April 07, 2006

Turkish Surprise

ISTANBUL – Before heading out on my next self-selected assignment I met my old friend Sean LaFreniere in Istanbul. He’s in Denmark getting his Masters in Architecture at the Royal Academy. I urged him to come out and visit me in the East. He had never left the comfort zone of Western Civilization and had a hard time believing me when I told him the Islamic East is a far more interesting – and pleasant – place to visit than Western Europe. But he was intrigued all the same and said he looked forward to hanging out with Turks instead of Danes for a change.

“Be careful out there!” his Danish friends said, as though Turkey were teeming with dragons, cannibals, or cartoon-hating Islamist fanatics who wanted to kill him. “Isn’t it dangerous?” one of his professors said. “Don’t let anyone know you’re American or living in Denmark!”

Sigh. Istanbul is in all liklihood safer than Copenhagen. But you just can’t convince some people.

Sean’s plane was a day late due to a KLM Airlines snafu, and he arrived exhausted and grumpy. “I need a drink,” he said. “Is it even possible to get a drink in this country?”

“This is Turkey!” I said. “You can get a drink in even the smallest mountain village in Anatolia.” I’ve only been to one Muslim country that bans alcohol, and that was Libya. It’s available most other places.

It does not cease to amaze me how much the Iranian mullahs and the deviant Arabian Wahhabis have managed to convince Westerners that their reactionary ideologies are somehow mainstream and normal in the Middle East. The hard-line booze-banning and jihad-raving fanatics are marginal and extreme almost everywhere outside a few strongholds.

“Come on, Sean,” I said. “Let’s get you a drink.”

We went restaurant and bar-hopping in Beyoglu, the fashionable and cosmopolitan core of Istanbul.

Beyoglu at Night 2.jpg

We found a restaurant in a brick and stone building that was surely older than our own country.

“Do you have any, um, alcohol?” Sean said sheepishly to the waiter.

The waiter blinked. “Of course,” he said, and shook his head slightly.

“Okay,” Sean said and smiled with mild embarrassment.

I don’t mean to poke fun at my friend here. It’s in large part the media’s fault that Westerners have peculiar ideas about what Muslim countries are actually like. The Middle East section of major newspapers might as well be renamed When Muslims Behave Badly. When shit blows up, it makes the news. The slogans of lunatic Hamas-bots in Palestine make the news. When the Syrian Baath bussed in a rent-a-mob from Damascus to torch the Danish embassy in Beirut, that made the news.

Journalists don’t deliberately try to make the Middle East look crazier, more dangerous, and more reactionary than it really is. Suicide bombers are genuinely more newsworthy than the nightlife scene in Istanbul. Saudi Arabia’s weird laws rightfully get more attention than the lack of such weirdness in Turkey, Lebanon, the UAE, Tunisia, Morocco, and other reasonable Muslim-majority countries. The normal qualities of the Middle East are rarely documented about outside the travel writing genre. The fact that you can legally get drunk in Istanbul, Cairo, Beirut, Ramallah, Amman, Casablanca, Tunis, Dubai, etc., is only remarkable to people who have never been to those places.

Beyoglu at Night.jpg

Sean and I ate our steaks, drank our wine, and moved on to a nightclub that pumped trance and rave music through its outdoor speakers. We found a table. Almost everyone in the place likewise sat at a table. Very few people got up and danced. The club had the feel of a Middle School sock hop where everyone was too shy to get out there.

Some people did dance, though, and Sean noticed what was odd before I did.

“Look,” he said. “Men are dancing together. Women are dancing together.”

He was right. The club was segregated by gender. Men and women sat together. But they didn’t dance together. Men danced only with other men. Women danced only with other women.

It wasn’t a gay club. It was an Islamic club where too much contact between unmarried singles was to be avoided. You wouldn’t think at first glance to find that kind of conservatism inside. None of the women were veiled. None wore a headscarf over their hair. They wore tight pants, knee-high boots, and looked, well, hot for the most part. The club was fully modern in every way except for the segregation on the dance floor.

“This country sure is conservative,” Sean said.

“Wait,” I said. “Don’t judge an entire culture by the first place you pop into. Let’s move to another club.”

We moved to another club. Since we didn’t know where to go, we just walked into places at random. That, we would later find out, was a mistake.

Our second club was a metal-head bar. It was almost all men in there. They wore Motley Crue and Metallica t-shirts. Long stringy hair, oversized moustaches, and jailhouse tats were the norm. A live band played on the stage. Young hard rocking Turks literally banged their heads to the guitars. No wonder there weren’t many women inside.

“Do you want to get a beer?” Sean said.

“I’m happy to see this place exists in Istanbul,” I said and laughed. “But it isn’t our scene.”

So we moved on again.

We found a place above a restaurant that featured live Turkish folk music, exotic songs from the Eastern mountain towns of Anatolia. Dashing young urbanized men and women, most of whom were probably secular, danced together in a circle in the center of the room. The dance was complicated, unpredictable, and involved the twirling of unfolded napkins from the tables. Everyone knew the steps. It looked fun. I would have liked to join in, but this entertainment was clearly only for Turks. As liberal, modern, and secular as Istanbul may be, the people have not forgotten who they are or where they came from.

Sean and I were getting woozy from booze, but we were on vacation and still only blocks from our hotel. We needed to find at least one other scene. So far each place we had been to was radically different from all the others.

We walked. A tout stood in front of a nightclub and beckoned us in.

“Is this a good place?” I said.

“It’s a great place!” the tout said. “And there isn’t a cover charge.”

“Okay,” Sean said. “Let’s check it out.”

We went in and checked it out. Loud techno music pulsed from the speakers. Men and women sat together at the bar and at tables. A dance floor was lit up on the mezzanine bathed in pink light. Sean and I walked toward it.

“Sit here, sit here,” a waiter said and pushed us toward a table.

“We want to go up there,” I said.

“No, please, sit here,” he said.

Okay, I thought. Whatever. So we sat.

“What would you like to drink?” he said.

“I’ll have a beer,” I said.

“Make that two,” Sean said.

The waiter brought us two beers, even though we didn’t specify which kind we wanted. Who knew what kind they had? It didn’t matter.

Two young women abruptly sat at our table without asking, one on my right and one on Sean’s left.

Oh, I thought. We’re in one of those places. There was no indication on the outside, unless we missed it.

“Hello,” said the girl on my right. “Buy me a drink?”

What the hell, I thought. I knew what kind of place we were in, and I knew that it could mean trouble. But I was curious at the same time. I had never been in a prostitute bar before. I wanted to play it out for a few minutes just to see how it goes. What’s the procedure? How do these places work anyway?

“Sure,” I said. “I’ll buy you a drink.” I looked at my watch. We couldn’t stay more than five minutes. I would have to think of a way to get out of there without being rude.

The waiter came back. The two girls ordered two beers. The waiter brought the two beers. Now it was me, Sean, and two hookers from wherever hookers in Turkey come from. I doubted they were actually locals, but it was impossible to tell just by looking at them. Turkish is an ethnicity, not a race. The facial features and skin tones of Turks are all over the gene map.

“Where are you from?” said the girl to my right.

“United States,” I said.

“Where?” she said.

“America,” I said. “Where are you from?”

“Russia,” she said.

“Ah,” I said. What the hell was I supposed to say?

Sean abruptly stood up. “We have to get out of here now,” he said.

Of course we had to get out of there. But I wanted to finish my beer. What’s the worst that could happen if we only stayed for five minutes?

I summoned the waiter and paid him while Sean stood there tapping his foot and craning his head toward the door. The bill came to 20 dollars. I thought Sean was over-reacting. We weren’t being charged for the women.

He all but ran toward the front door.

“Excuse me,” I said to the Russian ladies. “I need to go with my friend.”

On my way past the bar I noticed a distinctively male looking person wearing lipstick and a dress.

Sean bolted into the street. I followed him out.

“Do you know what that place is?” he said.

I had an idea.

“Tell me,” I said. “Tell me it’s not what I’m thinking.”

“It’s a she-male hooker bar.”

“Are you sure?” I said.

“When the girl on my left asked me where I was from, it was obvious she was a man.”

We laughed and called it a night.

“You still think this country is uptight and conservative?” I said.

“It’s not what I expected at all.”

“The girl to my right made an awfully convincing woman,” I said. “It’s a good thing I wasn’t looking to pick up a prostitute. That could have been ugly.”

What amazes me most is that this fine upstanding establishment hired a guy to pull random tourists in off the street. What are the odds that two Americans who happen to be walking by are looking for prostitutes at that particular moment? We weren’t in a red light district. We were downtown. And what are the odds that two random Americans who are looking for prostitutes are looking for she-males? Pretty damn low, I should say. When you’ve got that kind of business model, it’s probably best to let customers come to you.

Sean hadn’t yet spent eight hours of his life in a Muslim country. Yet already he found himself, by sheer chance, inside a place more sexually decadent than anywhere he had ever been in the U.S. or Europe.

The East is full of surprises. The East as portrayed in the media – the East of burkhas, prohibition, jihad, and camels – is a cartoon.

Post-script: I didn’t go to Turkey to work. I went to Turkey for fun and to see my friend Sean. But if you enjoy reading these posts and decide to hit the tip jar, I promise not to get mad.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at April 7, 2006 06:53 PM
Comments

OMG...Michael getting hit on by a she-man...I'am just imagining the look on your friends face, when he figured that out, and jumped up proclaiming "we have to get out of here"...

Posted by: Cathy at April 7, 2006 08:37 PM

The East as portrayed in the media – the East of burkhas, prohibition, jihad, and camels – is a cartoon.

I guess that depends what media you consume. I personally find it inconceivable that someone could find surprising some of the things that you seem to expect your readers to be surprised by. Exactly what are these people reading and watching?

Perhaps it is more that people who have not travelled extensively outside the United States lack the background to process and contextualize what they see and hear from topical news stories.

Posted by: J.B.S. at April 7, 2006 10:24 PM

JBS: I personally find it inconceivable that someone could find surprising some of the things that you seem to expect your readers to be surprised by.

I don't expect my readers to be surprised. My readers are more sophisticated than average Americans.

Most people I know in my Pacific Northwest enclave are shocked when I tell them that Beirut has Starbucks, Greenpeace, alcohol, and uncovered women. One person - a very well-educated individual - actually asked me if Beirut has electricity.

Many many people asked me what time of year it is in Lebanon now. They aren't sure if the Middle East is in the northern or southern hemisphere. Two asked if Lebanon is near any large bodies of water.

Not one person had a clue that Northern Iraq is safe until I told them so. Few believe me and think I have no sense for going there.

I'm not talking about hicks in Arkansas here. I'm talking about people in upscale well-educated Portland, Oregon.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at April 7, 2006 10:37 PM

I meant to say "most think I have no sense for going [to Northern Iraq]."

Average Americans know almost nothing at all about the Middle East. The hysterical reaction to the Dubai port deal doesn't surprise me one bit, but it is depressing and sad.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at April 7, 2006 10:42 PM

>i>I guess that depends what media you consume.

JBS,

what kind of media are you consuming that you don't find this kind of thing surprising? I'd love to check them out if you can provide a couple of links. For the record, I've travelled a lot, but never to the middle east, so most of what I know about the place is what makes the news-- she-male bars don't make the news.

Posted by: Carlos at April 7, 2006 11:07 PM

Here's the kind of stuff we get to read about:

"When I visited Turkey last week on an inaugural London-to-Ankara flight, I decided the country was clearly ripe for membership of the European Union. Only a short walk from my hotel I found a Marks & Spencer, a McDonald’s, a Body Shop and a Mothercare. I could have been in Milton Keynes.

But on the flight home next day, a stewardess gave me a copy of the Daily Telegraph that threatened to change my view. It contained a story from Ankara, the city I had just left, bearing the headline Muslims Accused of Killing “Unclean” Dogs. The report said a Turkish vet caring for stray animals had come across hundreds of dead dogs in a municipal dump. These were said to have been left there by city workers who liked to round up, torture and kill dogs because they believed them “unclean”.

This made me wonder if Turkey really is ready to join Europe. True, its people seemed charming, intelligent and civilised; and its capital city could boast an M&S. But this was no way to treat a dog.

Furthermore, the report included the distressing detail that at least two of the dead dogs had been sexually abused. Why would you want sexually to abuse a dog if you considered it “unclean”? It made no sense, but it suggested that the founder of modern Turkey, the great Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, had died before Europeanising his country as fully as he would have liked."

http://www.guardian.co.uk/Columnists/Column/0,,1748605,00.html

Posted by: Carlos at April 7, 2006 11:30 PM

Reminds me of the prostitute bar in Vienna I found, still open at 11pm -- they wouldn't let me use my Everex 386 laptop in 1991, so I bought just one $10 beer and said no to some lovely German-only speaking women.

I'm well read but only moderately well traveled (US & TJ/Ensanada & Canada & Japan & Europe), not the ME. The MSM is mostly a cartoon view of the ME.

Though I haven't been reading National Geographic on the ME; there IS too much politics/ war to read. India and China are even bigger puzzles, in many ways. The two countries bigger, in population, than America.

Michael, thanks for a really interesting article that might have been in some other media -- but very unlikely that I would have found it there. (OK, maybe TCS.) Unless it would be that travel e-book you should write. Soon.

Posted by: Tom Grey - Libertay Dad at April 8, 2006 12:50 AM

Carlos - Just for one example, here's a recent article on Istanbul in the travel section of the NY Times.

http://travel2.nytimes.com/2005/09/25/travel/25istanbul.html?ex=1144641600&en=b667d193a29c3b00&ei=5070

But I think the two prongs of my speculation above need to be taken together. I think that people who know only their own culture tend, on the one hand, to overestimate the degree to which individual behavior varies and, on the other, underestimate the significance of cultural differences. That is, when we see people behaving differently to the way they expect, they tend to assume that the people are different, rather than recognizing the way that culture directs the expression on the common human impulses we all share.

On the other hand, if you have experience of other cultures, you can understand a lot more with relatively fewer facts, because you have a framework into which to fit the detail.

To apply that to the present, my working assumption on the basis of my experience of other cultures is that the full range of sexual and gender impulses we see in the west are present in all countries, and the only question is the form in which they are expressed. Given that, like any reasonably well-informed person, I know that Istanbul is a pretty cosmopolitan city, I would assume that there would be at least a part of the culture where these things are relatively freely expressed. Hence, had I given the matter any thought, I would have assumed that Istanbul would have trannies and tranny bars.

Average Americans know almost nothing at all about the Middle East. The hysterical reaction to the Dubai port deal doesn't surprise me one bit, but it is depressing and sad.

Well, that I agree with wholeheartedly. But it's kind of ironic to see you voicing that complaint: if it were not for the ignorance and fear that also produced the Dubai Ports World mess, the Iraq war could never have been fought.

Posted by: J.B.S. at April 8, 2006 01:30 AM

I too am not sure which "media" Michael is talking about. I assume he means Fox News or your local "eyewitness News" type show. The NYT, the Post or the WSJ all assume their readers are intelligent people with some knowledge of the world. Your average NYT or WSJ subscriber is well aware that Turkey is a cosmopolitan country and has probably been there on vacation. Istanbul was the "cool" place to go among the investment banking set five years ago. If we accept Michael's characterization of most Americans as provincial and ignorant than it becomes clearer to me why so many of posters here seem incable of understanding what they read in the NYT and harp on about "bias". So Michael is performing a valuable service by providing these people with the background knowledge they apparently didn't get in school or were never curious enough to acquire on their own.

Michael's description above of Portland as a city full of well educated people who know nothing about the Middle East strikes me as bizarre and doesn't jibe at all with my experiences there. My sister-in-law is from Portland. She's a Maronite Christian so she's well aware that Beirut has electricity. There are quite a few Maronites in Portland, and a lot of them are well educated and well integrated into the city's professional life. When my brother got married in Portland I met quite a lot of locals. They didn't seem appreciably more ignorant than your average Bostonian or New Yorker. Most East Coasters are well aware that Beirut is a cosmopolitan town, "the Paris of the Middle East", etc. and that Kurdistan is nothing like the rest of Iraq. I'm shocked that Portland could be as backwards as Michael says. If Michael really grew up among people like that it explains quite a lot. Could it be that the large Jewish populations in NYC, Boston and DC just make us more aware of the Middle East than people on the West Coast? Or are West Coasters too caught up in surfing, hiking and enjoying their fine wines to be curious about the outside world?

Posted by: Vanya at April 8, 2006 06:26 AM

Michael,

Keep in mind what I said yesterday.

"I don't expect my readers to be surprised. My readers are more sophisticated than average Americans."

"I'm not talking about hicks in Arkansas here. I'm talking about people in upscale well-educated Portland, Oregon."

"Average Americans know almost nothing at all about the Middle East."

Arrogant, condescending, and patronizing.

Posted by: Christopher at April 8, 2006 06:28 AM

hehehe, shemales eh? :P

Posted by: Kod(Wissam) at April 8, 2006 06:33 AM

Vanya: I too am not sure which "media" Michael is talking about.

Daily newspapers. Front page. International news section. Not the travel section. Not National Geographic.

There are quite a few Maronites in Portland, and a lot of them are well educated and well integrated into the city's professional life.

Yes, and one of them is a friend of mine. He's from Achrafieh. I was referring to average self-absorbed people who were born in the U.S.

Could it be that the large Jewish populations in NYC, Boston and DC just make us more aware of the Middle East than people on the West Coast?

Perhaps. I don't know, I have never lived on the East Coast. Very few West Coast people ever go to the Middle East.

Christopher: Arrogant, condescending, and patronizing.

I plead guilty this time. Too many times in the last couple of days I've had to deal with this silliness, and I needed to vent. Try telling people you're going to move to Beirut and listen to their reaction. You just might see what I'm talking about. It gets tiresome after a while.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at April 8, 2006 09:02 AM

I think characterizing the social mores (or lack thereof) of a place by its whorehouses doesn't really work. It's a better measurement of their financial situation. The more desperate for tourist dollars, the more, uh, diverse the entertainment. Tijuana would be a perfect example of this; much of what goes on certainly falls far outside the social norms of the country, but it brings money into the economy. The fact that the hookers were foreign again indicates this isn't an industry looked upon honorably by locals.
Unfortunately I think the first nightclub probably tells you a lot more about the culture. Sure, they may dress western, but they sure don't act it. Alternately, if you went right after dinner, you may have been there way too early, even American clubs take time to loosen up. But, honestly, I doubt it.

Posted by: Mike at April 8, 2006 09:02 AM

Carlos (at April 7, 2006 11:30 PM,)

Why do you trust the Guardian?

My impression is that if International ANSWER were to put out a pure piece of "Let's divide Turkey from the West" propaganda disguised as a "news story", the Guardian would print it verbatim, without attribution, and with no slightest thought of checking even one fact.

That's "exaggeration-for-conversational-effect".

But the point remains:

Why trust a bunch of paleo-luddite left-overs with an obvious agenda and no interest in factual accuracy?

Posted by: Tom Paine at April 8, 2006 09:04 AM

I thought your story was headed elsewhere...

Some bars like that in Istanbul end up charging $100 for the girl's drink you innocently offer to buy. And the path to the door is usually lined with heavies.

Posted by: Mike Jefferson at April 8, 2006 10:32 AM

Try telling people you're going to move to Beirut and listen to their reaction. You just might see what I'm talking about. It gets tiresome after a while.

Well, we're obviously from very different social milieus. The reaction of my friends and family would be "cool, when can we vist?" In fact my sister-in-law keeps talking about moving to Beirut and my cousins and I have been trying to get my brother to agree.
Sure, there are a lot of self-absorbed Americans, but there are also quite a few Americans interested in the outside world. Try living in Utah for example - one great benefit of the Mormon religion is the number of people in Utah who have gone on mission and seen the world. It was refreshing to talk to average Joes who not only knew where Kazakhstan was, they had actually been there.

Posted by: vanya at April 8, 2006 01:10 PM

Vanya: The reaction of my friends and family would be "cool, when can we vist?"

Most of my friends reacted this way. Other people did not. I'm talking about acquainances, and those who live in my neighborhood who sort of know me and who haven't seen me for a while. Also my extended family, who have little meaningful in common with me.

A strikingly large percentage of Americans don't know who the vice president is, so I'm not sure why what I'm saying surprises anyone.

And I don't think you can deny that most headlines out of the Middle East document bad things rather than normal things. That's just the way journalism is.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at April 8, 2006 01:21 PM

I'm not talking about hicks in Arkansas here. I'm talking about people in upscale well-educated Portland, Oregon.

Yes, Portland is the most cosmopolitan city in Oregon, but Oregon's basically Kansas with trees.

amused Seattleite ;)

(small world, innit?)

Posted by: rosignol at April 8, 2006 09:03 PM

Is that a pic of Taksim square in Asian part of Istanbul?

Posted by: Winston at April 8, 2006 10:37 PM

I'm gonna have to defend Michael here.
The vast majority of Americans have only the dimmest conception of the realities of the Near East. The only arrogant people here are the ones who assume that just because their circle of friends is knowledgeable on Mid East affairs means it is representative of the country as a whole.

For the person who referred to their Maronite friends as an example.... of course they know what its really like in Beirut! However, most Americans (or Oregonians and Portlanders for that matter) are not Maronites and it is very likely that 90% of Americans don't even know what a Maronite is.

There is nothing condescending about my statements. It is simply the way things are, for good or ill. I think Michael is dead on in his opinion.

Anyway, just my two cents. I'm an avid reader who has only posted once before but I could not let this nonsense continue unabated. You do excellent work Michael - don't let the jabs of the intellectually smug get to ya.

And for God's sake, end this charade -- where the hell did you go??

Posted by: Rommel at April 8, 2006 10:43 PM

Perhaps it is more that people who have not travelled extensively outside the United States lack the background to process and contextualize what they see and hear from topical news stories.

Well, even people who have travelled "extensively" to Europe and Japan still often know little about the Middle East.

Of course, the problem of being able to process and contextualize what you see and hear from news stories is hardly one of Americans alone. All too often I find Europeans who are completely ignorant of the United States. For example, I've been in a room with five fellow graduate students from Europe, all of whom had been students and lived in the US for four years, yet all of whom had absolutely no idea that the US had public universities at all and were very surprised to learn about them.

Posted by: John Thacker at April 9, 2006 08:43 AM

I will have to defend Michael as well. The primary reason I read his posts is precisely because the MSM's treatment of the ME is limited, for the most part, to bombs and beheadings. Americans in general have very little reason to travel to the ME and are dependent in great measure on what we hear or read in the media since so little info can be gathered from friends and family experiences. We are ignorant in the purest sense of the word (with the exception, of course, of those posters who reside on a higher and purer plane than the rest of us).

I include myself among the ignorant even though my husband and I would qualify as well-educated (both of us have post-graduate educations) and well-traveled. My husband and I have traveled quite a bit, with his high tech jobs taking him all around the world, sometimes for weeks on end, but the only ME destination in his field is Israel. My parents have traveled the world but have also only visited Israel in the ME. We are the audience Michael writes for and we want to know the whole story, not just what we see in the MSM.

Posted by: inmypajamas at April 9, 2006 09:08 AM

Dear JBS, will you give me several thousand dollars for free so I can travel extensively outside the United States and thus become a worthy person like yourself? I'm living paycheck to paycheck here and can't even afford a plane ticket to Canada at this point, let alone a hotel room.

(The point of this post is: for a lot of us, the lack of extensive worldwide travel experience isn't due to a lack of interest.)

Posted by: cb at April 9, 2006 09:19 AM

The “Muslim Brotherhood” (MB) is a neo-Hambali totalitarian movement that gave birth in the past 80 years to a multitude of local organizations and franchises from Al-Qaeda’s South-Asian “Jihâdi” activists to the more presentable “quietist” Islamist technocrats now ruling TURKEY and knocking politely on Europe’s (rightly closed) door.

Throughout the Cold War and even until the late 1990s when Bosnian and Albanian Islamist terrorists received generous shipments of weapons and ammunitions from NATO bases, Washington and Tel-Aviv have systematically helped, funded and trained legions of Muslim Brotherhood-type Islamist fundamentalists in order to fight the (much inflated) threat coming from the perceived enemy du jour be it “international Marxism” or “Baathist Pan-Arabism”, or even worse, “terrorist organizations” combining both ideologies such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine led by US-educated Palestinian and Jordanian Christians such as George Habash and Nayef Hawatmeh…

But, as the Neocons have “won the Cold War”, or so they think, the Prophet’s crescent seems to have replaced Lenin’s sickle as the instrumental incarnation of evil in the minds of paranoid Pentagon planners and on the TV screens of America’s living rooms: the Neocons are now desperately trying to close the Islamist Pandora Box they had deliberately opened in the first place.

Clearly, this is bad news for the bearded bigots now in power in the West Bank and Gaza strip. These days, Hamas views itself as a “centrist” Islamist organization laying somewhere in the middle of the MB ideological spectrum, as the movement’s self-deluded leaders still believe they can be both Erdogans in the West and Talebans in the Orient, an increasingly untenable positions as their (former) Israeli benefactors have started calling their bluff, using a deadly mix of financial strangulation and “targeted” mass killings to convey their message to the newly-elected Palestinian government.

As usual, innocent Palestinian civilians will be caught in the crossfire while America’s Neros pursue their geopolitical “great game” and Europe’s Pontius Pilates wash their hands and courageously look the other way.

Posted by: Dr Victorino de la Vega at April 9, 2006 11:05 AM

the Neocons are now desperately trying to close the Islamist Pandora Box they had deliberately opened in the first place.

Jimmy "stinger missiles" Carter is a neocon? And your choice of words "deliberately" is pretty suspect too. Next you'll tell me the Twin Towers were brought down by a "controlled demolition."

Posted by: Carlos at April 9, 2006 12:00 PM

I'm certain I am being arrogant. But I've spent years arguing with Germans, Russians, Japanese, etc. that Americans aren't particularly clueless, at least no more clueless than everybody else. The truth is most human beings are provincial. I'm sure 95% of Russians, and 99% of Japanese have no idea who Maronites are. If a Japanese blogger went off to Beirut on his own he would certainly get as least as many odd stares and incomprehension as Michael gets from his neighbors in Portland. Americans aren't just California surfer dudes, and Georgia crackers. Michael being a good example - how many young Germans or Swiss pick up and run off to foreign countries to start blogging and writing freelance?

It's mainly the obsession with the "MSM" that's been annoying me, and more from the posters than from Michael. MT is more interesting when he reports what he truthfully sees, to the extent this site ever becomes simply an "alternative" to me it would become far less interesting. There are already plenty of "alternative" sites if you just want to be spoon-fed good news.

Anyway, everyone please get back to discussing Turkish trannies, a far more interesting topic I'm sure.

Posted by: vanya at April 9, 2006 01:13 PM

Vanya: Americans aren't particularly clueless, at least no more clueless than everybody else.

This is true. Most people in the world are provincial. It doesn't generally bother me much except when people I sort of know get the complete wrong-ass idea about a place I have been living and that I like very much.

It also makes me cringe when I run into people who think every Arab country is a knock-off of Saudi Arabia. The Middle East matters to us whether we like it or not. We should know what's going on there if it's going to factor into our elections and our foreign policy. Lebanon and Iraq are not Fiji and Belize.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at April 9, 2006 01:31 PM

Hey everyone, as the subject of this post I thought it might be time for a comment...

First, I'm not nearly as much of a "babe-in-the-woods" as Michael makes me out to be, but for dramatic effect I am happy to let that go.

I asked about alcohol as in "do you have a full bar?" as opposed to just beer and wine. I was not shocked to find alcohol in Istanbul, but I was a bit surprised to find it in the boonies way outside of town.

I didn't bolt from the transsexual hookers in prude fear, but in the realization that they were shoe-horning us in, literally, in preparation to slam us with a bar bill that we could not afford. I played up the, "oh, my, look at the time" gag as a way to give Mike an excuse to leave (since he was buying the drinks).

And Mike might want to clarify that we grew up in small-town Salem, Oregon and our friends in Portland include a large portion of this group as well. Portland is indeed one of the most educated and literate big cities in America (look up the stats on your own). We have more book stores and higher library use per capita than any other major city and a larger than average portion of new immigrants have advanced degrees. However, book smarts are no substitute for travel, and that was the point of Mike's post (and with which I strongly agree).

I studied European and Mid East history and religion as an undergrad and have been to Europe a few times before now. However, living for an extended term in Europe has been an eye-opener and visiting the Mid East for my first time blew my mind, so to speak.

I worked with Muslims in Portland and studied the Koran even before 9-11. I have a particular interest in Middle East history and culture... in fact I was one of the first people Mike ever met to begin discussing the Mid East.

I know that Istanbul was a world-class city, I also know that there is a vast difference between the rural and urban portions of any country, and I expected Turkey to compare well (as a prospective EU member and one of the WWI powers) with Europe... However, I was STILL surprised, as Mike notes, at how "normal" western Turkey was (the eastern half is an entirely different matter).

I commute through the largest Muslim neighborhood in Copenhagen right now. I see women in veils and even burkas daily. I also eat more shwarma than is probably good for my health. And my architecture project this term was to design a Muslim neighborhood in CPH, complete with a mosque and a souk. So I was very interested in visiting a Mid East country (and I wanted to see Michael) and Istanbul was within my budget for airfare.

What I was most surprised by was that W. Turkey is less conservative than Muslim Copenhagen. I was also humorously surprised that Tuborg (Danish beer) is perhaps the most common brand in Turkey (given the Danish cartoon controversy). I also laughed to see a post-card from Anatolia showing a woman in a skimpy thong on the beach. I expected Turkey to be modern, but not quite this liberal.

One of my realizations this year is that Scandinavia, which boasts of less than 10% church attendance, is much MORE religious than we Americans are led to believe. This Easter weekend the streets of were rolled up and put in storage. Everything was quiet and churches were busy (ok, they often lure Danes inside with coffee and music, but heh).

Meanwhile, I was rather surprised to see the call of muezzins mostly ignored in even rural Turkey. I was also a bit surprised at how rare veils and head scarves were. And Mike understated the sexy dress and dancing in the Istanbul disco and we found the same in mid sized towns as well. It seems that maybe the polls and surveys paint them as more observant than they really are?

So, that is my thought of the week... Europe may be under-reporting their religiosity, while the Mid East may be over-reporting theirs. Mmmmm.

Posted by: sean at April 9, 2006 02:29 PM

MJT, tell us straight: were you drunk when you wrote this post? Or maybe a wee bit tipsy?

Posted by: Solomon2 at April 9, 2006 08:10 PM

I have never, ever, blogged while drunk. Why do you think I might have been drunk?

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at April 9, 2006 08:17 PM

But, Michael, drunk blogging is so fun! If you ask Lee Smith, he'll tell you that Harvard and Chicago professors co-write academic papers while drunk.

BTW, how did a post about prostitutes and transsexuals devolve into a conversation about media and arrogance. Shouldn't we focus on the universally applicable discussion that Easterners and Westerns both love (and hate).

Posted by: lebanon.profile at April 10, 2006 03:47 AM

MJT, I sometimes wonder if writers need lubrication to get their creative juices flowing, and you had just written about visiting a bar. I didn't intend to be insulting or offensive.

Posted by: Solomon2 at April 10, 2006 07:57 AM

Lay off of Arkansas. I bet you I can find more Communist apologists in Portland than Little Rock, and that doesn't bode well for your comparison.

Now that that's done with...HAHAHAH, you got hit on by she-male prostitutes. It happens to the best of us man...best thing to do is scat quick.

Posted by: seguin at April 10, 2006 09:58 AM

Michael,

Thanks for the post, it's great.

Winston,

The pics are taken at Taksim square, Istiklal Street, (known also as Beyoglu) in Euopean part of Istanbul.

Dr. Victorino de something,

I understand that you wish you knew a lot of things on politics. But at least I can advise you to not to mention about Turkey which is clear that you know nothing about it.

Best, Hakan

Posted by: hakanbulut at April 10, 2006 11:08 AM

Michael, your postcard snapshot of Turkey is at least eye opening for some of your readers.
Istanbul is a city of some estimated 16 million, unfortunately the bulk of this mass has migrated from rural areas that are dominantly religious, not your evangelical kind but rather for a lack of alternatives, it is a way of life.
The urban Istanbulites display a varied range of emotions toward these "small village people", which is as they are refered to. The dominant one most displayed is contempt, along with digust and shame. They have ruined huge tracks of prime Real Estate in the nicest neighborhoods and on undeveloped park land with their "Geci-condo's" (night house). Turkish law allows that if you can build it in one day and get a roof on it you get to stay. This is one of the serious problems facing Istanbul, they then import the village mentality and customs, along with their extended families.
The friends I hang with in Turkey, most have never been in a Mosque, my wife included, the first time for her was with me at my insistance. The city is huge and as cosmopolitan as any other large city in the West, which by the way, most of Istanbul is in the West, on the European Continent with about a third of the city on the Asian plate. The real treasure of Turkey is the Southwest, some of the most beautiful and enchanting coastline I have ever seen, as well as the most diverse topography imaginable. The Northern Europeans have know this for many years and are the most recognizable group there from May well into December. I don't know if you have ever spent any time in St. Tropez or Ibezia during August but I can attest that Turkbuku, Bodrum, Antalia and a host of other beach towns could put put them to shame at anytime of the summer. The slogan " to visit Turkey is to love Turkey" is very true, in every instance that I have persuaded a collegue or a friend to visit, the results are always the same, unbelievable, fantastic, beautiful, intriging and, the people are so nice, to a fault, I really needed much more time, I will definetely be going back. Turkey is fiercly secular, backed by the 2nd largest military in the free world, remember the two bloody coups and the so called recently silent one, that was the military behind all three, ousting the three because of their leaning toward implementing some reforms veiwed as Religiously based. Women still cannot wear head cover in any Government building or in any school. I could go on about their economy, industry, banking, agriculture, water management(Turkey sells water to most of it's neighbors, even including Isreal)tourism, ship building etc.
The Western members of the E.U. are terrified of Turkish membership as the Turks have the second stongest economy and the hardest working citizens in that part of the world, Germany in paticular, Germany imported thousands upon thousands of Turks to do the jobs the Germans would not do, now the those Turks own banks, supermarkets, gas stations, apartment buildings and so on, now alot of Germans are doing the jobs the Turks won't do.
I hope I have informative and maybe sparked a little curiosity for you to look into Turkey a little more deeply.

Posted by: Emmett at April 10, 2006 01:38 PM

I had the same thing happen to me in Istanbul a couple weeks ago. I was walking by myself through Taksim, was talked into going into a bar by a couple young Turkish men (I initially said no, but they acted offended and asked if I only resisted because their skin was darker than mine), and had a Russian prostitute sit next to me and start flirting. The guys who brought me in, with a couple burly mafioso-looking types, asked if I would buy her a drink, I said no, and they tried to charge me 45lira ($30) for my beer. I said I didn't have money or a credit card and bolted out of there.

Did you drink the beers they gave you? I heard before visiting Istanbul, and it was confirmed by other visitors at my hostel, that they sometime put barbituates in, steal all your things and leave you in an alley to wake up in the morning.

Posted by: Thomas at April 10, 2006 01:42 PM

Thomas, your description was quite accurate and THAT was why I said "Oh my, look at the time!"

Posted by: sean at April 10, 2006 03:03 PM

Why is it that everyone on this thread seems to only find Taksim or Beyoglo, Istanbul is a huge city with many non-Koch like Times Squares. How about Bebek or Nisantisi or Sisli etc. The naivete of you guys is appaling, any stories about the unparralled generosity that any visitor to the city encounters multiple times in a day?
Have any of you been able to find Liala, how about, As Cafe, Krinta, Armani Cafe, Chocklate, Bebek Cafe and hundreds of other upsale clubs and cafes that are the social fabric of the city.

Posted by: Emmett at April 11, 2006 06:35 AM

Emmett,

Yes, I and I'm sure most other visitors to Istanbul who posted on this site found plenty of cafes in plenty of nice areas besides Beyoglu. I also met many of extremely kind Turks, who I've told anyone who's asked about my visit were the most hospitable people I've ever met.

However, encounters with the riffraff in any city make for good stories, so don't blame us for wanting to talk about our experiences in mafioso prostitution bars, etc ...

Posted by: Thomas at April 11, 2006 07:34 AM

Thomas, perhaps I am a little sensitive on the topic. I first arrived in Istanbul eleven years ago, and since then have been spending increasingly more time there every year, for the past five years or so about six months a year.
I have heard it all, as you can imagine.
I had a very wealthy client from New York a few years ago who I had sold a 120' yacht to, after a couple of years in the Bahamas in the winter and summers up north he wanted me to suggest an alternate cruising area. I suggeted he put his boat on Dock Express and spend the next summer in the Western Med., this he did.
The next winter sometime he shared with me how wonderful he felt while in Europe, sort of like reconnecting to his families roots, at peace and all that. His big complaint was that the season was so short, beginning in June and ending at the end of August.
I suggested to him that he start heading south at the end of August, making stops in Italy, Croatia, Greece and finally ending up in Turkey, where he could boat all the way through to the end of December.
His answer blew me away, this extremely wealthy cosmopolitan world traveler said, "I would probobly consider that itinerary but I would never bring the children to Turkey, they kidnap kids in that country don't you know" utterly amazing.
I have also been busy beating back, if you can believe after all these years, the legacy of "Midnight Express", you would be suprised how many people, Europeans as well, believe that that movie is an accurate protrayal of the country and it's ethos.
I should likely take a lighter approach, but, I doubt that I will.
It is funny though, the Turks could care less what the rest of the world thinks of them, the culture is so strong and immedded that nothing can shake it, they are always welcoming new influxes of culture and ideas from other countries into the mix, and if something sticks, it ends up being adopted and then takes on its own Turkish personality.
Thanks for the forum.

Posted by: Emmett at April 11, 2006 12:15 PM

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