“Corruption is like a ball of snow, once it’s set a rolling it must increase.”
— Charles Caleb Colton
Unlike corruption, ethnic bigotry, national chauvinism or dubious coup attempts, snow is growing rarer in Istanbul, but one day in early 2015, it didn’t seem to interrupt the usual activities of the city’s birds, fish or fishermen. A few dogs seemed on edge, and cat sightings were rarer, but otherwise it was business as usual.
I spent about two months in Turkey in the winter of 2014/15, mostly because I wanted to visit while it was still hospitable for U.S. citizens. Numerous people I spoke with in Istanbul mentioned exiled-to-the-U.S. Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen and the “parallel state” he was suspected of operating within Turkey. The eerily unvarying invocation of this exact phrase made me wonder then how manufactured or propagandistic a concept it was, and later, in 2016, to what extent Erdogan was exaggerating and scapegoating real and perceived enemies in order to orchestrate a political advantage for himself while whipping up unifying enemies for the country to hate.
Of course, a majority of Turks don’t need much help when it comes to being hypernationalistic and disliking other people and nations… Consider the findings of a poll conducted by the Pew Research Center (Hurriyet Daily News, Nov. 8, 2014), showing that 73% of Turks dislike both the U.S. and Russia, though Israel is the country Turks hate most, at 86%. 75% dislike Iran; 70% dislike NATO; 66% dislike the EU, though the report also notes that 53% of Turks want Turkey to join it. The country Turks like most, at just 26%, according to the Pew poll, is Saudi Arabia, though over half of those polled also expressed dislike for it. Turkish dislike of others is broadly distributed: 85% of those polled held a negative opinion of al-Qaeda and Hezbollah; 80% disliked Hamas. 53% of Muslims polled (Turkey is 98% Muslim) said “suicide bombing and other forms of violence against civilian targets are never justified.”
The Pew report included a humorous side note about how their polling confirmed the motto, “the Turk has no friend but the Turk.” “It is hard to find any country or organization the Turkish people really like, except, of course, Turkey itself,” the report noted. “According to our spring 2012 poll, 78% of Turks said they had a favorable view of their country.”
I spent a lot of my childhood in and around Tulsa, Oklahoma, the conservative Evangelical “buckle of the Bible Belt,” and I suspect you could poll a representative sample of the state’s monotheistic residents and discover similar broadly held negative beliefs about outsiders.
But back to the snow day: Men working as shoeshiners on the Galata Bridge in Istanbul will try to hustle foreigners by acting like they dropped their polishing brush. When you bring their attention to it, they act overwhelmingly grateful and vigorously insist on shining your shoes. They’ll even say it’s free, no charge. But it’s not.
Two things: In the video I shot of this, below, I like how the guy smiles when he realizes he’s been made. Also, and more significantly, notice the other guy who’s in on it, who looks like he isn’t. He’s in the right of the frame, watching intently, then makes a hasty exit when he realizes I’m filming.