[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.
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.
[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’.
January 7, 2012
A little while ago I came upon one of those old, forgotten, po-faced, unintentionally hilarious English-language travel guidebooks on Turkey. Simply called “Turkey”, it was published in 1963, written by a splendidly-named “Andre Falk”, surely one of the great travellers of Anatolia. I can only say that I wish today’s Lonely Planet guides were written like this.
Falk on Istanbul:
What is one to think of the local mosques, shapeless, dull and unimaginative, looking like asthmatic tortoises decorated by what might be pencils, rockets or phallic symbols?
The Golden Horn is not and probably never has been anything but a stagnant backwater, a sump full of floating vegetable waste at the foot of bare mounds.
The Grand Bazaar remains the biggest in the world, and probably was once the most exciting. But after numerous fires (its last layout dates from 1889 – the worst of periods) it is now the ugliest junk market to be found between East and West […] Let us move on. Everybody knows that the only places for decent shopping are in Rome and Paris…
It takes an effort of the imagination to realise that this ultra-modern city was created from nothing. You take it for granted that you can live there without contracting malaria.
A gypsy caravan rotting in the backyard of an air-conditioned government building: that is more or less the picture of Ankara.
There is little life in public places, nothing to invite you to stroll about after office hours. Severe, ill-paid officials lock up files of state secrets in their briefcases and hurry off along avenues named after flowers for a game of loto with a colleague from the next department. Suffering diplomats stifle a yawn over the bridge table while the ladies are eagerly engaged in gossip. At the municipal restaurant the din of the musical medleys annoys the secret service agents who are straining their ears to listen to the diners’ conversations. A city you must see, of course, but a brief visit is enough.
It is a harsh, even brutal land, where nature and man combine to form a scene of extraordinary harshness.
From north to south you find carelessness, absence of style and no attempt at elegance […] Concrete, disinfectant, prison smells, grey buildings with the paint peeling off, such are the provincial hotels revealing the bad workmanship put into them. The restaurants are like canteens and the dining rooms like feeding troughs.
When a Turk says no, he raises his eyebrow, throws his head back and gives you a stony stare, as if he would like to see you fall dead at his feet. Such behaviour does not make for easy relations between men, but at least it is clear.
His endurance and his lack of imagination make the Turkish infantryman a redoubtable soldier: ‘the most reliable and the most obedient in the world’, wrote T.E. Lawrence, who had fought him in Arabia […] To tell the truth, it is rather a terrifying sight meeting Turkish soldiers.
Fortunately rugby is unknown in Turkey, for it would turn to a massacre.
The higher reaches of Turkish society are probably, man for man, more brilliant than their western counterparts, and this is all to their credit, for the intellectual professions are meanly rewarded […] When you meet a professor, a librarian or a hospital doctor, you are greatly touched when you learn the real incomes of these disinterested men.
The humble folk of the Anatolian mountains and plains are capable of generous and sometimes touching hospitality toward those who know how to behave properly, or towards those in genuine distress. But such a welcome is always tinged with suspicion. The foreigner is no longer the undesirable he was, but they still do not want him and he is automatically suspect […] There is no doubt ample historical justification for this distrustful turn of mind. We will merely add that it does not ease the task of the traveller, who bears no responsibility for the Ottoman Debt and cannot tiptoe about for weeks on end, hoping to make people forget about the Treaty of Sevres.
A democratic politician speaks in different tones when addressing the Council of Europe to when in his constituency accusing the republican opponent of being uncircumcised.
On republican reforms:
Atatürk wanted to dress his Turks like Westerners. Apart from a slender few, all he did was to turn them into a lot of old tramps.
If revolutions have their necessities and progress has its demands, beauty still has its claims which one would like to see less disregarded by modern Turkey.
The effort to effect a complete revolution was asked for from the most conservative and static of peoples […] Left to himself, it seems, the Turk would only want to do one thing: remake his bed and go to sleep on it. Perhaps this is why, as soon as he gets home, the first thing he does is to don his house pyjamas.
They say quite rightly that the drivers of these boneshakers are good; the reason is simple, the others are all dead.
A plague on those archaists who dip their mandarins’ brushes in the pot of local colour and go off to the banks of the Ganges or the Nile to utter literary bleatings over the photogenic qualities of the squalid.
It is a frequent misfortune that when you reach your destination on a pilgrimage into the past all you find is fragments of pillars buried under weeds. The ideal journey is one which leaves you with the illusions of your imagination unbroken and arrives at no destination.
October 18, 2011
Over two weeks in September, the 5th Beyoğlu Antiquarian Book Fair was held in Tepebaşı. Luckily I had returned to Istanbul a few days before it had finished, so was able to take a look for myself. There were so many stalls taking part that it was almost overwhelming, and I did get that familiar ‘book fair fatigue’ after a while. Finding a century-old Ottoman newspaper in a dusty second-hand bookshop is a thrill, but when they come in hundreds the impact is somewhat attenuated. I did make one fine discovery though, an attractively dog-eared collection of early Republican-era Turkish nationalist poems. It was printed by the publishing arm of the legendary Turkish literary journal Varlık and, though undated, research suggests that it was probably published in the mid-1950s.
My Turkish is by no means advanced, but I’m always struck by how ostensibly simple it seems to translate snatches of Turkish poetry into English. Poems are generally
free of unwieldy, punctuation-less sentences of multiple subordinate and qualifying clauses, and this makes it “easy” for the non-advanced Turkish speaker to translate at least their surface meaning. So, flicking through the book one night, I decided to have a go at some from this collection, my first deliberate experiments in translation.
Overall it was a rewarding enterprise. The biggest challenge was undoubtedly posed by the surprising number of unfamiliar old Ottoman words and phrases that many of
these poems contained. Aside from converting the Turkish language wholesale from the Arabic to the Latin script, a systematic attempt to banish words of “foreign” origin was effected during the early years of the Turkish republic. Over time hundreds of such words, (mostly Arabic and Persian), gradually fell out of use in the name of ‘purifying’ Turkish and making it ‘fit’ for the modern world. It’s ironic that many of the poems in this collection still use a great many of these old terms, despite clearly sharing the positivist, modernising impulse to forge a modern language, purge foreign influence and celebrate the ‘authentically Turkish’. Even Kemal Atatürk’s speeches are understood with some difficulty by modern Turks, so radically has the language changed since his time. Many words that I came across in these poems – such as “hirfet” (small tradesman/artisan) or “huda” (a folksy word for God) – are now largely unknown in Turkey, and can’t be found in modern dictionaries. I would sometimes ask Turkish friends if they knew the meanings of words that gave me particular trouble, and most of the time they didn’t.
Nevertheless, I was certainly helped by more fundamental characteristics of the poems. Most are imbued with the straightforward, scientific, unfussy spirit of the early Republican era, so there were no tricksy literary devices to contend with. If there’s awkward phrasing, gauche poetic posturing, and inconsistency of tone, that may be down to the poems themselves rather than their neophyte translator(!) They’re far from classics but they do, I think, have some interest as historical artefacts.
Motherland – Ziya Gökalp
In the mosque the ezan is read in Turkish,
Peasants understand the meaning of their prayers.
In the school the Qur’an is read in Turkish,
Young and old, everyone knows God’s order
Oh Turkish son, your motherland is there!
There are no other eyes for our soil.
In every person the ideal is one, language, custom, religion is one
The parliament is clean, the traitors’ word is gone,
The frontier willingly gives life to its children;
Oh Turkish son, your motherland is there!
In the market, wealth has returned,
The path to art is shown by science.
The tradesmen protect one another;
Shipyards, factorys, boats, trains;
Oh Turkish son, your motherland is there!
My country – Cahit Külebi
I was born on your earth,
I took milk from my mother
From your fountains and fields,
My uncles, on your frontiers
Died fighting for you,
In your castle’s towers
I flew a kite.
In your valleys I grew grass.
I grew like a young plant
On your earth.
I joined great caravans
To your bigger cities
I went to learn,
Bandits cut off my way
They could find nothing to take.
On your earth
I played football, I loved, I thought
I made friends.
My days of sorrow
I wandered helpless on your streets.
My days of joy
I wandered in my mind.
My cry sounded slowly
On the cool blowing breezes
From your coasts
I followed the sea.
On your desolate, barren plains.
I travelled for days.
I cry for you!
I laugh for you;
You are like the honoured
Bread of life!
Clouds and Turkey – Macit Benice
My clouds, my dear clouds, stop wandering.
What is it, let’s go south together.
In the south I have villages waiting for rain.
My villagers open their hands to the sky.
My wind, my north wind blow.
We’re taking rain south, quick!
In the south the earth is cracked from sorrow,
In the south the vineyards, the gardens are roasted.
Can you hear the sound of the ezan?
My villagers left to pray on the hills.
Clouds run, winds blow,
Ah we’ll be late this time.
Here the burnt plains, here the thirsty villages.
The crops are still white, the seeds have fainted.
Rain, my clouds, rain without stopping;
Don’t stop, don’t stop, don’t stop rain!
When it rains it’s a lake, when it doesn’t a desert,
You’re honest, my clouds, forgive me.
I promise I’ll do your bidding,
I’ll open channels, your deep desires.
And one day I’ll invite you south
Once again for good days,
Clouds, remember me for four seasons,
My name: Turkey!
Motherland – Orhan Murat Arıburnu
From your sky I ate
From your sun I ate
From your fruit I ate
From your stone
From your earth I also ate.
When Your Cry Begins – Mehmet Emin Yurdakul
– To the nation’s martyrs -
Turk, your name is the loveliest sound in this world;
Your idea comes pure, all its meaning sacred;
Your heart’s emotion is the holiest love;
Your mind’s pain is the wildest fever.
When your cry begins; greed, malice, all else stops;
Love prepares the ground for your holy law;
Your cheeks shed painful tears of farewell;
In cradles, temples, in every corner you mourn.
At this time wise, ignorant, innocent, criminal, the whole nation;
With speeches, with poems, with prayers, with flags,
With gold, with iron, with fists, with fingernails…
Heroically serve your noble life;
And all your children, when giving their life, say: “Death is good fortune!”
To your self-sacrificing sons I offer one hundred thousand tributes.