It was 6:30 in the morning. I was having börek and Turkish tea, one sip a slice, for breakfast. The restaurant, Börekçizade, was located in Istanbul’s Kasımpaşa neighborhood where I live. It is the place where Turkey’s incumbent president Tayyip Erdoğan was born, although his parents had come here from the Black Sea region. Many in the neighborhood seem to like him as I see his framed picture hung on walls in barbershops and restaurants and printed on the rear glass of cars parked on the streets that I wander. However, he has opponents too. My Turkish roommate, a thirty-two-year-old lesbian, and her thirty-nine-year-old female friend hate him and adore the republic’s founder Mustafa Kemal.
The two tea mugs in the house have Kemal’s picture along with his quotes in Turkish printed on them. Kemal, although immensely popular on the European side of Istanbul, does not have many pictures in Kasımpaşa, which is apparently Erdoğan’s political stronghold. My roommate and her friend have their reasons for hating Erdoğan.
“Because of him, wine and beer are very expensive now,” they complain. He also holds conservative views on many social issues and has used his unbridled power to impose them on society, which they loathe. However, their liberalism and moral outrage are selective. They believe in individual freedom about the things that matter to them. Their broadmindedness vanishes into thin air and Turkish nationalism overpowers when issues like the Kurdish problem come into the conversation. There is a stark denial of the existence of the issue at all.
Regardless of her lifestyle, my roommate has an ornamental pendant with the names of Allah and the Prophet (PBUH) dangling by the kitchen cupboard handle. The kitten that we rescued from the street jumps at the pendant from time to time. The names were not enough for my roommate. Perhaps she needed something bigger in the house to remind her of her faith. Recently she bought a framed print of the famed Quranic verse Ayatul Kursi and hung it on the front wall of my room. The frame reminded me of my teen years when I used to recite it three or seven times, depending on the version one followed. This was always before going to bed at night mostly due to the fear of darkness. The popular belief was that it shielded you against evil. We did not know then that evil was our mind—the dark side of the psyche. It surely calmed and reassured the anxious mind that some giant mind was going to take care of everything.
My friend has an empirical mind. He believes in science and reason but at that moment there was something in his very existence, in his soul and his subconscious that came to the fore; perhaps a part of himself acknowledging the mystical
My roommate and her friend have a somewhat similar belief in reciting the same Quranic verse. My common experiences and memories with them bring us closer culturally. That has been something very difficult to experience in the United States where I have lived for nine years. This shows that religion, whether one likes to acknowledge its power or not, plays an important role in our identity and how we relate to others. But let’s not be mistaken that religion always remains – at least at the level of a state – this force of solidarity, because it does not. Geopolitical, economic and power interests of nations override the unified feeling, almost always. As realists amongst international relations theorists argue, there are no friends but interests.
My roommate’s beliefs demonstrate that Islam is not a monolithic Salafi or Wahabi religion the way it is projected in the West. In her interpretation, alcohol, homosexuality and Islam are perfectly compatible. She reminds me of Philip Slater‘s idea in his book The Pursuit of Loneliness, that “An individual, like a group, is a motley collection of ambivalent feelings, contradictory needs and values, and antithetical ideas. He is not, and can not be, a monolithic totality, and the modern effort to bring this myth to life is not only delusional and ridiculous, but also acutely destructive, both to the individual and to his society.” Are my roommate and her friend the majority in Turkey and in the Islamic world? No, they are surely not, but it is still a reality that the Islamic world is not a monolith but a complex whole of antithetical ideas and beliefs.
My mind wanders to another friend from the southeast of Turkey who once spoke of his complex inner struggles. He was on a flight from Austria to Istanbul and on the way, there was severe turbulence for ten to fifteen minutes. He believed the plane was going to crash and he was going to die. As my friend is a poet and an atheist, he vowed, “I will not believe in you even if this plane crashes and I die right now.” He was not sure who he was addressing, but he knew he was trying to prove, one last time perhaps, that he didn’t believe in God. However, after the situation normalised, he said, “I thought about who I was addressing. It was quite a paradox.” That is plausibly the sort of “motley collection of ambivalent feelings, contradictory needs and values, and antithetical ideas” that, as Slater contends, constitutes an individual. My friend has an empirical mind. He believes in science and reason but at that moment there was something in his very existence, in his soul and his subconscious that came to the fore; perhaps a part of himself acknowledging the mystical. This, of course, does not invalidate the value of his desperately empirical mind, but hidden somewhere in his five-foot existence was another perfectly valid antithetical idea that needed to be heard.
“Pakistan çok güzel” (Pakistan is very good/beautiful), Yuksel continued. He even said that he would love to go there because there are many problems in Turkey. This suggested he had no idea what Pakistan is like, or he would not have said such a thing. But it makes sense because “the grass is always greener on the other side”
Anyways, back in the restaurant, as I was taking turns between eating and sipping, I was also occasionally turning my eyes to the pages of Friedrich Nietzsche’s God is Dead on the table. While I was trying to comprehend too deep and dry a text for a sleep-deprived early morning brain, in the background a mixture of three sounds was distracting me: Erdogan’s speech on the TV screen, raindrops splashing on the restaurant’s roof and “Assalamu Alaikum” (“peace be with you,” the greeting of Muslims) that every customer offered to the ones inside as they entered the restaurant. The third and last one was a familiar sound that had my mind wander numerous places in the past where I had heard it.
One of the customers caught my eye because of his familiar and friendly face. Let’s call him Yuksel. I had met him before, but we had never talked beyond saying “Hi! how are you?” But the very first time I saw him, he seemed genuinely friendly and kind. He gave an aura of a saint.
This time we talked for a little while. He asked me where I was from, and I said, “Pakistan.” He was quite pleased to hear that. “Pakistan and Turkey brothers,” he said while pressing his index fingers against each other to show how strong the bond between the two countries is. That has been a common response from many people here, whenever I have introduced myself as a Pakistani. Although I have a problem with both Turkey and Pakistan’s politics, especially the growing authoritarianism and with the way they treat minorities, I am happy to embrace the positive experience I receive as a Pakistani and as a cultural Muslim here, because why not! Besides having a strong cultural and religious bond, Turkey and Pakistan have developed ties on geostrategic and military fronts too. Turkey has sold Anka UAV (unmanned aerial vehicles) to Pakistan—a new technology that has been quite effective in the war against the Kurdish militia groups in Turkey’s southeast and parts of Syria. It was perhaps Turkey’s provision of this technology to Azerbaijan last year that might have turned the tables in the war with Armenia on the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh territory.
“Pakistan çok güzel” (Pakistan is very good/beautiful), Yuksel continued. He even said that he would love to go there because there are many problems in Turkey. This suggested he had no idea what Pakistan is like, or he would not have said such a thing. But it makes sense because “the grass is always greener on the other side,” as the clichéd saying goes. Then he said, “I like Pakistanis but I don’t like Afghans and Syrians” – or Suriyens, as the Turks say. “Çok problem (big problem),” he complained.
“Why don’t you like them?” I asked. He did not like Afghans because there are too many and they fight, as his fighting arms and fists position suggested. He also thought there were too many Syrians. The numbers he jotted on a piece of paper were in millions, which were far from reality.
There are two real reasons why he did not like Syrians. First, they are his rivals at work. Yuksel collects recyclables and sells them. Both Syrians and Afghans have occupied that market by the thousands. To the Turks, this monopoly is unacceptable, both economically and politically. The animosity sometimes leads to clashes with these migrants, often involving golf sticks and doner knives. The Turks also don’t like Syrians because, as many I have spoken to here have told me, the AKP government pays more attention to the needs of the Syrians for political reasons than its people. This resentment is found more in the working class than in business owners who need cheap labour. They are upset and angry about it.
As it happens to most minds untrained in logic, Yuksel changed topics quickly and without any reason. He switched to America and Israel rather suddenly: “çok çok problem,” he said. He wanted to shoot them all by positioning his hands and arms as if he was holding an actual AK-47. “Finish,” he flew his hand perpendicularly in the air across his chest. As he was gesturing his intent, we heard the azaan (call to prayer) from the nearby mosque. The azaan ended, but our conversation continued. Yuksel, who was impressed by my name for religious reasons, as he thought it to be “Islam” rather than “Aslam” and had also used the religious term “mashallah” in our conversation, did not bother to go to the mosque. I had my reason to remain seated, as I had Nietzsche’s God is Dead in my hands. What was his reason, I wondered?
I asked him what he thought of Erdoğan as the speech lasted for a while. He hated him as well, due to the deteriorating economic situation. Yuksel was forty-two years old and had come to Istanbul from Ankara when he was twelve. He was a man of animals. When I asked where he lived, he picked up a pen and another piece of paper and began drawing, because he could not describe it in English. I was curious and paid close attention while he put the pen to paper. He drew a tree and then wrote “DOG” in English under the tree branches with the number twelve under the word. At the root of the tree, he drew a container that almost looked like a bed-coffin and drew a man in a sleeping position inside it. The man was him. Dead or alive? It was anyone’s guess. That was the description of his “ev” or home for me. “There are seven dogs left after the demise of five,” he said. Besides dogs, he had thirty cats and many birds around his makeshift residence. Yuksel is not the only homeless person I have seen in Istanbul during my long walks wandering the city streets. Homelessness seems to be a problem in the making, as people are experiencing a period of intolerable financial hardship.
Yuksel’s drawing touched me on many levels, as it bared his entire existence on a piece of paper with a few strokes of a pen. It touched me deeply because it was so tragic. How can a man sleep under a tree in this cold, rainy and snowy weather, I wondered. It rained for most of January. Yuksel did not have a wife and children.
“Madam çok çok çok problem,” he said, showing his male bias toward women. It is good to be alone, he believed. “Insanlar problem” (humans are a problem) and “haiwan no problem” (animals are not a problem). “Haiwan çok güzel” (animals are very good). His solitary nature reminded me of Charles Bukowski who said, “I don’t hate people… I just feel better when they’re not around.”
But despite his love for solitude, Yuksel appeared to enjoy talking to me. He believed in Islam but did not seem to practice it. Perhaps, as Slater’s quote demonstrates, he had contradictory needs and values too.