Erdogan’s wedding burlesque

The «wedding of the year» was in many ways a microcosm of Turkey and its politics. More than 7,000 guests who gathered in bright Istanbul sunshine last Sunday for the marriage of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s younger son, Bilal, caught a glimpse of all: coquetry, teenage marriage, the paparazzi scrum, a leftist demonstration, varieties of Islamic attire, a mayor whose wife loves to shoot in the air and Mr Erdogan’s preferred entourage and best friends. All in all, it was wedding burlesque. For two weeks before the wedding, paparazzi sought in vain to extract a word from the 17-year-old bride, Reyyan Uzuner, who quit high school to marry Bilal, in his early 20s, with plans to resume her studies in the United States, the favorite schooling destination for the entire Erdogan family. In pictures reminiscent of Federico Fellini’s «La Dolce Vita,» paparazzi were on watch round the clock in front of the apartment where the bride lived, savagely followed the household everywhere, almost caused traffic accidents, and even attempted to sneak into the fashion shop to take a picture of the wedding dress. Some women’s groups said Mr Erdogan and his in-laws did not set a good example for society by encouraging marriage at such a young age. Although the legal age for marriage in Turkey is 18, younger teenagers can get married on a court approval if parents give their consent. Now more secular Turks are questioning whether parental consent should justify teenage marriage. For several weeks, police prepared for the event, hoping something nasty would not happen. It did not, not counting a minor demonstration although police had sealed off roads around the congress hall where guests gathered in what looked like an Islamic fashion show featuring colorful headscarves and glimmering jewelry. A hundred leftist demonstrators reminded guests of Mr Erdogan’s plans to send thousands of Turkish troops as part of an international stability force in Iraq: «Erdogan,» they shouted, «Send your own son to Iraq!» Soon, they would be pushed into police buses and taken away. Inside the hall, there was peace and joy – and a smiling man who had defeated half a dozen district mayors of Istanbul in a fierce race to wed the very important couple. The smiling face of Ali Mufit Gurtuna, the metropolitan mayor, revealed his temporary feeling of relief after a small nuisance. Last week, Mrs Gurtuna, accompanying her husband on a Black Sea voyage, had shot nine bullets in the air, a traditional but often dangerous local gesture of joy. The trouble is, Mrs Gurtuna was captured by reporters while shooting, second after second, with her husband watching her. Moving on from the evidence aired on every television channel, a daring prosecutor filed a suit against her for her momentary love affair with a pistol. This will be a real test case for the Turkish judiciary. One wonders which brave Turkish judge would sentence the wife of one of the prime minister’s most preferred men – and ahead of local polls next year. Mr Gurtuna says he did not see his wife shooting. It is amazing how comfortably Mr Erdogan’s men can avoid telling the truth. The number of witnesses at the wedding was proportionate to the importance of the event. Mr Erdogan carefully picked five men, possibly envied by other candidates. Three of the witnesses were in Mr Erdogan’s closest circle of political warfare: Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, Parliament Speaker Bulent Arinc and an MP for Istanbul, Nevzat Yalcintas. The other two came from both sides of the Adriatic. Albanian Prime Minister Fatos Nano acted as a witness for the bride. But all eyes were on the witness for the groom. With the famous grin even wider than usual after an open-armed welcome at George Bush’s ranch in Texas and two bills to his taste passed in the Roman Parliament, Silvio Berlusconi, Italian prime minister, acted as a witness for the son of his great friend, Tayyip. On the surface, it’s a rather odd intimacy. Mr Erdogan has his roots in Islamist militancy. For example, he has meticulously avoided calling Al Qaeda a «terrorist organization.» At the other extreme, Mr Berlusconi enraged Muslims, possibly Mr Erdogan the good Muslim too, in September 2001, when he said Western civilization was superior to Islam. But the careful observer should be able to spot more important things in common. Both men are pragmatists. They are natural-born survivors. And they know how to talk business. For example, when Mr Berlusconi briefly visited his friend Tayyip earlier this year, he returned to Rome with a deal that rescued an unfortunate $4 billion investment in Turkey by Telecom Italia Mobile, the Italian telecom giant’s mobile phone arm. In return, Mr Berlusconi has firmly backed Turkey’s EU aspirations – and his good friend Tayyip. There is one difference though. In Italy, these days, Mr Berlusconi’s opponents call him «Pinocchio.» In EU candidate Turkey, one would face a prison sentence of up to three years if they implied the prime minister was a notorious liar.