Fans of the BBC’s popular motoring show Top Gear will be aware that their latest adventure saw them drive across the Middle East towards Bethlehem. They were following in the footsteps of the Three Wise Men, they explained, but intended to replicate their journey in sports cars – part of which took them through southeastern Turkey. It was a hugely entertaining episode and I enjoyed it immensely, but it was characteristically outspoken and managed to offend some Turks in the process.
That in itself is not a particularly difficult to do, but for those foreigners who don’t understand why the Turks were offended – and, indeed, those who haven’t seen the programme – here’s my guide to Top Gear‘s transgressions. It comes complete with “blunders thou shall commit” warnings of my own, in case you plan to tread on a few toes yourself. We begin fifteen minutes into the programme, outside Irbil in Northern Iraq.
After spending their first few days travelling wearing bulletproof vests, the presenters come to the conclusion that northern Iraq really is not as dangerous as its more southerly regions. Sitting in the garden of their hotel, Jeremy Clarkson says:
I’m glad we’ve gone to Iraq. I’m sorry, I know this is Iraq, okay, but it’s the Kurdistan region of Iraq, so it’s full of Kurds…and they’re all lovely. Everybody’s very friendly. It’s about as dangerous as Cheltenham.
and they all proceed to remove their bulletproof vests.
Blunder #1: do not suggest Kurdish people are nice. Especially if you’re about to visit Turkey.
That is precisely what they do. At the border, their cars are combed by border guards and sniffer dogs on the Turkish side. The presenters are taken aback by levels of security they haven’t seen so far, and in fact will not see again until they reach Israel. At one point, the guard finds a cigarette lighter in the shape of a bullet, and the theatrically jittery way Richard Hammond shuffles over to explain himself makes him look like he’s actually smuggling heroin.
Once they are allowed through, the trio are handed an envelope from the programme’s producers containing new instructions on how to reach Bethlehem. It reads:
You idiots. You have escaped from a region where there is no war into a region where there is. The Kurds are fighting the Turks for independence so if you really are Wise Men you will get to your hotel in the safe zone by nightfall.
Attached to the instructions is the British Foreign Office’s latest travel advice to British citizens for the region, which Jeremy Clarkson proceeds to read out. It currently says:
We advise against all but essential travel in the provinces of Hakkari, Sirnak, Siirt and Tunceli and visitors should remain vigilant when travelling in other provinces in south eastern Turkey. Terrorist attacks are regularly carried out against the security forces in the south east of the country by the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party.
They all proceed to put their bulletproof vests back on.
Blunder #2: Never suggest Turkey is a dangerous place or slander the country’s good name by daring to mention there are terrorists about.
The rest of the Top Gear team’s time in Turkey will be familiar to any foreigner, and many Turks too. They drive through endless potholes and complain about the quality of the roads; they are relieved when they finally find a decent bit of dual carriageway, and bemused to discover both directions of traffic are still sharing the same piece of road; they encounter police checkpoints; they are eager to reach their destination before dusk to avoid driving at night; and one of their number gets food poisoning.
Blunder #3: Do not complain about Turkey’s infrastructure, its traffic management, its driving habits, or the quality of its food. You’re wrong.
But all that was before the killer remark, just after the border into Syria was cleared:
We’ve only been in Syria for half a mile and already it’s better than Turkey.
Blunder #4: Ouch!
Turkey’s most-watched news channel, NTV, said “exaggerated remarks” were made in the programme that “disparaged Turkey”. The report went on: “The presenters wore bulletproof vests and helmets and said that the southeast of Turkey should be considered a war zone.” The Doğan News Agency said the programme “showered Turkey with insults”, while Sabah said that “as they crossed into Turkey, the three presenters exhibited panicky behaviour [as a vehicle for] their propaganda of fear”.
Also interesting was the online response. The user “Gejo” on Ekşisözlük, a popular social networking site, accuses Top Gear of supporting an unlikely alliance of the PKK terrorist organisation and Fethullah Gülen, an influential Islamic cleric who is currently living in self-imposed exile in the United States. The user adds: “some heavy insults have been made towards Turkey, they must definitely have been funded by America”. If only so – British licence fee payers would be delighted.
Of course the comments on Top Gear should not be taken seriously – I certainly don’t. But the minor furore surrounding this episode has exposed something about Turkish people: they are ashamed of the state of the southeastern region. They are proud of their country and want visitors to see its best bits, not the parts with the dilapidated roads and heavy security. But this is more than just attempting to sweep ugliness under the carpet. There is a feeling of sorrow that Turkey is bundled together with Iraq, Syria and Israel – countries more prominently associated with volatility.
The reality is that parts of southeastern Turkey are extremely dangerous. Security forces do clash with PKK members. Both sides shoot to kill. There probably are more terror attacks in that part of the country than in Iraqi Kurdistan. But it was safe enough for a motoring entertainment show to visit, and while that’s not exactly going to herald an influx of tourists, it does indicate a degree of normality for a region that has spent most of the last three decades in a state of emergency. That counts for something.
Happy New Year – my best wishes to everyone for 2011, an election year for Turkey. My thoughts and predictions coming here next.