Looking for Al-Qaida members in Antakya

Looking for Al-Qaida members in Antakya

It’s midnight… I’m strolling the streets of the Mediterranean city Antakya in Hatay province. I’m looking for al-Qaida members….

I’ve wandered many streets. I’ve climbed bridges over the Asi River and watched it flow… I’ve gone into the narrow streets where the old Antakya houses are lined up.

They don’t seem to be anywhere. I can say easily that I am the only man with a beard around here.
Indeed, I asked around: “What happened? Where have they disappeared to?” I got two different answers: “Al-Qaida was not here anyway. The bearded men who were seen in town who were taken to be al-Qaida were actually Syrian refugees from the camps who had come downtown to shop. Last week, their entrance to the city was banned.”

Others said: “There were al-Qaida people. They have not been seen for a while. The state has intervened. They have disappeared…”

A final point on this: the sensitivity toward the “bearded” has peaked to such an extent in Antakya that I felt a slight tension while strolling the streets (with my beard).

How Hatay views al-Assad
In this city, there are official views and unofficial views. Thus, it is not easy to take its pulse…

When you mention “Syria” in Kastamonu or Tekirdağ, people may be in an absolutely careless mood. In Hatay, this is not so.

We can call the Syrian sensitivity in Hatay a “relative sensitivity.” The people of Hatay have relatives in Syria. They have relatives close to Bashar al-Assad, they also have relatives rebelling against the al-Assad administration. Hatay people monitor the incidents in Syria with their hearts in their mouths. Like a relative…

It was Hatay that rejoiced when the border gates with Syria were opened. How could they not? This event boosted the city’s economy. When the border gates were closed, it was they who grieved the most, because the economic boost ended.

There is no definite equation, as the Alevis are supporting al-Assad and the Sunnis are supporting the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The issue is that everybody, Alevi and Sunni, is troubled by the Syrian crisis. They just wish it hadn’t happened, and this cancels out all political analysis. The issue of who is right and who is wrong has no importance whatsoever in the eyes of the Hatay people. They only wish it hadn’t happened.

What about Turkey’s Syrian policy? In short, they are not happy. Some are less unhappy; some much more unhappy… Some say it loudly, some keep quiet. The result is that Hatay population is not happy with Turkey’s Syrian policies. They have difficulty understanding the reasons for the shift from “excessive love” to “excessive hate.”

Too much emphasis on unity
I went into several shops in Antakya. I took cabs. I saluted the owners and drivers and started small talk. They immediately started talking about their unity and togetherness “Alevis and Sunnis all together.” I went into a soap shop. Before saying “hi” the shop owner said, “This is a city of many civilizations - unity never ends here. I am a Sunni, my partner is Alevi.”

The receptionist at the hotel, the next table at the coffee house, the head of the chamber of commerce, the waiter at the Anadolu Restaurant, all said “unity and togetherness.”

I was slightly scared. I mean, “unity and togetherness” should be lived, not emphasized. If they are emphasized, especially to this extent, there must be danger on the horizon.

Hatay: field of claims
Hatay has become a city of narratives. One center claims, “the whole city is invaded by al-Qaida,” while an official says, “there is not even one person from al-Qaida.”

One center tells stories of al-Qaida members who do not pay for services in the city, while the official body says this is “totally false.”

One center says there are warriors in the camps, while the official says “eighty percent of them are women and children.”

One center says the border is full of gaps, while the official denies it.

The city has become a field on which narratives clash with each other. You hear so many contradictory sentences that in the end you give up, except for this sentence: “Poor Hatay. You have been exposed to the deadly attack of vulgar lies, also called ‘war intelligence.’”

More from Antakya

While you are wandering Antakya, people tend to start a sentence with either “Before Christ” or “After Christ.” Impressive… Very… However, in this city the history of which is tuned to the birth of Christ, they also refer, a lot, to the currently-on-air soap opera shooting locations.

“Künefe” is a genuine Antakya dessert. Full stop. Why am I speaking like that? Because in no other place in the world there is a “Square of Künefe Bakers.” There are also Künefe shops that are open 24/7 in Antakya.

“Antakya cuisine” is well worth exploring. It goes back to the era of the Roman Empire, and was formed after being influenced by all kinds of civilizations - the Antakya breakfast has as many as 168 items.

I also liked Hatay Governor Mehmet Cemalettin Lekesiz a lot.

Ahmet Hakan is a columnist for daily Hürriyet in which the unabridged version of this piece was published Sept. 21. It was translated into English by the Daily News staff.

AHMET HAKAN - ahakan@hurriyet.com.tr