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e-Postcard from bizarre Turkey 26th June 2003 Just what is Turkey about? A bridge between east and west; where Asia meets Europe? Home of ancient civilisations, exotic cultures, dramatic landscapes? Yawn! I’m sorry but I’m not prepared to turn these e-Postcards into anything so serious. This isn’t a bloody Michelin Guide, or at least if it is then I hope it will be thin and gorgeous. I know what you really want is the sordid details of my two weeks trek. Even for me as a budding architectural ______ (please complete the gap at your leisure) there really comes a point at which I have had enough of Greek and Roman temples, impressive as they are. If I really wanted to look at ancient ruins then there’s always the photo of me and a few friends after a big night out. The truth is that whilst Turkey is on the surface like a glossy holiday brochure full of warm and reassuring images, in reality it is SERIOUSY BIZARRE. Even more eccentric than Britain (ok, only just). No wonder I had so much fun there. Sometimes in Turkey its hard to know whether it is a spangly modern state or just a banana republic without bananas (perhaps it should be known as a hazelnut republic as over half the world’s hazelnuts come from there?). For example, what’s all this about the personality cult of this guy Attaturk? Ok he was a cool dude who founded the country in the 1920s as a democratic republic, got rid of that silly Arabic writing so we can now all read road signs and banned the wearing of the Fez (probably his greatest achievement. I mean a funny red hat is so passé). But does he really need to be worshiped? It is still an offence to say or write anything bad about him even though he’s been dead for 50 years. Can you imagine in Britain if it was declared illegal to say anything nasty about President Blair or Queen Betty? People would have absolutely nothing to talk about and tabloid newspapers would just have to print blank pages. Well, in perhaps a brave step – and if moustachioed Turkish soldiers come breaking down my door I’ve only got myself to blame – I’m prepared to say on record that ATTATURK WAS REALLY RATHER AVERAGE and his facial hair an offence against good taste. If he’d been alive today he would have been arrested by the Fashion Police and tried in The Hague by the International Hair Crimes Tribunal. His mausoleum at Anit Kabir, Ankara, is a monstrous Stalinist structure totally out of keeping with what’s meant to be a modern country. Its museum gives such a distorted view of Turkish history that you get the impression that the Armenian Massacres, a genocide by the Turkish army of over a million people, was actually all about the Armenians massacring themselves. There’s more fiction involved in the museum than a Harry Potter novel, but with fewer lucrative film rights as massacres are a bit of a dodgy subject matter for a children’s film. Perhaps though I can see just a few reasons just why Attaturk and his successors have been so keen to run a tight ship in Turkey as the last dynasty, the Sultans, had a pretty torrid time. There were in total 109 Sultans of the Ottoman Empire over many centuries of which only 34 died a natural death. As you’ve probably guessed the others met sticky ends and that always makes fun reading. Three were forcibly starved to death. Eight died in battle at the hands of enemy. Twelve were imprisoned until their dying days. Twelve were abducted and never seen again. Eighteen were mutilated or – and don’t get too screamish now – had their eyes gouged out. The final twenty two faced more memorable ends and were either suffocated, strangled, stabbed, or thrown from a great height from the walls of the castle. Now given that you were elected into the post of Sultan, and the fact that the chances of surviving to a ripe old age were practically zilch, those guys who applied to be Sultan must have been pretty bloody stupid. No wonder the Ottoman Empire was in decline for centuries. It’s surprising it lasted as long as it did. What about the economy? If you travel to Turkey you must bear in mind that there is something really rather scary about the currency. Now don’t get me wrong, the banknotes are beautifully printed and come in a variety of colours despite having a limited number of worthies featured on them. Well actually only one face appears, Attaturk (Blessed is He). No the problem with the money is the absurd figures involved. Take, for example, the cost of a visit to the toilet. No change from 250,000 Lira. Or a delicious lunch for a mere 8,000,000 Lira. You may well start off the morning as a millionaire but a few too many visits to the loo and – oops – you’ve blown the lot. Between 1990 and 2000 the cumulative inflation in Turkey was 21,544%. That’s a VERY BIG number. The only major growth in employment must have been shop assistants changing the prices on goods every day. In really bad periods they’d have to increase prices before their morning coffee break and again after lunch. To use a technical term the Turkish economy is FUCKED (Floundering Under Continued Keynesian Excess Demand) and it doesn’t help that nobody is visiting this beautiful country at the moment. Why can this be? Maybe because (a) it is a Muslim country and may be invaded at any moment by NATO – although as Turkey is a member of NATO it would have to invade itself which may be a little difficult (b) after Wales, it could be the next country to be declared part of the ‘Axis of Evil’ (c) it has some jolly good football teams who – as usual – are beating the British at their own sport (d) most Americans believe Turkey is in the Middle East – but then again when questioned in a recent survey many Americans thought that Britain was in the Middle East. Just in case you are not sure of Britain’s location, it is in the middle of the continent of Britannia which is located just to the east of New York and absolutely nowhere even close to Europe. What’s day to day life like in Turkey? In the tiny village of Selcuk, just outside the ancient Roman city of Ephasus, I decided it was time for some personal services. Please don’t get me wrong, I was not seeking the services of a sex worker although I read recently – prepare for 1st useless fact – that 33% of Turkish men have their first sexual encounter in a Bordello (the percentage listing ‘behind the garden shed’ has not been recorded). No, my ‘servicing’ was to involve a good pounding at the Hamam, or Turkish Bath. There is something vaguely silly about sitting on a hot marble slab and having a fully grown man cover you in soap suds and wash you down with a giant sponge. It was like walking through a car wash. Would I be waxed and blown as well? The masseur reminded me of Omar Sheriff, a prodigiously hairy man sporting a bushy moustache which semi covered his permanent scowl. Time for the 2nd and 3rd useless facts: 62% of Turkish men have moustaches and 19% have beards. Figures for Turkish women are not available but I reckon the figure for facial hair to be at least 10%, not always full beards though. Looking across the street at a group of Turkish men they appear to be a cross between extras from ‘Saturday Night Fever’ and an out-take from a Village People pop video. Not a pretty sight. Back to Omar; after soaping and washing my bedraggled body he proceeded to administer such a fierce massage that my joints cracked. Or it might have been that they broke. I think he rather liked his job: punishing the infidels, declaring jihad on western bodies. I was eventually allowed time to relax and after a cup of tea (how civilised that the English abroad are looked after so well) he came out with the unforgettable question “you want to come upstairs for an EXTRA massage?”. With the Village People video in mind I quickly made my excuses – dinner in the oven - wife about to give birth - must get back to my spacecraft – and scurried away to let my poor body recover. Well, until a few hours later when I succumbed to the joys of a barber’s wet shave. This took quite a lot of bottle, to sit in a chair at the mercy of a man (with a moustache) brandishing a cut throat razor. After all I’d seen the film ‘Sweeney Todd’ three times and had no wish to become meat for a Turkish kebab. I all started off well although perhaps clipping my nasal hair was a little more intimate than I excepted from a complete stranger. Then he lit a rag and brought the flaming cloth towards me. Were my days numbered? Would this be the last e-Postcard? No, much to my surprise I was having the hairs on my ears burnt off. It was a particular surprise as I didn’t think that I’d got any hairs on my ears. I got up to leave, handed across about three trillion Lira and counted myself lucky that I hadn’t opted for the complete package which would probably involved cleaning my belly button and a short sharp blast of colonic irrigation. What a strange place Turkey is; bizarre - but never a dull moment for the adventurous traveller. I’m already growing a moustache. Tony visited Turkey in June 2003. Expect a further e-Postcard from Bulgaria before he returns to Australia at the end of the month. ‘Empires of Iron’, the story of the overland expedition from Manchester to Manchuria along the Trans-Siberian Railway, will be published later in the year.
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