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?


  1. . . in nearly 16 years of living in and extensively travelling this country, during which there have been some long and deep discussions with military (colonels and above), bureaucrats (up to and including vali), middle class, highly educated townies, and the amazingly well-informed villagers all around this country, I have never been asked that question nor has there been the slightest suspicion of it in any response. I should add that my politics are very 'left', anti-imperialist, anti-interventionist, anti-nationalist, anti nation states, anti big government, anti-military (ex special forces so have some street-cred), are very pro-people and are openly expressed in conversations and discussions. I have an intense curiosity about this country, its people, its culture and politics etc. and have generally been met with openness and interest. As for suspicion of foreigners - some, thinking of Jolie's connections to the dubious Human Rights watch and its patron George Soros, may be well-founded. Most people here are well aware of the West's interventionist policies, particularly in Stria, and are deeply opposed.

  2. Very glad to hear you've not been asked - and slightly surprised. Of course, I've only been asked in a joking sense, but it is repeated often - even earning me the title 'lawrance' in Izmir! Perhaps I just look like the type...

  3. I believe the writer forgot to mention something that is "Not every yabangee is considered as spy." I was born and raised in Turkey. I've lived in the USA now. I can say as someone who is a Turk, most of Turkish people consider 2 nations' citizens as potential spies, Englishes and Americans. Even in these 2 nations only some people who are in certain age and gender are considered. Males who are between 30-60. However these people are also considered harmless. Turks believe that these people just collect information that turks don't care. Also some people for instance; English teachers or journalists who live in turkey are also sometimes considered as potential spies. But still with the same features such as English and American males who are between 30-60. They think these people are sent to turkey to live as inactive spies, and when they are needed, they will be activated. However there is nothing to be scared of, because turkish people don't care about the spies. You never saw, see and will see a lynching attempt in Turkey like we see in the movie "Argo" because even though Turkish people are mostly conservative, they still are rational and logical and not furious at any western nations like other islamic countries. They probably don't like some western governments but not people. They separate nations and government from each other. They don't accuse people without a strong evidence like in Iran. MIT is also everywhere and MIT is also considered as an enemy. I believe Alan has never been asked that question, probably because he is European and Europeans are considered okey. We can also say Canadians, Irish(In fact Irish people are even respected) Scottish, Australians, New-Zealanders are okey too. Chinese is also sometimes considered as spy but this is another long story, let's stay in the western world. But we can briefly say; Turks believe that "Chinese are forced by their government to collect information and inform chinese government otherwise they get executed." After I came here, I heard the same story from some Americans too. In my opinion this is just ridiculous like other stories. However I should also say that this fear is not only common in Turkey. I saw the same fear in Arabs and some hispanic nations too. They also think Americans and Englishes are spies.
    As a result, when it comes to the reason why Turks consider these people are spy, I can say two things; first action movies and second; many things happened in the past unfortunately. And we cannot erase turkish people's memories. Arab Lawrance is just an action movie that is based on a true story for Western people, it is a documentary for Turkish people which reminds them how they lost lands to the western world with games(oyunlarla). Every time that movie is aired on tv, my dad says "You see what they did to us. It was not enough they also filmed it."