Ayran with my meatballs

Caught between east and west, Izmir is a city of contradictions

The imam shoos me away from the steps of the mosque in Izmir's teeming bazaar. I'm baffled. I've taken my shoes off, I am dressed appropriately and I am in Izmir - the most secular city in Turkey. Yet I am being turned away for being a "Christian"?

"No, no," says an English speaker, who steps out of the crowd around the steps. "It is not because you are Christian. A German film crew is coming and he doesn't want anyone in there during the interview. He says come back in an hour."

How Turkish, and how typical of a country that is balanced awkwardly between west and east, Mammon and Islam, Europe and Asia -- a country that has an Islamist government in Recep Tayyip Erdogan's AKP administration, yet is a key US regional ally.

The mosque is just one of seven in the old Turkish quarter of a once predominantly Greek city that was known since antiquity as Smyrna, until it was burnt down by Mustafa Kemal's (later Ataturk) Turkish nationalists in 1922. The state Ataturk built following victory was fiercely nationalist; 1.5m Greeks left after the war (400,000 Turks made the journey the other way). It was also fiercely secular and its military supporters remain so.

The overwhelming psychical power of those supporters was on display at this August's Victory Day (over the Greeks). Izmir's famous Kordon -- the wide seafront boulevard where 500,000 desperate refugees were caught between the flames and nationalist troops in 1922 -- filled with tanks and F16s thundered in from the Aegean as if they were invading their own country.

An open threat to the government, or simply a display of national pride? Whichever, this is a country that, 86 years after independence, still battles against and for contending versions of both its history and its future.

Turkey's contradictions are well illustrated at the kofte restaurant next door to the mosque. Half a mile away on Izmir's main shopping streets I can drink ice-cold beer alongside girls in low-cut tops and high heels, who have just spent thousands of Turkish lira in one of the city centre boutiques. But here, in the shadow of the mosques, I must have ayran, cola or tea with my meatballs.

The owner, Hassan, sits to talk. The ethnic separation of Greek and Turk continued into the 1950s, when his mother and father left Thessaloniki (Ataturk's birthplace) for Izmir. Until last year, his mother had not been allowed to return to visit her family, but permission finally came through. A small thaw in the ice between Greek and Turk. Hassan snorts, amused. Why? "She's seventy-five. She no longer has the energy to go."

The next day, I read the following remarks from the chief of the general staff, General Ilker Basbug: "The basic principles of the Turkish Republic will live forever together with its nation, country and the nation's love for Ataturk." He adds an ominous coda: "The Turkish army is always on duty."

Michael Hodges writes the Class Monitor column for the New Statesman. He was named columnist of the year at the 2008 Magazine Design and Journalism Awards for his contributions to Time Out.