Demet Muftuoglu-Eseli is standing perilously close to the fire. The Turkish fashion mogul turned gallerist is hosting a gala dinner for “Istancool,” the annual arts and culture festival she founded with her husband in 2009. The proceedings begin with a “fire poem” by the Scottish artist Robert Montgomery. On a giant scaffold overlooking the Bosphorus, Montgomery mounts wooden letters on pikes:
Everything in the city is perfect
The voices in the streets are
sacred music and the streets
belong to no one
With an enormous torch he sets the letters ablaze and the posh crowd of a hundred or so black-tied guests collectively oohs as the sentiments burn against the night sky and reflect off the water. Enter our hostess.
The gorgeous and gracious woman smiles for the riot of flashbulbs and embraces the artist, who is still clutching a giant torch. Embers drift past her face and graze her hair, landing near the hem of her white silk dress. If she’s concerned about going up like a sleek Roman candle, she doesn’t show it. The letters soon burn out, filling the pavilion with smoke, and we are shuffled in to dinner.
Perhaps Demet Muftuoglu-Eseli has simply come to regard the proximity of beauty to danger as a given in Istanbul. Later, lounging on a bed in her sprawling home, Demet tells me that she started the festival because she wanted to bring the energy she felt while studying in New York City in the late ’90s back to her native city.
Bringing Western things to Turkey is something at which she excels. Fourteen years ago, she opened a store that soon became the only place where Istanbul’s disposable income set could get the newest American and European labels. She wants Istancool, more formally known as the IST. Festival, to do the same thing for culture. It’s an ambitious goal, she admits. But she finds the contradictions between East and West, old and new, inspiring.
They’re certainly provocative. The same week that IST. Festival 2014 launched in a haze of sparks and champagne, Hassan Rouhani came to Ankara, the first Iranian president to visit Turkey in 18 years. Meanwhile, a clothing store in Istanbul has put up billboards featuring women in bikinis, with a large pink band blocking out their legs. Elsewhere ads for shaving cream show a beautiful, smiling woman in a towel—but you can’t see that she’s shaving her legs because the billboard cuts her off at the waist.
It’s a constant back and forth. As people like Demet seek to foster Istanbul’s reputation as a cosmopolitan, Western-leaning city, the government, led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is shaping Turkey into a more radical Islamic state.
This shift has become a source of friction in what has long been a proudly secular, moderate Islamic country. Among Turkey’s liberals, anger at Erdogan started to build last year over bans on alcohol advertising and restrictions on abortion. Last summer, rising discontent erupted into near-revolt.
A small group of environmentalists staged a peaceful protest in Gezi Park, a green space in the heart of Taksim Square slated by the Erdogan government to be turned into a shopping mall. Erdogan’s police ejected the protesters with grossly disproportionate force. In less than a week, mass protests calling for the prime minister’s resignation had broken out—and not just in Istanbul, but in the more conservative regions of Anatolia, too.
For two weeks, Turkey was convulsed with violent protests that left eight people dead and thousands injured. Back in the United States, the White House issued statements of concern and requests for restraint. The protesters went home. Erdogan stayed.
As the country’s local elections approached in March, it was unclear how long his party would remain in power. In the run-up to the elections, Erdogan took an increasingly paranoid, hard line against dissenters. He blocked Twitter in March, before relenting after an intense outcry. He blocked YouTube for two months and backed off only after the country’s highest court ruled the ban a human-rights violation.
Then came election day. Erdo-gan’s Justice and Development party (AKP) wasn’t voted out—instead, it strengthened its majority. The Wall Street Journal aptly called it “The Turkish Ballot-Box Revolt That Wasn’t.”