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.

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Warning for Tourists and Travellers

I keep getting warnings from my compatriots at the NZ Embassy in Ankara advising me to avoid traveling to Istanbul if it’s not absolutely necessary – Well actually I live here, what can I do?

So I want to thank the Canadian Government for putting things in perspective with their assessment of places around the world that might be risky for tourists:

“From the terror attacks in Nice, France to the ongoing spread of the Zika virus, the past year has been a dizzying one in terms of violence and disease outbreaks throughout the world. These factors, among others, increase the likelihood travelers will be required to stay up to date on travel safety advisories. Using 2016 data from the Canadian government and The Global Health Data Exchange, HealthGrove, a health visualization site by Graphiq, created an ascending list of the most dangerous countries to travel to.

unnamed“The Canadian Travel Advice and Advisories data comprises four major categories — “exercise normal security precautions,” “exercise a high degree of caution,” “avoid nonessential travel” and “avoid all travel.” HealthGrove’s list includes countries with at least an “exercise a high degree of caution” rating or higher and nations are ranked by worsening travel advisories. Ties were broken by using the Travel Mortality Index, which provides an aggregate score representing the likelihood of death caused by traveling to a given country. The higher the index, the higher the probability of traveler death. The causes of death in the Index vary from diseases like Tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS to causes like “interpersonal violence,” “exposure to forces of nature,” “collective violence” and “legal intervention.” The variation in causes explains why you’ll see France, for example, with a score (116.2), which is separated from that of Honduras (120.4) by only a few points.”

Here are some extracts from their list, starting with the most dangerous:

  1. Qatar
  2. Jordan
  3. Kuwait
  4. Bahrain
  5. Maldives
  6. UAE (ie Dubai)
  7. Iran
  8. Israel
  9. Tunisia
  10. China
  11. Armenia
  12. Costa Rica
  13. Saudi Arabia

and, coming in at No.33 . . .  France – Interesting!

43. Belgium – Likewise!

94. Turkey – See? Not so bad, huh?

And they don’t mention earthquakes in New Zealand or police violence in the United States.

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!

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.