Istanbul is two cities. In the north is the wealthy business sector with modern hotels, conference centers, and girls in miniskirts. To the south is poor old Constantinople, the tourist destination where many women still wear black and sometimes cover their faces and where men try to entice tourists into restaurants and shops to earn a small and irregular income with which to feed their families. Since the time of Ataturk the country has officially been secularized but what has been ignored in the West is that the bulk of the poorly educated Turkish people, both in the old city and in the countryside, would prefer a more Islamic state – perhaps not an “Islamic Republic” as in Iran – but one with no clear distinction between public policy and religion. The action of the Prime Minister to build a shopping center in imitation of Ottoman designs speaks to his admiration for this ideal – an ideal supported by the peasantry though clearly not supported by the secularized businessmen in the profitable northern city. How little we understand that his sultan-like indifference to the complaints from the north is completely in accordance with the wishes of the masses.
One might like to read the NY Times article linked below:
What I find interesting about the Times article is how little whole peoples change – and other people’s stereotypes of them. I’ve seen similar stories as this coming out of China all my life. Very often they are presented as the norm when in fact they either are exceptional or are misunderstandings of the culture. Then too, young reporters are inclined to see every “unamerican” event and scandal as something new and blame it on whatever form of government happens to be in power rather than seeing it as an element of the culture. They don’t compare the graft in the near east with Tammany Hall in 19th century New York, for instance, or recognize it as the victor’s way of distributing spoils to clansmen or supporters.
I know more of Japan than China so I’ll cite two Japanese examples of willful blindness and ignorance by our press.: The common American report (at least until a few years ago) that Scotch whiskey costs $100.00 a shot there. That was never normal. What was true was that (A) For many years foreign whiskey was taxed at too high a rate to be common. as Japan protected its own brand, Suntory. (B) Japanese culture frowned on buying imports. (C) It was, and still is, a part of Japanese business culture to show off one’s success by entertaining at extravagantly high-end nightclubs which are seen as prestigious if they overcharge – but that is a business, not a personal, expense. (These are all male outings by the way – sort of the modern equivalent of geisha parties.)
As for misunderstandings: Every time the USA set off an above ground nuclear test in the “50s, the US tabloids would show some Japanese with a dust mask – the racist implication being that Japanese were either ignorant or silly or both. In fact it is fairly common in Japan to wear a surgical mask if one has a cold or other infection, not to protect one’s own self but to prevent your giving the infection to others.
All this I find both amusing and annoying. Before The USA opened diplomatic relations with Communist China, all we got were reports from “China watchers” in Hong Kong. These were usually wrong, the work of Americans who seemed to never get out of the Hong Kong bars. Though why our media did not forward reports coming out of other countries which did have relations can only be explained by willful ignorance in support of US policy. (On the other side, the so-called secret bombing of Cambodia was a secret only in this country. And there was no reason to be secretive. The pro American Cambodian government authorized the bombing of the Ho Chi Ming trail which was no more in “Cambodia,” than the southern Mississippi River was in the USA when it was a part of the Confederacy, an argument that with some modification can be made for our violation of Pakistan’s northern frontier lands.)
I worked in the news business in those years. I recall reading some China watcher’s forecast of the reception that Nixon would get – all celebratory and appreciation of a visit from the great US president – cheering crowds with little American flags – something wonderful like the fall of the Berlin wall would actually be a few years later. Hell no, I said at the time. The Chinese attitude is that Peking is the center of the world. It doesn’t that much care what is happening far from its borders. China (at that time at least) was the only nation on earth that didn’t need anyone else. Under Mao, China may have been poor and authoritarian but it was self sufficient and better off than it had been before the revolution. I accurately predicted that the reception for Nixon would be “correct” but not overly warm. If he wanted to, Nixon could come to Beijing and admit to his past sins against China. However, after Nixon met Mao, then, with the Son Of Heaven’s blessing, things would warm up. They did. The China watchers were wrong. I write all this not to crow – well, maybe a little – but to warn against taking too seriously reports that come out of Asia (or elsewhere) when they look silly or extreme. Many times the writers do not take local culture into sufficient account. For example they were so upset by the Tienanmen Square slaughter that they missed the fact that the revolutionaries’ demand for western style democracy and individualism was not supported by most Chinese, to whom it was quite alien and unwelcome. Confucian thinking was still alive in China and the good of the group was more important there than the will of an individual (our so-called “freedom.”) The rebels were displaying our Declaration of Independence; how would most Americans react if for weeks a crowd were demanding communism and waving Mao’s little red book in Times Square? I’m hardly supporting the Chinese government’s massacre of its liberals but what surprised me at the time was how long it took before they reacted.
Oh well, here I go off on a tangent again. Sorry if I bore you.