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Queen Mary University fellow MEHMET KURT joins the Turkey Book Talk podcast to chat about “KURDISH HIZBULLAH IN TURKEY: ISLAMISM, VIOLENCE AND THE STATE” (Pluto Press).

It is a remarkable book based on Kurt’s personal experiences, which gave him extraordinary access to a shady and secretive group.

Download the episode or listen below.

Here’s my review of the book at HDN.

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Allow me to repost this related conversation from a few weeks ago with Cuma Çiçek on his book “The Kurds of Turkey: National, Religious and Economic Identities” (IB Tauris):

 

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  • ‘Jihad and Death: The Global Appeal of Islamic State’ by Olivier Roy
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  • ‘The New Turkey and its Discontents’ by Simon Waldman and Emre Çalışkan
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Apologies – bit late to post this review of mine that was in the Christmas edition of the Times Literary Supplement, currently still available to read online for non-subscribers to TLS. Click here to read.

It’s a triple-header, reviewing Ece Temelkuran’s “Turkey: The Insane and the Melancholy,” Kaya Genç’s “Under the Shadow: Rage and Revolution in Modern Turkey,” and Can Dündar’s “We Are Arrested: A Journalist’s Notes from a Turkish Prison.”

Follow this link or listen below to the previous Turkey Book Talk episode with Temelkuran:

Or listen to the episode with Genç from a couple of months ago:

By the way, Turkey Book Talk is now also available to listen on Acast. Check it out.

Turkey Book Talk is back after a one month hiatus.

We return with a good one: Bilge Yeşil speaks about her book “Media in New Turkey: The Origins of an Authoritarian Neoliberal State” (University of Illinois Press).

Download the episode or listen below:

Subscribe to Turkey Book Talk: iTunes / PodBean / Stitcher / Facebook / RSS

Here’s my review of the book.

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If you like Turkey Book Talk and want to support independent podcasting, you can make a small or large monetary donation to the show via Patreon. Many thanks to current supporters Özlem Beyarslan, Steve Bryant, Andrew Cruickshank and Aaron Ataman.

Ahead of next week’s commemoration of the centenary of the Armenian genocide, I spoke to Carnegie Endowment scholar Thomas de Waal about his new book exploring relations between Turks and Armenians in the years since 1915.

Read the interview here.

And here’s my review of de Waal’s “Great Catastrophe: Armenians and Turks in the Shadow of Genocide.” Great Catastrophe Unfortunately our conversation took place before Pope Francis’ remarks over the weekend. Neither could I ask de Waal about Kim Kardashian and Kanye West.

My review this week was of “The Gardens of Silihdar,” Armenian feminist Zabel Yessayan’s (1878-1943) memoir of growing up in Ottoman Istanbul. Yessayan fled the city in 1915 after being included as the only woman on the Young Turk regime’s list of Armenian intellectuals targeted for detention and deportation. The book was first published in Soviet Armenia in the 1930s, shortly before Yessayan was arrested in Stalin’s purges and exiled to Siberia.

I caught up with translator Jennifer Manoukian to discuss Yessayan’s remarkable life and work. You can read the interview at the Hürriyet Daily News here.

Read my review of “The Gardens of Silihdar” here.

For those interested, both “The Gardens of Silihdar” and Yessayan’s novel “My Soul in Exile” were recently published in English translations by the small press of the Armenian International Women’s Association.

[Hürriyet Daily News (15th June 2012): http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/ataturk-an-intellectual-biography.aspx?pageID=500&eid=101]

M. Şükrü Hanioğlu – Atatürk: An Intellectual Biography, Princeton University Press, 2011, 280pp

One of the first things guaranteed to strike any newcomer to Turkey is the inescapability of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk – the statues, the portraits in every shop, the street names, the fact that every bookshop has an “Atatürk section,” the fact that every classroom has an “Atatürk Corner.” Whatever truth there is in the concern amongst secular Turks that the founder of the Turkish Republic’s memory is being eroded by a new religious order, it certainly – at least superficially – doesn’t feel that way to the Turkey neophyte.

Of course though, if that neophyte is going to stay for a longer stretch of time, he or she will sooner or later have to get a firmer handle on the Atatürk fundamentals, and Professor M. Şükrü Hanioğlu of Princeton University is the latest to take on the daunting task of producing a biography on the man. As Hanioğlu himself says in the preface to the book, it’s daunting because in Turkey: “For many years, the scholar who aspired to portray Atatürk as he really was resembled the pre-modern historian rash enough to attempt a depiction of the historical Jesus.” Though restricted in scope to the influences that shaped the “intellectual” character of its subject, (rather than filling in details of the personal life story), “Atatürk: An Intellectual Biography” is a sane, fair-minded primer to the ideological forces that shaped the “Father of the Turks.” Unlike so many titles in that “Atatürk section” of the local bookshops, it is resolutely a biography – not a hagiography.

The first step to challenging any holy text is to read it as a product of its historical context. The major objective of this book is to do the same with Atatürk, presenting him as an intellectual and social product of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century Ottoman Empire. The influences affecting the elites of the late Ottoman period are thus given ample space, demonstrating the essential continuity that Mustafa Kemal represented. Even though politically he was to become the symbolic figurehead of the sudden rupture between the old imperial order and the new republic, in crucial respects Atatürk was simply the inheritor of the late Ottoman reformist legacy. This historical continuity is one of the central themes that emerges from almost all serious contemporary historical writing on the period. Hanioğlu summarises:

“it is imperative to realize that Mustafa Kemal emerged from within a specific social milieu … many of the radical ideas destined to become central planks in his reform program were widely held in intellectual circles at the turn of the century … Despite the radical changes that it brought about, the Turkish transformation led by Atatürk was not a rupture with the Late Ottoman past but, in important respects, its continuation.”

While official Turkish historiography considers the founder of the TurkishRepublica kind of omniscient leader for all times, untrammelled by the age in which he emerged, this book paints a convincing alternative picture.

In this respect, the discussion of nineteenth century German military theorist Colmar van der Goltz’s idea of “the Nation in Arms” is particularly illuminating. Goltz held that a state’s military elite should be afforded an exalted role as the ultimate guide of society, a “superior position” being “the natural due of officers as a class.” Such ideas found fertile ground in the lateOttoman Empire, and Goltz was chosen to lead a restructuring of the Ottoman Royal Military in 1883-84. His theories had an obvious effect on the Committee of Union and Progress, (the group of military officers later known as the Young Turks), which swept to power in 1908, and were clearly significant in justifying the military’s later elite position in the Turkish Republic. Equally important to Ottoman thinking of the time – and consequently to Atatürk – was another German import, the concept of Vulgarmaterialismus:

“a vulgarized version of the doctrine of materialism, fusing popular notions of materialism, scientism, and Darwinism into a simplistic creed that upheld the role of science in society. The late Ottoman version of this materialism was a further simplification of the German original and a medley of highly disparate ideas.”

Hanioğlu remarks on the inherent irony of the self-contradictory, one-dimensional worship of scientific materialism by the era’s elites, a secular creed held on to with as much unquestioning zeal as the most pious of religious believers. The early republican fetish for the all-encompassing power of science was clearly a direct inheritance from this late Ottoman tendency.

Such oversimplification also gave rise to some of the more eccentric, often troubling republican intellectual predilections. The scientistic cult logically led to scientific racism and theories of exclusivist Turkish racial superiority, (the body of 16th century imperial Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan was exhumed in 1925 to confirm the brachycephalic shape of his skull, in order to prove beyond all doubt that he was, indeed, an ethnic Turk). It also fed into the aberration of the various Turkist language theories – which resulted in the brutal purging of all “foreign elements” in order to form a new “purified” Turkish language, with artificial replacements dredged up from ancient Turkic languages. In the words of Geoffrey Lewis, the reforms were a “catastrophic success,” and meant that Atatürk’s famous 36-hour speech of 1926 had already become unintelligible and had to be rendered into modern usage by 1963. There was also the new Turkish history thesis that found its way into official Turkish textbooks, which involved a comprehensive effort to prove that all ancient civilisations, including Greece and Rome, came from a central Asian Turkish wellspring. Despite obviously being nonsense, this revisionist interpretation of human history was seductive because it served a number of practical purposes. Firstly, it helped bypass the awkwardly religious Ottoman past; secondly, it helped pre-empt claims by rival nationalisms that Turks were latecomers to Anatolia; and thirdly, in the Turks’ mission civilisatrice, it also sought to solidify Turkey’s position as an integral part of the West, (although even this may have been a step down for some, with one contemporary text claiming that “Turks lived clothed during the stone age in 12000 BC, while Europeans reached that stage 5,000 years later.”) Atatürk never feels further from the figure of the high Enlightenment – and closer to his own, authoritarian age – than when we read of these quixotic social engineering projects. (I was struck recently when my neighbourhood plumber, Ali, while repairing some piping in my bathroom, began expounding something that sounded suspiciously close to the “Sun Language Theory.” I used to think of such things as being not much more than an eccentric footnote, representing the lunatic fringe of the early republican age, but perhaps I was being too generous.)

Nevertheless, despite the fact that it was personally one of his central intellectual pillars, Atatürk tended not to emphasise the more esoteric expressions of his Turkism until the future of the republic had been properly secured. Until this time, Hanioğlu stresses, Atatürk displayed an often underappreciated pragmatism as a politician. This is especially the case with regard to religion, which is far from the black and white picture that is often assumed. Atatürk was never averse to invoking Islam, particularly early on, when seeking to mobilise the masses in the struggle against the Allies and the non-Muslim populations, which were seen as a mortal threat to the very independence of the nation. Despite his contempt for communism, he also made use of a “purely rhetorical Socialism,” largely aiming to maintain the young republic’s alliance of convenience with theSoviet Union. “This pattern of dissimulation,” Hanioğlu writes:

“was undoubtedly part of a deliberate strategy to align the nationalists with the most powerful and broad-based ideologies of resistance, while obfuscating the exclusionary objectives of the movement. This ideological mishmash was crucial to Mustafa Kemal as he performed his difficult role as political leader, diplomat, and supreme military commander.”

Although he was the leading figure behind the abolition of the Ottoman Sultanate and, soon after, the Islamic Caliphate, this too was achieved in an extremely careful, gradualist way. As is often the case, what seems now like a sudden jolt and break with the past can, in many senses, be seen as merely the logical culmination of tendencies that had been developing for decades.

Westerners tend to view the Turkish adoration of Atatürk in rather narrow, technocratic terms, without understanding that the emotional resonance his image has across Turkish society couldn’t possibly be accounted for by his intellectual convictions alone. Like all icons, his image is still powerful in today’s Turkey because it has been effectively divested of all meaning, and the viewer can invest it with whatever symbolism he or she wishes to. As in any personality cult, Atatürk’s image must necessarily mean different things to different people. Depending on the context, Hanioğlu says, Atatürk “may be invoked in support of ideas that are étatist or liberal, nationalist or socialist, religious or scientistic, elitist or populist.” A westernised Turk on the Aegean coast might revere him for his secularizing, modernising vision, whilst a religious conservative in Central Anatolia can selectively ignore this, and instead place the emphasis elsewhere – perhaps instead respecting the strongman who successfully defended his homeland and gave the West a bloody nose. He probably sees no contradiction at all in praying five times a day while also passionately admiring Atatürk.

Shared by both caricatures is a veneration for the redeemer of the nation, and it is this aspect more than anything else that lends Atatürk the emotional impact needed to endure. This is the reason why detached and technical books like this, while welcome, can really only ever have a minor impact. The majority are guided by impulses rather less rational and rather more emotional. Atatürk himself understood that, even though it is this paradox that perhaps ultimately illustrates the limits of his ultra-rational, positivist intellectual convictions.

[Hürriyet Daily News (21st May 2012): http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/the-bridge-a-journey-between-orient-and-occident-.aspx?pageID=500&eid=53]

Geert Mak – The Bridge: A Journey Between Orient and Occident, Random House UK, 2010, 160pp

The Galata Bridge is one of the more obvious metaphors for all those oppositions that Istanbul is famously caught between: Occident and Orient; east and west; tradition and modernity. The half-kilometre stretch across the Golden Horn connects the “historic” old Stamboul – with the imperial mosques, palaces and bazaars – to the “modern” Galata and Pera – originally settled by Genoese merchants and later the quarter of European ambassadors, diplomats, traders and artists. Geert Mak roamed the entire European continent for his impressionistic 2004 travelogue “In Europe,” but this book offers a complete contrast in terms of scale.

As Mak himself wryly states, “The Bridge” is “a travelogue covering 490 metres,” his focus having infinitely narrowed to one bridge, in one corner of the old continent. The book is subtitled “A Journey Between Orient and Occident,” but I suspect that’s a marketing decision from the publisher, rather than from the author. Mak is wise to the cliché, and he makes sure not to labour it. Instead, his book mainly focuses on the vicissitudes of today’s bridge-dwellers, and in this it is a triumph of understated sensitivity.

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Over the years a total of five bridges have been built on the site: two wooden, two iron, and one (today’s) concrete (“not a pretty sight”, Mak laconically observes). Istanbul, he says, “is a classic city […] poverty has pitched its tent in the heart of the old city, the middle classes, ring after ring, live further and further away from [it].” As the city’s breakneck modernisation continues apace, this old arrangement is coming under increasing pressure, but it still largely holds true. In a sense, the Galata Bridge is the centre of this pitched tent, so much of the book concerns itself with giving the reader a vivid sense of the consequences that an urban hand-to-mouth existence, (“an economy of spare change”), has on those who spend their lives on the bridge. “The lives of the tea seller, the cigarette boys and the insole vendor are set against the backdrop of a remarkable corner of the globe, but precious little good that does them,” Mak suggests.

To anyone who has crossed the Galata Bridge recently, or got trapped in one of those underground shopping tunnels that take you across the roads on either side, the sights described in the book will be familiar. Those knock-off children’s action figurines crawling mechanically in the lids of cardboard boxes; the fake perfumes; the fake mobile phones; the cheap sets of pens; the cheap tea; cheap shoes; jeans; umbrellas; insoles; shoelaces; smuggled cigarettes; condoms. However, I doubt anyone has stopped to take such an interest in the people behind these items as Mak, and this is where “The Bridge” is a revelation. We are introduced to the drifters selling those petty goods, as well as the indefatigable fishermen dangling rods (with steadily diminishing returns) over the bridge’s rails, the lottery ticket sellers, glue-sniffers, and pickpockets. Most are displaced migrants, having come to Istanbul from somewhere in eastern Anatolia, perhaps from a village now deserted, or one that simply can’t support them anymore. This mass of rootless internal migrants makes up an ever increasing proportion of Istanbul’s uncontrollably booming population, and Mak gets most of his material by simply mining them for stories, painting an authentic picture of the bridge’s unique fauna. He lets the people he meets on the bridge talk about their backgrounds, their daily routine, the starkness of their prospects, the financial knife-edge that a living scraped by selling cheap plastic umbrellas from a cardboard box entails, the psychological contortions required to maintain some sense of personal dignity or honor. As one man (and this is a resolutely male landscape) says: “Everyone here, almost all of us come from the back of beyond […] But there’s nothing there for us. Unless you want to go into the mountains, to join the terrorists. If you don’t want to do that, you have no choice but to make the best of things here, to sell tea, or flog pirated CDs, or shift stolen mobile phones, or sell fake perfume…” Almost all harbor dreams of migrating to Europe. One of the umbrella sellers once tried to smuggle himself into London, but was detected by the immigration authorities at Heathrow and sent back to Turkey, and now dreams of suing Britain.

The narrative is divided between these personal ruminations and more widescreen historical vignettes, which elegantly sketch the background that has shaped the way the bridge – and the city itself – have come to be the way they are today. Mak vividly describes the historical, Ottoman Istanbul, a city of all creeds of Christians, Jews and Muslims. It was, he says, “perhaps the most multicultural city of all time,” but at the same time it was run according to strictly defined lines of demarcation: Istanbul “consisted of communities that worked and did business together, but were otherwise imprisoned in their own compartments of neighbourhood, house, family, gender, rank and standing […] all these peoples and cultures inhabited worlds of their own. The city’s tolerance depended on looking the other way; contact with those other worlds was devoid of all curiosity.” Interestingly – and perhaps a little fancifully – Mak finds some kind of continuity between those historical hidden lines of division and modern ones constructed by the displaced internal migrant drifters. The bridge has its own intricate sociology of “economic compartmentalisation.” “Countless tightly knit immigrant communities exist in this way, all of them operating in isolation from the others and within the strict borders allotted them […] The fishmongers all hail from the eastern city of Erzincan. Most of the professional anglers come from Trabzon, on the Black Sea. The rods and tackle, on the other hand, are sold generally by immigrants from Kastamonu […] And if you’re Kurdish there is no sense in trying to rent a space and fry fish, for that monopoly is in the hands of another group.”

Mak is never boring, but he is on less sure ground when trying to chart a course through the choppy waters of the city’s modern political situation. One pages-long section in particular – attempting to unknot the delicate “headscarf question” with little more than platitudinous observations – feels too deliberate, like a hunk of meat thrown only because he knows the audience back in western Europe is interested in these things.

Describing the brutal realities of a life spent in perpetual, unbreakable poverty, it would be easy to slip into mawkishness, but “The Bridge” never does. This is an admirably warm-spirited, well-judged book. It’s occasionally lyrical, but never patronises or succumbs to sentimentality. Mak spent his time on the bridge wisely, observing and talking to the people he found, always with an eye on the history that has formed the city. It is this dual vision that makes the book a success. He pulls off a smart trick: by focussing on a small geographical area and a limited cast of characters, he is able to give us a convincing, holistic portrait of a wider society and its conflicted place in history.

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