Reading the Signs in Istanbul
January 15, 2020
In July, Istanbul mayor Ekrem Imamoğlu denounced the excessive use of Arabic on the city’s storefronts. “When you enter some neighborhoods, you cannot even read the shop signs,” he said. “This is Turkey; this is Istanbul.” Three months later, he announced his newest campaign—to place Chinese signs in Istanbul’s metro stations. Some lauded his initiative as a step toward Chinese-Turkish partnership and investment. Many of Istanbul’s Arabs, however, saw the contradiction representing a bright red “EXIT” sign for them.
With more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, combined with four million visitors from Arab countries in 2018, Turkey is accustomed to Arabs. However, rising tensions between Turks and Arab guests threaten to place further strain on Turkey’s checkered relations with its Middle Eastern neighbors. In recent months, anti-Syrian sentiment has spiked, with reports of Syrian refugees banned from public beaches and targeted in the classroom. And the blowback hasn’t been confined to Syrians: Iraqi and Saudi tourists have encountered violence on the street.
Yet, in spite of surging anti-Arab sentiment in Turkey and a widening diplomatic rift between Turkey and Saudi Arabia, the number of Arab tourists visiting Turkey is actually growing. From 2010 to 2018, the number of Saudis who traveled to Turkey soared from 85,000 to 750,000. That’s nearly double the number of Chinese tourists in 2018. Turkey may want more Chinese tourists, but it’s actually getting more Arab tourists.
Some of the Arab-Turkish tension has become fodder for comedy. In one series, Egyptian YouTube star and Istanbul resident Mohamed Eid dressed in traditional Arab robes and approached exasperated Turks who didn’t understand his Arabic. After several moments of struggle, he asked if perhaps they spoke Turkish. In relief and surprise, the Turks dissolved into laughter. Perhaps, the episodes seem to say, the differences between Turks and Arabs aren’t so big after all.
This article is part of the CSIS Middle East Program series Mezze: Assorted Stories from the Middle East.