To what extent did the AKP use their grip on the Turkish media to frame the November 2015 election in Turkey as a choice between stability and chaos?

Submitted to the University of Glasgow for the Political Institutions and Communications Module I took as part of my MSc in Media, Communications and International Journalism course – © Rhiannon J Davies, 2017

Introduction

This paper will explore how much political parties in government are able to use their influence on the media to influence the electorate. The selected case study is the 2015 snap election in Turkey, a country where the ruling party has established a tight grip on the media through a culture of intimidation, prosecution, and restrictions on freedom of expression (Egin, 2013). While there may be other means by which the AKP were able to use the media to influence the election, this paper will specifically analyse the extent to which the frames used by the ruling party in their electoral communications were repeated by the print media, and consider the potential consequences for democracy.

In June 2015, Turkey’s general election resulted in a hung parliament, the first time the Justice and Development Party (AKP) had not won an outright majority since coming to power in 2002. After months of meetings in which nation-wide violence flared and no coalition could be formed, a snap election was held in November 2015. In it, the AKP increased their share of the vote from 40.9% to 49.5%, and their share of the seats from 258 to 317 (out of a total 550) (Bardakçi 2016). They won votes from those that had previously supported the nationalist (MHP) and Kurdish (HDP) parties (see Appendix I). This is a useful case study as it offers a clear example of a campaign period significantly impacting upon the outcome of an election, with a direct comparison available between the pre- and post- campaign results. In order to analyse the influence of the AKP on the media in Turkey, this study will include content analysis of two newspapers in the final two-week period before the November 1 election. The newspapers selected are the English versions of two of those monitored by the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR) Limited Election Observation Mission (LEOM) during the election in question. This paper will build on their analyses by evaluating the available politics articles from these papers in this time period for use of the ‘stability or chaos’ frame.

I

My thesis is that having suffered an unexpected electoral defeat in the first general election of 2015, the AKP were able to manipulate the electorate into handing them back a clear parliamentary majority partly through using their influence on the Turkish media to lend authority to their framing of the election as a choice between stability and chaos. This study broadens our understanding of political communication by shedding light on the dynamics by which a tight grip on the media can impact upon democracy. The essay will begin with a review of relevant literature around framing in the political and electoral context, as well as a brief look at the relationship between the Turkish media and its government. This literature will then be developed into an analytical framework, followed by a more in depth introduction to the selected case study, and analysis results. It will conclude with the implications of this research for the wider field of political communication.

Literature Review

Framing is a device that is commonly used in political communication, although scholars differ in their definitions. It is linked to priming and agenda-setting theory, and while there has been a tendency to group the three, Scheufele (2000) argues that they should be explicated from one another and studied separately. For while agenda-setting may tell us what to think about, framing tells us how to think about it (Ghanem, 1997). Entman (1993: 52), meanwhile, writes that frames have four functions; to define problems, diagnose causes, make moral judgements, and suggest remedies. The definition this paper is based upon is that set out by Fairhurst and Sarr in The Art of Framing (1996). They define framing as the ability to shape the meaning of a subject by asserting that one interpretation should be taken as real, over other possible interpretations. They identify five key language tools used in framing; metaphor, jargon/catchphrases, spin, contrast, and stories. This provides a practical interpretation of the concept which can be meaningfully used to identify frames present within texts.

Some claim that framing is a concept that has a psychological and a sociological pedigree (Iyengar and Simon 1993). Psychologists use framing to refer to changes in judgement made in response to a change in judgement choices, deriving from Kahemahn (1982). Whereas the sociological definition stems from the work of Bateson (1972) and Goffman (1974), focusing more on the use of storylines, symbols and stereotypes in media content (Iyengar and Simon 1993). Scheufele (2000) points to attribution theory as the theoretical basis for the concept of framing with Iyengar (1991) explaining it as how people try to make sense of political issues by reducing them to questions of responsibility. This responsibility can be divided into causal responsibility; focusing on who caused the problem, and treatment responsibility; who has the power to deal with it (Iyengar 1991, Iyengar and Simon 1993) and will be a key factor in this paper’s analytical framework. However, there have been challenges to the notion of attribution theory as the theoretical basis for framing, with Nelson et al. (1997) theorizing that the psychological foundation of framing relates to how the media shifts the belief importance of an issue, which fits in with more recent ‘active audience’ theories.

When considering how framing is employed in competitive political debate, Chong and Druckman (2007: 639) identify two hypotheses found in the literature on the influence of frames over public opinion. First, whichever frame is the ‘loudest’ (most often repeated) will have the greatest influence. Second, that it is in fact the strongest frame which will exert the greatest influence, regardless of repetition, concluding that it is the quality of the frame that is more important. However, Gitlin, also emphasized the repetitive nature of the framing process, writing “Media frames are persistent patterns of cognition, interpretation and presentation, of selection, emphasis and exclusion, by which symbol handlers routinely organize discourse, whether verbal or visual” (1980: 7).

Beside literature on framing, the other literature that is worth briefly considering is that which examines the media system in Turkey and the relationship between the government and media; as this provides the background context to this case study. In other words, in order to show to what extent the AKP used its grip on the media to influence an election, it is first necessary to show what type of grip it had. Writing in 2015, Irak (2016) describes the situation in Turkey as “the first time after the single-party regime of the 1930s, [that] the government has its “own” media, the function of which is to support the political party in power at all costs.” He states that while scholars once considered Turkey’s media system to follow what Hallin and Mancini (2007) termed the Mediterranean or polarized pluralist model, this pluralism weakened following the 1980 coup. Kurban and Elmas (2012) argue that the media in Turkey has never fulfilled its role as government watchdog. Instead, they argue that an already restricted media has simply been muzzled further. Bayran (2011) suggests that political parallelism in the Turkish press is somewhere between Hallin and Mancini’s North European and Mediterranean classifications. Meanwhile. Yesil (2014) finds that Turkey has a vibrant media landscape with “40 national and 2,000 local newspapers, dozens of news magazines, at least 10 national news channels, 250 local TV channels, 2,000 radio outlets, and hundreds of news websites”. In this type of media system, it might be expected that the government would not have so much influence. Indeed, Semetko & Mandelli (1997) write that the more commercialized a broadcasting system is, the less opportunities there are for political parties to exert direct influence over them. Yet Turkey seems to buck this trend; despite having a very commercial broadcast and print media, the governing party retains the type of control one might expect to encounter in more public media.

Analytical Framework

The analytical framework used in the following analysis is developed out of Schefele’s identification of attribution theory as the basis for framing, and Iyengar’s explanation of framing as a way of making sense of political issues by reducing them to questions of responsibility. It will be used to analyse how the AKP sought to assign causal responsibility to the newly successful Kurdish political party, the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) (along with, to a lesser extent, the other opposition parties) while positioning themselves as possessing treatment responsibility to counter the rise in violence and instability. In order to analyse the presence of these frames in the media, this study will seek to identify the frames that occur in any of the five linguistic forms highlighted by Fairhurst and Sarr (1996) that attribute causal responsibility to the Kurds (or other parties) and treatment responsibility to the AKP in line with the latter’s framing of the election as a choice between stability or chaos.

During the 2015 snap election campaign, the AKP’s campaign slogan (the equivalent of catchphrase in the terms of Sarr and Fairhurst) was ‘Vote For Stability’, and their manifesto was entitled ‘Turkey’s Roadmap with Peace and Stability’. Throughout the campaign, they sought to assert that the only chance for stability was to re-establish the AKP’s majority in government (Bardakçi, 2016). The implication was that anything else would result in economic and national security chaos (Kalaycioğlu, 2016), and that this was the result of the other parties’ actions, or lack thereof. This was clearly laid out in a tweet by a high-ranking AKP deputy who, on the night of the June election, wrote “Yes, the election is over. The people have decided. I said ‘Either peace or chaos,’ and the people have elected chaos. May it bring happiness.” (Berlinski & Altparmak 2015). It was reinforced by a front page headline in August 2015 in a pro-government newspaper which simply splashed ‘Stability Or Chaos’ in reference to the election. It was also a frame used time and again in the AKP’s speeches and political rallies, such as a speech given by President Erdogan in August, in which he stated “I believe that 1 November will be an election of stability or instability, God willing, this country will reach stability again.” (Ibrahim, 2015).

In the years that the AKP have been in power, there has been a considerable shift towards a less plural media with more biased coverage, due to a concerted effort by Erdogan and his party (Egin, 2013, Yesil, 2014). The continuing pressure of penalties, audits, and seizures (Egin 2013, Irak 2016) have created a more submissive press, one in which anti-government journalists are routinely fired and which, in 2015, was ranked by Reporters Without Borders as 149th out of 180 in the world press freedom index (Reporters Without Borders). In 2015, it also ranked third highest in the world for the number of journalists in jail (Committee to Protect Journalists), largely due to prosecutions brought against them for criticising the government. This pressure mounted following the 2013 Gezi Park protests in which citizens expressed a level of discontent with the president and government that had not been previously seen (Egin 2013). The crackdown on independent media intensified and continues unabated to this day. Just one week before the 1 November election, one of Turkey’s largest media groups (Koza Ipek) was seized by the government, and two of the newspapers it owned subsequently were passed into the hands of pro-AKP business ventures. In recent years, this has become a common practice in Turkey, the resultant media outlets becoming known as ‘pool media’. This term refers to media outlets that have been seized by a government-affiliated body due to financial difficulty and then bought by pooling funds by pro-government businesses, who subsequently land large government contracts, in what Irak (2016) refers to as “formalizing traditional networks by integrating them into state organization”. 

Case Study

In order to analyse the reproduction of frames by pro-government media this study will employ qualitative content analysis to contrast the domestic political coverage in a ‘pool media’ newspaper with an opposition newspaper in the final two weeks before the election. The two newspapers selected are the Hürriyet Daily News and the Daily Sabah. These are the English language versions of the top two newspapers with the highest nationwide circulation (Gazeticiler). The English language versions of newspapers in Turkey contain many directly translated articles and share the same political leanings as their counterparts. They also offer ease of analysis without the need for translation. Another reason for their selection is the fact that they were two of the newspapers monitored by the OSCE/ODIHR LEOM. The OSCE analysis offers useful insight into the amount of coverage given to each party and the type of coverage this was. The mission also monitored two other newspapers; Zaman and Sözçü. Analysis of these newspapers has not been included for the following reasons. Zaman (and the English version, Today’s Zaman) was seized by the Turkish government in early 2016. Accused of having links to a terror organisation, the editorial team and management were replaced by pro-government supporters. The online archive was subsequently erased from the internet, making it difficult to find the same quantity of articles from this time period. Sözçü is probably one of the most staunchly anti-government newspapers and, although very popular, not so representative of the broad spectrum of Turkish media as the more moderate newspapers selected. It also does not have an English version, adding the extra complexity of translation.

The OSCE/ODIHR LEOM monitored five television stations and four newspapers between 1 October to 31 October 2015. The report states that

“The AKP received the highest amount of coverage on all stations – 73 per cent on TRT1, 77 per cent on ATV, 49 per cent on Haber Turk, 47 per cent on Samanyolu TV and 32 per cent on CNN Turk, while the other parliamentary parties received less coverage. The tone of the coverage of the AKP was mostly positive on the TRT1, ATV and Haber Turk, and mostly negative on CNN Turk and Samanyolu TV… The majority of monitored newspapers devoted a majority of their coverage to the AKP and provided government critical coverage.”

The Hürriyet gave 57 percent of its coverage to the AKP of which 52 percent was positive or neutral and 48 percent was negative. The Sabah gave 83 percent of its coverage to AKP of which 99 percent was positive (see Appendix II.) Although the report also covers TV stations, due to time constraints, this study will only focus on the newspapers mentioned. However, a study into television coverage of the same period would provide further insight.

Of the two newspapers that this essay analyses, the Hürriyet is regarded as a mid-market newspaper and one of the remaining independent media outlets in Turkey. The Daily Sabah falls under the category that has been termed ‘pool media’ mentioned above as it was “seized by the TMSF [Turkey’s fund management and insurance in the Turkish banking system governing body] in 2007 and sold in 2008, to Çalık Holdings, the CEO of which is Berat Albayrak, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s son-in-law” (Irak, 2016). There are six of the country’s top fifteen newspapers that fall into this category. They all tend to follow a similar format and reproduce similar content with a combined circulation making up around 25% of the Turkish daily market (Irak, 2016).

In order to analyse to what extent the government were able to use sympathetic media as an election tool, the final two weeks of politics articles published in the online, English versions of Sabah and Hürriyet were examined for linguistic framing mechanisms as identified by Sarr and Fairhurst (1996), which attributed causal or treatment responsibility that fit into the AKP’s frame of stability vs chaos. In other words, that chaos was caused by the Kurds, other political parties, or the failure of the electorate to elect the AKP with an overall majority, and that the treatment for this was the re-election of a single party government (the AKP), which would bring about stability in both the economic and security sense. These frames were then further analysed to identify whether they were attributed to politicians, experts or journalists, as well as for who the blame for the chaos was laid upon. 

For the time period covered, there were 56 politics articles found online on the Hürriyet Daily News website and 50 on the Daily Sabah. The results of the qualitative content analysis (seen in Appendix III) show that while 11 percent of the Hürriyet articles contained a recognisable frame that alluded to the choice between stability or chaos, 24 percent of the articles in the Sabah contained them. This is quite a significant difference, and was in part because the Hürriyet articles tended to cover a far wider range of issues. Some of these articles contained more than one instance of framing, making a total of nineteen references in the Sabah articles and just seven in the Hürriyet. They sometime were explicit in their terms, for example when the AKP’s slogan was included as in in article S1; “Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu called on people to vote for stability and a strong single-party government”. However, they mostly occurred in the form of spin, for example, in H24 which included the sentence “The Nov. 1 snap election is the key to getting Turkey out of the instability and insecurity it was dragged into after the June 7 election, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has argued”. Another major difference between the papers is that while in the Hürriyet, six out of the seven times this frame occurred was when the journalist was in reported speech by an AKP representative, in the Sabah, the frame could be attributed seven times to AKP representatives, four times to experts, once to a civilian and another seven times it appeared in the journalists’ own words. It is worth noting that these were not columns or opinion pieces, but appeared in the newspapers as news articles. In the Hürriyet, the only time that the frame occurred when it wasn’t reported AKP speech was when, in article H1, a journalist wrote that “Erdoğan’s rhetoric favoring a single-party government’s rule for “stability” has been consistent over the last five months”, making it clear that the journalist recognised it as rhetoric rather than accepted it as fact. The way this was presented was markedly different to the Sabah which, for example, in article S7 ran with a headline “Stability trumps chaos, Turkish voters to opt for single-party government” when reporting on a panel of political scientists discussing the election, ahead of it actually taking place.

This inclusion of expert sources (academics, political scientists, etc.) who reiterated the stability versus chaos frame was a feature that appeared in the Sabah but did not in the Hürriyet. Another example of this is in article S29, which was written as a rebuff to an Economist piece that urged Turks to vote against the AKP. A political scientist was quoted as saying “a large part of the electorate are also hoping for a return to a single party government for the sake of stability”. In this same article the journalist writes “Even though the magazine accuses Erdogan of enflaming the fighting between Turkey and the PKK terrorist organization and ending the peace process, the reality is quite the opposite”. There is no sense of objectivity included here. Additionally, in the Hürriyet, there were two occurrences of the paper reporting an opposition party reversing the AKP’s framing of the situation, blaming them for the chaos Turkey found itself in, with articles featuring the following headlines in article H36: “MHP warns of ‘chaos under single-party AKP rule after Nov. 1” and H56: “AKP is the source of instability in Turkey: MHP Head”. In these instances, the Hürriyet reported on the attempt by the opposition to use the AKP’s slogan against them – something that was not covered in the Sabah. 

These results suggest that, as one would expect, the pro-government newspaper gives a greater platform to the AKP than the opposition paper does. However, the results indicate that the newspaper goes beyond favourable (and more plentiful) coverage, and could be seen to be serving as an additional campaign tool. The AKP’s framing of the political situation in Turkey is not just reported as the AKP’s interpretation of events, but instead is reported as a more objective truth. Journalists refer to it without questioning, experts are brought in to back it up, and it is repeated again and again. Of course, by only analysing the media, what this study does not show is the effect this kind of frame repetition can have on the audience. In order to understand the impact, further research would have to be done on readers of both papers and their understanding of the political situation and electoral choice. Price and Zaller (1993) questioned the causal link between reading newspapers and learning about issues, but Druckman (2005) found that newspapers do “play a significant role informing the electorate”. Given that, sixty percent of Turkish people don’t read a newspaper regularly but ninety percent watch television daily (Kurban and Elmas 2016), a complementary study on the repetition of these frames in television news coverage during the same period could provide additional insight.

Conclusions

Framing is a common tool in political communications, and it is to be expected that a pro-government newspaper would by sympathetic to the frames of the governing party. However, this study shows a newspaper going beyond this, re-iterating the AKP’s framing of the election, presenting it as a tangible truth. In doing so, they helped to create an atmosphere of fear, leading to a landslide victory for the party that instilled it. In the terms of Chong and Druckman (2007), the stability or chaos frame was a ‘strong’ frame because it played into the psychological need of people to make sense of what was happening by assigning blame (Iyengar, 1991). The AKP steered this blame towards their political opponents, the Kurdish separatist movement and, by association (that they regularly made), the HDP. However, it was also the loudest (it is repeated most often) by far throughout the Daily Sabah’s political coverage in this period

However, the assumption of the impact of the media does point to a media effects model of audience reception, suggesting that these frames will be transmitted to the reader and accepted without question. Active audience theorists would question the impact of this framing on voter choice. Another alternative reading of this case study could be simply that it proves that press plurality exists in Turkey, that the Sabah expresses one version of reality and opposition papers supportive of other parties present alternative views. However, with the growing rise in ‘pool media’, the line between press and government is blurring and formulaic newspapers are all pushing the same AKP line. In order to research this link further, additional research should be done into the state broadcaster, TRT, and other AKP-linked television channels to identify whether a similar pattern exists there. Television has a much wider reach, than the press in Turkey, so research into this area could be increase our understanding of this issue. Additionally, research into the effects of media on voter preferences would reveal whether audiences were accepting what they read, resisting it, or negotiating it in some way.

While there were undoubtedly other factors that influenced the electorate into voting for the AKP, the media can certainly be seen to share some of the responsibility. In the case of the pool media, as represented here by Sabah, this goes beyond mere supportive stance to show very clear signs of bias. This is no longer a question about who sets the agenda, as might be the case with an objective media, but about how a party can gain control over the media and then use it as a mouthpiece for the campaign.

Appendix I

Appendix II –  the graphs of the Sabah an the Hurriyet are taken from the Republic of Turkey, Early Parliamentary Elections 1 November 2015 OSCE/ODIHR Limited Election Observation Mission Media Monitoring Report

Appendix III

 

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Croatia to Turkey by Bicycle (Part 2)

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Having written about the experience of cycle-touring in Turkey in Part 1, in this section I will be exploring the route we took and the people we met along the way.

We decided that rather than take the well-trodden coastal road, we would instead go inland, across Turkey. We wanted to get away from the concrete hotels and tourist trappings of the resorts and the attractions. We wanted to see the in-between places that are not glamorous enough to be tourist destinations in their own right but which make up the vast majority of this large and complex country. We had hoped to pick up a detailed map on arrival in Turkey but struggled to find one, so were left with a 1:1,000,000 scale map that did not show every road but gave us enough to go on. We weren’t too worried about getting “lost” as such — we had no time limit and just one far off destination, Antalya, so were able to go “off-piste” as it were, so long as we kept going in a south-eastern direction, choosing our route day-by-day.

Breakfast at Tuğçe’s

We arrived in the port town of Dikili, having caught a ferry from Thessaloniki in mainland Greece to the island of Lesbos and the next day a second ferry from there. Our first stop was for lunch of pide, ayran and plenty of Turkish çay. From there we cycled east to the town of Bergama where we had intended on visiting the ruined city of Pergamon, but the volume of other visitors and the TL 20 entrance fee put us off, so we continued east, passing the town of Kınık before heading south, onto secondary roads, into the hills.

Passing through the small villages here, a number of drivers indicated that we could not pass this way and we should turn back. One lorry driver got quite worked up about it, insisting that we turn back at once. A mistake we realized we were making in these early days was informing people that we were headed for Antalya. Everyone around there knows that to get to Antalya you aim for Izmir and take the highway from there, so they were at a loss to fathom why we headed in the wrong direction, taking smaller and smaller roads, with poorer surfaces and were concerned for our welfare. We had to go to great pains to tell them that we were carrying tents, food and a map and that we weren’t in any hurry, wishing to explore instead.

We had camped in the woods the night before and so stopped to fill our water bottles up at the well in the first village we came to: Kalemköy. Here we had our first experience of real Turkish hospitality. A mother (Tuğçe) saw us from her doorway and waved us over for tea, an offer we couldn’t refuse after an early start that morning. Tea soon turned into a full village breakfast as we sat at her table and she brought first eggs, then tomatoes, olives, cheese, salça and bread. As we ate and drank we chatted in our broken Turkish, sharing stories about our life, where we were going and what we were doing, with her extended families and neighbors who all came around to see the strange Lycra-clad guests. Even the worried lorry driver whom we’d met the previous day turned up as he’d happened to be passing and spotted our bikes. Over tea we were able to explain more about our trip and why we hadn’t taken his warnings and turned back. This was our first taste of Turkish hospitality but by no means our last.

A taste of farm life

We continued our journey passing through the towns of Akhisar, Gölmarmara and Salhili. Just outside Salihli, we were cycling down a country lane, trying to spot a good place to camp for the night, but were unfortunately thwarted by the omnipresence of agricultural land; fields of onions, peppers and vineyards don’t make great camp-spots. This is often the most stressful time of a cycle-tourer’s day, worrying and wondering where he or she will sleep that night. A whistle alerted us to the presence of a farmer, standing in one these fields, who was shouting and waving us over. We went to investigate. He asked what we were doing and we explained as best we could that we were looking for somewhere to camp for the night and did he have some land that might be suitable? He said that there was no need — he had a house not far from there that was empty and that we could use.

Thinking this sounded too good to be true, we followed him with some trepidation. We needn’t have worried. The reality was almost too good to be true. He had a lovely little farmhouse, which stood empty when he slept in his town center apartment with his family. He made us tea, let us watch as he milked his cows and then left us the reign of his place and his fridge, telling us he’d be back in the morning for breakfast. A little shell-shocked by this level of generosity we enjoyed a warm shower, a decent meal and a comfy bed.

The next day, our host Hamza returned, bringing us fresh simit for breakfast and insisted we stay another day. Rather enjoying a chance to rest our weary legs, it wasn’t hard to refuse. We spent the day tending to minor repairs of our bikes as Hamza tended to his animals before returning to start up the barbecue for lunch. Together we cooked a feast of onion pilav, lentil köfte, tomato salad and barbecued chicken, all washed down with Hamza’s homemade raki. We sat on the rooftop and enjoyed the last of the summer sun. The afternoon was spent visiting neighbors for coffee, and on more maintenance. The next day it was tough to leave the little rural idyll we were settling into and got back on our bikes.

The home straight

After Hamza’s we headed to Pamukkale, where we admired the strange geological phenomenon that creates a landscape startlingly similar to that of a ski resort, but were put off once more by the hordes of tourists trudging their way up to the top. We did, however, splash out and treat ourselves to a night in the Alida Hotel, which allowed us the luxury of watching a film in bed and having a lie-in. From there we headed east along the main road to Çardak, before taking the smaller routes south once more.

Lake Salda, near the town of Yeşilova, provided some stunning views and great picnic spots, before we headed up into the mountains once again. Here we really noticed the weather start to change and memories of the hot summer sunshine we had felt just a few days before quickly faded as autumn arrived. The air was much cooler and for the first time during our trip we were cold in our tents at night. The trees all sported gold, orange amber hues and a mist hung in the air. We enjoyed this contrast and the quietness it brought to our last few days headed to Korkuteli, outside which we camped on our last night. The sun came out once more for our final day. We flew downhill for 60 kilometers, arriving in Antalya at lunchtime, surprising even ourselves with our speed. It felt great to arrive at my new home after cycling 2,000 kilometers to get here, although it was accompanied with a twinge of sadness to no longer being on the road, exploring new places and meeting new people.

It’s fair to say the most memorable moments of the trip were times when we were invited into the homes of locals, interested by what we were doing there and wanting to ensure we felt looked after despite being so far away from our own families. The kindness of Hamza won’t be forgotten quickly and indeed has taught us something about how to treat travelers that we meet. There were many more as well, with whom our encounters did not last long enough to learn their names, just long enough for them to show us their generosity: the man who stopped his car to get a bunch of grapes out of his boot and hand them to us, the bicycle mechanic who fixed a broken spoke without charge, the shop-keeper who gave us a bag of tomatoes for free, the countless cafe owners who refused to let us pay for our tea. They were small gestures, but they made a big difference in making us feel less like strangers a foreign land.

 

First published in Today’s Zaman – December 2 2012

Croatia To Turkey by Bike (Part 1)

Cycling Bay of Kotor by Rhiannon Davies

Last winter, I adopted Turkey (and more specifically Antalya) as my new home. However, not quite ready to brave the summer heat I headed back to the UK for a couple of months for a little reprieve.

I spent two months working at various music festivals across the UK, before the final one located in Pula, northern Croatia. Deciding to take this opportunity to take the scenic route back, I joined my brother and his girlfriend for a 2,000 kilometer stage of their round the world tour. I took my trusty steed on the plane and met them there after my festival work had finished. Together we spent six weeks cycling through Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia and Greece before finally landing on Turkish shores in Dikili via a ferry from the Aegean island of Lesbos.

Cycling across southeastern Europe provided a lot of interesting experiences along with incredibly beautiful scenery, but it’s fair to say that it was Turkey that we were looking forward to the most and which rewarded us with the best stories to regale. It was also here that we felt we had the greatest insights into the nature of a country and its people.

To bike or not to bike

Being a keen cyclist, I had been looking forward to cycling in Turkey for a long time, but I must admit, I was slightly concerned about whether the reality would match up to fantasy. When I told Turkish friends about my plans to cycle-tour in Turkey, most of them thought I was crazy and warned me of the dangers I would face, asking me to reconsider. However, when I spoke to a few cyclists passing through Antalya who had some Turkish pedal-powered miles under their belts, they told me the opposite. Far from the dangers of discourteous drivers and poorly maintained roads, most spoke with shiny eyes of joys of the wide verges and the friendliness with which they were met. It was the latter camp whom I decided to listen to.

This is not to say that cycle-touring in Turkey was without dangers. Dogs were often a problem, being chased by a pack of kangal dogs, protecting their flock of sheep, really tests the legs — it’s amazing how fast you can pedal with adrenaline coursing through you. We learnt quite quickly after a few hairy moments, that “flight” was not the best way to deal with these situations. Instead, we dismounted together, walking slowly, talking to the dogs and threatening to throw an imaginary stone if they still dared to venture too close.

The biggest threat to cyclists is close encounters with the numerous motorized vehicles we are forced to reluctantly share our roads with. Yet, this is not unique to Turkey and I feel more at risk cycling around cities in the UK than I did here. In general, we found that Turks would give us a wide berth and often a little warning beep to let us know they were approaching. This was assisted by the fabled wide verges we been told about by other cycle-tourers. It was true at least on the main, recently surfaced routes. The verges were more than wide enough to give us plenty of space to ride comfortably in, reminiscent of the cycle-paths of Western Europe.

The road surfaces themselves were very good on the main roads, less so on the secondary ones that we usually chose to take. But the lack of traffic travelling at high speeds more than made up for this fact, and so it was these smaller roads, sometimes just dirt tracks that we chose to take. On some routes we wouldn’t see a soul all day, passing through woodlands and past vineyards instead. Consequently when we did bump into someone, their surprise at finding three foreigners (on bikes!) in their homeland quickly gave way to hospitality and offers of tea, food or somewhere to rest.

Cycle-touring, in my opinion is the optimum way to travel if you wish to see a different side to a country, one that most tourists will not see. Admittedly, it is not for everyone. However, it should also not be as daunting a prospect as people think. You need a bicycle of course and a few other essential items, but once you have these, the world really is your oyster. Since buying my bike two years ago, I have cycled in 11 different countries in Europe. In total we spent two weeks cycling the 600 kilometers between Dikili on the Aegean coast to Antalya on the Mediterranean. Not only was it our favorite country to travel in, but it was also by far the cheapest. We spent TL 700 between three of us in 13 days, which is a startlingly low amount, especially considering the fact that we ate one meal out on most days.

Seeing the sights of real Turkey

Too often I find that traditional sightseeing in Turkey can be rather spoiled by vast busloads of other tourists turning up at the same time, clogging roads and walkways. Amplified commentaries in various different languages, along with the constant flash of hundreds of cameras, provide the ambience, creating a less-than-perfect experience. These factors combined with the rising cost of entry to such attractions can be rather off-putting for those prone to frustration and unwilling to shell out for the privilege. As such, on a recent two-week cycle-tour in Turkey, despite visiting the historic sites of both Pergamom and Pamukkale, I didn’t pay to enter either, wishing instead to spend my time (and limited money) on seeing the sights of the real Turkey.

So, what were these sights that we found preferable to exploring the ruins of ancient cities? They were much more modest, without the fanfare of historical importance or demands on our purse strings. We saw red peppers drying in the autumn sun, a 20-strong queue of tractors waiting in line to get their beets weighed, starlings flocking making patterns over the mountains, shepherds tending their sheep, men milking cows and women picking the October harvest of olives, grapes, peppers and eggplants.

What we witnessed more than anything was the kindness of complete strangers to foreigners in their homeland. This is not news, of course. One of the reasons so many foreign people fall in love with this country and choose to relocate their lives here is due to the famed hospitality they receive. However, living in the incredibly touristy center of Antalya, it is an element that is too often diluted by the many touts and hawkers whose livelihoods depend on profiting from foreigners and consequently are a little less generous.

Knowing a bit of the language helped us a lot. We were able to get past just the basics and find out more about the people we met, without having to rely on their English skills, which were rather few and far between in rural areas. However, I don’t think that any of those we met would have been any less friendly or helpful had we not had much more than a “merhaba.” The language of kindness is international, and it’s not hard to figure out what someone holding a glass of tea in your direction might mean.

 

First published in Today’s Zaman – November 27 2012