Bodies are washing onto beaches along the coast. On the eastern border, an ugly war drags on. In the capital, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has built a huge high-tech, mosque-centred palace from which to rule the country.
Istanbul is hot, beset by a late-summer heatwave. It is also cool. The central districts abound with little cafés and quirky shops, street fashion and juice bars. A fortune has been spent restoring historic sites to their Ottoman glory. The harem of the Topkapi now rivals the Alhambra. Tourists throng Sultanahmet and eat pastries on Istiklal Caddessi in Pera, women in niqabs and hipsters alike. For lovers of contemporary art, there’s a biennial happening. Street vendors do a roaring trade in selfie sticks.
It is the first week in September and I am here for a family convergence. My daughter and her partner have come from Malaysia, where she works for an international humanitarian organisation. My son, a musician, flew from London with the Melbourne Ska Orchestra, which is part of the Australia–Turkey 2015 cultural exchange, a spin-off from the Gallipoli centenary. Their mother has dipped into her leave entitlements. We have booked an Airbnb in Galata with panoramic views of the Bosphorus. Deep into a novel, I have brought my work with me. Whenever I get the chance I scribble away, keeping on the boil.
We sample locum, visit Orhan Pamuk’s extraordinary Museum of Innocence, drink ayran in the Dervish Tea Gardens beside the Blue Mosque, get steamed in the Cemberlitas hamam and explore the markets and side streets. For all its cosmopolitan airs, Istanbul is a city holding its breath. Turkey is a country where religious piety, crony capitalism and assertive nationalism walk hand in hand, threatening to jostle aside anything that stands in its path.
Two years ago a peaceful protest against the removal of trees in Gezi Park in Taksim was smashed by the riot police. The cops were merciless, hosing the crowd with tear gas and breaking heads. Fleeing bystanders were hunted through the streets and baton-whipped. People opened their front doors to strangers and offered places to hide. For days on end, entire neighbourhoods were blanketed in tear gas.
‘We were scaredy cats,’ the waitress in a funky little café told me. ‘We ran. The only ones who fought back were Kurds and football supporters.’ Protests erupted across the country against Erdogan’s corruption, authoritarianism and Islamist agenda. Millions took part, thousands were injured, several killed.
His opponents driven from the streets, Erdogan resumed his plans. Moving from prime minister to president, he sought to shift constitutional power from parliament, which was dominated by his AKP party, to an executive presidency. All that stood in his way was an election he expected his party to win.
A new party emerged, the HDP, pitching itself to the Kurds—who comprise 20 per cent of Turkey’s population—Sunnis not in the AKP camp, women, religious minorities and politicised young people, the so-called Gezi Generation. In the July election, HDP candidates won 13 per cent of the vote, enough to deny Erdogan a majority. His response was to break the longstanding ceasefire with the Kurdish separatist PKK, stir up nationalist sentiment and tar the HDP with the terrorist brush. When the AKP was unable to find coalition partners, he called a fresh election for 1 November.
Before arriving, I’d contacted old friends from Melbourne, Saadet and Ozcan, now living in Istanbul. Saadet works with Yazidi refugee women. With money she helped raise, some from the Maritime Union of Australia, they have set up a bakery, bringing income, independence and dignity. I mentioned the possibility of writing an article and she offered to help.
We meet them at the Çiçek Pasajı, a beaux arts arcade filled with busy tables, rushing waiters bearing trays of mezze, wandering musicians and boisterous talk. Friends of Saadet arrive, the waiter puts dips and iced raki on the table and we talk Turkey. Saadet has lined up some interviews for me. When the bottle is empty, we head down a dog-leg back alley to Garajistanbul.
A stony-faced doorman pats me down for weapons. The MSO enters from the back, honking its way through the audience. Bandleader Nicky Bomba, straw porkpie, all arms and legs, is a man in ceaseless motion. Last week they played the Notting Hill Carnival, the holy grail of Caribbean rhythms. Immediately, everybody is dancing. Nicky works the crowd and it responds, captive to the infectious beat and zany antics. It’s two in the morning before we unlock the heavy iron street door and climb the five flights to our apartment.
We hive off on separate excursions, then coalesce for dinner and the gigs. The call to prayer booms across the rooftops. My fiction progresses. The story involves a jihadi recruiter and some petty-crim dipsticks in Melbourne’s northern suburbs. I pencil changes onto printouts and fine-tune dialogue.
On the second night, Joe Hockey ambles into the club just as the band is kicking into ‘The Diplomat’:
Who da pigeon who da cat?
Who da blamer who da rat,
Who you call to cool the pack,
Well you call the diplomat.
Some young Turkish Australians in the crowd mob the treasurer, grinning wildly and snapping pictures. Joe soaks it up. On his way home from a G20 finance ministers meeting in Ankara, he and his wife were dining with the consul when somebody suggested they catch the show. A big man who used to be even bigger, Hockey sways to the beat. In a salmon shirt on a warm night, he has the air of a man on a long slow cruise. In ten days, he’ll be out of a job.
There is football on a screen in the place we eat on my second-last night, Turkey versus the Netherlands in a Euro Cup qualifier. Mid match the vision cuts away to military vehicles racing through an arid landscape. The PKK has killed 15 policemen in an ambush on a police convoy near the border with Iraq. The following afternoon, I speak to Levent Tuzel, a veteran of parliamentary politics and now an HDP deputy. The HDP condemns the PKK’s actions, he says. Violence will not solve Turkey’s problems.
I ask about the likely outcome of the election. Even if the HDP increases its vote, Tuzel tells me, Erdogan will still control the military, the judiciary, the universities and government agencies. What I don’t realise is that attacks on HDP offices are in progress all over the county. Party headquarters in Ankara has been trashed and set on fire.
I join the rest of the crew in Kadikoy on the Asian shore. Supporters of the CHP, the Kemalist party, fill the roadway, waving the national flag. ‘PKK murderers,’ they chant. ‘Erdogan murderer.’
It is more pleasant in the beer garden of the Nazim Hikmet centre. ‘Living is no laughing matter,’ the poet wrote, ‘you must live with great seriousness—like a squirrel, for example.’ I’d like to stay but I have an appointment with Filiz Kerestecioglu, HDP member for Istanbul’s 2nd District.
We meet in the foyer café of a theatre. A songwriter, women’s activist and human rights lawyer, Kerestecioglu sees being in parliament as just part of a wider struggle for social justice. As we talk, her phone rings with updates on the ongoing trashing of party offices. The government says it’s not responsible, she says, but computers and files are removed before the mobs smash everything and light fires. ‘They know exactly what they are looking for. The police do nothing.’
It is our last night here. We return to the apartment to find we have been burgled. There is no sign of forced entry but our passports are gone along with credit cards, iPads and my laptop and case. My notes, my drafts, five years of work are gone. Sick at heart, I ring the Airbnb owner. A young guy is sent from the office. Let’s call him Semih. He is followed by two policemen. The cops peer through the open door, decline our urging to look inside and tell us to go to the station.
The streets are deserted and the doors of Karakoy police station stand open. An officer is sitting on a bench out front, his legs spread wide and a walkie-talkie crackling on the low table in front of him. He is quite the pasha. We approach with due deference. Semih’s English is limited but sufficient. All we need is a police report for the insurance.
Officer Caparli ponders our request. He makes a short speech. He stands and goes into the station. Semih shrugs. Ten minutes later, the officer returns. What is the population of Australia, he demands? We are given a lecture. Everything must be fully investigated, top to bottom, beginning to end. We are part of the investigation. Again, we are left to cool our heels.
After a while, we are taken inside and put in an empty office. Our questions are met with obstruction and obfuscation. It is unclear if we are free to leave. Semih looks increasingly uncomfortable. I ring the insurance company in Australia and explain that a police report is proving impossible to obtain. No report, no payment, no exceptions, I am told.
Hours pass. My daughter’s husband is escorted back to the Airbnb by constables who spray black powder around and snip a square from an empty plastic slip-cover. On return, he is fingerprinted. Even as a pretence at forensics, it is ludicrous.
I call a consular assistance number and a Turkish woman about my daughter’s age arrives. The obstruction continues. The pasha is enjoying himself, lording it over two young women. They are sequestered in a separate office. Who do you work for? What is your monthly salary? What is your job title? Why do your parents have different surnames? Policemen crowd into the office to watch. A constable laboriously types the answers. Proceedings halt while the boss disappears for a ‘cigarette break’. It is past 3 am. We have been here for four hours. I urge Semih to go home. This country, he groans ruefully. Things might improve, I offer, not really meaning it. The election, the HDP. Astonishment lights his face, immediately damped down. ‘You know of this?’ I nod. He glances around furtively. ‘I am a member.’
Finally we obtain a report. We are free to go.
Five days later, back in Melbourne on an emergency passport, filled with despair at my irreplaceable loss, I ask a friend to translate the document. He thinks there is something odd about it. It is definitely not standard issue. He asks what I did that day, then draws a conclusion that had not occurred to me.
As a matter of course, Erdogan’s security service would be monitoring Levent Tuzel and Filiz Kerestecioglu. Contact with a foreign journalist would raise a flag. Who was this Australian who consorted with undesirable elements? A sham burglary was arranged and the police instructed to keep us tied up while my laptop and notes were examined.
It’s just supposition, of course, but an intriguing one. The thought of the Turkish secret police poring over my account of a band of wannabe terrorists called the Sons of Islam, the pages replete with references to ASIO and the AFP, is nothing if not consoling.
Perhaps they can tell me how it ends.