February 24, 2017
Ulaş Tol joins to discuss his report “Urban Alevism and Young Alevis’ Search for Identity,” written for the PODEM think tank.
Download the episode or listen below.
Turkey Book Talk listeners can get a 33% discount plus free delivery on four titles published by Hurst – “The Circassian: A Life of Eşref Bey, Late Ottoman Insurgent and Special Agent” by Benjamin Fortna, “The New Turkey and its Discontents” by Simon Waldman and Emre Çalışkan, “The Poisoned Well: Empire and its Legacy in the Middle East” by Roger Hardy, and “Out of Nowhere: The Syrian Kurds in Peace and War” by Michael Gunter. Follow this link to get that discount.
Finally, if you enjoy or benefit from the podcast and want to support it, click here to make a donation to Turkey Book Talk via Patreon!
Many thanks to my current supporters Özlem Beyarslan, Steve Bryant, Celia Jocelyn Kerslake and Aaron Ataman.
November 25, 2016
Kaya Genç returns to the Turkey Book Talk podcast. This time he joins to discuss his new book “Under the Shadow: Rage and Revolution in Modern Turkey,” which profiles young Turks from across the political spectrum.
Download the episode or listen below:
My review of the book will be appearing in the next couple of weeks in the Times Literary Supplement so keep your eyes peeled for that.
Here’s the episode from earlier this year with Kaya discussing “An Istanbul Anthology”, which he edited:
NB: If you like this podcast and want to support independent podcasting, click here to make a small or large monetary donation to Turkey Book Talk via Patreon.
Many thanks to current supporters Özlem Beyarslan, Steve Bryant, Celia Jocelyn Kerslake and Aaron Ataman.
January 9, 2016
Happy New Year!
First Turkey Book Talk pod of the year is with novelist Kaya Genç, the editor of “An Istanbul Anthology” (AUC Press), a new selection of classic writing on Istanbul by classic names including Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu.
Happily, I’ve finally picked up a decent mic so the podcasts should now be more listenable. Hooray!
And here’s my review of the book.
February 14, 2015
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.
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.
By now, the basics are well known. The mainstream Turkish media was found to be woefully inadequate when it came to reporting the enormous anti-government protests that recently erupted across the country. As Turks took to the streets to confront ruthless security forces armed with gallons of tear gas, pressurized water, tanks and batons, those still at home turned to TV news stations only to find nature documentaries and panel shows discussing liposuction.
It’s fair to say that the protests still ongoing across Turkey have not been the Turkish media’s finest hour. In fact, these events – perhaps more than any previously – have exposed for domestic and international observers just how compromised the Turkish media has become. (As many have observed, this comes with a bitter taste for Kurds, who ask why many now protesting did little when the Kurds were complaining about scant media coverage of their own troubles.) Ironically enough, the lack of TV coverage appears only to have inspired more protests. According to a Bilgi University survey among 3,000 young Gezi Park protesters, 84% cited muted media coverage as one of the main reasons for taking to the streets. This also explains the graffiti around Istanbul lambasting the “sold-out” media, the satirical memes circulating like wildfire on the internet, and the NTV broadcast van trashed and overturned in the middle of Taksim Square.
As is now well documented, where mainstream media failed, social media stepped in. It is estimated that more than 3,000 tweets per minute were sent about the protests after midnight on May 31; Twitter hashtags telling the Turkish media to do its job were trending worldwide, while CNN Türk was airing a documentary about penguins. This also resulted in large demonstrations being organised outside the Habertürk and NTV offices in the following days, which, in a grim irony, NTV ended up reporting on.
Indeed, Twitter became the only place to go to for information (and disinformation) as events unfolded; exposing the enormous chasm that now exists between independent new media and the toothless media corporations in Turkey. While this was no real revelation, (the same happened after the Uludere/Roboski massacre in December 2011, when live tweeters at the scene bypassed and shamed the established media groups), the scale of the awareness that the latest events stirred is unprecedented. Reflecting the government’s frustration at being unable to do much about what gets posted online, Erdoğan described social media as a “trouble” full of “unmitigated lies” (if he was referring to the deluded Twitter ramblings of Ankara Mayor Melih Gökçek he may have had a point). One day later, Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arınç declared that the government “could have shut down Internet access, but didn’t.” Still, there were other ways for the government to make its point, as 33 protesters were detained in the western city of İzmir for tweets they had posted.
Turkey-watchers are familiar with the country’s chronic press freedom problems. One of the root causes is related to the ownership structures of Turkish media companies, which opens them up to political pressure, an issue that Yavuz Baydar repeatedly – and convincingly – returns to. One small example of this which I didn’t see anyone else pick up on came with a report, released in April, by respected think-tank the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV), titled “Policy Suggestions for Free and Independent Media in Turkey.” The report was thorough and fair, particularly focusing on the crippling conflict of interest that comes when major media outlets are owned by large holding companies involved in other sectors. Although the report was covered by the Gülen-affiliated Zaman newspapers, no newspapers from the Doğan Media Group (owned by billionaire Aydın Doğan – perhaps Exhibit A of the above problem) – Hürriyet, its English language arm Hürriyet Daily News, or Radikal – mentioned it.
With the large media companies so obviously unfit to perform their Fourth Estate function, the focus is shifting to new online independent media. Along with the agenda-setting Twitter, the website T24 has also developed quite a reputation in providing brave, reliable, independent reporting. Veteran journalist Hasan Cemal, for example, after being controversially fired by daily Milliyet, was taken on by T24 and has since written a series of articles based on time spent with the retreating Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) rebels in southeast Turkey, including an interview with military head of the PKK, Murat Karayılan. The Demirören Holding-owned Milliyet would not touch such a daring project. Freely-available online and with little advertising, I’m not sure how T24 is actually funded (if anybody does, please do let me know), or whether it’s a viable long-term model for more serious journalism in Turkey, bypassing the established news organisations. Still, with mainstream media having so thoroughly discredited itself throughout the Gezi Park protests, the void will have to be filled by something if Turkey is to become more democratic.
August 1, 2012
In May, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced to the Turkish media his desire to see a “giant” mosque built on Istanbul’s Çamlıca Hill. In his latest “crazy plan” for the city, Erdoğan said he wanted it to be a mosque that could “be seen from everywhere,” and declared that construction would begin within two months. Çamlıca is situated on the Asian side of the city, and despite currently being the site of a number of enormous television and radio reception towers, the hill is one of Istanbul’s few remaining green, unpopulated spaces. On June 8 the Environment and City Planning Ministry announced that a 250,000 square metre area on Çamlıca Hill had been identified for the project.
The Turkish press is predictably divided along secular/religious lines on the issue. There are, however, a few voices amongst government-supporting newspapers questioning the necessity of a mosque when there are no residents nearby for it to serve. Such objections miss the point that a new mosque on Çamlıca would undoubtedly afford TOKİ developers a golden opportunity to roll up their sleeves in the area(!)
Late in June, liberal daily Radikal featured an interview with Ahmet Turan Köksal, professor of architecture at Gaziantep’s Zirve University, to discuss modern tendencies in mosque-building and his thoughts on the Çamlıca plans. He is skeptical: “A mosque should be for the community, not for show. For me, being a mosque architect means only doing work that has a function for the community …. If they want to make a mosque like an Olympic stadium on Çamlıca Hill and want to show off to their friends and rivals, then I’m against this,” he said.
Nevertheless, at the beginning of July, Milliyet included an interview with architect “Hacı” Mehmet Güler, who said he had been charged by the prime minister to make preparations for the new mosque. Güler said it would be designed in a “classical style,” and – in a fine example of “Muslim modesty” – that plans were being drawn up to have it feature the world’s tallest minarets, even surpassing those of the Mosque of the Prophet in Medina.
Following this interview, the issue seemed to fall off the agenda. It was thus quite a surprise to find a number of Turkey’s religion-friendly newspapers recently carrying advertisements announcing: “Çamlıca is searching for its architect!” The advertisements appeal to architects to submit their design ideas, in a competition to find an architect for the new mosque.
The competition opened on July 23, and will be accepting submissions until Sept. 3. According to the website of the organization in charge of the project – the rather clumsily named “Association to Build and Maintain Istanbul Mosques and Educational-Cultural Services” – the winning design will be “suitable for Istanbul’s silhouette and texture, reflect the Ottoman-Turkish style, extend traditions to the future, add value to Istanbul, and become one of Istanbul’s symbols.” The winner, the association has announced, will be awarded the honour of designing the ‘Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’ as yet unnamed mosque, as well as 300,000 Turkish Liras in prize money.
As declared in advertisements for the ruling AKP at the last parliamentary elections, alongside a picture of a vatic looking Erdoğan: “It was a dream, it came true!”
[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.
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.