Letter from Istanbul

Germany’s ambassador to Turkey, Franz von Papen (you must remember him from the movies, he was involved in the notorious «Cicero» spy affair during World War II), Greta Garbo and myself have used the same bathtub. This last weekend, coming from the Iraqi-Turkish border to cover a war supposed to bring those poor Iraqi people freedom, democracy and, yes, the pursuit of happiness, I stayed in Room 105 (von Papen’s room) at Istanbul’s historical posh hotel, the Pera Palace. Close to the American Consulate, the hotel’s six suites and some of its 139 rooms have views over the Golden Horn and the minarets beyond. The place is more than a hotel. It is a functioning museum with historical events and legends under one roof. Take the room next to mine, Room 104. The bronze plaque on its door indicates that Mata Hari, the notorious Dutch World War I spy, slept here. The long list of dignitaries that stayed in this hotel includes not only defunct kings and queens – from Albania, Montenegro, Iran and Iraq – but also many common mortals like Jaqueline Kennedy, Julio Iglesias and French actress Sarah Bernhardt. Thessaloniki-born Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the «father of modern Turks,» stayed in Room 101, which is now a museum. A framed letter by legendary Greek Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos is on display just as you enter the room. Other Greek dignitaries include composer Mikis Theodorakis and dictator General Metaxas, the latter of whom headed the largest – 12 members – delegation to Ataturk’s funeral in 1938. This celebrated hotel was opened in October 1893. It was built by the «Compagnie Internationale des Wagons Lits et des Grands Express Europeens» to serve passengers coming by rail from Paris to Istanbul, and later from London to Baghdad. Legend has it that Agatha Christie conceived her «Murder on the Orient Express» in this hotel. The Pera Palace is to this day the center of the real-life mystery of Agatha Christie’s 11-day disappearance in 1926. When in the 1970s Warner Bros decided to make a movie on the incident, starring Vanessa Redgrave and Dustin Hoffman, a famous Hollywood medium and claivoyant by the name of Tamara Rand was solicited by the producers. She supposedly found out that Agatha Christie’s secret was the key to her diary hidden under the floorboards of Room 411. The key was found. The diary was not. Another interesting story is how the hotel (where, by the way, the Greek Consulate in Istanbul gave its Independence Day reception on March 25 this year) passed into Greek hands. During Constantinople’s war – which began on October 1914 and ended on 13 November 1918 with a long line of Allied warships entering the Bosporus (Greek warships among them) – a rich Greek windmill owner from Mersin, Petros Bodosakis, was turned away by the doorman from entering the hotel. He wasn’t properly dressed for such a place. Bodosakis was so angry that he bought the hotel and fired the insolent doorman. Later – in 1923 – the hotel was confiscated for tax debts. Today, it is owned by the Turkish Ministry of Culture. Last Saturday, as I was strolling down the crowded pedestrian Istiklar Caddesi (Independence Street) in the Pera district, some 1,000 anti-war protesters, chanting «No war!» and carrying signs that denounced «Allied aggression» marched against a police formation in riot gear. There were clashes. With a predominantly Muslim population, anti-war sentiment predominates in Turkey. Most polls put it at over 90 percent. In a country that shares a heavily guarded border with Iraq, the current pro-Islamic Justice and Development Party, which forms the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is held in deep suspicion by friend and foe alike. The powerful generals favor the secular system established by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1924. The USA has repeatedly accused its formerly staunch ally of foot-dragging and being «Hussein’s best friend.» As if the Turks don’t want to see the Iraqis free! Well, fairly free. The recent extraordinary gyrations in the international stock market bear witness to the new surge of fright and confusion and to mounting concern, in Turkey as well, that the turmoil arising from the Iraq war will end in a worldwide depression. Columnist Ismet Berkan laments in the daily Radikal: «Just when Turkey was about to leave behind the severest economic crisis in its history, just when Turkey had a long-sought single-party government which boosted everybody’s hopes, Turkey finds itself plunged in a crisis atmosphere again – so soon. «In any event, the task now is to ensure that things do not in fact get much worse for Turkey…» The Englishman from Kent has lived for some years in Istanbul. We started a conversation over vodka, in the ornate Orient Express Bar. «I love this city,» he sighed. «In a world that is changing rapidly, Istanbul retains a flavor of the exotic that seems increasingly rare.» «How come there are no Americans in a bar like this one, which must be at least as legendary as Harry’s Bar in Venice?» I asked. «After all, the Pera Palace is mentioned in Hemingway’s ‘Snows of Kilimanjaro,’ isn’t it?» «Unsurprisingly, they must assume that it is not the proper time to mimic the manners of their social superiors – the Europeans. Anyway, just to be on the safe side, nowadays some American tourists are passing themselves off as Canadian.» «And what about yourself?» «I never felt unsafe in this country,» he replied. Not everybody shares this view. Come to think of it, two days ago on flight TK 0641, there was a lot of jumpiness among the passengers. There were some US Army dependants flying from Diyarbakir to Istanbul to catch a plane for New York. They hardly talked, obviously trying to avoid becoming the target of anti-American rhetoric. So, they whispered and glanced fearfully in all directions. One of them confessed to me, «I believe I’m better off in the United States than in a nation bordering Iraq.»