The last time I spoke to you was in Beirut, a land of extremes colliding and converging in one very small and highly disputed country called Lebanon. The hangover of the Civil War lingers while a new one has effectively commenced with the involvement of Hezbollah supporting Assad’s regime in Syria. Syrians spill into the country in huge numbers and receive little or no support to sustain themselves, some of them, through sheer desperation, return back to their homes to die with some kind of pride if they have to or reassemble their homes from the rubble-towns of Aleppo and Homs. I ended up in Istanbul, living in a country with the second highest number of Syrian refugees in the world – stuck in a kind of purgatory or Araf (Turkish for purgatory but this is also a very popular nightclub near Taksim), trying to find jobs or escape the country. A different war seemed to be fought with different weapons, tear gas and rubber bullets on the sokaklar of Istanbul. These were protests against an increasingly autocratic regime led by Erdogan and his cronies. Pork-barrel politics is pervasive and the smell of bacon (i.e. police brutality) permeated the streets. My first weekend was marked by persistent late night protesting, the swelling crowds of protestors and non-protestors on Istiklal Street were sprayed with water cannons and shot with tear gas. I learnt to wear swimming goggles on nights out and keep a spray of bicarbonate soda in case I got caught up in the fray. The government introduced draconian Internet Legislation, a 14-year-old boy submitted to his 9-month coma after getting fatally struck with a tear gas canister, both events prompted the use of the TOMA cars again (Tanks effectively) to resist the restive populace of Istanbul. I found myself fascinated by the indifference of a lot of people, eating in fancy restaurants called ‘Mona’ and ‘Sur Balik’ in Cihangir – the upper-echelons of society would be a little unsettled by the whiff of tear-gas while eating their lobsters while the rage of the Kurds, LGBT’s, Kemalists and anyone else that didn’t like the government stood in front of the fully armored police vehicles. I found myself talking to people within side-streets trying to avoid the cross-fire, using my home as a safe-haven in an attempt to get some normality in our lives. Some people were just bored by it all, some were clearly disillusioned by the government and some had very strong words to say – residents of Cihangir would tell the police to ‘go away’ and other hardcore protestors would continue to set off pyrotechnics in a disorganized and reckless manner. Protests, road blocks, fire and tear gas became a way of life in Istanbul. Some romantics likened to the riots in Paris in the sixties. Essentially, nothing changed given the results of local elections last week. This proved the trigger-happy government could win again, fraudulently or not, there is a clear margin of AKP supporters in Turkey.
I decided to fully integrate myself in Turkish society by taking an intensive language course. I thought I might be able to use Arabic and Turkish especially in journalism and with NGO’s working with Syrians. I spent two months within the little cafes of Cihangir in Istanbul, sipping tea and jogging around the Bosphorous every evening, writing for obscure corporate publications and pursuing my fiction-writing endeavours. I haven’t written off journalism as a career in spite of the perils of writing honestly in countries such as Turkey. I just couldn’t stand the stench of sleaze in politics to be covering this in my work. I have been preparing myself for a career with the displaced, not commenting on the social order of a society with a politician that pretends to father its citizens, taking away Twitter and Youtube to censor any criticism. This is not democracy, but then again, it was Churchhill that said this was ‘the worst form of government’.
I traversed the vast countryside of the Anatolian continent to get to Antakya in the Hatay province. I sit in a warmer climate with the scent of orange blossoms and jasmine, rather than tear gas. But a real war lurks a few miles across the border, bearded men shop in local hunting stores while Arabic is spoken just as frequently as Turkish, mingling the languages together into some kind of new Ottoman tongue. I tell my landlady, a catholic German nun that ‘I write’. She introduces me to Francesca Borri in the neighbouring courtyard festooned with laundry on mezzanine stairs and distinctly Mediterranean flora and fauna. She wears thick glasses and looks at me with an intense stare as if she had been hiding in a literary cave. She is the only journalist that goes into Syria nowadays and covers the tragedy of Aleppo. All the others have fled, been kidnapped or killed. We lament the loss of Syria, journalists and plan ahead.