Thursday, September 9, 2010

Bridge to the future, unknown

Nationalism. Ethnicity. Religion. Economic status. Politics. If I had to pick a way to save our troubled world, to guide us beyond these barriers that divide us, the tool I’d start with to bring us together is music.

Monday night, I was among the 50,000+ people who made the long journey to an isolated corner of Istanbul, to a stadium built for Olympic dreams yet unfulfilled. A good friend invited me along when she realized she had an extra ticket; someone else’s ambivalence led to my good fortune. As trite as it may seem to attend a concert by an iconic rock band, experiencing the phenomenon of U2 was a revelation I deeply needed right now, as Turkey decides its future this weekend, and Abit and I reevaluate our personal and professional dreams as well. It’s a new moon, an auspicious time for beginnings.

On the12th of September, 30 years to the day of a military coup, Turkey will be holding a complicated referendum in which voters are evenly divided about whether to lessen the power of the military and increase the prime minister’s authority to appoint the judiciary, among many other issues too convoluted to elaborate easily. After 12 years of living here, I’ve got my opinions but no vote, and concern about what will happen after this Sunday. Even a seasoned journalist may not quite get all the nuances of a culture after years of living and reporting from here, if some spirited commenters are to be believed. Is Turkish society so deeply divided that the referendum’s issues will further alienate and stagnate its forward progress? 


But this situation is not as baffling as in my birth country, where the population is psychologically terrorized in these days leading up to the 9th anniversary of 9/11 by a mainstream media obsessed by Koran burning ministers, Obama’s religion and the real motives of a Sufi imam in NYC, because the concept that peace-seeking moderate Muslims exist is impossible to fathom. Turkey’s political issues may be complex, but those in the US are well beyond belief.

This was U2’s first concert in Turkey. They’d stayed away in the past due to Turkey’s troubled human rights record. It is symbolic that they relented during our European Capital of Culture year. Banners on the Galata Bridge in Turkish and English currently proclaim that Istanbul “builds bridges between cultures.” That’s a message I’m sure resonated with the group, ambassadors that they are for fighting poverty, hunger and the elimination of AIDS.  

Turkey has cultural bridges to build within the country, as well as in our troubled neighborhood. Which was why Bono not only called on Washington DC to listen to the people of Tehran and Palestine, and sent a candlelit message to Burma’s Aung Sun Suu Kyi that she is not forgotten, but reminded a Turkish audience about a Kurdish journalist, Fehmi Tosun, who ‘disappeared’ in the southeast in 1995, a public reminder that may get an average citizen prosecuted.

Bono then brought musical legend and UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador Zülfü Livaneli on to sing his “Yiğidim Aslanım”(My Brave Lion), about a man imprisoned and killed for his political struggles. Livaneli wrote the haunting soundtrack for Kurdish actor/director Yilmaz Guney’s classic and controversial film Yol (The Road), about the aftermath of that September 1980 coup.  

Livaneli said that he and U2 were “song makers”. That’s a humble description for what these men do. To stand among tens of thousands of people singing as one, many with tears streaming down our faces, Bono with his hand over his heart and showing emotion himself, reminded me of the power of music. A song can link human hearts and let us feel that strong current of common connection we all share – beyond those barriers of politics, ethnicity, and religion.  


Several songs into their two hour performance, Bono commented that “What is happening in Turkey now is important for the country, for Europe and the world.” That statement was met with cheers and applause. He went on to say they’d walked across the Bosphorus Bridge the day before with Minister of EU Affairs Egemen Bağış, a mention greeted with boos by much of the crowd, since Bağış is part of the ruling party pushing the referendum reforms. A surprised Bono reacted quickly, saying, “Okay okay! I won’t mention any more politicians, but can’t I be a tourist and walk across the bridge? It’s a beautiful bridge. It’s not just from Europe to Asia, not just from the religious to secular, but from the past to the future, from where Europe has been to where Europe needs to go.”

Where Europe needs to go. I wonder what leaders in the EU make of that statement? Real leadership requires visionaries, who sometimes come in the form of rock stars, while we the people get stuck with power-hungry politicians whose vision stops at the size of a corporate donation. Bono meets with politicians like Erdogan and Sarkozy, attempting to sway their views with his charismatic charm braced with knowledge. He champions that all-too-rare belief that with fortune comes the responsibility to give back, setting an example that democracy requires active involvement from all of us, regardless of our economic status.
Massive events like this concert are theater, I know. But human beings have been brought together by drama, by comedy, though performance arts since before recorded history. Though melodies and languages change, story-telling through song is in our collective blood. No one is immune. Some showmen are all smoke and mirrors, little substance. We listen for a good time, to dance and sing, to forget our daily lives. But Bono and U2 speak to something much deeper than mere entertainment. Not everyone may like their music, but it’s tough to disagree with the message: We’re all in this together.

Bono introduced “One” by saying, “We're going to change the name of this song to 'The Bridge' ". That metaphor is a cliché to those of us who live here, but that is the role that Turkey could provide with its unique position in the world. “We are one, but we’re not the same”, the song goes. It’s truly as simple as that. One planet, one human family in all its glorious diversity. That we fixate on those differences and ignore our commonalities is unfortunate human nature. But sometimes, even for two hours, a crowd of at least 50,000 people from not only Turkey but all over the world, can be on the same wavelength, can be reminded that there are many in this world we must help, can realize that we are in charge of removing those barriers.

Wherever we are, we are ONE. This is why I love U2 – the music is riveting and danceable, yes – but they have the courage to speak their hearts, and ours.


  1. I really enjoyed reading your post. You summarized the U2 concert better than any media coverage I came across. I was furious to learn that they actually shut down the Bosphorus bridge so that the high majesty, Bono would walk across it! Can you believe that? Nobody has a right to torture tens of thousands of drivers for a publicity stunt. Moreover, the same U2 refused to come to Turkey just a few years ago becasue of human rights violations!

  2. Thanks for your kind words, Bulent! U2 does go for grandiose gestures, like walking from one continent to another, true. But they did put Turkey in the spotlight, and seemed to understand the geopolitical importance of this country. I'd read that only one lane of the bridge was closed that Sunday night, and that some people complained, while others got autographs. ;-D

    As for staying away from Turkey, I believe Bono said they were 'sorry' to have not visited for so long. I'm sure their trip changed not only the band's perception of Turkey, but others worldwide as well.

  3. what an interesting and informative post. I'm an Argentine who lives in The Netherlands so I live with this constant reminder of the "difference" as I suppose you might understand being an immigrant (if I got the whole thing right?).
    "That we fixate on those differences and ignore our commonalities is unfortunate human nature", exact words to express what is going on in this modern Europe which seems to be leaning one country at a time to the right and to anti-immigration laws and only "fixating on the differences" instead of trying to solve the problems on the grounds of what does unite us.

    I saw an article on the Hand/eye blog and followed links... got here. Will be sure to save the link..

  4. Thanks for your comments, and glad you found your way here from Hand/Eye, Florcita. Yes, you got it right - I'm sure as another immigrant (for however long we intend to stay), you know the feeling of being that perpetual 'other', yet there may be ways that the Netherlands feels more like home to you than Argentina does. As more of us live in places far from where we were born, perhaps these differences will become less important. I invite you to stop by another place I blog: where we discuss all sorts of interesting related issues.

  5. hey! Will visit the link... thanks!