Istanbul and Turkey’s Uncertain Crossroads

“So what did you think about Turkey before you arrived?” asked a local Turkish Couchsurfer on my third night in Istanbul. It was an important question but one I hadn’t really considered. I wanted to tell him that I understood Turkey from a historical perspective, ever since I learned of Byzantium in my 9th grade World History class and then reading about its transformation into the mighty Ottoman Empire. I wanted to share my impressions of Istanbul, which, aside from the They Might Be Giants song, I knew as a cosmopolitan hub that sat at the crossroads of both Asian and European civilizations. But what first came to mind were Recep Erdogan and the Turkish Lira. Not two weeks before I departed for Turkey the news broke that the Lira had depreciated by nearly 40 percent against the U.S. Dollar. Although shocking, monetary economic calamities can serve as double-edged swords. On one hand, they wreak havoc on local wealth and purchasing power, but on the other, they can also attract tourists in search of affordable vacations. This has been especially important in a place like Turkey, where the tourism industry plummeted after the attempted coup of 2016. Yet the depreciating Lira seems to have eclipsed political instability and tourism is slowly rebounding. It also has frustrated locals, who live under precarious economic circumstances and have seen their own travel opportunities evaporate. So what did I think of Turkey before I arrived? It’s a complicated answer. 

Getting Acclimated: From Spice Bazaars to Craft Beers

My first encounter in Turkey happened as soon as I exited customs at Ataturk International Airport where a Couchsurfer named Muhammed met me at the arrivals door. Originally from Egypt, Muhammed had lived in Istanbul for just over three years and works for the human resources department for a larger multinational firm. Although most Couchsurfers’ are huge advocates of their resident cities, Muhammed’s passion for Istanbul seemed less effusive. He left Alexandria over three years ago after the pervasive corruption and 6a9ec962-d9fe-43c4-af96-6468e84ef36black of employment opportunities finally exhausted his patience. Istanbul was close, prosperous, and seemingly stable. Muhammed joined Couchsurfing to help guide foreigners through a city that he once found intimidating and difficult. After our conversation on the metro, I also sensed that he joined the Couchsurfing community because he felt more at home with international travelers than with local Turks. Regardless of why he enjoyed meeting a zany, jetlagged American at the airport, I was beyond grateful for his kindness. He guided me to my hostel in Sultanahmet where after a short evening stroll, I crashed in my dorm bed.

The next day, I woke up refreshed from my jet-lagged exhaustion and stepped into a city more steeped in history than any other I had visited. Istanbul’s windy, cobblestone streets are dotted with crowded cafes, and an almost indescribable amount of doner kebab stands on every corner. I stayed five of my seven nights in Sultanahmet, which is Istanbul’s central tourist district that houses sites like the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sophia, DSC06695.jpgthe Basilica Cistern, Topkapi Palace, and a number of museums. This was the seat of Ottoman government during the height of its empire, and much of this decadence is still on display. When you wander through the Harem of Topkapi Palace, you begin to comprehend that the Sultans spared no expense.

As I acclimated to Istanbul, I followed a steady pattern. I would start my day with an exquisite breakfast of olives, cheeses, eggplant, tomatoes, and fresh fruits (the Turks truly comprehend the art of the morning meal) where I would catch up on my news and social media. This was followed by a bout of standard tourist behavior before lunch, a few hours of work in the afternoons, and then, thanks to the magic of Couchsurfing, an excursion with Turkish locals. While I visited IMG_0019tourist hot spots such as the Hagia Sofia and Blue Mosque I also had tea along the water with Muhammed in Uskudar, roamed through the hilly streets of Beylerbehi with Mert, and shared an afternoon picnic with Sezgi’s family and friends. While I enjoyed the sweeping views from the Galata Tower or the cathartic pain of the Turkish massage, I admittedly enjoyed my conversations with people that lived in Istanbul more than anything else.

My first day of sightseeing concluded by touring with Muhammed and later, Sezgi. After a massive meal and crowded jaunt through the spice bazaar, Muhammed and I took a ferry to Usukudar.  We walked along the frenetic vendors selling all sorts of treats along the water and sat down for tea along, which is usually taken after every single meal. In our meandering conversation about family and travel, we also discussed the growing economic and political challenges that Turkey faces. Muhammed framed the Turkish political challenge as one similar to his native Egypt. Before moving to Turkey, Muhammed described Alexandria, and by extension Egypt, as a crowded city with little economic hope. As Egypt’s second largest city, it has faced an economic crisis not unlike Turkey’s and President Sisi’s policy agenda has done little to quell the growing strife. Muhammed noted that while anyone with means could obtain what they wanted, too many Egyptians have languished in unemployment and experienced poverty. He also lamented that dissent has become increasingly policed and regulated, with heavyhanded practices leaving many citizens intimidated. Most importantly, Muhammed noted that Egypt’s tightening grip on civil society and restrictions of social media have started to take form in Turkey. Sadly, he is now actively looking to leave Turkey and find work in Europe, if possible.  

After Muhammed guided me to the metro on the European side, I joined another Couchsurfer and her twin sister at Bomontiada, an old beer factory now converted into a series of hip bars and music venues. Over a surprisingly good IPA, Sezgi, an Istanbul native, told me about her work as a social media manager for a local Turkish company. She had just returned from The Netherlands on a business trip and was surprised that many of the attendees asked about internet freedom in Turkey. According to Sezgi, most of her fellow conference goers assumed that Turkey had virtually no digital freedom. Although Sezgi dismissed the claims by pointing out her access to Twitter and Instagram, she also mentioned that Wikipedia had recently been banned in Turkey.LRG_DSC06746 I confirmed this when I later attempted to log onto the page and received a “connection timed out” message. According to The Guardian, Turkey’s primary communications group, BTK Telecoms Authority, blocked access to Wikipedia and other sites based off of a legal provision to ensure “protection of public order, national security or the wellbeing of the public.” Coincidentally, while strolling through the very hip Galata Tower neighborhood the following day, I spotted several graffiti stencils bemoaning the disappearance of Wikipedia. To combat the internet restrictions, groups like Turkey Blocks have sprung up to document the growing levels of censorship in the country.

“Dozens of Turkish users faced charges for criticizing the government or public officials, particularly on Twitter. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has filed criminal complaints against more than 67 people for allegedly insulting him online since he moved from the premiership to the presidency in August 2014” – Freedom House


On Tuesday afternoon, I took the ferry to Uskudar to meet with another Couchsurfer named Mert. A full-time student studying human geography, Mert guided me through the Asian side’s less touristy neighborhoods. We strolled along the Bosphorus, then ascended steep hills dotted with colorful houses and traditional Turkish architecture. After Mert’s question about my thoughts on Turkey, I gave my impression of the city as one that seems caught between two places. Mert, who was no fan of Erdogan, was more optimistic about Istanbul and clearly saw himself as one of the city’s many ambassadors. His brother even works for Turkish Airlines. He understood human geography to represent man-made landscapes like architecture and transportation systems, which change how humans interact with their built environment. He also saw refugees as a critical issue globally and wanted to comprehend how Turkey could tackle the influx of people coming from Syria. I found Mert’s approach to human geography fitting, especially as Istanbul occupies a unique position straddled between two separate continents.

With such unique boundaries, I also realized that this geography represents the metaphorical tension for Istanbul’s future. In the early 20th century, Ataturk and the Young Turks strove to forge Turkey into a western, modern nation-state out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire. He advanced the Turkish economy, adopted a strict secularism, and hoped to reform Turkish institutions to mirror their European


That’s Asia!

counterparts. As Turkey closed out the 20th Century, many saw ascension talks with the EU as a promising path towards EU membership. But in recent years these talks have collapsed along with Turkish hopes for European recognition. The EU primarily blamed this decision on Erdogan’s illiberal policies of weakening institutions, stifling the media, and imposing a state of emergency. I was curious to learn more about these developments and fortunately, I was having lunch with an expert the next day.

Turkey Looks East While Civil Society Looks West

On Wednesday, I met with a local civil society worker named Sezin who worked for a civil society organization based in Turkey. Over a delicious Armenian meal of beef goulash, she shared many of her views regarding the escalating situation in Turkey. From our talk, two pieces resonated with me. The first was that Sezin discussed her perceptions of civil society and how Turkey has aimed to shrink that space. In asking about civil society, Sezin emphasized the value and importance of freedom of expression, the right to assemble, and the slow erosion of these principles in places like Turkey. She listed off a range of issues that were problematic, many economic but also a number of them clearly political. She emphasized that Turkey was not a democracy and that Erdogan’s consolidation of power from different institutions left the legislature with limited strength. This has played out particularly in how civil society has faced government crackdowns and even its ability to assemble.  

Sezin relayed a story about 10 human rights defenders that were jailed on trumped-up terrorism charges. Their hotel conference room was invaded by Turkish police officials after several people complained about their subversive activities. Many of these individuals were high-level officials, including the chair of Turkey’s own Amnesty International. Of Turkey’s approximately 130,000 CSOs, a small proportion, 23,000, either actively advance a political agenda or instead focus on social issues. The trend has only grown worse since the 2016 coup. In addition to thousands fired from positions or jailed, nearly 1,500 civil society organizations have shuttered. The landscape of civil society organizations has remained increasingly focused on providing services to refugees and offering basic economic relief. Moreover, the Associations and Foundations Laws, two


Artwork at Istanbul’s Modern Art Museum.

legal frameworks passed by Erdogan in 2014, have been selectively applied to restrict freedom of expression and freedom of assembly.

This follows a larger trend across Turkey. Since assuming power in 2003 as Prime Minister, and the presidency in 2014, Erdogan has shifted from a hopeful reformer to a strongman that has sidelined institutions and embraced popular elections to secure his mandate. While the 2016 coup attempt escalated the consolidation of power, Erdogan had already been pursuing unfair prosecutions, intimidating the media, and passing controversial laws, even through democratic institutions. Published in 1997, Fareed Zakaria’s seminal essay on Illiberal Democracy warns of a rise in a democracy that is not infused with constitutional liberalism and rules exclusively for the majority. This form of democracy, now embraced in Turkey, is also growing outside its borders. One could argue that Erdogan is turning east to emulate a model similar to Xi’s China and Putin’s Russia.  

And this shift ties into Sezin’s second major observation: Turkey’s tourism landscape is also changing as it looks east. As the coup attempt and political instability have frightened off western travelers, Istanbul has catered increasingly to Asian tourists from the Middle East, China, and Russia. The New York Times reported last month that tourism from the United States fell by more than 40 percent from 2015 to 2017. But this decline hasn’t fazed other countries. Russia currently represents the largest portion of tourists in the region and Istanbul remains a major shopping destination for Middle Eastern travelers. Sezin noted that these types of travelers have different travel patterns and priorities than western travelers. She noted that Westerners often have different expectations and often prefer to explore the culture and vibrancy of the country whereas Middle Eastern visitors seek out shopping malls and larger, guided tours.

Unlike Erdogan’s look east, Sezin and her colleagues at civil society CSOs across Turkey have gazed west for funding and support. The Center for American Progress Trends in Turkish Civil Society report notes that international involvement remains a critical source of financial and strategic support to combat Turkey’s shrinking civil space. Especially since funders may prioritize different issues such as rule of law, checks and balances, and liberal democracy. This has not gone unnoticed by the United States. The National Endowment for Democracy (NED), the bipartisan, U.S.-based NGO that provides grants to support democracy-building initiatives around the world, awarded Turkey eleven grants in 2017 to bolster freedom of expression and strengthen civil society. For example, the NED’s “Fostering Transparency, Accountability and Access to Information through Open Data” initiative aimed to help the Center for International Private Enterprise “develop an online, open-data platform to push back against the government’s monopolization and manipulation of the information and content space.” Of course, there are critics of the NED who argue that the organization advances a U.S. foreign policy agenda under the guise of bipartisan support. This criticism is most salient after the NED awarded grants to anti-Chavez groups in Venezuela during the late 2000s. Despite these critiques, Third Sector Turkey Foundation (TUSEV) and other CSOs continue to seek support from the NED and other EU-based groups to support their work and keep the Turkish government accountable to its people.

And what happens next?

I had heard from several Istanbul natives that Thursday, August 30th was Victory Day. The national holiday commemorates the ousting of Western powers that occupied Turkey after World War I and also marks a major celebration for Turkey’s armed forces. After completing some Open Data Watch work, I headed to Taksim Square and stroll near Gezi Park. In the square, I found a military band playingLRG_DSC06893 patriotic tunes while onlookers snapped photos and sang along. The Turkish flag was prominently displayed on a building not far from the monument, which was situated next to a mosque under construction.

I took the metro to meet Sezgi’s family in the park where many locals celebrate Victory Day by picnicking with ice cream and beer. After making a positive impression on her family (a good sense of humor and anti-Trump comments), her mother invited me to come to their home on Friday for a homemade mezze feast. I figured this would be a great chance to finally try Raki, which is the national spirit of Turkey. After I ravenously consumed the dolmades, stuffed peppers, marinated green beans, and fresh yogurt, we sipped hot tea in her living room and chatted. Everyone expressed a certain degree of apprehension about the future and noted that the Turkish Lira crisis had compromised their ability to travel abroad or indulge in everyday luxuries. After all, when your income is reduced by nearly 40 percent, you’re no longer considering that summer vacation to the Greek Isles. One of Sezgi’s WhatsApp Image 2018-08-30 at 10.04.32 PMfriends, who worked with blockchain technology, mentioned that his Uncle ran a small pizza joint in Allston, Massachusetts a student neighborhood in Boston. He was considering the possibility of trying to travel there if things worsened. While Sezgi enjoyed Istanbul, her sister seemed less enthusiastic about the country and felt that there was very little produced in Istanbul. Her family members confirmed what I had heard from too many other Turkish residents: Turkey is economically dependent on imports and Erdogan’s increasing use of rabble-rousing behavior is pitting the country in a battle with the west. While some of them pointed to Trump’s tariffs as a leading cause of the currency depreciation, most of them noted that Turkey has been economically unstable long before Trump imposed sanctions.

Of course, in reflecting on my interactions with locals, they were mostly limited to standard tourist activities or through platforms like Couchsurfing. These individuals have particular viewpoints that may not reflect the overall realities of many Turkish citizens. Although the dismal outlook is rife among Erdogan’s opponents, his supporters continue to back his policies. And despite this pessimism, I both read and heard signs of hope. Some of the people I spoke with said that the economic crisis might be the necessary reckoning to force Erdogan from power and return democracy. Moreover, external sources of funding were making headway. The Trends in Turkish Civil Society report notes that the Think Civil EU Programme has succeeded in providing funding to informal civil society networks to continue dialogues among citizens about democratic norms. Additionally, media outfits like National Geographic have continued to run pieces that discuss the intersection of tourism and political instability in places like Turkey. And this past July, Erdogan finally lifted the state of emergency that he had imposed following the 2016 coup attempt.


On my final night in Istanbul, I shared a beer with a fellow hosteller from Argentina next to the Galata Tower. In a spirited conversation that meandered between English and Spanish, we covered topics ranging from backpacking in Vietnam to the parallels between Argentina and Turkey. I mentioned how the Lira crisis reminded me of my experiences traveling in Argentina in 2015 when navigating the official and black market exchange rates gave me a royalheadache. The official rate of 9 pesos to a dollar was offset by a black market rate of 14 pesos to a dollar, which could be obtained by visiting “cuevas” in shifty locations around the country. She explained that the situation had actually grown worse and today, Argentina’s official exchange rate is nearly 38 pesos to a dollar. While this has created major challenges for Argentinian travelers and citizens, she remained confident that inflation will not unravel Argentinian confidence. 

“The difference between Turkey and Argentina is that in Argentina we’ll immediately take to the streets and protest. We did so in the 2000 financial crisis and we continue to do so today. And Turkey? Well, I hope that the Turkish people are willing to put themselves on the line for what matters most: the ability to express themselves.” As I took the train to the airport the next day, I hoped that she was right.  


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