Who do you work for?

Angelina: International world famous actress, or discreet undercover agent? Well, she is foreign...

According to a good friend of mine, who is not quite antiquated - but still considerably older - the best thing about the aging process is having picked-up all the little witty come-backs and charming quips you need to answer monotonous, every day questions.

Indeed monotonous are the many questions that plague a foreigner in Turkey. From the barber, to the taxi driver, to colleagues and new acquaintences, it always starts the same;

"What are you doing here?" ("Drinking chay, for the most part")

"Do you like Turkish food?" ("Yes, but Turkish food doesn't always like me")

"So which one, England or Turkey" ("Without a doubt - Turkey, officer. Now, could I please have my residence permit stamped and be on my way?").

However, there is one question which pops up in polite chit-chat that I don't have any real, set answer to. That question is, "are you a spy?"

The question is delivered as a half-mocking, half-complimentary piece of banter, serving to break the ice with any foreigner who alludes to a certain amount of awareness of Turkish history or politics (incidentally, my two favourite subjects). The complimentary side of the question implies "you know more than the average Westerner about our country", whilst the mocking part - the second level - serves simply as an avenue for some ironic banter at the preposterousness of the statement. 

But, as the Morrissey song goes, that joke isn't funny anymore...

For the fact is, that second to a kind of modesty at the suggestion I am well enough versed in Turkish current affairs, as to be able to stealthily affect them (there are some truly staggering gaps in my knowledge) I think that underlying the question is a compulsion for the speaker to ask him or herself "why on Earth, would a foreigner want to know anything about Turkey?" And to this, I take offence.

Turkey is beautiful

The things that happened, happen and are going to happen in this country are insanely interesting. Add to that, that a modern, twentieth-century nation-state is struggling to come to terms with post-modernist individualism before our very eyes, grappling back and forth with all its internal contradictions, inter-loping and zigzagging ideologies and impassioned political debate. What else could that be but riveting? Should I apologies? Should I tell you it is just because I have a Turkish girlfriend? Should I tell you it's just because I'm a Muslim?

Turkey is beautiful. Turkey is strange. Turkey is interesting. How could anyone doubt it?

The CIA are accused of involvement in a shooting in Taksim
in 1976
Many Turks do doubt it, it appears, and not without reason. There have been incidences involving foreign spy agencies, such as the Taksim Square massacreespecially well-remembered by the left. But aside from such incidences, most suspicions originate from the Sevres Syndrome, a phrase first coined by Dietich Jung, named after the treaty which would have divided present day Turkey amongst colonial powers. The perception is, that the foreigner's motives for anything in politics, is the division and the destruction of Turkey. Most Turk's whole analysis of foreign affairs revolves around this infallible assumption.

It is not simply in the domain of politics that this takes an agressive turn. Below, was a comment I received last year, for an article I published in Today's Zaman about how foreign teachers should have the right, according to the institution's wishes, to work in Turkish state schools (a right only reserved for citizens):

Jennet: Liam Murray, do not blame Turkish "bureaucracy" just because the likes of you (from the U.K or the West) cannot get a easy foothold to job security or entry into Turkey. Turks simply do not trust foreigners or any outsiders with their most precious gift - 'the Turkish children'. And how on earth is an English speaking person going to translate the meaning of words from Turkish to English, when they know nothing of the Turkish language, its religion, customs, family life and culture that is so alien from the Turkish system ? Would these western people brain wash Turkey's children to think that parents are "outsiders" and that children should "embrace homosexuality" like they are now doing in western countries ? 

You can see where the elements tie in with exactly what I am talking about. What could we possibly know about anything? Yet here, we are not content simply to divide the country, now we desire to brainwash the youth.

Sarai Sierra: Yet more suspicion

Since Sarai Sierra's murder in Istanbul this week, the inherent suspicion has been unfortunately, expected.

The police were quoted on the front page of Vatan earlier this week, stating that they had no suspicion she was a spy. However, according to Sabah, an unidentified FBI agent leaked that, “Sierra’s visit in Istanbul was not to take photos. There is a possibility of her being a drug courier,”

It was as though Christmas had come early for the press, althouigh this one source was anonymous: Sabah's headline today ran, "Sierra's death not ordinary". Vatan's was "Hanging around with bad guys" with a further headline on page 19 exclaiming "She met up with shady guys in Turkey!" 

English-language blog, Ataturk's Republic found fault with reporting on the woman's death too, offering a good analysis. The blog highlighted one story on Turkish Agenda suggesting that, surprise, surprise, she was a CIA agent. The reasons put forth in the article were that, firstly, she "planned her stay carefully so she could not be traced" because she did not rent a hotel room, and she did not have a camera, despite claiming to want to take pictures (she used her iPad, like 95% of people who claim to be 'interested in photography' on the net).

With these two pieces of evidence, the site headlined the story "Missing American Woman Most Likely A Spy, The Latest Findings Indicate", yet, it unravelled its entire arguement by ending with the question, "why would FBI help Turkish police to find her if she is an American spy? Do you think that is odd?"As the writer acutely observes, from movies, the two agencies "do not even like eachother". 

Writers of Ataturk's Republic website were unsurprised however, citing that members of the CHP had recently even "publicly questioned whether Angelina Jolie’s humanitarian visit to the Syrian refugee camps in Turkey was evidence of a CIA connection".

This man doesn't even know if he is a spy. But he doesn't mind accusing
Blogging Campaign

As I discussed in the last post, politics gets a lot more real when it enters the private realm. I am part of a group on facebook for Turkish bloggers. One of my favourite blogs on this group is elleninturkey.com, written by Ellen Rabiner. Ellen is an American travel writer, who writes about fun personal observations and outings in and around the sunny sea-side city of Antalya. She expressed dismay on our facebook group however, as this week she received a threatening comment on one of her posts:

"We do not want a stranger to write about our country. You promote our country in the wrong way, because you do not know Turkey."

I would not have been shocked, had Ellen's post only been about watching the performance of a Symphony Orchestra. But it didn't stop there, Ellen's twitter feed was full of ridiculous and slightly disturbing tweets from strange accounts. Here are a few of them:

4 Febلا لاعتزال الكبار ‏@adult_AlAhly

@ElleninTurkey: How long you plan to stay in Turkey? Are you an agent? What is your mission in Turkey?


5 FebRere Nano ‏@YoYoAjram
@ElleninTurkey: We read your posts in your blog. Why do you insult the Turks in your blog? We protest your blog (http://elleninturkey.com )

Drew Baransk ‏@tallatallo
@ElleninTurkey: What is your relation with #saraisierra? Are you an agent? Who do you work for?

I'm delighted to say that Ellen replied to most of the comments with good humour, although she genuinely felt that the whole thing was 'a bit scary'. 

Thankfully, the messages have stopped. However, the accusations will most likely reappear the next time a foreigner is either involved in something newsworthy or, God forbid, takes a slight interest in Turkish affairs.

In any case, one good thing has come of all this. Ellen has given me a great rebuke which I intend to steal for the next time someone asks me if I'm a spy:

Who do you work for?


What does one make of all this senseless killing?

 Yesterday the body of Sarai Sierra was found hidden in the rubble outside the old walls of the city. Sarai was a tourist from New York city, on her first trip outside the States, taking photographs and enjoying a tour around Europe which ended tragically in Istanbul, hours before she was due to leave on a plane home.

I'm one of those people who usually scrolls past crime stories on news websites. I like my daily dosage of tragedy to come with a map, an analysis from the BBC Middle East correspondent – and a statement from the White House I can wryly deplore over a cup of tea.

Being affected by the death of a missing woman is all a bit new for me.

First of all, I had invested genuine hope in Sarai being found alive and well somewhere, praying she had done something grossly irresponsible to 'get away from it all' as many fantasise about between the hum-drum and clicking away of modern life.

I perhaps would not have given it much thought, if news hadn't reached me before the media broke the story. A colleague at the university was extremely distressed one day over lunch. He had been contacted by Sarai's husband in the states. The two were put in touch with each other via a mutual friend. My colleague was at his wit's end and had obviously spent a great deal of time researching his worst fears. Istanbul's organized crime, sex trafficking, abductions and the like all featured heavily in his hypothesizing. Istanbul is a far cry from the favellas of Rio, but you do here stories. Harassment abounds. As for rape stories and abuse, they are unfortunately banal, whether in news stories, TV shows or cinema.

But the media is the message; I was affected by my colleague's emotive conjectures into the macabre more so than any TV report, and I corresponded to it with what now appears to have been a product of denial, concealed as a vain hope.

Sarai's husband had sent him an e-mail detailing what had happened; “My name is Steven Sierra, husband of Sarai Sierra. My wife left for a trip to Istanbul, Turkey on January 7, 2013 and was scheduled to arrive back in Newark airport Newark, NJ on United Airlines at 4:50pm on January 22,2013.” The e-mail contained several pictures, a description of the woman and an impassioned plea to get in touch with any relevant information before Sarai's brother arrived to help with the search.

The Search

Her brother appeared on the news within days, obviously distraught. It must have been incredibly difficult for him to come to a country he had never visited, in a city with such a vast scale, on such a depressing mission.

You have to appreciate the effort the Americans put into the search. The FBI were on the case early on, possibly operating in Istanbul as well as back in the States, where they lead a huge effort trawling through the woman's social media contacts, tracing IP addresses and identifying individuals she was thought to have contact with not long before she went missing. According to the Turkish press, ten individuals are being questioned, some identified through internet usage.

A while after the investigation was launched, I was contacted through yabangee.com, by a journalist in New York trying to piece together what had happened, and asking me what the foreign community was doing to help. I couldn't say much. We hadn't even put out an article at that point. To do so, did not come to my mind, but when faced with the chance to do something I realised, on a positive note, that we should put her picture up and inform everybody we can. This is something we should have done sooner. On another note however, I realised that my hopes were overblown. Among other facts related to the case, simply the fact that Sarai had a Turkish complexion, and would not have stood out in a crowd, and at the same time, did not know any expats living in the city, made what little we could do unfortunately minute.

People were talking, but they were all pointing to the same grim conclusions. That she shouldn't have been staying in Tarlabasi in the first place, was a regular comment. One guy from the site lives two streets away from where she was staying in that neighbourhood, a run-down slum which I have written about previously on Beyhude.

Media Coverage

Other criticism was directed at the media. One colleague at the university quite rightly questioned whether the same amount of coverage would be given, let alone police effort spent searching for a Senegalese girl who had gone missing in the city. It is a hard point to argue, given the Municipal Police put together a special task force to deal with the case.

Generally though, the media got it right on this one. Even The Daily Mail, not exactly the most politically sensitive newspaper in Britain, was forth-right about how rare it was for such an attack to occur in Istanbul, which, considering its size, is one of the safest metropolises in the world. Mention of the Kayiplar Dernegi's (Foundation for the Lost) involvement was also good to see covered, with the duel purpose of displaying how much Turks cared about the case whilst highlighting the good work of the group, which holds regular activities and demonstrations around the country.

Above: Choice use of emotive geographical placement on the part of CNN.    

On the other hand, CNN's choice of image at the head of the story (pictured), highlighting the kind of neighbourhood Turkey inhabits, almost had me in titters when the story first become international. Luckily, it seems to have been a one-off in coverage of the case, although I did raise an eye-brow when the end of AP's report contained the line 'Sierra's death was unlikely to have a significant impact on tourism, a large component of the Turkish economy.' Not tactful, to say the least.

Increasing Violence before my Eyes

I'm drifting into the safety of reporting the details. However, the news of the murder (of which I just noticed, I clinically began referring to as 'the case' – denial as coping mechanism, much?) has affected the way I read other tragic articles. And they are not hard to find recently.

The AP concluded their last article on Sierra with a note that murders of foreigners in Turkey are rare, but that in 2008, a story I barely remembered, “an Italian artist, Pippa Bacca, was raped and killed while hitchhiking to Israel wearing a wedding dress to plead for peace. Her naked body was found in a forest in northwest Turkey. A Turkish man was sentenced to life in prison for the attack.”

Flicking through the online postings of a pro-government Syrian activist the other day, brought to my attention the news of an Orthodox priest, Rev. Fadi Jamil Haddad, who had been captured whilst handing over a ransom to an armed gang the activist accused of being anti-government Jihadist rebels. Apparently, the original hostages had been killed, the money taken, and a higher random given out for the priest, which could not be met by the local community. The priest was tortured in ways I don't wish to go into detail about before being killed.

Then, to top it all off, there was the Huffington Post's article numbering the amount of gun deaths recorded in America since last month's atrocity in Sandy Hook. The number totalled 1,280.

I will ask the question again, what does one make of such senseless violence?

It is a well-held belief in Islam, that unlike animals and other-worldly beings, whose roles and actions are limited by changes in nature outside their own 'programming', the human faculty of choice and free will enables humans to be the highest and lowest of life-forms inhabiting this planet (Qur'an 5:32 95:4). Inevitably, I have been exposed this week, to too much of the latter form.