Magazine article Insight on the News

Will Turkey Go East or West?

Magazine article Insight on the News

Will Turkey Go East or West?

Article excerpt

This country now is facing a series of challenges -- from Islamists and separatist Kurds as well as economic change. The would-be secular state is creaking under the onslaught.

The gigantic vessels are on the move. As the tankers head up the Bosporus to the Black Sea they sound their mournful horns. The clatter of nighttime Istanbul is closer: taxis hooting, music blaring from a nearby youth hostel and the buzz of alfresco diners. And then the call to prayer choruses from a dozen mosques surrounding Aya Sofya, the 1,400-year-old Byzantine Church of Divine Wisdom that was converted by the Ottomans into a mosque and later by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk into a museum. It is on nights like this -- as the sun sets, the gulls screech and the yearning call to Allah competes for attention -- that Istanbul comes into its own.

Along the narrow, cobbled Street of Fountains linking the sultans' Topkapi Palace to the back of Aya Sofya -- it once was the greatest church in all Christendom -- a handful of foreign tourists come and go. They marvel, they're enchanted. But tonight, too, there is another more ominous sound in the city -- the thump of military helicopters patrolling overhead. There also are more machine-gun-toting police on the side streets. They are discreet but they are there and alert and alarming. Abdullah "Apo" Ocalan, the founder of the outlawed Kurdish Workers Party, or PKK, has been sentenced to death. Istanbul is edgy.

"Are we safe?" queries a French tourist. "Will they start bombing tourist sites?" worries a German, who has heard that suicide bombings already have claimed the lives of half-a-dozen people and injured 60 others.

Turkey is having a bad summer. One of the popular holiday destinations in the world -- on average, 7 million tourists tramp through each year -- this vacation season is turning into a poor affair. No one believes recent government figures suggesting there's an increase in revenues from tourism. Certainly the craggy-faced shoeshine man outside the Blue Mosque is skeptical. "Where are all the foreigners?" he asks. "Why don't they come?" The war in Kosovo, of course, has deterred many a foreigner from setting foot in Turkey. Other countries in the region -- Bulgaria, Romania -- are suffering, too. Only the hardy French appear to have arrived in their normal numbers. Down on Turkey's Mediterranean coast, tourist hotels are empty, laying off staff and even shutting their doors for the season.

And now the Kurdish separatist leader has been sentenced and the fear of increasing Kurdish terrorism likely will affect the vacation plans of post-Kosovo Western holidaymakers, dashing the hopes of hoteliers hanging on for an Indian summer. Despite a July 12 statement from the PKK announcing an end to a wave of suicide bombings and attacks on civilians, all launched to avenge the June 29 death sentence on separatist chieftain Ocalan, few believe Istanbul, or Ankara, will remain immune for long from coffee shops being shot up or buses bombed.

Even the hordes of young prostitutes from Russia, Ukraine and Romania who flock to Istanbul complain about lackluster business as they work the disco clubs and bars of the adjacent and chaotic districts of Laleli and Aksaray. Nicknamed "Natashas," they are mostly amateurs and the desperate condition of the Russian economy can be gauged by their large numbers and also by what their real occupations are back home in Mother Russia. Many are students or even professionals, including teachers, doctors and psychiatrists. Either they can't find jobs in their home towns or are paid so miserably they are forced to finance themselves and their families by doing irregular stints in Istanbul, the nearest major fleshpot with U.S. dollars circulating.

"It is terrible, I know," remarks a 26-year-old Russian pediatrician and mother of two. "But it is either this or no food and no home," she says, sitting in the noisy disco in the basement of the Cemi Hotel. …

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