Turkey at Crossroads: The Story of Istanbul

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I had a short visit to Istanbul last month.

Having already been to the city four times, I skipped Istanbul’s major tourist attractions (which are magnificent by the way, but let’s talk about them in a future post).

Instead, I went to some neighbourhoods in the European part of Istanbul that I’m most familiar with – Nisantasi, Beyoglu and Istiklal.

Rocked by several significant terror attacks and a large-scale political upheaval, one of the common questions that the international community has about Turkey is, “What the hell happened?”.

Turkey is a rapidly-evolving society, economically, politically, and to a large extent, socially.

What is Turkey like nowadays? Have things changed?

Here are some of my observations.

The Turkish society has become, visibly, more Islamic

  • While it’s nowhere as ubiquitous as in other Muslim-majority nations, headscarf is making a resurgence in Turkey. Many of the hijabis in Istanbul also adopt some very fascinating designs of head covering; this is, after all, a very fashionable city. There are also some fashion billboards that feature headscarf-wearing women – something that you would never see a few years ago
  • However, you can still also see the growing disparity between the secular Turkish population (traditionally, they make up the majority of the population in the cities) and the religious ones. It’s very rare to see women wearing headscarves in wealthy neighbourhoods like Nisantasi, but a few kilometres away in the old neighbourhoods surrounding Sultanahmet the proportion is likely to be much higher
  • This being said, Istanbul, and Turkey in general, remain very secular in nature and in outlook (even with Erdogan firmly in power), especially when compared against other Muslim majority nations

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The Turkish economy is visibly booming

  • Construction cranes are everywhere in the city, especially as you leave the historical core of Istanbul. Levent, Istanbul’s new CBD looks like Dubai, with its many gleaming skyscrapers, most of them constructed over the past few years
  • The Istiklal Avenue is currently being upgraded to match some of Europe’s most prestigious shopping streets – it is currently being repaved too, so the nostalgic tram, known to be running along the street is currently not in service
  • Many huge new malls popping up – this sets Istanbul apart from other European cities
The huge Venezia Mall – one of the newest malls in Istanbul
Levent, Istanbul

Uber is still not very popular (or reliable) in Istanbul

  • Istanbul taxis are not known for their good reputation – tourists do get fleeced massively, and with no Uber as a safer and more reliable alternative to this, good luck.

Beyoglu has become even more of a hipster central – with the youth using street arts and graffitis as an effective medium for expression

  • With the rise of the opposition amongst the Turkish millennials against the current Turkish establishment, the streets of Beyoglu have become a place where the youth manifest their dissatisfaction in street arts. This area is located near the place where the famous Taksim Square uprising was held (and subsequently quelled) a few years ago.
  • Many of the street arts depict Ataturk and his ideals – portraits of Ataturk are painted over shop fronts, in different colours. Ataturk is viewed by the anti-establishment Turkish youth as a symbol of their resistance against what they perceive to be an affront to the secular, Republican ideals of the nation

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Things have become cheaper for Malaysians

  • The Turkish Lira, which used to be much stronger than Ringgit a few years ago, has experienced gradual and steady devaluation over the recent years
A delightful Turkish breakfast – the heavily spiced Turkish sausage is simply the best
  • The current conversion rate is TL1 = MYR1.2. It was TL1 = MYR2, five years ago. Shopping, eating and sightseeing in Istanbul has therefore become even more affordable for Malaysian tourists, IF, and only IF, you don’ get…

Scammed.

Turkish cabs, desperate for cash due to the dwindling number of tourists, have become even more notorious for scamming unsuspecting visitors. The most common scam involves the “swapping” of notes, where the drive would swap the TL50 note that you had given him with a TL5. I had the misfortune of experiencing this twice.

For tips to protect yourself from the rampant scamming in Istanbul, follow this link.

Apart from the vicious scamming, if you know what to do, Istanbul is safe. Pickpocketing, while a problem here, isn’t as rife as in Rome, for example. Streets are busy and fairly well-lit even in the middle of the night. Like in any other big cities around the world, precaution and common sense goes a long way.

The following photo gallery contains other images that I took during the long so-called layover trip last month. Enjoy!

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A recollection – and what I think 

For nearly a century, Turkey was looking strictly to the West as a template on which its future destiny should be moulded.

With Erdogan firmly in power, Turkey is today witnessing a transition towards social conservatism that no era after Ataturk’s installation of the republic has witnessed.

I remember my first visit in the city several years ago – it was the time when Istanbul used to host one of the largest Pride events in Europe, and the city was buzzing for the whole month (I still keep a rainbow mug and a t-shirt that I got at one of the merchandise shops in Nisantasi).

This year, the Pride parade was banned by the government. It was banned too last year. People who still insisted on marching this year were shot with rubber bullets and tear gas canisters. To put this shameful step backward in perspective, the Ottoman Empire was one of the first European powers to decriminalise homosexual activities.

***

Turkey has changed a lot over the course of several years. And it is still changing as we speak, as it seeks to find its bearing in the world today. This nation rises over the ashes of one of the world’s most powerful empires of all time. The strong dichotomy between the nation’s past glory and its underwhelming present (this is very well documented in Orhan Pamuk’s memoirs), plays a pivotal role in shaping the psyche of the Turkish people today.

Turkey demands respect, and as it seeks to be stronger in its own terms, let’s hope that the nation will not implode.

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