Gaziantep ‘- a stop on the Spice Road with a long Armenian businesst

Turkish journey: European dreams

Saturday, 13 November, 2004, 13:39 GMT

The BBC’s Istanbul correspondent Jonny Dymond is exploring Turkish life on a
trip across the vast country as it lobbies the European Union to open
membership talks.

He sent the third of a series of reports from Gaziantep.


As night falls over Gaziantep, a city of about a million on the edge
of Turkey’s south-east region, a thick belt of blackness hovers over
the fringes of the city.

In the early moments of the dusk it looks pretty dramatic, almost
romantic, until you realise that it is pollution, the product of the
light industrial plants and textile factories that ring the city.

The pollution doesn’t stop at the edge of town. The air in the centre
of town itself gathers over the day a smoky, slightly soupy quality.

This pollution may not be good for the health.

But it is, for Gaziantep, not something to be mourned – because it
is the product of the town’s prosperity, a sign that in at least one
city of Turkey’s troubled south-east, things are going relatively well.

It took me 10 hours to get here from Konya, in central Anatolia.

I came by coach, it’s not the fastest way to travel. Ever since one
of the more horrific road accidents recently killed nearly 50 people,
the coach drivers have taken it easy on the roads, sticking to the
speed limit.

However, that doesn’t stop different kinds of lunacy.

An accident a few days ago was caused by one driver trying to give
control of a coach to another driver while the vehicle was still
pelting along the road. Is life as a coach driver really so boring
that you have to enliven it with tricks like that?

It would be much quicker to fly. But then you’d miss one of the
biggest stories of Turkey.

There appear to be six or seven different countries wrapped up in
this one – indivisible, of course – republic.

You can see parts of Gaziantep – just about – as part of Europe,
but much would have to change

I’m not talking about the Kurds, the Circassians or the Laz, but
about the simple geography of the place.

For a couple of hours’ drive beyond Konya, it is the monotonous
Anatolian plain outside the coach window – brown earth, blue-white
sky, a long line of electricity pylons, the odd scrubby tree and the
odd equally scrubby village.

This gives way to the road through the mountains, studded with trees
in the rocky soil. Clouds obscure the bottom of ravines below.

The view is stunning, hungrily drawing the eye. One town that we stop
at is itself shrouded in cloud.

And then we descend to yet another country, this one warm and lush,
heading towards the Mediterranean coast.

The countryside is green, and palm trees grow in the strip that
intersects the road. Fruit and vegetable farms run along the side of
the road.

Suddenly there is a stretch of deserted beach and the Mediterranean
sea comes into view, shiny blue. The coast is heavily developed,
apartment blocks craning for a view of the sea.

On one beach a man stands hesitating, as if debating whether to take
the plunge into the November-cold water.

And then, as rain begins to fall, we nudge into the south-east. Towns
and villages are fewer and further between, and the soil darkens.

The streets of the Gaziantep’s centre are bustling with shoppers
buying presents for the holiday at the end of Ramadan.

The local speciality foods are almost bursting from shop windows:
honey-drenched baklava, pistachios and spices.

Gaziantep has benefited from the exodus of people and money from
the rest of the south-east during the long years of battle between
separatist Kurds and the Turkish state.

“This is the Germany of the East,” one resident tells me, a
reference to the millions of Turkish citizens who went to Germany as
“guest-workers” in the 1960s.

It has always been a trading town – a stop on the Spice Road with a
long Armenian business tradition.

I asked a local journalist what was left of the Armenian presence in
terms of buildings – the people left long ago, unwelcome in a republic
that was for many decades deeply intolerant of minorities.

“Very little,” he replies. “In London,” he goes on, “there are
mosques and no-one says anything. Here they put minarets on the top
of churches. And then they talk about tolerance amongst religions.”

You can see parts of Gaziantep – just about – as part of Europe. But
much would have to change.

How many jobs would have to be lost when environmental regulations
forced the factories to stop sending smoke into the sky and the lungs
of the city’s residents?

As for, say, the butchers – well, refrigeration probably wouldn’t hurt.

There is industry and trade in Gaziantep – you can see it reflected
in the shops and offices.

Migrant families live in shanty towns with only sporadic electricity

But drive just a few minutes from the centre of town and you come
across a classic Turkish shanty town – a “gecekondu” – built by night
so as to avoid building regulations, overflowing with migrant families
with too many children and far too few jobs.

The electrical power comes and goes amongst the breeze-block houses.

Nearly everyone here talks about Europe in terms of jobs and money,
or the chance of exodus for their children.

I can’t quite imagine what these barely educated children might do
in Europe, except perhaps live in a different, and probably more
unpleasant, kind of grinding poverty.

I ask a man what Europe would mean to Turkey. “First of all,” he
replies, “cars will get cheaper, and we’ll be able to travel freely.”

And what would Turkey bring to Europe? Lots, he says, smiling. “Olives,
pistachios, carpets and fabrics.”

What more could Brussels ask for?