Choo’s Turkey — paradise lost?
“What trysts for you now, sad Trades? O where do the wakes go when the ships long since are hull-down and half-seas-over? The pier-haunting girls have died inland, whose beaus, taut in canvas, bubbled lead-weighted into the ooze, past the weeping porpoise.”
— Harry Brown, “Paradise Street”
My rotund friend Choo-Choo (aka Jay Rumph) would dearly love to take at least one more trip to his beloved Turkey. So would my wife Doris and I. The growing infirmities of age and other health-related issues make such a trip improbable, though. Improbable, but perhaps not impossible. Man’s reach (woman’s too) must exceed his or her grasp, else what are the heavens for?
Choo, a retired Charleston County school teacher, was once our across-the-street neighbor on James Island. He’s been a close friend for many years. It was partly at our urging that he made one of his early trips to Turkey. He enjoyed it so much that he built a pension there, on beautiful Lake Egirdir where, until a few years ago, he’d spend his summers and early falls. We visited him at the pension on two of our many trips to Turkey.
Choo had a driver he called “Dusty.” (He called him that because Dusty looked a lot like the actor Dustin Hoffman.) Dusty had a car that burned both natural gas and gasoline. A simple toggle switch on the dashboard let him change from one to the other. Stations spread across Turkey (and this was years ago) pumped both. Makes you wonder why we didn’t invest some of those stimulus billions ramping up our service stations that way, doesn’t it? Particularly now that we are up to our eyeballs in natural gas.
Choo and his pension were written up in Istanbul papers and recommended in travel guides. And what if recorded calls to prayer from a nearby mosque woke his European pensioners (forgive me) at what many must have considered a most ungodly hour? You could say that only added to the charm and exotic nature of a stay at Pension Choo-Choo.
Within easy walking distance (when walking for us was easy) were excellent restaurants and cabaret-style bars where, not infrequently, Choo would shimmy and shake the night away, looking for all the world like Zero Mostel in Fiddler on the Roof. (Some of you must remember Zero Mostel.)
Oh, he had a navy too — the S.S. Choo-Choo. It was a small outboard motorboat he used for fishing and for relaxing outings on the lake.
We learned a lot about small town Turkish life on our stays with Choo. He took me (Doris demurred) to a “cutting” once. It’s a circumcision ceremony performed on boys at or near puberty and is customarily followed by a feast for the scores of family and guests who attend as witnesses. Afterwards, the “cuttee,” crowned and dressed entirely in white, is driven all over town in an open, flower bedecked convertible. Horns blare, people cheer and a good time is had by all. Even, presumably, by the star of the show.
Choo was immensely popular in his small Turkish town. He sponsored a youth soccer team, and were it legal for him to do so, I think he could have run for mayor and been elected.
All that is past, and the Turkey we loved is not the Turkey that is evolving now. The pictures of protesters manning the barricades in Istanbul illustrate, I think, the inherent incompatibility of an Islamist-rooted party with a secular, free, and Western-oriented government.
The secular republic proclaimed by Mustafa Kemal Attatuk in 1923, following the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, is no more.
Preserved solely by the iron will of Attaturk while he lived, and by the Turkish army following his death in 1938, it began to change a decade ago with the rise of the Islamist Justice and Development Party led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the current prime minister. Riding the crest of a strong economy, an economy buoyed largely by external investment, it is steadily strengthening its control of Turkish life. It has emasculated the army, sacking and/or imprisoning a score or more of senior generals. It has cowed and silenced the press. It has shown itself to be dismissive of judicial restraint.
The demonstrations in Istanbul, triggered by Erdogan’s plan to have a shopping mall and barracks built on a public park near the city’s commercial hub, Taksim Square, have spread to cities across Turkey. Some of them have turned violent. Hundreds of people have been injured and few have died. Thousands have been arrested.
Anti-Erdogan sentiment already had been rising in urban areas, following his decree to limit the promotion and sale of alcoholic drinks. (One of the rules he seeks to impose is to forbid restaurants from serving drinks after 10 p.m. — the hour when many urban Turks choose to sit down to dine.
Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party seems to enjoy the support of roughly half of voting age Turks, though with the media silenced no one knows for sure. What is evident is that much of that support is from the segment of population we in America now call, condescendingly, the “low information” people. The educated, the city dwellers, and increasingly the young in Turkey seem to be on the other side.
How will it all end?
Will it be paradise lost, or paradise regained?
R.L. Schreadley is a former Post and Courier executive editor.