Postcard from Turkey

By Krista Kafer ( Oppressive heat and lack of sleep soften the edges of consciousness and blur the colors of memory. I have dreamy impressions of the four days I spent in Turkey this month, bordered on either side by the hard lines of travel. Together with four other Americans – one international expert and his wife, a retired educator; an education expert; and a representative from a higher education council – I arrived in Istanbul after four flights and little sleep.

We began our journey with a boat ride on the Bosporus, the river that bisects Istanbul into the Asiatic and European sides. Istanbul is the only city to occupy two continents. Elaborate stone mosques with slender minarets, Victorian-style mansions, palaces, and hip restaurants passed us on the European side. Hills rose on the more distant Asian shore where the golden light of near-sunset burnished the pale facades of apartment buildings with red clay tiled roofs. After the requisite glass of fresh fruit juice, our hosts led us to the buffet on the lower deck where we had our first taste of Turkish food. Our palettes were unprepared for the delights of the cuisine with its fresh vegetables, savory meats, and delicious fish. Turkish food rivals French food, my favorite, in terms of sheer yumminess. Later, we finished the evening at a famous patisserie eating baklava on the roof terrace. Minarets, swathed in pale moonlight, rose above the still busy streets. Above the murmur of conversation, the call to prayer, like a strange song spilled forth.

In wee hours of the morning we boarded another plane taking us to the capital city of Ankara. Ubiquitous construction projects signal rapid urban growth. The city is modern and attractive yet distinctly Turkish. The new apartment buildings are decorated in beautiful tile mosaics. At a highrise office of a prominent businessman, we were treated to a hands-on lesson in ebru – traditional Turkish painting. The artist literally paints on water with horsehair brushes. When satisfied, he lays a sheet of paper upon the water which absorbs the paint. As with other meetings, we left with gifts under our arms. We received so many gifts during our stay I had to borrow another travel bag to bring them home.

Here while entertaining an endless stream of meetings with dignitaries, educators, and business leaders; I received my first impression of Turks. Turks seem both European and Asian. Sophisticated and secular like Westerners, they are also warm and generous like the Arabs to the south.

While the modern state of Turkey dates to 1923, the Turkish people are of much older origins. Migrating from central Asia, Turks gradually conquered Anatolia from the Byzantines who ruled the eastern Roman Empire after the fall of Roman civilization in the west. In 1453, the Turks took Constantinople, breaking through the massive double wall that had long shielded the city. The crumbling ruins, visible throughout the modern city, testify to the strength of the Ottoman army. At their height, Ottoman rule spanned Anatolia, the Middle East, North Africa, and Southeastern and Eastern Europe. Only the combined efforts of the European powers stopped the Turkish military juggernaut at Vienna. The powerful empire lasted until its alliance with Germany in World War I led to its demise. Carved up by the victors, the Turks retained essentially the borders they have today.

Modern Turkey is a democratic republic. Like many states founded in the 20th Century, it suffers from the statist economic policies popular at the time of its inception. The government regulates everything. In the field of education, bureaucrats in Ankara place teachers and write curriculum. Even private K-12 schools, tutoring companies, and universities are regulated.

In this year’s edition of the Index of Economic Freedom produced by the Heritage Foundation and the Wall Street Journal, Turkey ranks 85th in the world in terms of the level of government coercion in the marketplace. Rated on such variables as trade policy, taxation, property rights, wages and prices, regulation, and other factors, the Index rates Turkey among the “mostly unfree countries” of India, China, and others in Africa and central America. The vast authority of the government became clear when I asked the head of a private university what freedom and flexibility the university has compared to public universities. He responded that other than the freedom to raise their own money, they are regulated the same. Basically they receive less money but bear the same burden of regulation – what a deal.

Other problems persist. The Economist reported recently that only 40 percent of Turkish youths have a secondary school diploma. A third of school aged girls are not even in school. Among the Kurdish minority, statistics are more dismal. An adjacent article reported that 47 of the country’s writers face criminal charges for insulting the country and other controversial writing.

In spite of the heavy hand of government, the country seems to be prospering. An exporter of agricultural products, textiles, and minerals, the country is experiencing a growth rate of 8 percent. Turkey is currently seeking admittance into the European Union. It must first satisfy the demands of entry including resolving its ongoing conflict with Greece over the island of Cyprus. If admitted, Turkey will be the first predominantly Muslim country to enter the union.

Although the citizenry is 99 percent Muslim, the government is strictly secular. As in the rest of Europe, the influence of religion is waning. About half of the country is nominally Muslim. We saw women with and without head scarves and nearly all in very chic outfits. A Turkish mall in Istanbul featured hip clothes, modern electronics and of course, giggling teenage girls. The mall could have been anywhere in the world.

To be sure, the countryside is certainly more conservative and distinctively Turkish than the cosmopolitan city of Istanbul. After another hot, near sleepless night, we flew to Izmir, a city on the coast of the Aegean Sea. Dozing in the van on the way to Ephesus, I awoke to a stunning, sun-scorched Mediterranean countryside. Mountains covered in pine trees and orchards of peaches, olives, and figs, blurred past my window. The figs, sampled at a fruit stand, were luscious.

It was 110 degrees in Ephesus. The sun, reflecting off the marble ruins, was blinding even with a hat and sunglasses. We walked in the footsteps of Apostle Paul -- listening to the strange Irish brogue of our Turkish tour guide who had gained his language skills from Irish and Scottish friends. Half blinded by the reflected sunlight, I stood in the great theatre facing rows of stone that could seat an audience of 24,000. It was as if I could hear the roar of the angry crowd roused against the apostle. Incited by the sellers of idols who stood to lose money, the mob shouted “Great is Diana!” condemning Paul as he stood before them. For a second I could hear their voices. I turned to go. A short distance later, I came to gift shops selling Christian souvenirs.

Back in Izmir we enjoyed a quick cup of hot, sweet tea. The café’s awning could not protect us from the swelter. It was 105 degrees at least and humid. After another doze in the van, we arrived at a friend of a friend’s house. The house sits on the edge of a lake ringed by olive trees. On the walkway to the house we passed three terraced gardens full of ripening tomatoes, egg plants, beans, herbs, and strawberries. Behind the house, the family keeps an orchard. The house has about same square footage as a large middle class home in the United States. The walls are painted but there are no pictures, typical for Muslim homes. The living room features a traditional room with sitting pillows and a low table, as well as a modern room with chairs. Our host is a judge and wealthy by Turkish standards.

My colleague Shahnaz and I were seated with the women. All but one wore colorful head scarves and long sleeves. I admired their endurance; it was at least 100 degrees in the house. We sampled the chewy, semi-sweet candy that is known as Turkish Delight. Joining the men on the balcony we ate an exquisite meal overlooking the orchard. As the sun set, the song of cicadas faded to the chirping of crickets. After the meal, the sexes separated again. The women languished on pillows fanning themselves and drinking thick, sweet Turkish coffee in small, china cups. The host’s daughter and her friends translated for the group. The sounds of Turkish and English flowed back and forth flavored with laughter. Everyone was smiling. Deeply relaxed from heat and sleep deprivation, I thought this might be one of the loveliest moments of my life.

Back at our hotel in Izmir, the power went out in the middle of the night leaving our room at 95 degrees, possibility higher. I was beyond sleeping. A final plane ride brought us back to Istanbul for some sightseeing. Hopped up on sweet tea, we wandered from the Sultan’s palace to Hagia Sophia, the Byzantine cathedral turned mosque turned museum, to the Blue Mosque, a sublimely beautiful building with thousands of blue ceramic tiles. The visit to Hagia Sophia left me with a lingering sadness. It was once the marvel of the Byzantine capital. Its high gold dome floats above rows of grand interior arches and windows. Despite its structural grandeur, its paint is flaking. While some of the original Christian mosaics remain, Islamic calligraphy covers part of the interior walls. One can see where the cross was removed from the great church door. Like a smoldering ember left after a great fire has been quenched, the church is but a shadow of its former self.

We boarded the van again to head to the suburbs of Istanbul to a businessman’s summer home. Along with gardens and orchards, he keeps peacocks, turkeys, hens, pigeons, Anatolian shepherds, and a horse. As in Izmir, the family is joined by friends for the evening. We devour the most delicious grilled meats, stuffed peppers, and chopped cucumber, onion, and tomato salad, flat bread, and other sumptuous bites. It seemed impossible to eat more until the bowls of fresh fruit were set before us – perfect apricots, a kind of dried fruit roll-up, dried white mulberries, nuts, and of course delicious coffee. The conversation ebbed and flowed in Turkish and English. These men and women, like everyone we had met, are deeply concerned about the future of their country. Their philanthropic giving supports schools, colleges, and hospitals around the country. When the government flounders, their institutions are laying the ground for future prosperity. We are honored to know them.

On our final day, we have two more meetings plus a few hours of shopping. Our bags grow heavy with hand painted pottery and exotic textiles. After a final dinner at a local university, we held back to the hotel. Enjoying the balmy evening by the pool, our small group chatted about the whirlwind trip. Since we had to be at the airport at 3 am we decided to stay up rather than sleep. Somehow it seemed a fitting end to four and a half days in Turkey.