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My Turn: Hassan’s trip to Turkey is about the big picture

The Bosporus Bridge connects the Asian (right) and European sides of Istanbul, Turkey. Istanbul is a thoroughly modern place, but it traces its roots back to 660 B.C. It’s the former seat of the opulent Byzantine and Ottoman empires, and is divided into European and Asian sides by the Bosporus Strait, offering a wealth of history and stunning scenery.

The Bosporus Bridge connects the Asian (right) and European sides of Istanbul, Turkey. Istanbul is a thoroughly modern place, but it traces its roots back to 660 B.C. It’s the former seat of the opulent Byzantine and Ottoman empires, and is divided into European and Asian sides by the Bosporus Strait, offering a wealth of history and stunning scenery.

Gov. Maggie Hassan’s trade mission to Turkey, leading a group of New Hampshire business executives interested in finding buyers of their products and services, may not sit well with many Granite Staters. After all, a shortfall in state income this spring caused the governor to put on hold all out-of-state travel by state employees. But her trip sure makes sense to me.

First, consider the fact that Turkey is the Granite State’s 12th largest foreign trading partner, down from 10th largest in 2012. There are a lot of Turks who are making money on trading with businesses in northern New England.

Turkish business people here in New Hampshire, along with other Turkish Americans, just opened a Turkish Cultural Center in Manchester about a year ago. So now New Hampshire has a center similar to Turkish Centers in Maine and Vermont.

Second, I’ve just returned from a 10 day trip to Turkey with my youngest daughter, who is 22 and studying international affairs in college. This wasn’t a typical tourist trip. I had lived in Turkey for two years in 1966 and 1967, as a Peace Corps volunteer in a small city about Concord’s size, and I had gone back only once since then, in 1972.

While I was in the Peace Corps there, I traveled extensively throughout Turkey as well as in Syria, Iraq and Iran. I became aware of the special qualities that made Turkey at that time a stronger, more democratic country than most other countries in the Middle East.

As soon as I arrived this May in Istanbul, I could tell that Turkey has changed immensely in many respects since I was last there.

A modern nation

That ancient city, which is on the European part of Turkey, now has seven million residents and, surprisingly, is no longer a sprawling mishmash of businesses, drab apartment buildings and old cars creating pollution and dirt wherever you went.

Now Istanbul is the thriving economic center of this westernized, democratic and secular nation, and a delightful city to visit, one of the top five most fascinating cities in the world, based on my travels over the years. And Istanbul is just one of many cities in Turkey where new cars, trucks and buses move smoothly on well-laid-out and attractive boulevards. The many tourist sites are easy to visit and fascinating to see, and the people are friendly and helpful and quite eager to speak some English, especially in the areas most frequently visited by tourists.

But what is more impressive is that Turkey’s economy has grown so much over the last half-century that it can no longer be called a Third World country. It has the largest economy in the Middle East, ahead of Egypt, Iran and even Saudi Arabia. There are so many huge trucks going through Turkey hauling goods between Western Europe and the other Middle Eastern countries that Turkey is building a third 4-lane bridge across the Bosporus, the mile-wide body of water that flows out of the Black Sea into the Mediterranean and splits the European and Asian parts of Turkey.

The Turks are also about to build a tunnel under the Bosporus, the only tunnel to connect two continents.

Away from Istanbul, massive public spending is also impossible to ignore. A new restricted-access highway has been completed between Turkey’s rich southern provinces and the Anatolian interior, the historic center of Turkey. The Taurus mountain range separating those two regions is now transacted by eight new highway tunnels, making it quick and safe to move people and goods to and from Turkey’s fertile and tourist-attracting region on the Mediterranean Sea. And large bus terminals have been built in cities all across Turkey, which help make this form of travel so comfortable, quick and inexpensive.

But the most gratifying change I found this spring was the small amount squatter housing around the biggest cities. In the 1960s, this was a huge national problem since the laws prohibited removing any family from a shack built during the night unless an affordable place was available for them. Rural workers by the hundreds of thousands streamed into the cities each year to find jobs, but they found no available apartments. So, under the cover of darkness, they threw together four walls and a roof, using sheets of aluminum, cardboard or sticks, and were living in a “residential structure” the next morning when the officials would come around.

By the time I was living in Turkey, millions of people lived in these hastily created dwellings, nicknamed Gecekondu, meaning “built in the night.” These squatter communities, covering entire mountain sides around cities such as Ankara, the Turkish capital, had no public water or sewers, no nearby schools or publicly maintained streets, and no services such as garbage collection or police protection.

During the last decade, however, the newly created Turkish Housing Development Administration has built or financed more than 600,000 housing units, much of which is subsidized for low and moderate income residents. Add to that the millions of other housing units built by profit-motivated developers in the last 10 to 20 years and this has created millions of jobs, many going to the former Gecekondu residents. Now almost all city dwellers can afford to rent a standard “flat” without any subsidies and so the hillsides around Ankara, at least, are now filled with a sea of private apartment buildings with public water and sewers, schools and garbage pick-up, all provided by the government.

A bright future

Of course, all these bridges, highways and bus terminals, as well as the new port facilities, schools and water and sewer system expansions, have cost the national government a pile of money. Moreover, banks and insurance companies have loaned money to developers of thousands of large apartment complexes, office buildings, hotels and retail centers.

All this investment was provided on the expectation that Turkey’s growth would continue – and happily, unlike in Greece, its neighbor to the west, Turkey has kept its borrowing in line with its economic growth.

Superhighways, bridges, ports and housing projects have created jobs, and business income has grown so that tax revenues and loan payments have been adequate to keep the total amount of borrowing in Turkey at an acceptable relationship to the size of the country’s strongly growing economy.

When I was first invited by the Peace Corps in 1965 to work in Turkey, my only image of the Turks was of waves of riders on horseback with swords in their mouths. While the swords were more likely stored on their belts a thousand years ago, the history of the Turks is like that of most of the throngs of nomadic peoples that pushed west from the steppes west of China a thousand years ago.

They excelled in war by relying on cavalry and knowing how to shoot arrows while riding fast on their horses. They also were fiercely loyal to their leaders and had a kinship with the millions of other Turkic peoples who controlled the rest of the Eurasian Steppes for hundreds of years after 1000 A.D.

So when I was in Turkey this spring, I was pleased to sense that Turkey is still a country with its own character, a combination of confidence and togetherness, with a pride in its secular governmental system, its history as an unconquered people, and its continuing economic and geopolitical strength.

Being a Muslim country but with a government restricted from favoring any religion, Turkey is the most likely country to help close the gap between the western world and the Arab world. And there are still strong ties between Turkey and the U.S., formed by decades of partnership during the cold war against the U.S.S.R, which loomed just northeast from Turkey.

Turkey still controls the waterway between the Black Sea, the only place where ocean-going ships can serve Russia during the winter months, and the Mediterranean Sea, with its access to the Atlantic and Indian oceans. And Turkey is the only country in the Middle East to use the western alphabet, a change made by its benevolent dictator, Kemal Ataturk, in the 1920s to encourage Turkish alignment with western European values, economic practices and legal systems.

So a small investment of state funding to increase trading between New Hampshire and Turkish businesses will benefit the Granite State. And with the governor leading the delegation, many Turkish business leaders and government officials are more likely to go out of their way to learn how good it could be to do business with us in New Hampshire. Hiyarli yolculuklar! (Good travels!)

(David Woolpert of Henniker previously worked in a variety of organizations developing or financing low-income housing developments throughout New Hampshire and New England before starting his own investment advisory business in Concord.)

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