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November 28, 2003 -> CROSSING THE BOSPORUS

"Welcome to Europe," the sign said. We both smiled. After 5,000 kilometers in a rental car, it felt good to be safely back in Istanbul, and in Europe. Far below the Bosporus bridge, fishing boats and cargo ships fought against the current coursing south through the narrow channel between the Black Sea and Sea of Marmara. Elsewhere the line between Europe and Asia is vague. But geography and tradition has never questioned that here - where an arm of the Balkan peninsula strains for the Asian steppes just across the Bosporus - is where Asia ends and Europe begins.

Geographically and politically, Turkey has but a foothold in Europe: a triangle of land bordering Greece and Bulgaria, with Istanbul at its eastern tip. Turkey's bulk lies in Asia, south of the Black Sea, north of the Mediterranean (which the Turks call Akdeniz, or White Sea), and west of the Caucasus. Syria and Iraq border Turkey on the south-east. Though Turkey's coast is surrounded by islands, most of the larger ones are Greek, and the largest, Cyprus, remains divided between the northern Turkish Cyprus, and the southern, Greek, Republic of Cyprus.

But things could change soon. Turkey wants desperately to join the European Union. It has been trying for many years.

"There's always an excuse why we can't get in," a hotel owner explained, "When we fix one problem they find something else."

The current sticking point was the island of Cyprus. The EU wanted Turkey to deal with the problem as a prerequisite for Turkey's admission.

"But Cyprus is half-Greece and half-Turkey, so why doesn't the EU also demand that Greece solve the problem? Because Greece is already heading into the EU. How can the EU be objective?"

Reading the papers, I had to agree with him. There appeared to be little pressure on the Greeks to compromise or even come to the bargaining table. In fact, it is altogether possible that if some sort of federalized nation is not formed, Greek Cyprus will enter the EU along with Greece, while Turkish Cyprus will not.

Turkey defies easy categorization. Most of its citizens are Sunni Muslim. Its flag is red with the white star and crescent of the Mohammedans. The call to prayer sounds from minarets in every neighborhood. But Turks take umbrage to most foreigners' expectations of the country as an ultra-conservative, Islamic state. As contrary evidence, they point to their potential inclusion in the EU, their NATO membership (the only Muslim nation), the secularism enshrined in their constitution, their openness and their modernity. "Many of us don't even believe in God," said a young travel agent. She was exaggerating, but it was true that Turkish Islam seemed very moderate, and we met many people who largely ignored the fast of Ramadan - one of the five "pillars of Islam."

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk - "The Father of the Turks" - had abolished the Islamic law ('sharia') and spearheaded and series of dramatic reforms in the 1920's and 1930's. He outlawed the fez (the red felt hat of the Ottomans), romanized the alphabet, enshrined secularism in the constitution and set Turkey's face firmly to the West. The Koran forbids the depiction of humans or animals in connection with religion. Ataturk had no such qualms. He built an enduring cult of personality around his image, confounding the religious fundamentalists who balked at his reforms. Ataturk statues stand in every park; his photo on the walls of most businesses. A rather handsome man, dapper in his tailored suit, he smiles rakishly from every lira - half Ralph Fiennes, half Anthony Hopkins.

Most Turks see Shia Iranians as fanatical. Many were behind the US removal of the Taliban in Afghanistan, but the War in Iraq was a bit too close to home, and few agree with the United States' unabashedly pro-Israeli stance. Turks also feel threatened by the growing autonomy of the Kurdish state in northern Iraq - modern Turkey has been far from kind to its own Kurds. They fear a Kurdish state in Iraq could sponsor terrorist attacks by Kurds in Turkey, or even lead to the creation of a Kurdish nation (encompassing parts of Iraq, Turkey and even Iran). If the Middle East seems a mess to us in the West, imagine what it feels like to have it in your backyard?