Do banned beer ads and empty tower blocks signify the Iran-ification of Turkey?

Leaving Kayseri; a pristine mosque occupies an otherwise barren easement between railroad tracks and a warehouse complex. Photo by T. van den Bout

About two weeks ago, I returned from a two-week vacation in Turkey. A conversation with a young Turkish man, a look at the dark side of one of Turkey’s vaunted “Anatolian tigers,” and the brief crackdown on the Turkish press following last week’s fatal hostage-taking incident in Istanbul got me thinking about the future of Turkey and it’s young people.

First, the young man.

“Do you think you’ll stay in Turkey?” one of us asked him.

“Not if it turns into Iran,” he replied with some sadness, but without hesitation.

He was in his early 20s. Like many Turks we met, he’d been born in a Western country where his family had emigrated, and had moved back with them. Some of these returnees came home before the start of Tayyip Erdoğan’s regime, and some likely because of it.

Erdoğan was Turkey’s prime minister and is now its president, traditionally a much less powerful position. Even though his party’s chairmanship term limits forced him out of the PM post, many believe the new PM is just his puppet. After 12 years of rule, Erdoğan still tightly holds the reins of power in the country, and he seems to have no intention of letting go.   

The early years of his regime heralded a new era of Turkish progress, freedom and openness. And there seems to be little debate that in many important ways, Turkey and Turks are better off since Erdoğan’s rule than before it.

Many emigrant Turkish families, familiar with the comforts of life in Western countries but tired of permanent second-class status, moved back. For them, the heady early days of Erdoğan’s reign must’ve seemed especially promising.

But Erdoğan’s push to remain in power seems tied increasingly to his government’s efforts to expand the Islamization of Turkish civil law. We were told, for instance, that signs promoting the sale of alcohol, though not its actual sale, were banned about a year ago. As with Coke in this country, the company that makes Efes, the Budweiser of Turkey, supplied custom signage to thousands of small neighborhood markets, complete with the Efes name, logo and colors. Now there are new signs, but the Efes name and logo don’t appear on them. But—branding!—the colors remain, so everyone, locals and tourists alike, know that Efes beer and other alcohol is sold within.

A beer brand (but not its slogan) covered over in an Istanbul restaurant. When I took this photo, the panel covering up the name looked much closer in color to the background. Only the camera flash revealed there was a brand name underneath.

The ban on alcohol ads and many other creeping legal impositions of Islamic mores and rules has our young friend, and no doubt many of his peers, pondering whether Turkey is where they want to spend the rest of their lives.

It’s not as if Islam is having a hard time there. Though by its constitution Turkey is a secular country, well over 90% of Turks identify as Muslim. But just as in the U.S., what belonging to a religion means in actual practice varies widely from person to person, and region to region.

Which brings us to that Anatolian tiger.

Two of Turkey’s three largest cities, Istanbul and Izmir, are considered its most liberal and progressive. Together, they are home to a little more than 20% of Turkey’s population. Though there are plenty of conservative Muslims in both, they are also the big concentrations of liberal thought and political leanings.

Kayseri is Turkey’s 11th largest city, and one of its fastest growing, with its booming industrial and construction sectors earning it its “Anatolian tiger” status. Lonely Planet also cites it as the second most devout Muslim city in Turkey. I don’t know what that’s based on, but I’ma run with it.*

We saw parts of Kayseri, and undoubtedly the worst parts, because it is the domestic air travel hub for Turkey’s Cappadocia region. We saw the parts we had to see to get the hell out of Dodge.

Granted, no one anywhere who can help it wants to live near the airport, so its easy for travelers just passing through to get an unfair picture of a place by only seeing the surrounding environs.

That said, ass-ugly does not do justice to the miles and miles of Kayseri and its outskirts that we saw.

First, nearest the airport, there were row upon row of new, and apparently vacant, housing blocks. The style that came to mind was, “Post-Soviet Kleptocratist.” These were big, completely charmless and weirdly ornamented buildings, when they were ornamented at all. And I’m including being painted entirely in Mylanta orange as ornamentation.

But above all, to me these big empty buildings were cheap-looking. The men who built them may not have been paid well, but some folks somewhere had to have made piles of dough—there were dozens of these brand-new empty ugly buildings. The post-Soviet reference may not be far off either, seeing as how Erdoğan and Putin seem to have a bro thing going on. Once free housing stopped being part of the plan in Russia, there were undoubtedly a lot of job-seeking former bureaucrats with a talent for converting government revenue (or, even better, debt) into sad architecture on a massive scale, while generating fat paydays for insiders.

After the tower block section came Kayseri’s Motor Mile-and-a-Half, an endless parade of sparkling new car dealerships. Hi, Kia. Oh, hi Hyundai. Looking swell, Mercedes. And, hey, Peugot! You’re still a car?! I guess so, in Turkey!

Then we progressed into the Eraserhead industrial section. Imagine Fitzgerald’s Valley of Ashes times ten. U.S. concrete plants are models of minimal impact compared to Turkey’s. Yes, it’s a messy business, and there everyone who lives or drives by it has to deal with it.

At the heart of Eraserhead-ville, we drove past a massive processing plant or refinery. Your guess is as good as mine. To me it looked like one enormous plumbed contraption that conducted whatever it was that it conveyed through some very large and befuddlingly-shaped appurtenances. Was it almost art but for being ugly? Or because of it? I still can’t say for sure.

Kayseri is a city, but Turkey is a country with some 11,000 rural or rural-ish villages. I think of our young friend, his fears, and how it seems that Erdoğan’s escalating embrace of Islamization coincides with his efforts to hold on to power that is becoming increasingly autocratic. I think of those endless empty tower blocks in Turkey’s second-most devout city and wonder if Erdoğan means to fill them with rural Turks, who are more likely to be conservative, and might show gratitude and loyalty for getting to take part in Turkey’s economic miracle, even if it means dirty, dangerous work in Eraserhead-ville and coming home to a brand new, depressing brutalist slum in the sky. For many, it may well be a better deal than what they have.

You could fit a shit-ton of loyal political partisans in those tower blocks is all I’m saying. And add to and consolidate your power in the process, making a minor urban stronghold a more major one.

And turning Turkey more into Iran.

Make no mistake, this rural-to-urban Kayseri relocation scheme is complete and total 100% speculation on my part and quite possibly complete and total 100% bullshit. What I know is that I saw a bunch of brand new empty apartment buildings that looked like they had to be government-built. And I created an explanation based on my sketchy grasp of Turkish affairs and a brief conversation with one young man. But on my side I would just mention that not only did I read Lonely Planet: Turkey, I went to Turkey: The Actual Country. For two whole weeks.

As to the Istanbul hostage-taking and it’s bloody ending and how it relates, I somehow missed the actual event in the news last week. I only learned about it yesterday, reading about the Turkish government’s punitive response to news media outlets that ran a photo, first posted on Twitter, of the hostage, a government prosecutor, with a gun to his head. Aside from blocking Twitter and other sites that ran the photo (evidently only for a short time), the government decreed that offending Turkish media organizations were barred from covering the prosecutor’s funeral.

The bullyish press clampdown reminded me of our young acquaintance, and it got me wondering whether the looming tower blocks cast more shadows darkening his future.

(*Here’s a BBC article from 2007 that compares and contrasts secularism and devout Islam between Izmir and Kayseri.)