A Turkish tale of cafebabel.com and borders: an insider/outsider story

by Postwoman

orient express tripledI am swamped with end-of-semester work but have decided to take a productive (!) break to update my blog with some recently published writing. Some of you might remember that I attended a great summer school in Italy last June and met some wonderful journalists from all over Europe. One of the greatest things about that week in Florence was meeting a very smart, funny, and energetic lady, Nabeelah Shabbir, who very quickly became a good friend and introduced me to the colorful world of cafebabel.com. I was lucky enough to join their team very briefly last July and my (un)successful attempt of being a fixer/reporter resulted in two pieces of writing – which you can find here and here, or below.

Part 1:

I am not a journalist. I sometimes practice journalism, extensively study journalism, and mostly hang out with journalists, but I wouldn’t identify myself one. However, when the cafebabel.com team asked me to join their project briefly this summer, I knew I was embarking on a great adventure.

It is rather strange to praise a publication to its readers but cafebabel.com is truly one of those gems in European journalism that give you hope and excitement about future because you know networked journalism is not solely a fancy academic jargon, but an exciting experience that you can easily be part of.

Open-minded, curious, and adventurous young people come together and travel to a country that maybe they’ve never been to before. Thanks to the wide youth network and the internet, they know how to have access the local insights on the topics they cover. Since they bring their foreign and comparing perspective on a topic, they can easily make familiar things strange, strange things familiar in almost anything. They don’t have to know the language of the country they’re visiting. Their local host can guide them through all time. They also know serendipity is an indispensable part of their job, so mixing and mingling with the local strangers is a delightful job requirement.

Most importantly, it is fun. It is maybe a work trip, but along with all the pleasures of traveling. At least, that was our experience when five BritishBelgianGermanFrench, and Italian journalists visited Istanbul in July 2012. They covered topics from comic culture to women in sports. Being one of their local hosts, I found out so many interesting things about my country through their questions and curiosity. Sometimes it took only five minutes to reach the right people because we knew who they should talk to. Sometimes they met a random Turk on the street and let him or her lead them to a new source or piece of information.

On their last day, the journalists ran into a big political protest and couldn’t resist the journalistic itch of covering it, thereby ending up corresponding on a highly underreported political story by a total coincidence. Accompanying them in some of their interviews, I got to meet really wonderful people. After talking with many Turks from highly diverse backgrounds, they ended up discussing their stories and ideas at the hostel every night and collaboratively initiating new ideas. And we had fun, so much fun. Obviously fun included typical yummy raki-meze nights, drinking Efes, and dancing to some Turkish tunes.

Part 2:

After hosting the cafebabel.com team in Istanbul, I embarked on pursuing a story in Hamburg. Inspired by my humble academic expertise, I decided to investigate the state of media plurality in the media capital of Germany.

Every Turk who is an avid traveller should know how it feels like being so close to Europe but also terribly far from it every time we want to travel. The stories of the gruelling visa process just to be able to hop on a plane and fly for a couple hours never get old. To your surprise, that wasn’t a problem for me as I had already had a visa, valid for two months, and the cafebabel.com team nicely accommodated my situation.

My problem, though, was the questioning look on the face of the border control officer when he looked at my passport and said ‘I cannot let you enter the country, miss’. I had a valid visa, but I’d exceeded the maximum amount of time I was allowed to spend within the Schengen area. ‘That’s very tricky for many people,’ said the kind officer, ‘many people misunderstand it’. A friend of mine said I’d deserved it because I had not checked the details enough.

On the one hand, he was right. Being a Turkish citizen who travels a lot, I should have been cautious enough to get prepared before hopping on a plane. On the other hand, there was something profoundly wrong with that feeling of ‘getting deserved’ because of a ‘tricky’ system.

The Schengen visa regulation is one of the most celebrated projects in EU history, because it profoundly symbolizes the solidarity and trust among the member states. However, to outsiders, it means a privilege that you should deserve to obtain because you are not trustworthy until you’re handed a visa. I will not get into the rather philosophical discussion of how visas and border checks clash with the right to move, which was once for everyone who wants to explore and travel the world. But while one of the objectives of Schengen is to eliminate barriers against the free movement of goods, people, and ideas in Europe, equality has never been at the forefront of the system. Whether it is candidate countries or non-EU states, the Schengen visa regulation and application procedures could easily tell a lot about which countries are perceived to be wealthy, or which ones are feared to flood into Europe.

Turkey, for example, is the only country to hold EU membership talks without the benefit of the visa liberalisation. Bulgaria and Romania are the two other countries that have not yet enjoyed the free movement even though they have been members since 2007. For all three countries, the problem seems to be the potential influx of illegal immigrants, but a huge imbalance in the visa application procedure still exists, depending on which country one is from and through which country the application runs through. Starting from the number of documents asked for to the number of days that the processing takes, rules and regulations seem to be flexible for those countries that could bring significant tourist money, and tightened for those that cannot.

To illustrate the difficulties faced by Turkish citizens during visa applications, the Turkish artist Devrim Kadirbeyoglu launched a public art installation last year: ‘Who Draws the Line?’ Using the excerpts of complaints submitted by citizens to the Visa Hotline, Kadirbeyoglu’s project aimed to communicate the human stories behind the procedural requirements of Schengen visa. By combining humour and protest, musician Sarp Yeletaysi made a song called ‘Schengen Macht Frei’ (‘Schengen Sets You Free’) in 2011 to raise awareness about what he calls a ‘violation of basic human rights’.

The Turkish jazz guitarist Onder Focan’s latest album is called 36mm Biometric, again as a tribute to the non-standard Schengen visa process that kept him in queues for hours and required him to submit pages of documents every time he attempted to get a visa. While my response to the unjust visa system is not as creative as others, we all agree on one message: we do not want those contingent lines that not only separate us, but also imply to determine our trustworthiness.