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Turkish politics play out in underwear drama

Swimwear, or lack of it, fueled fierce controversy in Istanbul this summer, reflecting class warfare and the country's political realignment.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

The Turkish language has two words for underwear.

Kulot, pronounced like the word for pants-skirt, is actually French, and as such, snugly captures the delicate sensibilities, urbane airs and consuming aspirations of Turks who see themselves as Europeans. Known as "white Turks," they have long held sway in this beautiful city that stands half in Europe, half in Asia. By bridging the two, Istanbul has defined cosmopolitanism for a millennium.

Only in the last generation has Istanbul become a beacon for the rest of Turkey. The working-class people following jobs and opportunities here from the villages and smaller cities of the Anatolian peninsula are known as "black Turks." And when they pull off their trousers on a hot summer day at Istanbul's public beach, the correct term for the white briefs they reveal, unself-consciously, is don.


"We used to swim in our don," said Hasan Yildirim, 16, on the sand at Caddebostan municipal beach, wet from a dip in the Marmara Sea. The white cotton of his stretch undies peeked out from under a black nylon swimsuit — racing briefs cut smaller than the underwear beneath but technically in accord with a new city rule requiring that swimming be done in swimsuits.

'More fun in don'
"It was more fun in don."

No doubt it was, but the rules posted at the entrance to the beach were not produced on a whim. Swimwear, or lack of it, fueled fierce controversy in Istanbul this summer.

The underwear flap reflected class warfare and the country's political realignment. And if some elements were unique to Turkey, others illustrated the cultural dislocations that occur anywhere when much of a countryside picks up and moves, creating a mega-city like Istanbul, 80 percent of whose approximately 15 million residents were born somewhere simpler.

The flap appeared to begin with a screed that a columnist unleashed in the July 27 issue of the newspaper Radikal. Mine G. Kirikkanat, a very white Turk, began by writing about how proud she was of Istanbul's shiny international airport, which "lights up Turkey's 'non-Arab' face."

But the drive into the city, she wrote, was something else. In the parks along the shore road toward town, "men in their underwear rest ruminating, women wearing black chadors or headscarves all are fanning the barbecue. ... This view is repeated every 10 meters square, our dark people cooking meat by the sea that they turn their [behinds] toward."

"Carnivore Islamistan," the columnist dubbed the scene, capturing in a brutal phrase the major fault line of class and politics in modern Turkey.

If the kebab is the staple food of Anatolia, the white Turks native to Istanbul prefer sea bass, bluefish and other delicate catches of the two seas that bracket the city and the Bosporus Strait in between. And this, too, has caused consternation.

But while the men were branded as offensive for being undressed, their wives were deemed unsuitable for wearing the long cloaks favored by religious Muslim women. Modern Turkey, though 99 percent Muslim, was founded in 1923 as a secular republic, and was led by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the dashing military hero who conceived the nation-state from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire. Ataturk embraced the French definition of secularism — not so much neutral toward all faiths as antagonistic toward public expressions of the dominant religion.

In Turkey, female government employees are forbidden to wear the head scarves that, despite the official line, a majority of Turkish women wear, some out of tradition, others for religious reasons. Ataturk favored tuxedos, cigarettes and pinups of models in bikinis.

"We are Ataturk's women!" shouted Mine Okcugil, 38, clasping the hand of the woman in the chaise longue next to her at Caddebostan. Her own bikini was in danger of falling off her front. She works at the Agriculture Ministry.

"We are all modern women of the republic," said Semra Aydemir, 52, a retired teacher, also in a tiny two-piece. "We are against terrorism. We are against violence. We are against ugliness."

So it is that men and women roaming the beach in T-shirts reading "Security" keep an eye peeled not only for men wearing too little but for women wearing too much. Female beach-goers no longer are allowed to wade with their legs covered by flowing fabric.

This rule puzzled Yasar Korkmaz, who patrols the beach for the private security company retained by the municipality. "I don't understand what's wrong with a dress," he said. "That's not like showing something."

He allowed that it smacked of politics.

"The whole beach thing is about politics, actually," said Ismail Anbar, a fellow guard.

That may be the one point of agreement this summer. Turkey's elected government, for decades controlled by elites, has for almost three years been led by a populist with roots in political Islam. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan campaigned as a black Turk and did jail time for mixing religion and politics.

Landslide victory
No other party approaches the popularity of Erdogan's Justice and Development Party, which came to power on a landslide vote by the poor who are now venturing onto Istanbul's main public beach.

"The people who were baking there were the prime establishment of Istanbul, imitating perhaps the French Riviera at the time, and they did not have to worry about the Anatolian newcomers," said Ali Carkoglu, a political scientist at Istanbul's Sabanci University. "But times have changed. Now they don't own this place. They don't even own the intellectual space. So they're going to have to live with this, I'm afraid."

Among the other writers flocking to the defense of don was Timur Danis, whose satirical magazine Leman sponsored a beach rally under the banner "Hold Onto Your Underwear."

"To go into the water in your underwear is not an easy thing," Danis said. "It's a very naïve thing, an indication of your poverty."

At city hall, officials softened the swimsuit rule by putting heavily discounted suits on sale.

"With migration, of course, everyone is bringing their own culture. The idea is to merge these people into the city culture," said Mustafa Demircan, deputy mayor of the district where the beach is located.

He blamed a lack of urban planning that has kept people living essentially as villagers in shantytowns that ring Istanbul. "We have people who have never seen the sea," Demircan said. "They've never seen the Bosporus. They don't even know how to cross the street by the traffic light."

Some forget
Others forget where they are. One recent afternoon, a well-dressed man strode onto Caddebostan beach and started undressing. He was down to his skivvies when, from her chaise, Aydemir called to the guard: "Can you please take care of that gentleman! He's setting an example here!"

Ismet Gunebakan, 52, already was wrapping a beach towel around himself when the officer approached. "It's my first time here," the civil servant explained, after returning from the changing room he had not noticed. He was wearing his swimsuit.

Smiling, he pointed to his pale chest, white even by the standards of Istanbul's elite: "You can see from my color that I'm not a regular."