Istanbul letter: Kadikoy – the weekend escape from Erdogan’s growing shadow

Progressive district a bubble that shuns Turkish ruling party line

Anti-riot police patrol the streets of Kadikoy, a liberal district on Istanbul’s Anatolian shores, during a protest on Sunday against Turkey’s offensive in Syria against Kurdish forces. Photograph: Ozan Kose/Getty Images

Anti-riot police patrol the streets of Kadikoy, a liberal district on Istanbul’s Anatolian shores, during a protest on Sunday against Turkey’s offensive in Syria against Kurdish forces. Photograph: Ozan Kose/Getty Images

 

There was a time, not terribly long ago, when I could leave my former apartment in Kadikoy, saunter down the street to the nearest bakery and return with breakfast, all in a couple of minutes. To do so today takes a little more time.

That’s because the streets and alleys of Kadikoy, a progressive district on Istanbul’s Anatolian shores, are thronged. The simple act of walking along its Moda or Bahariye neighbourhood streets involves negotiating a path around buskers, people photographing street cats and fleets of baby strollers.

The crowds, in turn, are fuelling a local boom; rents have skyrocketed with edgy pubs, artisan eateries and even tattoo cafes and cereal bars all open for business.

Weekends see sea-side parks in the Moda neighbourhood crowded with young families, yoga classes and couples jiving to 1950s-era music. Kadikoy’s mayor says that more than two million people descend on the district from across the city every weekend in summer.

A largely residential district of about 800,000 people, Kadikoy has increasingly become a bubble that shuns the realities of life in today’s Turkey. It’s a place where lifestyles and political perspectives that oppose the domineering AK Party can be enjoyed; it is a haven from the oppressive national conversation dictate by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

In Kadikoy, people come to enjoy an environment where they aren’t forced to listen to conversations about how the US and Europe are out to destabilise and undermine Turkey, or about how almost anyone who disagrees with the AK Party’s world view should be considered a supporter of terrorism.

Destination of choice

Kadikoy has become the weekend destination of choice for young, liberal Istanbul residents because it is a traditional stronghold of secularists and modernist Turks, people for whom the distance between religion and government can never be wide enough.

Before the Greek-Turkish population exchange of 1923, Kadikoy was home to a thriving Greek Christian community, and although its present Christian population is a fraction of what it was back then, the suspicion of Islam’s place in politics pervades.

It’s unsurprising then, that the social democratic Republican People’s Party (CHP) founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk almost a century ago is comfortably the most popular in Kadikoy. More than 80 per cent of voters here opposed Erdogan’s successful bid to convert Turkey’s constitution to a presidential system in last April’s referendum. While the AK Party has coasted to victory in local and parliamentary elections nationally, it struggles in Kadikoy.

The problem for Istanbul’s beer-guzzling young folk, however, is that opposition to Erdogan has practically evaporated. The CHP has languished for more than two decades and appears unable to address Turkey’s authoritarian slide. As the dominant power during the 20th century, it had multiple chances to modernise the country, chances it largely passed up

The problem for Istanbul’s beer-guzzling young folk, however, is that opposition to Erdogan has practically evaporated. The CHP has languished for more than two decades and appears unable to address Turkey’s authoritarian slide. As the dominant power during the 20th century, it had multiple chances to modernise the country, chances it largely passed up.

Growing the economy

Erdogan, conversely, fuelled his base by growing the economy, embarking on infrastructure projects nationwide and energising the millions of conservative Turks previously sidelined under military dictatorships and secular governments.

Places such as Kadikoy may offer a weekend escape for those desperate to tune out of the dark place Turkey finds itself today, but the crushing reality is that the Turkey they would like to see is slipping out of view.

Turkey is a world leader in supressing the press and media, and government opponents suffer ever more repression. When, for example, the CHP’s new Istanbul chairwoman, Canan Kaftancioglu, was elected last week, an investigation was immediately opened against her for “terror propaganda” and “insulting” the president via social media posts. She rejects the allegations.

And when a play titled Just a Dictator about the rise to power of an unnamed authoritarian leader was to open in Kadikoy last Friday, authorities moved to ban it using ongoing state of emergency powers, claiming it “may affect public order and safety negatively, endanger security and well-being of the public and disturb the environment of public peace and trust”.

Few in Kadikoy, be they long-time residents or weekend visitors, can claim that Turkey under the secular governments of old was any more democratic that it is today – civil violence and politically motivated detentions were common during the 1980s and 90s. The problem today, according to some Kadikoy dwellers, is that on top of Erdogan and the AK Party being autocrats, they are autocrats they have little in common with.

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