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.
Show Hide image

Why did the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet win this year's Nobel Peace Prize?

Thanks to Tunisia, it is no longer possible to argue that the Middle East and North Africa are inherently undemocratic or prone to violence.

It is a fitting that in a tumultuous year for global peacemaking, the Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to the little-known Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet, a coalition made up of the union federation UGTT, the employers’ institute, the Tunisian human rights league and the order of lawyers . Over the past few years, the Quartet has been quietly shepherded in democracy to the country that lit the fuse of the Arab Spring. In part thanks to the efforts of this broad cross-section of civil society, Tunisia has stayed the course in transitioning from an authoritarian past to a democratic future, even in the face of terrorist violence and as other revolutions in the region have faltered.

The award comes at a time of escalating sectarian conflicts in Syria, Libya and Yemen. Islamic State’s campaign of terror has uprooted Iraqis and Syrians alike, driving desperate refugees into small boats to battle the waves of the Mediterranean. They join others fleeing to Europe from political and economic crises in Africa and Asia, forming a stream of humanity symbolising failures in leadership in three continents.

Among all this, it is not hard to identify why the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the world’s most coveted peace prize to the Tunisian Quartet.

First,Tunisia deserves to be celebrated for its momentous achievements in consolidating democracy. Unlike other countries in the region, it has trodden a path that is slow but solid, adopting a comprehensive and consensus-building approach to decision-making.

In this it provides a rare and extremely important example, not only for the region but also for the world. Thanks to Tunisia, it is no longer possible to argue that the Middle East and North Africa are inherently undemocratic or prone to violence.

Civil society steps up

Second, the role of civil society is fundamental for bringing about sustainable peace. Political leadership is important, but the scale of the challenge in transitional societies means that we cannot simply leave things to political leaders to sort out.

At local level especially, peace feels a lot more real when it comes with tangible improvements to quality of life. Citizens want to see the economy motoring again and to have confidence in the state’s institutions. They want to know that they can sleep soundly and safely, without fear of violence, persecution or poverty. Governments often lack the capacity and credibility to deliver these dividends alone. Civil society must step up to the plate – particularly the associations of trade, justice and human rights of which the Quartet is formed.

And third, the Quartet’s work relies heavily on forming constructive relationships across the political spectrum – from secularists to fundamentalists. It has walked a fine line, keeping disparate groups with diverging interests invested in an inclusive national process of dialogue. It has, in the words of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, laid the “groundwork for a national fraternity”.

Politicians are often the most cynical of creatures, yet the Quartet has managed to build a sense of collective endeavour among them. It has encouraged them to put the country’s best interest ahead of personal or sectarian interests, making this the guiding principle for decision-making.

Other bright spots

The transition in Tunisia is a work in progress and there will be more setbacks and successes. The country was left reeling from two terrorist attacks earlier this year, when 22 people were killed at the Bardo Museum in Tunis, and another 39 people died during an attack on a tourist resort in Sousse. But the message today is clear – Tunisia has made remarkable progress since 2010, despite the odds. This is in large part due to a credible and engaged civil society, a remarkable achievement in a new democracy. The country has forged a path of inclusive national dialogue from which many lessons can be learned.

Elsewhere this year, Myanmar goes to the polls in November – the country’s first free national ballot since 1990. Colombia is closer to lasting peace than ever, ending half a century of war that has taken 220,00 lives and uprooted six million people.

The US restored diplomatic relationships with Cuba, and also struck a landmark agreement with Iran over its nuclear programmes. And the UN has adopted the sustainable development goals, explicitly recognising peaceful and inclusive societies as a development priority for the first time. Behind every step forward there is an individual or institution worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize, but only one can win and the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet is a worthy laureate.

Laura Payne is a Research Fellow and Director of RISING Global Peace Forum, Coventry University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


The Conversation