It's nine o'clock on a warm Friday evening in downtown Istanbul, and Taksim Square is packed with young people strolling, chatting, waiting for dates to show up. Most wouldn't look out of place lounging on any southern European piazza--well-groomed youths with slicked-back hair and white shirts, grungy students in combat trousers, pretty girls in Britney Spears tank tops. The only sign that you're in a Muslim country is the fact that some of the girls wear traditional headscarves and long cotton coats, and leave for home before it gets too late. And as night falls, the wail of the call to evening prayer cuts through the pop music blaring from cafes and CD shops.
For three generations, Turkish young people have been pouring into big cities like Istanbul--and been transformed by the move. In 1950, 82 percent of Turks lived on the land--now it's under 35 percent. The population of Istanbul alone has grown nearly 10 times in that period to a whopping 14 million people. Despite the massive influx of rural migrants, Istanbul has remained a very European city--while most of Turkey is far from being a European country. And as Turkey gets ever closer to joining the European Union, there's never been a better time to be young and single in the big city.
For musician Bulent Aydogan, 21, the move to Istanbul was "like joining the real world." Bulent's family uprooted themselves from a small village near Rize, on the Black Sea, when he was 7. "When we go back to the village every summer, I feel like I'm traveling back in time," says Bulent, who plays guitar and sings in bars in downtown Istanbul. "The village will always be part of me... But I want to live a modern life, have girlfriends, drink beer if I want to."
Young people yearning for the bright lights is nothing new--in any country. But in Turkey the phenomenon is also at the forefront of a social revolution that promises to bring the country closer to Europe than any legislation from the government in Ankara. Istanbul's Marmara University recently conducted a nationwide survey of graduating urban high-school students that showed a startling generation gap. Most students questioned thought that the best age to get married was 30, and the best number of kids to have was two; most wanted to stay in Turkey and, just like in Western Europe, the overwhelming majority of female students aimed to have careers before settling down. The big difference: unlike Western Europe, Turkey has a young population, with 21 percent under the age of 24, and a median age of just 25. And that youth bulge is disproportionately concentrated in the cities.
It's not hard to see why. Istanbul alone has 27 universities and colleges, Ankara 19. Istanbul is also one of the greatest business centers in the eastern Mediterranean, promising jobs and quick advancement to the hardworking, whether you're a yuppie or a taxi driver. And dating? The real-time notice boards of Turkish singles Internet sites move so fast it's hard to keep up with the new postings.
Turkey's big cities are a place of liberation, for young women above all. Many come to escape the rigid social strictures of rural society, especially in Turkey's superconservative southeast, where arranged marriage is common and women are rarely seen unaccompanied in public. The contrast between the two worlds--one urban and sophisticated, the other rural and religious--is increasingly drawn more sharply in Turkey than in any other country. Fortunately, that means the scope for change is also greatest here. The cities are winning--and their vibrant youth culture is shaping the country Turkey will soon become.