yet found no signs of that building’s existence. It is known,however, that a ‘second temple’ was constructed in 516 BCE and survived until destroyed by the Romans after a Jewish rebellion in 70 CE. The Romans finally razed the Jewish city in 135 CE, since when, until the founding of the modern state of Israel in 1948, no Jewish political entity existed in the region.

When the Roman Empire adopted Christianity as a state religion, the Emperor Constantine had Jerusalem rebuilt as a Christian centre in 335 CE, and had erected the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. His mother Helena, while on a pilgrimage to the city, claimed to have discovered the very cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified. Jews were banned from the city under the rule of the Christian Graeco-Romans.

The Dome of the Rock - one of the oldest works of Islamic architecture

The Dome of the Rock – one of the oldest works of Islamic architecture

From 638 CE Jerusalem was under the governance of Muslim Arabs, in the course of which the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque were built. During this time Christians and Jews were both permitted to live and worship in the city. The oldest synagogue dates from this period, having been built in the 10th century. This period of tolerance, however, came to an end with the Crusader conquest in 1099, when, in the spirit of brotherly love, most of the Muslim and Jewish inhabitants were massacred and the mosques converted for use as shrines of Christian worship.

The holy city was reconquered by the Muslim leader Saladin in 1199, and tolerance of religious worship was reinstated – but for the rest of the 13th century Jerusalem passed through many hands, ending up with the Egyptian Mamluks, who also allowed Christians to visit, restore their churches, and even construct a Franciscan monastery. The Ottoman Sultan Selim I added Jerusalem to his dominions in 1519, and freedom was granted to Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. Ottoman rule continued until the dissolution of that empire after the First World War, when, one might say, most of the current problems began.

So, from a purely mathematical point-of-view, if we consider the 2,464 years up to 1948 for which there is conclusive evidence, Jewish occupation counts for 651 years (ending 1,813 years previously), Christians maybe 400 years, leaving the remaining, and most recent 1,313 years to the Muslims. And if you wanted to award a prize for the religion that accorded most tolerance to others, Muslims would win it without a contest.

But life and history aren’t always fair. I’ve been reading a book on the recent history of Palestine called ‘The Origins and Evolution of the Arab-Zionist Conflict’[1]. The author is Michael J Cohen, professor of history at Bar Ilan University in Tel Aviv, credentials which must give him some claim to objectivity, if not to pro-Israeli bias.

The Al-Aqsa Mosque - the 3rd holiest site in Islam

The Al-Aqsa Mosque – 3rd holiest site in Islam

Professor Cohen suggests that Arab nationalism began with the conquest of Egypt by Napoleon in 1798, but made little headway until the First World War. At that time much of today’s Middle East was ruled by the Ottomans and there was no political entity corresponding to Palestine. The British Government, motivated by stalemate on the Western Front and the imminent failure of the Gallipoli Campaign, began to see merit in encouraging the Arabs to rise up against their co-religionist rulers. Despite the widely disseminated myth of Lawrence of Arabia, Cohen gives little credit to TE Lawrence, and suggests that the British used Arab forces as propagandist window-dressing to encourage further revolt, with the aim of transferring control of the region to themselves. According to Cohen, the British High Commissioner for Egypt, Henry McMahon, acting with the authority of the Foreign Secretary, wrote a letter dated 24 October 1915, admittedly a little ambiguous in its wording, to Husayn, one of the most prominent Arab leaders, which the latter understood as containing a British promise to support Arab self-governance in an area that included Palestine.

Sykes-Picot 1916 - You can see why the Turks might not have been happy

Sykes-Picot 1916 – You can see why the Turks might not have been happy

Emerging around the same time towards the end of the 18th century, however, Europe witnessed the political emancipation of the Jews and the rise of Zionism, whose main aim was the return of Jews to their ancient homeland in Palestine. Without getting bogged down in detail, we can say that there was a trickle of Jewish migration into Palestine in the latter half of the 19th century, but a British census taken in 1922 recorded an overwhelming majority of Arabs in proportion to Jews (about 9:1). By that time, however, control of the region had passed from the now defunct Ottoman Empire into the hands of the French and the British. The Sykes-Picot agreement, signed between those two allies in secret in May 1916 had divided the ‘Near East’ into mandated territories and spheres of influence, which goes to explain why the British were conducting that census.

Subsequently it began to occur to the British Government that the establishment of a Jewish state in the southeast Mediterranean would serve the useful purpose of providing extra security for the Suez Canal, the all-important imperial link to India. There was the additional advantage that encouragement of Zionist aims could be presented as enlightened idealistic support for the dispossessed Jewish community. Furthermore, there was the not inconsiderable influence of a rather muddled religious belief which saw merit in returning Jews to the Holy Land. The result was the Balfour Declaration of November 1917 in which among other things, the British Government would ‘Favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish People.’

Wikipedia informs me that the use of the word ‘perfidious’[2] to describe England dates back at least to the 13th century. It was apparently particularly popular with the French over the centuries, and the actual phrase ‘Perfidious Albion’ is said to have been coined by a French poet in 1793. It is not known whether Palestinian Arabs ever employed the term, but it seems they may have had good cause for doing so. The precedent set by the British Government back then in 1917 set the stage for the Arab-Zionist conflict that bedevils all attempts to bring lasting peace to the Middle East.

In those days, the First World War and afterwards, Great Britain and the United States were by no means of one mind in their ‘Near East’ policies. Britain had come to support Zionist aims (largely for their own strategic reasons) while the USA was, at least at first, keen to come to an arrangement with the Ottoman Empire – who for their part had begun to oppose unrestricted Jewish immigration to Palestine. Later, as US power increased and Britain’s influence declined, further conflicts of interest occurred, as for instance in 1956 when President Eisenhower forced Prime Minister Anthony Eden, with his allies, Israel and France, to back down over the ‘Suez Crisis’ in Egypt.

Nevertheless, or perhaps even because of these conflicts, leaders of the Zionist movement have, since 1948, been able to increase the area under the control of Israel. The issue is particularly sensitive because Jewish leaders, with the support of the United States and Great Britain, have argued successfully for the creation/existence of a Jewish homeland in the region of Palestine on the grounds that:

  • It is the historical homeland of the Jewish people, and
  • Jews have suffered so much persecution over the centuries that they need/deserve a haven of safety to call their own. This motive was particularly strong after the Nazi Holocaust came to light.

They have the useful additional argument that opponents are ‘anti-Semitic’ – a term with very unpleasant connotations. Opponents argue, however, with some credibility, that Palestine was not unoccupied territory when the state of Israel was established; the establishment required displacement of existing inhabitants; and the real Zionist aim is to create a homogeneous Jewish state.

UN plan for the partition of Palestine

UN plan for the partition of Palestine

Long before the actual foundation of Israel, Zionist leaders at least, and some pragmatic British politicians, were well aware that such a state could never be the peaceful refuge for Jewish people envisaged by idealistic Christians. Future problems were exacerbated by the British policy of dealing with and rewarding one or two influential Arab families, thereby perpetuating a situation where Palestinian Arabs had no political cohesion of their own to oppose the rise of Israel.

As an aside, this policy has been continued in the wider region by the United States, whose government, in spite of pious protestations to the contrary, clearly prefers to deal with autocratic dictators, hereditary monarchs if possible, rather than democratically elected leaders – in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iran and Egypt, for example.

The modern state of Israel was born in violence. The United Nations drew up a partition plan in 1947 dividing the region of Palestine into almost equal areas to be administered respectively by Jewish Israel and Arab Palestinians. The city of Jerusalem, in recognition of its importance to both peoples, would exist as an independent internationally administered enclave within one of the majority Arab areas. The UN plan was passed by a vote of 33 to 13, with 10 abstentions. Interestingly Turkey was one of the ten opposing votes, and the United Kingdom was among those abstaining.

As soon as the British gave up their ‘Mandate’ and withdrew, however, violence broke out which rapidly escalated into war. Exactly what happened is a little clouded by differences of interpretation, but some facts seem clear. Arab leaders rejected the UN-proposed partition and a strike was called with some violent incidents. ‘Yishuv’[3] occupied areas that had been granted by the UN to Palestinian Arabs. Troops from four Arab countries, Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Iraq moved into the area and the 1948 ‘Arab-Israeli War’ broke out. Exactly how the ‘Israelis’ managed to prevail is not easy to ascertain. No state of Israel existed as this time, yet the ‘Yishuv’ apparently had sufficient trained soldiers, organisation and military hardware to defeat the armies of four neighbouring countries. Arab incompetence seems to me an inadequate explanation. American sources claim that they placed an arms embargo on both sides – which may deepen the mystery or merely dodge the issue.

Whatever the reason, the result was the creation of an unofficial state of Israel occupying a much larger area than had been envisaged by the UN plan. Egypt and Jordan managed to retain the Gaza Strip and the West Bank respectively for the displaced Arab refugees. Despite the failure of its partition plan, the United Nations, in May 1949, accepted the new country of Israel as a member, fait accompli. Interestingly, again, in the Security Council vote, Great Britain abstained.

The Iron Dome - Why Hamas rockets don't do much damage to Israel

The Iron Dome – Why Hamas rockets don’t do much damage to Israel

In the years since, wars of greater and lesser scale have broken out, and Israel has gradually increased the size of its territory, again, in defiance of United Nations warnings. Israel took full control of Jerusalem after the ‘Six-Day War’ of 1967, and claims that city as its capital – a claim which the international community does not recognise.

So the cycle of violence continues, with no end in sight. Last Tuesday five people were killed in a bloody attack on a West Jerusalem synagogue by two Palestinians from East Jerusalem’. Israeli spokespersons label it terrorism – and of course no one can condone the killing of innocent people in this way. One man’s terrorist, however, is another man’s freedom fighter, We may understand how the frustration of Palestinian Arabs can burst out into acts of apparently senseless violence because:

  • The very existence of Israel is perceived by many Arabs as having been imposed by outsiders for the benefit of outsiders.
  • Modern Israel is perceived by some as an exclusive ‘apartheid’ state bent on extending its borders and removing Arabs and Muslims. They see the United Nations powerless to enforce its resolutions on Israel, and eventually recognizing the fait accompli.
  • Palestinian Arabs consider that they have been prevented from establishing a state of their own, and consequently have no political leadership able to fight for their rights on the international stage. They find themselves faced with an effectively invulnerable enemy whose military superiority is largely financed by the United States of America.

In a disturbing recent development, the President of Turkey, Tayyip Erdoğan warned the international community that Israel’s actions in Jerusalem, especially with respect to the Al-Aqsa Mosque, could lead to a ‘new Intifada’ – an uprising of Muslims that could have worldwide implications. Mr Erdoğan has long been suspected by some of having Neo-Ottoman aspirations for his country. If he does indeed harbour such ambitions, failure of the international community to heed his warning could be playing into his hands. Turkey has shown itself capable in the past of taking unilateral action when such failure occurs – as in the case of Cyprus. Constant failure to stand up for justice, and weak acceptance of a status quo established by right of might creates dangerous precedents whereby rogue states get a clear message: We have carte blanche to do what we want. Terrorist activity thrives where injustice prevails.


Further reading: ifamericansknew.org

[1] University of California Press, 1987

[2] treacherous, untrustworthy, two-faced

[3] A term used to refer to the Jewish residents of Palestine before the establishment of the modern state of Israel

The Simit Comes to New York City

The ad in our local newspaper

The ad in our local newspaper

There was a full page ad on the back of my newspaper on Monday. I’m sure that page doesn’t come cheap for advertisers because most of the time it features scantily clad young ladies and short punchy stories of the kind normally associated with British tabloids like The Sun and The Daily Mail. Well whatever you think of those journalistic techniques, they sell newspapers – The Sun and The Mail being respectively No. 1 and No. 2 in the United Kingdom for daily circulation.

Monday’s back page, however, didn’t have any kind of picture – its entirety was filled with text! As a general rule I avoid making any kind of commercial plug on this site, but I’m making an exception today. I just had to tell you New Yorkers the big news, if you haven’t already discovered it for yourselves. Here’s my translation for those who don’t read Turkish. I have taken one or two liberties, since some expressions in the original don’t have quite the same ring in English:


It’s a simple fact.

We are a nation addicted to food and to satisfying our taste buds.

We make and eat the most delicious food.

We love to eat and to feed others.

So in 2002 we took to the road.

We wanted to ensure that no one in the world should remain ignorant of the name and taste of Turkey’s irresistible delight, the simit.

We opened the first Simit Sarayı[1] in Istanbul’s Mecidiyeköy district.

At all hours, morning noon and evening, we brought piping hot simits from our oven and served them to our customers.

With, of course, the indispensible accompaniment of Turkish tea.

We won the loyal support of our customers, and we thank them for it.

In a short time we opened branches all over Turkey.

Turkish tea and simit - like a taste of heaven

Turkish tea and simit – like a taste of heaven

From east to west and north to south we welcomed customers throughout our land. Before long we ventured abroad, opening branches in all corners of the globe. From Holland to Saudi Arabia we presented our taste sensations. As if that was not enough, we crossed the oceans to other continents.

And today, on 9 November 2014, we realized our long-cherished dream.

We opened our first Simit Saray in America, on New York’s 5th Avenue

without changing our name or our taste.

We wanted this unique flavour of Turkey to be known in its true identity.

Turkey’s Simit Sarayı is now a world brand.


[1] Simit Palace

Warmonger Sen. John McCain, the expected next chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee

Alan Scott:

This blogger expresses the point more strongly than I have – but clearly he has done his homework. Now President Obama is sending US soldiers back to Iraq. What is the actual proven threat to Homeland USA?

Originally posted on Ronmamita's Blog:

I recall the last time the Repugnicans were in full control of both Congressional chambers, they mastered coercion and brutality tactics to force their policies and agendas, we can expect more of that in even greater degrees for escalating war.
The expectation is that the 2016 elections will grant the White House to the one party as well.
That is the likely scenario, but all of the above is written merely as reminder to point out that more war escalation is expected by iconic, rabid, war mongers such as republican Senator John McCain from Arizona.
A simple false flag operation, would be the only requirement to gin up the war machine to crush all opposition… ~Ron

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) says he is “leaning towards” running for reelection and is well aware he’ll likely face a tough primary challenge from the right.

MiddleEast terror

Who were all the…

View original 178 more words

Standards of Academic Debate in Turkey

Somehow the subject of politics came up with some work colleagues the other day. As usual my Turkish friends were running down the government and in particular the former Prime Minister, now President of the Republic. In this instance, the subject was corruption, and Mr Erdoğan’s allegedly ill-gotten wealth. ‘Did you know,’ one said, ‘he is Number 9 on the Forbes Rich List?’

Is he there? Are you?

That was last year. Did Tayyip Bey make the new list?

I try to avoid getting into these discussions if at all possible for reasons which may become clear as we go along. However sometimes the assertions being made are so outrageous I just can’t hold my tongue. I cast an occasional glance at that list compiled by the people at Forbes, just to see if I or anyone I know has made the cut – and I’m sure I would have heard if the Turkish President had joined the stratospheric company of Bill Gates, Carlos Slim and Warren Buffett. I said as much, but my informant was adamant – so I withdrew, resolving to glance at the list when I got home.

Well, that’s what I did – and sure enough the same three guys are top of the heap, with a couple of Kochs and four Waltons filling most of the other spots up to number eleven. I was interested to learn that there are actually 1,568 dollar billionaires in the world, of whom twenty-four are Turks. There are some well-known names among the latter of course, with the best of them, food manufacturing mogul Murat Ülker, coming it at No: 410. Sisters will be pleased to know there are five Turkish billionaire women, though, to my surprise, no Sabancıs. Not surprisingly, I have to say, there were no Erdoğans.

I mentioned my findings to another colleague, whom I knew to be no great fan of the present government. He seemed not at all fazed, either by the claim whose truth I was checking, nor by the absence of Tayyip Bey from the list. Of course, he hides the money, and divides it amongst his family, I was told. OK, rich people do that, of course, but it doesn’t stop the Waltons, the Kochs and the Eczacıbaşıs from featuring – though it may possibly account for the absence of Sabancıs.

How many do you need to stash $36 billion?

How many do you need to stash $36 billion?

How can you know? Maybe the Erdoğan clan do have the $36.2 billion necessary to make the Forbes Top 10 stashed away in shoeboxes under their beds. Maybe the AK Party government does have a secret agenda to return Turkey to some kind of medieval Islamic hell of floggings, hand amputations, beheadings, compulsory burqas for women, and mosque attendance for all five times daily. If they do, it is by definition secret, and they are showing remarkable stealth and patience in implementing it.

What disturbs me is not so much the gossip that circulates among political opponents, but that the same dubious assertions are given publicity and credence by academics who should know better.

One of the blogs I follow is ‘Changing Turkey in a Changing World’, run by a group of academics affiliated with the Royal Holloway University of London, whose stated aim is to examine Turkish politics and society within a global context.’ A recent post featured an interview: ‘with Dr Erkan Saka about Media Freedom in Turkey/conducted by David Klein (Drexel University)’. Dr Saka is said to be an assistant professor in the Communications Department at Istanbul’s Bilgi University which, according to Wikipedia, ‘ranks third among private foundation universities in Turkey for its undergraduate placement according to the 2011 National Student Selection and Placement Center (National Exam Center) and is ranked among the top 10 institutions of higher education in Turkey, according to Webometrics.’

First up, let me make it very clear that I am not criticizing the good people at Changing Turkey. Their interviewer had done his homework and was able to state early on that ‘according to certain statistics, while much of the mainstream media in Turkey is run by only a few large media conglomerates, 65 percent of them hold an oppositional editorial line towards the government.’

There it was in the newspaper

There it was in the newspaper

In spite of that, our learned Bilgi University expert on ‘news media, public relations and corporate communications’ asserted that ‘I think’ media freedom is worse than in the 1990s. He recognised that the AK party has lost the support of the Gülen Movement newspapers, and that the Doğan Group, which accounts for 40% of Turkish media, is generally opposed to the government. He accepted that AKP really doesn’t have enough manpower to use the media institutions they have as propaganda tools.’ He even stated that he agreed with the interviewers ‘implication’, which, as you will recall, was in fact a very clear statement based on statistical evidence, that 65 percent of the Turkish media ‘hold an oppositional editorial line towards the government.’ However, Assistant Professor Saka dismissed this as a ‘theory’, and preferred to run with his own personal conviction – I still think there is a lot of pressure from the government on mass media.’ As far as I could see, his main basis for this belief was that ‘it is incredibly difficult to find a job in mass media here in Turkey because you have to be very partisan.’ I suspect teaching staff in, and graduates from media studies programmes in universities around the world would be able to inform Prof. Saka that landing a job in the mass media is not easy anywhere in the world.

With all due respect to Bilgi University, I find it breath-takingly outrageous that a tenured academic can so glibly fly in the face of powerful evidence contradicting his position. In the interview, despite seeming to admit that the Doğan Group does not support the government line, he went on to suggest that ‘the Doğan media group is still hesitant to be too oppositional because there is always the pressure of tax issues and such.’ Well, who knows? At this stage, admittedly, they have not been advocating armed rebellion – but their ‘Hürriyet’ newspaper, which I read regularly, has never hesitated to criticise the AK Party government, its leader, his ministers and their policies. In spite of that, Mr Aydın Doğan, founder and owner of the company that bears his name, is comfortably ranked at No. 1,502 on that Forbes billionaire list.

Italy's Berlusconi and friend - We don't know how lucky we are

Italy’s Berlusconi and friend – We don’t know how lucky we are

As an interesting comparison, Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s longest-serving post-war Prime Minister, is ranked 197th on the Forbes list. Not only did he hold the Prime Ministerial position for nine years, he actually owned and controlled much of his country’s print and television media. The 78 year-old tycoon is currently barred from participating in politics as a result of convictions for tax fraud and soliciting minors for sex, and faces additional charges of bribing witnesses in the latter case. As far as I am aware, Mr Berlusconi has not relinquished his controlling interest in his media empire, yet in spite of that, Italy ranks a respectable 49th on an international Press Freedom report published by Reporters Without Borders earlier this year. On the same list, Turkey places a dismal 154th, marginally ahead of such democratic basket-cases as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran and North Korea.

Citizens of the United States may be disappointed to learn that their own land of the free occupies 46th slot on the borderless reporters’ list, lagging behind, for example, Romania, Latvia, Uruguay and Costa Rica. Well, I don’t know what objective criteria these ‘reporters’, whoever they are, use for their assessments. Even a casual glance over the list would, in my opinion, be sufficient for a moderately well informed citizen of the world to dismiss it as manifest nonsense.

I am curious to know whether the people behind this seemingly authoritative website have the linguistic skills or resources to read and view the news media in all 180 countries they claim to be objectively evaluating. From a purely empirical standpoint, I see no shortage of criticism of the government in Turkey’s daily media. I see far less in that of New Zealand, though my native land ranks highly at No. 9 on the Press Freedom list. Sometimes I think that, if journalists in the USA made the kind of pointed criticisms and personal attacks on their country’s President and elected leaders that I see in the Turkish press, they could well end up in Alcatraz, Guantanamo or whatever institution currently ranks as the penal equivalent of Fort Knox. Julian Assange, Edward Snowden and Chelsea (Bradley) Manning did far less, and see what happened to them.

I just hope that ‘Reporters Without Borders’ are not relying on Bilgi University’s Asst Prof. Saka when assessing freedom of the press in Turkey.

Wandering in Istanbul – and looking on the bright side

Anti-government demonstrations in Turkey seem a little less frequent and well attended these days – at least in Istanbul. Nevertheless, another one has broken out recently in the Altunizade district on the Asian side of the city. As with last year’s ‘Gezi Park’ event, this also focuses on one more green area in a vast megalopolis seemingly determined to cover itself with tar and cement.

Last weekend, the weather being fine, Dilek and I set out to visit the exhibition of an English photographer, John Wreford, who has been working in the Middle East region for some years. In my opinion, you must be crazy or desperate to drive a car in Istanbul in the weekend, so we boarded a double-decker bus that passes the door of our new abode, on its way to the European side of the city.

Validebağ Park, Altunizade

Validebağ Park, Altunizade

Traffic became increasingly congested as we approached the first Bosporus Bridge, and our enterprising driver plunged his huge vehicle into a labyrinth of narrow back streets in an attempt to avoid the worst bottlenecks. Our top deck lashed by branches of overhanging trees, we made good time while being treated to expansive views of an unfamiliar part of town – passing on our tour the wooded park known as Validebağ, focus of the demonstrations referred to above.

Around the beginning of the 19th century Sultan Selim III established a little country retreat for his mother Mişrişah. ‘Valide’ was the title reserved for the mother of the reigning sultan so we may think of the park as ‘The Garden of the Royal Mother’. A later Sultan, Abdülmecid, gifted park and mansion to his own mother Bezmialem, who turned it into a kind of botanical garden with local and exotic plants. On her death the property passed into the hands of Altunizade İsmail Zühtü Pasha, scion of a wealthy family of merchants and high-ranking minister in the Ottoman Government – whose name is preserved in the surrounding neighbourhood. Subsequently, Ismail Pasha returned the land and buildings to the royal family, Sultan Abdülaziz had a mansion built for Adile, one of his sisters, and the extensive woodland was used for hunting parties.

Cast of the original 1975 'Hababam Sınıfı'

Cast of the original 1975 ‘Hababam Sınıfı’

For some years, the mansion, known as Adile Sultan Kasrı, and its adjacent garden, have been used as a kind of club and social centre for state teachers. It holds a special place in the hearts of citizens of a certain age by virtue of being the location for a 1975 film ‘Hababam Sınıfı’ starring the beloved comic actor Kemal Sunal and featuring the exploits of a class of roguish high school lads.

Current protests seem to be focusing on what some perceive as a threat to one of the inner city’s few large remaining wilderness areas, and in particular, plans to build a mosque therein. The local and national governments are taking the view that the land is neglected and needs to be developed so that the public can make better use of it – and they claim that the proposed mosque will not actually be built within the boundaries of the park. Opponents of development say that the area should be preserved in its wild state because of its importance to migratory bird species – and they are vehemently opposed to the erecting of another mosque, which they see as exemplifying the government’s Islamification agenda.

Cycling the bridge

View from the bridge

Leaving that debate to wiser and better-informed heads than mine, we continued our bus trip across the Bosporus into Europe via the 1.5 km suspension bridge erected in 1973 to join the two continents. An annual highlight for me in recent years has been the day in early summer when authorities close the bridge to motor traffic and allow cyclists to cross. Apart from the exercise, it’s a fabulous photo op. for the unparalleled views it affords of sea, sky and urban sprawl, with the domes and minarets of the ancient city in the distance.

Shortly after arriving on the European shore, we alighted at Zincirlikuyu, making our way along subterranean walkways to the Zorlu Centre, a vast ultra-modern monument to the new Istanbul. The enormous multiple-use complex comprises office space and residential apartments for the rich and famous, a multi-level shopping complex with 200 stores selling high-end merchandise, a food-hall with forty restaurants, terraced rooftop gardens and the largest performing arts centre in the country. It also contains Turkey’s first official Apple store, a sure sign of increasing wealth and disposable income, where I intended purchasing a genuine copy of MS Office to replace the less-than-genuine one that had been giving me problems for some time.

The Zorlu shopping complex (AVM as they are known in Turkey) is still something of a novelty, and the halls were crowded with day-trippers, sightseers, and possibly an actual shopper or two. As we rode an escalator up to the garden level, two well-known stars of popular local soap operas cruised down in the opposite direction. I’m sure I heard Bergüzar Hanım whisper to her husband as they passed, ‘Don’t look now, but isn’t that Dilek and Alan, the famous English teachers?’

Well, we left the crowds to their Louis Vuitton handbags and Lacoste t-shirts, descending this time to the Metro station for a train that would take us to Taksim and İstiklal Avenue, location of last year’s protests, but beloved of Istanbul residents as the city’s main centre for more traditional shopping and a night out on the town. İstiklal is a two-kilometre stretch of art nouveau architecture whose main thoroughfare and adjacent streets contain a bewildering multiplicity of shops, movie theatres, bars, restaurants, cafes, art galleries, and palaces formerly home to diplomatic legations from the imperial states of Europe. It tickles my fancy to imagine how furious those foreign ambassadors must have been when they learnt that the new republican capital would be Ankara – in the 1920s, a remote eastern town indisputably beyond the pale of European civilisation.

Hagia Triada Orthodox Christian church, Taksim

Hagia Triada Orthodox Christian church, Taksim

Having resisted the temptation of Zorlu’s forty restaurants, we made our way to Hatay Medeniyet Sofrası, an eatery assuredly belonging to a less frenetic era of the city’s history. It’s easy to miss if you don’t know where you’re going – but definitely worth the effort of searching. From the large open space of Taksim Square, a building that catches the eye is a domed and turreted edifice clearly owing more to Christian than Muslim architecture. Hagia Triadas, opened for worship in 1880, is the largest Greek Orthodox shrine in Istanbul, and its existence is testimony to a more tolerant age when Christians of all sects, and Jews, were permitted to build their schools, churches and synagogues, live, pray, educate their children, speak their own languages, bury their dead, carry on business and rise to high positions in a society ruled by the Muslim Ottomans.

Interestingly, our restaurant, reached by an unpretentious stairway from the main street, is located in a building owned by the foundation that administers the church. The main dining room looks over its tranquil arboreal garden, a peaceful refuge from the teeming multitudes that throng the street below. Hatay is the name generally used here for the southeastern city sometimes known as Antakya – in ages past, Antioch, once one of the great cities of the ancient Mediterranean. Its cuisine has a well-earned reputation in Turkey – and tourists from neighbouring Arab countries also clearly find it to their taste. Alcoholic beverages are not served, but if you can do without that accompaniment to your meal, you won’t regret your visit.

Well, as you may remember, the primary purpose of this outing was to visit an art gallery, so, well nourished with the culinary delights of Hatay, we strolled the glittering length of Istiklal Avenue to the locality of Tünel at its western end. Tünel is actually the world’s second-oldest and probably its shortest underground railway. Opened in 1875 with only two stations, the line links Istiklal to the seaside district of Karaköy, formerly Istanbul’s main port.

Galatea Gallery, Asmalımescit Mh.

Galatea Gallery, Asmalımescit Mh.

On our right, just before arriving at the upper station, and near the terminal stop of the antique tram that runs from Taksim Square is the rapidly gentrifying area known as Asmalımescit. Ducking down the street of that name we took the first left – and found ourselves in a narrow lane of bars, and cafes. Galatea Gallery is well signposted and located on the upper floor of an old Greek style house typical of those that line the back streets in this part of town. John Wreford is a fit-looking Englishman who lived for ten years in Damascus, Syria, earning his daily bread as a photojournalist. His current exhibition is entitled ‘Raqs Sharqi – Doğunun Dansı’, and portrays in monochromatic images, the Middle Eastern art form commonly referred to in English as belly-dancing. Wreford has used long-exposures to capture the fluid movements of the dancer, and his images are strikingly evocative against the stark white walls and minimalist décor of the gallery.

Before leaving Syria, Wreford had been unable to work for two years because of the civil war that has been tearing that country apart. He arrived in Istanbul just as last year’s ‘Gezi Park’ protests were gaining momentum – so he may have wondered whether the violence was following him. Those particular protests have quietened down, it seems – but more serious problems are facing Turkey now. An estimated two million refugees from that Syrian conflict have now flooded into the country, placing intolerable strain on social services to feed and house them – as well as planting the seeds of a potentially explosive backlash from Turkish citizens. Pressure is being exerted on the government by the USA and its anti-ISIS allies for Turkey to become militarily involved across that border. At the same time, extremists among Turkey’s Kurdish citizenry have been staging protests and carrying out terrorist activities in southeastern cities in an attempt of their own to force the government’s hand.

In such times, it is good to be reminded of the peaceful achievements in arts and architecture of the peoples who have inhabited for countless centuries these lands widely recognized as the cradle of human civilization. We can only hope that good sense will prevail and our political leaders will find a way to bring us safely through the minefields of nationalist and religious bigotry that currently threaten our world.

America’s ‘Turkey’ Problem

Probably most of us living in benighted regions beyond the borders of the United States of America struggle to understand what makes that nation tick. We watch bemused the drawn-out hysteria of presidential elections; and world championship tournaments in sports that no one else plays. Occasionally we are granted an insight into the workings of the American mind that serves more to increase our puzzlement than dispel it – such as my recent discovery of what they mean when they speak of Black Friday.

To citizens of the USA, apparently, Black Friday refers to the day after Thanksgiving, always held on a Thursday, for no particular reason that I could ascertain. That Friday has become enshrined, it seems, as a national day of shopping, kick-starting the consumer frenzy leading up to Christmas and New Year celebrations – thereby getting struggling retailers ‘into the black’. These days, of course, all have their origins in the Christian religion – whose messages of peace and other-worldliness sit somewhat uncomfortably alongside the feverish materialism that characterises the modern celebrations.

With humble penitence for our perverseness and disobedience

With humble penitence for our perverseness and disobedience

Anyway, to outsiders, eating a turkey seems to be the major focus of Thanksgiving Day festivities – but that’s not the problem. What is triggering debate is the encroachment of Black Friday shopping on the traditionally sacred day, established in the Constitution by President Lincoln in 1863 so that citizens could deliver Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And . . . with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.Behind the antiquated language we can perhaps discern admirable sentiments, although they were uttered in the midst of a catastrophic civil war.

America’s ‘Turkey’ problem, however, has more to do with the country than the bird. As First World nations clamour to join President Obama’s coalition of the sycophants, their news media have been criticising the government of Turkey for its perceived reluctance to engage wholeheartedly in his ‘Operation Inherent Resolve’ against . . . whoever he thinks he is fighting in Iraq and Syria. But can you really blame them for showing a little hesitation? The US President has already admitted that his operation ‘is going to be a long-term campaign,’ and that would seem to be a reasonable expectation, given that its actual objectives are by no means clear.

George Bush the Father stormed into Iraq in 1991 and foxy Bill Clinton had another go in 1998. George the Son launched his Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2002 – the name modified in 2010 by the Obama administration to Operation New Dawn. It’s hard to see much sunshine, though, amidst the smoke from all those billions of dollars of bombs and missiles unless your aim was to kill a lot of Muslims and drive more of them into the ranks of extremist anti-American fanaticism. The main result seems to have been the creation of a power vacuum in the region, in which so-called Islamist fundamentalists are vying for supremacy. I’d been curious about where this new ISIS outfit had come from. Apparently 500 or so senior al Qaeda operatives were busted out of Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison in July last year – so I’m guessing now we don’t need to look much further than that.

Pretty damn close! Kurds in Turkey watch the action in Kobani

Pretty damn close! Kurds in Turkey watch the action in Kobani

Whoever those ISIS people are, it’s fairly evident that they are a symptom rather than a cause of the chaos in the region. The position adopted by the government of Turkey is that the United States and its allies need to consider the bigger picture. Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, Turkey’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, wrote last week, in an article published in The Guardian newspaper, Beyond Kobani, effective action requires a clear strategy and endgame. Everyone has to be prepared to play their part, and nobody should be left to bear the consequences alone. The number of Syrians from all ethnic and religious backgrounds who have fled and found refuge in Turkey continues to rise, and is now approaching 2 million people. Over the past couple of weeks 200,000 Syrians have arrived from Kobani. This burden has been appreciated in words but not in deeds. The costs so far have reached $4bn, and Turkey cannot continue to act as if it were the United Nations. A collective responsibility to address Syria’s plight, including a no-fly zone, becomes imperative.’

Sad to say, such apparently reasonable words are not what the United States government wants to hear. Why? Possibly because admitting that Turkey has a valid point will require the USA’s leaders to confront issues that they would rather ignore. Most commentators on US politics these days seem to accept that government policy, both within and without the Homeland is largely shaped by lobby groups. Wall Street, I guess, is Number One – but the Israel lobby is up there with the big ones. A recent article in The Independent called it ‘one of the most potent advocacy groups in Washington DC. . . Fall foul of the Israel lobby, with its financial muscle and ability to put the word out, and, it is said, your political career may be doomed.’ The Greeks also wield some clout, though their focus is rather narrower, aiming mainly at discrediting Turkey in the eyes of Americans and the world. Both groups work together when it suits them, lending support to and seeking it from the Armenian diaspora, especially since the Turkish Government has raised its voice against Israeli expansionism in Palestinian territories.

A little bit of Turkish populist razzmatazz

A little bit of Turkish populist razzmatazz

I turned up an article the other day that I’d put aside a year or so ago. It was published in the English edition of Hürriyet, a Turkish daily not very sympathetic to the current government, and written by one Burak Bekdil. The occasion was the release of a blockbuster movie from the Turkish film industry glorifying the achievements of Sultan Mehmet II in conquering the Byzantine Imperial capital Constantinople. Well, I confess I tried to watch that film,’Fetih [Conquest] 1453’, but I wasn’t able to see it through to the end, so I’m not here to defend its claim to cinematic distinction. What interested me at the time, and strikes me more strongly now is the feeling I got that the writer was not merely reviewing a film – but actually had a personal axe to grind.

Mr Bekdil complained that Turkey is the only country in Europe that celebrates having conquered its largest city from another nation by the sword. He asserted that Sultan Mehmet was too keen on Shariah and wanted to conquer the Byzantines for religious reasons. He made snide references to Turkey’s occupation of Northern Cyprus and the so-called Armenian genocide, and lambasted Turks for refusing to use the word Constantinople. He mocked the Turkish government for its criticisms of modern Israel, claiming that ‘their ancestors had travelled from the steppes of Asia to capture Constantinople while the Jews are natives of Jerusalem’.

I don’t know Mr Bekdil’s ethnicity. He has a Turkish name – but I doubt if any Turk would be so ignorant of his country’s history. The article would be laughable if it weren’t that those lobby groups disseminate the same nonsense, and many otherwise intelligent, educated people in the West seem to accept them as truth.

Asterix beating up Romans - Sad to say he lost in the end

Asterix beating up Romans – Sad to say he lost in the end

In fact Turks really don’t celebrate the conquest of 29 May 1453, and it is not a national holiday, unlike Thanksgiving in the USA. 4 July may commemorate the fledgling republic’s victory over the British Empire – but certainly not much effort was made to restore the land to its native inhabitants. Americans were happy to accept the territorial benefits resulting from British imperial wrongs perpetrated against Native Americans. Perhaps modern French do not celebrate the Roman conquest of Paris and the rest of the country from Asterix and his Gaulish brethren; the English the victory of their Germanic Anglo-Saxon forebears over the native Picts and Celts, but those events happened nonetheless. New Zealanders of Caucasian extraction still insist on celebrating 6 February as Waitangi Day – when Maori chieftains were pretty much conned into signing their land over to Queen Victoria. And Australians turn on major displays of fireworks and what not to laud the arrival of convict ancestors and their military jailers back in 1788.

Was the city of Constantinople seized from another nation? And was the Ottoman conquest driven by religious motives? Pretty questionable. The Byzantine Graeco-Romans represented the Eastern half of the old Roman Empire, a cosmopolitan, multinational entity which in its later years was ruled by emperors who were definitely not Roman/Italian – or Greek. The retrospective concept of a Greek nation happened towards the end of the 18th century with the encouragement of aristocratic English Hellenophiles. By 1453 the once great city of Constantinople had been reduced to its pre-Constantinian scale, a small island of Byzantium in a vast sea of Ottoman domains, with a population of perhaps 50,000. Bekdil concedes that Sultan Mehmet’s mother was Greek and that Ottomans were remarkably tolerant of religious differences. In fact it was probably Mehmet’s family ties to the Greek royals that preserved the city so long, and its conquest was pretty much the last nail in the Byzantine Greek coffin.

Admittedly Turks are not keen on the word Constantinople. I remind my students that the Ottomans conquered Constantinople, not Istanbul, though, as the writer implies, that name may already have been in use before the conquest, if it was in fact a corruption of ‘to the city’, or even of ‘Constantinople’ itself. Anti-Israel protests are pretty rare in Turkey, and not well attended – but the number of countries in the world that actually support Israel’s expansionist policies in Palestine is small – the United Nations frequently objects. Without US support, would that country survive? Equally, modern Greeks, and some English writers who definitely should know better refuse to use the name ‘Istanbul’. Check the old 50s song. It’s been 461 years now, and the chances of Turks packing up and returning to Central Asia are pretty low.

Did Turks come from Central Asia to seize and pillage the great Christian city? That’s pretty dubious history too. A Seljuk Turkish army under the Sultan Alparslan conquered the Byzantine Roman-Greeks at Manzikert in 1071, so they were in Anatolia in force for almost four centuries before capturing Constantinople. Even before that they had been living in the region for a good long time, enough to become Muslims. Ignoring that, however, nine centuries of intermarriage with locals and constant immigration from surrounding lands has ensured that the proportion of Central Asian DNA in modern Turkey is surprisingly low. The concept of Turkishness that continues to feed Western prejudices and nationalist Greek fervour owes more to Western prejudice itself, and to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s need to foster a spirit of national identity than to any real biological genetic inheritance. Bekdil said it would be hard to think of the English celebrating the conquest of London or the Germans of Berlin – though England was conquered by the Norman French in 1066, around the time that the Seljuk Turks won that first crucial victory over the Byzantines, and aristocratic Brits have long been happy to lay claim to Norman French ancestry.

Did the Turks invade Cyprus? Truth to tell, problems there can be attributed more to attempts by the modern kingdom/republic of Greece to annex the island than to Turkish aggression. I have written enough on the Armenian business in the past, and I made a kind of vow not to revisit it, so I’m not going to. If you’re interested click here.

As for the idea of Jews being natives of Jerusalem, that must be one of the more mischievous fictions about in the world today, if in fact it is widely held. Judaism was for a time one of the religions of what is now called the Middle East until its adherents were finally dispersed by Roman Empire in the 2nd century CE. Prior to that and subsequently, Jewish people migrated to all corners of Europe and farther afield, mixing with other peoples and races in their new homes. Hebrew as a language may have been preserved in religious ritual by some, but most adopted other languages – Yiddish and Spanish for example. Hebrew was re-adopted after the establishment of the state of Israel in 1947 in much the same way as was classical Greek when Western European powers for political reasons of their own, used their military power to wrest territory from the Ottomans and establish a tiny kingdom they called Greece back in 1821. The Jewish community in Turkey are largely Sephardic Jews whose ancestors, fleeing from the Spanish Inquisition, were welcomed by the 15th century Sultan Beyazit. They were arguably more natives of Spain than of Jerusalem, and their language was, and in worship I believe, still is Ladino Spanish.

Joe South - Walk a Mile in My Shoes

Joe South – Walk a Mile in My Shoes

The population of Turkey is predominantly Muslim. It would be surprising if their leaders were not of that faith – just as Americans expect their President to at least pay lip service to Christian doctrine and practices. Perhaps 20% of Turkey’s population is Kurdish – and the current government is trying to solve a problem that has been simmering and sometimes exploding for 90 years. Armenia, Iran and Iraq lie just on the other side of Turkey’s eastern borders; ‘Greek’ islands an almost swimmable distance from its western coast. American singer-songwriter Joe South had a hit in 1970 with the song ‘Walk a Mile in My Shoes’. You might want to click and listen.

Who will help Turkey help Kobani?

The following article appeared in ‘The Guardian’ newspaper on Monday 20 October. It was submitted by Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, Turkey’s minister for foreign affairs.

We can no longer continue to act like the UN. A global response to the crisis in Syria and Iraq is imperative.

The plight of the small town of Kobani has become the focus of the world’s attention amid the devastation and misery of Syria. With each day the reign of terror of Islamic State (Isis) has been moving too close for comfort.

A Syrian Kurdish woman and her daughter after crossing into Turkey from the Syrian border town of Kobani.

A Syrian Kurdish woman and her daughter after crossing into Turkey from the Syrian border town of Kobani.

It’s worth remembering that Kobani was not Isis’s first target – the extremists have overrun a vast terrain from Azzaz in Syria to Kirkuk in Iraq. Just as they have been driving the Kurds out of Kobani they have killed, intimidated and driven Turkomans out of Çobanbey on the Turkish border; Arabs in Raqqa, Deir Ezzor and Mosul; Yazidis in Sinjar; and Christians in Aleppo. The tales of horror there are just as atrocious.

With a 1,295km border with Syria and Iraq, this is a danger felt far more acutely by Turkey than any other country. It is a matter of the greatest national security to see the threat of extremism disappear from our neighbourhoods. We are ready, able and willing to do our part to this end – after all, we know only too well the toll of terrorism. Turkey will always be on the frontline in combating terror, including this new menace.

We have opened up our borders and embraced all those from Kobani who wish take refuge in Turkey. We have provided Kobani with all the humanitarian aid possible. We have acted in full cooperation with the international coalition. We are also facilitating the passage of Kurdish peshmerga forces to Kobani. We will continue our contribution to saving the town so its residents can go back to their homes.

Beyond Kobani, effective action requires a clear strategy and endgame. Everyone has to be prepared to play their part, and nobody should be left to bear the consequences alone. Isis is the product of a bigger evil. Not only the fertile ground offered by instability in Syria, but also the ardent support of the regime has helped terrorist groups grow. The regime was Isis’s patron, with the intention that it would eradicate the Syrian opposition, together with the legitimate demands of the Syrian people. But Bashar al-Assad’s plan backfired. Isis grew out of control, fed by the territory and weapons it seized in Iraq.

In Kobani, nearly 400 people have died in the past three weeks. In Syria, more than 200,000 people have died since the regime chose to wage war against its own people, more than three years ago. The regime has not hesitated to use heavy artillery against civilian neighbourhoods or fire ballistic missiles. Airborne attacks and barrel bombs have become a daily routine. It even used chemical weapons. As long as this regime remains, Syria will not be stable and secure: violence, particularly terrorism, will continue to emerge – the regime has no qualms about using any method that will keep it in power. The root causes must be tackled. Read the rest of the article