Israeli popstar slights Istanbul

Only people who live under a rock are unaware that Israel-Turkey relations are at an all-time low. The diplomatic enmity is quite serious, and are unlikely to improve in the immediate future (despite the recent result in the Turkish general elections). Just check out the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs Israel page and you will get a pretty clear sense of where things stand.

Relations soured in 2009/2010, following Operation Cast Lead and the infamous Gaza flotilla affair. That is a full five years, if you are keeping track, and there is increasing evidence that the friction is impacting Israeli attitudes towards Turkey.

Despite this, I was caught quite off-guard when listening to “Terminal 3,” the latest hit by Israeli pop star Dudu Aharon. In the Mizrahi love song, Aharon cajoles his sweetheart to travel the world with him:

It is the chorus where things get interesting:

“Oh honey, how beautiful you are
the Moon is right across from me
Understand, this isn’t Istanbul
Here everything is allowed, there are no limitations…”

Perhaps this is simply a case of artistic license. It wouldn’t be the first time Istanbul is portrayed as an exotic location.

But I don’t think that classical orientalist stereotypes are at play here. Tens, if not hundreds of thousands of Israelis have traveled to Turkey and are among the last people who would associate the cosmopolitan atmosphere of Istanbul with the forbidden. In fact, there is a long history of collaboration between the Israeli and Turkish music industries. Shlomi Shabat, an elder statesman in the Mizrahi music world whose parents emigrated from Turkey, frequently sings in the language of the old country.

Aharon’s song castes a clear image of Istanbul as a place that is not entirely free. He would rather take his beloved to America. I assume that Aharon is merely playing off the fact that relations between Israel and Turkey have been poor and the number of Israeli tourists to Turkey has plummeted in recent years. He probably has no idea that policies enacted by Erdoğan and the AKP in recent years have curtailed some of the freedoms that for decades defined Istanbul, in particular restrictions on the selling and advertising of alcohol (an act that was perceived by many Turkish liberals as an attack on the founding principles of the state). This fantastic map by Dov Friedman shows how the decision directly impacted the cultural heart of the city.

Of course, none of this has detracted from Istanbul’s popularity as a global tourist destination. I would argue that Istanbul offers all of the trappings of a megalopolis. There is little one can find in Tel Aviv that one can’t find in Istanbul.

Some polls in Israel indicate that the majority of Israelis are in favor of rapprochement with Turkey. However, the longer relations remain dormant the more likely it becomes that the cultural memory of Turkey transitions from positive to negative – something that the recent election results may impact for the better. This video by Corey Gil-Shuster provides further evidence of this shift:

Posted on by Gabriel in Israel, Turkey