Mert Himmet Gümüş Featured
Istanbul,  Turkey

Islam, Erdoğan, Turks and Kurds

Galata Tower
Mert Himmet Gümüş in Istanbul
Karnıyarık

The Place: Istanbul, Turkey

“It took me 9 hours to cycle just 40km halfway into Istanbul, but by the end of it, it was as though I’d spent a lifetime there. It was alive; a living, breathing entity in its own right, and was saturated with an energy unlike anything I’ve ever felt. It coursed through narrow alleyways and over cobblestones, and swirled in the air. It felt electric, like at any moment it could explode from all the intensity, and my brain reeled from the assault on the senses… It was pure, perfect anarchy.”

Read More About Istanbul

I have sat here, staring at my screen, debating how I can possibly describe, in writing, the sensation I felt cycling into Istanbul. I’ve written and re-written this three times already, and each time I read it back it feels like so much is missing. How can I do justice to the rush of adrenaline as I weaved between bumpers and boots, behind taillights and through gullies formed from an endless stream of metal, screeching vehicles that inched forwards in near gridlocked traffic? Or the way my mind wandered, as I gazed in awe at the huge domes atop mosques in and the minarets protruding from the mess of buildings that flanked either side of the Bosporus, before being snapped back to reality by the rumble of a truck or whir of a moped whizzing inches from my panniers? Or how the Islamic call to prayer from the top of those minarets, the “ezan”, which starts at marginally different times depending on which mosque you’re in, seemed to work its way around me, bouncing around the city before coming full-circle and enveloping me with its hypnotic, droning tones?

It took me 9 hours to cycle just 40km halfway into Istanbul, but by the end of it, it was as though I’d spent a lifetime there. It was alive; a living, breathing entity in its own right, and was saturated with an energy unlike anything I’ve ever felt. It coursed through narrow alleyways and over cobblestones, and swirled in the air. It felt electric, like at any moment it could explode from all the intensity, and my brain reeled from the assault on the senses. Everywhere I looked, something was happening; dice scuttled across a backgammon board as men gathered outside a shop to kill time to my right. Ahead, two children arguing and pushing one another forced me to swerve, almost knocking into a man balancing an enormous box of bananas on his head.


Turks Playing Backgammon in IstanbulTurkish shop-owners play backgammon, or “Tavla”, to kill time in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar.


The bike rattled as my tyres bounced over cracks and bumps in the road, but the noise was sporadically drowned out by the commotion around me. Dogs barked and scampered across the road, laughter spilled onto the street from tea houses, and I even passed three goats milling aimlessly at the roadside, seemingly unbothered by barrage of noise from the traffic a few metres away. It was pure, perfect anarchy.

Istanbul basked in an orange glow from the setting sun that fell over its buildings like a blanket.  Seagulls swirled over the water in their last feeding frenzy before dark, and behind them tourists crowded the viewing platform atop the infamous Galata tower. I was mesmerised, and struggled to grasp the full scale and scope of Turkey’s cultural capital. A world away from the my last stop, Burgas in Bulgaria, it was endless, its buildings sprawling on and on and on. It quickly swallowed me whole, becoming my entire universe. Each alley and turn offered an opportunity to lose myself; if I did, it felt like years would pass before I’d emerge again. Before I’d even reached my hosts, I was already planning how I’d ask to extend my stay so I’d have more time to explore; I’d never believed in love at first sight, but Istanbul was testing that notion.

Galata Tower in Istanbul


Please note that we do not fact-check our interviewees, and that their views do not necessarily represent our own.

The Person: Mert Himmet Gümüş, 32, Software Engineer

“I am a software engineer at Turkish airlines, and I have been doing that for 5 years. I’m originally from Izmir, but I’ve been living in Istanbul for 10 years. I still have relatives in Izmir, my uncle and cousins – I have 32 of them! …I would like to train to be a pilot, and also to travel… I want to discover other countries and cultures and understand other people.”

See Mert's Full Background

I am a software engineer at Turkish Airlines, and I have been doing that for 5 years. I’m originally from Izmir, but I’ve been living in Istanbul for 10 years. I still have relatives in Izmir, my uncle and cousins – I have 32 of them! I moved to Istanbul because I wanted to study at university here. I passed the entrance exams and studied electrical engineering at Yildiz Technical University. I got a Bachelor’s in Science at this university, which is one of the best in Turkey, and after that I started my career, working at Huawei first. Then I moved to work in the IT department at a bank before working for Turkish Airlines. 

If you ask me about my leisure time – what I am doing – I really would like to do some research into technology and science. I love tandem paragliding, and also travelling. I want to discover other countries and cultures and understand other people. I would like to train to be a pilot. I started flying as a student pilot 2 years ago. I chose Hungary for my pilot training, because its an E.U. country, and so if you go there they give you the flying certificate recognised by the E.A.S.A. (European Union Aviation Safety Agency), as well as the Civil Aviation Authority in Turkey. I almost completed the course; I did 186 hours with a Cesna aircraft, and now I need 30 hours to complete my training. So, hopefully I can become a first officer soon! 

What does ‘home’ mean to you?

“Home is where you are comfortable… It can be a good library, a good store or something… It was really hard for me to get adapted to the city of Istanbul… But thanks to God I dealt with it, and I’m surviving.”

See Mert's Full Answer

Home is where you feel comfortable, and where you relax with your parents and friends. It doesn’t mean just a house. It can be a good library, a good store or something. As long as you feel comfortable there, it’s home. It was really hard for me to get adapted to the city of Istanbul after I moved from Izmir. It’s a really crowded city, it’s like a capital; all the big companies are here, and it’s a cosmopolitan city. But thanks to God I dealt with it, and I’m surviving. Now I’d say Istanbul is my home more than Izmir.

What is special about Istanbul that makes it different from other Turkish cities?

“People come from other cities to live here, and everyone brings their culture with them. So, it makes Istanbul much more cosmopolitan, and at the same time it makes the city nicer for me, because different people have to respect each other and live alongside each other.”

See Mert's Full Answer

Istanbul has an awesome history and culture. It is very geographically and historically significant and has a very unique atmosphere. Each region in Turkey has its own culture. Each has its own good things, especially when it comes to food and lifestyle.

The history of Anatolia is very old, more than 1,000 years. So whenever you go to any part of Turkey, you can feel each has its own culture. It’s not easy to find a person who is from Istanbul originally, because everyone comes here from other cities. People come from those other places to live here, and everyone brings their culture with them. So, it makes Istanbul much more cosmopolitan, and at the same time it makes the city nicer for me, because different people have to respect each other and live alongside each other. If you want to go out with your friends in Istanbul, there are loads of places you can go, compared with other Anatolian cities. Everything happens in Istanbul! That’s good for me; it’s the culture capital.

Earlier today we discussed religion and praying. Why is Islam important to you?

Whenever I go to mosque… I feel so close to God in my soul… Before I practiced Islam… I was more focused on money. I thought about how much I had to make and so on; the tricks of capitalism. But after I recognised the meaning of religion – of Islam – I started to understand the meaning of life as a bigger picture…”

See Mert's Full Answer

I am Muslim, and I believe in Islam. My family is not conservative, but when I was a teenager, around 14-15, I started to ask myself “what is the meaning of life? What am I doing here?” I recognised that there must be a deeper meaning other than things like money; there must be some “magic”. When I started to read the Quran, and when I started to understand the basics of Islam, I saw that there was a God, and thought about what he wants from us. I started praying and learning a lot about Islam. And this changed my life positively. Whenever I go to mosque, or when I pray at home, I feel so close to God in my soul. When I put my head on the pillow at night, I feel so comfortable and relaxed, because I have so much trust in God. I thank God I’m alive today, and think I did good things today, and hope I will do good things tomorrow, Insha Allah (God Willing).  

Before I practiced Islam, when I didn’t pray, I was more focused on money. I thought about how much I had to make and so on; the tricks of capitalism. But after I recognised the meaning of religion – of Islam – I started to understand the meaning of life as a bigger picture. Before praying regularly, I was a modest Muslim who was not praying or trying to understand life, who was just focused on money. After that, God helped me to find my way, to understand life and the world, and why we have to continue praying and having good relations with Allah. 

Are there many different types of Islam here in Istanbul and the rest of Turkey?

I think people want to match their cultures with Islam. Islam is not an Arabic culture, or a Turkish culture or an English culture. It is above the cultures. For example, Arabic women wear this black burqa. But the Qorun doesn’t say you have to wear that. It just says “please, dress modestly”… The true Muslim always keeps to the middle of the road. He or she can’t be radical. They must be modest.”

See Mert's Full Answer

There are different types of Islam, like there are Catholics and protestants. But honestly, there should be no sub-part of Islam, because the prophet Muhammad tells us there is only one Islam. The rules are valid for everyone. There are not special ones for certain geographies, for certain countries, or certain people. There are some basic rules, and if you’d like to obey them you can see how your life will change, and how your soul will get better and better.

But I think people want to match their cultures with Islam. Islam is not an Arabic culture, or a Turkish culture or an English culture. It is above the cultures. For example, Arabic women wear this black burqa. But the Qorun doesn’t say you have to wear that. It just says “please, dress modestly”. It says to cover your legs and arms and so on. Before 1,500 years ago, there was no fashion; there was just one cut of clothes and it was modest.

The true Muslim always keeps to the middle of the road. He or she can’t be radical. They must be modest. Muslims should understand the basics of Islam as a philosophy. They don’t need to know the “shape of Islam” (what it looks like). The shape is nothing, but the philosophy is everything. The philosophy runs so much deeper. So if anybody wants to care about Islam and follow its rules, you have to go deep into its philosophy. It’s not about rules and rules and rules; “you have to do this and that. And if you don’t do that, you will be punished.” Islam is not like that. It’s love. If you don’t feel the love of God in your heart, then you should check your prayers. If your praying makes your soul closer to God, then you are doing it right. That’s the philosophy. The differences are just people bringing their own cultures into Islam.


Men Praying in the Blue Mosque in IstanbulMen pray in Istanbul’s Sultan Ahmed Mosque, also known as the “Blue Mosque”.


Can you think of a time you have been proud of Istanbul or Turkey?

Honestly, I’m so proud of my country when it comes to the culture of hosting people. As a Mediterranean culture, we are good at friendship and sharing life with others. We are so welcoming to foreign people… In Islam, nothing is coincidence… we say that we always meet people for a reason. That is part of what makes people more hospitable.”

See Mert's Full Answer

Honestly, I’m so proud of my country when it comes to the culture of hosting people. As a Mediterranean culture, we are good at friendship and sharing life with others. We are so welcoming to foreign people. But I think by the next generations that will be even better. We like to share our culture with people  from other places, and we like to build relationships with foreigners. 

In Islam, nothing is coincidence. Everything, even the things we don’t understand, happens for a reason. Nothing happens for nothing. Sometimes we can see it immediately, sometimes we see it a little while after, and sometimes we don’t see it for a long time. But in the end, we can understand the main reasons that things happen. That’s why we say that we always meet people for a reason. That is part of the thing that makes people more hospitable. 

What is your main concern or worry about Istanbul or Turkey?

“Everybody knows that the U.S.A. manipulates the world financially. Middle Eastern countries are suffering a lot because of them.”

See Mert's Full Answer

Turkey is, geographically, in a difficult place, between Europe and Asia. It’s a culturally and historically unique country, but this all gives us both opportunities and disadvantages. There are other countries which want to establish a new world design, with the leadership of the United States, and they want to spread their influences. Everybody knows that the U.S.A. manipulates the world financially. Middle Eastern countries are suffering a lot because of them. They don’t sell their oil using U.S. dollars, it means that you will be f*cked up and overthrown. The U.S.A. is free to print dollars as much as they want, and they can buy the petrol with those dollars.

Is the relationship between the Turkish and Kurdish populations in Turkey good?

I respect that someone is Kurdish, and I have many relatives that are Kurdish. But, there are 3 million refugees in Germany from Turkey that have been there for over 30 years. In that case, how is it fair to establish “New Turkey” in Germany?”

See Mert's Full Answer

Originally Kurdish people lived in the Southeast of Turkey, in part of Iran, Syria, Azerbaijan and Iraq. I respect that someone is Kurdish, and I have many relatives that are Kurdish. But, there are 3 million refugees in Germany from Turkey that have been there for over 30 years. In that case, how is it fair to establish “New Turkey” in Germany? That’s not fair or acceptable. 

Turkish people went to Europe to work there, to have better living conditions. They became a part of those cultures, and that opportunity was given to them by the countries in Europe, and then they had to respect those countries. 

Do you think there will ever be a “Kurdistan”?

The idea of Kurdistan threatens this togetherness. They want to make a Kurdish country. We’re living in 2019, this is not the time for an ethnic-based nation. Nobody has the right to choose nations. Only God decides.”

See Mert's Full Answer

Unfortunately at the moment, the Muslim world is just killing each other. It’s a really bad situation. But Muslim Kurdish people are not fighting for Islam. If you believe in Islam, then you shouldn’t fight each other. 15 years ago, the U.S. was led by Bush, and he promised that he would bring democracy to Iraq and then Saddam’s regime will finish, and everything will be great. But 15 years later, we clearly see that there is no democracy or anything except in Northern Iraq, where the Kurds are. We offered the Kurdish people in Turkey the option to go to Iraq so they can live in “Kurdistan”. But 90% of the Kurdish people don’t want to go there. They are happier in Turkey, and are living in better conditions here. 

The U.S. clearly wants to make Kurdistan bigger and bigger, and wants to see it include Northern Syria. In that case, that will be a very big problem for our nation’s security, especially in the Southeast of Turkey where the Y.P.G. operates. They would probably support the Kurdish people against Turkey. But before I never thought the U.S. would give a sh*t about Turkey or the Y.P.G; It’s a terrorist organisation, and it’s not about the Kurdish people. 

There is still a big threat from the Y.P.G., they are still fighting Turkish soldiers. Yesterday, they went to attack the Turkish soldiers on the border of Iraq, and 4 Turkish soldiers died. That’s a really hard situation for us. We love Kurdish people, and don’t have any problem with them, and there are many Kurds in Turkey. But this is dirty politics. America doesn’t care about the independence of nations. They just care about money. What happened after the 1990 war in Bosnia? The great Yugoslavia was devastated, and it turned into 3 countries, and they are now smaller chunks. As long as you are together, you are one strong nation.

The idea of Kurdistan threatens this togetherness. They want to make a Kurdish country. We’re living in 2019, this is not the time for an ethnostate. Nobody has the right to choose nations. Only God decides. So if you’re happy in this country and living in good conditions, live or leave. Why do you fight? We have a limited time in this world. I can’t understand why people fight for such stupid things. We don’t have a 1,000 year lifespan; just 80-90 years maximum. People spend their lives just fighting for independence. Independence from what? We have to respect all nations, and we have to keep away from dirty politics. If we want to live in peace, we have to respect and understand each other. We have to decide something with the collaboration of everybody. This is a democratic society.

President Erdoğan has been criticised for his human rights record. Do you fear your country slipping into dictatorship?

“…America didn’t want to see him as president of Turkey anymore, and they told us “ok, Erdoğan is a dictator”. And ok, in some ways he is, but not 100%. He is maybe 50-60% dictator. I see him making more changes than any other president of Turkey and standing up to the U.S. on some issues. So in some ways it’s a good thing…”

See Mert's Full Answer

In the year of 2001-2001, Erdoğan made a promise to the United States that he would be a good leader and a good role model for the Middle East, as a democratic and peaceful person. He tried to fix problems with the neighbouring countries. The U.S. helped Turkey a lot, and they opened the doors to give lots of money to Turkey, to make the living standards higher and higher, and to solve those problems with the surrounding countries. But after 2013, Erdoğan stopped obeying the rules of the U.S. when it came to things like Kurdish politics, and some issues with oil and natural gas. So, America didn’t want to see him as president of Turkey anymore, and they told us “Erdoğan is a dictator”. And, ok, in some ways he is, but not 100%. He is maybe 50-60% dictator. I see him making more changes than any other president of Turkey, and standing up to the U.S. So, in some ways, it’s a good thing, and he’s doing great things, and in some ways it’s bad. I can’t say that everything he does is right and correct, or the other way round. There is some really good, and some really bad.

Financially, the U.S. started a war with Turkey. We’re trying to fix that now. They are manipulating the markets, and flooding it with Turkish Lira. They do that not only for Turkey, it’s a much worse situation in Iran. It is suffering a lot because of this. They’re doing it because Iran is clearly against Israel in this region, and the U.S. always stands with Israel. I call the United States the financial mafia of the world. Everyone knows it. Perhaps we can agree on some things in the future, and they can stop the financial war against us.


Erdoğan and a Mosque in Rize, TurkeyA poster of Erdoğan hung next to a mosque in the centre of Rize (Black-Sea Region), the President’s hometown.


Have you personally been affected by the currency crash? Why did it happen?

“I started my pilot’s training 2 years ago, and unfortunately I couldn’t complete it because the Lira plunged against the Euro over the last year. The value of the Euro against the Lira has almost doubled. So I’ve been suffering from this currency plunge.”

See Mert's Full Answer

As I told you before, I started my pilot’s training 2 years ago, and unfortunately I couldn’t complete it because the Lira plunged against the Euro over the last year. The value of the Euro against the Lira has almost doubled. So I’ve been suffering from this currency plunge. It will cost me €10,000 to complete my training, so it’s not easy to deal with that. Not for me and not for most other people either, because as a nation we don’t produce enough.

We are importing too much from other countries. We are only exporting some food. The gap between exports and imports is getting bigger and bigger, and we have a lot of debt, but we owe U.S. dollars, not Lira. If it was in Lira, it wouldn’t be such a big problem. 

Inflation is really high here. Turkey is exporting food, and the other countries take advantage of our currency; €1 is now worth ₺5-6 (Turkish Lira), so they start to buy more and more food. Then the domestic markets are affected so badly; this year, the inflation is almost 25%. It sucks. Wages stay the same, while the market prices are getting higher and higher. That’s why we are suffering.

Ramadan is soon coming up. What do you do for it and what is the meaning behind Ramadan?

According to the Holy Quran… fasting makes your body and soul stronger, and helps it survive through life. As a philosophy, you start to understand the importance of food; how much you need and want it. Then you can understand how blessed you are to have this food. It’s about appreciating the food.”

See Mert's Full Answer

Ramadan is the biggest celebration here. We have a lot of sweets and desserts, like Baklava and Börek. During Ramadan holidays, married and older people tend to stay at home and spend time with relatives, and kids and so on. But people under 30 like to go out. Ramadan is an Islamic month when Muslims are fasting. During Ramadan, we don’t eat from sunrise to sunset. After that it’s normal; you can eat, have sex, whatever you want.

According to the Holy Quran, the passages say that fasting makes your body and soul stronger, and helps it survive through life. As a philosophy, you start to understand the importance of food; how much you need and want it. Then, you can understand how blessed you are to have this food. It’s about appreciating the food.

You don’t eat anything from sunrise to sunset and your blood sugar goes down. After that you feel like a zombie! It’s easy until the final 3 hours. You can’t have anything; no water, no food, no sex, nothing. It’s based on the lunar calendar so the date changes each year. You will be here when it starts in two weeks! It’s from the start of May until June. Sometimes it happens in Summer, sometimes Spring, Winter or Autumn. It’s unbearable in summer, when the days are longer. I remember that a few years ago, we were fasting for 17-18 hours a day!

What food should I try to get a “taste of Turkey”?

You should try Karnıyarık. It’s meat with eggplant, and it’s seasoned, and the meat is stuffed inside the eggplant. I don’t know what part of Turkey it’s from, but it’s awesome.

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Mert Himmet Gümüş


The Plate: Karnıyarık 

“Karnıyarık, in the words of M&S, was not just food; it was sleeping in that farm where time seemed to freeze, in the shadow of a volcano, dogs barking outside and chickens scurrying around the garden. It was Ali and Adile’s hospitality, the picture of Atatürk that hung on the wall among their family photos, and the sense of home I felt so far from home.”

Read About Karnıyarık

“You can only have Karnıyarık cooked by a Turkish mother or Grandmother!” I’d been told that by several different friends I’d made on my journey through Turkey, but hadn’t taken it literally. But for weeks I had searched for a restaurant in Istanbul and further afield that would serve Mert’s recommendation, to no avail. I’d more or less given up hope, and was close to abandoning my efforts, until I found myself at a farmhouse in the middle of the Anatolian Steppe, nearly a month later, hosted by Ali, Adile and their son, Erkan. I sat on pillows intricately embroidered with dazzling shades of red, legs still burning from a long day on the bike, doing my best to converse using elaborate hand-gestures, and faced a plate of Karnıyarık and fried rice prepared by Adile; Turkish mother, check, and Turkish grandmother, check.


Ali, Adile and ErkanMy hosts, Adile (left), Erkan (centre) and Ali (right) on their farm in Cumhuriyet, Anatolia.


Leaning forward on a creaking wooden chair opposite, Ali poured a few drops of chilli oil into a glass of dark, purple-red ‘Şalgam’, a salty drink made from beetroot juice adored by much of the country, but that I struggled to stomach, before tilting his head back and downing it in one.

“Impressive”, I noted to myself, and turned my attention to the long-awaited dish.

Minced meat sat still stewing inside an envelope of aubergine, open on one side and glistening with oil, it’s deep, brown colours standing in stark contrast to a slice of tomato placed delicately on top.  As I ate, I peered through the window; daylight had shrunk into the horizon, drawing any remnant of warmth with it, the countryside was plunged into a frigid night. The pale glow of the moon illuminated the silhouette of an enormous, slumbering volcano in the distance; if I looked closely I could almost see it breathing. The shadow of its ridges cascaded down to the flat plains that stretched up to its base and seemed to guide your eye in its direction. Whether it was my enhanced appetite after all the cycling, the refreshing change from the onslaught of kebab my stomach had endured for the past few weeks, or the sense of wonder as I marvelled at my new surroundings distracting me, but I barely noticed myself still eating, and scoffed down serving after serving. The tang of the aubergine wrapped itself around the meat, softening its’ flavour, while the tomato watered down the salt and oil. If I’m honest, I don’t remember much of the taste of Karnıyarık’s. Not because it’s forgettable, but because my mind was away, exploring the Anatolian Plateau and replaying the day’s cycle route.

For me, Karnıyarık, in the words of M&S, was not just food; it was sleeping in that farm where time seemed to freeze, in the shadow of a volcano, dogs barking outside and chickens scurrying around the garden. It was Ali and Adile’s hospitality, the picture of Atatürk that hung on the wall among their family photos, and the sense of home I felt so far from home. Food is entwined with experience; in my head the two are impossible to separate, and I’m almost hesitant to try Karnıyarık again, because I want to keep it that way.

Karnıyarık


Thoughts? Leave a comment down below!


Check out our interactive map, displaying the locations of each of our interviews!

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Attempting to cycle from Tromsø in Northern Norway to Baku, Azerbaijan while interviewing locals en route. Despite my chequered history with bikes, here’s to me returning home with an intact facial structure and at least as many body parts as I left with.

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