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Thursday, 30 December 2010

New Year cheer: how Top Gear offended Turkey

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.


Anonymous said...

me and my Turkish mates were watching Top Gear all together and we were absolutely disgusted what Jeremy Clarkson said. What he said was absolutely full of hate i mean if he could have a chance he would say in his word: I have to admit I hate this country!!! Now the question is why? Why he hates and he revile against Turkey? I don`t know about you but i think he has a purpose and he serves some families as we know they think they control the world... Dogs can only barks...

Anonymous said...

I read your article and i appreciated it because you dared to tell the trhuth without any expectations or hesitation.I checked the internet and so far you are the only journalist who wrote about this offensive episode of ''Top Gear''.Thank you for writing what you see.

Lina Baker said...

I am SO excited to see this episode when it shows in the USA! Top Gear is an equal opportunity offender - the country the guys criticize the most is, of course, their own. It's a shame that so many people see their humor as insulting and take it personally. I think a development indicator for a country should be the level of outrage that results from watching an episode of "Top Gear." A low level of outrage would result in a high rating of development.

Sheila Mosley said...

Congratulations Top Gear on a brilliant programme. I laughed so much, but I especially want to congratulate you on the blend of political sensitivity, fun and fantastic views. I was looking forward to seeing a bit of the Kurdistan regions of Iran but Syria but I guess that wasn't possible.

The Kurds I have have had contact with are lovely people, and I thank you for the comments you made. I understand that Kurds are trying to find a way to get their basic rights constitutionally - the right to use their own language as an indigenous nation, engagement in the democratic process etc.

Thanks to all the team

miriam said...

I travelled to Kurdistan twice a couple ofyears ago to visit friends. I changed planes in Istanbul. As an english woman travelling alone, who knew that I was to be met by friends at the airport in Kurdistan (Sulaimania) I didn't have any anxieties, I had read about the region, and knew many Kurds. However, as I went through customs to get my connecting flight I was asked by the young man checking my passport in Turkey, why was I visiting a war zone? Before I could offer any comment he told me: " Next time you go on holiday, go to Darfur".

On my second return trip several months later, the flight from Kurdistan was delayed by terrible weather, arriving in Istanbul too late for the connecting flight. Istanbul could not have been more unhelpful and refused to honour our tickets, necessitating everyone on board the flight to purchase a new ticket for the following morning. The delays from Istanbul were such that the departure lounge was congested, and after a terrible night napping in a Wimpy Bar or similar, I waited quietly in the departure lounge. I was approached by three security officers who asked who I was travelling with and asked to accompany them. Of all the passengers on the flight from Sulaimania they asked five of us (the others were all men)to go with them where we were subjected to pat down body searches and additional searches of our luggage. I was pretty bemused by this. I didn't know the other passengers. We were then escorted separately to the plane. No explanation was given. The chief security officer seemed very cross when he was told that I had nothing suspicious.

My conclusion was that Turkey has a very low tolerance for anyone wanting to visit the Kurdish regions of Iraq, and I presume, Turkey. I didn't find their manner courteous or respectful, but then, that did not reflect my experience of the Turkish people that I met outside of that environment.

I really enjoyed the programme - I am certain that any and all of the children who surrounded your car could have stripped it down and rebuilt it and got it going! My experience of Kurdistan, bar one individual, was that the people are generous, warm, good hearted and pretty much my experience of them in the UK - I am glad that you experienced that too.

Really enjoyed all the comments about the politics of the region and so glad that these points were made.


Anonymous said...

Nobody knows what terror and terrorists are until they have the unfortunate experience with them. Turkey have had this experience more than any other country in the world. Sleeping babies were killed by PKK. Some countries supported and continue to support PKK because of the strategic importance of the region. These countries even send greatly "paid" writers like the writer of this blog to make news on behalf of PKK. You can verify this when you inspect all the writings in this blog. As I said there are huge amount of money traveling for this purpose, so it is no surprise to see such a exaggerated shows and thoughts. As a conclusion, you cannot say that Turkish people blame the kurds living in the Turkey, we all said that we blame who kills babies and write/make such news/programs on behalf of PKK. I always find it funny when people announce PKK as freedom fighters and so-called country named Kurdistan. These people even cannot show it on the map, but their hatred to Turkey make them to write such comments even on this blog.

Anonymous said...

Before you drag Top Gear into politics, have you seen their US visit? They were actually attacked at one stage. I bet you if they are honest they would prefer Turkey to some US states.

Anonymous said...

well, people actually know stuff about USA don't they? Turkey on the other hand isn't so. It's at best an empty name ready to be filled with opinions and assumptions. No good. And the double standard? Israel, who actively invades and systematically snuffs its neighbours is lovely! When all Turkey does is to protect her borders. Sad really.

It's a shame how thoughtlessly Turkey is berated while it continuously wants to be friendly. No good can come out of this.

Anonymous said...

I'm a big fan of Top Gear and a proud Turk. I wasn't insulted, I was just disappointed that there was so little of Turkey on one of the most popular TV shows in the world.

Past that point, I'm inherently sick of these "Westerners" stating such things as Kurds are lovely people, I have a lot of Kurdish friends, they are fighting for their freedom, etc. I have a lot of Kurdish friends as well and indeed they are nice people, just a practical habit; I try to keep my self around nice people regardless of their racial background.

But understand that Turkey is moving forward. Also keep in mind that Turkey is a democracy. We're aware of our problems in the south-eastern region. This is not because of some Kurd-hating Turkish policy, but because of constant threat of Terrorism. On that point, PKK is not in anyway a representation of Kurdish citizens of Turkish Republic and thus they are not trying liberate any person from any restriction, but hinder the development of a region and the well being of all those that are directly related to it.

I hate commenting on these issues on the internet, but this a beautifully written article on a very sensitive topic. I'm only assuming that he would have a similar open minded and logical reader base. With that assumption in mind, I wish people could approach Turkey a little more cordially sometimes. Not so that we make friends, but that he doesn't miss out on a young and exciting country.



Anonymous said...

i have watched the episode and what i noticed after they crossed the turkey and syria border, Jeremy Clarkson said Syria is better than Turkey? and I was wondering why because I can't see why he said that, despite the high disciplined border security. I am from Istanbul, Turkey and after living there for many years throught my childhood Syria is not better than Turkey because Turkey does not have dusty roads as Syria. Istanbul and the east and middle coast is not exactly like southeast Turkey. The only thing war involved in Turkey is PKK which they fight for their freedom, and it rarely happens in the cities of Turkey. Turkey is NOT a war zone and it is not THAT dangerous. If Jeremy visits Istanbul he most likely might change his mind about his opinion of Turkey.

Other than that...I do enjoy watching Top Gear and I did like the episode except for the negative opinions of Turkey.

Anonymous said...

Turks are butchers who easily get offended. Interesting, isn't it? I suggest we not be concerned about their feelings. Well done Top Gear!

Anonymous said...

Wonder what Top Gear thinks about Syria now, after countless murders by the government forces and thousands of Syrians fleeing into Turkey FOR SAFETY. How about that peaceful Northern Iraq? The PKK, a Kurdish terrorist organizationn killed 4 teachers, all women, last week. Yet another cowardly act... Turkey is TRYING to remain civil and democratic among this madness. If you don't believe, ask the Kurds in Turkish Parliament. There are plenty of them. So much for lack of rights...

efkan said...

I live in Australia and lived in England for a year and visited many countries. Many countries in the world are extremely careful when it comes to border protection especially if it is. A country like Turkey that has borders with 8 neighbouring countries and the longest coast in the mediterrenean.

The pkk funds its terrorist activities through cash couriers including the least suspicious looking westerners, hence the extra scrutiny for traveller to that region.

The roads weren't good enough in the southeast region. That is fair enough but it is also thanks to the terrorist pkk (the british government declares them terrorist ,not me) killing 30.000 people most of whom were civilians including women and babies and predominantly from kurdish origin.

How is that for figting for kurds freedom. Or is it something else. According to the US drug smugling reports the PKK is the biggest drug syndicate in the world right now. Some of the impoverished britons in your north part of country is perhaps funding them by using their drugs. Perhaps you dont have the best roads and the infrastructure in your poorer north.

Even though Turks have been facing such attacks from the pkk that caused 30.000 peoples lives and billions of dollars that could have been used for better infrastructure and perhaps better roads for clarkson to drive on, the turks never felt the racial hatred that the brits did for the indians, asians and especially blacks.

The only fault these people had was to work like mad either To make their living or as slaves as in the blacks case. If there was no steels stolen from tne colonies and the african slavery the brits couldnt ride on the wagons of the famous london underground.

So, dont throw stones if you live in the glass house

Anonymous said...

they are three stupid men.

Diana said...

Never Top Gear Again!!!!! For a car enthusiasts programme translated and shown around the world, its a SHAME ON YOU to be so biased against anyone, anything or anywhere - its not even good television. You three should never be allowed into Turkey again. Shame!! Shame!!

Anonymous said...

@miriam: sorry about the things you'd faced with in İstanbul aeroport after your Iraq journey but, while all the bloody money and cheques of PKK are transferred by "unsuspicious" Europeans, it wasn't a big surprise that you had such an adventure. (as a Korean Journalist i was also searched from top to toe)

For Turks;

No need to get offended from the show, because they link the terror attacks with SEPERATIST KURDISTAN WORKER'S PARTY, not with official armed forces of Turkey. As a result they define PKK as a terrorist group and link the bad experience in the region with Terror in a typical Clarkson Arrogance.


Anonymous said...

I've seen the entire episode all they were saying is the reality as it's obvious to anyone & if you have any doubt don't listen to what they are saying just watch what they are commenting on because pics don't lie

Anonymous said...

I presume you are kurdish from your name. There are no direct flights to sulamanie from turkey as It is not available. You are lying.

Anonymous said...

"And the double standard? Israel, who actively invades and systematically snuffs its neighbours is lovely! When all Turkey does is to protect her borders. Sad really."

This is amusing. It is Turkey who, not content with near annihilating the Armenians, has systematically uprooted and massacred many Kurds. The Israeli conflict with the Palestinians pales in comparison with a death toll in the low thousands. It is Israel who protects her borders and Turkey who frequently invades the sovereignty of Iraq and Syria in order to snuff out Kurds.