The Magazine

Cool Istanbul

Bright young things of the Bosphorus

Jul 21, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 42 • By KATE HAVARD
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Erdogan has in fact presided over a long period of economic growth, but that’s not all that keeps him afloat. His conservative politics have also given a voice to many outside the big cities who are more traditional, more pious, and more skeptical of the West.

For the last decade, Turkey seemed able to insulate itself from the chaos in the region, but that security is now collapsing. According to Hurriyet, more than one million refugees from the Syrian civil war have flooded into Turkey since 2011. In theory, the government that grants them asylum also offers education and medical care. But in Istanbul, the streets are full of Syrian beggars, knocking on car windows and crying for basic needs. A woman approached me and asked not for money but for my water bottle. The refugees are mostly women with small children, and reports of sexual assaults, rapes, and forced prostitution are increasing.

The Syrian war isn’t the only destabilizing factor for Turkey. Some 600,000-700,000 Iraqis have fled since Mosul fell to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). According to Turkish deputy prime minister Besir Atalay, Turkey is planning to set up a refugee camp for Turkmens, Iraqis who share Turkish ancestry.

All of this points to a deeper problem: As the United States retreats from the region, Turkey is turning away from the policies of its NATO allies and increasingly going its own way​—​encouraging and financing terrorist activities and cozying up to its longtime rival, Iran. A February report from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies outlines the many ways in which Turkey has participated in the financing of terror, from backing al Qaeda affiliates in Syria, to sheltering Hamas official Saleh al-Arouri in Ankara. (Arouri is believed by the Israeli government to have orchestrated the kidnapping and murder of the three Israeli teenagers in June.)

The Syrian civil war was on some level a proxy war between Iran and Turkey: Iran backed Assad, and Turkey backed the Syrian opposition. Turkey has lost that war, so Ankara’s overtures to Tehran may seem to Erdogan like a necessary capitulation to an ascendant power in an increasingly disordered region.

Against this onslaught of radicalism and instability, Istancool stands as the pinnacle of the modern Turkey that many of its people still wish it to be​—​staunchly secular, European, and free. 

The festival comprises three days of artists, fashion designers, models, filmmakers, and other creative types hobnobbing with their Turkish counterparts​—​“engaging in intercultural dialogue,” as Demet likes to say.

During the day there are discussions and screenings, open to the public and filled with young, stylish, Turkish students. On Saturday, supermodel Liya Kebede promotes a charity that supports new mothers in Africa. On Sunday, Shirley Manson, frontwoman for the band Garbage, gives a sort of punk-rock “Lean In” talk to an audience of young women and indie kids.

At night, the panelists enjoy opulent dinners (chocolate mousse flaked with gold) and drink cocktails on a yacht before returning to the Pera Palace, a Gilded Age hotel built to be a pit stop on the Orient Express, a place where Agatha Christie slept and Greta Garbo vent to be alone.

It is a celebration of Western culture fitting for a country that embraces women’s rights and democracy and is tolerant of gay rights. Perhaps surprisingly, the largest financial supporter of Istanbul’74, the parent group sponsoring the festival, is the Turkish government, via the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism (which also covers the flights and room and board for the journalists).

If Islamism remains ascendant in Turkey, though, one wonders how long such a joyful, if decadent, bright spot of freedom will be indulged.

Although Turkey’s future is little discussed by Demet’s guests, the uncertainty lends to the festivities a kind of doomed glamour. The first night of the festival, Demet hosts us at the Ciragan Palace, a former Ottoman palace that’s now a luxury hotel, all marble arches and palm trees and dramatic staircases.

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