ISTANBUL, Turkey -- Brusque, controversial and rich, Ishak Alaton didn't so much field questions from the visiting group of Western journalists as hold court at his sun-washed headquarters overlooking the Bosphorus. The stocky, gray-haired construction magnate quizzed us as much as we questioned him, barking "Next!" drill-sergeant style as he polished off a topic.
Alaton nodded politely as the group shook hands with him and left. But my hand he held onto. "Minneapolis,'' he said, looking hard at me, as if he couldn't place the city. Suddenly, he smiled broadly and pumped my arm up and down. "Stents!" he blurted loudly. "Stents!"
Stents? It took a second, but then it connected: Medtronic. Twin Cities-based maker of a stents, little mesh tubes that prop open arteries. Turns out Alaton owns a small Turkish stent manufacturer and wanted to hook up with the industry giant from Minnesota. His enthusiasm dimmed only a little when I told him I'm a newspaper writer. "You tell them to call me,'' he said, gesturing grandly to the rolling hills of Asia. "We have business to do together.''
For the next two weeks, the group of journalists I was traveling with would plunge into this complex nation where Islamic culture uniquely intertwines with an intense desire to be part of the West. From sprawling, sophisticated Istanbul, the International Reporting Project's Gatekeeper Editor's Trip would take us to Turkey's capital of Ankara and then to Diyarbakir in the southeast, epicenter of the Kurdish refugee problem and the terrorist Kurdish Workers Party (PKK). It quickly became clear that Western-style entrepreneurs like Alaton are fueling Turkey's prosperity, making it an economic anchor in a turbulent region. Turkey is also an increasingly important American ally, as ancient trade routes are retooled for a modern mission: energy lifelines for a Europe heavily dependent on Russian fuel.
The group of 15 arrived in Turkey in mid-September to learn more about a nation that doesn't get a lot of news play. We met with the prime minister, with a rock star, and with filmmakers, journalists, students and business leaders.
Ahmet Davutoglu, the prime minister's chief foreign-policy advisor, hadn't talked to the media in years, but he agreed to an interview, one of the most thought-provoking of the trip. The professorial Davutoglu laid out Turkey's new proactive foreign-policy goals: leveraging its Islamic cultural ties to defuse volatile regional politics. He also voiced concern that the United States had not done enough to forge an Iraqi identity; he fears that ethnic rivalries will sunder Iraq Yugoslavia-style once the U.S. leaves.
I was struck by Turkey's startling mix of First and Third World, secular and Muslim, democratic and autocratic. In Istanbul, 4 a.m. calls to prayer from centuries-old mosques start the day, but they rouse residents who drive luxury cars, wear Western clothing, shop at Ikea and eschew thick Turkish coffee for the brew served at Starbucks. In Ankara, pastel-colored condominium towers jut from grassy hills surrounding the city, but homebuyers must pay cash because Turkey's developing bank system doesn't yet offer mortgages.
In Diyarbakir, on the banks of the swampy Tigris River, Kurds fleeing war-torn rural areas crowd into squalid apartments and shantytowns. They face institutionalized discrimination by the Turkish government, which places severe restrictions on Kurdish language and culture. Relief workers are urging a return to the countryside, an effort helped by the government, which is slowly delivering on its promise to build canals in the arid region.
But it's a tough sell. Diyarbakir, with a grinding poverty that rivals India, still looks pretty good compared with life in the rural areas. A day trip to a small village of Yatir, about 25 miles outside Diyarbakir, was more like time travel. On the narrow, rutted road, our bus passed a wagonload of girls as young as 12 headed out in the 100-degree heat to pick cotton by hand. Men in traditional garb herded scraggly sheep and goats. When I asked about a small cornfield, our guide, who worked for an agricultural relief agency, told us proudly that important farm-animal production gains had been achieved recently with a new innovation -- sileage, a corn-based animal feed used by generations of Midwestern farmers. In the village, women traveled 2 kilometers to fetch water, carrying it back in plastic tanks strapped to a donkey.
It was no wonder that 18-year-old Umre Cagan thought I'd asked a ridiculous question as we stood in the dust outside her home: Do you want to stay here or go live in Diyarbakir? The vivacious teen reminded me of my own high-school-aged daughter as she gave me an odd look, tossed her head and rolled her eyes. It was clear there was nothing here for her. Through an interpreter she said: "Go to the city!"
Cutting through the village's valley is one of the region's main oil pipelines, a twisting tube running from the Iraqi city of Kirkuk to the Turkish port of Ceyhan. Ironwork like this, carrying oil and gas, may well be the key to Turkey's future -- and for the future of the U.S.'s newest allies, the fledgling democracies in the former Soviet bloc. Turkey is frighteningly dependent on Russia to power its electrical plants, getting 64 percent of its natural gas from the nearby former superpower. The European Union, which Turkey seeks to join, gets 35 percent of its gas from Russia, further empowering the aggressor nation. In some countries, such as Greece and Austria, it's 65 percent or more.
Recently completed pipelines in Turkey, as well as those under consideration, would reduce Russia's ability to wield energy as a club. They'd carry gas and oil from central Asia and the Middle East to Europe, bypassing the former superpower. American officials here said building these pipelines and shoring up these countries' immediate energy needs are of the highest priority. Turkey may run out of juice as early as 2009, according to the World Bank. Serdar Turan, our trip's unflappable guide and fixer, lost his cool just one time: when talking about escalating electricity bills (up 50 percent this year), the possibility of blackouts and his very real fears for his family and business. "This is going to be a huge crisis!" he said.
So often on trips like these, you learn as much about your own country as the one you're visiting. I'd arrived in Turkey with calls for energy independence still ringing in my ears from the two national political conventions. That sounded good at the time, but doesn't seem quite right now. Energy independence is a worthy goal, but it implies that we only need to worry about the United States. What we should be talking about is energy security -- shoring up power supplies and infrastructure for ourselves and our allies, then leading the way to a future when renewable fuels keep the lights on around the world.
Jill Burcum traveled to Turkey as part of the International Reporting Project's Gatekeeper's Editor trip, affiliated with the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. She's at firstname.lastname@example.org.