The Moment: Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan Throws a Book at My Head
November 12, 2010
Erzurum, Turkey on August 13, 2010, 4:04 P.M.
I was in Turkey, following the route of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline from Azerbaijan through Georgia until its end in the mouth of the Mediterranean bay of Yumurtalik, on a Young Explorers Grant from the National Geographic Society. Erzurum, Turkey was by far the most conservative point we had come across along the route. It is the most conservative of Turkish cities in a country where the secular designs of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk prevail. Unlike the rest of Turkey, accommodations regarding principles of faith are scant in Erzurum.
Aug. 13 was the third day of Ramadan and almost everyone in the city fasts for the occasion. To eat in Erzurum, we had to inquire in restaurant after restaurant if they would serve us. When they did, they hid us far from the windows where potential customers could not complain and suggest they were un-Islamic for serving a cafir, or infidel—something that is in fact haram, or forbidden, according to the strictest of interpretations. Technically, the Koran permits travelers to interrupt their fasts.
Erzurum is a town that strongly supports Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Approximately 10,000 people had attended the rally held by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan in Erzurum that day to promote a “yes” vote to the forthcoming Sept. 12 referendum calling for constitutional changes. The official rhetoric of AKP pins the vote as a “yes” to democracy and a “no” to coups; it would give AKP more authority over the constitutional court and make permanent changes that would undoubtedly have a short-term political benefit.
Turkey’s secular elite is likely to vote against the changes, whereas it is anticipated that those in the poorer east who are more conservative are going to vote in favor of them. Part of this is the result of consistent efforts to build roads and launch other development projects in a long neglected region.
At the conclusion of the rally, Erdogan threw roses at the crowd, which was gender-segregated with women toward the front—a rarity in modern Turkey. Then he boarded his referendum campaign bus, which was emblazoned with the word “Evet!” or “Yes!”
As the bus blew past and a trail of the Turkish equivalent of secret service agents linked arms like schoolchildren around the bus to protect the prime minister, Erdogan continued to throw gifts to his public. One was a rather thick volume of campaign literature, which hit me squarely in the head as I crouched to photograph him, the book mid-air, the bus, and the commando on the bus’s rooftop. As I stood up, a crush of security brushed pass.