Having returned from a keenly anticipated 8-day trip to Istanbul, I am now qualified to be genuinely unsure as to whether Turkey should be allowed to join the EU.
I have long been an admirer of the Turks' sterling martial qualities that have made them major contributors to, inter alia, the UN cause in the Korean War and of course to NATO. Closer to home, an upstanding Turkish family operates five immaculate eateries in my neck of the woods, all differently themed and manifestly well run. Visiting Istanbul itself, a few first-hand observations - including a very vivid and surprising encounter - have helped to fill out my impressions. Seasoned Turkey-goers can skip to the end of this gushing travelogue.
- a very masculine society. Almost no police in evidence on the streets, and accordingly the society is self-policing, issues being sorted face-to-face (e.g. the many road traffic accidents on unbelievably chaotic streets). Men of all ages wander out together in groups, as do women. Seperately. But despite a fair amount of burqa-wearing (a relatively recent fashion, as in so many places) there are also loads of confident young women with plenty of attitude and evidently no intention of veiling up at all. Everyone seems to rub along.
- arrant disregard for regulations, enforcement of which is derisory (entirely consistent, of course, with the first point). Speed limits, red lights and one-way street signs are advisory only; no regard whatever for trade descriptions; health-and-safety a complete joke; extreme jay-walking on an heroic scale; and it is quite impossible to guess what their child labour laws must be (if any). Boys transitioning to manhood run proper errands for men in the same way they would in Britain in days of yore, rather than nefarious errands for a teenaged gang leader per recent UK trends.
- street after street of squalor and chaos just yards from such modern and clean buildings as exist (the better hotels, museums and offices etc and of course the many very fine mosques). The Turks excuse this saying they are a nomadic people who just pitch their tents wherever and get on with things. (Even the Harem sector of the splendid Topkapi Palace is pretty ramshackle.) Feral cats and dogs everywhere (though a lot less menacing than the really vicious packs of curs that have roamed the suburbs of Athens for years).
- the European side of the city being a lot rougher than the Asian side across the Bosphorous. Seems paradoxical (to a European !) but it is a function of the latter being almost entirely a product of the post-Ataturk, secular era.
One way and another, a fairly bracing Nietzschean set-up, all of which tends to increase my admiration. And of course Turkey is thriving economically, and pivotally placed geo-politically. So - welcome to the EU for the well-and-truly revived 'sick man' ? My reservations come under two headings.
1. Why would they want to join ? Their economy has been growing strongly for a decade and more. How much fun is it going to be when they have to adopt, and at least go through the motions on, all those reams of euro-regs ? Many will doubtless respond that the Mediterranean nations already flout them freely. But not on the Turkish scale.
In any event this is a small point compared with ...
2. Is Turkey compatible with European 'Christendom' ? Joking aside, this is where all our cultural understanding and observations are put to the test. If I understand her correctly, the estimable Hatfield Girl holds that Christendom is coherent, desirable - and doesn't include the Turks. I am inclined to think that Turkey, certainly post-Ataturk, has at least as much relevant recent history with 'Western Europe' as do the Orthodox countries (for which I don't have a lot of time). There are very many Turks who fiercely carry the torch for Ataturk's memory and his modernising secularism.
But we have to confront the Islamic question. This takes two forms, one of which I knew about already, viz the current politico-Islamist tendency in Turkey which is pushing for de-secularisation in public life, perhaps most unnervingly in education. The current Turkish regime baldly asks: is the EU a Christian club or is it the address of a community of civilisations? - expecting to shame us into adopting the second definition. Here's the Economist's snapshot of the situation from October, which looks like a picture of impasse.
A further first-hand perspective on potential religious incompatibility derives from an entirely fortuitous encounter we had on our recent visit. Wishing to push out beyond the grand showcase mosques of Istanbul proper, we went to Eyüp, north of the old city walls, where there is a famous and much venerated shrine / mosque / graveyard complex. Here we found Muslim pilgrims apparently worshipping, erm, a 400-year old tree (a bit pagan, I thought) ... and then a complete surprise: we saw a sheep being sacrificed.
We asked about this and there was a bit of embarrassment - you weren't meant to see that. But later we were told that wealthier people would sometimes sacrifice a camel ...
At this point, some folk will say: the Spanish sacrifice bulls all the time, and a lot less cleanly too.
Others will say this really has nothing whatever to do with 21st Century Europe, and everyone should recognise it and go their separate ways.
Me ? I'm still undecided. I like the Turks. I don't like animal sacrifices. We should definitely be allies. Beyond that ... what do readers reckon ?
Happy Easter !
Photos © Nick Drew 2012