I landed at Ataturk Airport as dusk settled over the horizon of minarets. Making my way out of the gate I was greeted by my cousin whom I had not seen in some years. We made our way to the trams whilst briefly catching up. During our cramped hour in the carriages I was tapped on the shoulder by a boy sitting on his mother’s lap, he could not have been any older than two. As I turned around, he told me that he liked my beard, we all laughed. He tapped my shoulder once more, this time asking if my cousin is my girlfriend. We laugh again, his mother blushes. After the complimentary welcome to Istanbul by my young travel companion we finally arrived at our stop. A quick five-minute walk to my cousin’s apartment gives me a glimpse into Istanbul life – a place frozen in time. Not so visually but in its energy. Scores of restaurants, bakeries and shops open late into the night. Streets filled with life and diversity ignorant to the time of day. It could be easy to assume, by looking at the storefronts, that many things have changed in Turkey since 1915. However, the streets undeniably retain a historic market-like quality where people would have once negotiated and exchanged goods.
I am quickly reminded of my work on Turkey during my undergraduate thesis. It seemed bizarre to now walk the very streets I had read about. Nevertheless, my idea that the Turkish peasant had changed very little in the last 100 years was reinforced. He remains quintessentially Turkish in his mannerisms and thought. The traditional older generation choose to spend their evenings in café’s where a grainy television screen shows an indistinct football match seemingly on an eternal loop. I point to the survival of an Ottoman spirit in Turkey not as a critique but a feat. After all, it must be difficult to retain the essence of your ancestors whilst in the belly of modernity – although expectedly, all parts of society do not get to share in the bounties of progress. For all its modern infrastructure and development, reminders of Turkey’s Ottoman past loom large. The historic mosques and, more discreetly, the pockets of Ottoman and early Republic architecture, that make up many people’s homes, mean ties have not, and cannot be cut from the past. Turkey as a nation, geographic region and a culture presents a truly fascinating dichotomy. A place where ethnic groups mix, East meets West and religion meets secularism. There exist few places in the world where such contrasts unfold peacefully.
After dropping my bags, we left my cousin’s apartment for the evening with a vague idea for the night’s plan. After a quick tram ride we negotiated surprisingly empty, maze-like streets before arriving at a small, traditional soup restaurant that, inside, looked as though it was a relic of the Ottoman era. After our brief stop we continued; walking up steep stairs, dark streets and generally grey areas. Turning a corner however, the atmosphere quickly changed, almost as if someone had turned up the contrast on a dial. The dark greys gave way to the familiar colour and sound of Istanbul. A stark difference from the back streets we had walked through moments earlier to arrive here. It was difficult to tell where the restaurants and bars ended and the streets began as motorbikes and cyclists avoided tables of people unflinchingly eating their evening meals in the road. This was my first glimpse into the life of Turkey’s youth, as I would quickly realise Turkey’s story is authentically a tale of two cities.
Climbing a seemingly endless staircase, we emerged to a rooftop café where a panoramic view of the city revealed the life of Istanbul. Drinking our traditional tea, my cousin’s phone buzzes. It’s a warning – one that often, at least as of late, gets shared amongst friends urging people to avoid places like Taksim and Galata Bridge, a place just five minutes away and, until that message, our next stop. Very quickly the atmosphere changes – at least it does for me. Hoping my cousin would reassure me, she tells me that these warnings of a terror attack are correct almost 9 times out of 10 (note: there had been an explosion in Taksim Square just two weeks before I had arrived). We are forced to change plans and end up at a backstreet bar with some other friends. Here I spend the next hour being vigilant of backfiring cars and people with oversized coats. However, it was impossible to keep this up for long. I realised that this was not only futile but unnecessary. As I looked around me I saw that people were living as normal. After a long week of work or study, people were laughing, talking and enjoying one another’s company– perhaps a side effect of living in a place with a degree of real danger.
After I freed myself from the, self-imposed, burden of ‘terror watch’ I broke the ice with my average Turkish and soon found myself deep in conversation with great, interesting people. One observation I made was, not only, the stark difference between the youth and the older generation of Istanbul but the Turkish youth and the youth back home in London. I felt as though liberal ideas were only just taking hold in Turkey which gave the night life an air of the sixties, at least of what I envisage the sixties would have been like. Most noticeably girls wearing mini-skirts and red lipstick were smoking in a way that actually looked cool, whilst people in general carried themselves in a way which was impalpably different to what I am used to. Perhaps it was the change in scenery and a combination of my current holiday blues, but social interaction here was refreshing, a stark difference from home. Perhaps I am over-romanticising this place yet there was a feeling, an atmosphere if you like, of revolution and transition amongst the youth. These people with whom I shared company with were not just young students or workers. They were the Gezi Park generation. They are Ataturk’s gençlik (Ataturk’s youth). The very people who had protested for real change against the government just two years earlier, some sacrificing their lives and their freedom for the cause. There is something peculiar about being in the presence of such people.
I will not forget my time in Istanbul very easily. I must thank my cousin for being an excellent tour guide, leaving no stone unturned. After my visit, Turkey continues to hold a significant space in my heart as its diversity and historical significance fascinates me. This post has been by no means an accurate depiction of Turkish society, rather my own superficial and perhaps idealistic glimpse into Turkish life. Nevertheless, I will summarise in a way that befits my observations. At the risk of oversimplifying my point, I met two types of Turk in Turkey. Before I explain myself I will echo the words of William Tyrell who, in 1925, said:
“we used to know two sorts of Turk: the Old Turk, he is dead: the Young Turk, he exists no longer. We see today the third, quite different from the other two… it’s with that Turk we want to make peace”.
I can’t say that this dynamic has remained the same since 1925 but a point worth making is that the land mass we know as Turkey has always been inhabited by a varying range of so-called “Turks”. This fact is inevitable in a place so culturally diverse as the historic Constantinople. During my brief stay I observed, on the one hand, a liberal youth on the brink of social revolution and change, whilst on the other; the old guard, the last of the traditional Ottoman Turk. The iconic clash of East and West has played out on Turkish soil for centuries and is seemingly on-going. Its origins lie beyond the crusades and today, culminate with a final battle, between the Turkish youth and the ‘Old Turk’.