On Friday Dec. 14, news of resignations from daily Taraf filtered out, with editor-in-chief Ahmet Altan, assistant editor Yasemin Çongar, and columnists Murat Belge and Neşe Tüzel resigning from their posts at the paper.

Founded in 2007, Taraf has become one of the most controversial and agenda-setting newspapers over the last five years. Originally set up by a group of like-minded liberals and leftists, the paper became renowned for its anti-military stance, publishing a series of highly-controversial stories that revealed the extent of the Turkish military’s involvement in daily political affairs. Taking on the once-mighty Turkish military saw Taraf regularly prefixed with adjectives like “plucky” and “brave,” and even lead to its accreditation from military press releases being cancelled. However, as question marks have steadily increased over the inconsistencies and judicial irregularities of anti-military crusades such as the Ergenekon and Balyoz cases, differences of opinion within Taraf have become increasingly evident. Altan’s editorials became increasingly critical of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, creating friction within the paper that I previously wrote about here and here. This divergence of opinion appears to be the main reason behind the latest resignations, with the more critical, anti-AKP voices having been purged, (it is strongly rumoured that they have gone – like many in other newspapers – following government pressure).

Front page banner on Dec. 15, showing a picture of Altan and Çongar. The headline reads "We are grateful"

Taraf’s front page banner on Dec. 15, showing Altan and Çongar. The headline reads: “We are grateful”

Most have assumed that the resignations bring about the effective the end of the paper. Nevertheless, Taraf patron Başar Arslan apparently intends to continue publication, announcing to the Istanbul Stock Exchange on Monday that former managing editor Markar Esayan had “temporarily” taken over its editorial chair. Nevertheless, a number of important names from Taraf’s Ankara bureau signed an open letter addressed to Arslan, stating:

“If Ahmet Altan and Yasemin Çongar go, it means that we go too … We are sure that Altan’s removal from the newspaper was a political decision … Our last word is this: We are waiting for Altan and Çongar to be returned to their previous positions as soon as possible.”

Following the resignations, veteran Turkish media observer Yavuz Baydar described the events at Taraf as “a new wound for journalism.” In a similar tone, Taraf columnist Emre Uslu wrote in Today’s Zaman:

“This crisis is a benchmark by which to understand the standards of Turkish democracy because Taraf was the last bastion of refuge for democrats and civilian opposition, who fought alongside the AK Party government against the military but turned against this government as it moves away from democratic standards … Taraf was criticizing the government for not bringing about and not institutionalizing democratic standards, yet ironically the paper became the victim of the system it has been criticizing for a long time.”

Milliyet columnist Kadri Gürsel wrote what was effectively an obituary for Taraf, describing it as a “zombie paper” that had now outlived its original purpose:

“With the ‘spirit of Taraf’ Ahmet Altan having left, the paper will from now on be a zombie … Taraf was established as a newspaper with a mission … Its aim was to purge the military from politics, ‘demilitarisation.’ But it has become clear that democratisation does not necessarily follow demilitarisation and civilianisation.”

Meanwhile, Dani Rodrik, (who moonlights as the leading name writing in English on the contradictions and irregularities of the Ergenekon and Balyoz cases – found on his blog here), conspicuously used the past tense to describe Taraf on Twitter:

Taraf’s journalistic standards were absolutely the pits. Calling the publication ‘liberal’ is a great insult to liberals … Taraf published countless bogus ‘exposes’ fed to it by the police. Its motto was ‘we will publish any trash as long as its anti-military’ … In the name of democracy, Taraf voluntarily cooperated with a gang and together violated the rules of media ethics.”

Still, correct as Rodrik is, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the recent resignations don’t also represent “prime evidence of how much Turkey is slipping backwards,” as written by Yigil Schleifer – both can be true. If the past tense can really now be used to discuss Taraf, perhaps it can also finally be used to talk about any remnants of liberal Turkish sympathy for the AKP. With the passing of Taraf perhaps a chapter in Turkish politics also passes, and the last (much belated) nail can finally be hammered into the coffin of the 10-year-long flirtation between liberals and the AKP.

On Monday (Oct. 22), the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) released a detailed report on the state of press freedom in Turkey, under the gloomy title: “Turkey’s Press Freedom Crisis – The Dark Days of Jailing Journalists and Criminalizing Dissent.” Although it seems like reports on the subject are released every month, this one received a huge amount of attention, both domestically and internationally. It describes the numerous instances of restrictions on media freedom, citing the familiar examples of the Ergenekon case, the endless prosecutions of journalists writing on Kurdish matters, the increasingly widespread practices of intimidation and self-censorship, as well as the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government’s rising intolerance of dissent.

Bloomberg published a sensible commentary on the same day that the CPJ report was released:

“The committee had come under fire for reporting lower estimates of the number of jailed journalists than other human rights organizations. Turkey’s government has long maintained that only a handful of the journalists were charged with offenses related to their jobs, and because the CPJ hadn’t read all the indictments, it had erred on the side of caution.

“Now it has read the indictments and determined that 61 of the reporters and editors in detention are there because of things they wrote or said in the course of their work. In letters accompanying the report, the Turkish government disputes that characterization and asserts that it is striving to balance the need to prevent ‘the praising of violence and terrorist propaganda, and the need to expand freedom of speech.’

“What’s becoming all too clear during the Justice and Development Party’s third term in office is that despite its claims that the government is now liberalizing press laws and continuing the country’s march toward a European-style democracy, the opposite is happening. …

“Instead of fixing the legal system, the government has used it to repress opponents and intimidate the media. The “insult” laws, as well as the special anti-terrorism courts and laws, should be repealed. They are not worthy of a modern democracy, and they shouldn’t be a model for anyone.”

The report was widely covered in the Turkish media. The Oct. 23 edition of daily Taraf featured the report as its front page headline. It included an interview with Ragıp Zarakolu, a legendary figure in Turkish publishing, who has long written and published bravely on subjects that many others wouldn’t touch. He has spent a significant amount of time in prison over the years for things written or published, and he had some predictably doleful things to say:

“The fact that Turkey is found on these kinds of lists saddens me greatly. Turkey has to go beyond this, but in order to do this a change in mentality is necessary … In the existing system the state’s interests are always seen as more important than the citizen’s interests. For this reason, I don’t believe any changes can come in the end without a process of change in mentality. …

“I’ve been writing in the Kurdish press for 20 years. I witnessed the killing of a 72-year-old editor. Such things aren’t experienced any more. But should we be thankful simply for the fact that we’re not killed, or like Uğur Mumcu we’re not assassinated? Turkey is currently at the end of a 10 year process. But despite constant reforms and improvements being spoken of for 10 years, journalists are still in jail for political reasons, and there are still people who have been in prison for 30 years for political reasons. We have to examine this.”

While it’s imperative to identify the areas in which the current government has attacked press freedom, it’s also important to identify the deeper structural problems undermining freedom of expression in Turkey, too. (I touched on the issue a couple of months ago on this blog.) Also included in the CPJ report is an interview with journalist Yavuz Baydar, in which he discusses some of these problems:

“While the rules of the game in the media landscape remain unchanged, unreformed, what changes are the actors, new proprietors. Turkey’s media owners are – like drug addicts – dependent on the powers in Ankara because they are in all sorts of businesses, need approvals for growth and investments, etc., and therefore keep their media outlets either as weapons for extortion or, at best, at the service of governments. …

“The media owners of these outlets acting as ‘the coalition of the willing’ that openly act submissively to the government and security bureaucracy. I can only refer to a key meeting between the PM and all the media proprietors last autumn, during which media owners went as far as proposing themselves to the PM that they can build a “censor commission” among themselves, to be chaired by a cabinet minister. The PM declined the offer, but the message was taken well. In the case of Uludere, where 34 Kurdish smugglers were bombed to death due to a tragic mistake, there was a full blackout in that media for 17 hours while the news flow was instant and heavy in social media. This pattern of blocking is now the norm.”

A related piece by Baydar, called “Another Gloomy Report,” was published in Today’s Zaman on Oct. 21:

“The greatest source of censorship and increasing self-censorship today [is] the ‘unholy alliance’ between the proprietors of big media groups and the powers in Ankara – a deal that connects mutual greed in terms of money and propaganda. This [will] continue to pollute the climate of good journalism, and even if the government resolved the issue of ‘jailed journalists’ it would leave journalism under huge pressure …

“Turkey’s media, vibrant, diverse, still bold, keen on struggling for its independence, will remain easy prey for those with money and political power.”

Nevertheless, the most immediate threat to freedom of expression still comes directly from the government. Ali Özkaya, a lawyer for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, was quoted in daily Akşam on Oct. 23, and his words should be alarming to any sentient observer:

“We have to underline that cases we’ve opened against press have been quite a deterrent; the wording of columnists has noticeably changed especially since 2003. Reporters and columnists do not exceed the dose when making criticisms anymore; insulting comments or columns have been reduced to minimum.”

[Published in Today’s Zaman (19th Jan 2012): http://www.todayszaman.com/news-269046-tarlabasis-getaway-hurriyet-hamami.html ]

It might come as a surprise to know, but after two years of living in Turkey I had yet to visit a Turkish bath until very recently. The fact is that hamams don’t really figure in the everyday lived experience of most Turks these days, so perhaps it isn’t strange that they also haven’t figured much in mine. During the Ottoman period hamams were considered important social centres, where the men got themselves washed and the women spent hours meeting friends and gossiping about the latest social news. Since this heyday they’ve been steadily closing down. Now only a fraction remain open, and those – particularly around the tawdry touristic theme park district of Sultanahmet – cater largely for foreign tourists. Number one in all the guidebooks is the Çemberlitaş Hamamı, an impeccably-restored historical hamam, built by Mimar Sinan in 1584, featuring in D.K. Publishing’s 1000 Places To See Before You Die. The price is the highest in the city, and I wouldn’t be surprised if its employees wore quaint period dress as they went about their work – you want the “authentic experience”, don’t you?

I certainly did, but was in the market for something a little earthier, something – to my own prejudiced mind – a little more “authentic”. I’ve always been intrigued by an imposing-but-exhausted-looking red building near my apartment on Kapanca Sokak, in the central district of Tarlabaşı, on the European side of Istanbul. This is the “Hürriyet Hamamı”, (or “Freedom Bath”), and if you try to find it in your guidebook you’ll be disappointed. Where better to have one’s first hamam experience? For that authentic historical deal there can’t be many more suitable places – the entrance is sandwiched between two bay windows protruding out into the street, underneath which outside are original signboards written in the Greek, Armenian and Ottoman Turkish that were once common currency around Tarlabaşı. If, however, it’s the authentic experience that I got, it’s certainly not one experienced by many locals these days, as the place was almost entirely deserted during my visit. With the planned “renewal” of Tarlabaşı continuing apace, it’s difficult to see how the place could survive. I’d put a regretful 10 lira on it not being there in a year’s time.

I walked in from a chilly December afternoon, and was greeted by the sight of a corpulent, grey-haired old man facing the entrance, snoozing on a bench. He lay horizontally on his side, his head propped up on a pile of white rags, a stained polo shirt barely stretching over a rotund paunch. He gave off a stale pong as he stood to welcome me in – not the greatest advertisement for a public bath you might think. Hasan was his name and, from the moment I handed over the 25TL for a bath and massage (“everything”, he said), he was fishing for a tip. I resisted, telling him: let’s see how it goes first.

Not being particularly well-versed in hamam etiquette, I was pretty tentative throughout my visit. I’m glad I took the time to sit in the “sauna” just before entering the bath though, as this was something unique. Despite the tray of hot stones sitting atop a dog-eared metal box in one corner (just for appearances), the only heat was produced by three industrial radiators, hidden underneath each bench and turned up to their fullest. Surprisingly enough the room didn’t smell too bad, although ominous patches of mossy dampness hung from the roof and down the walls.

The main bathing area however, (known as the sıcaklık), was splendid. A wide dome stretches above your head, studded with tiny windows like the diamond-encrusted lid of a jewellery-box. Of course – like Istanbul itself – they’re rough diamonds, but – also like Istanbul – that’s mostly where the charm comes from. The room is bathed in a half-light cast from these windows, and the tinkling of water drips steadily from the sink basins that surround the heated göbek taşı, or “‘belly’ stone”, in the centre. I stepped inside – still wearing my red shroud and sandals – and saw just one, solitary bather. That timeless image of the lithe, naked male, sitting bent-legged, bent-backed and dripping in soap, remained indistinct as it emerged through the steam from across the room. Whether out of arrogance, or absorption in his own toilette – this stranger didn’t so much as look at me throughout my entire stay. Brazen male nudity always comes as a shock, even when it is in a bathing context. I get exactly the same feeling of surprise in the changing rooms of a public swimming pool back in the UK. Nevertheless, off came my shroud, and my sandals: when in (new) Rome and all.

After washing myself once over with the sink, soap and bowl, Hasan emerged through the entrance and waddled over to my section to begin the service. He started by soaping me up and rinsing me down, before bringing out the dead skin remover. I may have been a neophyte in hamam procedure, but I’d heard rumours about this implement, and here I can only corroborate what I’d been told before: it was brutal. He scrubbed the infernal thing all over my skin, my whole body, over and over the same parts, hammering each before moving on to the next tender area. I closed my eyes in silent agony. It felt less like he was removing dead skin, more like he was ripping off layers and layers of quite healthy, quite live skin.

I dare say this torment lasted for rather less time than it felt, and once it was over Hasan rinsed the flakes of newly-dead skin from my red-raw body, before struggling across to the göbek taşı, and beckoning me over for my massage. I followed, gingerly lay myself face down on the edge, and tried to find the most comfortable position on the hard stone for my head. Things started fairly pleasantly: some gentle prodding here, some cautious probing there. Predictably enough though, things soon got rather more robust and rather less comfortable. All over my back, my legs, every pressure point was hammered relentlessly. Make no mistake: no concession was made to the inexperienced foreigner. I tried as best I could to stop myself wriggling around in discomfort, and found myself sliding uncontrollably around the göbek taşı, almost slipping off the edge because of the soap that was being slapped all over my body. Hasan manoeuvred me around like a helpless children’s toy: onto my back, seated, standing, arms up, arms down, legs crossed, arms crossed. At one point my face was squeezed against his own beefy göbek as he pushed his fingers mercilessly and methodically into the small between my shoulders, cracking my neck in both directions.

After drying off and cooling down, I sat down to talk with Hasan and one of his friends over tea in the lobby. I tried to draw them out on the history of the place, but I couldn’t get far. Apparently it was built in 1908, and from the look of it I can’t imagine the building having ever been anything other than a hamam. Hasan couldn’t tell me, as despite appearances he’s only been working there for 11 years: a relative greenhorn. He certainly felt like a confident, authoritative old hand though, and had well-earned the tip that he’d previously been fishing for. As with all massages, it wasn’t until an hour or two later that I really began to feel the benefit. I also felt a lot cleaner than I did before I went in, which itself couldn’t be taken for granted as I considered the “Hürriyet Hamamı” from outside.

Travel notes – Ayvalık

November 3, 2011

[Published by Today’s Zaman (28th Nov 2011): http://www.todayszaman.com/news-264185-a-town-attesting-to-history-along-the-aegean-ayvalik.html]

Not many trips can be traced back to the reading of one book, but that is the case with my recent hop down the Aegean coast of Turkey. I’ve always taken a passive interest in the near-history of this part of the world, and upon reading Bruce Clark’s Twice a Stranger – a fine account of the human effects of the Greek-Turkish population exchanges of the 1920s – I couldn’t resist visiting some of the areas described. Whilst one book inspired me to embark on the trip, one was also nearly responsible for making me pack up my bags to return home. I was accompanied most of the way by Robert Byron’s thrilling The Road to Oxiana, in which he describes marauding around the Persia and Afghanistan of the 1930s: wild horse chases across the central Asian steppe, the discovery of little-known ancient architectural treasures, dodging the Persian secret police, dysentry – it all rather put me to shame. Whilst I had nothing to rival these adventures, described below are my own peregrinations around a different, no less fascinating part of the world.

I arrived in Ayvalık exhausted after a day-long bus journey from Istanbul, which included an unexpected ferry crossing of a choppy Marmara Sea. The town is situated on the craggy north-western Aegean coast of Turkey, and for hundreds of years it was overwhelmingly home to Greeks, at the time subjects of the Ottoman Empire. After the First World War, the Greek armed forces used this western coast – with Izmir as unofficial capital – as a base to push as far into Asia Minor as possible. The reconquest by Turkish national resistance forces became one of the central, triumphant narratives of the Turkish War of Independence, and after the declaration of the Turkish Republic in 1923 the Greeks of Turkey and the Turks of Greece were swapped wholesale and sent to their ‘natural’ homelands. In Ayvalık, the entire Greek population was resettled on the nearby Greek island of Lesvos, and the many Turks of Lesvos went in the opposite direction. I have fond memories of childhood holidays in the small towns of Petra and Mytilene on Lesvos, which were favourite summer spots of my family. Of course, I knew little of this turbulent history at the time; all I really remember is the faint outline of the Anatolian coast high above the horizon on clear days, and the Sunday afternoon military parades on the waterfront, which I now realize carried far more significance than I could have understood then.

Two large mosques command Ayvalık, and – despite the minarets that have been put up alongside them – it’s impossible not to recognise them as Orthodox churches, as indeed they were originally intended. When the Greeks disappeared and the Turkish population swelled it was decided to simply convert these two churches (and many elsewhere) into mosques, like miniature Hagia Sophias. From the inside it’s difficult to imagine the now whitewashed walls covered in iconography, but from the outside (aside from the minaret) they obviously follow all the typical architectural conventions of a large Greek Orthodox church. They’re a magnificent sight, silently commanding the town, unavoidable once you rise to any kind of elevation. Evidence of Greek heritage is hard to miss elsewhere too, and most immediately obvious in the enigmatic backstreets behind the harbour. Roads evidently not designed for the modern vehicle wind past old wooden houses in various stages of disrepair. At night
they become even more deserted than in the day, and seem to suggest even more
secrets. Occasionally you come across a house with carved Greek lettering dating back to the 19th century, as often as not practically caving in on itself. Life goes on furtively above your head: muffled sounds behind open windows and closed curtains, from protruding bay windows that lean out and seem to touch each other across the street.

The island of Cunda is a siren call audible from the Ayvalık waterfront, and I yielded to it, postponing my onward journey by a day. Cunda has a refined air about it: the harbour is smarter than Ayvalık’s, people give the impression of being even more horizontally relaxed. On arrival I followed the instinct that I always try to satisfy upon landing on a new island: walk back and upwards as high as possible to get an idea of the place from above. Following the winding old streets, I came across the derelict old Greek cathedral on the hillside, forgotten in a kind of scrubland, unused for almost a century. Disappointingly, (but unsurprisingly), I couldn’t get in as I’d hoped, but I did manage to peer inside through the now-empty windows. It’s been so badly damaged over time – by earthquakes and neglect – that it now looks as though the whole thing is only held up by the wood scaffolding that now fills the interior: to what end one can only guess. Nearby, another old church has almost entirely collapsed into rubble, only a crumbling apse remaining – battered and open to the elements, apparently waiting to be put out of its misery. I left it forgotten and forlorn, and climbed the rest of the short way up to the top, from which, looking west, I could make out the faint outline of Lesvos.

One of the paradoxes in this corner of the world is the contrast between its surface picturesqueness and its bloody, conflicted history. The residue of the latter is evident in the thundering nationalism of the politics, a taste of which I got as I was waiting to catch the boat to take me back from Cunda to Ayvalık. It was late afternoon and I was sitting in a café by the harbour, when a loud and apparently stirring recording of the Istiklal Marşı (the Turkish national anthem) struck up entirely unannounced from somewhere nearby. Exactly who was playing it, and why, I’ve no idea, but those around me weren’t splitting any hairs. All conversation immediately stopped; I looked around and within seconds only one person (apart from me) wasn’t standing silently, hand clutching breast, eyes staring grimly into the middle distance. I thought this lone sitter must have been a Greek, but he spotted me from across the restaurant and gestured for me to stand and do the same as everyone else: puzzling as he himself remained sitting. When it had finished everybody sat back down and returned to their tea or games of tavla; I looked back and realised that the only reason the man hadn’t stood was because he was disabled.

Cunda is about as secular as you get in Turkey (the two churches here weren’t even converted symbolically – just left to go to seed), the call to prayer from the single, isolated, mosque on the peninsula doesn’t even make it to the harbour. If you measure by the nauseatingly quaint image of old men playing tavla outside backstreet tea houses, or the loquacious women holding court on the steps in front of their houses, the Greeks and Turks on either side of the Aegean are irrefutably similar. The Turks of the Aegean wave the flag as enthusiastically as anywhere, and whilst elsewhere in Turkey these days you can easily forget that the Greeks were once bitter enemies, (there are others to point the finger at now), here the older enmity is still tangible – the narcissism of small differences.

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