Monday, February 15, 2010, Safar 30, 1431 A.H   ISSN 1563-9479
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The News International Pakistan

 Thinking of Swat in Bodrum
By Ayesha Ijaz Khan
It is my third trip to Turkey but my first to the Bodrum peninsula in the southwest of the country. Bodrum was first marketed to me in the mid-nineties by a Turkish friend, who described it as a summer retreat for domestic tourists, a Nathiagali of sorts. In the last few years, however, Bodrum has become a popular international holiday destination for Europeans and Americans and several airlines offer direct flights from London to Bodrum.

What used to be a collection of little fishing villages have been developed to rival Europe's best-known river towns. Yalikavak, Turgetreis, Bodrum and Turkbuku situated across from the Greek islands on the Aegean Sea, are every bit as magnificent as Spain's Puerto Banus, France's St Tropez or Italy's Amalfi coast. The only difference is that in Bodrum the public toilets are cleaner, and five times a day, the village mosque sounds the azan.

As Barack Obama wrote in his first book, Dreams from My Father, "Europe is beautiful but she isn't mine." I cannot help but feel similarly. It is so much more gratifying to visit a Muslim country like Turkey and yet to see it no less developed than the best of what Europe has to offer. One cannot help but marvel at Ataturk's legacy.

In fact, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, having read H C Armstrong's biography of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1932, was reputed to have been so enamoured that he resorted to nicknaming his daughter, Dina, "Grey Wolf" as Ataturk was referred to by the title of Armstrong's book. In Turkey, he is revered as the saviour. And unlike Pakistan, where nothing is sacrosanct and nationalism cannot trump freedom of expression, in Turkey, Ataturk shan't be criticised. In fact, for the duration of our time in Bodrum, it was impossible to access YouTube. The reason cited was that "some Greeks had uploaded material derogatory to Ataturk" and hence YouTube remained inaccessible in Turkey.

The pride Turks take in their national heritage and in the naturally beautiful environs has led Turkey to base its economy largely on tourism. As we explored Bodrum, it was remarkable that there were no beggars. Since my last visit five years ago, the Turkish economy seemed to be on the rise and average Turks the beneficiaries.

I could not help but think of Swat and those displaced from equally beautiful and potentially equally lucrative tourist destinations. The Turkish model is instructive and relevant because it is a fellow Muslim country and one that does not rely on a commodity like oil to finance infrastructure and development. They have instead focused on tourism and hospitality. And though our culture is no less welcoming and our people no less friendly, our misplaced priorities prevent us from attracting large numbers of visitors.

International tourists look for culturally permissive venues. Incidentally, this is true not just for European tourists (who are exceptionally adventurous and will travel to any spot that allows them basic freedoms) but also tourists from Muslim countries. In spite of the fact that Iran has a rich cultural heritage, Muslim tourists will nevertheless choose Turkey because of the relaxed atmosphere that it provides. Lebanon, despite its precarious security situation, still draws more visitors than many other countries because it offers openness.

Mosques are an integral part of Turkish scenery and omnipresent in its towns and villages, but the strict vibe that one feels in their precincts is entirely absent in Bodrum, where French tourists dressed for the summer can walk through a mosque's courtyard without hesitation or fear.

My husband, who regularly takes time off work to observe Friday prayer at Regent's Mosque in London, always times it such that he makes it just in time for the jamaat but misses the lengthy and politically charged khutba. The Friday that we are in Turkbuku, he offers prayer at the cute little mosque in the village market close to our hotel.

"It was really chilled out," he tells me of his experience, "one of the guys was praying in shorts. Nobody bothered. And the khutba was really short. I didn't know what he was saying because it was in Turkish but I was looking out for words like Palestine, Israel, America, and there was none of that."

The day before, we had travelled to Ephesus, the site of much Greek history, including the Temple of Artemis, and also Meryamana, as the Turks refer to the last house of Hazrat Maryam. It is a holy place for Christians and Muslims and has provisions of prayer for both. The main room is used for prayer by the Christians but the side room is available to Muslims. When I tell the duty guard that I am Muslim, he is exceptionally polite, pulls out a beautiful prayer mat and leads me to the side room where he lays the mat in the direction of the Ka'ba for me. I have never felt as respected as a woman at any holy site. Although I am wearing shalwar-kameez and have a dupatta to cover my hair, it is not covered when I first speak to the guard. But he is not concerned. He trusts that since I have come for prayer, I must be prepared and that my attire is between me and my Allah.

This is entirely different from my several experiences at Umrah where the guards to the Haram are more interested in whether any hair is showing than they are in helping with logistics. It is also at odds with the Vatican, where the dress code is more relaxed than in Mecca, but the guards equally chauvinistic.

"I wish the Turks had not lost control of the Ka'ba," I tell my husband as we leave Meryamana.

On our last night, we eat at the Marine Yacht Club of Bodrum. While serving us, the waiter discovers that we are Muslims, and from Pakistan. He is extraordinarily friendly. When the bill comes, he has not charged us for the cokes and the teas. "It is from me," he says, "we are the same people." All we can do is tip him generously.

While conversing with him, I ask my standard question, "Are you happy with the government?"

"Yes, I like Erdogan very much," he responds, "I voted for him. Turkey had two good leaders. One, Ataturk. And two, Erdogan. Did you see what he did in Davos? He walked out for the Palestinians. I like it very much." We nod in agreement. "How are things in Pakistan?" he asks, "You have a big problem with Taliban?"

"Yes, unfortunately," I tell him, "but the army is fighting them now."

Back at the hotel, as I flip through Turkish channels, I am impressed with the insightful coverage they give both Pakistan and Iran. In Pakistan, by comparison, the media is obsessed with domestic issues, but Turkish media seems very adept at international coverage. "It's because we have too many problems at home," my husband tells me, "we can't afford to look elsewhere."

But the fact that Turkey is able to look elsewhere and to stand up for Muslim causes effectively because its own people are prospering is a testament to the durability of Ataturk's plan for modernisation and an affirmation that Islam is not under threat if modern ways are adopted but able to manifest itself in more substantive ways.

The writer is a London-based lawyer-turned-political commentator.

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