Istanbul lately has the feeling of a crime scene. The Gezi protests are over but life has got weirder: the black police helicopters always hovering; the intimidation of dissenters on Twitter by the government’s online enforcers; Kurds and ultranationalists and police fighting in the streets as if it were the 1970s before the military coup. This spring, the entire country lost electricity for several hours, during which a leftist group took hostage the Istanbul prosecutor investigating the death of a teenager hit on the head with a tear gas canister. (The prosecutor later died in a shoot-out.) Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has sought to expand police powers so that anyone with a firecracker can be shot. Young people who four years ago were excited about living in Istanbul now talk about leaving. Isis has moved in; apparently they find the city hospitable. Tourists still walk down Istiklal Caddesi, their necks craning in delight, as if nothing had changed; theirs is the fuzzy romantic city you might take in from a rooftop bar at sunset. The city’s parks are being peeled away, its shoreline mangled, its gardens ripped up, its hills sawn off so that the rich can build their towers and their malls, its woodlands replaced by asphalt. Recently, tornadoes have begun to whirl up out of the Bosphorus: as a result not necessarily of global climate change, but possibly of the disruption of local weather patterns by the deforestation and urbanisation of Istanbul alone.
The AKP came to power in part because of its pro-business policies and promise of managerial competence. Concerns about Erdogan’s ‘Islamist’ roots were offset by the party’s economic vision, which looked reassuringly Western. And unlike previous governments, once in power the AK Party got things done. The Turkish economy has flourished in the last decade despite the global financial crisis and its cities have been transformed. Istanbul is Erdogan’s town – he grew up there and was its popular mayor in the 1990s – and as home to millions of migrants from eastern Turkey, it needed improvements to its housing, roads, transport and utilities. The Erdogan government delivered on many of its promises: no one complains about the fact that you can now ride the Metro from one end of the city to the other. But as with many of the AKP’s activities, what once seemed admirable has become excessive: massive construction and development projects cement relationships with a handful of powerful businessmen; environmental, social and legal concerns are secondary; forced evictions have become commonplace. When tenants at the Grand Bazaar locked the doors to resist eviction, the police blew the doors up. In 2013 Erdogan said he would demolish a mosque to build a road.
The AKP posts videos online that imagine entire neighbourhoods, like Okmeydani, a longtime settlement of Kurds and Alevis, replaced with new ones, the suggestion being that there are bottomless pots of money to transform Istanbul into a deranged version of itself. Last autumn, in order to pay for more ‘development projects’ the government called for bids to privatise IGDAS, the largest state gas company. Soon there will be nothing left to sell but land and water. The AKP has put the two towers of the dreaded third bridge across the Bosphorus – the Yavuz Sultan Selim – on two large green, empty bluffs where it meets the Black Sea. As the bridge went up, you could see how mean a thing it would be: the forlorn stumps on either side, alone and unconnected, staring dumbly at each other. It has always been part of Istanbul life to watch the ships go back and forth on the Bosphorus; the sight gives a reassuring feeling of continuity and survival. Now, blocking the view of the vast horizon to the north, there will be that silly bridge carrying more cars to a gigantic third airport.
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[*] Norton, 480 pp., £18.99, November 2014, 978 0 393 08914 1.
[†] The translations are by Erdag Goknar and Alexander Dawe and Maureen Freeley: they were published in 2011 and 2014 by Archipelago and Penguin.