The Turkish carpet industry has felt the increasing weight of tourism. New carpets reflect the confusion and rootlessness so prevalent in modern western civilization. While each region in Turkey had its own special carpet design 30 years ago, since then carpet weavers have begun to mix and match to cater to the tourists’ whims.
Now one can find carpets made in Eastern Turkey with a western motif, or, even more absurdly, one shop has offered carpets made with Navaho color and design schemes to cater to wealthy Americans. So now a Harika, Konya, Tashpinar, Kaysari, or Van carpet or kilim might be in name only, because the distinct designs and origins of each are hopelessly confused.
The danger is that once a generation of weavers passes this practice on to their children in what remains a largely hereditary trade, the old forms of this supreme of all Islamic arts may be forgotten. Orhan, a lifetime carpet man, has been unable to interest his teenage son in the trade. ‘All he wants to do is go to the mall and play video games with his friends, and watch American movies and eat McDonalds,’ Orhan laments. ‘He has no interest in carpets.’
Orhan’s situation is symptomatic of larger national machinations. Turkish government policies are designed to keep Eastern carpet producing regions underdeveloped with respect to even the most basic industries, causing a youth flight to the cities which further threatens the traditional carpet craft and trade.
Meanwhile, a government run carpet shop in Istanbul can charge premium prices for certified and distinct carpets, snapped up by western collectors and traders as they have been since European popes and kings discovered the beauty of Turkish carpets, leaving the confused products or machine made rugs for the people who can no longer afford to buy the real thing.
Despite all this adjusting of Turkish culture and lifestyle to fit the dictates of a government-sponsored tourist industry, the Turkish economy continues to nose-dive. Soon, the Kemalist generals will have to shave some zeroes off their liras, which have become unwieldy in numbers. Seven years ago, a million Turkish liras was equivalent to about US$225. In July of 1998, three or four US dollars will buy one million Turkish liras.
The lira has faired no better against other western currencies. But despite the promise of largesse in exchange rates, and even with all the other adjustments for westerners, Turkey is still a low priority for tourists who shy away whenever there is something else to do, or when there are regional conflicts. This year, the World Cup in France took a big bite out of Turkish tourism. In years past, it has been the genocide in former Yugoslavia, or the Turkish government’s war against Kurdish people in Eastern Turkey.
These two examples are cruelly ironic indeed. In the former case, while Serbian and Croat fascists worked hard to wipe out Muslims along with any vestige of Turkish Islamic culture in Bosnia and Kosova, fearful western tourists stayed away from Turkey, which in turn wrought havoc on the Turkish economy. In the latter case, many victims of Turkish government policies in Kurdistan flock to the cities to work as underpaid servants and waiters in the tourist industries, only to suffer loss once again as news of the struggles of their compatriots leads to reduced western tourism.
Tourism in Turkey, as elsewhere in the Muslim world, is a Faustian bargain, the benefits of which accrue only to the few at the expense of the many, as Islamic culture and tradition increasingly bow down to cater to the finicky spending habits and flighty imaginations of western tourists.
Muslimedia: January 1-15, 1999