September 23, Istanbul,
Artist, Burak Akbay, created and shared this piece online, saying on Twitter that he had made it as a new logo for Istanbul, since the city has a new symbol: the Arab hair transplant tourist. As the social media responses reflect, this figure is an extremely recognizable one for people living in Istanbul.
Today I was sitting on the side of a Besiktas street with my housemate, drinking local Gazos and chatting about how areas of the city were changing with the new Arab visitors when she remembered the image circulating online and shared it with me. Indeed, declining tourism from Europe to Turkey has meant that wealthy Gulf state Arabs are an increasingly visible part of the cityscape, especially around the main shopping street, Istiklal. And the official idea appears to be for Middle Eastern tourists to durably replace Western visitors nation-wide. On the level of everyday encounters, my respondents and others I have been speaking with here invariably note the changes this has given rise to in the kinds of people, businesses, and social spaces they see around them – changes like the replacement of cafes and bars with family oriented halal kebab restaurants. And the visible and audible presence of the prototypical Arab hair transplant tourist – but also huge number of middle class Iranian tourists – is something I couldn’t help but notice in markets, shopping streets, on public transports, and in restaurants. Burak’s creative tongue-in-cheek response to this development on social media can be seen as a subtle reaction to what is also a process of Islamifying Turkey’s tourism flow and industry in recent years, one related President Erdogan’s policies. It’s an interesting, small-scale instance of how the recent reshaping of the city’s identity is being contested among its inhabitants via social media. And it seems to be just one of the many ways in which the city’s changing position with regard to Europe and the West, its connection to the rest of Turkey, and its relation to the Middle East, and are all at stake in people’s everyday lives and social media practices in Istanbul.