ISTANBUL - "Anti-Arab racism is everywhere. I am looked at with loathing on the Metrobus. I wonder why they want to be so hurtful."
Nasreen Amirah (not her real name), an aspiring Palestinian artist in her early 20s, arrived in Turkey two years ago from Gaza. She imagined Istanbul as a “key to the world,” a chance to broaden her social and artistic horizons; to be judged by her talent, not her origins.
But resentment against Arabs in her new home is growing at an alarming rate, directed mainly at the many Syrian refugees in Istanbul, but metastasizing into a general hostility toward all Arabs - and Palestinians are caught in the backlash.
Nasreen is deeply disenchanted. "Friends in Gaza think it’s easy outside. But it’s starting life from zero, like a new baby. And on top of that - the racism. It’s extreme. It’s a kind of racism I never saw in Gaza."
During a recent visit to Istanbul, I heard plenty of examples of how pervasive that hostility has become. On one of my first evenings, a tourism consultant in his forties who often travels to Asia told me that Turkish people were in agreement about one thing: the "greatest threat to Turkey is Arabs."
There are two very different focuses of anti-Arab hostility in the country. The first is directed against tourists from the Gulf, characterized as rich and condescending, flocking to the city to live large, go shopping and get hair transplants. A headscarved resident of a conservative Istanbul neighborhood told me they're commonly termed "Bedouin with Mercedes."
The louche behavior of some male tourists freed from the Gulf’s restrictions is widely remarked on, if not ridiculed, for its blatant hypocrisy.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s strongman president and head of its ruling Islamist party, the AKP, often references the Islamically "pious generation" he seeks to cultivate in Turkey, and likes to slap down Saudis like Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who, he says, despite being the custodian of Islam’s two holiest sites, doesn’t own Islam. There’s an rich trail of videos on social media comparing Erdogan’s far more fluent recitation of the Koran in comparison to that of the Saudi king, Salman.
The second target of anti-Arab racism is a far larger, far poorer and far more politically combustible group: refugees from the Syrian civil war.
According to UN figures, Turkey hosts the largest refugee population in the world - including more than 3.6 million Syrians. Officially, about half a million registered Syrian refugees live in Istanbul, constituting 3.4 percent of the city’s population. That makes Istanbul the third largest "Syrian" city in the world.
This enormous and unprecedented influx, partly the result of Turkey’s shared border with Syria and partly the 2016 deal it signed with the European Union to take in refugees stranded on Greek islands in return for substantial payments, has inevitably affected Istanbul, straining its services and increasing competition for jobs - all while a major economic crisis plays out in Turkey.
The story of how friction grew between Istanbul’s residents and Syrian refugees follows a familiar trajectory. Welcomed as temporary "guests," tensions simmered early on with the city’s working class, squeezed in the low-paid labor market by refugees not generally granted work permits. Employers could exploit their fragile legal status by paying them less, undercutting Turkish wage levels.
Nasreen, who lives close by many Syrian refugees, told me that the going rate for Syrians employed in unskilled labor - like handing out flyers and working 12-hour days - was just over $100 a month. That’s less than one third of Turkey’s minimum wage of $354 a month, which in any case isn’t sufficient to live on.
On the other side of the balance sheet, Syrian refugees in Turkey brought entrepreneurial skills and energy, launching over 15,000 new businesses and employing, at least till recently, nearly 100,000 people. Much of this was in Istanbul.
But then the economy plunged into recession. Unemployment in Turkey is now at its highest rate in a decade, hitting nearly 15 percent, with youth unemployment 10 percent higher. Since 2017, the Turkish lira has lost 30 percent of its value to the U.S. dollar.
As the crisis spiked most intensively over the past year, many Turkish citizens blamed their economic insecurity on the refugees with whom they saw themselves in a zero-sum competition: "Syrians are stealing our jobs" became a trope and rallying cry.
With tensions further inflamed by irresponsible, populist politicians, Syrians, an easily identifiable minority with fragile legal standing and no political representation, have become serial targets of xenophobic rhetoric and violence.
Syrian refugees are blamed for Istanbul becoming overcrowded, violent and dirty - and for changing the character of the city by importing their alien Arabic language and culture. Hayat told me she avoids speaking Arabic in public when she’s outside majority Arabic-speaking neighborhoods.
Palestinian commentator Muhammad Shehada told me a particularly forlorn story: A successful Gazan restaurant called Al-Tabon opened a branch in Istanbul last year targeting the mainstream Turkish market, rather than Arab customers, in which it invested the enormous sum of several hundred thousand dollars. The restaurant failed spectacularly: the branch’s former manager told him, "Turkish people just didn’t want to buy from an 'Arab restaurant.'"
There is constant friction about the presence of Arabic in the public square - signifying the anxiety that refugees will change, or contaminate, Turkish culture. The Interior Ministry recently insisted that Arabic be used only on 25 percent of the signage on storefronts.
The deputy chairman of the nationalist IYI party has declared that Turkey is in danger of becoming "a Middle Eastern country."
Even Istanbul’s new fresh-faced mayor, Ekrem Imamoglu, who led an anti-Erdogan coalition to victory and has been hailed as a champion of democracy and social inclusion, has adopted discriminatory language.
During his campaign, he promised that, in accordance with national policy, Syrians would be sent home - to a "safe Syria." That kind of talk helped him win the AKP stronghold of Fatih, an area densely populated by Syrian refugees.
He was reflecting popular opinion: A 2017 survey by Istanbul Bilgi University found 86 percent of the city’s (non-Syrian) residents wanted Syrians to return home when the civil war ends.
On a boat to one of his final pre-election campaign rallies, a woman in her fifties, wrapped in an Imamoglu flag, whispered to me: "Fuck Recep [Tayyip Erdogan]!" And then, in a far louder voice, "And fuck the Arabs," pointing at two women whom she identified as Syrian.
More recently, Imamoglu reiterated the complaint about the visibility of Arabic: "When you enter some neighborhoods you can't even read the shop signs. This is Turkey, this is Istanbul...they [the refugees] cannot recklessly change Istanbul’s color."
Imamoglu tried to forestall accusations of bigotry: "We will not be an administration which does racist acts, but this situation cannot carry on like this. A refugee must be isolated in a camp if it’s necessary, or he must be re-educated."
Several days later, a false rumor, fueled by WhatsApp messages, spread through Istanbul's Küçükçekmece district, alleging that a Syrian refugee had assaulted a local girl. Residents attacked Syrian refugees and smashed Syrian-run businesses.
A social media battle ensued, between those expressing solidarity with the victims, using the hashtag #suriyelileryalnizdegildir ("Syrians are not alone"), and those who used far coarser hashtags telling the refugees to get out, and "Don’t Want Syrians in my Country." Both sides’ tags trended simultaneously on Turkish Twitter.
This kind of violence has spread from towns and cities bordering Syria, where the refugee population density is highest, into Turkey’s largest cities. In Ankara in 2014, after an alleged mugging by a Syrian, local residents stoned a building that Syrians lived in and set it alight. Far-right nationalist gangs "hunt" refugees in the streets to beat them up.
Very few Istanbul residents really know what the Syrian refugees have gone through to reach the relative safe haven of Istanbul. Rakel Sezer, who works in the medical industry in Istanbul, does: she volunteered on a Greek island detention camp. She saw their trauma, heard their survival stories, watched the slow death of their hope of a new life as the months of detention piled up - sometimes resulting in suicide.
According to Dogus Simsek, a migration expert from Koc University, Syrian refugees in Turkey are generally seen as "criminals, beggars, burglars, exploiters, prostitutes, as tools for politics - but not as individuals."
Despite the backlash and expectations of the refugees’ departure, imminent or not, the reality is already far more complex. Syrians who have already been in Istanbul for years have put down roots, their kids are in school, they’ve invested in small businesses there. And 346,330 babies have been born in Turkey to refugee families.
How will they return? Could there even be a nonvoluntary expulsion? It’s a 'major political hot potato," a critical issue for both local and national politics, a prominent dissident journalist told me.
Popular racism against Arabs is hardly a new phenomenon in Turkey. As even a pro-Erdogan veteran of decades of local politics told me, it starts in school, where textbooks teach Turkish children that the Arabs betrayed them during World War I.
And more generally, a constant nationalist narrowing of what constitutes a "truly" Turkish citizen has long pervaded the political system. Strident nationalists like to refer to "pure Turks" - a term traditionally used to exclude the Kurds and all non-Muslim minorities, such as Armenians and Jews, but which now is also pointedly used to exclude (Muslim) Arabs.
The prohibition on using the Kurdish language even in private was only lifted in 1991. Kurds, Turkey’s largest ethnic minority and 20 percent of its population, are still subject to violent repression in the east of Turkey and to ongoing political pressure throughout the country. Istanbul’s Kurdish population is estimated at 3 million - the largest Kurdish concentration in the world.
The power of impugning someone’s "Turkishness" was demonstrated in the last Istanbul election, when Erdogan’s AKP tried to smear Imamoglu as being secretly - and subversively - Greek, even Christian, because of his family origins in Trabzon, where Pontic Greeks lived until they were massacred or fled in the 1920s.
Despite that background, Turkey has been for years the destination of choice for Arab dissidents thanks to its relative freedoms: Last year, The Economist even heralded it as a new "Arab capital." Between the Khashoggi murder in the Saudi Embassy in Istanbul last October, and growing anti-Arab racism, the city has lost some of that shine.
Istanbul has also long been a beacon for Palestinians desperate to leave the crushing conditions of Gaza in particular.
As Shehada has noted, that’s thanks to its "relatively easy-to-obtain tourist visa, its supposedly hospitable and pro-Palestinian reputation that Gazans assume will make it easier to resettle there and start a new life, and its imagined gateway to ‘the promised lands’ of Europe."
Other civil society activists I spoke to reiterated that Turkish people do indeed identify strongly with the Palestinian struggle, and are proud of Erdogan’s pointed rhetoric. Others note the president’s highly successful two-level strategy: To talk loudly about Israel’s abuses of Palestinians, while at the same time taking care not to interfere with burgeoning economic ties between Israel and Turkey.
Nasreen Amirah felt some of that theoretical empathy toward Palestinians: She experienced it primarily as being "brothers and sisters" in Islam, as a connection to Jerusalem’s Muslim holy sites, and, secondarily, as commmon ground on Palestinian national rights.
But no matter Turkey’s popular empathy for the Palestinian cause, it matters little in her day-to-day life. She can’t be distinguished as a Palestinian, so she’s assumed to be Syrian. The fact she’s acquired Turkish doesn’t help.
Nasreen doesn’t have regrets. She says she’s "grown a lot" in the two years since she arrived, alone, only 19 years old - but she also doesn’t want to stay. She wants to live in a more inclusive society that values diversity, away from what she sees as Istanbul’s "extreme prejudice" and Turkey’s pervasive and increasing nationalism.
But with the United States and much of Europe choking off refugee entry, there are few options. She worries that if anti-Syrian feeling rises still further, she could be swept up in a generalized expulsion of refugees.
Her experience of Turkey’s anti-Arab racism, which no longer grants any exceptions to Palestinians, leads her to only one conclusion: "I’ve told my family: Don’t even think about coming here. I couldn’t bear them being subjected to the stares and slurs on the bus. Istanbul should be only an absolute last option."
Esther Solomon is the Opinion Editor of Haaretz English. Twitter: @EstherSolomon
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