Letter from Istanbul

Once again, we were in Art Deco Pera Palace, now past its prime, but once occupied by kings, sultans, presidents and even by composer Mikis Theodorakis. This time, we stayed in room 204 – the Trotsky Room, as the bronze plaque on the outside door proudly states. I really wonder whether Lev Davidovich, that famous, or infamous, Bolshevik revolutionary, and myself might have used the same toilet cover. I don’t think so. They must have changed this accessory since 1929, when no other country would accept Trotsky and he was granted asylum by Turkey. Incidentally, here is a Trotsky quote: «Nobody who has wealth to distribute ever omits himself.» Nowadays, some do so omit when it is for superior – political – reasons. Now for the wedding that I was there to attend: The young couple, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s daughter Esra and Berat, son of journalist Sadik Albayrak, urged guests at their wedding to make direct donations to the Turkish Children’s Foundation rather than bring them gifts. More than 17.8 billion Turkish lira (some US$10,0000 ) has been donated up to today. Due to these gratuitous acts of kindness, Berat Albayrak is expected to climb high. It was an impressive wedding with some 7,000 guests, including four witnesses: Greek Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis and his wife Natassa («A few years ago nobody would have believed that a Greek PM would attend such a wedding, but we’ve managed to do it; I wish happiness, peace and a lot of children to the couple»), Romanian Premier Adrian Nastase, («We are all a big family») as well as the Jordanian King Abdullah and Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf. As for the reporters, most of them stood outside in the scorching afternoon sun. As Karamanlis entered the convention center where the ceremony took place, Greek strains were heard. The two premiers kissed each other on both cheeks. «A traditional sign of friendship here in Turkey,» a guest whispered knowingly. Italian Premier Silvio Berslusconi, who acted as a witness at last year’s wedding, when Erdogan’s son was married, could not make it this time. He sent a Versace vase instead. Another personality that excused himself was Turkey’s President Ahmet Necdet Sezer. But then he could hardly have make an appearance at a Muslim nuptial ceremony, being the head of a country in which only secular marriages are legally accepted. Aside from the fact that Kemal Ataturk, known as «the Father of the Turks,» and his associates rejected the symbols of Islam, they also outlawed traditional marriage practices. The 1926 civil code mandated that all marriages be registered with civil authorities. Marriages contracted before a member of the religious establishment henceforth were not recognized as lawful unions, and the children of such unions were considered illegitimate. The political philosophy of modern Turkey is based on orientation to the West. The Western-oriented elite considers EU accession to be the ultimate vindication of Kemal Ataturk’s reforms. Now, there must also be quite a problem in Turkey as notions about what constitutes correct sexual behavior are usually, here and there, based on religious texts, and those texts are invariably interpreted by Muslims and our Western rulers in quite different ways. Ankara’s modernizing Islamist government has quite a task to face here. The Prophet (peace be upon him) considered marriage for a Muslim as half of his religion because «it shields him from promiscuity, adultery, fornication, homosexuality, etc., which ultimately lead to many other evils like slander, quarreling, homicide, loss of property and disintegration of the family.» How does that fit in with that old devil permissiveness of us Europeans? But back to the wedding. Most of the female guests wore ornate headscarfs. There were all varieties of Islamic attire. The beautiful bride – in a full white gown, including the obligatory headscarf glittering with sequins – chose to study at Indiana University in the USA for the simple reason that in Turkey headscarfs are banned in universities. Meanwhile, and while all this was going on, in a far eastern corner of the country, in Van, another wedding was taking place. The nephew of another politician, Mustafa Zeydan (from the ruling Justice and Development Party), married Hazan Deger. Here it was back to the basics: Guests gave 15 kilograms of gold to the bride and 250 billion Turkish lira (some US $140,000) to the groom. With such presents, no wonder that young people in Turkey seldom elope. Needless to say, practicing Muslims should marry neither for money nor for looks. The noble Qur’an says: «Whoever marries a woman solely for her wealth, Allah will only increase him in poverty. Whoever marries a woman because of her beauty, Allah will only increase him in ugliness.» Nevertheless, traditions are not always valued as they should be. Take, for example, the notorious virginity test. «Families, school administrators and teachers take their daughters or students to private doctors for virginity testing, which is a mechanism of control over women and a crime according to international charters,» charged Mrs Mujde Bilgutay, representing some 40 women’s organizations, while I was in Istanbul. In its quest to join the EU, Turkey has already introduced wide-ranging changes to the Turkish Penal Code (TCK). After the summer recess, MPs in Ankara are expected to vote on a long-awaited modernized legal code. There are several problems here: Turkish women, underrepresented in politics, most certainly do not enjoy full equality. The new civil code enacted in November 2001 reformed Turkish family law and enhanced the position of women in marriage (e.g. by dropping the definition of the man as the head of the family and by introducing equal division of property acquired after marriage as the legal norm. Turkish backwardness? Hardly. A mind as clever and as innovative as good old Sigmund Freud’s could not conceive of a society that was not dominated by man, the father, either. There!). Lately, women’s organizations started insisting on a total ban of the virginity test, which the reform of the Penal Code does not clearly provide for. Once again, sexual attitudes are the result of political decisions. «The laws should also include the punishment of school administrators and doctors who conduct such tests,» Mrs Bilgutay told the daily Radikal. «The state is also responsible for implementing the necessary regulations to halt so-called honor killings,» she added. Current practice allows murderers to plead family honor as a mitigating circumstance to give «good reason» for killings. Brooding on our Old Testament’s dislike of women, anyone with an IQ above 95 can easily discover that the war against women’s equality still goes on just the same in our good, progressive West.