The end of a beautiful friendship

Erdogan’s rightward turn on domestic policies and his rants against the US are unnerving to those thinking about visiting Turkey.
Sunday 18/03/2018
A poster of modern Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk decorates a bridge as a plain clothes police officer keeps a watchful eye in Istanbul. (AP)
Lost lustre. A poster of modern Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk decorates a bridge in Istanbul. (AP)

I loved Turkey almost from the moment my plane landed in Istanbul 26 years ago. I had never experienced anything quite like it. The people were so warm and friendly. The food was delicious. To this day kofta remains one of my favourite meals and I frequently have yogurt, feta cheese and pastirma for breakfast.

It was impossible to ignore the history of Turkey because it was everywhere you looked. My then fiancee and now wife took me to see the famous walls of the city and the spot where it was believed the Ottomans breached them in 1453. As a history nut, it was a real treat for me.

I had several of the most wonderful experiences of my life in Turkey.

As I stood on the balcony of the old harem in the Topkapi Palace, the call to prayer rang out from hundreds of minarets across the city. Soon it was the only sound, drowning out even the roar of the ever-present traffic.

It was transfixing and magical.

As was the time that I walked into the courtyard of the Suleymaniye Mosque and felt like I literally stepped back in time. Suddenly no TV antennas were visible. All signs of the 20th century had disappeared and the only noise was the voice of the imam leading the faithful in prayer.

Also transfixing and magical was the crazy joy of navigating the old bazaar with its many shops with bags of open spices and vegetables and the ever-present gold and jewellery merchants.

Several years ago, my son took a gap year before he started college and chose to spend it living on the Asian side of the Bosporus across from Istanbul. To this day he tells me that the ferry ride across to the European side every day remains a favourite memory.

No matter how many times I went over the past two decades, Turkey always surprised and pleased me. I became a sort of an unofficial tourism ambassador for the country. I constantly told friends who were terrified at the thought of travel in the Middle East that things were different in Turkey. That it was a much friendlier country and headed in a more democratic direction. I advised them on places to visit and to make sure they bought a simit roll from a street vendor at some point while in Istanbul.

However, if I may borrow a line from the Irish poet William Butler Yeats, all has changed and changed utterly.

The US Embassy in Ankara was forced to shut down recently because of security threats. What I found more distressing was that the embassy advised Americans across the country to be careful, to avoid large crowds, to let friends and family members know where they would be and to keep a low profile.

The Turkey of today is not the Turkey of even five years ago. I remember how excited many of my Turkish friends were at the election of then former Istanbul Mayor Recep Tayyip Erdogan as prime minister and his promises to clean up the corruption that was so endemic in Turkish politics. Which he largely kept… at first although recent revelations about banks in Italy and stashed funds may prove otherwise.

Many of those friends who were so excited at first have left the country and some of them have been arrested in Erdogan’s paranoid spasms of revenge against anyone who dares speak against him, regardless of where they come from in Turkish society.

The past two US administrations share part of the blame for the deterioration of relations between the two countries but Erdogan’s rightward turn on domestic policies and his rants against the United States, particularly its refusal to hand over controversial cleric Fethullah Gulen and its support of the Kurds in Syria, are unnerving to those thinking about visiting Turkey.

When you add in the virulent anti-American diatribes of the largely government-controlled Turkish media, it makes the situation worse. I no longer sing the praises of Turkey to my friends or tell them that it’s safe for Americans to travel in Turkey because I don’t believe it is.

There will surely be more security warnings from the US Embassy in Ankara, more hostility generated against Americans from the Turkish media and increased threats from Erdogan about policies between the two governments.

Not so long ago the thought of Turkey would make me smile. Now I feel only sadness in the knowledge that things are going to get worse before they get better.