On Istanbul Beaches, an Altered Social Fabric

Ismet Gunebakan, a Turkish civil servant, is told by Yasar Korkmaz, an Istanbul beach guard, to change into his swimsuit in a cabin nearby.
Ismet Gunebakan, a Turkish civil servant, is told by Yasar Korkmaz, an Istanbul beach guard, to change into his swimsuit in a cabin nearby. (By Staton R. Winter For The Washington Post)
By Karl Vick
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, September 21, 2005

ISTANBUL -- The Turkish language has two words for underwear.

Kulot, pronounced like the word for pants-skirt, is actually French, and as such, snugly captures the delicate sensibilities, urbane airs and consuming aspirations of Turks who see themselves as Europeans. Known as "white Turks," they have long held sway in this beautiful city that stands half in Europe, half in Asia. By bridging the two, Istanbul has defined cosmopolitanism for a millennium.

Only in the last generation has Istanbul become a beacon for the rest of Turkey. The working-class people following jobs and opportunities here from the villages and smaller cities of the Anatolian peninsula are known as "black Turks." And when they pull off their trousers on a hot summer day at Istanbul's public beach, the correct term for the white briefs they reveal, unself-consciously, is don.


"We used to swim in our don," said Hasan Yildirim, 16, on the sand at Caddebostan municipal beach, wet from a dip in the Marmara Sea. The white cotton of his stretch undies peeked out from under a black nylon swimsuit -- racing briefs cut smaller than the underwear beneath but technically in accord with a new city rule requiring that swimming be done in swimsuits.

"It was more fun in don."

No doubt it was, but the rules posted at the entrance to the beach were not produced on a whim. Swimwear, or lack of it, fueled fierce controversy in Istanbul this summer.

The underwear flap reflected class warfare and the country's political realignment. And if some elements were unique to Turkey, others illustrated the cultural dislocations that occur anywhere when much of a countryside picks up and moves, creating a mega-city like Istanbul, 80 percent of whose approximately 15 million residents were born somewhere simpler.

The flap appeared to begin with a screed that a columnist unleashed in the July 27 issue of the newspaper Radikal. Mine G. Kirikkanat, a very white Turk, began by writing about how proud she was of Istanbul's shiny international airport, which "lights up Turkey's 'non-Arab' face."

But the drive into the city, she wrote, was something else. In the parks along the shore road toward town, "men in their underwear rest ruminating, women wearing black chadors or headscarves all are fanning the barbecue. . . . This view is repeated every 10 meters square, our dark people cooking meat by the sea that they turn their [behinds] toward."

"Carnivore Islamistan," the columnist dubbed the scene, capturing in a brutal phrase the major fault line of class and politics in modern Turkey.

If the kebab is the staple food of Anatolia, the white Turks native to Istanbul prefer sea bass, bluefish and other delicate catches of the two seas that bracket the city and the Bosporus Strait in between. And this, too, has caused consternation.

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