How unlucky are the Turks to have such extreme neighbours? Most of us have seen it – that last grand but tired looking house, in a rundown neighbourhood with a neat garden and maybe occupied by an elderly couple, who have resisted the developers. Just next door there’s a crack den, regularly raided by police and just across the road you cannot see someone’s lawn for burnt out vehicles, while a little further down that road there’s a house of a family they once knew, surrounded by a 3 metre high electric fence, which is now occupied by religious fanatics.
Before the deluge of refugees from Syria, people fleeing the two Iraq wars came and went and of course the Iran – Iraq war and Ayatollahs revolution caused its own surge. A little farther north comes Armenia, a country Turkey is so friendly with, the only way of getting there, until recently, was to fly via Moscow. Then there’s Georgia, just five years ago the victim of a Russian smash and grab raid on its territory. Even in the west things are far from comfortable; the wound with Greece ultimately symbolised by a catastrophic fire in Smyrna (now Izmir), still weeps ninety years on.
To the outside world Turkey seems to endure its volatile neighbours stoically, although every so often I am asked a familiar question: “Is Turkey safe at the moment?” Last month I told one friend not to worry, everything seemed quiet after the riots stopped in Istanbul and I probably pointed out that Syria is a long way from here. I said much the same last year after nuclear ambitious Iran threatened to annihilate Israel or because of the seemingly endless turmoil in Iraq. I won’t pretend Turkey is immune to the chaos its neighbours cause, just look at the Lira at the moment, but they tend to manage because this country is so huge. How many people know that Istanbul is physically nearer to London than Tehran or that Munich is actually closer than Bagdad?
And yet renewed rioting overnight in Ankara and the city of Antakya, which resulted in another death, and growing violence in other border towns since al-Assad’s murderous deeds in Damascus suggests that the conflict has already spilled-over well beyond the Turkey-Syria border. Add to this the several different ethnic and religious groups living on both sides of the border, some with deep historical ties and you end up with a foggy and volatile mix of potential flash points. If you try to understand the situation from a purely ethnic or religious perspective you will fail as nothing is so clear cut here; for instance most people understand the territorial overlap of the Kurds or that the Alevi Muslims here in Turkey are loosely related to al-Assad’s Alawites of Syria. But how many understand that there are both Turkish and Kurdish Alevi, who have a quite different perception to the Sunni majority, who dominate Turkey’s ruling party, of Syria’s war and even what it is to be a Muslim?
Another reason the conflict feels closer is a growing polarization and willingness of Turkish people, to be vocal about politics or let people know their feelings in other ways, as in the recent clatter of metal objects at 9pm every evening in most western and central towns and villages as a gesture of solidarity with the demonstrators in Gezi Park and Taksim Square. This feels unusual, because one of the very first things I learned here was that few people were open with their politics or ever criticised the government, police or army openly. Indeed, many friends say they had this drilled into them by their parents from an early age. In my experience many Turks seemed to have become political or religious chameleons in order to weather the changing landscape that often arrived with every new, but sometimes vengeful government or military Junta, because thousands of people have died here or served long prison sentences for simply having the wrong political or religious views.
It is hard to put a finger on where this new willingness to express an opinion comes from. But as an example I recall an incident that shocked me recently. The end of summer is traditionally wedding season in the towns and villages of the coastal backwater where I live. On this day I found myself outside a building, where a celebration was in full swing. Inside a man sang arabesque songs until at one point, either he, or someone else taking the microphone, shouted something I at first thought I had miss translated, until he shouted it even louder “die die *A……..n dogs die!”
During the last Iraq war, when Bush and Blair were cranking up the pressure on Turkey to get involved. I remember being jostled in Istanbul by some people, who gesticulated and spat upon me after one old, covered, woman shouted a demand for me to keep her family out of the war and for me to go home to America. I tried to explain that I was English but by then a mob mentality had taken over, so I eventually escaped in a taxi. Apart from a ruined coat and wounded pride, the thing that hurt most at the time was the fact that I had repeatedly expressed my own opposition to the conflict and had, on one occasion, publicly stated that I did not believe a single drop of Turkish blood should be spilled over such a contrived war.
So be careful what you wish for if you live here. Just as we sometimes find it hard to judge the difference between the various groups from appearances, we in our similar clothes and with our similar western ways seem very alike, especially to those Turks, who have rarely come across westerners outside of a television screen because in the eyes of many – we are all Americans now!
So Presidents Obama, Putin, Xi Jinping, Hollande or whoever else can help fix the open wound that is Syria – do it and do it quickly for the stability of the whole region, because from where I am looking you may have much less time than you think.
*The word was “American” of course but – knowing such sentences attract the attention of the internet secret service spiders, which can raise a hundred red flags – I opted for the quieter route.