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Our return after decades showed us an Izmir bigger, better and more modern than ever

Cheryl on the Bostanli ferry

(Editor’s note: This post about Izmir is the personal opinion of the author, and is meant to be neither an endorsement or critique of Turkey.)

What was I thinking?

For the past few years, I’ve advised Dispatches readers to avoid Turkey, citing the increasingly authoritarian rule of Recep Tayyip Erdogan. I was wrong.

There, I’ve said it.

Let’s get right to the heart of the matter … don’t judge until you’ve been on the ground. My family lived in Turkey from 1999 until 2002, so we have a basis for comparison. We left just as Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his conservative Justice and Development Party (AK Partisi) came to power, pushing out the old liberal CHP.

Liberal and conservative … ah, if it were only that simple, but nothing is simple in Turkey.

Which all Turks know. When I texted a photo of my wife and co-CEO Cheryl on an Izmir ferry to our friend Erhan in the Netherlands, he texted back “Good for you guys. Have fun and enjoy it for us, too. I can’t wait to hear your expectations vs reality.”

So here we go ….

The Turkish joie de vivre is alive and well. (All photos by Terry Boyd for Dispatches)

Our expectations:

We love Turkey. Cheryl especially. She embraced it from the moment we arrived back in 1999. Our two daughters grew up here in this city on a huge Aegean bay surrounded by mountains, arguably the most beautiful setting in the world. The food. The joie de vivre. It was all sublime.

From all we’d read, we expected Izmir would be a totally different place. More religious, less tolerant. Poorer maybe. We simply didn’t know because – duh – we hadn’t been on the ground for 18 years.

Here’s the reality:

Erdogan keeps getting returned to office in elections independent monitors agree are free and fair. He does it the way American Republicans do it … by appealing to rural people and the working class who are staunchly religious.

We decided we wouldn’t return until he was voted out, and for a while this spring, it looked like he would lose. So, we started planning a trip from our home in the Netherlands. Alas, he won. But we’d been gone 18 years and we really, really missed Turkey.

Erdogan is an observant Muslim who has tried to pry Turkey away from the aggressive secularism of Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey. In Izmir, Erdogan has not succeeding in changing anything.

Oh, wait … he kinda has: it’s even more liberal than the city we arrived in back in 1999.

Turkey is a majority Muslim country, but Izmir has always welcomed people of all religions.

Infidel Smyrna

Izmir used to be known as “Infidel Smyrna.” Smyrna was its Greek name before 1923, and the city had large but integrated communities of Greeks, French, Italians, Jews and other “Levantines.” Still does. The apartment we rented for this trip was right across from a Roman Catholic church, and the bells all rang on Sunday.

In the first 24 hours back, we realized this was the old Izmir. Except it’s not. And Erdogan gets credit.

Even his political opponents concede he’s focused on infrastructure improvement. The Izmir of 2023 is far removed from the broken-down city we moved to in 1999 when I was a military reporter with European Stars and Stripes.

In the residential neighborhoods, everything – and I mean everything – is new, improved, glossy and updated. The sidewalks. The flower plantings, the walking streets. There are now trams. A subway. The notoriously aggressive drivers now patiently give way pedestrians in the zebra-stripe crosswalks! (To friends from our Izmir days – you know who you are – this was an incredible revelation.)

The Turks have always been environmental leaders, replacing gasoline-powered taxis with LPG back in the day. The diesel buses and ferries are gone, replaced by electric transport. There are new skyscrapers and entire new districts where there used to be trash-strewn lots.

Izmir is huge, incredibly modern city.

And the people …

As Cheryl says, “It’s almost like they’ve broken free from the old ways of life. ‘We’re living. We’re just going to be modern.’ ” It’s represented in the way they dress, socialize, even down to what they drink. Beer and raki are still huge, of course, because this is a drinking city. But instead of chai back in the day, coffee is the drink and cafés, including Starbucks, are everywhere and full 24 hours per day.

Finally, a lot more Izmiri speak English. Thank goodness, because our Turkish is not brilliant.

When we first moved to Izmir in 1999, we had no idea what to expect. My only trip to Turkey had been a few minutes on the ground somewhere – who knows where – on a military flight during the First Gulf War. We consulted people who’d lived here and got insanely goofy info, with one American woman telling Cheryl she’d have to wear modest dresses and cover up.

So, Cheryl’s wearing her long skirt and long sleeves, and the first thing we see upon landing is young women in, well, not much. Skinny jeans and revealing tops. Our friend Mutlu had to borrow some of Cheryl’s clothes to meet her in-laws in very conservative Konya because all she had was tube tops and jeans.

True story.

Gone grunge

Now, all the kids – and not a small number of adults – have gone full European hippy. The revealing clothes and heavy makeup of 1999 have been replaced by grunge and tattoos. Lots of tattoos. I’ll never forget seeing two women walking down a shopping street – one in a revealing dress with tattooed cleavage and the other wearing a headscarf.

That is Izmir … city of confounding contradictions for Westerners fond of relying on conventional thinking.

Gay and trans people are very much part of the fabric of the city. We were serenaded several nights by a trans street performer singing and playing Nirvana songs who seemed to be doing pretty well. No one harassed her. We were in a cosmetics shop when a gaggle of trans women were shopping. No one paid any attention.

All I could think of was, these people would never have this freedom to be themselves in red states such as Nebraska or South Dakota. No way.

Our friends here told us that over the years, more and more Turks have moved here from other regions in part because Izmir is so progressive. With the population reaching almost five million (and the rest), those new arrivals – often more traditional – from Istanbul and other cities are less and less welcome.

Turkey might be in the Middle East, but it’s not of the Middle East, and Izmir sure as heck ain’t Kandahar.

Suspending judgement

So, I’m official declaring Dispatches out of the business of judging.

Boycotting Turkey over Erdogan would be like boycotting the United States over Trump. Or over punitive anti-abortion legislation in Arkansas. Travelers have zero influence over that. So, you’re going to miss out on partying in Miami over an idiot like Gov. DeSantis?

Erdogan is merely an historical blip. Turkey is forever.

There are legitimate reasons for not visiting countries, but they come down to personal safety. Yemen, Afghanistan and Iraq are the coolest places I’ve ever visited, but this really isn’t the time for me to return. I just read where the volcano in Naples is close to going off. Maybe another part of Italy makes more sense.

But we’re all about freedom of movement and the global mobility of talent and capital. Turkey is too important to be ignored by expats and international entrepreneurs. Turkey has the world’s 19th-largest economy, with a GDP of about $1 trillion a year, according to the World Bank. It should be part of the European Union, and Erdogan is making some positive moves.

Bottom line: Turkey is way too complicated to generalize. Because it geographically is in both Europe and Asia, there’s always been an east-west divide. Wealthy cities such as Izmir have always been more European, and cities such as Konya have been more Asian.

Which makes the idea of boycotting “Turkey” over politics absurd. That can probably be said of every country. So, let’s find a better way to ignore politics and embrace real people.

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Read more from Terry Boyd here in Dispatches archives.

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Co-CEO of Dispatches Europe. A former military reporter, I'm a serial expat who has lived in France, Turkey, Germany and the Netherlands.

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