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September 8, 2014 / bswitaba

A view from Turkey; The good, the bad, and the ugly

Not long ago, I was privileged to attend the 9th UN Internet Governance Forum held in Istanbul, Turkey.

For those who are wondering what the UN IGF is all about, please kindly refer to my previous post ( “Internet Governance; Unveiling the Internet policy making”).

I had never in my wildest dreams ever thought of Turkey being my destination but thanks to AFRINIC, the regional Internet registry for Africa and the Indian Ocean – that this was made possible.

Turkey is adversely mentioned in the bible as Anatolia mainly in the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles.

Anatolia is a name that is derived from Greek meaning “east” or “sunrise”. In modern Turkish, it’s Anadolu. Geographically, it’s simply referred to as “Asia minor” (small Asia). The title “Asia minor” denotes the westernmost protrusion of Asia, which makes up the majority of the Turkey republic.

So after six hours of flight aboard Turkish airlines, I finally landed at Artatuk airport in Istanbul at 8 a.m in the morning. I was greeted with a beautiful summer morning – slightly warmer than home.

At the passport control, I noticed that the staffs are not friendly though –they have this grumpy face that seems to say “We are taking life seriously before it takes us”.

My hypothesis is that it’s got something to do with their inability to converse in English.

Most Turkish citizens have no passion for the Queen’s language, making it complex to make a meaningful conversation with them.

After clearing with the immigration and collecting my luggage, I headed out of the airport to catch a shuttle to Taksim square in town, not far from my hotel. Prior to my coming, I had utilized my digital skills to research on Google maps.
I turned right of the airport exit just as Google had suggested and 50 metres away were the Havas buses. Travelers were boarding one of the buses so I tried to get on board as well but the driver rudely waves at me shouting “No No No No”, in disapproval without any explanation. I try to get on 3 more shuttles but the treatment is the same so I am left flabbergasted. By this time, I am wondering what the matter is until one driver walks up to me and asks “Do you speak French? Are you from West Africa?” My reflex and common sense triggers the term “Ebola’ in my mind. That’s it! They won’t tell me. So they must think am from an Ebola stricken region! I tell the driver I am from East Africa and speak English. He walks away to converse with his colleagues in Turkish then returns offering to get a cab instead.

I arrive at my hotel (Hilton Bosphorus), which is close to the scenic shores of the Bosphorus sea. Bosphorus is a strait that forms part of the boundary between Europe and Asia.


Bosphorus Strait

The staff at the reception was so friendly unlike the folks at the airport. I am ushered to my room on 7th floor. I find my VIP room is from soups to nuts; All the complimentary you can imagine of from spas to meals – what other paradise can I ask for?

After freshening up, I grab some fruits (pears and grapes) and head out for a walk in the neighbourhood.

I ask for directions to the UN convention centre (a 3 minutes walking distance as per my research) but since language was a barrier, the folk I ask in turns calls another one who unfortunately doesn’t comprehend English as well and the cycle goes on to the fifth person who luckily understood me and directed me promptly.

Later in the evening, I am by the lifts waiting to go up to my room. Three gentlemen are waiting to go up as well but when the lift comes, one talks to the other two (in Turkish), and I end being the only occupant in the lift as they opt to wait for another lift to come. Usually, if someone is talking about you in their language, you would sense even if you do not understand the language. If I thought the incident at the airport was an isolated case then I was dead wrong as it’s now seemingly becoming a trend.

The week long UN IGF commences on Monday and I am delighted to reunite with other fellows from Latin America, Africa, and Asia. I also win admiration from participants from Brazil for wearing a Brazil jersey. However, some fellows from Argentina make fun of me following the 7-1 drubbing by Germany at the world cup. I laugh it off and tell them we can cry together as Argentina did not win the cup on “our” home soil either. That’s the fun part of life though laughing and joking about the good and the not so good moments. “I am Brazilian for life – no matter what”, I assure them.

At some point I need to wire some money back home. Every bank I go to asks the destination of the money. I answer “Africa”, and all they do is say “try this (scribbling down the name of a bank) our system is down”. I go around 15 banks (I am counting) and the story is the same. I fail to understand how a money wiring system can be down for those minutes or hours I have walked from bank to bank. By this time I suppose I have walked about 3 kilometers or so. I give up and return to the conference venue. I don’t get to go back to try in the afternoon as asked by some banks as I am presenting on a seed alliance innovation workshop.

The following morning I head back to the bank to try wiring again but it turns out to be the same all excuse. I go to the next bank with a broken spirit as am starting to get frustrated. I am lucky though that in this particular one, I am given the forms to fill. The staff can’t utter more than 3 words in English but am all good as the form is in both Turkish and English.

After successfully wiring the cash, am greatly relieved. I later come to learn that in Turkey, there are monetary restriction policies. Cash leaving the country is usually treated with “suspicion” hence the hard time in having to wire it. Well, they should know people – I am a law abiding global citizen after all and not some presumed terrorist or anything like it.
The few days I have been here have portrayed to me that Turkey is akin to China. From blocking the Internet, mainly Twitter and Facebook from time to time and cracking down on dissidents.
A few months ago, Twitter and YouTube were banned by the prime minister for about 15 days!

One of the evenings, I decide to take a walk with my French speaking friends to the food courts and shopping malls. On the streets, we come across two folks; one Russian and his Turk counterpart. They happen to be pimps and try to lure us in their scheme. The Turk says in pidgin English“My brothers at 200US$ good prize I get you one of those Turkish women” (pointing at skimpily dressed ladies standing at a distance near a club). I jokingly ask “Are you offering us JLo or Rihanna for that prize? My counterparts burst out in laughter (Am only trying to get naughty to turn off these pimps scheme). And indeed they see we are not prospective clients so they head off to look for their next potential target.

While gambling and prostitution are illegal in Turkey, there are determined individuals who are risk takers who would rather strive to get a buck to survive oblivious of the dangers of getting caught up by the law.

Amid all the drama, I meet Turkish citizens who are so friendly and we talk about Abdullah Ocalan and his arrest in Kenya back in the late 90’s. Abdullah Ocalan is the imprisoned separatist leader of the PKK, and was arrested in Nairobi in 1999 by Turkish security forces following permission by the then president Moi. Turks think that this incident makes Kenya a stronger friend and partner of Turkey.
During coffee break, Turkish football is also on the decks in our discussions. Am not surprised most Turks think all Africans come from the same country as Didier Drogba. Kindly note Drogba was playing for Turkish club Galatasaray prior to his move back to the Blues and he was such a darling to many. My colleague from Abidjan takes advantage of this delusion and claims Drogba is “family”. And indeed he wins admiration from the ignorant audience.

One lady at the UN is smitten when I tell her I love Fenerbahce all because of Roberto Carlos. The previous night, I had watched them win 3 -2 against their opponents. The lady solemnly swears that Fenerbahce is her team and Roberto Carlos her favourite player. She tells her male counterparts that I am the most sensible guy as only sensible folks support Fenerbahce, the most successful team in Turkey. Since the comments are from her, I take them (smilingly).The lady asks to take me to a Fenerbahce game but too bad my time in Turkey is too short.

On a different occasion, I developed a craving for pizza so I check in this food court. I am the only African in the vicinity. I greet the attendants (I have obviously learnt a few words in “Turkish”). Well, Turkish is similar to Arabic and more so Swahili. Salaam Aleikum, Jamhuri, tarehe, dakika, shukran, wallahi, inshallah are words Swahili speakers can relate with.

The moment the attendant sees me, he calls out loud on his colleague, a cashier and proceeds to tell me to go to him to be served. As I pay 13 Turkish lira for the pizza, the guy tells me “My brother I am gay, are you one?” I ask him why he tends to think I could be one. ‘Where are you from and do you believe in Allah?” I ask him. He tells me he’s from Syria but is adamant to tell me if he believes in God. I am tempted to ask him if he is a member of ISIS but instead I choose to ignore it all together as I have no time for such loafers and scoundrels; Moreso, for a meaningless conversation.

All in all, Turkey is a great country despite the downsides. Shopping around is much easier considering three currencies are accepted here i.e the US dollar, Euro and Turkish Lira.
I must admit I enjoyed the good cuisine, the sea vista, the weather, warm hearted friends, the cultural performances from the lion of Anatolia dance troupe, and last but not least, the discotheques. Speaking of discotheques, Tarkan, he of the Simarik (“kiss kiss”) 1997 hit performed next to my hotel. The night was extremely ecstatic, and the revelers exuberant!

I leave Turkey worthier and stronger, for pearl does not lose it’s worth even when thrown in the mud and trampled upon by pigs. AFRINIC lodged a complaint to the UN IGF secretariat regarding my airport incidence. I hope action is taken to save other immigrants from Africa the undeserved humiliation.



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