Letter from Istanbul

It seems like this summer will be even more heated than usual. The idea that something awful, even fateful, may happen to this part of the world gets a lot of attention in street discussions taking place on Istiklar Caddesi, a bustling pedestrian drag embracing the Turkish cosmopolitanism for which this city has stood since ancient times. Of course nothing is certain – a prophecy of doom is just like another questionable economic forecast – but there are several dire scenarios discernible here in Turkey, decently kept from public view. But we will come to that later. Now a commercial break: Tonight in Hagia Eirene – a former Orthodox church from the Byzantine era, now a museum with admirable acoustics – the Nash Ensemble of London, conducted by Lionel Friend, will be playing two of the most famous musical stories: Prokofiev’s «Peter and the Wolf» and Stravinsky’s «The Soldier’s Tale.» The musical calendar in Istanbul is currently full. The 32nd International Istanbul Music Festival, this year themed around Baroque music, hosts several local and foreign artists from June 4 to July 8, with a program that includes a total of 27 performances: seven chamber orchestra concerts; five recitals; five chamber music concerts; two dance performances and two narrated concerts – should you be impressed by numbers. A generation of remarkably talented classical musicians has already come of age in Turkey. The peak of this festival is on its closing nights – July 7 and 8 – a Piccolo Teatro di Milano production, directed by the late Giorgio Strehler who also produced Mozart’s «Cosi fan Tutte.» Personally, I would consider Mozart’s «Abduction from the Serail» more appropriate for Turkish current affairs. And that is because actual military pressure, modestly kept under wraps for fear of terrorizing Turkish folks at large on the issue of Iraq, threatens precariously to topple Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan from power. Needless to say, Erdogan has used his time well until now. End of commercial. From a foreign-political perspective, a series of events appears to be plaguing the Turkish government – an administration that is terribly conscious of the pressure being applied by London and Washington to deploy a significant number of Turkish troops to Iraq. Significantly, a recent UN Security Council statement read: «Help from international and regional countries and the support of Iraq’s neighbors is very important for the security of the Iraqis.» This leaves no doubt as to whom it was addressed. Certainly not to the Iranians or the Syrians. Finally, there were also reports in Britain’s Daily Telegraph and also The Washington Post supporting similar scenarios, such as: «When the government in Iraq is transferred to Iraqis on June 30, NATO will send troops from Germany, Turkey, Spain and Greece…» Another cat let out of the bag? And how, you might wonder, is PM Erdogan reacting to all those rumors? In a recent interview with the European edition of the Wall Street Journal, he answered, vaguely, that Turkey would consider the matter in due course. Yet would such a consideration ever be possible? Hardly, one must admit. The leader of the strongest group in the AKP governmental party, Abdullah Caliskan, a statesman who has around him some 70 deputies, recently used some most undiplomatic language to attack events in Turkey’s eastern neighborhood. «I am harshly condemning the disgusting torture, rape and massacres perpetrated by the crazy and inhuman US and British soldiers,» he was reported as saying. As if the torture, violence and rape they have committed were not enough, they also have the temerity to call for new rape and torture with their Greater Middle East Initiative. Now, also consider this: Before the NATO summit to begin on June 28, Istanbul will host another highly critical meeting, the foreign ministers’ conference of the Organization of Islamic Countries, a political body that surely is not looking forward to being democratized by the aforementioned Greater Middle East Initiative – a plan on which all NATO leaders are expected to agree in Istanbul at the end of this month – a symbolic (or existential, as we used to say in the ’80s) resolution in the name of freedom and human rights. However, religious fundamentalism is not the greatest problem facing today’s republic. But what if certain AKP party deputies with attitudes firmly based on Islamic codes of conduct chose to topple the Erdogan government, instead of approving sending troops? Where once we were told it was better to be dead than red, now Turks will be told it is better to be Islamic than what – cross-bearing knights? Anyway, the AKP is likely to trip on that hurdle. How are Turkey’s powerful secular military leaders – who, through the amended National Security Council, still have a constitutional say in how things are run – going to react? It is a truism that generals are constantly prepared to fight the last war. Last week, I read several reports in Greek opposition papers insinuating that Erdogan’s invitation to the G-8 meeting has been something of a slap in the face to Greece, as it was meant to upgrade the Turkish PM and downgrade us – the self-lamenting Greeks. For those interested in how ruinous our EU and NATO membership is, allow me to say that here in Turkey, they see it otherwise. There has been a statement released by the White House on the specific role a recalcitrant Turkey is scheduled to play in Iraq. Bush is pressing us dreadfully to accept so-called liberalization in the Greater Middle East and North Africa. No nuance there. But it will be difficult to win public support for this, a friendly journalist wearing an Islamic headscarf (who is also a member of a party stacked with grim fundamentalists) told me the other day in the coffee shop of Pera Palace. Turkish affairs concern not just Turks themselves but their Western friends as well – and mainly us Greeks. Therefore, during June we would do better having our eyes directed eastward and not just on the European soccer games in Portugal.