Dreams of the Bosphorus

image“In reality, the great question remains: Who will control Constantinople?”  Napoleon Bonaparte

It was a cool May evening, as our passenger ferry coursed northeast along the Bosphorus. A warm breeze tumbled down from the Black Sea rising up only to be split by the prow of the pleasure ship. The black hole of a far eastern night was periodically interrupted by the glowing safety lights of dark, hulking freighters working their way past us to burst free into the Marmara Sea.  As the cargo ships passed,  our view was obscured to the east – a vision of ancient forts, modern apartment buildings and mosques bathed in ethereal green and blue lights.

My host, Nazim, appeared at a window, peering out to find me.  He was now sliding open the Captain’s door to the foredeck, allowing a burst of raucous laughter and music to escape. He moved silently across the wooden planks and gently clasped my shoulder.  “Our city is magnificent and mysterious, hey? – – Just like her.”He pointed through the bridge window down into a main cabin where a group of clapping men and women had formed a crescent surrounding a sultry, caramel skinned belly dancer.  Her silk hip scarf quivered and flashed with golden sequins as her body moved rhythmically to the Rom Sulukule music.

Earlier we had crossed under The Boğaziçi Köprüsü (Bosphorus Bridge), a grand arcing achievement of zigzagging suspension cables and pylons that stretched almost a half-mile across the horizon line connecting Europe and Asia.  The bridge, built in 1957, was the fulfillment of a vision to join two continents dating back to 500 BC and Darius I whose ambitions to invade into Greece and Europe would eventually clash with a 25 year old Macedonian commander named Alexander at the battles of Thermopylae and Gaugamela.  In the soft silk of this Istanbul night,  we moved through continents, time and space.  The sprawling city was a vast, milky way of motion – streaking automotive comets, black holes of collapsed history, and a thousand years of lights.

I had been dispatched against my will to work with our local Eastern European and Middle Eastern offices to better understand what investments were required to grow our indigenous business.  Much of our revenues had been historically derived from foreign multinationals doing business in countries like Turkey.  We relied on our offices in Istanbul and Ankara to coordinate our activities on the ground but never invested much to grow our local presence and brand. I preferred to work in our larger countries – – those with more revenues, mature infrastructure and developed markets.  I did not think I was being provincial in wanting to avoid these rough, and hardened pockets of raw commerce.  They were turbulent, risky and forever lashed to a fragile economic mast that would be tested over and over by winds of a political unrest.

Yet, my boss felt the opportunity was compelling. Turkey was the world’s 15th largest economy with a GDP of $880B.  It was hardly the chaotic, backward kingdom that I perceived to be constantly teetering uneasily on the edge of the 20th Century. This was a nation rising to meet the newly consummated European Union and the Western world.  It remained the only secular government in the Muslim world – a country with 73M practicing Muslims that trusted their army infinitely more than their government officials or financial institutions.  The army ensured appropriate stability and gave legitimacy to a government that sought to achieve greater regulatory, fiscal and legal certainty – – critical prerequisites to any country’s acceptance into the $12T Euro-zone.

Like  Rome, Istanbul grew to stretch across seven distinct hills – offering a skyline marked with the spires and minarets of mosques whose muezzins fervently called out for prayer five times a day to 11M residents.  Upon deplaning, I experienced that immediate sense of imbalance as I was engulfed by a miasma of scents – sewage, cumin, diesel, perfume, smoke, salt water, and concentrated humanity.  I unconsciously caressed the oddly shaped coins and bank notes that jingled in my pocket having exchanged my British pounds for Turkish Lira.  In developing countries, your Western brain cannot process quickly enough a culture with so few filters.  People do not speak, they shout.  Cars do not cruise, they cough, sputter, screech and honk.  Animals dart in and out of traffic dodging mopeds, motorcycles and bicycles swirling like twilight gnats.  Women move like phantoms swirling in hot wind and flowing bhurkas while a thousand eyes seemed to follow my every step.

Yet, I was unprepared for how Constantinople had transformed from a dusty, underdeveloped Ottoman relic to Istanbul, a wonderfully complicated city dominated by banking, telecom, infrastructure and textile companies. It was as intricate and unique as its precious Iznik tiles and patterned ceramics that accentuated its palaces and public markets.

This was the last stop on the fabled Orient Express releasing passengers into a seething anthill of antiquity, religious fervor, tradition and raw capitalism.  It seemed that with each minute, Turkey was building momentum toward inevitable and irreversible change.  Above the rail station on a peninsula that commanded a view of the fabled Golden Horn, the Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmar rested magnificent Tokapi Palace.  This golden age palace of Sultans dated back to the fifteenth century when Mehmed the Conqueror subjugated the final remnants of the Eastern Roman Empire.

In my travels to Istanbul, our country head, Nazim Mahmud became my guide, historian and lens to a world that Western culture had conspired to depict as backward and broken. Nazim was a passionate ambassador for his country.  He educated me on every detail of Turkish history ranging from Medmed’s capture of Istanbul to the successful Ottoman repulse of an invading Anzac invasion force at Gallipoli in 1917. As we walked, he led me into the Grand Bazaar, a cavernous domed labyrinth of over 4500 shops and stalls.  On this trip, he had stopped and purchased a book, The Long White Cloud- Gallipoli, by Buket Uzuner.  “I can see your fascination with WWI” he shared as he handed me the Turkish best seller.  “We perhaps picked the wrong side to support in WWI but we showed Churchill that we could defeat the world’s greatest navy.

The Grand Bazaar has been continuously the epicenter of commerce in Istanbul since the 16th century.  Gold, silver, ceramics, clothing and magnificent rugs are all distributed here through designated stalls and shops.  The art of purchasing any item is many ways a metaphor for all business.  It is hardly a sterile transaction. Commerce is a social, economic and cultural dance.  Negotiation is vital economic foreplay to Turkish business.  Any potential transaction is preceded by a courtship of mint tea, conversation leavened with grand, sycophantic compliments and finally, the merchandise.

A young shop owner, Mehet, offered me tea.  He discussed his desire for Turkey to join the EU and his cynicism over whether the West will ever truly accept an Islamic country as a member.  He shared fears that if Turkey’s ambition to join the European Union is rejected that it will make the country vulnerable for fundamentalism and more orthodox foreign and domestic policies.  “ We are on the edge of a falling into our future or plunging back into the past.”  For a young man in such a tiny business, Mehet seemed to contradict the region’s reputation of provincialism.  He certainly understood the complicated choices that lay ahead.

Later that night at dinner, I discussed the shifting plates of a new world order with young Turkish executives from our office.  These highly educated twenty-somethings exuded a sober optimism believing that the battle for the soul of Turkey would continue to rage well into the next decade.  “In many ways,“ a young woman commented, “ the first World War is still being fought.  While, the physical war ended in 1918, the ideological war of the West versus the Ottoman Empire has never ended.  Until Turkey joins the EU, there will always be a battle between authoritarian regimes and democracies for the hearts and minds of our people.“  Another young man jumped in. “ We feel terrible for what happened on 9/11 in America but you now know what it feels like to have consequences of your foreign policy occur within your borders.  (The day before a bomb had gone off in Ankara killing eight and injuring 23).  We are all in this together and we believe building consumer economies is the way to undermine fundamentalists.” I recall calling my wife that evening and relating to her how progressive Turkey had become.

Two months later, Chechen rebels seized my hotel and held all the guests hostage before peacefully negotiating a settlement with the government.  I was fortunate to be back in London at the time but I was rattled by the brush with reality. I thought about my dinner with those young, dynamic Turks who convinced me that their future depended on the West’s partnership. Without engagement, Turkey might more easily buy into the demonization of the West and drift backward toward authoritarianism.

That had been weeks ago.  I was now back in Istanbul standing with Nazim, looking across the dark evening waters.  I had to ask him about the Chechens.  He now knew me well enough to know it was on my mind.

He laughed and sighed. “You know, Michael, we have an expression: ‘abuk parlayan çabuk söner. ‘It means ‘What flares up fast, extinguishes soon.’  Whether it is inflation, Chechens or our naughty neighbors (Iran, Syria and Iraq), we will fulfill our destiny as a respected nation despite our obstacles.  It is our destiny. “

As I looked over to the shoreline, the modern buildings, old forts and minareted mosques did not seem so diametrically opposed.  Perhaps with Turkey finally coming of age, it was time for the West to accept them into the European Union.  While there are many who bitterly oppose yet another member nation whose debt is 40% of its GDP, there is a recognition that Turkey’s fate will exacerbate or diffuse the growing pressure within the region. With Turkey’s acceptance, perhaps the ideological warfare still waged from WWI might subside, breathing new life into the notion that Muslim and Christian cultures can forge a foundation for the future together.

One thought on “Dreams of the Bosphorus

  1. Alan M May 28, 2010 / 9:41 am

    My take-away: Darien was probably named after Darius I. (-:
    nice story. Hopefully your boss will recognize the financial and personal risks and have you invest more in the EU, not the EU wannabes. Hope is not a plan.


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