Thursday, Jul. 21, 2011

It Takes a Neighborhood

A few years ago, there were still sheep in some of the new apartment buildings, so there must have been grass somewhere. In a city famed for panoramas — water, bridges, sky — most of its 13 million residents navigate a surfeit of concrete. Setting out today from a three-bedroom apartment shared not with livestock but with 11 relatives, a man who six months ago was reclining on an Anatolian hillside, thinking of Istanbul but keeping his flock in sight, might walk a dozen blocks through a neighborhood like Bagcilar, midway between downtown and the airport, halfway between one life and another, before finally coming upon a ragged strip of grass. Commuters on the O-3 highway have grown accustomed to seeing people like him up on the embankment, elbows on knees, gazes held above eight lanes of traffic, trying to feel at home.

"They bring the east with them," says Yldirim Ciftci of the migrants to Istanbul hailing from Turkey's Anatolia hinterland. Ciftci made shoes when he first got off the bus 13 years ago from the eastern Anatolian city of Mus. Today he manages a furniture store stocked with the signature items of modern Turkey: sofas and chairs that at the end of the day collapse into a bed for the visitor from back home. In a nation transformed by economic migration, there's always someone crashing in the living room.

"People from Corum make socks," Ciftci continues, stating what everyone already knows in Bagcilar, home to three-quarters of a million people following the money: geography is destiny. "The people from Mardin work in confectionary. Konya people are in foodstuffs." Ciftci, whose name means "farmer," appears mildly ashamed that it took him all of two weeks to find a job in a city so obsessed with moving up the ladder that grave diggers market themselves by etching their cell numbers into headstones: MADE BY CEMAL USTA 0532 266 1276. "I'm not changing my telephone number," says Cemal, who stayed with a relative when he arrived from Erzurum, also in eastern Anatolia, at 15. That was 51 years ago. "The cemetery was a lot emptier then."

So was Istanbul. The city was still Constantinople — and Christian — when the Muslim traveler Ibn Battuta passed through and declared it the world's largest city. It's no longer that, but a population of 13 million is not small, and the welcome mat is still out. MAY OUR SUCCESS CONTINUE AND ISTANBUL GROW, say the mammoth billboard sheets covering office buildings, advertising Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Prime Minister whose Justice and Development Party (AKP by its Turkish initials) is of a piece with what Istanbul has become: a place made for one people, overwhelmed by another. Erdogan is Istanbul-born, but he, like Bagcilar's residents, belongs to Anatolia's black Turks. Tied to the land and piously Muslim, they served as a mute contrast to Istanbul's white-Turk secular elite, whose long and tight grip on national affairs stemmed in no small part from a mistrust of the masses. Now the black Turks have remade the city, even as they have recast the country's politics. Erdogan and his AKP have been elected three times, most recently in June, by riding a black-Turk wave comfortable with both Islam and nationalism (which in Turkey is synonymous with modernity).

Weighing the Scales
It's an equipoise the Turkish system has never before managed, this balance of God and country. Four times in as many decades, the military mounted coups in the name of safeguarding the state against assorted threats, including Islam. But a coup is a mechanical solution not available to individuals, who must face their own inner battles of allegiance from the cradle. In Turkey, the first words whispered in a newborn's ear are a verse from the Koran. Yet from kindergarten, one is taught to worship a man in a tuxedo.

"As Muslim parents, we want our children to live in Islam as well as we can," says Sertas Gunes, a Bagcilar real estate agent just up the street from the furniture store. "And as Turks, we want our children to understand how the commander created the country." Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the man in evening wear smiling from every banknote and town square, abolished the Ottoman caliphate that nominally united all Muslims. In its stead, he elevated its antithesis, the nation-state, with a ferocity that would seem to defy reconciling national and religious identities. Yet something very like reconciliation — call it accommodation — suffuses every conversation on the topic in Bagcilar, where both identities are worn comfortably, one atop the other. "There's nothing confusing about it," says Ramazan Gunes, Sertas' uncle and the oldest of the Gunes real estate agents. "What we have here," says Sertas, "is a country that likes to make it confusing."

A good bit of that country is visible from the Gunes' office window. The thoroughfare below looks like a street in any provincial city of Anatolia or some blend of them all. On weekdays, mothers in headscarves and raincoats hold the hands of their youngest, who hold the hands of the oldest. On a holiday, the family proceeds behind the paterfamilias, a man leaning back a proud 10 cm, hands in his pockets. Fifteen years ago, the streetscape of aspirational clothes stores (Will Power Jeans) and cell-phone emporiums was a mud track best navigated by tractors. It became part of Istanbul with the arrival of the city's ubiquitous feature, the six-story apartment building, which is to Istanbul what pile is to rugs. Ramazan Kirbiyik put up "50, easy" of them in the 1990s, when Bagcilar absorbed most of its current residents — almost all of them, like him, straight from the village. A wheat farmer on the Black Sea coast, he became a builder in Istanbul by asking a lot of questions while working construction, then just throwing up the blocks himself, one every four months. "You don't have the animals living in the buildings anymore," says Erkan Gunes, yet another of the real estate brokers. "People adapt quickly."

It's the way of the world. "A guy sells his tractor, sells his animals, sells his land, and he comes here," says Metin Unes. "Starts as a renter in the neighborhood, builds a house, puts a workshop in the ground floor. And that's how he gets started." It worked for Unes, who, being from Corum, makes socks. His workshop is on his first floor: three fantastically complex machines surrounded by bags of inventory and, catching the light in the back room, splendid towers of thread. Downstairs, a half-dozen women prepare the product while Kurdish pop plays at full blast. Before being laid in pairs and stapled into a package, each sock is stretched taut over a flat model of a leg. The man in the corner moves among six upright flats with a rocking step that suggests a polar bear in too small a cage. The men get paid 300 Turkish lira (about $190) for a six-day workweek, the women 100 lira less.

These are the jobs that beckon those from Anatolia. Back east, "there's work but no jobs," says Hashim Cetimbas, six months after selling his cows for the down payment on a $40,000 apartment for his nine kids. Turkey's manufacturing juggernaut has helped make the country a genuine power in the region — try to find a Middle Eastern city without an Istikbal furniture store — while cementing the primacy of Erdogan's party, which Turks associate not with faith but with employment.

"Everything is business," says Mutlu Kaygisiz behind the counter of his Bagcilar photography studio. His first name means "happy," and as he talks, his eyes never stop dancing. Nor do his fingers, keyboarding changes on a wedding photo he's Photoshopping to place the happy couple in front of any number of landmarks they have never actually visited, including the Bosporus, the spectacular strait that defines Istanbul to the world and that a heartbreaking number of migrants have never seen in person. "You've got a lot of people who work 12-, 13-hour days," says Kaygisiz. "This is not a lazy society. This is not a government that will pay people to not work, like in Europe."

Identity Card
Europe, of course, is what Ataturk wanted Turkey to be. Turkey wanted it too, but the E.U. did not — too Muslim, too big — and so the republic is finding its own way. Lately it's been touted as a democratic model for the nations of the Arab Spring. Ataturk's republic was never going to fulfill the Koran's injunction that Muslims live under Shari'a. Some might have expected Erdogan's Turkey to do so, but political Islam's moment has passed. Any Turk can glance across the border at Iran and see a nation with the same number of people but fewer freedoms and prospects.

After seven decades of secular conditioning, the news from Bagcilar is that most Turks have reconciled the tension between God and country by making faith a private matter. "It lives in the heart," says Rukiye Altutas outside the textile workshop in Bagcilar where her shift has just ended. She is 24, was born 800 km due east and is striking in a silk headscarf and gray raincoat cut on the bias, a look that manages both piety and style. "But it's also something you can show," adds her co-worker Hidayet Ceran, 20. "You have women who wear the headscarf." Hers is pink. "You also have people who believe but would never show it." Does that describe many Arab societies? Her withering look is answer enough, but she goes ahead and says it. "Obviously, we're different."