Postcard — March 30, 2014, 7:25 pm

Hands Over Istanbul

About town with the aspiring lords of Byzantium

On March 22, in a working-class neighborhood on Istanbul’s Asian shore, several thousand people gathered around a bus. They held up Turkish flags, or else banners printed with six white arrows and the letters CHP, the insignia of the secular opposition party. Most everyone joined in chanting, “Everywhere is bribery; everywhere is corruption.” It was an echo of last year’s Gezi Park protests — “Everywhere is Taksim; everywhere is resistance” — but here it sounded nostalgic, not defiant. The government had just blacked out Twitter. Gezi seemed suddenly deep in the past.

A metal platform had been welded onto the roof of the bus, and Mustafa Sarigül, the CHP’s candidate for mayor in the March 30 elections, was standing on it. After the usual promises to be “a mayor of the people,” Sarigül turned his attention to what he believed the Istanbul race was really about: the fight against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Sarigül’s grievances with Erdogan and his Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) were not only political. In January, Sarigül had found his assets frozen by the state, ostensibly for having failed to pay back a sixteen-year-old loan, but actually, he suspected, for having decided to run for mayor. “Can you imagine all the things they’re doing to me?” he asked the crowd, working himself into a rage. Sarigül’s political persona, like Erdogan’s, is a mix of paternal drill-sergeant and avuncular storyteller. At an earlier event, I’d watched him yell at a teenager for smoking a cigarette.

When the rally ended, we climbed inside the bus, where I found a seat in a small room at the back, squeezed between two advisers and opposite a German TV crew. Sarigül seemed to believe that the Germans’ presence was a sure sign of his impending victory. “Why else would they be here?” he’d asked at an earlier rally.

When I inquired about Kadir Topbas, his opponent and the incumbent AKP mayor, Sarigül sneered. Topbas, he said, had practically declined to show up. “He’s not in the city squares, he doesn’t hold rallies, he doesn’t answer the questions I ask.” Topbas had not needed to campaign, because “the only man running in Istanbul,” Sarigul said, was the prime minister.

One would think that the man at the helm of a country that aspires to dominance in the Middle East and the Muslim world has enough on his plate without adding a mayoral campaign. Even in his twelfth year as prime minister, however, it’s hard to shake the impression that Erdogan, who grew up in Istanbul and served as its mayor in the mid-1990s, is moonlighting at his old job.

After a decade-long boom, Istanbul, home to 14 million people, has transformed into a vast construction site. Under Erdogan’s watchful eye, certain neighborhoods have flourished. The city boasts new metro lines, new roads, and, as of last fall, the world’s first undersea rail tunnel linking two continents. Yet the construction frenzy has come at a cost. To make way for new shopping malls and flashy housing complexes, a number of historic neighborhoods have been razed, their poorer tenants priced out, evicted, and forced to the fringes. A creeping wave of cement has deprived whole neighborhoods of green space. Concerns about a housing bubble are getting louder. By some estimates, Istanbul is home to about one million unsold apartments.

Erdogan, meanwhile, appears determined to convert the rest of the city into a showcase for his imperial ambitions. A new bridge, its construction coming at the expense of more than two million felled trees, is rising over the Bosporus Strait. A mega-mosque capable of accommodating forty thousand people is in the works. A forested area equal in size to roughly twenty Central Parks has been set aside to house a new international airport. By 2023, the centenary of the Turkish Republic, Erdogan plans to have launched the most controversial and unrealistic of his schemes, a thirty-mile-long canal linking the Black and Marmara Seas.

Many of these projects, as well as links between the building sector and Erdogan’s administration, have lately come under increasing scrutiny. Since mid-December, a sweeping probe has ensnared several top officials and some of Turkey’s biggest construction tycoons, and has exposed compelling evidence of favoritism, rigged tenders, and kickbacks to top state officials, including the prime minister himself.

Branding the investigation a “judicial coup” against his government, Erdogan has removed the prosecutors involved, reshuffled more than 7,000 police officers, and brought the country’s top judicial body to heel. Across several weeks, undeterred by claims of a cover-up, he has practically defanged the investigation. But its fallout continues to haunt him.

For the past three months, leaked documents and wiretapped conversations from the highest levels of government have found their way online, revealing an impressive variety of sleaze. In one audio recording, which Erdogan called a “shameless montage,” he and his son appear to discuss removing millions of dollars in cash from their homes. In another, AKP heavyweights are heard cutting crooked deals with property developers. Most relevant to the March 30 election in Istanbul was a leaked tape in which Erdogan is heard ordering a TV executive to give Sarigül less media coverage.

AKP supporters look on as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks in Istanbul. © Piotr Zalewski

AKP supporters look on as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks in Istanbul. © Piotr Zalewski

The day after I met Sarigül, with exactly a week to go before the election, Erdogan held an event of his own. It was advertised, in 1930s fashion, as “The Rally for the National Will.” The event was being held in a huge public square that had been constructed under AKP leadership as part of a land reclamation project. The urban theorist Jean-François Pérouse recently called the square Istanbul’s “giant vomit onto the Marmara Sea.”

By the early afternoon, it teemed with over a million people. Volunteers lobbed plastic water bottles and sandwiches into the crowd. To get a better view of the stage and escape the crush of bodies, dozens of men had climbed a row of newly planted trees separating the gathering area from the neighboring road. Near the spot where I stood, an elderly woman, having fainted, was being carried off on a stretcher.

While we awaited the speeches, I chatted with Hakan Temur, a soft-spoken forty-one-year-old shopkeeper who had brought along his teenaged daughter. He supported Erdogan, he said, partly because his ban on alcohol sales after 10 p.m. “has made the streets safe.” When I asked him about the leaked recordings, he dismissed them as a “smear campaign.” “[Erdogan] has become the victim of a global conspiracy,” he said.

“The world’s never seen a leader like Erdogan,” said Ayse Yüksel, a beautician in her late thirties. “Where there were no roads, he built roads. Where there was no electricity, there’s electricity. Where there was no water . . . ” She went on for a while. “Allah sent him to us,” I heard her say when I tuned back in. “He’s tireless, he’s always working, he’s sleeping three hours a day. For that kind of work, not even half a million lira [$250,000] a month is enough.”

I went to try to find someone who actually cared about the graft allegations, to little avail. “I don’t support corruption,” said a young housewife named Ayse Bayram, “but I’d support [Erdogan] even if the claims turned out to be real. Because of all the things he’s done for the country, he has every right.” A January poll had proved her opinion to be prevalent. Seventy-seven percent of Turks believed that government ministers had accepted bribes, but 47 percent were still prepared to vote AKP.

Yasar Yakis, a former foreign minister for the AKP, once explained to me that Erdogan’s religious electorate loved him mainly for being one of them. Pious, conservative people, he said, remained enamored with the prime minister. “He has protected their way of life, their religion, their right to wear the [Islamic] headscarf in public.”

After what seemed like hours of pep talks and anthems, the official part of the seaside rally finally got under way. Kadir Topbas, the incumbent mayor, spoke for fewer than five minutes. “The work we’ve done in Istanbul speaks for itself,” he said, to lukewarm applause. Then Erdogan, having arrived by helicopter, took the stage. He riffed for nearly two hours. He offered a poem, an anecdote about his encounter with an elderly voter, an ode to Istanbul, and, as a climax, excoriations of the media, the opposition, Twitter (which he had banned three days earlier), YouTube (which he would ban four days later), and Facebook (which was said to be next). The crowd loved it.

He closed, as usual, with a parting shot at his recently appointed archenemy, the Islamic sect known as the Gülen movement, which he and most outside observers believe to be the force behind the corruption accusations and the leaks. “Leeches are more virtuous,” he boomed, towering over the crowds, now, from a platform adjacent to the stage. “Leeches suck dirty blood, but they suck clean blood.”

The line was a huge crowd-pleaser. “If it comes to war, we will fight for him,” said Suat, a textile worker who’d come to the rally with several friends. “It’s in our blood. We are the grandsons of the Ottomans.”

In nearly every appearance since last summer’s Gezi Park protests, Erdogan has challenged his opponents and critics — including the CHP, the Gülenists, and anyone else concerned with his authoritarian bent — to try to better him in an election. Today, faced with blowback from the latest corruption scandal, Erdogan has appointed the ballot box as his lawyer, prosecutor, jury, and judge. If the AKP wins Istanbul’s mayoral election and other local races across the country, and especially if it wins big, he has implied, he will have been absolved of all wrongdoing. Perversely, he could be right. Armed with a resounding victory, Erdogan may hold on to power for years to come, whether by rewriting party rules and making himself eligible for a fourth term as prime minister, or by running in the presidential elections later this summer.

A poor nationwide showing will have the opposite impact. If the party receives well below 40 percent of the total vote, Asli Aydintasbas, a columnist at the daily newspaper Milliyet, told me, Erdogan’s political future will be in jeopardy. Early parliamentary elections might beckon, she said, and, sooner rather than later, “the investigations will catch up with him and his family.”

On the CHP’s campaign bus, Sarigül had been just as clear about what was at stake on March 30, particularly in Turkey’s biggest city. Istanbul, he said, would make or break Erdogan. Most polls showed him trailing Kadir Topbas by a few points, but he was confident of a win. If he were to deliver one, he said, swallowing a handful of peanuts, “Tayyip’s days would be counted.”

As of Sunday night, it was clear that they weren’t, at least not just yet. With most ballots counted, the AKP was winning cities across Turkey and on pace to secure about 45 percent of the vote nationwide. Sarigül was trailing by almost ten points.

Piotr Zalewski is an Istanbul-based freelance writer for Time, Foreign Policy, and the Financial Times, among others. Follow him on Twitter: @p_zalewski.

Share
Single Page

More from Piotr Zalewski:

Postcard July 30, 2015, 10:38 am

The Kurds’ Choice

Watching Turkey’s election in Diyarbakir

Get access to 168 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

October 2018

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
The Printed Word in Peril·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In February, at an event at the 92nd Street Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center in New York, while sharing the stage with my fellow British writer Martin Amis and discussing the impact of screen-based reading and bidirectional digital media on the Republic of Letters, I threw this query out to an audience that I estimate was about three hundred strong: “Have any of you been reading anything by Norman Mailer in the past year?” After a while, one hand went up, then another tentatively semi-elevated. Frankly I was surprised it was that many. Of course, there are good reasons why Mailer in particular should suffer posthumous obscurity with such alacrity: his brand of male essentialist braggadocio is arguably extraneous in the age of Trump, Weinstein, and fourth-wave feminism. Moreover, Mailer’s brilliance, such as it was, seemed, even at the time he wrote, to be sparks struck by a steely intellect against the tortuous rocks of a particular age, even though he labored tirelessly to the very end, principally as the booster of his own reputation.

It’s also true that, as J. G. Ballard sagely remarked, for a writer, death is always a career move, and for most of us the move is a demotion, as we’re simultaneously lowered into the grave and our works into the dustbin. But having noted all of the above, it remains the case that Mailer’s death coincided with another far greater extinction: that of the literary milieu in which he’d come to prominence and been sustained for decades. It’s a milieu that I hesitate to identify entirely with what’s understood by the ringing phrase “the Republic of Letters,” even though the overlap between the two was once great indeed; and I cannot be alone in wondering what will remain of the latter once the former, which not long ago seemed so very solid, has melted into air.

What I do feel isolated in—if not entirely alone in—is my determination, as a novelist, essayist, and journalist, not to rage against the dying of literature’s light, although it’s surprising how little of this there is, but merely to examine the great technological discontinuity of our era, as we pivot from the wave to the particle, the fractal to the fungible, and the mechanical to the computable. I first began consciously responding, as a literary practitioner, to the manifold impacts of ­BDDM in the early 2000s—although, being the age I am, I have been feeling its effects throughout my working life—and I first started to write and speak publicly about it around a decade ago. Initially I had the impression I was being heard out, if reluctantly, but as the years have passed, my attempts to limn the shape of this epochal transformation have been met increasingly with outrage, and even abuse, in particular from my fellow writers.

As for my attempts to express the impact of the screen on the page, on the actual pages of literary novels, I now understand that these were altogether irrelevant to the requirement of the age that everything be easier, faster, and slicker in order to compel the attention of screen viewers. It strikes me that we’re now suffering collectively from a “tyranny of the virtual,” since we find ourselves unable to look away from the screens that mediate not just print but, increasingly, reality itself.

Photograph (detail) by Ellen Cantor from her Prior Pleasures series © The artist. Courtesy dnj Gallery, Santa Monica, California
Article
Among Britain’s Anti-Semites·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

This is the story of how the institutions of British Jewry went to war with Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party. Corbyn is another feather in the wind of populism and a fragmentation of the old consensus and politesse. He was elected to the leadership by the party membership in 2015, and no one was more surprised than he. Between 1997 and 2010, Corbyn voted against his own party 428 times. He existed as an ideal, a rebuke to the Blairite leadership, and the only wise man on a ship of fools. His schtick is that of a weary, kindly, socialist Father Christmas, dragged from his vegetable patch to create a utopia almost against his will. But in 2015 the ideal became, reluctantly, flesh. Satirists mock him as Jesus Christ, and this is apt. But only just. He courts sainthood, and if you are very cynical you might say that, like Christ, he shows Jews what they should be. He once sat on the floor of a crowded train, though he was offered a first-class seat, possibly as a private act of penance to those who had, at one time or another, had no seat on a train.

When Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party, the British media, who are used to punching socialists, crawled over his record and found much to alarm the tiny Jewish community of 260,000. Corbyn called Hez­bollah “friends” and said Hamas, also his “friends,” were devoted “to long-term peace and social justice.” (He later said he regretted using that language.) He invited the Islamist leader Raed Salah, who has accused Jews of killing Christian children to drink their blood, to Parliament, and opposed his extradition. Corbyn is also a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and a former chair of Stop the War, at whose rallies they chant, “From the river to the sea / Palestine will be free.” (There is no rhyme for what will happen to the Jewish population in this paradise.) He was an early supporter of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and its global campaign to delegitimize Israel and, through the right of return for Palestinians, end its existence as a Jewish state. (His office now maintains that he does not support BDS. The official Labour Party position is for a two-state solution.) In the most recent general election, only 13 percent of British Jews intended to vote Labour.

Corbyn freed something. The scandals bloomed, swiftly. In 2016 Naz Shah, Labour MP for Bradford West, was suspended from the party for sharing a Facebook post that suggested Israel be relocated to the United States. She apologized publicly, was reinstated, and is now a shadow women and equalities minister. Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London and a political supporter of Corbyn, appeared on the radio to defend Shah and said, “When Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.” For this comment, Livingstone was suspended from the party.

A protest against anti-Semitism in the Labour Party in Parliament Square, London, March 26, 2018 (detail) © Yui Mok/PA Images/Getty Images
Article
Nothing but Gifts·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

If necessity is the stern but respectable mother of invention, then perhaps desperation is the derelict father of subterfuge. That was certainly the case when I moved to Seattle in 1979.

Though I’d lived there twice during the previous five years, I wasn’t prepared for the economic boom I found upon this latest arrival. Not only had rent increased sharply in all but the most destitute neighborhoods, landlords now routinely demanded first, last, and a hefty security deposit, which meant I was short by about fifty percent. Over the first week or so, I watched with mounting anxiety as food, gas, and lodging expenses reduced the meager half I did have to a severely deficient third. To make matters even more nerve-racking, I was relocating with my nine-year-old son, Ezra. More than my well-being was at stake.

A veteran of cold, solitary starts in strange cities, I knew our best hope wasn’t the classifieds, and certainly not an agency, but the serendipity of the streets—handmade for rent signs, crowded bulletin boards in laundromats and corner grocery stores, passersby on the sidewalk; I had to exploit every opportunity that might present itself, no matter how oblique or improbable. In Eastlake, at the edge of Lake Union between downtown Seattle and the University District, I spied a shabby but vacant one-story house on the corner of a block that was obviously undergoing transition—overgrown lots and foundation remnants where other houses once stood—and that had at least one permanent feature most right-minded people would find forbidding: an elevated section of Interstate 5 just across the street, attended by the incessant roar of cars and trucks. The house needed a new roof, a couple of coats of paint, and, judging by what Ezra and I could detect during a furtive inspection, major repair work inside, including replacing damaged plaster-and-lath walls with sheetrock. All of this, from my standpoint, meant that I might have found a solution to my dilemma.

The next step was locating the owner, a roundabout process that eventually required a trip to the tax assessor’s office. I called the person listed on the rolls and made an appointment. Then came the moment of truth, or, more precisely, untruth, when dire circumstance begot strategic deception. I’d never renovated so much as a closet, but that didn’t stop me from declaring confidently that I possessed both the skills and the willingness to restore the entire place to a presentable—and, therefore, rentable—state in exchange for being able to live there for free, with the length of stay to be determined as work progressed. To my immense relief, the pretense was well received. Indeed, the owner also seemed relieved, if a bit surprised, that he’d have seemingly trustworthy tenants; homeless people who camped beneath the freeway, he explained, had repeatedly broken into the house and used it for all manner of depravity. Telling myself that inspired charlatanry is superior to mundane trespassing—especially this instance of charlatanry, which would yield some actual good—I accepted the keys from my new landlord.

Photograph (detail) © Larry Towell/Magnum Photos
Article
Checkpoint Nation·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Laura Sandoval threaded her way through idling taxis and men selling bottles of water toward the entrance of the Cordova International Bridge, which links Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to El Paso, Texas. Earlier that day, a bright Saturday in December 2012, Sandoval had crossed over to Juárez to console a friend whose wife had recently died. She had brought him a few items he had requested—eye drops, the chimichangas from Allsup’s he liked—and now that her care package had been delivered, she was in a hurry to get back to the Texas side, where she’d left her car. She had a …
Checkpoint on I-35 near Encinal, Texas (detail) © Gabriella Demczuk

Number of times the word motherfucker appears in Miles Davis’s autobiography:

333

After becoming the first animal to conceive in space, a Russian cockroach named Nadezhda (“Hope”) gave birth.

Brett Kavanaugh’s calendars; Stormy Daniels describes sex with Trump; China sponsors content in the Des Moines Register

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Happiness Is a Worn Gun

By

Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today