A beautiful city full of poison

Observations on the Istanbul bombings

At first glance, Istiklal Caddesi, the elegant avenue that cuts through the Beyoglu district in the heart of Istanbul, looks like the downtown area of a typical European capital. It begins, amid all the usual chain hotels, at Taksim Square and ends a mile or so on at Tunel, where at a small piazza you can eat in designer restaurants or, rarer still in Turkey, sip an Italian cappuccino at one of the new cafes. As Turkey makes its case for entry to the EU, this is the version of Istanbul, far from the cliches of Midnight Express, that the Turkish Tourist Board and the Islamist government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan want to promote.

The side streets reveal another reality: crumbling buildings, broken pavements and everywhere the stench of sewage. In the suburb of Fatih, a short bus ride from the tourist sights of Sultanahmet Square, it's harder still to maintain the illusion that you are in Europe. Life here is not only grindingly poor but also severely Islamic, under the control of the Islamic Virtue Party. The talk is of vengeance, retribu-tion and war. No one in Fatih could have been much surprised by the 15 November suicide attacks on the synagogues of Beth Israel and Neve Shalom, both in affluent areas of the city, which left 21 dead.

"Muslims in Turkey think they have been excluded and oppressed for too long," I was told a few weeks ago by "Mehmet", a student at Istanbul University and a Fatih insider. "They have an Islamist government, but they are angry that it is subservient to the west."

The government says the massacre is the work of "foreigners" and points the finger at al-Qaeda. Whether this is true or not, the claim that no Turkish group could organise such an atrocity is unconvincing. Experienced and well-equipped home-grown terrorist groups are queuing up to have a crack at the government. They range from the hardline Islamists who feel betrayed, in particular, by the possibility of a Turkish military presence in northern Iraq, to the Kurdish guer- rilla fighters of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers' Party), who have observed a ceasefire since 1999 but who, encouraged by the chaos over the border, have recently started up activities again in the south-east. "Istanbul is like a wasps' nest," I was told by a man merrily puffing at a nargileh in the Grand Bazaar. "Everybody in Turkey who feels hatred towards the government or the west comes here. It is beautiful, yes, but also full of poison." Or as Cagdas Karatas, a writer based at Istanbul University, puts it: "The Turkish government has been trying to play games with the west but has been outplayed by the western powers."

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