Why Istanbul?

"Good God, man! Why would you want to go to Turkey! They hate Americans over there! You'll be killed!!"

...was what I heard from more than a few people before I set out on my journey. That rather flawed logic goes something like this:

Turkey = Muslims = Anti-American Fanatics = Al Qaeda!!!
(You can see that law school has served me well, no?

The same impression exists for Kazakhstan, a country which many people seem to think is a hotbed of Islamic extremism. Of course, Kazakhstan is even more secular than Turkey and about as fundamentalist as Denmark. But I'm getting ahead of myself... see the Why Almaty? section for more.

Truth be told, although Turkey is a very secular place with a (reasonably) democratic government, there was some tension in the air. Two days before I arrived there was a suicide bombing at the local Freemason's temple. (Freemasons are not Christian, only monotheistic, and they played a major part in transforming Turkey into a secular Republic after the fall of the Ottoman Empire). A few days after I left a man blew his hand off trying to explode a pipe bomb in front of police headquarters. But tourists haven't been targeted, and there is no reason why a few isolated fanatics targeting the establishment should stop a foreigner from enjoying one of the most interesting cities in the world.

So, why Istanbul you ask? There are a number of reasons.

1. Because it's there!

Situated along the Bosphorus Straits connecting the Black Sea to the Mediterranean, the area known as the "Golden Horn" has always been a vital pivot of commerce and power through the ages. Starting as the small Greek colony of Byzantium almost 3,000 years ago, the small town at the crossroads of Europe and Asia was conquered or allied with Persia, Athens, and Sparta through the Greco-Persian Wars. It became a key city under Roman rule, and Emperor Constantine transformed this small Greek trading post into a major city in 330 A.D. Renamed Constantinople years later, it became the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire when Rome fell and was the capital of Western civilization for a thousand years later, the shield that protected Europe while the continent languished in the squalid nightmare of the Dark Ages.

After the Fall of Constantinople in 1453 (or what the Turks call "The Conquest"), it became the capital of the Ottoman Empire, which at its peak stretched from North Africa to Arabia, from Ukraine to the outskirts of Vienna. Although no longer the capital, Istanbul remains the biggest city in the Republic of Turkey and a city with a long history, lovely people, delicious food, plus some beautiful mosques and churches.

But let's be honest: while Istanbul is on my top ten list of must-see cities, a list that also includes places like Timbuktu, Jerusalem, Tashkent, and Hong Kong, the reason I went to Istanbul this year was because of convenience, or more specifically...

2. Because it's on the way to Almaty!

In the fall of 2003, five expatriate comrades in Japan decided to rendezvous in Kazakhstan. Chad Kohalyk of British Columbia, Ashle Baxter of Tennessee, and Roy Berman of New Jersey were all living in Japan and working, finishing a MA degree, and studying as an undergraduate at Ritsumeikan University, respectively. I was back in the United States studying at Rutgers Law School. But Charles Brown had since moved to Almaty, Kazakhstan after completing his two MA degrees and was now living with his Kazakh girlfriend Assel, who he had met at American University in D.C. Charles is the Director of Student Affairs at the Kazakh Institute of Management, Economics, and Strategic Planning (KIMEP) and teaches two courses on Public Administration. Assel is also a lecturer of political science and international relations at the same university.

Central Asia has always interested me, especially after visiting the Xin'jiang province in western China. Roy took that trip with me, Chad is a student of Eurasian affairs and Russian, and all of us wanted to see more. Roy, Ashle, and Chad were coming overland through China -- as I was the only one coming from the United States, I originally planned to fly into Uzbekistan and see the historic silk road cities of Tashkent, Samarkand, and Bukhara before heading over the border to Kazakhstan to meet up with everyone. That proved to be prohibitively difficult and expensive, and I had to give up on the idea. But even so, there aren't any direct flights from New York to Almaty, and one has to stop in either Frankfurt or Istanbul en route. As planning reached the final stages, I decided that if Uzbekistan wasn't a possibility, I'd try to stay a few days in Istanbul.

And finally, let's not forget the all important reason:

3. Because there's an election going on!

Elections are fun to watch. Heck, I can barely sit still as we gear up for the sacrifice of John Kerry... I mean, the Bush-Kerry election in seven months or so. As a student in Japan I loved watching the vans call out the names of candidates and chuckled at the protest posters of the Communist Party. I saw the same thing in Cambodia, where supporters paraded in the streets, campaign trucks drove down narrow alleys trying to pep up the populace, and wooden signs staked out in the countryside declaring support for one party or another.

So now I was in Istanbul, and once again I'm seeing democracy in action. I arrived just two weeks before the municipal elections, and the locals are preparing to vote for mayor and city council. The place was filled with posters and flags asking voters to support no fewer than a dozen parties. The current party in power is the mildly Islamist AK Party, also called the Justice and Development Party.

'Let the lightbulb of the AK Party light up your life!'

The vast majority of the people I asked -- half a dozen taxi drivers, plenty of shop owners, Turkish people on the street -- backed the AK Party. But isn't it Islamist? Well, it's Islamist within the framework of Turkey's political culture. This ain't the Arab world -- these are cosmopolitan and urbane people, not unemployed maniacs trying to topple some autocracy. No one is publicly declaring their support for an Iran-style theocracy. Rather, corruption is so endemic in Turkish politics that people see this new party, which is only a few years old, as a solution to chronic nepotism. The AK Party is incumbent party in the national parliament and in Istanbul, and everyone expects them to win an easy victory come election. Even so, plenty of other parties were out in force looking for support: this wall was very close to the hostel I stayed at:

Posters for the AK Party and the Social Democratic Party

And of course, what non-Anglo election would be complete without a prominent no-hope communist party?

21st century communists -- replacing the sickle with a gear.

So that's why! Why not? Click the side menu for more, or continue on here.