(The Hamilton Spectator – Saturday, November 7, 2015)
ISTANBUL, TURKEY ✦ This starts in Hamilton where I was driving to my local polling station amidst dead leaves blowing everywhere, as hard as the winds of political change.
It was the first time in 14 years I was around in the fall to see the trees lose their lifeblood, a moment in time, even as we all, after our simple X on a paper put in a cardboard box, watched change blow into Ottawa.
In fact, I was brought to Hamilton from my African home for something besides the recent federal vote, to speak to some writers about being “Surprised by the Joy of Journalism.” Because this too is a story, my own story, of how I once fell into this old, venerable trade with about as much planning as a man who turns a corner and falls down a manhole.
So it was after this voting and sharing when I flew back through Istanbul to see another election, the fourth in 20 months for Turks, a snap election called by the president who, in June, had lost his majority.
To get it back, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who critics call a devolving megalomaniac, has been easing his country into a George Orwell novel: meddling in the courts, covering corruption, and making strange manoeuvres of grandiosity.
Since June, about 1,000 Turks have perished in a surge of violent nationalism, this in what was once the poster-child of Muslim democracy.
Indeed, if I was a Turkish journalist, I could share on being “Surprised by the Jails of Journalism,” because, just as I landed, riot police were crashing the doors of opposition newspapers now shut down, along with broadcasters blacked out while they were live on-air.
Along with jailed journalists, other Turks are being charged these days with the acrimonious crime of “insulting the president,” including two boys, 12 and 13, after they unwittingly tore an Erdogan poster off a billboard to sell for scrap.
It’s no surprise, then, that one survey shows two in three Turks now fear their president, about the same ratio who reportedly believe that both Erdogan and ISIL are responsible for the October terror bombing that killed more than 100, mostly Kurdish peace marchers, in Ankara.
A soft-spoken silk weaver in the Istiklal district told me that Erdogan is “a crazy man,” while an Armenian jeweller in this city’s legendary Grand Bazaar told me the president is “poison.” This is the word from the streets of Istanbul, where Erdogan was once mayor.
Erdogan, meanwhile, lives with his own fears of poison, so he’s building an intricate food-testing lab in his audacious 1,150-room palace, his symbol of a return to Ottoman glory.
You’d be forgiven for imagining that all this would lead Turkish voters to make different choices, but this is the Middle East, remember. Like in Africa, citizens know civil war can result from choosing change, and strongmen can be preferred to deal with the outside world, in Turkey’s case threats from neighbouring Iraq and the basket-case of Syria.
So after Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party dropped the hint that if their majority was not restored, then the electorate could just try it all again in 2016, last Sunday Turks indeed voted the president back with that majority.
By then I was out of this strange democracy of masochism.
Then again, when seeing some of its faces up-close you can’t help but wonder if Turks actually desire something besides pain, something else, something more. Surely they want what anyone wants: a chance at it, at life, the good life or even the fair life, peace and security for loved ones, education for the children, stable work, a future with at least some assurance and hope.
How this scared and troubled patch of earth will get these blessings – and they are blessings – remains a mystery. Even as it remains to be seen how this once proud and stable secular republic will stave off the full-blown religious and political crises of the region.
What I do know is that when you blow in and out of such a place, with a Canadian passport in your back pocket, (because of dumb luck more than your own deservingness), you’re never really left the same.