Editor’s note: 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 there is more to come. Mega projects underway include the world’s largest airport; a canal linking the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara, thus allowing maritime traffic to bypass the narrow Bosporus straits, and a tunnel underneath the seabed of the Bosporus to speed vehicular traffic along the ultra-congested Istanbul streets. Magnificent edifices such as Hagia Sophia, formerly an Orthodox Christian cathedral and now a museum, the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, and Dolmabahce Palace stand in stark but beautiful contrast to the glass and steel of the nearby skyscrapers.
Turkey has borrowed heavily from external lenders (external debt is over 50% of GDP), guaranteed private loans, rolled out tax cuts, and offered other incentives to fuel its growth. Still, unemployment is over 10%, inflation is at 15%, and the Turkish lira is at an all-time low against the dollar. It remains to be seen if Turkey can maintain its current rate of growth without further mortgaging its future.
We have traveled widely in the last forty years and 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 cheeriness, 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 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.
On a return visit to Turkey’s Western Aegean resort city of Kusadasi, we took in the the Hellenic ruins of the third century B.C. theater at Ephesus, the temple of the goddess Artemis, the house of the Virgin Mary, and the second century Roman library of Celsus where presumably 12,000 scrolls were kept. Again, service was unimpeachable across the board.
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 HAS MUCH WORK TO DO ON THE SOCIAL FRONT
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, Turkey occupies the 157th place – out of 180 – 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 and which snuffed out the lives of over one million innocents. 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’état which left hundreds of dead, and tens of thousands under arrest including many Western nationals. 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
The Greeks, who founded the golden city of Constantinople – modern-day Istanbul – more than two thousand years ago, lived under the shadow of the sword of the Ottoman Turks – as did all of the Middle East and the Balkans to the gates of Vienna – for nearly four-hundred years. The Ottoman occupation, despite recent revisionist accounts, was savage. Greek farmers toiled endlessly in this most barren of lands to pay a “head tax” – field workers literally risked losing their heads through decapitation if unable to pay the extortionate taxes demanded by their masters. In Epirus, north western Greece, the Sultan’s governor in the region, Ali Pasha, became legendary for his rapine, murderous, and sadistic reign for over thirty years ending in 1822. Further humiliation was endured by the population who witnessed their daughters carted off to harems and their boys kidnapped to fight as mercenaries – janissaries – for the Sultan. No revisionist history can change those facts.
Today, the Greeks 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 V was hanged – along with many other Greek civilian and church administrators – as ordered by Sultan Mahmud II on Easter Sunday and whose body was left to rot for days.
Turkey’s aggression against the Greeks currently takes the form of frequent violations of Greek airspace by Turkish fighter aircraft, and 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.
Turkish naval aggression has indeed grown bolder. Recent events witnessed a Turkish cargo vessel nudging a Greek Coast Guard cutter off the island of Lesvos while on NATO maneuvers. And, off the Imia islets in the Eastern Aegean – islets which Turkey claims as their own – a Turkish patrol boat rammed the stern of an anchored Greek Coast Guard vessel. How NATO allows Turkey to visit this kind of aggression on an ally doesn’t say much for the “peacekeeping” organization. But we have seen this movie before. Turkey invaded and occupied about one-third of Cyprus in 1974 and NATO proved powerless to stop it. More recently, of course, NATO stood by while Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula although the argument can be made that at the time Ukraine was not a NATO member.
Erdogan’s démarche in the eastern Aegean is clearly meant to intimidate its neighbors on two counts: For one, Turkey has territorial ambitions that include not only Greek islands in the Eastern Mediterranean but obviously also Cyprus. The leader of the Turkish nationalist party (MHP), Devlet Bahceli, is clear when he says that “… Cyprus is Turkish. It’s a Turkish homeland and it will remain Turkish. The will for the Aegean to again become a grave for Greek aspiration is still alive.” Mr. Bahceli’s churlish remark is an obvious reference to the savagery that was unleashed on the Greek community in the Eastern Aegean city of Smyrna, in Asia Minor, in 1922 when Turkish troops razed the historically Greek city to the ground.
For another, in the light of recently discovered hydrocarbon deposits in the areaTurkey has stated that it is ready to begin gas exploration. Turkish Foreign Minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, warns that not even a bird will be allowed to fly over the Aegean without Turkey’s permission. The Trump administration should take serious note as these are contested waters and 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