Friday, July 20, 2007

Hamam / Politics

After a long day of touring mosques, churches and towns, I had a terrific Turkish bath! I went to Çemberlitas Hamam, which is quite historical since it was commissioned in 1584 by Nur Banu Sultan, the wife of Sultan Selim and the mother of Sultan Murat III, and it was built by Mimar Sinan, the same legendary Turkish architect who built the Blue Mosque. As usual in hamams, men and women are separated. Before entering the bath you're given a towel, a glove scrubber, rubber slippers and the keys to a locker. In the women's section there are 3 basic chambers: in the first you undress and relax; the second is a steam room in an expansive perforated dome (that looks like a lantern) held by intricately ornate collumns, and in the center floor a huge circular warm marble slab where you lie on your towel while you wait to be scrubbed. Radiating from the slab there are alternating receded fountains for rinsing and individual semi-private small fountain rooms that you can use to bathe yourself. After relaxing on the slab for about 20 minutes, a woman takes your glove scrubber and uses a bucket to pour warm water over your body. She lathers you with a sweetly fragrant body wash and scrubs the entire back of your body, then the front, then asks you to sit up so she can wash your hair. After 15 minutes or so, once she's peeled off the top layer of your skin (I'm not kidding), she walks you to the rinsing area. After rinsing, if you want, you can sit back on the slab, or you can go to the third chamber for a full body oil massage. Once you're done, you can relax with a freshly squeezed glass of orange juice. You feel soooooo clean and chilled and that night you can finally sleep profoundly.

Hamams have been around for centuries, since Byzantium when they first became institutions. In the 18th century, Jean Thévenot described one in his Voyae au Levant: "You enter by a large square room, about 20 feet long, with a very high ceiling. This room is lined with stone benches built against the surrounding wall. They are as wide as the wall, and half as high, and all are covered with matting."

William Makepeace Thackeray who wrote Vanity Fair (1847), described his experience in a hamam in his Notes of a Journey from Cornhill to Grand Cairo (1865): "The spacious hall has a large fountain in the midst, a painted gallery running round it; and many ropes stretched from one gallery to another, ornamented with profuse draperies of towels and blue cloths, for the use of the frequenters of the place. All around the room and the galleries were matted enclosures, fitted with numerous neat beds and cushions for reposing on, where lay a dozen of true believers smoking, or sleeping, or in the happy half-dozing state... The dark room was the tepidarium, a moist oozing arched den, with a light faintly streaming from an orifice in the domed ceiling... When you get into the Sudarium, or hot room, your first sensations only occur about half a minute after entrance, when you feel that you are choking. I found myself in that state, seated on a marble slab... I was in a narrow room of marble, with a vaulted roof, and a fountain or warm and cold water; the atmosphere was in a steam, the choking sensation went off, and I felt a sort of pleasure presently in a soft boiling simmer, which no doubt, potatoes feel when they are steaming."

Here's another prettily written description by British lawyer and correspondent of The Daily News Sir Edwin Pears, who lived in Turkey from 1873 to 1919 and is known for his publications describing Turkey, especially his Forty Years in Constantinople (published in 1915), and for his letters describing the Moslem atrocities committed in Bulgaria in 1876, which aroused popular demonstrations in England):

The sonority of the word contains all the sensuality of a purification rite. Haloed in mist that softens the harshness of reality, ghostly shilhouttes wander from room to room with the demeanor of penitents, then kneel at the base of marble fountains to rest near those horns of plenty atrickle with scalding water. Under beams of light issuing from occuli set into the cupolas or the spectral glimmer of neon tubes, bodies are kneaded, joints crack, thighs slap against wet marble, and spirits give up to long hours of moist languor.

AKP won!
Turkey’s constitution prohibits mixing politics and religion; the country’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, decreed separation of mosque and state after World War I. Since the 1950s, although there’s been a multi-party system, conservative parties have dominated parliamentary politics. Today, 70% of the people in Turkey are under age 35, and they’re increasingly interested in politics. The AKP (Justice and Development Party), first elected in 2002, is moderately Islamist but economically liberal. On Sunday 22 July 2007, during Turkey’s 16th multi-party general election, AKP, the incumbent, was overwhelming victorious. Most people I talked with in the subsequent days seem very surprise but not really too upset. They are surprised because at the beginning of summer there were throngs out in the streets in Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir rallying in support of the secular movement, which is supported by the Turkish military. They fear Erdoğan/the AKP government’s conservative leanings. Those many demonstrations seemed to be an indication that the AKP would be voted out of power. But on Sunday 22 July 46% of the votes went to the AKP, which now gives them a definite mandate.
The demonstrations and the opposing parties’ stances seem paradoxical to me: yes, AKP is more conservative, but it has opened the country and improved the economy and private sector. During the five years the “islamists” have been in power (and have had the largest parliamentary majority in a generation) Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has not passed any laws that could be described as Islamist. For instance, he has not overturned the ban on wearing Islamic headscarves in any state institutions—including schools, universities and government offices. He’s liberalized restrictive laws on the property of Turkey’s religious minorities—Greeks, Armenians and Jews. And he has introduced sweeping reforms that scrapped legal restrictions on freedom of speech and granted Kurds more cultural rights. And just last year, because of all those reforms, Turkey opened formal negotiations to join the European Union. So, paradoxically, “Islamists” favor integrating Turkey into Europe and eliminating authoritarian laws that restrict freedom and religious observance, and "secularists" actually want a more nationalistic, isolationist Turkey with a politically powerful military.
On Sunday the 22 Turkey is having national elections. Usually, at that time most people are traveling, off on vacations, gone to distant places, but that's not the case right now. Nearly everyone is in their respective hometowns, and if they're not, most are traveling there on Saturday so they can vote on Sunday. Politics in Turkey is a serious affair for people. Nearly everyone votes, maybe because it's one of the times when their voices truly makes a difference. The direct vote determines who takes control of parliament and thus what direction the country will follow. This coming election is rather contentious; it's the topic of conversation in the streets, cafes, among strangers, on TV, the radio, posters, in the bazaar, demonstrations, car caravans with loudspeakers, while waiting on lines at the bank, the post office, the supermarket. Everybody has an opinion and everybody seems compelled to express it. No one seems sure who exactly will win this election, but some say that the conservative AKP party will retain power, even though the military has warned against that (the Turkish constitution allows the military to take control of the government in dire situations).

This election, and politics in general, in Turkey is a nuanced affair; there's simply no way to make any of it black and white. For example, there are 5 major parties that seem to be having a visible impact in the current election, and each has various layers of complexity (especially for an American who's used to more fixed definitions of "democrat," "republican," "conservative" and "liberal"):

1) Justice and Development Party (AKP): founded in 2001, a liberal party that has been accused of upholding perhaps too extreme Islamist precepts, though it describes itself as pro-Western mainstream party with a conservative social agenda and a commitment to a market economy and European Union membership. The AKP rules today with 352 members.

2) The Republican People's Party (CHP) was created in 1923 by the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa kemal Ataturk. It is the main opposition in the current AKP legislation. It bills itself as a social democrat party in the mould of European counterparts.

3) Young Party (GP) was founded by a young and controversial businessman, Cem Uzan, in 2002; it failed to pass the required 10 percent receipt of votes in 2002, but now it's back billing itself as nationalist, populist and anti-European Union membership.

4) National Movement Party (MHP) was founded in 1969 and is often described as ultra-nationalist because of its history of militancy and paramilitary activities with young people.

5) The Democrat Party (DP)is a new party that seems to be seeking to mend the rift between the True Path (DYP) and Motherland (ANAP) parties. The first DP party ruled from 1950 to 1960 when its leader was ousted in a coup.

So, look for news regarding the election this Sunday. The results should be in by Monday afternoon.

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