Enjoying his Erasmus escape to Europe’s Eastern gateway, Dom Madar tells all about his year of Turkish belly dancers, political turmoil, internet censorship and a healthy dose of tear gas.
The police are at it again, deterring the ongoing protesters with an effective combination of water cannons and tear gas. Since May 2013, riots have broken out sporadically in response to the growing authoritarianism of the current regime. The latest bout of draconian internet regulation sparked last Saturday’s demonstration, causing our highly anticipated night out on the town to be reduced to something scarcely better than the Lemmy.
It’s a trend you have to get used to in Turkey. From the potential destinations offered on the Erasmus programme, I chose Istanbul precisely for its lack of ‘Europeanness’, above culinary paradise in Italy and fear and loathing in Amsterdam. One half of the city remains in Europe’s periphery, while the other resides on the Asian bank of the River Bosphorus.
Istanbul lies at the heart of Eurasia, figuratively as much as geographically. The saturated metropolis is home to an estimated fifteen to twenty million people, (roughly twice the size of London) as workers, families, students and tourists swarm its impoverished transport links and ancient streets. The University itself is two buses and a subway ride away from the city centre – a journey that becomes no less tedious, no matter how many times I’m forced to make it.
Unsurprisingly there’s a plethora of things to see and do, plenty of which remain un-ticked on the endless list. That’s after five months here; I do wonder if it’s truly possible to know the ever evolving city inside-out. It certainly makes a refreshing change from the dreariness and monotony of Exeter. The eternal presence of wind and rain back home is something I’m constantly mocked for by fellow exchange students. February, for the most part, brought swathes of cloudless sunshine and t-shirt temperatures resembling early British summer. That in itself is a reason to leave the comforts of home behind and experience student life outside the UK.
I’ve had the fortune of meeting a vast range of personalities from a variety of countries and regions; some of whom magnificently live up to their famed national stereotypes and others who entirely defy them. Either way, that intangible sense of optimism and excitement feels omnipresent for those of us living in foreign lands. Carpe diem is a phrase absolutely befitting of exchange students; the relentless energy drives me to go out and experience things, rather than wasting my best years on TV re-runs and Facebook.
A recent experience encapsulated everything that is so simultaneously wonderful and dreadful about Turkey: a large birthday dinner in the city centre, complemented by copious amounts of food and Raki – Turkey’s default, aniseed flavoured spirit. Getting there proved hazardous enough, owing to the evening’s protests. Guided by the Turkish students, we circumnavigated the worst of the mayhem, though still caught sight of a frantic scramble beginning to kick off. Tensions weren’t helped by the Galatasaray vs. Beşiktaş derby taking place in the city that very evening; if you think English football fans are mental, then think again. Most Turks may classify themselves as followers of Islam, yet they seem at least as dedicated to Galatasaray, if not more so. From a safety point of view, I’m glad I’m not a Chelsea fan.
Anyhow, the dinner proceeded in gallant fashion as stomachs swelled and alcohol infested brain cells died. Then came the live music and the intriguingly clad belly dancer; I have yet to figure out the perplexing paradox of Islam and frivolously dressed girls dancing even more frivolously. This is, after all, a Turkish tradition, rather than something enjoyed exclusively by Istanbul’s liberal elite. Unfortunately her (presumably) naturally dark hair had been sacrificed for a grotesque shade of dyed blonde, in order to satisfy the Turkish (male) obsession with fair hair. As the dancer neared, she beckoned me repeatedly to join her upon the table. My embarrassing lack of dancing prowess, combined with my Turkish girlfriend’s watchful stare made the situation a living nightmare. The possibility of aggravating her (on her birthday) combined with making an utter fool of myself, was side-stepped as the dancer mercifully moved on. Like a true Englishman I bowed to the pressure and awkwardly placed a tip in the bra of the expecting dancer. Am I really in Turkey?
Judging by the music that accompanied her, then most definitely so. The raucous Turks danced on the restaurant tables and sung their hearts out to the ceaseless playlist of national classics. The exchange students joined in to varying degrees of fun, laughter and disbelief. Many of my Turkish friends at uni are relatively ‘western’ in their habits and interests, though you wouldn’t guess it once the traditional music plays. Despite my efforts to assimilate to the sound, my patience was sorely tested by the end. There is – in my admittedly biased opinion – a good reason why nobody plays Turkish music in England. It may be different and exotic, but even verging on good, it unfortunately is not.
The night was further soured by a pay dispute; something not all that uncommon, given the lack of contracts and official recognition of them in much of Turkish custom. Passion is a lot more prevalent than logic here. Considering everything, the lavish evening had been relatively cheap. Other than the hefty taxes levied on alcohol, it’s generally an inexpensive place to be. For those Exeter students not endowed with trust funds and six figure earning parents, a year studying in Europe really doesn’t have to be that pricey.
Tuition fees are generously waived for Erasmus students, while a healthy sized monthly grant is also provided. Do you really need more reasons to study abroad? Particularly considering rent and living costs in the majority of placements will be sufficiently lower than in England. An extra year postponing the ‘real world’ has the significant benefit of allowing for more time trying to figure out what exactly you want to do with your life; the more people I talk to, the less I’m convinced that even by our third (and often final) year of University, most of us really know.
Many of the Turks approaching their mid-twenties at my university appear equally indecisive. Though the economy has expanded rapidly over recent decades, Turkey still resembles a nation stuck in a major identity crisis. Although technically a secular democracy, Islam flows confidently through the majority of the state, particularly in the conservative east. This region, bordering Iran, Iraq and Syria, is culturally far closer to the Middle East than the liberal democracies of Western Europe.
The more affluent and cosmopolitan west coast, driven by Istanbul, attempts to drag the nation towards Europeanisation in the face of staunch resistance from rural Turkey and the current government. Tradition means a hell of a lot in a country still dazed and confused in the post Ottoman hangover. Back then Turkmen tribes conquered civilisations and territories galore, stretching from the Balkans to the Middle East and North Africa; the sultans reigned supreme. Those really were the glory days in the eyes of many Turks: the era when the whole of Europe feared the might and power of the Ottoman sword.
The incumbent Prime Minister since 2002, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, faces increasing criticism across Turkey. Allegations of a tapped phone call with his son involving money smuggling broke recently in the press. His unpopularity is felt acutely amongst students and the urban youth of Istanbul; it is here in the cultural, historic and economic hub of the nation that the protests are most severe, rather than Ankara – Turkey’s relatively unknown official capital. I managed to get caught up in the madness less than a couple of months ago.
As always, the University issued frantic statements, warning us to avoid the riots at all costs. A dangerous combination of foolish curiosity and audacity on my part, however, led me to the battleground in downtown Taksim. Admittedly we arrived on the scene fashionably late, to catch merely the tail end of the action. Hoards of armed police patrolled the streets for any sign of fresh renegades. Some had remained, vociferously defiant from earlier skirmishes with the authorities. A few final chants and hurled rocks sprung the cops into action, as they unleashed tear gas into the crowd.
People raced immediately towards where I was standing, covering their faces as they went. Rooted to the spot in fascination, I naïvely watched on for a brief moment, before the effects became apparent. Though relatively far away, the gas took little time in spreading. My eyes began to water uncontrollably, as I blindly spluttered and felt my way towards the nearest side street. For a few further minutes, I continued to spit and cough my way to recovery. I left the scene unscathed, with only sore eyes to show; however those in the close vicinity must have felt the effects far worse, not to mention those unlucky enough to experience the water cannon.
At least a few deaths have occurred on occasion, when the fired gas canisters have inadvertently struck citizens on the head. To lash out against the regime and throw objects at its police force in a country as politically fragile and erratic as Turkey requires tremendous guts, whether for the right reasons or not. There is palatable unrest on show, with general elections looming in the coming months, as scandal upon scandal engulfs the government. Given recent events in the Ukraine, the Turkish leadership appears more paranoid than ever. Istanbul can have a disorientating affect even at the best of times.
Speaking of disorientation, a strict ban on alcohol on campus has never really sunk in. The internet censorship (including a total ban on pornography) is being ramped up to alarming levels by the day, while students aren’t allowed in dormitories of the opposite sex past 11 o’clock. Like most good adolescents, I tend to ignore the majority of these unnecessarily oppressive laws, though their presence provides food for thought. Despite the obstacles, living in such a bustling city steeped in history, culture and even turmoil, is utterly exhilarating.
I recommend an exchange or Erasmus year abroad to anybody still sitting on the fence or too afraid to leave home for so long; the reasons for such an adventure are boundless. For all the skills acquired and improved on whilst living abroad, it is the constant stream of novel experiences that really sticks in the mind. The eternally passionate Turks are in the most part friendly and compelling people; although I confess to sorely missing decent beer and bacon sandwiches, no matter how many drunken kebabs I devour. I’m looking forward to further bewilderment and mystique in the old world of Turkey: a unique country full of delight.
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