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[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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[I’ve started writing book reviews for the Hürriyet Daily News blog. I’ll be able to post them here a couple of weeks after they first appear on there (contractual yawn). This one went up on May 5, and can be found in original form here: http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/literary-reflections-on-the-armenian-issue.aspx?pageID=500&eid=16]

Ece Temelkuran – Deep Mountain: Across the Turkish-Armenian Divide, Verso, 2010, 288pp

Fethiye Çetin – My Grandmother, Verso, 2008, 144pp

There’s a book, quite easily found in any reasonably-sized Istanbul bookshop, its name written in block capitals along the spine: ‘Ermeni Dosyası’ (The Armenian Dossier). Written by former Turkish diplomat Kamuran Gurun, and ominously subtitled ‘The Myth of Innocence Exposed’, it has been popular amongst Turkish readers ever since first being published in1983. Packed with imposing-looking graphs and statistics, its main thesis can be summarised thus: The numbers claimed by the Armenians as killed in the ‘events’ of 1915 is far too high and, in fact, Ottoman soldiers were themselves also killed in large numbers at the same time. In any case, the Armenian population was far from innocent, with large numbers rebelling against the empire and often colluding with the advancing Russian forces on the eastern Anatolian frontier. Essentially, the book implies, the Armenians got what they had coming to them. If you’re interested, a new English-language print run of the book came out only two months ago. I haven’t read it, nor do I ever intend to make that sacrifice, but – however questionable its scholarship – ‘The Armenian Dossier’ is unquestionably significant, if only because it represents what has been the official Turkish narrative for almost 100 years.

Encouragingly however, this isn’t the only story on the shelves any more. While they still may not attract the sales figures of more flattering histories, voices dissenting from the official line are being increasingly heard in today’s Turkey. Ece Temelkuran was once a columnist with daily newspaper Habertürk (ironically enough one of the mouthpieces of the nationalist establishment) and her ‘Deep Mountain’, published in English in 2010, is part of this new, questioning tendency.

Temelkuran set herself the ostensibly simple task of meeting Armenians, talking to them, listening to them, and reporting back for the Turkish audience. Eschewing the directly political, she preferred ‘to write about Armenians, not necessarily what happened in 1915’, and while this may seem like a modest undertaking to an outsider, in Turkey it was a brave and taboo-shaking exercise. Quite how perilous the path was can be judgedfrom the example ofthe Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, to whom Temelkuran dedicates the book. Dink decried the politics of megaphone slogans and foreign parliamentary writs on the issue, and instead spent years trying to get the two sides talking to each other honestly about their shared history and common trauma. He was assassinated for his troubles in 2007 by an ultra-nationalist Turkish gang, outside the Istanbul office of his newspaper. Dink’s killing could have acted as either a spur to writing, or a warning against it, so – first and foremost – ‘Deep Mountain’ should be applauded as an act of bravery.

The book is divided into three parts, the first detailing Temelkuran’s encounters with the Armenians of Armenia itself, and the other two her meetings with the Armenian Diaspora communities in Franceand the United States. The picture painted of Armenian capital Yerevan is of a cultured but impoverished city of feeble opportunities and feeble ambitions, still yet to recover from the end of the Soviet Union and now crippled by the closed (since 1993) border with Turkey. Whilst bitter enmity for Turks exists, the Armenian Armenians are perhaps most concerned with the practical matter of getting the border open again, and with it securing an economic lifeline. The French and American Armenians, however, have come to adopt the genocide as the essential, irreducible feature of what it means to be ‘Armenian’. Meeting numerous community leaders, academics, artists, and businesspeople, Temelkuran describes the trajectory that emerges again and again in the Diaspora: How the first generation of Armenian migrants to Europe and America were most concerned with ‘getting on’ and fitting into the adopted culture, and how it is only with the second and third generation – threatened by the identity-engulfing vortex of a new homeland – that the genocide has been revisited and latched on to as an unshakable, almost pathological core.

As one of the Los Angeles Armenians revealingly says: ‘you need to create an identity, something to hold on to both culturally and individually. Turkey’s refusal to recognise the genocide is what binds those of us in the Diaspora. Were the genocide to be recognized, it would probably be the end of us’. Pain has become ‘the pillar propping up the home’, and to release that pillar means oblivion. Similarly, many Turks – afraid of losing their country and seeing recognition as threatening their own oblivion – cling just as fast to their own selective amnesia. In a striking phrase, the author at one point describes it as a ‘huge industry. Not just politics and money; a psychological industry too, for both sides. An industry of anguish’. The most sympathetic portraits in the book are thus reserved for those who are able to understand this identity paralysis and rise above such acrimony, recognising the absurdity of an official political ‘debate’ that doesn’t go much deeper than one side screaming ‘It was genocide!’ while the other responds ‘No it wasn’t!’

Perhaps inevitably, the book occasionally lapses into worthiness,though not nearly as often as you fear when you read the following meaningless fluff early on: ‘If an Armenian were to lose their way one day anywhere in the world, they’d be able to locate the capital of Armenia by consulting the map of their heart. They would navigate toward it by reference to the coordinates of pride and fear, of mourning and loss’. Worse, when she moves on to Los Angeles, Temelkuran can’t help butoffer a steady stream of unhelpful anti-American swipes. These come off as stale, predictable, and not a little immature (constant sneering about cigars and McDonalds, really?!) But these are minor criticisms, and should not detract from the more important qualities of a book that is sensitive, honest and ‘engaged’ in the best sense of the word.

Another modern voice with little time for the official Turkish narrative is Fethiye Çetin, a human rights lawyer currently representing the deceased’s family in the grimly ongoing Hrant Dink case. Çetin spent her whole youth believing she was of ‘pure’ Turkish stock, until one day her aging grandmother, Seher, took her aside. Seher revealed that she had been born an Armenian Christian, originally named Heranuş, and was plucked from a death march in 1915 by a Turkish gendarme commander, who went on to raise her with his wife as a Muslim Turk. Translated into English in 2008, ‘My Grandmother’ is Çetin’s elegiac description of this story.

The first section of the book contents itself with gentle, sepia-tinged descriptions of a rural upbringing with her family in the eastern Turkish province of Elazığ: her beautiful sisters; her grandfather, whose mood always depended on how full his stomach was; her grandmother, the charismatic matriarch of the family, powerful but taciturn, somehow never able to bring herself to sing, as if always harbouring the secret that would one day be revealed to Fethiye. The central revelation doesn’t come until midway through the book, but when it does Çetin writes that what she heard ‘did not fit with anything I knew. It turned the known world on its head, smashing my values into a thousand pieces’. Seher, or Heranuş, was one of the kılıç artığı, the ‘leftovers of the sword’ of that traumatic period; only one of her sisters was also spared, while the rest of the family – including uncles, aunts, cousins, and her mother – was killed. The second part of the novel consists of Çetin trying to digest this heritage, and also trying to forge a reunion of the two sides of a family which now – like so many Armenian families – is ‘scattered like pomegranate seeds’ across the world.

It’s a quietly powerful book, modest but courageous. There are no unnecessary fireworks or forced emotions. In a way, it could be seen as a manifestation of the very thing Temelkuran advocates in ‘Deep Mountain’, a kind of picking up of the baton. There’s little in the way of direct politics and no recriminations: I don’t think the word ‘genocide’ is mentioned once in the entire book (and that’s not because of Turkish laws against these things). It’s simply a human story, told in an unshowy, humane way.

Both Temelkuran and Çetin manage to address the vexed Armenian issue with admirable clarity, concerning themselves with the personal and the human as a kind of riposte to the debilitating rancour of the official, political dispute. Both try to chart a precipitous course between two entrenched sides that long ago stopped listening to each another; neither condemn anything other than this wilful deafness. In the years to come, one can only hope there are more books published like these two, and less like ‘The Armenian Dossier’.

[A slightly shorter version of this review is published in the latest issue of ‘Insight Turkey’ (Vol. 14 No. 2): http://www.insightturkey.com/insight-turkey-volume-14-no-2/issues/168]

Norman Stone – Turkey: A Short History, Thames & Hudson, pp 192

A new title seems to be landing on the “Ottoman and Turkish History” shelves of Istanbul’s book shops every week. Norman Stone, formerly Professor of History at Oxford and Cambridge, is the latest heavyweight to step into the ring with this volume, an almost recklessly slim account of 1300 years’ history. The Turks’ nomadic central Asian origins, their 10th century arrival in Anatolia, the rise and fall of the Seljuk and Ottoman Empires, and the establishment of the modern Turkish Republic are all covered in just 165 pages. Though obviously thin on real detail in most places, the book nevertheless represents both a decent primer for the interested novice (with some important provisos), and an entertaining, elegantly-written frisk for the more jaded expert.

Early on, Stone suggests: “If you are Turkish you have to ask what you owe to: (1) the ancient native Turkish tradition; (2) Persia; (3) Byzantium; (4) Islam; (5) what sort of Islam; and (6) conscious westernization”. Of course, it would be far-fetched to imagine that every modern Turk self-consciously ratiocinates these things and comes up with their own credit-debit account of historical heritage. It’s this book’s major strength, however, to demonstrate the lesser-appreciated continuities – as well as sudden changes – that do make up so much of Turkish history. The Ottoman Empire, Stone tells us, initially saw itself as an inheritor of both the Seljuk Turk and Byzantine Greek traditions. Until the conquest of Constantinople in 1453, for example, the Ottomans had thrived as a cavalry-based nomadic “military empire” in the Seljuk tradition; indeed, the plan of the Topkapı Palace they built soon after the conquest – with its modest, low-rise pavilions and courtyards – deliberately imitates the tented headquarters of a nomadic Turkish chieftain. On the other hand, Mehmet II (the conqueror of Constantinople) spoke fluent Greek and was “in effect set upon retaking the eastern Roman Empire that Justinian had made great in the sixth century”. Sultans often made dynastic marriages of convenience with Byzantine princesses; and even the harem eunuch, an idea so beloved of the orientalist western European, was originally a Byzantine phenomenon, originating in the early Christian understanding that sex was the work of the Devil. There’s also the little-appreciated fact that, at the time of the conquest of Constantinople, the population of the Ottoman lands was still 75% Christian.

A more self-confidently “Ottoman” identity developed in the 15th century, particularly under Selim I (known to us rather unflatteringly as “the Grim”, though a more accurate translation of the Turkish “Yavuz” is “stern” or “tough”). His capture of much of the Arab peninsula – in particular the Holy Places of Mecca and Medina – inevitably made the Ottoman Empire more overtly Islamic, and it was during his reign that the Ottomans claimed the Islamic Caliphate from the withering Mameluke state in Egypt, (the Mamelukes themselves descended from Turks, brought to Egypt as slaves by the Ayyubid dynasty). It was also around this time that the Ottoman sultans would begin to emphasise splendour and grandiosity as their distinctive characteristic, adopting titles such as – amongst many others – “Marcher Lord of the Horizon” and “Shadow of God on Earth”. We associate this grandiosity with the apogee of Ottoman power, especially the long rule of Süleyman I (the Magnificent), which stretched from 1520-66. During Süleyman’s reign the empire won a series of blistering military victories, and the Ottoman territories reached their largest extent: it could be argued that the Ottomans were, for a time, the most powerful force on the globe. Süleyman wasn’t just a charismatic general of genius, however, but also a formidable organiser of the state machine, and he is known in Turkey to this day as “Kanuni”, or “law-maker”. “Süleyman’s reign”, Stone writes admiringly, “mark[s] a synthesis of empire: Rome for the law and organization, Islam for the inspiration, Central Asia for the military”. Nevertheless, things were set to change. It’s true that a light burns brightest in the moments before it becomes extinguished, but what happened to the Ottoman Empire after the age of Süleyman wasn’t so much a swift extinguishing, but rather an extraordinarily drawn-out decline, lasting until the 20th century. This decline is usually claimed to start at the disastrous siege of Vienna in 1683, which not only resulted in defeat but also prompted an enormous Christian counter-offensive in the European Ottoman territories. Symbolic though the siege may be, in reality the rot had started long before.

Stone poses a central question at the beginning of the book, which any historian of the Ottoman Empire must take seriously: “To what extent was the success of the Ottomans based on Islam, or would you read this the other way round, and just say that the Ottomans were successful when their Islam was not taken too seriously?” You needn’t necessarily answer this question entirely one way or the other. It is true, however, that hand in hand with the long decline of the Ottoman Empire went an Islamic intellectual retrogression, symbolised by the 18th century closure of mathematics and engineering schools and the broader atrophying of scientific enquiry. It’s also true that, throughout its existence, the Ottoman Empire depended not only on taxes levied on non-Muslim minorities to maintain its impressive bureaucratic machine, but also on minorities for the bulk of those conscripted into the elite Janissary guards, and even for Grand Viziers (who often held the real power, as opposed to their often ineffective sultans). The tolerance that the Ottoman Empire extended to its religious minorities, however imperfect, was truly remarkable, and certainly compares favourably with the record of contemporary European regimes. Indeed, when the Jews were expelled from the Iberian Peninsula in the early 16th century as part of the Inquisition in Spain, most were welcomed and resettled on Ottoman lands by then-sultan, Bayezid II, who dryly reflected: “You venture to call Ferdinand a wise ruler, he who has impoverished his own country and enriched mine!” It’s a good thing that he did too, as Christians and Jews increasingly kept the Ottoman economy going over the 18th and 19th centuries, inevitable when Islam forbade the earning of interest on debts. The “capitulations” – favourable terms offered to foreigners (enterprising Europeans) to do business in Ottoman territory – also gradually came to symbolise the increasing stranglehold in which the western European powers began to hold the Ottomans. Initially intended as a sensible method to stimulate trade with outsiders (the product of a self-confident and outward-looking state machine), they eventually came to be seen as humiliating terms which the Europeans exploited to gain further leverage over the declining eastern power. The Ottomans didn’t feel able to abolish the capitulations until the First World War, when their empire became as reckless and destructive as great empires tend to do when staring down the barrel of extinction. (As an interesting footnote, Stone describes the abolition of the capitulations as coming from the same impulse that led to the notorious Wealth Tax on minorities of 1942, and the anti-Greek pogroms of 1955: the necessity of creating a “national bourgeoisie”, or functioning “Muslim commercial class”.)

Before publishing this book, Stone had already gained some notoriety for his contrarian views on the Armenian “incidents” of 1915-17, and there is no Damascene moment to report here. He characterises what happened to the Armenians as just one strand of a theme that was common throughout the Ottoman lands in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. At around the same time as the Turks were massacring Armenians, for example, Muslims were themselves being forcibly expelled and subject to atrocities in the Balkans and the Caucasus. For their part, Greeks and Armenians were each also committing their own crimes against Muslim Turks. Framing the matter this way, and puzzling over how the Christian minorities have so monopolised historical sympathy, Stone seems think that the Turks’ only problem is one of PR. It was the same story, he argues, during the 19th century, when Greeks and Turks traded barbarities on the Aegean and liberal British sympathy – dazzled by the fashionable romantic Hellenism of the time – sided with the Greeks. “Genocide” is an unsuitable word for something that was, in reality, a far more ambiguous shade of grey. If what happened to the Armenians is genocide – Stone says – then so too is what was visited upon the Muslim population of the Balkans and in the territories of the Russian Empire.

It’s true that crimes against the Muslims of the Ottoman Empire receive comparatively little attention from western historians, and Stone is right to highlight them. But what happened to the Armenians really was something altogether different, and of an altogether different magnitude. Comparisons with Nazi Germany won’t do, but it’s an indisputable fact that hundreds of thousands of Armenians did die. “Deportations” is a suitably vague term to describe the deliberate massacre of many, the accidental death of some, and the forced resettlement of many others. The debate will continue (perhaps “rage on” is a more suitable term) as to the motives and effects of Ottoman policy in eastern Anatolia. There’s surely no doubt, however, that the emptying of all significant Christian minorities from Turkish lands was indeed considered convenient by the Young Turk regime – whether all the killings were deliberate or not – and it set about achieving this by whatever means necessary. Does Stone honestly believe that what happened was a legitimate response to Armenian terrorist activity, as he suggests here? Nationalism gripped all sections of Ottoman society during the 19th and 20th centuries. Perhaps the greatest mistake of the Armenians was in embracing their own with such enthusiasm, despite the fact that in no Ottoman province did the Armenian population ever constitute a majority.

Stone, in his enthusiasm to testify as witness for the Turkish defence against the genocide allegations, no doubt goes much too far; and he does the same elsewhere. In the preface he makes the bizarre assertion that it’s “not really for an outsider to comment” on the state of contemporary Turkish politics. Perhaps this argument makes more sense when you’re Professor in the History department of Ankara’s Bilkent University, as Stone currently is. Would he say the same about the United States, I wonder? If not, would he not then be guilty of the same kind of relativism that he’s doubtless (correctly) critical of elsewhere? The claim seems doubly odd, when – despite professing to “resolutely refrain from doing so” – Stone does, in fact, go on to make a number of extremely contentious pronouncements about modern Turkey. Shorn of the Kurds, we’re blithely told, the country would become “a Greece and perhaps even a sort of late Byzantium”, whatever that means. Almost as bafflingly, the military coup of 1980 – as a result of which 650,000 were arrested, countless tortured or killed, and the seeds sown for the future bloody Kurdish conflict – is limply presented to us as “the most interesting of all Turkey’s coups” in which “the casualties were very few in number”.

The chapters on the modern Turkish Republic thus make for a curiously hollow read. Perhaps what Stone meant when suggesting that “it’s not for an outsider to comment” was really “it’s not really for an outsider to criticise”. In which case, more’s the pity. As Kant rightly observed, you show a friend most respect by adopting a policy of sensitive but unswerving honesty, trusting that they are mature enough to respond to such honesty with dignity and equanimity. If Stone had recognised this, his observations on Turkish history – particularly the more recent – would have carried more weight.

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