A couple of summers ago my wife and I had occasion to spend a week in Istanbul, Turkey. The city is clean, bustling, and thriving. Construction cranes can be seen on the horizon in every direction. And, of all of the places we have traveled to in the last forty years we can’t remember a more pleasant experience. Every sector of the service economy with which we came in contact – taxi drivers, hotel workers, shop owners, restaurant workers, and others – was represented by individuals who behaved with alacrity, politeness and grace. Everyone who served us seemed all too willing to help and went beyond the call of duty to do so. The staff at the Ritz Carlton Hotel, a property perched perfectly overlooking the Bosporus waterway which connects the Sea of Marmara to the Black Sea delivered excellent service almost to a fault: at times service bordered on being unctuous.
No image can better capture this overzealousness than the sight of a beauty salon customer with three barbers hovering over him at the same time: one cutting his hair, the second trimming his beard, and the third brushing his mustache! But in a world experiencing a service meltdown that is a preferred alternative. The only blemish on this otherwise pristine service experience was dished out by Passport Control Officers at the airport who clearly were lazy, indifferent, and at times hostile.
Turkey applied to become a member of the European Union in 1987 and since that time the nation has had a difficult time convincing the Union that its values of democracy, human rights, and freedom of speech are commensurate with its European counterparts. Examples abound. According to the Press Freedom Index which issued its report this year, Turkey occupies the 154th place on the list of countries ranked by journalistic freedom. Speaking against Islam, in this the most secular of the Muslim nations, can get you in hot water as the world renowned pianist Fasil Say found out. Mr. Say, who has performed in the United States, was jailed and then given a suspended sentence for his remarks which presumably offended Islam.
Nobel Laureate in Literature Orhan Pamuk, who now teaches at Columbia University, was tried and found guilty of making statements against the nation and its role in the Armenian Genocide of 1915 which Turkey still disavows. Others, have been shot dead for the same offense. At another point, students showing their opposition to an urban development plan at Taksim Square provoked the government’s heavy hand in evicting the protesters. To this day, Taksim Square is guarded by strapping, young military men armed with automatic rifles. More recently, President Erdogan’s grip on power nearly slipped away in the face of a failed coup d’etat which left hundreds dead, and tens of thousands under arrest. Media outlets antagonistic to the government were summarily shut down as well. Turkey, unfortunately, bears witness to a string of military coups in its not too distant past.
THE GREEKS ARE NO MORE
After generations of persecution by Turkish authorities, the Greeks, who founded this golden city of Constantinople more than two thousand years ago, scarcely amount to more than fifteen hundred souls in a metropolis of nearly twenty million – so corrosive do they find the environment to their way of life. What remains of the Greek community is ghettoized in the Istanbul quarter of Fener, the site of St George’s Cathedral where in 1821 the Patriarch Gregory was hanged as ordered by the Sultan on Easter Sunday and left to rot for days.
Turkey’s aggression against the Greeks currently takes the form of an intensified naval presence stretching from the Greek island of Rhodes – fewer than twenty miles distant from Turkey as the crow flies – to the island nation of Cyprus. Erdogan’s démarche in the eastern Aegean is clearly meant to intimidate its neighbors in the light of recently discovered hydrocarbon deposits in the area. The Trump administration should also take note as there are American oil companies participating in exploration activities.
Against this backdrop and history it is a paradox – if not a wonder – that some of the best customer service one can find is found in this troubled nation. If the only price of admission to the European Union were superior customer service Turkey would be a shoe-in.