(This article was first published on December 11, 2009 for the Study Abroad section at Global Post. View the original article here.)
On a corner across from the Turkish prime minister’s grand residence lays the humble shed of what drives Ankara’s society: its taksiciler, or taxi drivers.
Like many big cities, Turkey’s capital depends on a mammoth fleet of taxis. Cars and gas are too costly for most citizens, which increases the demand for taxis. Hundreds of small taxi companies, each with their own taxi sheds or shacks, compete. Some are large, like those at airports. Most are just big enough for a card table and a few drivers.
“It’s kind of like being in a frat house,” says Jeff Turner, an American who spent several years in Turkey as a child and returned this year as a student researcher.
Inside the taxi stand near Turner’s corner, four drivers slammed down cards on a table in a complex card game. Downing several cups of tea each and sharing a cigarette or two, they laughed and chatted with each other through the night shift.
Turner says the taxi stands are often a strategic place for neighborhood information.
“They just sit there all day long,” Turner says. “They see who comes and who goes.”
Turner likened the taxi stands to a neighborhood water cooler. After disposing of several wine bottles near the taxi stand after a party, Turner was surprised but not offended when the taxi drivers asked whether he was, indeed, a tea-totaler as he’d earlier claimed.
Taxi receipts are neither constant nor plentiful, and overnight shifts can come away with less than 10 Turkish lira, or about $7. Customers are not always sympathetic.
“They bust their ass for very little,” adds Turner.
Ibrahim Corekci, 23, has owned his own taxi for five years. Corekci’s father drove for 40 years before quitting in 2006.
“I wanted to work,” says Corekci, a high school graduate. “If I could have gone to an American university, that would be different.”
Corekci works nearly 12 hours a day, seven days a week, except for major religious holidays.
“The money gets worse the longer you do this job,” Corecki says.
Still, Corecki said that he loves his job. His dream job, he said, would be working in the U.S. or for the Turkish government, the most competitive job market in Turkey. With no advanced degrees, Corekci’s realization of either dream is unlikely.
With not nearly enough jobs to support Europe’s youngest population, Turkey’s unemployment rate has climbed to 10.9 percent. Many college graduates are unemployed or underemployed.
Corekci grabs a wet rag and swipes his cab for 25 minutes at a time, several times a day.
“There are a lot of jobs here that wouldn’t be jobs in the U.S.,” Turner says. “And Turks take pride in the work.”
Although Corekci is unmarried, both his parents are alive, and he has three older sisters who have given him five nephews and four nieces. Corekci and the other drivers all say that their family is their top motivation.
“Family is more important than anything, it’s the world to me,” Corekci says. “I learned everything from my family.”
Corekci wanted to make sure Americans knew these feelings. After being asked what else he’d want to share, he said this:
“First, I say ‘Hello’ to them all,” Corekci says. “Then, come to Turkey, and call me for a taxi.”
Turner, our translator, shoots back, “But Ibrahim, there are 350 million people in the U.S.!”
“So what, let them come. I’ll take them all,” Corekci counters.
(This article was first published on October 12, 2009 for the Study Abroad section at Global Post. View the original article here.)
At 11 p.m. Saturday night, the bar is full of 20-somethings drinking, talking, flirting. One young couple steals a kiss at their table of 20 while an Amy Winehouse song booms through the air. Bartenders rush to keep up with the crowded house, sliding glasses topped with foam to their takers.
The decor is posh. From the stylish designer threads of the patrons to the sleek LCD TVs broadcasting videos of Aerosmith and Madonna, we could be in Greenwich Village. But this is Ankara, the capital city of Turkey.
When I told friends and family I would Study Abroad in Turkey, I heard the words “too dangerous” and was warned of Al Qaeda. I was often asked about running water or Internet access. Very few understood Turkey’s rank among the 20 largest economies in the world.
Turkey is a complex country — one that can’t be boxed into any particular image.
In downtown Ankara, women and men dress in tight-fitting Polo and Lacoste shirts, or trendy button-downs with their curve-hugging jeans, as they pass Levis, Starbucks or chic hair styling salons.
Mammoth malls are filled with American and European brands like Tommy Hilfiger, Nine West and Sephora. In Ankara, a dry and mountainous city devoid of much natural beauty, these malls are major recreation centers. Some offer movie theaters, bowling, arcades and outdoor amusement parks. One mall offers ice-skating in the winter.
“People like to hang out in these malls, even though they may never buy anything,” said Ankara resident Caglar Yurtseven, watching dozens of Turks relax in big leather arm chairs at the mall.
Many of these behemoth shopping centers, spurred by major economic growth and the rise of a new Turkish middle class, rose up over the past 10 years since the completion of Ankara’s first Mall in 1999. Since then, 16 other malls have risen, turning city outskirts into prime real estate where projects as tall as 20 stories have been built or are under construction.
The city doesn’t slow down at night. On weekends, bars and cafes spill out on the sidewalk. Walking down the trendy Tunali Caddesi, or Tunali Avenue, Turks and foreign visitors relax in late night cafes and pastry shops, sports bars, disco bars, oldies bars and dance clubs for the young and old. The city has one gay bar, too, near Tunali.
You can’t stereotype Turkey as an Islamic country akin to neighbors Syria, Iraq or Iran. But it’s not identical to its European counterparts, either. As many cosmopolitan residents there are, others adopt a more traditional and religious approach. In Ankara, one-third of women wear hijab, or headscarves. Sometimes it’s religious, sometimes political, often traditional, and sometimes a little of all. Many Westerners don’t know that wearing a headscarf is banned by Turkish law in Turkish universities. Some Turkish women come to the United States to study in the freedom of wearing their headscarf to class.
Many Turks say they fear the growing presence of religion will undermine secular Turkey, while others describe it as a benign migration of a new middle class into the cities from more conservative villages.
Back in the bar appropriately named Random, Turkey’s political and cultural conflicts seem worlds away amid the laughter of the diverse students drinking together. Here, Turkey’s youth relish the cool breeze gently blowing through the beer garden covered in green ivy. In a country where the average age is 25, the youngest in Europe, Turkey seems poised for more growth.