A German colleague of mine who is based in Egypt, covering the Arab Spring, was sipping his beer in Taksim, center of İstanbul, on a open terrace. Being aware of my critical articles on Turkey he said, "Don't write negative stuff about Turkey anymore. Look around! People are happy."
On a sunny day in Istanbul, contemplating the people around me, I admitted that the streets were glittering with prosperity and people's faces were relatively happy. Compared to Europeans, who are depressed due to the economic crisis, and to the Arab world, which is still going through the blurriness of start-up democracies, the people of Turkey, at least in Taksim on a sunny day, seemed extremely confident and mentally well.
Thinking about my colleague's remark, I boarded the plane heading to London. Being currently based in Tunisia, partly because I am jobless due to political reasons and partly because I am writing a book, I must admit that Turkey is still a place where you can enjoy freedom and prosperity. One reason is because conservatism has not conquered the entire country, and secondly because the economy is running well. After experiencing daily life in Tunis where the economy is falling apart and Salafists are attacking the alcohol serving hotels, Turkey feels like Paris. Although the Turkish economy is running on delusions and "ghost dollars," it still is running. Moreover, faith in the Turkish economy still seems solid. After I got off the plane, I saw Turkish Airlines banners all over Heathrow Airport. It was impossible to deny that Turkey has come a long way in terms of opening up to the world. Not only economically but also politically.
Before my lecture at the School of Oriental and African Studies on rising authoritarianism in Turkey, I sat down with a British colleague of mine to talk about her documentary on Morocco. She was based in Istanbul until recently and was telling me how in Morocco one feels the tension on streets whereas in Istanbul people still come up to you to talk about politics when they notice the camera. Despite the fact that she knows about the political oppression in Turkey, she was telling me how free it feels there compared to Morocco. That is why, having given a lecture on freedom of expression violations in Turkey, I felt like I should make a confession and try to be fair.
"After all, Turkey is enjoying a functioning economy and therefore there is a significant feeling of prosperity. And one must admit that the AKP government brought about a certain feeling of confidence due to the economic stability. Turkey, for the first time in its modern history, is opening up to the world, politically as well as psychologically. At least in Istanbul you can feel the comforting diversity of cosmopolitanism. Differently to it was ten years ago, now you can feel that you are in touch with the rest of the world. The bottom line is, you can feel like you are living in a free and prosperous country in Turkey." I stopped there and added the last sentence: "Unless your child is a university student in prison like the other 700 students."
After the lecture, I sat down with an Arab colleague of mine who is based in Istanbul and visiting London. I was telling him how I missed Istanbul when I was in Tunisia. Not just because it is my town but also for the secure feeling of daily life. After being kicked out of a taxi by a Tunisian driver for carrying beer in my supermarket bag, and being stuck in the middle of a furious Salafist demonstration unfortunately with a skirt on, I had had enough of the Arab Spring, I was telling him. He laughed and said "Really, I feel very happy in Istanbul. Because... You know..." He stopped talking and he covered his eyes, then his mouth, then his ears. He said "That is what you do to be happy in Turkey."
I am about to go back to Tunisia now. Preparing to fly with the best airline company of Europe, Turkish Airlines. But unfortunately I learned that the workers are on strike and that some of them have been fired just because they are exercising their legal right to strike. Obviously some of us are still incapable of learning how to be happy in Turkey.