11 January 2013

Africa: Turkish Delights for Africa

Photo: KLMircea
The Turkish flag.

How modern leaders are restoring glory to an ancient land

SylvestreTetchiada, the central Africa editor of IC Publication located on Rue Bayen in Paris, France, which produces magazines like the New African, African Banker, African Business, and New African woman, travels quite a lot between Europe, America, and Africa. Leaning out of the bus window as we drive out of Istanbul to the Ataturk Airport he first sighs, turns pensive and then lets out his feeling very curtly.

"Turkey is a great country," he says.

I nod and point at another of the great red flags of the republic, with white moon and star at the centre spread at intermittent intervals all along the highway, as we go passed gigantic new bridges, housing projects, and office blocks.

We had passed through the Turkish capital, Ankara, which is asserting itself among top destinations in Europe to business magnets from as far wide as Beijing, Sydney and Johannesburg. Ankara too boasts of new highways to nowhere, carved out of mountains, new daintily decorated housing blocks waiting for a new generation of occupants, and new oil and gas projects offering some of the cheapest electricity in Europe.

During an evening of merrymaking at Ankara's Hotel Kronos on the shores of Lake Mogan, I had gathered invaluable insights into what is awaking this ancient land from a South African anthropology professor whose tall elegant frame was, to me, as enchanting as the twist to her interpretation of the success story of modern Turkey.

Even as the evening chill threatened to dampen our quiet conversations, she explained modern Turkey's secrets excitedly. When the warm sour cream sauce and main course of traditional Turkish lamb tandouri, with seasoned dill, and roasted tomatoes and peppers arrived, we lunged into them but our conversation remained unabated.

A few tables from us, a couple of dervishes or modern incarnations of the ascetic Sufi Muslim devotees were entertaining us with their customary twirling dance. They whirled, whirled, and whirled endlessly to a hypnotic melodious chant of drums and flute that sounded like birds at the gate of heaven. With left arm raised and right arm pointed downwards, their wide white skirts twirled in dizzying circling swirls. Their faces, featureless - like air, below turban-like crowns of animal skin, were almost alien to the modernity around them.

"When you return to the Marriot Hotel where you are staying," my hostess was saying, "Look outside. There is an old, decaying building just off the main entrance. Just ten years ago, most of Ankara was full of buildings like that; but it is now full of huge shopping malls, magnificent hotels, and amazing museums."

Ankara awakens

She knows all this because she lived in Ankara for seven years before moving to the U.S.

"We used to shop in tiny village shops. The highway to the airport was tiny but it is now eight lanes."

"How did all this change happen," I ask. That had been my pet query since I arrived in this beautiful country for the Turkey-Africa Media Forum.

First, she traces the renaissance of Turkey to the now famous "6-Day Speech" of modern Turkey's founding father, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the republic.

Born in 1881 in the then-Ottoman empire, Ataturk was to become the first president of modern Republic of Turkey from 1923 to 1938 after leading the Turkish war of independence. One year into office, in 1924, he gave the country a new constitution pegged on the so-called "Ataturk Reforms" which reflected his view that to modernise, the country needed to look to the West. His name, Ataturk, means "father of the Turks" and was given to him by parliament in 1934. The six principles he espoused are known as the Kemalist ideology.

"Ataturk espoused the values that have guided the country since; look to the west, place the military in a commanding position, and ensure that the country's borders are immutable," my anthropology professor told me as the dessert of Turkish delights was served, "For the first time, the country has had no confrontation."

Turkish Prime minister RecepTayyipErdogan and other modern leaders of this successor to the Ottoman Empire that was defeated by the allies in World War I are very conscious of their heritage. They take pride in its success and are keen to avoid its failures, including siding with the loser in the raging Syrian war. But sometimes keeping the balance is not so straight forward.

Today, 99 percent of Turks are Muslims and the President, Abdullah Gul belongs to a conservative Islamic enclave, yet Islam is not the official religion. Turkey is officially a secular state and yet its hotels do not publicly sell alcohol but as in France, women are banned from wearing the headscarf in public places.

"In the past, wine would be flowing," my lady professor said wistfully pointing at the jars of untouched juices on our table.

I was totally unprepared for the totally anthropological interpretation of Turkey's success.

I had already asked a Kenyan professor now lecturing at a university in Ankara the same question and received an equally tantalizing answer.

"The Turks are very self-sufficient," the professor had told me in the opening to a lengthy lecture over warm apple juice about the dangers of accepting foreign aid. "After the second World War in which Turkey was on the side that lost, with Germany, Turkey refused to accept aid and is the only country to have repaid its war reparations in full."

He said the spirit of self-reliance had permeated the national physic and even the most successful families in Turkey still keep tiny farms in the countryside where they get their food. Most Turks, he said, carefully ensure they do not borrow excessively and live within their means.

"While the rest of Europe, Spain, Greece, and others are reeling under debt, Turkey is the only country whose economy is growing."

Trickle down Sufi frugality and traditions appeared to be the professor's answer to everything. When I asked about the macro-economics, he said the national leaders had pursued exactly the same frugal approach.

"It is true there are many Turks in the Diaspora, in Germany, Italy and others places who remit money home to rebuilt the economy," he said, "However, the government has also kept a firm control on financial discipline. It stopped all borrowing."

Istanbul wonders

Later, however, in Istanbul, which is re-asserting itself as the cultural capital of Europe, is where I felt the heartbeat of Turkey setting the pulse for the globe.

With about 14 million inhabitants, Istanbul is The City; one of the biggest cities in Europe, it is steeped in ancient history, civilization, and culture. Founded about 2500 years ago, it sits strategically on the ancient Silk Road that was entrenched by Alexander the Great about 350 years before Jesus was born and popularised 1200 years by Marco Polo the Venetian. Today, it is on the edge of one of the world's busiest waterways, the Bosphorus which connects the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea and is the natural boundary between Asia and Europe.

Last year, the Beijing Opera visited, renowned choreographer Dominique Hervieu participated in the staging of a musical based on the ancient Greek tale 'Orpheus', and the great surrealist, Salvador Dali held an exhibition.

From Istanbul you can cross the eight-lane, 1.5km Bosphorous Bridge that straddles Europe and Asia and is the centerpiece of the annual Intercontinental Istanbul Eurasia Marathon.

You could also admire the huge architectural marvel of the 2000 year-old Hagia Sophia or the basilica of Holy Wisdom, which is one of the Seven Wonders of the World and is very imposing. Almost square on the outside; about 70 meters (about 6 buses long) and 70 metres wide, it has four minarets and several gingerly crafted domes.

In Hagia Sophia, you could touch the spot where the Roman Emperor Justinian rested about 1500 year ago and make a wish. Or you could view the sword Prophet Muhammad carried into battle, or the rod that Moses used to strike the Red Sea in Egypt.

Legend has it that when the Hagia Sophia was completed 500 years after the birth of Christ at the headquarters of Orthodox Christianity, the emperor who commissioned it is recorded to have said its beauty surpassed that of the Holy Temple built by King Solomon, the great prophet of Christianity and Islam who built the First Temple in Jerusalem.

Although Hagia Sophia cathedral became a mosque 1000 years later when the Muslim Ottoman Turks overrun Constantinople, and is today, a secular museum, its artistic murals, and coloured marble columns that are as thick as five standing men and up to two stories tall speak to its amazing legacy as the epitome of the Byzantine architecture of about 2000 years ago. It's an apt metaphor for the guided trinity of a country that is 80 percent Sunni Muslim but believes that its proclaimed secularism is its key to the Christian European Union.

This is an ancient land and its ancient capital, Istanbul, which was the same main city of the Byzantine Empire called Constantinople of the 15th century, is now looking to Africa too. Turkey is today among the world's leading new emerging industrialised countries and leader in the textile, steel, construction, and consumer electronics sectors. It is looking for raw materials, markets, and business partnerships. Africa watchers say, however, that perhaps what the continent needs most is not Turkey's manufactured good but the focused mentality of the leaders in Ankara.

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