Category: Global Affairs

Climate of fear: Two years in Istanbul


It is sobering and painful to imagine bad fortune befalling those places you hold dear; to know that the streets that you once frequented and the bridges you once traversed have become bit part players in a much larger tragedy.

I first discovered Istanbul during its calmer days. I arrived in the city in the autumn of 2013; my first encounter with the ancient cultural heart of an altogether unfamiliar country. Istanbul captivated me at once with its energy and quirkiness, with its fascinating and shambolic mingling of cultures, and with its passion and unrelenting buzz.

Admittedly, all was not entirely well in the Istanbul that I first saw. In the summer of that same year, the Gezi Park protests had brought the city’s various discontents into stark view. The heavy handed crackdown by Turkey’s government against those protests was an ominous sign of things to come. During the Gezi events the world saw a flow of images showing Turkish police with tear gas and water cannons turning on protestors with vicious intent. These images became a dominant motif for Turkey over the months and years that followed Gezi.

I will never forget one ordinary Saturday afternoon in late 2014. I was wandering Istiklal Caddesi with friends on a mildly sunny day. The avenue was busy with people young and old, families, and foreign tourists. Suddenly we were startled by people running in our direction. It turned out there were police hot on their tails armed with excessive amounts of teargas.

We were about to be caught in the crossfire and knew that a gassing could be really unpleasant. So we ran for the nearest side street and took refuge in a vehicle workshop, where the owners rushed to batten down the steel door and where together we all waited until the danger had passed by. Outside, the air was acrid with the lingering stench of teargas.

Since those early days there have been many more dramatic events in Istanbul and wider Turkey. Most notably, the ruling regime has stepped up its level of control, bolstered by another resounding win at the ballot box in mid-2015, when Turkey held its most recent general election. The leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is a divisive figure. At first I thought he was unpopular with most Turks, judging from the opinions of my liberal and mostly secular English-speaking Turkish friends, who never missed a chance to criticise him.

But as I got to know Turkey more deeply it became clear that the man had widespread popular support, just not from the demographic that constituted most of my social scene. On the contrary, Erdogan supporters came from the working classes, from the more religious and less well-educated sections of society. This is a general statement but one that largely holds true.

To understand Turkey better it is important to remember that Istanbul is not really Turkey, and Turkey is not really Istanbul. In fact, most of Turkey resides in the wider Anatolian regions, beyond Istanbul, where society tends towards the poorer, more conservative and more religious. These are the heartlands from where President Erdogan draws the majority of his support base. These are the voters that have kept the AKP (Justice and Development Party) in power for almost fifteen years.

Erdogan is undoubtedly a gifted politician. Although he may lack a university education (his degree is believed to be fake), he has used his time spent on the streets of Istanbul to learn exactly what makes the common Turk tick and he has leveraged this knowledge to great effect. He is ruthless too, as shown by his cynical manipulation of Turkish society to achieve his political aims.

In summer 2015 the tide shifted in Turkey. A challenger party, the HDP (People’s Democratic Party), won enough general election votes to give it a seat in parliament. This denied the AKP the majority rule it had expected to win. The result was a hung parliament amid calls for the ruling party to form a coalition. Anyone who knows Turkish politics and the personality of Erdogan himself knows how impossible this is. There was stalemate for a number of months until a second general election was called in November.

Between the first and second elections a number of unusual events befell Turkey. In July, not long after the first election result was announced, a truce between the ruling party and the PKK (Kurdish independence party, notorious for long-standing conflict with the Turkish state) suddenly fell apart. It was unusual, because this truce had been in place since 2013, with the goal to embark on a peace process. As a result, conflict duly resumed in the south-east between the PKK and Turkish security forces. Turkey was once again embroiled in a civil war.

Then, just before the November election was due, Turkey suffered the worst terrorist attack in its history. Two suicide bombers blew themselves to smithereens amid a peace rally in the capital Ankara, killing 102 people, most of them young. They had been rallying for peace in the Kurdish southeast. The finger was pointed at Islamic State. But the militant group, normally so quick to claim responsibility for its actions, has so far remained silent on this attack.

Eyewitnesses at the Ankara event noted the surprising lack of security forces during the peace rally. It was almost as if the government wanted the rally to be attacked. Some have even gone as far as to claim the AKP deliberately orchestrated the bombing to tip the November election in its favour. Be that the case or not, it worked. The AKP won a landslide victory and regained full control in parliament. I was out of the country when the results came through.

All the while tensions were ratcheting up across Turkey. The feeling was palpable in Istanbul’s over-crowded subways and heaving streets; not only tension but also fear. The country had started to feel unstable. I was fairly shielded from the effects of this fear, as I lived far from the city centre at that time. The place where I lived was a low-key working-class suburb, where nothing except occasional boredom was a concern. But friends living in the centre spoke of their nervousness using public transport and being in busy enclosed spaces such as shopping malls.

Istanbul was changing.

The following year, things took a turn for the worse. There were two separate suicide bomb attacks, one in January in touristy Sultanahmet followed by a second in March in the heart of Istiklal Street. Both times foreign tourists as well as Turks were killed. These two locations were absolutely the most effective choices for destroying the tourism industry in Turkey, which indeed they did.

Another suicide attack in late June, a particularly brazen one targeting Ataturk Airport, cemented the climate of fear in Istanbul. It sent many people fleeing elsewhere if they were able to do so. Expats began talking seriously about leaving; while Turks entitled to foreign passports were trying urgently to secure them.

To their credit, the Turks had the airport up and running again within hours of the attack, which was convenient for some but rather alarming for others. Things felt normal when I flew out of that same airport just days after the attack, apart from the commemorative display in the arrivals hall where 42 people had been blown and shot to shreds.

This leads us up to the most recent news of this weekend’s coup attempt. It’s a time of high drama for Turkey. Erdogan has called on the US to extradite his arch-rival, elderly Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, who he has accused of orchestrating the coup via his many supporters in positions of power in Turkey. It makes little sense for Gulen to do such a thing.

What rings more true – alarmingly – is that the AKP somehow set up the coup attempt as justification for the subsequent arrest of thousands of judges and senior military figures – which happened within two days of the coup. How the wheels of so-called justice can move so fast is mystifying, unless of course the coup was expected, planned and carried out by those loyal to the AKP.

Now is a golden opportunity for Erdogan to make his final bid for total control. His dearest wish is to change the constitution to allow executive powers for the presidency. If this occurs, it could be a death knell for any semblance of democracy in Turkey. The country will have transitioned into a dictatorship in all but name, just like its current civil war in all but name against the Kurds in the southeast.

There is no telling now what the future holds for Turkey. If it continues down this path Erdogan is likely to achieve unquestionable power. What that means for the common people of Turkey is as yet unknown. Now relegated to an observer instead of a more active participant, I can only hope that whatever comes next will avoid doing further damage to the city, country and people among which I spent some happy, formative and productive years. It feels like Turkey is descending into an abyss, but inshallah, as the Turks say, things will not be as dark as they seem.

Trail no more

Among the many benefits of a career in tech is the idea of becoming location-independent. For many people this concept may conjure up thoughts of working on exotic beaches while swigging cocktails. Others may fear the potential for loneliness and cabin fever that can often accompany solo remote working. But having the ability to work wherever you want, still pull in a decent income and remain fulfilled in your career can have further implications for other areas of life.

In 2009 I had just reached the end of a stint living and working in China. It wasn’t remote work. I was teaching English to a variety of Chinese businesspeople. I had a friend who was also teaching English and had married a local guy a few years back. She was throughly fed up, both with being in China and with the dead-end direction her career was heading.

As an American, she had a dream to return one day to the United States (or perhaps Europe) and start a new career there. But the problem was: her husband. He was stuck in China. As a Chinese citizen, visa issues made it difficult for him to join her. So she wasted away, feeling stifled and increasingly resentful of her situation. But the story has a bright side. Today, six years later, she has successfully switched careers and now has a great tech job in Washington DC, with all the flexibility that comes with it. However, her marriage didn’t survive. Her ex-husband never left China.

Among expats, the concept of the ‘trailing spouse’ is common. Often the woman, but increasingly the man too, this is the partner who leaves everything behind to accompany their spouse on an expat assignment. For the ‘trailer’, this can mean having to restart a career, find a new direction, or make do with an unfulfilling job in something like teaching English. All can be extremely stressful. It can even lead to difficult and painful decisions weighing a relationship against a career.

But when one partner works in tech, this difficulty fades into insignificance. When the location-dependent partner moves somewhere, the other can easily follow. There is unlikely to be much change in their income, type of work, career trajectory, or anything. In fact, in tech, it’s possible to carve out the ultimate portable career.

Having the option to work from anywhere has the added bonus of reducing stress on a relationship and lessening the chances that people will break up over what used to be insurmountable problems of distance. It means no-one has to sacrifice their career fulfilment for their partner. Fortunately, we live in times where the landscape of global employment is shifting. The ‘portable career’ applies to a number of other fields including freelance writing, journalism, graphic design, and consulting. If you set things up right, you may just find the world is your oyster.

Arduous trek

I just got back from what might have been my most exhausting journey ever in ten years of wandering the globe. It began just after midnight on Wednesday in Kingston, heading to the airport for a 4am flight. But upon arrival, the plane developed a mechanical fault, leading to a two-hour delay. The thought of a faulty plane doesn’t fill me with confidence at the best of times, but at that time of the morning it felt especially discouraging.

Overnighting in Norman Manley airport was on the cards, for me and a whole bunch of other irritated travellers. When we finally boarded the plane, at 6am, things were looking up. There was free wifi onboard and it actually worked! I spent the flight catching up on emails and drafting a new op-ed for the Jamaica Gleaner. I also experienced the joy of posting updates to Facebook from 35,000 feet. After we reached New York, there was a looong layover to endure in JFK, an unpleasant and sprawling airport with overpriced sandwiches and icy air-con.

On attempting to catch the next flight to Istanbul, I found myself the lucky recipient of a random ‘enhanced security check’, courtesy of America’s notorious TSA. The check-in people scrawled ‘SSSS’ on my boarding pass. Welcome to America! The security check was by far the most thorough I’d ever experienced. The guy dug through my entire suitcase, including my stinky laundry. He even unearthed a dead cockroach that had somehow snuck in during six grimy days in Port Antonio. Then I was passed over to a female officer who gave me an extensive pat-down. At least the TSA does its job properly, which I suppose is encouraging in these uncertain times.

Finally boarding the plane, I found that my usual window seat (that I usually insist on for calming purposes) was next to a restless child with a loud game-playing device. Sleep was essential and so it was time to move. I decided to break the habit of many years and try an aisle seat elsewhere. Surprisingly, it was totally fine. I got at least four hours of decent sleep, played a few games of chess with willing opponents, and even found time for a documentary.

Ten hours later, Istanbul was greeting me with some searingly hot weather. It’s tricky to kick the brain into action and focus on work in this oppressive heat. But come Tuesday I’ll head to the UK for a couple of weeks of family time and quiet contemplation, tucked away in the heart of the leafy English countryside.


Into the hills

It was quite the come-down, from pampered five star living to a tin-roofed shack with no hot water.

But I was determined to see more of Jamaica than just the capital city. To get a more balanced picture of the place, I needed to venture outside Kingston and explore some of the countryside for myself.

Port Antonio is a seaside town situated in the parish of Portland on Jamaica’s north-eastern side. It’s a green and lush area of the country, with the highest levels of rainfall. Everyone I spoke to about it told me that I’d have a great time in Portland. They said it was the best area of Jamaica and had the most natural beauty and variety.

The town itself felt like a place where you might find pirates. It was vaguely shabby, yet buzzing. Colonial architecture was dotted here and there, among the usual array of low-roofed shops, cafes and bars. The Errol Flynn Marina was a striking reminder of the place’s pedigree in terms of celebrities, many of whom have gravitated here. Bond author Ian Fleming set up home in Jamaica and even has an airport named after him in Ocho Rios, just a little further on up the north coast.

In comparison to Kingston, Port Antonio felt much safer. However, it’s hard to define exactly why, and I’m unsure how much of this is a result of perceptions. But Jamaica does seem a different place outside the big city. Port Antonio is relaxed and laid back. People seem friendlier and more honest, away from the constant hustle of city life, with its struggle to survive.

I met an old lady one evening, while walking home in the dark. She appeared by my side and wished a polite ‘good evening’. We exchanged some brief chit chat. Then at the mention of Kingston she suddenly recoiled.

‘Don’t say that awful name to me!’ she said. I was taken aback by the vehemence with which she spoke. When pressed further, she replied that it was because the capital was ‘so dangerous’.

As an obvious foreigner, it harked back to that old China feeling of being the odd one out. There were very few white people in the town, although I did spot a number of tourists every so often. Luckily the years spent in China have helped me acclimatise somewhat to this feeling of being the ‘other’. Nevertheless, the local people of Port Antonio were very friendly. It was good to get to know some ordinary Jamaicans leading average lives, as a contrast to the more privileged elite folks who I met in Kingston.

More dark days

Thousands of miles away, Turkey is front-page news once again. In the border town of Suruç, a suicide bombing has killed a group of young activists. They had gathered at a cultural centre to discuss plans to rebuild nearby Kobane, the Syrian town destroyed by Isis earlier this year.

According to reports, the group was full of hopeful thoughts and optimistic ideas for the town’s rebirth. That optimism didn’t last for long. The bomber soon wiped it all away, along with at least 30 lives. Online there’s already a video. It shows music and chanting before the big life-changing bang, followed by screams and sirens after. Such tragedy.

Someone I know in Istanbul missed being there by a whisker, thanks to a delay in his visa application. Kismet, I suppose.

It’s still daytime in Jamaica. But as night falls over Turkey, no doubt the conspiracy theories will already be swirling. Twitter trolls and armchair activists will be clamouring with their so-called insights about whichever government is supposedly to blame.

Maybe there’s a way to implicate Israel. Or could it be Hamas? Perhaps Assad somehow did it, or the CIA, or even Turkey itself. After all, maybe Isis itself is just one big conspiracy theory. Sooner or later we’ll know more.

I get tired of trying to figure it all out. It’s utterly discouraging. I feel like disconnecting entirely, going away to hide in a small cave and giving up on reading news.