Touching Down in Turkey – Surprises for a Western visitor

When I first came to Turkey in 1995, I knew little about the country. In fact, that is not entirely true. As a New Zealander, I had grown up with the stories of the Gallipoli campaign, that bloody sideshow of the First World War, which cost so many lives and achieved so little. Brought up in a church-going family, I was well-versed in the scriptures and gospels, especially the epistles of Paul to the churches of ancient Christendom. As a student of a model English grammar school, I spent five years studying Latin and the achievements and culture of the Roman Empire. Being a reader, and having an interest in history, I knew, of course, of the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires. I had even heard of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, and somewhere or other had come across the modern Turkish alphabet, a deceptively familiar yet not-quite-accessible version of our Latin-based one, with its peculiar accent marks and unexpected cedillas. My studies of 19thcentury European history had familarised me with ‘The Eastern Question’ and ‘The Sick Man of Europe’, and my readings of Shakespeare had mixed ominous references to the ‘heathen Turk’ with the folk culture that embodied names like Gengiz and Attila with a power of evil beyond the capacity of mere words.
Model English grammar school
Yet I had no concept of the country that is the modern Republic of Turkey. I had all these snippets of knowledge buzzing around in what I liked to think of as my world-view. But I had no unifying idea that they all occurred within the boundaries of that little known and little understood nation on the back-doorstep of Europe.
Perhaps it was to my advantage that I came from a country far from the fast-lanes of geopolitics. There was no visible Turkish diaspora in New Zealand to imbue me with a prejudice against migrant workers. My prejudices were more deep-seated and subliminal, but nonetheless real, being part of the cultural baggage I carried as an educated product of an Anglo/Euro-centric system and culture.
Almost from the moment the wheels of my British Airways Boeing hit the tarmac at Atatürk Airport, I found these cultural assumptions challenged in ways that I had never imagined. In the thirteen years since then, while making a life for myself as a teacher of English in Turkey, I have continued to benefit from the mind-expanding shocks and jolts that strike the foreigner in this much-misunderstood land.
I remember looking at an atlas, on first coming to Turkey. It was quite a good atlas, a reputable publication which I had bought while reading Geography at Auckland University. I still have it, in fact, and I have counted twenty-one pages on the British Isles, ten pages on the US of A, and even little old New Zealand warrants a two-page spread. Interestingly, however, there is not one single page devoted to the modern Republic of Turkey, a country three times the size of New Zealand, or Great Britain, or Japan, and in population, second only to the united Germany among European nations.
It is a small thing, perhaps, and of no special significance. I’ve never been a fan of conspiracy theories. But again, I couldn’t help being puzzled when I learnt that the Turks celebrate 18 March as Victory Day in their Çanakkale War (what we know as the Gallipoli campaign). Hang on a minute!  We (ANZACs etc) didn’t even get there till 25 April! As educated adults, we need to feel confident that history has an objectivity that places it above partisan politics and racial stereotypes, so how to account for this major disparity of dates? In fact, as I intend to discuss in a later article, the Gallipoli landings were Plan B, made necessary because of the failure of Plan A. For the Turks, their success in turning back the Royal Navy from the Dardanelles was the more important part of the victory. For the British Empire, no doubt, that was a setback better consigned to the footnotes of history.
Historical events, dates and personages are one aspect of the construct of the world that we all carry with us. But there is another, less overt, perhaps more powerful force shaping our judgments of other peoples and races: the proverbial wisdom, folk knowledge and cultural assumptions that we inhale with the air of the society in which we grow up and receive our education. So Genghis Khan and Atilla the Hun have such a basic existence in the consciousness of Western minds that no knowledge of history is necessary to conjure up images of marauding barbaric hordes sweeping out of the Asian steppe, laying waste all in their path like an invasion of killer bees. When I learned that the principal of my school, a tall, distinguished-looking gentleman of scholarly bearing was called Genghis, it required in me a shift of mental gears. Hearing also that Atilla was the name of that polite, hand-raising, homework-doing young lad in my year 9 class was a further surprise for which my Euro-centric upbringing had not prepared me.
I would like to share some of the experiences I have had since I first came to this surprising country, and some of the eye-opening knowledge that has come my way, bringing me to a better understanding of a place that has become my second home.
Among the topics I intend to cover are:
  • The Ancient Treasures of Turkey – what was there, and where is it now?
  • Çanakkale / Gallipoli – There are two sides to even the best-known stories.
  • The Fall of Constantinople – and the clash of civilizations.
  • The Turk through the ages – that bad press goes back a long way!
  • Benevolent dictators – could there ever be such a thing? And did Turkey have one?
  • Cyprus – what are the Turks doing there anyway?
  • The origins of Christianity – divine revelation and political expediency.
  • The Fall of the Roman Empire – what actually happened when the barbarians came roaring through?

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    3 thoughts on “Touching Down in Turkey – Surprises for a Western visitor

    1. Dear Alan,
      You’ve always been a great writer, and I promise to be a loyal reader. Reading about a foreigner ( not so foreign anymore) views on Turkey is very interesting.

      Betti

    2. Hi Alan,

      I am so glad you started this! I can’t wait to find out about all these issues, and feel a little sheepish for not knowing as much about Turkish history as you do! 🙂

      Best wishes,

      Perin

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