Clem Sunter

From Istanbul with love

2013-05-24 12:30

Clem Sunter

If you ever want to enjoy something completely different, go to Istanbul where West meets East over the touchline of the Bosphorus. Apart from all the buildings of great historical interest like the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia, the sheer energy of the city overwhelms you and three words constantly enter your mind: Turks work hard.

Let me give you one example. On my first night there, I went to a small restaurant just up the road from my hotel. The manager not only gives you the menu, he offers a spicy starter for free, gives a glowing history of Turkish beer, harangues his family in the kitchen about what a special customer is sitting at the table and the food must be prepared with the utmost care and finally dives outside to solicit passing tourists to come into his personalised eating place. I joined him in the street after being fortified by his Turkish coffee and we managed to persuade some Australians to give his restaurant a shot.

But that is Istanbul. Everywhere you go there are entrepreneurs seeking to make a living out of the 11 million tourists that visit the city each year and the 35 million tourists that come to the country as a whole. The streets, particularly in the old Western section, are one long line of small service providers from mending the chains the boats use to anchor themselves to rows of do-it-yourself shops selling every household gadget you can imagine to orange squeezers quenching the thirst of pedestrians as they pass by with the cups being disposed in a bin attached to the stall.

In two places, the entrepreneurial frenzy reaches a peak: the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Market. Both are covered malls of one level with a constant river of people flowing through them, mainly curious tourists wanting to get a good bargain to show their family and friends back home. Overlooking this moving mass is one man whose photograph appears on the walls of all the buildings you pass through: Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. He is the Nelson Mandela of Turkey, having founded the modern Turkish state in the 1920s and established a secular society where Islam and the economy are balanced against one another. It is a model which has led Turkey to an annual income per head of $10 000 for its 80 million citizens. Ironically, Turkey has knocked on the door of the European Union for a few decades now but has been denied membership. Now the tables are turned and Turks look on their Western neighbours, particularly the Greeks with whom they have always shared a rivalry, with a mixture of pity and amusement.

The message for us in South Africa from Istanbul is simple. If we are to create an inclusive economy in which all our citizens participate to create a better life for themselves, then we need to develop the space for millions of small businesses to ply their trade side by side. All our major cities should have their equivalent of the Grand Bazaar attracting a steady stream of local and foreign customers; but you also need a network of alleys of small shops you can explore. Above all we need to work hard.

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