Selective change

“What’s with the shopping malls?” is a question I’ve been »»

“What’s with the shopping malls?” is a question I’ve been asked on several occasions in recent weeks, as old friends who spent years in Turkey in decades past and knew the country well returned for a visit. They were surprised, though not always in a positive way, by the transformation Istanbul has undergone. They were shocked by the tall commercial buildings that now spoil the once splendid and timeless Istanbul skyline and the rise of new buildings in faux-historic style, like the Demirören shopping mall on Istiklal Street, described by one as a “monstrosity.”

Turkey has undoubtedly changed in the past decade. But where many of us were hoping for democratic liberalization, instead we have seen mainly consumerism and an economic free-for-all.

If the ubiquitous presence of shopping malls is a measure of progress, then Turkey has clearly made great strides forward. But with the rush to consume has come more selfishness and greed. Many foreigners who settled here two or three decades ago were attracted by the people’s warmth and the sense that human qualities were valued more than the materialism that had already taken root in Western countries. The human factor is still present, but increasingly you have to leave the city center, or the city altogether, to find it. Up until not so long ago, tourists almost unanimously praised Turkish hospitality. Now visitors complain more frequently of rude behavior and cheating taxi drivers, particularly in Istanbul.

Perhaps it was inevitable that globalization and the pressure of an increasingly corporate work environment, combined with the logistical difficulties of living in a metropolis of 15 million people, should undermine some of the qualities that made this place truly special.

But little of the civility that comes from mutual respect or a sense of shared ownership has developed in parallel with the economic transformation. The bigger your car, the more ruthlessly you can drive it. Even in the driving rain, motorists take precedence over pedestrians. It is also taken for granted that the trendy and the wealthy should park their cars in front of the restaurants and clubs that line the Bosporus, even if it means the coast road, which turns into a giant open air parking lot on summer evenings, is now largely out of bounds to common mortals. I was recently in a hot and crowded bus, forced to stop because a car was parked in the middle of the road, preventing it from moving ahead. Eventually, the driver appeared, barely apologetic, holding the ice cream cone he had just purchased.

Apart from a brief reformist spurt in the early years of Justice and Development Party (AKP) rule, regular visitors don’t detect much evidence of growing tolerance for cultural, political and ethnic diversity or the development of a rights-based form of citizenship. The militant secularism of the past has been replaced by conservatism, but the backdrop of nationalism and militarism remains the same. The significant difference is that, judging by election results, the current form of authoritarianism has the approval of a broad segment of the population, even as newspapers report political arrests on a daily basis, often based on entirely unconvincing charges.

The secular establishment used to ignore Turkey’s long history, preferring to focus instead on Republican achievements. In the past few years, the country’s Ottoman past has been rediscovered by the current conservative rulers, but in a very selective way. The focus is on its military achievements and the conquest of Istanbul. The multiculturalism of the empire, on the other hand, has been left in the forgotten corners of history, together with the Byzantine era.

Non-Muslims are still not respected as full citizens of this country. How else can one explain the education minister’s reaction to a book, distributed to school children in the Kartal district of Istanbul, which describes Armenians as “dishonorable and treacherous”? According to Minister Ömer Dinçer, the publication was “written with the sense of national reflex and humorous criticism.” Would he have been similarly amused if those epithets had been used in European textbooks to teach youngsters about the Turks? The threat that such discriminatory views present was amply demonstrated by the murder of journalist Hrant Dink in 2007, but there have been too few attempts to eradicate them and change perceptions.

Rising living standards here, and declining wealth in Europe, are rapidly closing the gap that separated Turks from Western Europeans. Citizens of this country rightly welcome these changes, but foreigners who had found here an escape from the materialism of the West can’t help but feel some nostalgia for a time when people spent more time chatting on the stoop than shopping. But they also remember that at a political level, that period was one marked by widespread violence and human rights violations.



Columnist: NICOLE POPE