Istanbul’s Pasha and his Parrot: Talk of the Town

Ankara- Nazim Cihan, a background Turkish actor who appeared in many TV series, has attracted people in Turkey while wandering in Istanbul’s streets wearing an Ottoman Pasha outfit and holding a beautiful colored parrot on his shoulder known as “Pasha”.

Cihan wanders in Istanbul’s streets with his parrot, attracting people’s attention with his Ottoman attire to express his deep respect for the Sultanate era.

Cihan, 43, who performed many silent roles in famous Turkish series like “The Valley of the Wolves” and “The Back Alleys”, has become – with his parrot “Pasha”- an exceptional phenomenon in Istanbul over the past three years.

On the roads, people crowd around Cihan and his parrot, insist on taking photos, and ask him questions on his pet.

He has also made headlines in the media; TV channels and newspapers have rushed to cover Cihan and his parrot, calling him “another pasha in Istanbul”, especially that he is always keen to express his respect for the Ottoman Empire.

Cihan said he has exceptional emotions for his parrot. They both eat from the same plate and Pasha has feelings towards him.

“Pasha is a very emotional parrot and knows very well my character; when I feel happy, it laughs and plays with me, and it also reacts when I feel nervous or tired”, the man said.

Cihan has rejected many offers to sell the parrot and says their relation is very strong. Pasha is most important than the actor’s wallet and phone, as he can never forget it and feels empty when he goes somewhere without bringing it along with him.

Mehter Rekindles Turkish Enthusiasm

Istanbul-The world’s oldest military band Mehter has resurfaced after the failed coup in Turkey.

Mehter, or as it was generally known as mehterane, was an important part of the army during the Ottoman Empire and was almost non-existent in the Turkish Republic that was formed by Mustafa Kamal Ataturk.

Mehter dates back to the Seljuk era. During the 13th century, it is believed that the first Mehter was sent to Osman I by the Seljuk Sultan Alaeddin Keykubad III as a present along with a letter that salutes the newly formed state. The band would accompany the army during its conquests and play military music pieces during war times or ceremonies.

Members of the band, Mehters, are Janissaries who are known for their historic military suits. Janissary corps formed the core of the Ottoman army. In 1826, the music of the Mehters fell into disfavor following Sultan Mahmud II’s abolition of the Janissary corps, until 1911 when it became extinct.

In 1953, during the celebration of the 500-year anniversary of the Fall of Constantinople to the forces of Sultan Mehmed II, the tradition had been fully restored as a band of the Turkish Armed Forces.

In 1952, the administration of Istanbul Military Museum restored the band’s primary anthem used for Turkish soldiers to create enthusiasm and motivation.

It became very rare to see Mehter and its performance became limited to the tourism festivals.

But since 2003, Mehter has been appearing in public arenas playing national or Ottoman music especially on May 29, the occasion of the Fall of Constantinople.

In 2010, an organization for the mentally disabled formed a traditional band music of disabled members that played old Ottoman music during Turkey’s Disabled Week. The band believed that forming a Mehter band of 20 disabled members could bring attention to their cause and help the disabled.

Following the coup attempt on July 15, the military band has been appearing at the Guards of Democracy playing music as the state officials arrive to deliver speeches and meet the masses.

Opinion: What if Hitler had become an Artist?

Small events make big history. This is a brief interpretation of the so-called historical coincidence. What if Führer Adolf Hitler’s dream of becoming a famous artist had come true; What would the world’s destiny and the course of human history have been like?

History is a complex series of interconnected events that are too minor to be considered predictable.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was killed by coincidence. After failing to intercept the official motorcade of the Archduke, the Serbian assassin decided that his assignment had failed and went to a café located in a side street only to find himself face-to-face with the royal car. Due to this coincidence, the First World War broke out. A casualty of the war was the Ottoman Empire (or Caliphate), and its downfall sent psychological tremors throughout the Muslim world that was loyal to the “Supreme” state. The shock was embodied in the emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood in a series of events stretching up to the present day.

A few days ago a German auction house said it would sell off a Hitler watercolor, saying it could fetch as much as 50,000 euros and cited a strong global interest.

Hitler painted the piece around 1914 and his autobiography Mein Kampf describes how his hopes of becoming an artist were dashed by his repeated rejection by Vienna’s Academy of Fine Arts.

What if Vienna’s Academy of Fine Arts had accepted the young man and entertained his artistic ambitions, even if they were modest?

What if the Americans had not released Ibrahim Awwad, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’s self-declared Caliph known as Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, from prison a few years ago?

What if Osama Bin Laden had not entered King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah, where he first met Abdullah Yusuf Azzam, the father of global jihad?

What if Saddam Hussein had drowned in the river as he fled Iraq over his opposition to the government in the early years of his Ba’athist career?

What if Gamal Abdel Nasser had been killed during the siege of Faluja in Palestine before he formed the Free Officers Movement?

What if Abdel Moneim Aboul Fatouh had been the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate for the Egyptian presidency, instead of Mohamed Mursi?

Dozens of minor and major coincidences would make for a parallel history had they happened. One school of history argues that history is nothing but mere inevitable events with no room for coincidence. The First World War would have taken place whether the Archduke had been assassinated or not, the Second World War would have broken out whether Hitler had become an artist or not, and so on. According to this theory, the role of individuals, or minor incidents, are details that feed, but do not make, major events. But who knows what the future holds?

Debate: A Gulf–Turkey alliance is impossible

There is no doubt that the Turkey of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is fundamentally different from that of eras since the demise of the Ottoman Empire in 1923 at the hands of Mustafa Kamal Atatürk.

At that time, Atatürk, supported by the army and Turkish nationalist forces, removed the Islamic religious cloak from his country and shifted towards the West. Atatürk’s desire here was not to control, dominate and spread religion, but to keep up with the progress and advances of civilization.

Since 1923, Turkey has been trying—almost begging—to convince Western states that the country as a whole, and not just Istanbul, is a part of Western civilization, in order to achieve its dream of joining the European Union. The West, however, resisted this for a number of reasons, the most important of which was that most of Turkey is in Asia, not Europe. In addition to that, the EU said Turkey’s democracy was artificial, and its treatment of minorities, such as the Kurds, was aggressive and oppressive.

There were also several other criteria for joining that Turkey could not meet. An example of this was the assumption of power by religious parties such as the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which defied European standards, most notably the need for the separation of state and religion.

This constant rejection by Europe may be the reason why the Turks have begun to look to their history and to move East. There lies wealth, urbanization, a low population, the reliance on the labor and products of others, and the mixing of religion with politics—even where this tends toward religious extremism.

All these factors have encouraged the Islamist AKP to look back at the Ottoman legacy in order to compete with the West for profitable resources and lucrative markets—and this is exactly what has happened.

Erdoğan’s government began to address Arab sentiments by speaking openly about the rights of the Palestinian people to an independent state, and using verbal confrontation—Erdoğan’s public row over Gaza with Israeli President Shimon Perez at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2009, in which Erdoğan stormed off the stage—and physical confrontation—the dispatch of the Mavi Marmara to Gaza—to gain Arab trust.

All these actions encouraged the neo-Ottomans to return to the legacy they left when poor and exhausted, only to return to find it one of the richest in the world. Because of this, Turkey not only attracted the attention of the West, it achieved remarkable economic growth. Even the debts that burdened the Turkish state became a distant memory.

It is no secret that Arab Gulf markets, investments and tourism have all played a great role in reviving the Turkish economy. We can point here to Turkish agricultural and industrial products and Turkish construction companies, which have been noticeably present in most Arab countries, particularly Iraq, which relies more on Turkish companies, labor and products than it does on Iran’s.

But this Turkish invasion now seems likely to recede, for a number of reasons.

The first is Erdoğan’s involvement in internal Arab conflicts. He had a good relationship with former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, but soon turned against him and supported the uprising that toppled his regime. When the military-backed June 30 uprising toppled Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Mursi, Erdoğan stood defiantly against the ouster, a move that resulted in the recalling of the Egyptian ambassador and the expulsion of his Turkish counterpart. If this was in relative harmony with Western stances, it was in total contradiction to those of the Gulf, which were mostly in agreement on supporting post-Brotherhood rule, and this proved that Erdoğan was following his Brotherhood-inspired political sentiments.

The second is that there is no doubt that the Americans and the Europeans do not want Turkey to be an integral part of the West. At the same time, they do not want Turkey to abandon them, because economic independence leads to political independence, and the Americans and Europeans cannot allow Turkey to flood markets exclusive to the West with cheaper products, especially in countries with which it also has strong religious links.

The third reason is the recent corruption scandal. Corruption in all its guises was one of the causes of the deterioration of the situation in Turkey under governments before the AKP. Erdoğan’s government succeeded economically because it was not corrupt. But late in 2013, financial scandals affected a number of ministers and led to the formation of a new government by Erdoğan, despite demands from some that he shoulder the political responsibility for the scandals and offer his resignation.

Finally, the Turkish dream of abandoning the West by moving East will not come about because major Western powers will not allow Turkey—and especially its Ottoman model—to regain the wealth it lost more than 90 years ago. They do not want it to bounce back with an ever-greater appetite for consumption, foreign labor and security. This is doubly so since the West—the heir of the Ottoman legacy—can provide Gulf Arabs with their needs directly, or indirectly through states and people with little ambition beyond exporting their labor and goods.

The counterpoint to this article can be read here.

Syria’s Brotherhood: Doomed to Repeat the Past

A picture taken on September 18, 2013 shows the road leading to Syria's ancient Christian town of Maalula. Inter-sectarian violence has long troubled Syria. (AFP PHOTO/ANWAR AMRO)
A picture taken on September 18, 2013 shows the road leading to Syria's ancient Christian town of Maalula. Inter-sectarian violence has long troubled Syria. (AFP PHOTO/ANWAR AMRO)
A picture taken on September 18, 2013, shows the road leading to Syria’s ancient Christian town of Maaloula. (AFP PHOTO/ANWAR AMRO)

In Istanbul last month, the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood launched a new political party known by its Arabic name, Waad (“Promise”). It will be led by Mohamed Walid, a Brotherhood figure, but his deputy will be Nabil Kasis, a Christian. The party will include a number of minorities, reputedly a third of the membership, while the other two-thirds of the party will be reserved for Brotherhood members and independent Islamists. According to its founders, the aim of the party is “to support the oppressed, to stand with the weak and to uphold justice, and to restore the rights of the Syrian people regardless of ethnicity.”

There are a number of things wrong with this announcement. The first is that the Egyptian Brothers have attempted the same recipe before: the Freedom and Justice Party had a fair sprinkling of Copts and unveiled women. It didn’t work.

The second is the matter of its timing. Coming as the civil war deepens, resulting in the near-total extinction of political life as we know it, the relevance of such a party remains unclear. Some have speculated that it is the result of internal politicking within the Muslim Brotherhood machine, an attempt by a faction within the organization at political re-positioning, but not much else.

But there is something far more problematic. What the Muslim Brotherhood appears to believe is that as long as it demonstrates a willingness to share a political platform with members of religious minorities, and adheres to the language of secular politics, then this alone will be enough to allay the fears of minority communities. This is a naive delusion born out of a fundamental misreading of Syria’s modern history and its own peculiar sectarian problem.

To understand the frame of mind of Syria’s minorities—that is, the collective mindset of Christians, Alawites, Druze and Ismailis—one needs to appreciate the trauma that was the Ottoman experience. The modern history of the Levant has been shaped by minorities vowing never to fall under Sunni Muslim overlordship again and strategizing (rather successfully) to that end. The strategies that these minorities have come up with led directly to the modern nation-states of Syria and Lebanon as we know them today. By recognizing and analyzing these survival strategies, the true extent of the Brotherhood’s folly in investing in the Waad Party becomes all too clear.

When the Ottoman Turks retreated from the Levant in 1918, non-Sunni minorities faced an acute dilemma: how to survive and flourish within societies that were overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim.

The Maronites of Mount Lebanon came up with a survival strategy that was not at all original: secession. They successfully lobbied France to be separated from Sunni-majority Syria, and to be given a state where they could enjoy a monopoly on political power. Thus, the State of Greater Lebanon was created, later to become the Republic of Lebanon.

For the non-Sunni Muslim minorities of Syria, it was a different story. The Alawites and Druze initially went along with French plans to have their own mini-states, but the hostility of the economically influential Damascene and Aleppine bourgeoisie scuttled plans for independence. Long-term discrimination and neglect by the Ottomans denied the Alawites and Druze the chance to form their own states, while quasi-independence under the Ottomans and long-term French patronage enabled the Maronite Christians of Mount Lebanon to fly the coop. Politically and economically, the non-Sunni Muslims of Syria were too weak to go it alone.

The Alawites and Druze opted to be part of a unified Syrian Republic not out of choice, but out of necessity. They still had to meet the challenge of surviving and thriving in a Sunni Muslim-majority country where democracy would entitle them only to a minority share of political power, not enough to clearly guarantee that the Ottoman experience would never be repeated.

Instead of seeking independence, as the Lebanese Christians had done, the non-Sunni Muslim minorities in Syria did quite the opposite: they embraced a secular, socialist brand of pan-Arabism and adopted it as their own. The Ba’ath Party became a magnet for young, aspiring and poor Alawites, Druze and Ismailis, who were drawn to the party’s secular and egalitarian creed.

By adopting pan-Arabism, the minorities had performed a great feat of one-upmanship: they had demonstrated to the Sunni Muslims that they were über-patriots, prepared to relinquish centuries-old sectarian loyalties encouraged by the Ottoman millet(pluralist) system for the benefit of the entire Arab nation. By appearing to be so, they laid down a challenge to the Sunni Muslim majority to live up to this idealized vision of what it meant to be Syrian.

In reality, it was a ruse. At first, the Ba’ath Party campaigned on issues of social justice such as agrarian reforms, which benefited poor Sunnis as well as impoverished Alawite peasants. But the minorities were not content with remaining farmers. The religious minorities of Syria were still very much obsessed with the Ottoman trauma, and nothing short of a complete capture of power would allay their fears of returning to second-class status. One institution was open to them: the military. It was through an active mass enlistment campaign, and a simultaneous policy of de-Sunnification of the officer corps following the 1963 Ba’ath Party coup, that enabled the minorities to first catch glimpse of the political power that they could enjoy under the guise of pan-Arabism and class warfare.

Ultimate power would eventually be won by a certain Hafez Al-Assad, a scheming Ba’athist air force pilot and son of a minor Alawite notable. The state that he created reflected the collective anxieties of minorities. It was decidedly secular, socialist and obsessed with “national unity.” It was, for all intents and purposes, a reaction against the confessionalism-based, class-riven but pluralistic Ottoman conception of how society should be ordered.

Herein lies the core problem with the Muslim Brotherhood’s Waad Party. Its philosophy is essentially a reworking of the Ottoman model, with its de facto domination by Sunni Muslims (the Brotherhood themselves) and its millet-like quota set aside for representatives of minority communities (Christians, Alawites and Druze). Syria’s minorities, however, have long moved on from that system and are unlikely ever to go back to it willingly. As an attempt to appeal across the barricades of war-torn and religiously-polarized Syria, the Brotherhood’s new party faces a daunting task. As an attempt to form a new social pact between Syria’s warring communities, it is doomed to fail.

This article was originally published by The Majalla.

All views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, The Majalla magazine or Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper.

Awakening Pera

Anti-government protesters, with the New mosque in the background, gather over the Galata bridge in Istanbul. (REUTERS Photo)
Anti-government protesters, with the New mosque in the background, gather over the Galata bridge in Istanbul. (REUTERS Photo)
When a small group of environmentalists and liberals started sleeping in a small, overlooked park next to Istanbul’s central Taksim Square, slated for replacement by a mall, I thought little aside from being infused by a private kind of sadness. It meant the adding of another brick to the tomb of Levantine Pera, the minority district par excellence where the cosmopolitan, multilingual melting pot of the late Ottoman Empire lived, worked, worshipped, mingled and partied.

My great-grandparents lived in this city atop a hill crowned by the Galata Tower. The streets were lined with elegant 19th century Parisian-style apartment blocks and bohemian commercial passages. Mossy medieval churches hid within inner courtyards, where the passing of time was compressed into a continuum marked only by the screeching of seagulls.

This district withered when its people emigrated or were deported in successive waves from around the time of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the 1920s.

The new republic that was established focused on crafting a Turkish Sunni Muslim identity, and did not hesitate to communicate this to its hundreds of thousands of Armenian, Greek, Jewish and Levantine citizens through prejudicial taxes, pogroms and direct deportations. Once the non-Muslims were gone, the republic confronted some of its Muslim citizens, too, discriminating against Kurds and Alevis.

Around the world, as news of the protests in Istanbul spread and those same forgotten streets became the backdrop to breaking news bulletins, thousands of the descendants of the Armenians, Greeks and Jews who left Pera (today known as the district of Beyoğlu) and spread across the five continents, might have reached for stiff, black-and-white images of that once-renowned area—perhaps showing their well-dressed ancestors as part of the crowds thronging the Grande Rue de Pera. This commercial avenue survives in diminished form today as İstiklal Avenue, an uninspiring, paved-over shadow of its former self, shorn of its trees and lined with second-class branded clothes emporiums, fast-food outlets and tourist-trap cafes. The entertainment district of bars and clubs that extended on either side of İstiklal was dealt a blow in 2011, when the government banned outdoor seating from its winding lanes.

I also share with the descendants of Pera’s immigrants those photographic mementoes and reported memories. But having made a high-ceilinged, early 20th century Greek apartment block my home for the past few years—just down the hill from İstiklal and within teargas range of Taksim Square—the protests acquired a greater urgency for me.

As the police brutally cleared out the protesters and Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s confrontational comments escalated, the images from Istanbul migrated from the semi-private digital corridors of social media to the international news channels. Suddenly, as with Tahrir Square in 2011 and the 2009 Tehran protests, they were part of the global consciousness.

Inside Gezi Park, the demonstrators dug in and started holding proto-democratic assemblies similar to those of Zucotti Park during the Occupy Wall Street protest. It soon became obvious that the protest over the park signaled the coming-out of a generation with a new mentality—one that largely surpassed the Kemalist-versus-Islamist politics of yesteryear. But most of the protesters had no idea of the symbolism and historical background of the district they were fighting to save. Another legacy of the Turkish Republic was an almost total separation from their history.

In the middle of Taksim, at an independence memorial, a protester thrummed a melody on a concert piano as an audience of protesters listened. A few steps farther on, a man in gas mask and goggles stood sentinel atop a burned-out, flipped-over car marking the entrance of a medieval-looking tent city resounding to music, chatter and the sounds of a hitherto apolitical generation attaining consciousness.

This protest came to a sudden end at dusk on Saturday, June 15, as a concert wound down inside the park and news crackled through the congested pathways that, a hundred meters away, the riot police were donning masks and helmets. Then, sound and light grenades detonated at the periphery, followed by teargas canisters plopping through the trees, trailing fizzing tails of white smoke. Riot police advanced into the park and the barricades were crushed. The air swirled with stinging vapor; the ground writhed with the bodies of stunned people out for a Saturday afternoon promenade

That night, we managed to make our way through chaotic streets, exploding projectiles and lines of riot police to a long, narrow room on the third floor of a 19th-century arcade. A band was scheduled to play rebetika, the Greek- and Turkish-language songs inspired by the cosmopolitan port cities of the East Mediterranean. Its members, a group of Greek, Turkish and Bulgarian musicians, sat around moodily, picking at starters, their evening quite clearly cancelled.

But another sound started filtering through the walls: the protesting clash of pots on pans from the neighborhood’s windows, the pop of teargas canisters, and the protesters’ defiant shouts on İstiklal. Downstairs, the great metal doors of the passage clanged shut as protesters went into hiding from the police. Some of them joined us upstairs, and the patron distributed glasses of rakı, an anise-based liquor. Traces of teargas still hung in the room’s atmosphere when the musicians picked up their instruments and began playing leftist anthems last heard during the period of the Greek civil war. Now, they were infused with a new defiance.

The police’s brutal and premature clear-out of Taksim set the stage for clashes throughout the night as protesters tried and failed to retake the square. The next morning, I walked through a subdued Sunday market, past my local church and up a hill. The further I walked, the more my surroundings betrayed signs of recent—and ongoing—conflict.

That day, the last of the major clashes in Istanbul for the time being, remains hazy in my mind. But it is also punched through with searing recollections: neighborhood kids, some in their early teens, doggedly holding a barricade next to an Armenian cemetery, wreaths of teargas swathing the tombstones. An armored police vehicle advanced up İstiklal, scattering crowds in its wake. Protesters ran down a steep, cobbled lane as tear gas fizzed behind them. A crowd of thousands in the neighborhood of Cihangir was dispersed by advancing police units that beat and arrested those too slow to flee. Ships crammed with protesters arrived at Karaköy dock, chanting slogans and singing anthems. There was a fin-de-siècle feeling as I shared cigarettes and a beer with a friend at the foot of the tower of Galata and news spread that meat cleaver-yielding government loyalists were fanning out through nearby streets.

Late at night, a sudden, cleansing storm descended upon Istanbul. But the energy I can never forget is reserved for that magical triangle of land and water where the commercial districts of Karaköy and Eminönü connect to each other under the shadow of the great Ottoman mosques and across the Haliç channel—the Golden Horn—which, in turn, flows into the Bosporus. It was there that thousands of mostly teenage demonstrators formed human chains to shift bricks onto the barricades. After blocking the bridge across the Haliç, they removed the traffic cameras used by the government to identify protesters, lit fires and sat back, waiting for the police to arrive. A few minutes later, the government obliged, dropping tear gas canisters into the fleeing crowd. As I ran along with thousands of others, I wondered whether these venerable buildings—the banks and shipping agencies of late Ottoman Empire Istanbul—had witnessed any more compelling scenes in their long history.

Little significance can be attached to the unfolding of the weekend’s chaos against the backdrop of a neighborhood that was once a model of minority integration. But there is still a poignancy in that it is the very place that Turkey’s Islamizing leader—through a barrage of urban redesign and restrictions on public behavior, the sale of alcohol and nightlife—wants to “purify” and open to suitably religious tourists from the Arab Gulf region.

Beyoğlu, or Pera, is very much the kind of neighborhood that the Alexandrian Greek poet C. P. Cavafy would have felt at home in and been creatively moved by: a district of grimy arcades, raucous taverns, dingy brothels and forgotten churches that encapsulated, in the early 20th century, the passing from the world of empires to the world of nation-states.

A century later, those nation states are in danger of being swept away by transnational ideologies, whether commercial, political or religious. The apostle of these ideologies in the Middle East is Islam-compatible neoliberalism, and its centrifugal forces are redesigning Beyoğlu in its image: gleaming shopping malls, splendiferous mosques, militaristic Ottoman barracks and a puritan literalism completely lacking the abstraction and nuance fostered in historical Pera’s decrepitude and decay.