Walking along Party Lines in Istanbul
Last summer, I went back to Üsküdar, one of the most conservative neighborhoods in my home city of Istanbul, where Europe and Asia converge. When I was younger, my friends and I would often take the ferry to cross the Bosphorus strait. The sea always charmed us with its majestic view. We took pride in living in a city where seaside palaces and mansions stood as a testament to its rich history.
Üsküdar, located on the Asian part of the city, is one of the remnants of the nation’s architecture. It contains beautiful mosques, local coffee shops, and fish restaurants where the locals and tourists get together. The area’s pastry stalls display Turkish culinary techniques of centuries. Its local jewelry stores highlight the country's cultural heritage. However, Üsküdar was an area where my friends and I did not fit in, because we were raised in a fiercely secular culture. It was there that our pride clouded our minds, so that we could disregard how out of place we felt among the increasingly conservative residents of Istanbul. We saw the conservative masses as the bootlickers of the government. We thought their sole purpose in life was to overshadow our future, our wild ambitions, and our identity–only because we refused to dress, think, and act the way they did.
It was a blisteringly hot summer day when I went to Üsküdar. I was wearing leggings and a tank top and tried to ignore the hostile glares from the neighborhood residents. I felt like a stranger at my own city. For nearly a decade, the ruling political party, AKP, had polarized the nation along religious lines, claiming their opponents were elitists who looked down on the rest of the society. I witnessed AKP’s success in Üsküdar and was curious as to how it would feel to interact with someone who had fallen for AKP’s populist rhetoric.
I decided to go to Üsküdar again and wander around the local coffee shops and bazaars--this time with a headscarf on my head and a long duster coat. It would be better to interact with these people in person than read about them on the Internet, I thought. As I walked, I greeted the locals and smiled at other veiled women. They smiled in return and I, for the first time, saw what seemed like respect in their eyes. I felt a sense of belonging for the first time in this neighborhood. With just one head accessory, I appeared to them a sacred and chaste girl; I became their sister. Although these interactions evoked a sense of understanding in me, I wondered how my changed appearance had altered their perception of me. I realized AKP was furthering the divide and taking advantage of it.
As relatively well-off citizens in today’s world, we empower politicians by highlighting their positive traits and overlooking the negative ones. While politicians engage in problematic dealings behind the scenes, we build bubbles in the form of suburbs, liberal arts colleges, and single-minded neighborhoods where everyone works towards the same dream. We broadcast our mentality on social media and expect the best for our futures and hope that history will not repeat itself for the worst, just as we would not anticipate a right wing party winning in 2017. At least, these were my inclinations, as well as those of my entourage in Turkey. We did not anticipate the outcome of the Turkish Constitutional Referendum last Sunday--a major shift that significantly expanded the power of the executive branch.
War and bloodshed rarely offer solutions. The stories of the two world wars, the civilian casualties from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, among many others, will paint you a picture more vivid than I can. All of these conflicts occurred because groups of human beings dehumanized each other. They decided that another group’s culture, lives, and futures were less valuable than their own. Üsküdar’s population is no different than I am, but because we walk along party lines, we seem so vastly unalike, further polarizing our nation.