A few weeks ago, I was asked by a friend in Mexico what would be the single best word to describe my home country, Turkey.
Minutes before, we were discussing how fast her own country, Mexico was changing. With its increasingly diverse and growing economy, it was becoming more and more confident. Yet, despite the vibrant colours that made up its landscape, there was a tendency to see things in black and white.
“Isn’t it a bit like your country, Turkey” she inquired. “A land of contradictions and conundrums.”
“Mexico and Turkey do have many similarities and Turkey, too, is often described as country of contradictions” I said to my friend “but I prefer another term for my country: paradoxical.’’
“What looks like a figure of speech, an anomaly, turns out to be a statement of truth”.
Two weeks on and back on the old continent closer to home, I am convinced that nothing is as it seems in Turkey.
How else do you explain the world’s first sea tunnel linking Asia and Europe becoming the latest controversy to sharply divide the country?
Opened on the 90th anniversary of the Turkish Republic with great fanfare, the Marmaray metro link was dubbed “The Sultan’s Dream,” first imagined 153 years ago by an Ottoman sultan and now made reality by a government lambasted for having a leader who behaves like he is a sultan.
The 13.6-kilometre long tunnel forming the Marmaray, links Istanbul’s European and Asian sides with an immersed tube that runs up to 56 metres deep below the Bosphorus. The controversy surrounding it has been almost as deep.
Along with three other planned prestige projects, the controversially named Selim the Grim bridge over Bosphorus, the new Istanbul airport, planned to be one of the biggest in the world and a canal linking the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea, Marmaray exposes the widening fault lines in the country.
The Justice and Development Party government calls it “the project of the century”. Transport Minister Binali Yıldırım goes one step further, describing it as ’a continuation of the historical Silk Road, re-connecting civilizations’.
Paradoxically, the most vocal critics of the project have always been the archaeologists. During the construction, 8,500 year-old archaeological remains were un-earthed. Clearly annoyed at delays the excavations had caused, the Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan dismissed them as “clay pots, not more important than the people”.
Environmentalists also raised concerns but the most worrying dispute surfaced between the authorities and the Chamber of Architects and Engineers (TMMOB). A senior TMMOB representative claimed that the tunnel was not technically ready for the opening and it posed a risk to public safety.
The Istanbul mayor responded by saying all potential risks have been addressed in detail.
The opposition claimed that the Marmaray inauguration ceremony was designed to overshadow the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Turkish republic.
Surrounded by dignitaries including the president of Somalia, the prime ministers of Japan and Romania, the Prime Minister Erdoğan was described as “the leader of the century” by some, “the architect of the project of the century’’ by others. In return, Mr Erdoğan boasted that they were not only linking continents and cities, from London to Beijing but they were also linking hearts of those people worldwide.
Clearly it was easier to link hearts with Tokyo, Mogadishu and Bucharest than to extend a hand to a political opponent at home.
Hours earlier, during the official celebration ceremony, Mr Erdoğan refused to shake hands with Mr Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party.
With no other parties present, the Marmaray inauguration turned into a party political rally for the ruling Justice and Development Party, further polarizing the country where it has already become almost impossible to find consensus on any substantial issue.
Even though exaggerated claims and grand delusions of some of its leaders often create a backlash, I generally welcome the government initiatives for any long-term investment in Turkey’s infrastructure. The Marmaray too, despite its shortcomings, is an important and valuable development that benefits the people of Istanbul.
Mindful of gaps, I just wish it wouldn’t turn into another Turkey paradox.
This post is also available in: Turkish