Stories of absurd from Turkey: From shisha cafes to wanna be escorts

Once-bustling Istanbul office of Turkey’s EU Affairs Ministry turns into a shisha cafe; thousands apply for an ad that seeks “gigolos for rich older women” and an online campaign #womenempoweringwomen turns to a “mirror mirror on the wall” contest.

Nothing could be more symbolic of the downward spiral of Turkish-European Union (EU) relations than the fate of the office of the EU Affairs Ministry. The historic building, located in Istanbul’s lively neighbourhood of Ortaköy and which used to host European Union dignitaries with garden parties and music bands, is now a shisha cafe and an eyesore, its façades being covered with tawdry signs.  

Formerly an elementary school of Istanbul’s once-flourishing Greek community, the Istanbul Municipality rented the building to the Ministry, then known as the Secretariat General of the European Union Affairs, in 2009. The building underwent serious renovation before Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, then prime minister, opened it at the end of the year. In a speech peppered with the usual accusations of EU bias against Turkey, Erdoğan insisted that Istanbul alone was enough to show how the Union would benefit culturally, socially and geo-strategically from Turkey’s accession. His words rang very close to that of Napoleon Bonaparte who was quoted as saying that if the “world was a single state, its capital would be Istanbul.”

“Walking in this [multi-faith] neighborhood, you will be a stone’s throw from a mosque, a synagogue and a church,” Erdoğan said – a point that Egemen Bağış repeated ad nauseam during his four years as Turkey’s chief negotiator with the EU. Indeed, Turkey’s negotiations weren’t going at the desired pace (more than a dozen negotiation chapters were blocked and all but one were closed) but people on both sides were fanning the flames to prevent the fire from dying out. After all, the European capital of culture for 2010, the Secretariat General of the EU Affairs was turned into a full-fledged ministry in 2012 and its Istanbul building was abuzz with trainings, PR activities and lobbying – including a successful bid to make Istanbul the 2012 European Capital of Sports. The Ministry continued to rent the building even after its ownership was returned to the Ayia Foka Foundation of the Greek Community in 2013 following years of legal proceedings with the Municipality of Istanbul. 

As Turkish-EU relations went back and forth between being hostile and dispassionate throughout the 2010s, the young Ministry of European Affairs began to lose its relevance in the eyes of the government. In 2018, it became a general directorate within Turkey’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Under Turkey’s austerity measures, in 2019, it closed down its Istanbul building, possibly on the grounds that the Foreign Ministry already had a representative office in Turkey’s largest city and cultural capital. The foundation got a new tenant, the BlackTop shisha café. This may sadden urban sociologists or the handful of EU supporters who remain in Turkey, but it hardly matters to the public. After all, many Turks, including former negotiators, have shown themselves to be more devoted to shisha cafes than Turkish-EU relations.

Not Just a Gigolo

Thousands – yes, thousands - of young and not-so-young men have leaped up to an ad that claimed that an Istanbul-based agency was looking for gigolos for rich older women. Predictably, it turned out to be a scam – just like dozens of others that feature in the Turkish press and provide a butt of jokes (no pun intended) on satirical sites. Unlike the previous ones, however, this year’s scam artists - a major network made up of a hundred employees with ten call centers and four gang-mobiles - developed an almost full-proof way of preventing the victims from going to the police.

The so-called gigolo recruitment gang urged applicants to pay an entry fee between 2,000 to 6,000 TL ($286 to $850) to be part of an exclusive male escort service. The brave applicants – and one would have to be either desperate or foolhardy/horny/ignorant to apply for a close contract job at the height of the Covid-19 - were told that there were GOLD and VIP statuses, which set out how many women/jobs they could have access to. Then, before a suspicious applicant could start bugging the gang for unmade dates, another member of the gang would call the applicant to tell him that he had been tricked into making a donation into an account linked to FETÖ, an organized crime ring under the umbrella of US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen. The applicant, whose dreams of a life of debauchery and riches were now replaced by nightmares of jail, paid more money to the gang “to get him out.” The gang gathered some 9 million TL ($1.2 million) within six months, until the police caught them earlier this month. Police sources say they arrested some 90 people who were linked to the escort service scam though there may be up to 10,000 victims out there.

Self-serving selfies?

Women of all walks of life have started posting their monochrome photos all over Facebook and Instagram – mercifully less on Twitter - for a spontaneous online campaign with the hashtag #womenempoweringwomen or its kin, including support for the Istanbul Convention. Most of my friends joined in, giving me a chance to see how they looked twenty years ago in a bikini or under quarantine with a drink in hand. I happily dug out an old photo of myself in 1997 in Paris, with an old fashioned phone glued to my ear. A day later, men – including our 21-year old son and his friends - were also putting up similar photos in support of women’s rights.

Others – from close friends to favorite columnists – were distant, dissing it more as a tribute to vanity than women’s solidarity. “Write a letter to those who have the power to keep Turkey in the Istanbul Convention” said one. “The greater challenge would be not posting a deeply flattering, perfectly lit, self-curated portrait… Here’s a challenge: get your husband, or teenage daughter, to shoot the frame,” wrote the Financial Times’ Jo Ellison and it is hard to disagree when you see Victoria Beckham’s perfect figure in black and white. Still others posted text to explain the rationale of the photos and blamed those who were not making it clear.

But given that I tolerate endless photos and videos of people’s boring cats and even put in the occasional “amazing” or “lovely,” why not expect the same cheer for good intentions sprinkled with a bit of vanity?

September 10, 2021 Turkey's small festivals