Our readers may want to know how I arrived at this conclusion and rest assured I am not viewing our world, or Turkey in particular, through rose-tinted glasses. On the contrary, I had traveled to this fascinating part of an equally fascinating country in order to find out whether my optimism about the state of affairs in Turkey is really justified, whether people away from Ankara or İzmir see developments perhaps differently, and above all else, whether what I had recently referred to as the Turkish Spring in a publication for an academic journal is indeed a myth or a reality.
On Tuesday morning, Şanlıurfa Mayor Dr. Ahmet Eşref Fakıbaba took me along on his almost daily morning walks. No, not on a jogging trip but on a three-kilometer-long “political promenade” through the city center! He does this regularly and citizens are used to it by now since he was first elected back in 2004. Yes, politicians need publicity, so here comes the moment for the commentator to look behind the scenes and focus on how the electorate views this exercise.
Şanlıurfa is a metropolis of by now almost 1.7 million inhabitants, with 922,000 citizens living in the urbanized city area. Central government is a hot topic here but one which has a timeline attached to it similar to that of Facebook, according to most citizens as well as decision makers and civil society actors. Before the 2002 national election, I had heard Ankara was not overly interested in the welfare of this part of the country. Thereafter, and in particular since 2004 or so, local citizens as well as businesses feel they have become an integral part of what happens elsewhere. There are national as well as EU funds. There are close contacts between local and national politicians. The media is slowly but steadily (re)-discovering the region. There is state-of-the-art organic farming as well as a 21st-century-ready, 10,000-strong university. Urfa, as it was known before the “Şanlı” was added, regards itself as a mirror of what happens in other parts of the country and as a certain type of role model, too.
The city is green. The houses are either brand-new or being renovated if old. Young people speak English and in the streets I heard all three languages which make up the original linguistic combination of this area -- Turkish as the official language, Kurdish and Arabic!
There are state-of-the-art chain hotels and there is the pond of holy fish. I met young and old people and what amazed me was that whilst we were doing our rounds, people greeted the mayor as one of their own; people were dressed according to their belief or desires. I had dinner in a restaurant where young women wore designer skirts not unlike those seen in clubs along the Bosporus and spoke with others who prefer to wear a headscarf and more modest attire. Yet, they are all part and parcel of Urfa’s human fabric. There is freedom to express oneself. There are 28 (!) local newspapers, and having spoken with two Turkish columnists, I can say that they don’t shy away from expressing criticism.
Rose-tinted glasses, no -- open eyes, yes. There is unemployment and there is a problem with the state of the public education system as there is everywhere else (my daughter attends a school in İstanbul, so I do know what I am referring to). But these things can be overcome as long as one thing is guaranteed: freedom of expression and civil democracy!
I shall write about the region’s manifold civil society activities in great detail in a separate piece shortly but if asked once more about the Turkish seasons, I would dare say that down here it is already (political) summer.