By William J. Furney
You have to turn on laptops and tablets as you go through the twin layers of security at Istanbul’s jaded and soon-to-be redundant Ataturk Airport, to prove they are actual working computing devices and not fakes concealing something nefarious inside. (What if the batteries had died?) After years of terrorist attacks in recent times, the chaotic Turkish city on the European side of the Muslim country that’s increasingly becoming hardline and ultra conservative under coup survivor President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (the “g” is silent), is taking no chances.
On my last day after a week in the broken-pavement city in late January, I rose at 6am and turned on my computer, hoping the internet had returned. It had died a spluttering death the evening before, during a WhatsApp call with my son, Reuven, in England, and Apple TV — with vital Netflix among its offerings — hadn’t been available all night. This morning there was no resurrection of cyberspace in my central Istanbul apartment with a spectacular view of the Golden Horn — mirror-flat Bosphorus strait, bridge, traffic, hills, majestic mosques — and the screen said there was a problem with a cable.
Looking down on the floor where the wifi router was, and the tangle of cables snaking to the flat-screen TV, bass speakers, subscription TV device and the Apple gadget, I saw the data cable going to the router was not going to the router, because it had been spliced in two and each end now sported copper wires sprouting wildly and nakedly in all directions. I tried to twist each shocked wire back together, but without the protective, insulating rubber sheath, it was in vain.
Several hours later, at Ataturk, it was also an unfortunate case of no internet, at least for me. You could get two hours for free, but you had to give your phone number and receive a code via SMS; but my phone didn’t work in Turkey (neither did my European wireless internet device), so it was all fairly pointless, and I wondered if you just wanted to use the internet on your laptop or tablet, and didn’t have a phone, what would you do. In the modern, tech-centric world of which Turkey claims to be part, it’s just not very convenient at all. Either you’re part of the connected planet or you’re not; there are no in-betweens.
Turkey: Flying High, or Praying for Take-Off?
Istanbul, population 15 million (in a country of nearly 80 million), now has three airports. Two are in the much smaller European part — Ataturk, named after the revolutionary and founding president Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, and the latest, aptly called Istanbul Airport, a project of President Erdogan, a former mayor of Istanbul whose mega-projects keep on coming. (Shockingly, 27 workers died building Istanbul Airport, which is due to take over from Ataturk when at some point it becomes fully operational and the latter will be relegated to aviation-fair status.) An undersea tunnel connecting the European and Asian sides in this tectonically active region is another, and it opened in 2016. Meanwhile, work continues on Erdogan’s controversial big mosque in protestor-favourite Taksim Square, and it looked to me as though it was still in the same raw stages of construction as when I was here last year (see main image; photo by yours truly).
“We have a lot of potential, but it’s not being used,” Mustafa, a stylishly dressed and youngish man with floppy hair who was taking me to various places, told me as we drove along a motorway. Education is so important, I replied, and indeed Istanbul has many world-renowned places of higher education, and we were heading to a sprawling university campus that morning. He was born in the capital, Ankara, and now lived here, after having spent some time in Germany — and he didn’t like his home city or even this one all that much; the frequently gridlocked traffic that we would later find ourselves immersed in drove him mad. “What’s the best thing about Istanbul?” I asked Mustafa. “The sea,” he said. An escape from the madness, I supposed that night, as I looked out at the calming waters from my apartment living room.
Hard Turkey Times
It’s not possible to write about Turkey without discussing its interventions in Syria, where the barbaric civil war will enter its eight year in March, with around 580,000 dead, and its war against Kurdish insurgents that has been rumbling on since the late 1970s — both seemingly without any urgent end. Nearly four years after Erdogan was almost forced from power and subsequently embarked on an almighty clean-up of those he deeded against him — rounding up judges, civil servants, journalists and more and either firing them en mass or jailing them — he is more potent than ever.
Perhaps it’s Erdogan’s steely reserve and bolstered confidence at having overcome extraordinary odds to stay in power that led him to speak out in such extraordinarily, powerful terms against fellow Muslim nation Saudi Arabia when Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered at Rihad’s embassy in Istanbul last year. The incident — which shocked the world, led to calls for sanctions against the oil-rich nation and for de facto ruler Mohammad Bin Salman to be demoted, or even prosecuted, for allegedly having ordered the hit against the critical Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist — pitted Erdogan against the blindingly opaque House of Saud, and the Turkish leader demanded answers.
We still, however, do not have them. UN special rapporteur Agnes Callamard was in Turkey the same time as me and was investigating the horrific episode with the cooperation of the Turkish government. As she probed, and was granted access to an audio recording of the journalist’s slaying, an aide to Erdogan said bin Salman remained “the chief suspect” in the murder.
As for Turkey’s long-standing desire to join the grand project that is the European Union (Brexit notwithstanding), the country will have get its own human rights and other abuses in order before it can even be considered as a possible member among civilised nations that respect fundamental human rights and the rule of law and basic freedoms. After all, how can you respect a country that blocks an online encyclopedia?
- Title photograph, showing a mosque under construction in Taksim Square, Istanbul, is by William J. Furney.