Tea, politics and tears mix in Turkey's capital

— This capital city is like all other capital cities: It is about power and reach.

In this one, it's done over tea. Small glasses of tea. The foam cups offered in America would be considered barbaric.

Turkish hospitality requires that you can't have a meeting without offering your guests tea or coffee, although tea predominates, meeting after meeting after meeting.

There are 550 members of Parliament, and each has a staff of three, and if you add the other government staff and all the guests, and six or seven meetings a day, it comes to thousands upon thousands of glasses of tea.

"Sixty thousand glasses a week, at least," estimated one staffer with a smile. "It sounds odd, but it's true."

While swilling tea in the Turkish Parliament the other day, two things stood out:

The rage of rural Kurdish villagers who came to testify about their husbands, fathers and children, all victims of a botched Turkish air raid in December. It turned out they weren't Kurdish terrorists after all, merely smugglers coming home from a day of trading in Iraq, and 34 of them were destroyed by bombs in an attack that the government is still investigating without success.

And then there was the absolute icy control offered on a variety of issues — including Israel's ruined relationship with this moderate Islamic democracy — by Minister of European Affairs Egemen Bagis.

Bagis, who represents cosmopolitan Istanbul, is a secular politician who describes himself as not particularly religious.

But he is Turkish, and as soon as he entered the room, a waiter came in and set a glass of tea before me. It was time to talk politics. He wanted to talk about Israel.

"The one thing that Chicago Tribune readers need to know is that the Turkish government has nothing against Israel's right to exist. We have nothing against Israeli people. And we have nothing but affection for Jewish people around the world."

But he does have a problem with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

"Our problem is with the Netanyahu mentality which would not even apologize for killing nine innocent individuals in international waters."

The nine were killed in May 2010 while participating in a flotilla in the Mediterranean Sea that was trying to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza. Israel insists it was trying to protect its sovereign obligations, and Bagis insists that the nine civilians were executed.

Executed?

"Yes, executed," Bagis said.

Israeli officials recall it differently, insisting that their commandos were attacked while boarding the ship and were defending themselves.

After the deadly incident, Israel wouldn't budge and neither would Turkey. But while the formal, public diplomatic relationship is nonexistent, business between the two nations continues.

And Turkey continues to demand a public Israeli apology, compensation for the victims and an end to the blockade of Gaza.

"I really have a hard time understanding the logic of losing their only Muslim friend," Bagis said. "Turkey was the only Muslim friend Israel had and they ruined it."

Israeli officials tell me privately that they're concerned about Turkey, where politics was once rigidly secular and is now described as pro-Islamic as Turkey rebuilds relationships with Middle Eastern nations.

So I asked Bagis about this.

"I respectfully disagree with your phrasing of my government as Islamic-toned," Bagis said. "We are a conservative democratic Muslim party, yes, but this is a Muslim country.

"And it is on your paper bills that the phrase 'In God We Trust' is inscribed, not mine. Your presidents complete all their speeches with the saying 'God bless America,'" not my leaders. Your politicians go to church every Sunday and they talk about God on a daily basis and we have seen in your election campaigns people reciting from the Bible or the Torah on a daily basis, and in Turkey we don't have that."

When we were finished, he asked me about Chicago, and Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

"We knew each other in Washington," Bagis said. "Please say hello to Rahm."

Things weren't so smooth in that other meeting in the building, where the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party demanded answers about the 34 villagers killed as suspected terrorists.

"They weren't terrorists," said a Kurdish political adviser. "They were only smugglers. Poor people selling alcohol and cigarettes."

In a warm room crowded with hundreds of BDP members, the party introduced the villagers of Uludere. The women wore black and held up pictures of their sons. They wept and the party faithful wept and gave them standing ovations.

"I sent my son to Turkish schools, so he could learn to be in this nation, and they killed him," she said. "We want justice. Where is the justice?"

The minority Kurds are expected to repeatedly invoke the massacre as a parliamentary commission works to draft a Turkish constitution dealing with minority rights.

Altan Tan, a member of Parliament who represents the Kurdish city of Diyarbakir — and who is on the constitution committee — said the deaths in Uludere wouldn't be forgotten as the constitution is debated.

"We are denied Kurdish education in our schools, and we want local government officials to be Kurds," said Tan. "And we want the truth to come out on Uludere."

Outside, I asked a parliamentary staff member and former journalist if there was enough tea for all the politics to come.

"There is always tea in Ankara," she said. "Would you care for some?"

jskass@tribune.com

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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