Turkey is a difficult country to get a handle on. Citizens themselves don’t find it easy. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who founded the Republic in 1923, is credited with uttering many wise words for the guidance of his people. Among the best known: “Happy is the one who says, ‘I am a Turk.’” He was a wise man, that Mustafa Kemal. He knew he needed to foster a spirit of Turkish nationalism that would inspire a war-weary people to fight once more for the survival of their country. He was equally aware that ‘Turkishness’ was not an easy concept to define, but he wanted to encourage the same feelings of patriotism others invoke when they say, ‘I’m Australian’, ‘I’m British’, or whatever. Try to define any of those words, however, and you may soon find yourself in difficulties. Possibly it’s enough to say ‘I’m American’ and believe it in your heart, without having to provide specific details of your personal creed and ethnic origins.
For that reason, I guess, it’s pretty nigh impossible for outsiders to grasp what is that makes an American or a Turk what he or she is – but of course that doesn’t stop us from trying, and often falling into the trap of stereotyping. In the opening years of the 21st century the Republic of Turkey seems to have emerged as an influential figure in international affairs, with a (sometimes disturbing) will of its own – so it’s not surprising that more attempts are being made to understand what makes Turkey tick.
I’ve just been reading a book review clipped from the New York Times and sent to me by an American friend. The book is ‘Midnight at the Pera Palace – The Birth of Modern Istanbul’ by Charles King, reviewed by Jason Goodwin – and it happens that I have books by both writers on my shelves at home. Mr Goodwin is a Cambridge-educated historian and novelist who clearly has a fascination for the old days of the Ottoman Empire. I haven’t read his novels – the book in my collection is ‘Lords of the Horizons’, a history of the Ottoman saga that begins in the third millennium BCE in the steppes of Central Asia and ends in 1923 when the last Ottoman Sultan is smuggled on board a British warship and spirited away from an empire that has ceased to exist.
Charles King is probably a more committed historian, Professor of International Affairs and Government at Georgetown University, Washington DC, an institution, Wikipedia informs me, that is the oldest Jesuit and Catholic university in the United States. Feeling a need to learn about a mysterious region that attracts media attention from time to time, I purchased Prof. King’s ‘The Ghost of Freedom – A History of the Caucasus’, which I found both readable and immensely informative.
So I have nothing against either of these gentlemen. I respect their scholarship, writing skills and interest in helping outsiders, especially in the West, to gain better understanding of distant lands and people that continue to influence world affairs. I was, however, somewhat disappointed to find significant errors of fact and misleading statements of opinion in the review which I hope were not sourced from Prof. King’s new book.
Jason Goodwin does concede that Istanbul (and possibly by extension, Turkey) ‘is a rare blend of Islam and democracy’, but he can’t resist beginning his review with reference to the so-called ‘Gezi Park’ demonstrations of 2013. While distancing himself with the use of phrases like ‘many people felt’ and ‘Some suspected’, he manages to work in the one-sided opinion that a dictatorial government and its leader were using police violence to enforce their ‘narrow ends’ on a peace-loving population.
Well, he’s entitled to his views, although as a ‘historian’ one might expect him to be a little more objective – not to say knowledgeable. ‘Constantinople,’ he says in his review, ‘as Istanbul was known in the 1930s.’ Known to who? Even followers of popular music in the USA would be aware that it was ‘Istanbul, not Constantinople.’ and had been for nearly five centuries. And a quick glance at Wikipedia would inform the reviewer that the Pera Palace Hotel was built a good forty years earlier, in 1892, in a district not ‘decimated by fire’ (whatever that means) but even today characterized by an abundance of spectacular 19th century architecture.
Goodwin’s most outrageous sentence would have to be the one where he says that ‘Muslims [were] outnumbered, by one estimate, 15 to one’ in First World War Istanbul. According to 1914 census figures, Muslims in Istanbul numbered 560,434 out of a total population of 909,978 – ten times more than the figure that reviewer’s unreferenced ‘estimate’ would yield. Possibly he is thinking of just the Pera/Galata area on the northern shore of the Golden Horn where traders, ambassadors and other migrants from Europe had been allowed for centuries to take up residence in this ‘City of the World’s Desire’. If so, he should certainly know better. The real Istanbul, even Constantinople, was located on the other shore, enclosed by the walls of the ancient city, and reserved for citizens of the Empire – Muslims, Jews, Armenians and Orthodox Christians.
Goodwin suggests that Professor King’s book tells stories ‘the Erdoğans [referring to Turkey’s President] of today would gladly leapfrog’, and it may well be that the book contains anecdotes and historical asides that are not well known. Leon Trotsky, referred to as ‘Istanbul’s most famous interwar Russian guest’ is said to have preferred Germany, Britain or France. In fact the exiled Russian revolutionary did spend four years on an island off the coast of Istanbul before being granted a visa to live in France. He was, however, never permitted to enter Paris, and was eventually asked to leave the country. Subsequently he spent a brief period in Norway before moving to Mexico where we was assassinated in 1940 on the orders of Josef Stalin. He might have been better advised to remain in Istanbul.
I’m inclined to think that Turkey’s current leaders are more knowledgeable about their county’s history than Mr Goodwin would have you believe. They would certainly know, for instance, that the Treaty of Lausanne (signed in 1923) had very little to do with World War I. It was, in fact, an agreement reluctantly accepted by Western powers after the Greek invasion of Anatolia (that they had sponsored) was defeated by Turkish nationalists fighting for their country’s very existence. They would also know that those same Western powers had been manipulating the ‘Eastern Question’ with the use of ‘ethnic labels’ long before the Lausanne agreement was signed. Those powers had been talking about ‘Turkey’ and ‘Turks’ for centuries before that country came into existence and those people had any sense of national identity; encouraging Greek nationalism for at least a hundred years, and Armenians for fifty, with the aim of splintering the multinational Ottoman Empire from within.
In his book, according to Jason Goodwin, Professor King compares Kemal Ataturk and his republican nationalists to the Bolsheviks in Russia with their ‘show trials, massacres and expulsions.’ If he did indeed make such a comparison, I am disappointed in the learned writer whose work on the Caucasus I found so interesting and informative. Surely he knows that the Bolsheviks were insurrectionists who, rightly or wrongly, overthrew their own legally constituted government, while the Turks had to fight and drive out invading enemies that had occupied their capital city, virtually enslaved their sultan and his ministers, and were intent on dividing the country amongst themselves. I am sure he must know that ‘Turkey’ had long provided asylum for Muslim refugees driven from neighbouring regions by Christian aggressors. Christian citizens, rather than being expelled from the new Republic of Turkey, were exchanged for Muslims from Greece – their situation having become untenable because of their jubilation over the above-mentioned invasion.
Well, as our reviewer concedes at last, the story of Istanbul is ‘complex and highly nuanced’, and (this he does not say) historians, like the rest of us, tend to view the world through the filters that lie behind their eyes. Possibly a double-filter is at work here, and Professor King’s work of scholarship has been misrepresented by a reviewer whose Orientalist nostalgia for a land of mystique and intrigue, of exotic harem slave-girls and omnipotent but mentally unhinged sultans immured in gilded cages has prevented him from following the last ninety years of Turkey’s development. Probably I should set aside the review and let Professor King speak for himself.
What worries me, however, is that others may not do this, mistaking the messenger for the message itself. This is all the more likely when there are Turkish nationals contributing to the distortion of their country’s image abroad. Killing time at the airport the other day waiting for my wife to return from a visit to the USA, I picked up a copy of the New York Times. Among other interesting bits and pieces, I chanced on a brief item announcing ‘US Warns of Attack in Turkey’. According to the article, an official US source had suggested that unspecified extremists might be planning an attack on the headquarters of a group opposing the beleaguered Syrian government of Bashar al Asad. The item went on to inform us that the group is based in the city of Gaziantep ‘near the Syrian border’ and contained the following intriguing sentence: ‘The statement, issued by the United States Embassy in Ankara, did not name the supposed planners of the attack, including the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, which has been active along Turkey’s 560 mile border with Syria.’ Huh?
Well, first of all I’m wondering why a New York newspaper has to run an article about a vague possible threat to supporters of a civil war thousands of kilometres and an Atlantic Ocean away from downtown Manhattan. But leave that aside. How does the writer justify making a connection, in the same sentence, between unnamed planners, and ISIS or ISIL, the latest in a long line of Islamic bogeymen bringing terror to the West? Why do Western ‘news’ sources insist on referring to Turkey’s government as ‘pro-Islamic? They never seem to feel a similar need to label the US government pro-Roman Catholic, or pro-Zionist despite compelling evidence that it is.
Interestingly, the by-line of this item links it to a woman in Istanbul with the distinctively Turkish name of Şebnem Arsu. She quotes a spokesman from the Economic Policy Research Foundation in Ankara saying ‘the US has intelligence operations all along Turkey’s borders. They must have gathered information that pointed at risks that can’t be dismissed.’ As for me, I’m not convinced those US intelligence gatherers would have the degree of fluency in the Arabic, Turkish and Kurdish languages necessary to operate in the region with greater efficiency than local spooks – but maybe I am underestimating US resources. Be that as it may, it is once again clear that, if you want to gain a better understanding of the modern Republic of Turkey, you’d do well to double check anything you read in the New York Times.