It was the night of the 15th of July. It was dark and rainy in a prestigious boarding school in the English countryside, and a student of mine was tearing his hair out. Around 9pm British time I told him that soldiers were marching on his own home city. I had heard that the tanks were rolling and jets were flying overhead. I am of course referring to the recent coup attempt of certain members of the Turkish military against the current Turkish government. Fortunately I was not there to experience this harrowing event but I could feel the tension through friends, family and the press. Thankfully the chaos was calmed in a day, gone as if it were a bad dream.
However one thing stuck out to me from that particular night. My student described to me in his broken english how the supporters of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan were excessively hairy and had fur growing from the palms of their hands. I doubt that the English joke about hair growing in the palms of your hands as a sign of madness carries into Turkish but the insult seemed clear to me. These people were a different kind of person entirely. They were barbaric, primitive, perhaps like animals. Why would this bright and good natured student of mine think such things? What warrants this suggestive comment?
Who are these Erdoğan supporters then? Most of them are from a primarily working class, conservative Muslim background. Many of the newer Islamic middle class are also great supporters of Erdoğan. The areas I frequented in my teenage years were testament to this. A large proportion of the women wore headscarves and occasionally older men would greet you in the street with a ‘Salam Alaikum’. When asked how you were by neighbours one would say “Çok Şükür”, a relatively religious term for ‘very blessed’. In the surrounding district banners with Erdoğan’s face and the light bulb symbol of the Justice and Development party (Also known as the Ak Parti) were ubiquitous. As I returned home for holidays these last few months a colossal new mosque looms just over the hill. I remember a friend of my mum’s calling Erdoğan ‘Tayyipcim’, an affectionate way of saying “my Tayyip”, not unlike “Tayyipkins”. My journey to school on public transport went through a conservative Muslim neighbourhood and down to the ferry at üsküdar where three beautiful mosques competed with each other for sky space. I recall going into a recently opened burger king near my neighbourhood and finding out it had a Ramadan Iftar menu!
I don’t recall any excessive hair. In my local area many men seemed to be much more formally dressed than in the wealthier parts of the city. I don’t recall any unwashed barbarians walking around my area. The Turkish obsession with cleanliness would seem almost Victorian to a British observer. At meal times tissues were ubiquitous, everything was to be eaten with cutlery and if you needed to eat a chicken drumstick, you grasped that thing with a tissue over your hands! Our neighbours were wonderfully friendly. Even with my terrible language skills, neighbours would frequently be polite and welcoming to me. They were just decent folk. Just regular people.
Why then did my student seem to think they were a different breed? Like most of the kids at the summer camp he was from a wealthy family. During the school year he lived on the European side of Istanbul in the fairly posh district of Bebek. From my experience this was hardly a conservative area, at least compared to the neighbourhood I lived in. Friends at my school on the European side would joke that the Asian side of Istanbul (my home) was where all the terrorists came from. Thus projecting an image of poverty and Islamic extremism. For many of Turkish school friends, also from similar backgrounds to my young student, the Asian side was a whole different continent.
And this was not far from the truth. Each morning on my way to school I would cross the Bosporus (an absolutely stunning trip to take every morning which I never truly appreciated until I left for uni in the UK) and immediately things would change. On the road up to my school you could see shops advertising Efes and Rakı, Turkey’s most famous alcoholic beverages. Women in headscarves became more and more rare and I was shocked to see older men wearing shorts! When the call to prayer went off it was from a single mosque with a singer with a weedy voice that cut through the midday air, very unlike the orchestra of different voices one would hear around my house. People walking their pet dogs were the norm, unlike on the Asian side where Islamic tradition states that dogs are dirty and must be kept in the house. From the way the neighbourhood of my school and it’s people looked, you might as well have been Europe.
I spoke before of two camps. My European Turkish friend’s comment on the hairy Erdoğan supporters personifies the divides present in Turkey. Divides between both religion and class. As westerners looking from the outside I only hope that we don’t take the same viewpoint of my student. To project images of the middle east as a seething pot of terrorists and dictators is regrettably common in our Western society. The debate on Erdogan as a dictator is something for another day. For now I ask that we don’t look on any of the Turkish people as people with hair on the palms of their hands.