Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Two Sides Of Angora

Despite my best efforts I've been held up by the Evil Visa Fairy whilst here in Ankara. My biggest problem is that the application process is not at all transparent and every person seems to give you very different information and expectations. If it were just a question of filling in a form, paying a fee and waiting a set length of time I would be happy: I would know exactly what is expected, when it will be resolved and so could plan accordingly. Not so here. In Istanbul I was told that someone from my family would have to get me an invitation number from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Tehran. And I had the bad luck to need this during Ashura when government offices were closed for a week. But finally, after several visits, my uncle was able to secure an invitation number for me. According to the Istanbul consulate this would be all I need to be issued my visa. So, full of hope (one would think that I'd have learnt by now not to be hopeful with visas until I get the thing physically stuck into my passport), I made my way to the embassy in Ankara (as I had moved on from Istanbul by now). The people at the consular section didn't seem to be aware of this way of applying for visas, but I'm too far gone along this path and so am waiting for them to receive some sort of acknowledgement from Tehran. Every day I wander over to the embassy to see if the situation has improved. I'm reminded of having to wait in Bamako a couple of years back for my Mauritanian visa.

Desperately looking for my visa (statue of Turkish soldier in Ankara).

So, whilst waiting for the wheels of bureaucracy to align in my favour, I've done a bit of exploring around Ankara. Although it has a long history dating back to pre-Roman times, for much of its history Ankara has been a rural backwater only known for its various hairy animals (Angora goats, cats and rabbits). It was only after the breakup of the Ottoman Empire that Ataturk chose to move the capital to a more central location away from Istanbul. As such the rich-poor divide here is glaring. Up on the kale (castle) hill, the houses are densely packed, poorly built, and often falling apart; whilst the new town to the south is comprised of large boulevards, apartment blocks, trendy cafes and designer shops - indistinguishable from many contemporary, faceless, modern cities. These two worlds don't seem to overlap. At all. This is also demonstrated by the two main "sights" in town.

The walls of the castle weave around the old town on top of a steep hill. They were constructed about 1000 years ago, and not only provide great views of the surrounding snow-capped mountains and the smoggy city below, but are fascinating under closer inspection. Mostly made of local tuff they must have been put up in a hurry as here and there are incorporated bits of ancient masonry, particularly tombs and gravestones, their inscriptions still very much legible. And within the walls you step out of the metropolis that surrounds you and into an island of smalltown rurality. Scruffy kids play in the alleyways, scarved women beat carpets and wash clothes by hand, chickens scratch around in back yards, roofs caving in or partially missing and temporarily fixed with plastic sheeting. Some local truanting youths tried to talk with me and I indulged them, but their lack of foreign language skills, or even patience and ability to modify their Turkish for me, made it frustrating. They were very much smalltown kids with smalltown opportunities and the gleaming ministry buildings that you could see below may just as well have been on a different planet.

The old city walls of Ankara. Note the central section half way up the old, Greek-style tombstones, and below them a row of statues (sans têtes) that have been flipped on their sides.

A few kilometres to the southwest in the new part of town is the Anıtkabir, or mausoleum of Atatürk. Atatürk is a semi-deity in much of Turkey, his pictures adorning all governmental offices and many family homes, and his mausoleum is the epicentre of this cult. I can understand that he must have been an incredible person to pull the country up by its bootstraps and put it on an even keel after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, but still, the reverence/deference shown to him is slightly unnerving for an outsider like myself (I find that there is a direct correlation between the size of a cult of personality for a ruler in a country, and the size of that country's internal problems). It is even a punishable crime to "offend the memory of Atatürk". The mausoleum itself is a huge, but terribly uninspiring, angular complex with a surfeit of military and security personel strutting around ensuring that you don't walk on the grass, lean against the statues, eat, smoke, laugh or do any of the other 23 prohibited activities enumerated on the large information board at the entrance. There is also an obligatory museum to devoted to the Great Man and the founding of the republic. Along with the soaring hagiography and myriad accomplishments there is a section on the war of independence. Such displays fascinate me immensely as they show the "official line" on recent history; and it's rarely objective. To see such emotive words as "savage", "ruthless" and "bloodthirsty" to describe the Greeks, and their "annihilation" and Turkish "martyrdom" does little to foster mutual understanding (not that there weren't atrocities commited by all sides). Which makes it all the more surprising that all the people I have stayed with on this trip, both in Greece and Turkey, are great admirers of their erstwhile enemies and emphasise their similarities rather than their differences. My current host Can (pronounced Jahn) is even studying Greek at the university here in Ankara. The university-educated elite are cultivated, knowledgeable and articulate (last night I was talking to a girl about whether Turkey was a part of Europe - she thought not - and what it actually means to be European).

Atatürk's monumental mausoleum.

I am curious to see which of these two worlds Turkey will choose or whether it will carry on in its current bipolar state.

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