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In Istanbul, Gaza still comes first, but Obama is close behind

An American friend got stuck in traffic on her way to my house in central Istanbul, where I was watching the inauguration with a very excited group. She burst in halfway through President Obama’s address. When the speech was done and we allowed her to make a peep, she explained that she’d been late because her taxi got stuck in a major jam due to a demonstration, in support of the Palestinians, which was taking place near the landmark Galatasaray High School. (For the past few weeks Istanbul has been papered with posters and banners seeking donations and volunteers to help the cause, and assuring Palestinians that they "are not alone.")

My friend tried to explain to her taxi driver that she was desperate to get to a TV to watch the inauguration. He, too, was excited: yes, yes, these are important days! Goodbye to Bush, hello to Obama. But she realized he was speaking generally. Jabbing an index finger at her wrist, she tried to convey the urgency, that at this very moment Obama was being inaugurated. Eventually she got out of the cab, passed the picket signs for Palestine, and sprinted the rest of the way.

Her story summarized what I saw in Turkish friends for the past few days: everybody’s happy, but the inauguration is really an American thing. Certainly, some of the major Turkish news channels served up comments from their Washington correspondents; others had various prominent figures reflect on the historic moment. On NTV, a well-known Turkish pundit explained to a talk show host the First Amendment prohibition of prayer in public schools in the U.S., ending his talk with a pointed flourish: “If only we were as secular as they are.” (Since some of the Americans in my living room groaned through the invocation and benediction, it was an interesting moment of perspective.) On Sky TV—not quite as serious—a famous actor drawled about how nothing Obama may do will make a difference: “The same thievery will continue.”

Flipping the major Turkish channels, I saw overdubbed Hollywood movies and some local news, but not that much Obama coverage; of course, most Turks who are interested in watching (including a very large number who have been educated in the U.S.—Turkey sends enormous numbers of students to top American universities each year) would just flip their satellite receivers to CNN International. A Turkish lawyer friend said she and her colleagues, across the water from me, gathered around the office television to watch. Various large and small parties took shape: at Santral, an old power plant that has been converted into an industial-hip exhibit space, Turkish Obama fans gathered in the in-house Otto Santral restaurant for a viewing party. At Ghetto, a dance club in Beyoglu, central Istanbul, the local chapter of the American group Democrats Abroad hosted a celebration for a mixed crowd.

Some Turkish papers had their websites ready the moment the speech was over; this is significant because Turks are voracious consumers of news, and many in the younger generation flip through media websites nearly as enthusiastically as they check Gmail and Facebook. Radikal, a liberal-centrist newspaper, featured a relevant point from the inauguration address within minutes: “Obama calls to Muslims: open your fist; we want to shake your hand.” Meanwhile, Hurriyet, the largest of the Turkish daily papers, filled the front of its website with several Obama stories, the most prominent of which paraphrased our new president’s words: “Today is the inauguration day of those who could not sit in a restaurant sixty years ago.”

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