Istanbul: Of new friends and felines

It’s bit shallow – but the guy was only here for a week. Anyway, it’s nice to read something positive about Turkey for a change. This was published in the NZ Herald travel section (I’ve abridged it a little). Surprisingly, the guy didn’t see any Arab tourists!

DSCF1962Michael Lamb makes friends with hospitable locals and countless cats while exploring Istanbul’s deep, rich history.

It’s after midnight and we’re wandering the tangled lanes, heading back to our hotel.

We’d had dinner at 360 Istanbul, a rooftop restaurant up near Taksim Square, which, as the name suggests, offers spectacular sunset views of this amazing city. Dinner rapidly turned into a social affair, joining tables of boisterous travellers to drink and talk global politics.

Then we came across a cool hole-in-the-wall cafe/bar and stopped in for a nightcap. They’d closed the cash register for the night so offered us a round of beers — for free. More travellers stopped, more beers were offered and another session of discussing the wonders of Istanbul and the state of the planet unfolded.

And so typical of a night out in Istanbul, where you make friends faster and easier than any other city I’ve been to in the world; where the desire to interact with visitors is genuine and limitless.

If the hospitality isn’t enough, then there are the cats. The movie Kedi, a meditation on the wondrous lives of the cats of Istanbul, is one of the sleeper hits of 2017, having gained traction on the festival circuit last year. Shot on a low budget, it’s already taken more than US$4 million and counting.

Some people say the cats are merely a cute distraction from the deep truths of Istanbul and wider Turkey. This is a city that’s taken its fair share of hits in the new era of extremist terrorism. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s determination to stamp out activism and political opposition is casting a dark shadow across the Turkish soul. People talk about it, but quite rightly it makes them unhappy and uncomfortable [On this last point, it depends who you talk with, in fact].

As tourists here for just seven days, we decide to stick to our tourist knitting. And in that game, Istanbul rolls out the red Turkish carpet every time — though everywhere you go it’s noticeable the numbers are down. The city is on the hot destination lists but the reality is, mainstream tourists are spooked and staying away.

On the ground, this fear factor feels ridiculous: in a city of 15 million people (officially, the locals reckon it’s more like 20 million) your odds of running into trouble are, I’d wager, microscopic.

We tour the famous and fabulous Grand Bazaar, the Spice Bazaar. The other tourists we encounter are an unexpected mix: a lot of Russians, Chinese and Eastern Europeans.

We hit the tourist-book standards like the vast Blue Mosque, the Galata Tower and the Istanbul Modern Art Museum. We gape at the magnificence of the soaring Hagia Sophia cathedral and the subterranean Basilica Cistern, a beautifully ornate underground water reservoir. Both the Hagia Sophia and the Cistern were built by Emperor Justinian I in the 6th century. Justinian and his wife, Theodora, are the coolest couple you could hope to find and their legacies are worth a trip to Istanbul alone.

A week in Istanbul is a mere heartbeat in the long, timeless story of this city, a place with such a deep, rich history. You could spend aeons here and still find something new. And while tourism fatigue is hitting places like Barcelona and Paris, in Istanbul you can guarantee you’ll be welcomed with open arms. So there’s never been a better time to go — especially if you’re a cat person.

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Phrygian Way attracts nature lovers

PHRYGIAN WAYThe Phrygian Way, which passes through four provinces in the Aegean and Central Anatolian regions, has become popular among nature lovers with its 506-kilometer route, the third longest hiking trail in Turkey.

The Union for the Protection and Development of Phrygian Cultural Heritage (FRİGKÜM), which was formed in 2009 for the revival of the Phrygian Valley, has realized a project that will enable people to discover the historical, cultural and natural beauties in the region as a whole by walking and biking. 

The entire route has been marked with red and white colors at international standards to provide safe walks for travelers on the Phrygian Way and informative direction signs have been placed at 73 points. 

One of the best cultural routes in the country, the Phrygian Way passes through eight districts and 44 villages in the province of Afyonkarahisar, Ankara, Eskişehir and Kütahya. 

phrygian_wayThe Phrygian Valley, with its rock formations from the Phrygians, rock monuments, rock tombs, churches and chapels, fairy chimneys and other natural beauties, is one of the most charming valleys in Turkey. 

One of the most important features of the region is thermal water springs. Since the Phrygians, it has been used for healing purposes and the region became known as Healing Phrygia. Because of this, interest in thermal resources in the Afyonkarahisar, Eskişehir and Kütahya provinces will increase,” said Tutulmaz. 

“Now . . . a dream has come true. The Phrygian Valley is the new spot for alternative tourism with log cabins, ATVs, bicycles and boat tours on Emre Lake. Similar projects will also be carried out in the Kütahya and Eskişehir parts of the valley this year,” he said. 

FrigPhrygian Valley 

The Phrygian Valley has been home to a number of communities since ancient times. The area was dominated by the Phrygians between 900 B.C. and 600 B.C. but was dealt a fatal blow in 676 B.C. by the Cimmerians, who came from further east beyond Anatolia. Later, the area fell under Roman control

The Phrygians experienced a golden age during the reign of King Midas, who ruled from Gordion—close to present-day Ankara—and is thought to have lived between 738 B.C. and 696 B.C.

Source: Hürriyet Daily News

Turkey: Turkish delights

Well, knock me over with a feather! I have receiving regular dire warnings from my countryfolk at the New Zealand Embassy in Ankara advising me to stay away from Turkey in general, and Istanbul (where I have been living safely and happily for more than 15 years) in particular. So, credit where credit is due, I want to share with you this article that appeared in the NZ Herald today, 25 April.

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Pretty magnanimous words, don’t you think?

The day is significant because hundreds of Australians and New Zealanders are currently in Turkey to commemorate the Gallipoli Campaign when our grandfathers, loyally following orders from their British Imperial masters, invaded the Ottoman Empire and spent eight months doing their best to kill its young men and capture its capital, Istanbul.

As happens every year, local people are extending customary hospitality to their former enemies, and local authorities providing security to ensure commemoration services proceed in comfort and safety.

Read Ms Wade’s article. Once you get past her opening remarks about a young man’s traditional circumcision operation, you’ll find that she and her fellow tourists had “an unforgettable . . . wonderful time.”

 

Beyond the war graves and remembrance is a vibrant land with a rich history, writes Pamela Wade.

Apr 25, 2017

It’s not the sort of thing you’d share with strangers, but after 10 days together and over 2500km of travel in a grand circuit around Turkey, we all felt like friends. There were 39 of us, Kiwis and Aussies, on this Insight Vacations tour and although it was the Gallipoli centenary and Anzac Day services that had brought us all together, the bulk of our time was spent exploring an older history.

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Photo: NZ Herald

Tour director Barcin has a university education that gives him an effortless command of not only the seven complicated centuries of the Ottoman Empire, but thousands of years of Greek and Roman history before that.

Literally thousands: five, in fact, at Troy, where nine levels of settlement have been excavated down to its beginnings in 3000BC. Wandering around the site, past walls, ditches, foundations, columns both standing and tumbled, and a theatre of tiered seats, the age of the place was hard to grasp, despite Barcin’s best efforts. What was obvious, however, was the sheer beauty of the ancient stone, softened by feathery fennel and bright red poppies against a background of the distant Dardanelles.

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Photo: NZ Herald

Some on the tour were deeply into history and the literary and religious connections, and everyone was impressed at Ephesus to be walking on polished marble pavers once trodden by Cleopatra, Mark Anthony and St Paul. For many of us, however, the visits to such sites, including Pergamon and Assos, were more about appreciating what remains rather than studying their origins. Pictures rather than words, perhaps, and no less legitimate for that. After listening to the explanations about what we were seeing – temples to Athena, Artemis, Dionysus, a towering library, a 10,000-seat theatre on a steep hillside, Roman baths, an Acropolis, the home of modern medicine, statues and so much more – the temptation was irresistible to use it all as the most glorious photoshoot ever.

The tour isn’t all archaeology, legend and history. There was shopping, too. Astute stall-holders, knowing their market, shouted “Kiwi! Cheaper than The Warehouse!” as we walked past; others went for flattery: “Beautiful rugs! Like you!” or pathos: “We have everything but customers.

Few, in the end, held out against the pretty scarves, the “genuine fake watches”, the evil eye pendants or the tapestry bags; but the serious shoppers waited for the visits to the factories. Fabulous fine lamb’s leather made into truly stylish jackets displayed in a catwalk fashion show; dozens of colourful wool and silk rugs unrolled with a flourish as we drank perilously strong raki; gorgeous decorated plates at a pottery visit that began with a mesmerising kick-wheel demonstration.

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Photo: NZ Herald

Then there was the culture: an evening of traditional dance in an underground theatre began deceptively low-key, but wound up to an exciting climax that sent us away buzzing. We saw real Whirling Dervishes spinning unfathomably long and fast; and met a friendly lady who lives in a house burrowed into the rock, where Helen Clark’s signed portrait hangs (at least during our visit) in pride of place.

This was at Cappadocia, the scenic high point for most of us, which is saying something in this country of bays and beaches, forests and farmland, white terraces and snow-capped volcanoes. Pillars of sculpted tufa capped by gravity-defying slabs of basalt make for a fantasy landscape, and to see it in low sun as a hundred hot-air balloons float overhead is unforgettable.

Actually, it was all unforgettable: Gallipoli, the poppies and tulips, the cats, the food, the friendly people. There were mosques, markets and museums; a cruise, calligraphy and coloured glass lamps; sacks of spices, pyramids of Turkish delight, tiny cups of atrocious coffee. I had a wonderful time.

If you want to be safe, stay home – and there’s no guarantee there either!

“We advise against all tourist and other non-essential travel to Ankara and Istanbul due to the heightened threat of terrorism and the potential for civil unrest (High risk).

“We advise against all travel to within 10 kilometres of the border with Syria, and to the city of Diyarbakir (Extreme risk).

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No sharks!

“We advise against all tourist and other non-essential travel to the provinces of Batman, Bingol, Bitlis, Diyarbakir, Gaziantep, Hakkari, Hatay, Kilis, Mardin, Mus, Sanliurfa, Sirnak, Siirt, Tunceli and Van in south-east Turkey (High risk).”

It was another of the regular advisories that appear in my mailbox from the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Ankara. Well, first of all, let me say that I appreciate their concern. It’s nice to know that my government is looking out for me although I am so far from home. And I have registered with them as they ask me to, so I guess I have to accept the stuff they send me as part of the price of citizenship – which I also do appreciate.

I feel sad, however, to see the leaders of my country jumping on the international bandwagon badmouthing Turkey and contributing to the campaign apparently aimed at portraying Turks and their government as corrupt, evil and dangerous. Thousands of New Zealanders and Australians continue to visit this country every year, welcomed by touchingly hospitable locals, as they commemorate the invasion perpetrated by their grandfathers 100 years ago.

I have been living in Istanbul and traveling to all parts of the country for many years and I have to tell you, I feel safer here than on the streets of Auckland, Sydney or London. Certainly this is a dangerous part of the world, and security is necessarily tight – but for heaven’s sake don’t use that as another reason to bash Turkey! Security is pretty damn intrusive in the USA too.

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. . . but you’ll be safe in Dubai

Dilek and I recently applied for a visitor’s visa so she can accompany me on a brief 6-day visit to Auckland – and the hoops she has to jump through! These days applications are processed by NZ’s foreign affairs people in Dubai. Now I want you to take a quick look at the map of Dubai and its immediate neighbours. And I would also like to refer you to an article that appeared on News.com.au in March this year:

‘There’s an ugly side to Dubai that you won’t read about in its tourist brochures — its army of migrant workers. The workers, who are largely from South East Asia, are paid well below the prices charged in the city’s expensive boutiques and glamorous hotels.

The migrant workers are not only at greater risk of exploitation, but are often housed in filthy conditions, with little down time. In short they are the hidden slaves of a rich city.

According to Human Rights Watch, foreigners make up 88.5 per cent of United Arab Emirates residents, with low-paid migrant workers being “subjected to abuses that about to forced labour”.’ 

Eighty-eight per cent of the residents are foreigners! Come on, guys! Fair’s fair! Ninety-nine per cent of Turkey’s population are citizens of the country, the government is democratically elected – and millions of refugees are flooding in from neighbouring countries seeking safety from violence created largely by the interference of Western governments. Let’s have a little positive reinforcement here!

I must admit I haven’t been to the southeast of Turkey for a few years, and even the news media here in Istanbul make that region out to be a pretty dangerous, lawless place. It always surprises me when students from that part of the country assure me things are not as bad as we big city dwellers are led to believe.

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There it is – Siirt

Last week there was a four-day culture festival in our new seaside park in Maltepe, featuring the attractions of Siirt: the cuisine, the natural beauty, the history, the local produce and handcrafts. I had to look at a map to see exactly where Siirt is. You’ll notice it is one of those areas that receives a special mention in that NZMFA warning – HIGH RISK!

Well, we figured we’d be ok crossing the road to our local park, so last Thursday we went over to take a look. You’ll see from the map that Siirt is way, way out in Turkey’s southeast, not too far from the border with Syria and Iraq; and pretty near the city of Mosul, currently witnessing major military action as a motley coalition tries to drive out occupying forces of ISIS/Daesh. The majority of Siirt’s population is Kurdish – and that combination of factors might lead one to expect that things would be none too peaceful. Somewhat surprisingly then, the people we spoke to were positive, cheerful folk enjoying their few days in the metropolis, but not all fazed by the prospect of returning home.

We bought two beautiful kilim rugs from a woman who runs a carpet-weaving school for the Siirt City Council teaching her skills to local women, and ensuring they get a fair price for their labours. There were stalls selling Pervari honey from the flowers of upland pastures, dried figs, pistachios and other local delicacies. We bought some interesting cheeses, one of which, yeraltı peyniri, gains its special flavour from having been buried underground for four months – I kid you not! Lunch was a plate of tender lamb roasted in a three-metre deep well lined with fire bricks, followed by the regional dessert künefe, a cake of shredded wheat filled with cheese, soaked in syrup, baked in the oven and topped with clotted buffalo cream and grated pistachio. Mere words cannot do it justice.

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Deyr-ul Zafaran Monastery, Mardin

People from Siirt, we learned, pride themselves on knowing three languages Kurdish, of course, but naturally they learn Turkish at school – and historical links to the Middle East mean that Arabic is also common. In the past there was a fourth language, Syriac, spoken by Assyrian Christians, who were tragically caught up in the great imperialist games leading up to the First World War. Some years ago, I visited the city of Mardin, and a nearby monastery, Dar-ul Zafaran. The building has been recently restored, and descendants of the original flock are returning, especially as a result of escalating violence across the border in Iraq and Syria. Interestingly, the monastery was built over a much earlier structure, a temple dedicated to Zoroastrian fire worship – an ancient religion predating Christianity and Islam.

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The town of Siirt also contains shrines sacred to several important Islamic saints. Veysel Karani was a contemporary of the Prophet Muhammed. Originally from Yemen, he journeyed to Medina in the hope of seeing the great man, but his timing was apparently off. Muhammed, however, impressed by Veysel’s piety, sent one of his personal robes as a gift – now preserved in Siirt as a holy relic. Ibrahim Hakkı Erzurumi was an 18th century Sufi mystic, poet, mathematician and physicist who wrote influential books on astronomy and philosophy. Zemzem-ul Hassa Hanım was a pious Muslim woman who lived in the town from 1765 to 1852 and was famed for her wisdom and devotion.

More recently, Siirt gave birth to Emine Hanım, wife of Turkey’s current President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who actually represented the province in the National Assembly from 2003 to 2007.

I’m keen to get down that way again, and having met people from the area, we are persuaded that we will be welcomed with bountiful hospitality when we do. Turkey’s southeast may still be a little daunting for visitors from abroad, but don’t cross Istanbul or the Aegean and Mediterranean coasts off your list. To add a little perspective to the tourism business, I came across the following list on a New Zealand website under the heading “Bashing tourists now a national pastime.” In fact I am not publishing the entire list:

  • Elderly Australian Tourist Stabbed in Head at Waihi Beach, Murder Investigation Launched.
  • Haka Thugs Attack French Tourists Near Raglan.
  • Vicious Sex Attack on 5 Year Old Belgian Tourist – little girl severely injured in a frenzied attack as she lay sleeping in a campervan in Turangi.
  • Austrian tourists mugged in Palmerston North.
  • Australian honeymooners lose it all. Two tourists robbed near Milford Sound.
  • Te Anau Troubled By Tourist Attacks – drunken youths attack visitors in Te Anau
  • Swiss Campers’ Tyres Slashed In Kaikoura.
  • Chilean Tourist Robbed, Loses Life’s Work. Robbed in a motel near Auckland international airport.
  • “New Zealand is a wonderful country, but be careful as it’s not so safe” – Swiss campervan tourist loses everything in Whangarei.
  • Honeymoon Couple Lose Precious Photos. British couple robbed outside Auckland zoo.
  • Czech Tourist, Jan Fakotor, Stabbed in a Motueka backpackers.

I also found an opinion piece in mainstream Auckland daily, The New Zealand Herald, where the writer reported:

“In New Zealand, political songs get banned, politicians easily reward themselves with new election advertising funding, donations to local government candidates are still somewhat opaque, taxpayer funds get misused by politicians, and new parties face big barriers to getting into Parliament. It sounds like an authoritarian country rather than a liberal democracy.”

I don’t see any of this reported in Turkey’s media, nor do I see panic-stricken travel advisories warning tourists against visiting New Zealand. Covering your butts is one thing, but let’s get a bit of balance here guys!

Life Goes On

When friends abroad contact me asking how we are getting on Turkey in the midst of the chaos – terrorist bombings, floods of immigrants from war-torn Syria, and the aftermath of a failed military coup – I confess to some feelings of shame.

Not that I have any involvement in any of these activities, you understand. It’s just that Dilek and I, being semi-retired, have spent most of the summer in Bodrum basking in the sunshine and dipping in the sea in this little idyll on Turkey’s south Aegean coast. Events in Istanbul and Ankara seem almost as far away as those in Salez, Switzerland, Paris, France, or Milwaukee, USA.

However, we know it’s a false paradise we are inhabiting. At the end of the month I’ll be heading back to work again in Istanbul. We are well aware of the hundreds of innocent people killed or injured while resisting the automatic weapons and tanks of soldiers whose officers were attempting to overthrow the country’s democratically elected government. We appreciate the additional difficulties that government is facing as it tries to assimilate three million Syrian refugees, and sustain economic confidence at home and abroad in the face of plunging revenue from tourism, anarchy and violence in neighbouring states, black propaganda from abroad, and a damaging spat with Russia.

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Wars? Coups? Refugees? What do we care?

This morning, sitting on the balcony enjoying our modest breakfast, casual conversation ceased as our eyes were drawn to a three-masted, square-rigged vessel of impressive size sailing with a brisk wind west to east across our field of vision. We see some pretty nice boats passing by during the summer, but this one was definitely out of the ordinary, and I had to check it out online. It wasn’t hard to find.

Wikipedia has this to say: The “Maltese Falcon is a state-of-the-art full rigged ship which was built by Perini Navi in Tuzla, İstanbul, and commissioned by her first owner Tom Perkins. She is one of the world’s most complex and largest sailing yachts at 88 metres (289 ft).”

Tom Perkins, God rest his soul, was comfortably ensconced on the Forbes billionaire list when he passed away earlier this year. An unabashed member of the American “One Percent”, he gained some publicity for himself in 2014 by comparing contemporary antagonism against the super-rich to Nazi Germany’s victimisation of Jews, and suggesting that the world would be a better place if people could cast votes in proportion to how much tax they paid. I think that part was a joke. As if those guys care about voting when they can pay lobbyists to pressure governments into giving them whatever they want.

Perkins is said to have paid $150 million to build the Maltese Falcon to his specs in 2006, but got bored with it three years later, selling it at a large loss (probably tax deductible) to another finance wizard (or witch) Elena Ambrosiadou. According to Forbes, “the yacht has 11,000 square feet (1,100 m2) of living space [and] fits up to 12 guests in five lower-deck staterooms and one upper-deck VIP cabin.” Of course Ms Ambrosiadou is generally busy making more money, so when she’s not using it, which Forbes tells me is most of the time, you can rent it (with eighteen crew thrown in) for $540,000 a week.

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A mere 57 m, but comfortable enough for 12 passengers, I guess

Well, that was today. Star of yesterday’s show was the Meserret II, which we were quite impressed with, until we saw the Falcon. Being a mere 57 metres (187 feet) it was not so easy to find online, and whoever owns it is a little more reclusive than Mr Perkins and Ms Ambrosiadou – but judging by the Arabic name, they must be from around this part of the world. It’s also available for hire, if your budget won’t quite stretch to half a million or so dollars a week. You can still squeeze twelve passengers on board, apparently. They won’t have quite the same living space as on the Falcon, but substantially more than my ancestors had when they sailed half way around the world in 1842 on a 37 metre (120 foot) motorless sailing ship with 250 other emigrants from Scotland.

Anyway, life goes on in Turkey, as you see – and I’m feeling less ashamed of myself now.

Anti-Turkey Bullswool

My New Zealand diplomatic people in Ankara send me regular updates on how they view the security situation in Turkey. Recently I got this one:

‘We now advise against all tourist and other non-essential travel to Ankara and Istanbul due to the heightened threat of terrorism and the potential for civil unrest (High risk). This is an increase to the risk level for Ankara and Istanbul.’

On 9 April 2016, the US Embassy in Ankara advised US citizens of credible threats to tourist areas, in particular to public squares and docks in Istanbul and Antalya.

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While in Brussels don’t forget to ride the Metro

So if you had been thinking of a trip to Turkey in the near future, you may now be reconsidering. On the other hand, Auckland’s number one (and only) newspaper, The NZ Herald, published a travel advisory on 23 March entitled ‘Why you need to visit Belgium’. The piece begins:

‘We love Belgium. This week’s terror attacks in Brussels have cast a pall over a beautiful country.

The best thing Kiwi travellers can do? Put Belgium on the list for your next European visit. Here are five reasons to visit the home of Tintin and great chocolate.’

Well, I’m ok with The Herald’s position here. In fact, the best response to terror is to get on with your life and not bow to the fear. I do, however, find the contrasting advice somewhat paradoxical. Especially given the rather limited list of attractions the writer offers to recommend Belgium:

Apparently the food is great, though specifics boil down to chocolate, waffles and hot chips! There’s a comic culture, and it’s not just about Tintin! Beer is plentiful and available in 1,000 varieties. There are lots of markets, and Christmas time is especially lovely. AND THE CLINCHER . . . There are 67 kilometres of coastline! That’s about the same length as Auckland’s Muriwai beach, in the entire country!

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Picturesque Belgian beach

The whole glowing article took 435 words – approximately the number of people you can expect to rub shoulders with per square metre of beach, I’d say, during Belgium’s month-long summer. My guess is, if you don’t have local friends to entertain you, you’ll be lucky to last a week. I’m not going to begin to list the attractions of Turkey. I reckon you could spend 435 days here, and do something memorably different every day.

Sadly, Western news media everyday publish ‘news’ and opinion pieces denigrating Turkey and its government. I have in front of me a page from CNN’s website penned by a Turkish academic and follower of the shadowy ex-pat. Fethullah Gülen. It’s not so long ago that Gülen was arousing much suspicion in his adopted homeland, America, and was the evil bogeyman of Turkey’s secular elite. In the last couple of years, however, there has been an about-face, and the mysterious Muslim cleric seems to have become the darling of anti-government propagandists within the country and abroad. We hear the same criticisms repeated again and again:

President Erdoğan is polarizing Turkish society.

In fact, a noisy minority of Erdoğan-haters has been doing its best to polarize Turkish society since the AK Party was elected to govern in 2002.

The state cracked down brutally on Gezi Park protesters in 2013, and holding public protests has become a life-risking activity.

Political protests in Turkey have always been known for violence. The so-called Gezi Park protests attracted a motley collection of anti-Erdoğanists with nothing in common other than their hatred of him. Some of the protesters may have been well-meaning tree-huggers, but there was the usual hard core of anarchic vandals.

The government is waging a war of terror on peace-loving Kurdish villagers.

The AK Party government made genuine efforts to work out a peace process with its Kurdish minority, including the establishment of Kurdish-language TV channels and the opening of a previously impossible dialogue. The US government, on the other hand, has been supporting and supplying Kurdish militants in Iraq and Syria for years for its own ends, making it more difficult to find a solution in Turkey. The PKK is internationally recognized as a terrorist organization.

Opposition media and members of parliament are harassed by the government and its supporters.

Political opposition to government policies is one thing – libelous personal attacks and deliberate incitement to violence quite another. Freedom has its limits.

Erdoğan has been seeking to change the constitution to create an all- powerful, executive-style presidency.

This is what the United States already has. But anyway, Mr Erdoğan can’t change the constitution by himself. There is a democratic process that must be followed. The USA might benefit from public debate on its own incomprehensible electoral system.

Reporters Without Borders call Turkey “the biggest prison for journalists in the world.”

This is nonsense. Who are these journalists that are in prison? Can we see a list of names?

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Memories of Turkey’s 1980 military coup linger on

The writer of this article, Alp Aslandoğan, says: ‘I was a middle school student in the 1970s during another period of instability, when armed groups thrived and thousands of young people were killed. I’m even more worried for Turkey now.’

I would wonder what a 12-year-old child of a privileged Turkish family really understood of the political chaos that reigned in his country in the 1970s; chaos that began with a military coup in 1960 when the Prime Minister was summarily hanged by the coup-leaders, and continued through the 1990s until the most recent military intervention in 1997. Anyone who says that Turkey is less democratic now is either ignorant of his (or her) own history, or deliberately distorting the facts for some ulterior purpose. ‘Thousands of young people were killed’ then – and it’s worse now?

Then there are the accusations of government corruption. Even if these accusations had been proven, which they haven’t, they would pale into insignificance beside previous governments that twiddled their thumbs while presiding over decades of banana-republic inflation, as they allowed 90% of the country to languish in medieval backwardness.

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Not everyone loves him either

Like me, you may have been following with interest the current scandal unfolding as a result of the ‘Panama papers’ leaks. One of my foreign colleagues, outspoken critic of Turkey’s AKP government, expressed surprise that Mr Erdoğan and his people had not been mentioned as involved in this ocean of money-laundering and tax evasion. British Prime Minister Cameron, however, has been named, and is facing calls to resign from his own citizens and local media.

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New Zealand police dealing with protester

New Zealand, it seems, is one of the countries recommended by lawyers Mossack Fonseca to their mega-rich clients as a reliable place to hide cash. Prime Minister John Key has made no secret of his grand scheme to turn our tiny nation into the Switzerland of the South Pacific. And what exactly does that entail? Mr Key has made a name for himself over the past year for his sponsorship of a project to change NZ’s flag, pushing ahead with referenda despite apparent lack of public support. Just yesterday it emerged that much of the financial backing for Mr Key’s questionable project came from ‘wealthy Chinese donors’ wooed at secret private fund-raising luncheons – which must surely raise speculation as to how much the NZ PM’s political success depends on those same wealthy Chinese donors. Despite his government’s repeated denials, it seems certain that the property boom making Auckland houses amongst the world’s most unaffordable, has been driven by rich Chinese ‘investors’.

Another frequent criticism leveled at Turkey’s government is that they are ‘Islamic-rooted’, whatever that means. So it was with interest that I read on Friday that Democratic presidential hopeful, Bernie Sanders, beloved of the American intellectual Left, has accepted an invitation from Pope Francis to attend a conference in the Vatican just four days before the New York Primary. According to NBC, ‘Since 1972, the winner of the popular vote in every presidential race won the Catholic vote, going by the exit polls. From Nixon in 1972 to Obama in 2012.’ And what has the Catholic Church got to say about a woman’s right to choose? Anyone? Anyone?

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Bernie Sanders – friends in high places

So don’t expect too much from President Sanders, is my advice, even if he does manage to edge out Mrs Clinton for the Democratic nomination – and whichever capitalist ignoramus the Republicans select. Previous darling of the liberal Left, Barack Obama, has had eight years to close Guantanamo Prison as he promised – and those unconvicted inmates are still waiting. On Tuesday, President Obama acknowledged that “civilians were killed that shouldn’t have been” in past U.S. drone strikes, but said the administration is now “very cautious” about striking where women or children are present. Good to hear – especially for those families of civilians killed in previous US drone strikes. Mr Obama went on to say, “In situations of war, you know, we have to take responsibility when we’re not acting appropriately.” As far as I’m aware, however, the United States has not actually declared war on any of those countries whose citizens they are killing with drone strikes. But maybe that’s just a semantic quibble.

Oludeniz_Beach_areal

Not the only beach in Turkey – and five months of summer

Anyway, what I really want to say here is, if you were thinking of a trip to Turkey, don’t be put off by the bad publicity. If you’re American, you or your children are probably more likely to be shot by a disaffected nutcase in a random massacre; or if you’re an Asian in New Zealand, to get mugged on the street by young hooligans. It’s a dangerous world – but Turkey is a beautiful country. There may not be a thousand varieties of beer, but there are a thousand-and-one other things to do.

Tourism and Refugees in Turkey – Mega-yachties to the rescue!

Income from the tourism industry, as we all know, is a two-edged sword. In the post-modern era, First World nations have ‘outsourced’ most of their manufacturing industry and obtain most of their natural resources from abroad. If their people want work, the tourism sector is a big provider – a kind of serfdom to the wealthy globetrotter. It’s the same deal in poorer countries where little of the income from resource exports trickles down from the governing elite.

Poor natives need the tourist dollar to feed themselves and their families; and rich natives despoil the country’s natural beauty building opulent pleasure palaces to insulate visitors from the realities of local poverty.

I saw a ship go sailing by . . .

I saw a ship go sailing by . . .

So I read with mixed feelings a report in today’s newspaper that tourist numbers in Turkey are down 10% or more this year. In Antalya, hotspot of the Mediterranean coast, revenue losses amount to an estimated $2 billion so far. In our very own Bodrum, visitor count is 12% less than at the same time last year. In fact I would think that is an optimistic measure. Of necessity we visited the marina township of Turgutreis on Saturday – normally a day to avoid since the weekly market draws large crowds and crazy traffic. Well, I can’t say it was like a ghost town, but for sure the expected feeding frenzy failed to materialise. We conducted our business, enjoyed a leisurely breakfast at a seaside café and escaped with a minimum of stress.

So what’s changed? The sun is still shining and the sparkling Aegean is still reflecting the endless blue of  summer skies; crimson bougainvillea still frame the pristine white walls of village houses, holiday villas and B&Bs; the local beer Efes Pilsen is still being served in nicely chilled glasses and cholesterol-laden deep fried English breakfasts are still served well into the afternoon. Possibly the flood of propaganda in foreign news media that Turkey is ruled by a megalomaniac dictator (totally untrue) is starting to influence travellers. Perhaps news of the chaotic situation across the border in Syria is persuading European sun-seekers that the beach at Bognor Regis could be a safer option.

For sure that’s a bad business. The United Nations Commissioner for Refugees informs us that 1.7 million Syrians are registered as having entered Turkey since civil war broke out four years ago, and another 300,000 have slipped past border controls. Camps set up by the government are providing basic needs for around 200,000 at an estimated cost of $3 million a month. Where are the other 1.8 million, half of whom are said to be children? Struggling to survive as best they can on the streets, in the parks and derelict buildings of Turkey’s cities from Gaziantep to Istanbul, working when they can, begging and maybe stealing when they can’t . . . What would you do?

To put it in perspective, two million is a little less than the population of Houston, Texas, and a little more than Philadelphia, PA, the USA’s 5th largest city. In the United Kingdom it would be Number Two, behind London and ahead of Birmingham. And those people aren’t tourists coming to check out the delights of Turkey’s beaches and nightspots. Many of them were middle class people in their homeland with jobs and houses of their own. They left because life became impossible in a country on which the US military has reportedly been dropping $7 million worth of high explosives every day.

Still, I don’t blame Americans. For the most part, they have to believe what their government and news media tell them. And most of them I’m sure, are well-meaning people. A friend of ours over there had an interesting idea the other day for a documentary film. The concept was to research the lives of the nine people killed in the church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina last week, in a worthy attempt to personalise the tragedy and perhaps reduce the level of race hatred by showing that African Americans are people too, just like us.

Well you could, I guess, squeeze the lives of nine people and their families into an hour-long documentary. Impossible to do the same for the tens of thousands who have died in Iraq, Syria and Palestine in recent years. Impossible, so best not to even try. In the mean time, the people of Turkey are struggling to look after those two million refugee Syrians. Angelina Jolie, I understand, has come for another look at the situation. Let’s see what comes of that.

Samar's master bedroom

Samar’s master bedroom

But getting back to Turkey’s other problem – the fall-off in tourist numbers. It does seem that the ultra-rich citizens of the world are stepping in to take up the slack, so let it not be said those guys (and girls) don’t have an altruistic bone in their bodies.

Just the other day I watched a large, streamlined blue and white vessel motor serenely past between the Turkish coast and the nearby Greek islands. Even with the disadvantage of perspective, it seemed to dwarf the houses on the shore, and I couldn’t resist the urge to take a picture. The next day I read in our local rag that a certain Omar K Alghanim was currently cruising around the Bodrum coast in his mega-yacht Samar. Mr Alghanim is, apparently, scion of a Kuwaiti family that holds the Gulf agencies for Acer, Yamaha, Sony Ericsson, Samsonite, Samsung, Siemens, Nokia, Motorola, Kenwood, Fujitsu, IBM,Dell, Casio, Cannon, Daewoo, Electrolux, Compaq, Minolta, Philips, Toshiba, Whirlpool and Xerox (among others), as well as owning Gulf Bank, chosen by The Banker magazine as ‘Bank of the Year’ in 2012. Wouldn’t you love to know what a bank has to do to win that award!

Anyway, Alghanim’s boat Samar is a 77-metre (252 ft) luxury motor yacht designed inside and out by two guys I hadn’t heard of but you can check them out here. It has a helipad, a large spa pool, swimming pool, an open air bar, large deck areas, a side garage, as well as a movie theatre. The vessel is capable of extended global cruising, with a range of 6,000 nautical miles and cold storage provisions for 44 people (32 of whom are crew). When Omar’s not using it himself, I gather he hires it out for a modest 650-675,000 euros per week, so if you’re looking to impress a girl or a business contact, you could do worse than take him or her out for cruise on Samar. According to a site I found discussing Who is buying up the USA, apart from the boat, and I guess a nice little pad in Kuwait, the guy owns a 1,600 m2 (16,000 sq ft) mansion on 15 81st Street, NY, and a 20 ha (48 acre) estate named Sassafras in Lloyd Harbor, Long Island.

Where do you go after you've been to Nirvana?

Where do you go after you’ve been to Nirvana?

After checking out the pictures Google turned up, I realised Samar is all white, so it couldn’t have been the boat I saw. However, today’s paper turned up another possibility. It seems a second mega-yacht has been spotted in the area, and this one is white with a blue hull. Going by the spiritually optimistic name of Nirvana, it is allegedly owned by Alisher Burkhanovitch Usmanov. Without the Russian suffixes, Alişer Burhan wouldn’t raise an eyebrow in Turkey – and his online bio tells me he was born a Muslim in Uzbekistan, though he subsequently married a Jewish lady. Forbes and Bloomberg disagree as to whether he is the 58th or the 37th richest guy in the world – but all agree he is Number One in Russia, owns two modest properties in the UK, ‘Sutton Place, Surrey, the former home of J. Paul Getty, in addition to a £48 million London mansion’, and a 30% share of the Arsenal Football Club. As one might expect, there are some questions about how Mr Usmanov made his pile, and Wikipedia reports that he served six years of an eight-year jail sentence back in the 80s. It’s not easy to get details, however, as the Uzbek gentleman’s lawyers have managed to get just about all references to it removed from newspaper websites, archives, blogs and Google search.

Well, from my understanding of Buddhist philosophy, that mega-yacht may be Alisher Bey’s best chance of attaining Nirvana. Nevertheless, some might argue it’s worth taking the risk. The boat is 88 metres (271 ft) long and sold for 199 million euros. Wonder what he did with the one million change he got from his two hundred million-euro note? Left it as a tip maybe?

This time the colours were right, but again, a close comparison with the photo I took seemed to suggest that the vessel I saw wasn’t Nirvana either. And, big as my one was, I suspect it wasn’t quite in the 77-88 metre class. Looks like, with the competition around Bodrum at the moment, whoever owns that one didn’t warrant a mention in the local press. Anyway, Dilek and I are pleased to know we won’t have to rescue Turkey’s ailing tourist industry on our own.