On a typical Sunday in July at Sailor’s Cafe in the Aegean resort of Alacati, three young couples are loudly debating whether they should just stay on in the Aegean for good rather than return to the rat race in Istanbul.
An older customer turns to us with a smirk, displaying the full signs of a laid-back Aegean’s disdain of the tense, competitive and loud Istanbulians. “They all say the same thing,” he whispers. “So many Istanbul residents dream of settling in Izmir or one of the pretty Aegean towns around the city.”
Except it is no longer just a dream. According to figures by the Turkish Institute of Statistics (TUIK), 16,000 people moved from Istanbul to Izmir in 2016.
“This is a major change in terms of the migration patterns between Istanbul and Izmir,” Ulas Sunata, an associate professor of sociology at Bahcesehir University, told Al-Monitor in a phone interview. “Throughout the Turkish Republic’s history, people from all over the country moved to Istanbul, with the slogan ‘Istanbul’s streets are paved with gold.’ The migration between Izmir and Istanbul was always in Istanbul’s favor; Izmirians moved to Istanbul for education or employment and they just stayed. Then they went back to Izmir after retirement.”
Izmir’s reputation as the “Chicest Retirement Home in Turkey” is not unfounded. Turkey’s former Chief of Staff Hilmi Ozkok lives in the quiet town of Urla, 35 kilometers (22 miles) from Izmir, away from the controversies that surround retired top brass. Turkey’s former ambassador to Washington, Nabi Sensoy, who left diplomatic life after a conflict with then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2009, settled in downtown Izmir.
According to Sunata, however, the present wave is not the migration of the retired or the semi-retired. On the contrary, the new people settling in Izmir are middle- to high-level businesspeople or blossoming entrepreneurs in their late 30s and early 40s.
“They are highly skilled professional people in mid-careers. Papers have long been reporting on the brain drain from Turkey to the European countries and the United States. Those who do not go abroad try to find a job in Izmir,” said Sunata.
Aykut Hocaoglu, the deputy director of Teknopark Izmir, told Al-Monitor that Izmir’s attraction goes beyond Istanbul, as Turks who returned from abroad also chose to settle in Izmir. The technology park, established in 2002, hosts 145 domestic and foreign research and development companies, including AirTies, a company established by former Silicon Valley executive Bulent Celebi to provide wireless solutions for small businesses in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
“Six of the companies that are based in Teknopark Izmir have either been established in or operated abroad for some time before settling in Izmir,” Hocaoglu told Al-Monitor, referring to it as a brain drain in reverse. “In 2017, half of the new members came from outside Izmir,” he said. Earlier this year, insurance giant Allianz announced that it will move its operations center to Izmir, creating 1,100 jobs.
But Izmir’s business opportunities are still meager compared to Istanbul’s, leading Sunata to conclude that the new wave of migration is more about a better life than better business. According to Sunata, the move to Izmir is a “lifestyle migration” — a term that refers to the perception of Izmir as a modern city that allows a liberal lifestyle while conservatism spreads in Turkey. Numbers from TUIK’s Izmir office show that Izmir’s demography is indeed different from the Turkish average: men and women marry later in Izmir (the average age of marriage for women is 25.6 for Turkey and 27.7 for Izmir); the infant mortality rate and unemployment are low; and the education level is high, thanks to the city’s six universities. Once Izmir's mayor joked that if Izmir could apply to the European Union, it would have gained membership easily, while Turkey, the eternal candidate, would stay outside.
The city’s politicians and business circles bank on the modern image. Aziz Kocaoglu, the city’s popular mayor from the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), told Al-Monitor that more and more non-Izmirians settled in the city in search of “freedom, tolerance and multiculturalism.”
“Being an Izmirian is a frame of mind,” he quipped, referring to the easygoing, multicultural residents of the city known for its Levantine, Jewish and Greek heritage. Thus, it is no surprise that the “Infidel Izmir,” as it was called in the Ottoman era due to its non-Muslim majority, remains staunchly anti-Justice and Development Party (AKP) and unforgiving against Erdogan, who once referred to the city as “infidel” in a speech. The city’s unofficial anthem, the “Izmir March,” a song that praises the victory of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in the War of Independence, has become the song of the naysayers of the Turkish constitutional referendum last April, which gave extended powers to the presidency.
Traditionally a center-right city but consistently voting for the CHP since 2002, Izmirians hardly miss an opportunity to snub the AKP. Erdogan experienced a rare moment of public humiliation in one of his Izmir meetings in 2014 when a woman made a rude hand gesture as he passed by. She got 11 months in prison, but her gesture went viral. In 2016, when then-Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu paid a visit to Izmir on the occasion of Women’s Day, one of the municipalities in the city decorated the streets with Women’s Day posters that mocked the AKP statements on women, including AKP heavyweight Bulent Arinc’s remarks that decent women did not laugh in public.
“People come to Izmir for a better quality of life,” said Nilgun Gurkaynak, an associate professor of marketing at the Izmir University of Economics. Originally from Izmir, she pursued a fast-paced corporate career in Istanbul, but resettled in Izmir at the age of 40. “I got a job and put my daughter in a better school than I would have done in Istanbul,” she told Al-Monitor. “Izmir has less opportunities than Istanbul, but accessibility is higher. Istanbul, with its traffic jams, crowds and tense work life, drains your energy. You may have dozens of cinemas, exhibitions and concerts in a city, but they have little practical use when you have neither the time nor the energy to go to any of them.”
After 10 years, she confessed that she is getting slightly restless with Izmir’s slow pace and has started teaching part-time at a university in Istanbul. "I need that stimulus that the metropolis offers," she said.
Admittedly, laid-back Izmir has its own difficulties, such as the slowness of the service sector, the difficulties of penetrating business circles that have known each other for generations — the old Izmirians network — and a relaxed work ethic that includes a three-day weekend in summer and a resistance to early-morning meetings in winter. Despite the claims of Izmir residents that theirs is a “land of tolerance,” the treatment of Syrian refugees, whose number is around 118,000, has been far from exemplary, with employers beating up workers or abusing small children.
For some, the Aegean dream does turn sour. Vural, who asked Al-Monitor not to use his real name, invested his savings from 14 years of corporate life to buy a boutique hotel in Alacati in 2011. After six years of the “quiet life,” combined with a decline in tourism, he sent his resume to a headhunter in Istanbul. “Now I just need to find another Istanbulian with an Aegean dream so I can sell him the hotel,” he told Al-Monitor.
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