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.”
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.
As we mingle before dinner, though, there is mention of the 49 Turks seized by ISIS from the consulate in Mosul and still being held hostage. Some of the guests are speculating wildly about the probability of a war between Turkey and Iraq (“It could be by the end of the week!”). One Western journalist, in a plaid blazer and Ray-Bans, even though it is dark, wonders if he shouldn’t be filing something about the hostages, too. (He won’t.)
The discussion takes on a familiar tune: The United States shouldn’t get involved, he says. “This is not our war.” The crisis, I’m told, is about a complicated web of interconnected historical conflicts, about forces beyond our control—and, naturally, George W. Bush.
“Istanbul today is like Tehran in the seventies,” he says.
Last year Istancool was canceled because of the Gezi Park conflict. This year, the Gezi kids are staffing the festival, serving us cocktails and driving guests around in private cars. At first, our drivers are polite and monosyllabic. But ask them, “Were you at Gezi?” and they light up, whipping out phones to show pictures: Here I am in a gas mask, here’s the barricade I helped build. One shows me a picture of some graffiti. “Do you know the Game of Thrones?” he asks. The graffiti says: “Tayyip! Winter is coming,” referencing the hit fantasy series’s tagline.
They point to their arms and chests, where they were shot with “spicy gas” canisters and rubber bullets. Another one emails me a link to a short film he had made of the protests: In one shot, a police helicopter soars low overhead and a sea of hands rise up to give it the finger.
“Gezi was the greatest thing to happen to me,” says one. “It was better than any nightclub.”
But a year after the protests, these young men have gone from rock-throwing idealists to resentful pessimists. AKP’s reelection was especially disappointing. At first, they’ll say that Erdogan stole the election, or that he won by relying on the votes of grateful Syrian refugees (which doesn’t make sense because they can’t vote).
Eventually, though, they admit that a lot of people are happy with Erdogan’s economy and his more conservative policies, and that the opposition—the Republican People’s party (CHP)—is too disorganized.
That leaves these young leftist Turks with few options. At one panel, the Turkish writer Murat Mentes criticizes the Gezi generation, telling them to leave “Occupy” tactics behind: “Turkish people cannot be famous for protesting,” he says. “It is like being famous for preparing meals. Eventually you have to eat something.” But no one seems to know what they should do instead.
While the older secular liberal Turks (the ones who sit next to me at Demet’s fancy dinners) express anger at Erdogan, they don’t believe that Turkey’s increasingly Islamist streak will last. Turkey, they assure me, is a moderate, secular democracy. What’s happening elsewhere could never happen here, they say. “Erdogan is just one man.”
The young are not so optimistic: They see Erdogan emboldened by his victories, increasingly confident, and tightening his grip on power.
Although Erdogan is about to be term-limited out of office as prime minister, he’s unlikely to go away. On July 1, he stole a move from the Putin playbook and announced that he would be running for president in August. Traditionally, Turkey’s president has been chosen by parliament and has held mostly a ceremonial role. But for the first time, Turkish voters will elect the president directly, a fact that may give Erdogan room to dramatically change the scope of the office. “He wants to be an Ottoman,” one driver says.
The kids don’t talk about starting up Gezi again—they talk about leaving. One tells me his dream is to go to San Diego. Another doesn’t know, maybe New York. “I would be sad to leave my home, of course. Wouldn’t you be? But talking about the government makes me so, uh, anxious, no, nervous—” he pauses, tugs at his hair, searches for the word. “Angry,” he says. “Apologies. I get so mad, my English stop.”
The anniversary of the protests fell about two weeks before I arrived in Istanbul. On May 31, police surrounded Gezi, anticipating trouble and renewed protests. They got it. A CNN correspondent was detained live on the air. Crowds were tear-gassed. Close to 100 people were arrested and beaten by police. But the protests did not evolve into a massive collective force as they had done the year before.
A few weeks later, I visit Gezi Park at 1 a.m. It’s mostly empty, except for a drunk girl vomiting behind a tree. The onlyindication that something happened here is a lonely graffito scrawled on the wall that translates literally as “Gezi, I’m glad you happened.” It also means “Happy Birthday.”
In 312 a.d., the history of Turkey—and the world—was forever changed by a burning sign. On the eve of the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, Emperor Constantine is said to have seen a cross of light in the sky, just above the sun, which read: Under this you shall conquer. He won the battle and converted to Christianity.
The burning sign Demet stands in front of isn’t going to alter the course of history. But the festival she has created serves as a kind of bellwether for Turkey’s attitude towards the West. Like the Gezi protests, the fire poem is arresting and dangerous, powerful but fleeting. The sign is mostly right. Many things in Istanbul are perfect. It is a perfectly beautiful city, where the ancient and the modern coexist—there’s a 500-year-old Turkish bath hidden in a strip mall next to a French-fry stand. But it is also a city torn between the lure of cosmopolitan society and the coercion of an Islamist regime.
The jazzy techno music piped into Demet’s parties sometimes has to compete with the plaintive evening calls to prayer, a different kind of sacred music than the author of the fire poem had in mind. For now, the mix is a beautiful one. But as Erdogan flirts with terror and shuts off avenues for dissent, it may not last.
It’s clear that Erdogan has his own idea of perfection, and he’s not shy about enforcing it. The streets increasingly belong to him, to a government that silences dissident voices online and in the press, to those who cover up pictures of women’s legs and censor pictures of beer.
The kids from Gezi Park keep telling stories about when the streets belonged to them. Their obsession with showing evidence—in pictures and videos—is more than the bluster of youth. It’s about documentation. They want to prove that their triumphant moment really happened, that something tangible from that time has endured.
They can’t help but see that Gezi is slipping into history. In the end, the streets will belong to one side or the other.
The bourgeois elite milling about at Istancool know this too. Yet as long as the city still funds their galas, they’re not so alarmed.
These joyful celebrations of free expression are indeed reassuring. But look behind you, Demet. Trouble’s burning bright.
Kate Havard is a research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.