how the world sees america


October 19, 2007 1:04 PM

Taking Off to Turkey

My whole life in a bag.

Three hours to go till Turkey. As long as thunderstorms don't ground the plane, I'm gone.

Here's the final (but flexible) itinerary:

  • -Turkey till November 5.
  • -Lebanon till Nov 20.
  • -Mystery Country till December 5.
  • -Philippines till Dec 25.
  • -South Korea till January 10.
  • -Colombia till Jan 20.
  • -Venezuela till Feb 5.
  • -Mexico till Feb 25.

My editors and I picked these countries because they all have strong, specific ties to the United States, either through their history, foreign policy, or people. They're politically relevant, and different enough from one another (religiously, geographically, politically and culturally) to offer unique angles on America: its Middle East interventions, the effects of labor migrations (Mexico and the Philippines), the impact of the web and pop culture (South Korea and Lebanon), and the critique of American-style capitalism (Venezuela and Mexico). I hope you'll propose many other themes along the way.

Passport primed.

I'm reaching out to the best journalists in each country from across the political spectrum, picking their brains for tighter connections to draw between the U.S. and their country. In Turkey, Soli Ozel brought up some obvious ones like the impact of the Armenian Diaspora in America, U.S. arms sales, support for the Kurds, and the Iraq War. Then a young reporter named Afsin Yurdakul also put me in touch with new filmmakers, underground movements, and rockers to check out.

So I narrowed down to the very different cities of Istanbul, Diyarbarkir and Trabzon to visit, along with small towns nearby. And as soon as I arrive I'm meeting a brain trust of bloggers to give me some sense of the word on the street, nooks and crannies to explore, and people to meet. I develop a long list of contacts, pick the most intriguing places to start, and then hit the road.

On the streets, serendipity takes it. One contact leads to the next; a rhythm builds. And soon I get lost to the world -- that's the thrilling part. I'm looking forward to your company, and your thoughts, as I go.

If you want more on my thoughts behind the project, I talk about it here on video, and have a map for you to browse.

October 22, 2007 9:11 AM

Istanbul Protests: "Curse the PKK, Curse America"

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ISTANBUL - Thousands took to the streets of Istanbul today to protest the deaths of seventeen Turkish soldiers at the hands of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), crying, "Destroy the PKK," and "We are All Turks."

But much of their anger was directed at America: "Close down Incirlik," referring to America's air base in Turkey, "Tell the U.S. to get out now!" and most emphatically, "Curse the PKK, Curse America!"

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October 23, 2007 4:55 PM

Two Kurdish Turks: Waiting for U.S.

The view from Van.

VAN, Eastern Turkey – Zeki M., a language teacher in this predominantly Kurdish city near the Iraq border, was both relieved and disappointed when he heard the news today that Turkish and Iraqi officials will collaborate to take down the PKK. "Strikes against the PKK will not bring peace" unless America promotes the rights of Kurdish Turks, he said.

Kurds here have had a tense history with the Turkish government. "I teach English, but I cannot teach Kurdish to my students," Zeki lamented. "I cannot teach them poetry or show our flag or listen to Kurdish radio."

Zeki sat alongside a local doctor, Nuri A., outside a group of concrete homes built for refugees who say they fled Hakkari in the 1990s at the hands of Turkish Security Forces. We drank Turkish tea with lemon and gazed at jagged hills in the distance. One of the hills, called Taprak Kale, is emblazoned with the huge crescent and star of the Turkish flag. Nuri smirked at it. "It's to remind us we're occupied," he said.

Both Nuri and Zeki believe America will free them. "America will help us - they must. President Bush talks about freedom, human rights, and democracy. Kurds want these things."

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October 24, 2007 6:03 PM

Don't Talk to (American) Strangers

On the outskirts of Van, on 'Big Erkan' Hill.

VAN - "Good, you look Turkish!" my translator says when we meet at the airport in Van, a city in eastern Turkey. "It's an advantage. People are afraid to speak...."

The advantage only lasts so long. I introduce myself to people, say I'm from The Washington Post, and watch eleven potential interviewees on these dusty streets nod politely and say, "I am sorry, no thank you," as if I'm hawking Cutco Knives.

My translator and I move from the city center to the outskirts of Van to talk to the residents there who dwell in houses with concrete shells and plastic roofs. A curious young carpenter approaches us, interested perhaps by the camera. My introduction energizes him; he flashes his blue eyes and starts talking fast: "I moved here from Hakkari. This is my first job in months, but…" But then his colleague cuts him off, like a mother ordering her toddler: "Don't talk to those strangers!"

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October 25, 2007 6:54 PM

Turkish Kurd Praises Ocean City Multiculturalism

Tongue Tied?

ISTANBUL – “To learn another language, you have to press your tongue against a girl's tongue," Ahmet D. tells me shyly. He's a twenty-four-year-old Kurdish student at Bosphorus University who says what Turkey needs is dialogue, humanism, and a little love. He came to this conclusion through academics, American literature, and four formative months serving pancakes on the Eastern Shore.

Ahmet looks out over the channel below. Ships inch by. Beyond them, layered red roofs and minarets undulate on the Asian side of Istanbul. And next to him, punks, bohemian-sheeks, modest Anatolians, fashionistas, and bedraggled test-takers gossip together. Ahmet stares past it all.

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October 27, 2007 8:42 AM

Finding an Islamic Movement on Santa Monica Beach

Muscle men and taut bikinis.

ISTANBUL – In 2002, on the sand of muscle men and taut bikinis, Leo T. unfolded his sajjada on Santa Monica Beach and prayed to Mecca. A drunken homeless man rasped, “‘There is no God, man!’” and waddled away.

Leo, as his American friends call him, just laughed: “At least he knew I was praying and not throwing up . . . America is tolerant of showing your religion in public; in Turkey people would say I was trying to spread Shari'ah if I prayed outside.”

Leo, who grew up here in Istanbul, went to America in early 2001 to figure out his future; he found religion.

Its messengers were followers of the controversial Gulen Movement in Turkey, which claims to “blend Islam with modernity” while resisting secular states’ restrictions on religious expression. Opponents, especially secular Turks within the military, have accused the Gulen Movement of being a cult-like organization secretly plotting to establish an Islamic state by placing its followers within the civil service, police and educational system of Turkey.

A local teacher, Siman, says of the Movement, "The U.S. thinks it's supporting moderate Islam with Gulen, but the Movement is really a Trojan horse that will make Turkey theocratic. America is repeating her mistake...financing short-term friends who will hit them in the end." The Movement's leader, Fethullah Gulen, currently lives in Pennsylvania, fueling rumors here that he's America-backed. He moved there in 1999 for health reasons and to avoid recently-dropped charges of conspiring to undermine the Turkish state; he has 400,000 to 4 million followers worldwide.

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October 29, 2007 6:29 PM

On Turkey's Republic Day, Ataturk Is Everywhere


ISTANBUL - Taksim Square always looks like a protest rally to me, even when people are just lounging. It's packed with shoppers, eaters, smokers and dawdlers. From its cafes, patrons spill out onto the streets like rice from a sack. At night, clubs atop clubs boom with music. And on the wide or winding streets, there’s gossip about everything: from Condoleezza Rice's upcoming visit to the importance of the Turkish Republic.

Today is "Republic Day," October 29. Turkey's founder Kemal Ataturk declared it 84 years ago. Tonight, people are celebrating with torches, fireworks, and flags.

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October 31, 2007 3:06 AM

Metal Storm: Imagining U.S.-Turkey War

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ISTANBUL - Ankara is on fire. U.S. warplanes zoom overhead, blackening the skies. America has just launched "Operation Metal Storm."

So starts one of the most popular books in recent Turkish history, dubbed Metal Storm (or Metal Furtina). This fictional tale of a massive U.S.-Turkey war has sold 600,000 copies across the country since its release in 2004.

Metal Storm starts off, eerily enough, in northern Iraq in 2007. America draws Turkish forces into battle as a pretext to invade the country. The rich uranium, thorium, and borax reserves lure a greedy "evangelical American president" and his cronies, unsparingly named "Donald Rumsfeld and Condoleezza Rice." It's all part of America's plan for world dominion, the book says.

After reducing Turkey to rubble and capturing its capitol, Ankara, the U.S. threatens to divide the remains among its Armenian and Greek neighbors -- the ultimate insult. But a powerful diplomatic alliance between Russia and the European Union comes to the rescue, stalling the U.S. Meanwhile, a Turkish agent smuggles a suitcase nuke through Mexico's border and detonates it in Washington, D.C.

America falls to its knees. Turkey, the good, prevails. America, the evil, loses.

I met one of the two authors of the book, Burak Turna, in a café off Taksim Square. The thirty-year-old, goateed author-musician spends his days here jotting notes for his next book, and says he owes his rise to fame to his ability to "predict future scenarios" and tap into "the subconscious of Turkey."

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November 1, 2007 12:25 PM

Turkish General Edip Baser: America Must Fight PKK

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ISTANBUL - Retired four-star Turkish General Edip Baser left his joint post as Special Envoy for Counterterrorism in May 2007, frustrated with America for professional reasons: he says the United States "tied Turkey's hands," leaving it more exposed to PKK terrorism. But now this frustration has turned personal.

His twenty-six-year-old son, Sukru, is about to enter Turkey's mandatory fifteen months of military service. Sukru wants to join Turkey's Special Forces in the southeast to help them fight the outlawed Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK).

General Baser knows the danger his son would face; he used to command Turkey's military across all of Turkey's southern border, and says Sukru and his fellow soldiers deserve all the help they can get. He wants America to step up, but after his experience as Special Envoy, he isn't hopeful.

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November 2, 2007 5:26 PM

Turkey to U.S.: Drop Your Orientalist Lens

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ISTANBUL - Lounging on a yacht in Istanbul’s Atakoy marina, four young Turkish filmmakers say America must see Turkey through their eyes, not through the hackneyed lens of old movies like Midnight Express, about an American imprisoned in an obscene Turkish jail, or the thirty-second bytes of television news.

Western audiences are still trapped in an “orientalist view of Turkey,” they say, replete with seedy bureaucrats, "dirty carpet vendors," and lonely allies. Americans imagine Turkey to be a land torn apart by a “clash of civilizations between East and West.” That’s what sells abroad, they say, but it doesn’t represent the “true Turkey,” the Turkey they want their films to show.

Hollywood movies, Turkish films directed at Western audiences, and the American students they meet here in Istanbul convince these four just how pervasive the negative images are.

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November 6, 2007 10:02 AM

Mixed Reviews for U.S. from Erdogan's Old Home

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ISTANBUL - Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan shakes President Bush’s hand on the grainy television screen in Hodja Yashar’s Café on Yumak Street in Kasimpasa, Istanbul, just minutes from the flat Erdogan inhabited as a teenager. The old men light their cigarettes to celebrate.

“Miracles can happen!” says one of them, smiling as the anchorwoman reports that America will increase its support of the Turkish government in its battle against Kurdish guerillas in the southeast.

Another man who sells cleaning cloths to car mechanics is less optimistic: “I don’t expect anything from America.”

And so their banter goes back and forth, from praise for the U.S. to deep suspicion. They settle on neither.

They’re all well over sixty, with deep coughs and creased skin. Kasimpasa as a whole is an aging community of shopkeepers and laborers, many of them living off government checks of little over two hundred U.S. dollars per month. It’s not much, the men say, but they get by.

“When a place grows out of poorness, people help each other get by, and [they] become closer and closer,” explains the café owner Hodja. People on Kasimpasa’s windy, sloped streets know each other’s faces. They know who they can trust and who they cannot.

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November 7, 2007 1:30 PM

Night Out: Hip Hop in Istanbul

Riddim's formidable entrance.

ISTANBUL - Girls with bright red garters grind on tables three stories underground to the suggestive lyrics, "You Can Lick My Lollipop." One thousand sweaty bodies crush together in the dark, battling smoke and heat for fresh air.

It looks like a 50 Cent music video gone wrong. Too much bling, too many bodies. But this is where I meet up with two readers of How the World Sees America over the weekend to unwind, and watch U.S. pop culture in ferocious action.

HTWSA reader Holiday Dmitri emailed me from the U.S. several weeks back, letting me know she’d be coming to Turkey for vacation. She suggested we spend a night out, and we choose the club Riddim. Neither of us knew what we were in for.

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November 8, 2007 4:58 PM

Armenian Genocide? Let Turks Decide

Aris searching old Agos files.

America's "Armenian Genocide Resolution"? Bad idea, says this young Turkish Armenian editor. He wants American Armenians to focus on present day human rights, not old politics.

When Aris Nalci was 19 years old, he asked Hrant Dink, founder of Agos, a well-known Armenian weekly newspaper here, for a part-time job. What he got was a life mission: to engage the mainstream Turkish community in dialogue with their Turkish-Armenian co-inhabitants.

Aris was at Yildiz Technical University studying mechanical engineering at the time. He'd often talk with his classmates about "American Imperialism" after the Gulf War. But it wasn't until Aris devoted himself to the cause of improving relations between Armenian-Turks and the Turkish mainstream that he saw just how much of a nuisance a meddling American presence could be.

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November 12, 2007 1:00 PM

How Turkey Sees America

Protesting PKK and carrying a massive Turkish flag.

Turkey will turn your preconceptions of how Muslim countries perceive America upside-down.

It's a country whose Islamic political forces are currently aligning themselves more closely with the United States while the staunch secularists turn away. Members of the ruling Islamic Justice and Development Party (AKP) openly praise the U.S. for allowing free public expression of religion. And they make economic liberalization, entry into the European Union, and improved human rights central parts of their platform.

But the secularist old guard, especially within the military, is suspicious of these Islamic parties. They berate the U.S. for tolerating what they see as the gradual Islamization of Turkey. Retired General Edip Baser says that if a more religious Turkey is "part of Bush's 'Greater Middle East Project' to create Islamic democracies across the region," he wants none of it.

The military, along with most of the Turkish population, also blame the U.S. for letting the outlawed Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK) continue to attack southeast Turkey. The PKK is on America's terrorist list, but I heard repeatedly, "America only cares about its own terrorists.” The day after I arrived, protesters flooded Istanbul's streets chanting, "Curse the PKK, Curse America!"

Meanwhile, minority groups within Turkey have a bit more nuanced view of America, seeing its support as a double-edged sword. Certain activists among the Kurds and Armenians, for example, think America is an ally in their fight for human and cultural rights. But they worry that if they cuddle too close to the U.S., they could become further alienated from mainstream Turks.

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PostGlobal is an interactive conversation on global issues moderated by Newsweek International Editor Fareed Zakaria and David Ignatius of The Washington Post. It is produced jointly by Newsweek and, as is On Faith, a conversation on religion. Please send your comments, questions and suggestions for PostGlobal to Lauren Keane, its editor and producer.