When you travel in the Middle East you are bound to have multiple “Holy Moly!” moments. My wife and I had one of those last Thursday. Yet we weren’t touring the Temple of Karnak in Luxor, gazing upon the Khazneh in Petra in the late afternoon when the Nabatean capital seems to glow a rose red, or marveling at the ancient ruins of Ani on the Turkish-Armenian border. We were in Turkey, in Istanbul, in Kadikoy to be exact, but it was not some Ottoman gem of a mosque or palace that caused our eyes to go wide. Nope. It was the Şükrü Saracoĝlo Stadyumu and the 52,000 fans of the Fenerbahce Sports Club’s football (i.e. soccer) team—it also fields basketball, boxing, table tennis, and sailing teams—who were near delirium even before their team took the field against Italy’s Lazio.
I have been a casual fan of Fenerbahce’s soccer team since my first trip to Turkey in October 1992 when a new Turkish friend told me that I “must” have the team’s jersey if I wanted to bring something authentic back to the United States. My one-time Turkish teacher was and remains a fan of the blue and gold. I remember one lesson during which we only worked on cheers one would hear at a Fenerbahce game. The team actually has a rather long reach with a Fenerbahce club branch based in New York City. A few years ago when I still lived in Gotham, my wife and I were strolling down 2ndAvenue on a weekend afternoon. Over her objections I was wearing my Fenerbahce jersey—by then a vintage variety—when a stranger came upon us, shouted in Turkish, hugged me, and walked away. My wife was quite startled, but I played it cool, “Fenerbahce fan,” I informed her as I continued toward our destination. There have been many a jet-lagged nights and early mornings when I stared at CNN International hoping for a baseball, football, or basketball score after the onslaught of cricket results, but also keeping an eye out for how Fenerbahce fared. Just as when the New York Yankees, New York Giants, or New York Knicks won, if Fenerbahce prevailed, I gave the team a lonely, tired, “Yes!” with a fist in the air.
So when we arrived in Istanbul last Tuesday morning to an email from my tweep and friend, Okan Altıparmak, asking if we would like to go to the game, I leapt at the chance. Surely, whatever we had planned for Thursday could not be as much fun…or as fascinating as the Fenerbahce-Lazio game turned out to be. I always claim that I am genetically encoded to be a Yankees fan due to my late father’s devotion to the team, but I’ve got nothing on Okan. He literally has Fenerbahce in his blood, being the oldest son of Ogün Altıparmak who scored 67 goals for the team in 173 games in the 1960s and early 1970s (Ogun also played for the Washington Whips—a distant forerunner to DC United). Over the course of a beautiful afternoon on the Asian side of Istanbul (which evokes Los Angeles or dare I say…Tel Aviv?), Okan schooled us on Fenerbahce history, game day etiquette, the perfidy of European side rival, Galatasaray; and the politics of Turkish soccer. I cannot say that I understood the latter completely, though it is wrapped up in an apparent just-under-the-surface political rivalry between supporters of (Fenerbahce loving) Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party and the Gülen Movement over the control of the boards and management of various clubs. Turkish soccer has long been a high stakes affair. In 2000 there was a gangland hit on some soccer officials in the lobby of the Ankara Sheraton Hotel and Towers, which is why I never meet Turkish friends for tea or coffee in hotel lobbies.
One of the most interesting things that Okan said to us as we ambled down Bagdat Caddesi, which he called Fenerbahce’s “Citadel,” was his belief that “football is one of the few outlets where Turks can express themselves freely.” I had not thought about it until then, but Okan was pinpointing a nagging contradiction in Turkish politics. Despite all of the extraordinary changes in Turkey over the last decade that have led to endless declarations among Ankara’s boosters in Washington and Europe that Turkey has “made great democratic strides,” almost eleven years after the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power, there is certain conformity within the political arena. Those who challenge the AKP do so at significant risk. This is not to suggest that Turkey is an authoritarian police state, but there are features of Turkish politics that seem to be indistinguishable from non-democratic polities.
The numbers may have decreased since April of 2012, but there are still a fair number of journalists in Turkish jails, a greater number who have lost their jobs for criticizing the government, and still a greater number of journalists who, due to the exigencies of feeding sons, daughters, husbands, wives, or parents, compromise their professional integrity and self-censor. The day of the Fenerbahce game, I heard a Turkish journalist, who I know to be a critic of Erdogan and the AKP, publicly extol the prime minister and his party’s stewardship of the country. Furthermore, on Friday, a well-known journalist named Amberin Zaman was dismissed from her post at the daily Habertürk under ambiguous circumstances, though she has been rather critical of the government’s Syria policy, leading people to conclude that she was sacked for that reason.
The sad state of Turkish journalism is but one example of Turkey’s backsliding. There are many more. So the next time you hear a Turkish official, American foreign policy intellectual, or a particular subset of European elite declare that “Turkey is more democratic than it was a decade ago,” they are speaking the truth, but also keep in mind that the country is less open than it was seven years ago. In the meantime, “Fenerbahçem sen çok yaşa... Canım feda olsun sana... Hiç bir şeye değişilmez... Senin sevgin bu dünyada!” (Long live my Fenerbahçe... It’s worth sacrificing my life for you... Unmatched in the world... Is the love for you!)