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
Geographically and politically, Turkey has but
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
The EU wanted Turkey to deal with the problem as a
prerequisite for Turkey's admission.
"But Cyprus is half-Greece and half-Turkey,
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.
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
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
Most Turks see Shia Iranians as fanatical.
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?
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