In the spirit of embracing bizarre opportunities, I accepted an offer in June of 2015 to join a press convoy from İstanbul bound for the Mardan Palace in Turkey’s Mediterranean province of Antalya. We were to cover a fashion fair and show featuring Kendall Jenner. The following is my penance and therapy for being a spectator in this debacle:
If Jabba the Hutt was an Ottoman sultan living in the twenty-first century, he would have built the Mardan Palace hotel as his lavish, twisted lair. The Mardan Palace is widely considered to be the most luxurious hotel in a region packed with hedonistic resorts. My pupils rapidly constrict in protest upon setting foot in the lobby, where the glint of the wall-to-wall crystal-and-gold trim radiates from the impossibly spotless floors.
“This may have been a mistake,” I wonder aloud while standing in the gargantuan lobby. It is hard enough avoiding such excess in Istanbul, which has experienced unprecedented growth in the past decade. The boom has resulted in far more hotels, malls, skyscrapers, and gated communities than the city can handle, while Mercedes Benz SL series and Hummers have multiplied in its legendary choking traffic.
From Kurtuluş, the centrally located, middle-class neighborhood where I reside in Istanbul, a fifteen-minute walk will take one through some of the city’s poorest and most notoriously rough neighborhoods, whereas a stroll in the opposite direction of the same length will end in Gucci and Prada boutiques and what are among Istanbul’s highest property values Being in the center of it all doesn’t feel like much of a balance, but does rather adequately reflect Turkey today: grinding poverty, extravagant wealth, and a squeezed middle class.
Antalya, a sleepy city hugging the southern Mediterranean coast, was once proclaimed to be “without a doubt, the most beautiful place on Earth” by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the modern Turkish state. It is the greater Antalya region that has contributed just as much to the country’s tourism boom as Istanbul. Growing numbers of Russian tourists and their penchant for Antalya’s beachside resorts was perhaps the major factor in the city’s triumphant rise. While last year’s number of visiting Russians plummeted following a severe diplomatic crisis between Moscow and Ankara, the figures have rebounded this year, enabling the area’s tourism sector to breathe a sigh of relief after a difficult 2016.
Back to the lobby, where champagne and fruit are served upon entry. It boasts a legion of chandeliers each big enough to accommodate a shipload of pirates swinging boisterously through the room. I check in and curiously make my way to my room, by far the nicest hotel suite I’ve ever stayed in. It comes complete with a balcony—alone easily larger than the bedroom of my apartment in Istanbul—that overlooks the hotel’s pool, supposedly the third largest on the planet, one that makes Olympic-size look puny by comparison. It’s also surrounded by a moat, where a Venetian-style gondola takes guests around the perimeter after the sun has set.
The expansive bathroom contains its own tub in addition to a separate walk-in cabin where an ample compartmentalized area can only be construed as existing for the purpose of in-shower intercourse. There is a detachable showerhead in addition to a fountain-like device affixed to the ceiling, gently spouting thin streams of water throughout the radius of the uncomfortably sexy apparatus.
Built in 2009 by Azerbaijani businessman Telman Ismailov at the cost of $1.5 billion, the hotel’s opening ceremony was attended by an entourage of American celebrities including Richard Gere and Mariah Carey. Neither bells or whistles were spared, and the hotel is said to have original sketches by Leonardo da Vinci displayed on the premises, although my by no means comprehensive search failed to locate the artifacts. The financial trouble that the hotel is in today could have been foreshadowed by these exorbitant expenses. Having declared bankruptcy, the hotel was purchased by a state-run bank for significantly less than it cost to build.
Still in mild disbelief that someone else is footing the bill for all of this, I join a few colleagues downstairs for dinner, where the massive buffet offers an anxiety-inducing number of choices. Alcohol is limitless, and included in the room price. This isn’t only the case at dinner, but at many of the dozens of bars and restaurants found throughout the hotel. As heavy sin taxes result in liquor being an expensive vice in Turkey, this is an amenity of which I make sure to take full advantage throughout my brief stay.
The scene is rather grim downstairs at the Jazz Bar, which betrays its name by blasting the current Top 40 pop hits. Taking a seat alone at the bar, I order a double rakı , the cloudy, anise-based national spirit. The handsome, impeccably groomed bartender Ali pours what looks to be a quadruple, leaving barely enough room to top off the slender glass with water and ice. As Ali seems like the only person in the room with whom I wouldn’t mind talking, we quickly strike up a conversation. He hates his job and curses under his breath as wealthy Russian tourists rudely belt out their drink orders in English not competent enough to be considered broken. Even as one man slips a twenty-dollar tip into his hand—nearly equivalent to the daily wages of the hotel’s housekeeping personnel—Ali’s mood remains unchanged. A sloshed Russian woman in her sixties stares at me ominously from across the bar. I desperately avoid eye contact.
A throng of Turkish men in their thirties assembles on the opposite side and wastes no time devolving into a depraved, expletive-laden conversation, coated with misogyny. Ali’s grimaces are priceless if pained. The Russians come to complain about the lack of jazz in the Jazz Bar, and while their claims of being misled may be valid, it is not Ali’s problem and there is nothing he can do to change it. Calling it a night, Ali complies with my request for a beer “for the road.” Back in my room, I fall asleep on the couch, waking up in the middle of the night and making the transition to my alarmingly comfortable bed.
At breakfast there is an omelet station, grilled veal strips, and a grandmotherly lady frying up eggs over easy one by one. After soaking up my previous evening, I amble over to the one of the numerous poolside gazebos, the site of the press conference and my reason for being there in the first place. The occasion was the Dosso Dossi fashion show, where Turkish clothing designers set up shop at a fair attended by boutique owners from Russia and other former Soviet republics. The arrangement is rooted in the long relationship shared between buyers from the post-Soviet world and the Turkish textile sector.
Hikmet Eraslan, the man behind Dosso Dossi, has cashed in on this relationship with an airtight business plan. Eraslan—with sparkly teeth and equally pristine white designer trousers—pays for the vacation costs of the Russian shop owners with the understanding that they will purchase at least $15,000 in wholesale clothing from the assembled Turkish retailers, who set up stands in a weeklong fashion fair, highlighted by a fashion show. The star of the runway is Kendall Jenner, the younger sister of Kim Kardashian and a hugely successful model in her own right. The buyers get bussed from Mardan Palace to the fashion fair and are given passes to attend the show. Placated by the fact that they are on “free” vacation, Eraslan says his customers almost always surge past the bare minimum with their purchases.
Acting as the middleman between the Turkish brands and foreign customers, Eraslan is enjoying the growth of a business model that he alone holds the legal right to pursue, after a high court granted Dosso Dossi “unique business model” status. The press convoy is a junket in the truest sense of the term, as the assembled journalists will publicize the eye-popping amount of cash that Dosso Dossi is expected to rake in: $50 million in sales within one week.
At the press conference, waiters dressed to the nines serve elegant tray after tray of cookies, chocolates, and baklava. No one touches anything as the whole convoy has just emerged sluggishly from the expansive breakfast buffet.
We all board a bus to the fashion show and fair. The former is circus-themed, and ten times tackier than one can describe in words. Before Jenner and a crew of tall, slender knockouts take the stage, a performer who rolls out with five highly trained poodles stuffed in a wicker box does her routine. It is mildly upsetting for anyone with a twinge of respect for animals, but the guests eat it up. Sitting in the front row with other journalists who were granted early entry, the arena is soon stormed by hundreds of aggressive women from post-Soviet states, who are all determined to get the best of the remaining seats. I get kicked in the back repeatedly, and vehemently deny requests in languages I don’t understand to scoot over and abandon the three inches of space remaining on my bench.
Back at the hotel, I head to an outdoor bar with some colleagues to watch a cover band. The lead vocalist is a convincing performer and attractive woman, while her rhythm section has seen better days. The young, muscular guitarist looks miserable. They belt out acceptable covers of “Smooth Operator” and other pop classics to a halfway-bemused crowd. The Johnnie Walker Red and Efes draft beer are free, and the tattooed waiter keeps them coming.
Nearby, an amphitheater loosely modeled after the Colosseum features a performance of skilled hula-hoop dancers who manipulate the circular plastic rings in gravity-defying patterns. Suddenly they are replaced with a brigade of Russian children who dance in unison with wide smiles. It is unclear how or why these elementary-age kids are here and performing in front of high-paying guests. “This is child labor!!” I insist emphatically, as my journalist friend shrugs in agreement. None of the crowd seems to be concerned.
Boasting its own strip of the glittery, aquamarine Mediterranean coast, the hotel’s beach features some of the whitest, most pristine sand ever. I suspect that it is was bussed in. This can be ignored, but it is impossible to overlook the bar built out into the sea that bisects the hotel’s section of the beach, obstructing what would have been an enjoyable view of the horizon. The beach isn’t very crowded, nor is the colossal swimming pool, or any of the hotel’s numerous amenities. I ask a waiter if the vacancy rate is low for the season, but he says the hotel is near capacity. The gargantuan size of the complex and its high number of attractions have spread out the hundreds of guests, and everywhere feels eerily empty all the time.
Slathered with excess and sparing no luxury, a bleak, depressing vibe permeates the Mardan Palace hotel. A large number of the hospitality staff come from Uzbekistan, living nearby in dormitory-like housing and sending back what they can to their families. The cost of two nights in my “basic” room easily outpaces my monthly salary as a full-time newspaper reporter and probably triples that of the housekeepers. Even though I’m staying for free, I feel I’ve paid the price with the sharp pangs of my own conscience, which tells me I’ve willfully participated in something evil. Hungover and withdrawn, I forego the champagne on my way out, and board the bus bound for the airport and back to reality.