ON NEW YEAR’S EVE in Istanbul, I make my way from the seaside enclave of Beyoglu across the Galata Bridge. The gauntlet of fish restaurants lining the bridge’s lower level are gaily festooned for the holidays; white tablecloths are starched and a big flounder is laid out on ice. A foursome of fleece-laden Germans take their seats, while a mustachioed Turk frowns and smokes in a too-slim, hastily stitched Santa outfit.
Turkey, just outside the political and economic boundaries of Europe, but with a booming market that is the envy of its troubled European neighbours—like Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain—has helped complicate the idea that all progress looks west. On the one hand, Turkey is among the world’s more promising economic engines and a visit to Istanbul can be as chic as one to Paris or London. On the other hand, Turkey remains dogged by a long record of alleged human rights violations, and its newly re-elected government is awkwardly trading what historians have called a self-obsessed and military-oriented nationalist past for a more religious, regionally ambitious and potentially more perplexing future.
These tensions sailed into the headlines last summer, when a Turkish vessel named the Mavi Marmara departed for Gaza, carrying 600 passengers and what organisers said were humanitarian supplies.