Vasco da Gama
Ian Strathcarron
Tue 7 Jul 2009 10:51

While the cat’s away the mice will play; in other words Gillian is on holiday in Hampshire – bless! - I'm on board in Turkey and so it’s my turn to play with Mr. Blog.

Vasco has been in Istanbul for the last month and she tells me she is looking forward to leaving tomorrow. Me too, but we are in a minority of two. We just don’t get it – Turkey that is, and why everyone likes it so much.

I can tell you why I don’t like it: there seems to be something dark and rather sinister at work here, a sense of menace just under the surface. It may be the military posturing, it could be the bureaucratic labyrinth, it is certainly the police presence; the way young women are volunteering to follow male politicians back to the dark ages is worrying too, as is the overt nationalism, a tinderbox of anti-minority prejudices just waiting to be ignited.

The largest - and still conscripted - land army in Europe flies the biggest blood red flags from every hilltop (one is never out of sight of an enormous blood red flag), submarines ghost up down the Dardanelles, turn around and ghost back down again, camouflaged helicopters and worse criss-cross the skies, there are a least eleven different police forces, armed guards – modern janissaries – patrol inside and outside every shopping centre, museum, art gallery, public building and train station; and having navigated oneself through the sentries onto the train the ticket inspector is dressed like a five star general.

We have to check out of here tomorrow and I'm not looking forward to that much either. I won’t oppress you with the minutiae but it took five hours to check Vasco da Gama into the country, and I'm told it will take five more to check her out. The harbourmaster here looks like an admiral of the fleet, and keeps two enormous Alsatians in his office and a truncheon on his desk, and he’s just the harbourmaster. And that’s another thing: I know its all very English but I'm appalled at the way they treat animals, except, strangely enough, pigeons, which they see not as flying rats but as cuddly grey lovebirds who must be fed constantly in case they starve.

Politically this country of seventy million (and half are under 20) is being pulled six ways between the politicians and the military, the zealots and secularists, the minority European Istanbul sophisticates and the majority Asian Aeolian peasantry. On the one hand votes aren’t expensive, and on the other hand military coups are never far from the surface. The balancing act, the Turkish dilemma, boils down to how grise should be the military’s eminence. The government is veering towards Islamofascism, is inherently corrupt and becoming worse while the military remains secular, is well funded and becoming impatient. (The latest row was over the presidency of NATO; it was Denmark’s turn, but Turkey vetoed it in revenge for the Danish media’s publication of the prophet cartoons. The Turks could not accept the Danish press was not under government control. It took the generals and Barack Obama himself to tell the headbangers to grow up – which they did, but the capitulation didn’t play well in the Asian badlands.)

The dilemma for the Istanbul progressives is that while have to accept a democracy means rule by the Asian peasant mentality, they are naturally wary of the coup-inclined generals and military dictatorships and yet they need the generals to keep the sharia-inclined headbangers in line. For the secular traditionalists it is the generals who represent continuity while the headbangers snuggle up to the mullahs to the east, and as for the religious traditionalists – well, their preferred options are degrees of theocracy. Nothing is what it appears, and dilemmas abound. In this context the headscarf issue, which dominates the media, assumes an importance way beyond a piece of silk that covers a women’s head, for as one can see everywhere in central Istanbul once that goes, the whole system of religious and cultural oppression falls apart too.

Everyone says the Turkish people are so pleasant, and indeed they are – that is the 50% of them one meets, but there’s no reason to believe the women are any less pleasant. But I have found on my travels that everyone everywhere is basically pleasant (except Scotland?), that’s the default human condition, unless of course one goes out of one’s way to bug them. It’s hard to put one’s finger on it, but there is something profoundly unspiritual about the place, if profound unspirituality can be said to exist. Maybe unforgiving is nearer the mark. Unhumble – no, that’s not a word either.

Sorry – there’s just one more thing. It is not, as everyone has been telling me, cheap. As a foreigner one is overcharged everywhere, but that’s an Islamic Asian condition one can live with if the base from which one is overcharged is low enough. A combination of inflation in Turkey and that idiot Gordon Brown ruining the pound has done the damage: prices are still less than in Europe, but no longer significantly so.

I'm looking forward it returning to Greece; the Orthodoxy maybe mumbo-jumbo but it’s our mumbo-jumbo, liberal democracy has evolved to suit us – that’s its point, tolerance is easy on the nerves and women are half our souls - might even be the better half.

Clink-clink, I think they’re coming to get me.