How do you feel when you wake up in a strange bed in a strange house? A little disoriented, yeah? You’re probably confused at first, then you start to look for ways to make sense of your new surroundings – based on your own previous experience of what’s normal, and the new reality in which you find yourself. Whether your new construct tends more to the former or the latter probably depends a lot on how often you’ve had to go through this process before. Certainly you’ll appreciate any guidance you may be offered by friendly locals.
I’m trying to keep an open mind here. A friend loaned me ‘Turkish Awakening’ and I felt a twinge of kindred spirit with an author whose name so resembled my own. On the positive side, I can tell you that Ms Scott writes very lucidly and well, and offers some interesting insights into a country sadly misunderstood by outsiders.
On the other hand, if you really want to understand the modern Republic of Turkey, you possibly need to give some thought to where Ms Scott is coming from. Her author blurb in the book sounds ingenuous enough. She was born in London in 1987 to a Turkish mother and British father and studied classics at Oxford University. After graduating in 2009 ‘she worked in London as an assistant director in theatre and opera before moving to Istanbul in January 2011, where she now works as a freelance journalist for the British press’. Her stated aim was ‘to discover what it means to be Turkish in a country going through rapid change.’
In her introduction, she informs us ‘It is not an intentionally political book’ – which may or may not be true. It is a rare writer, however, whose political beliefs do not colour his or her writings, and Ms Scott has not hesitated to nail her political colours to the mast. The first sentence of the book tells us that the young lady ‘had nearly finished writing this book when the Gezi Park protests broke out in Istanbul at the end of May 2013.’ If that is indeed the case, she must have engaged in a fairly major and somewhat hurried rewrite, because not a chapter goes by without frequent reference to those protests and her interpretation of what they mean for the country.
If you do the calculations, Ms Scott was 24 years old when she moved to Turkey, having graduated from university two years previously. Her degree major and work experience do not seem especially to qualify her for a career in journalism, yet not only are her articles published in the Guardian and the New Statesman, but also in an interesting online news site Politico, and seem to have crossed the Atlantic to the American Newsweek. Maşallah! as they say in Turkey.
Well, it’s possible that her freelance writing was sufficiently lucrative to finance extensive travels over the length and breadth of Turkey, staying long enough in each place to get a feel for the local culture and conduct interviews with the people. It is also possible that Ms Scott’s youthful enthusiasm and writing talents have been harnessed by more sinister forces. Politico Europe went online this year with the stated aim of becoming ‘the dominant politics and policy publication in Europe’. It was established ‘as a joint venture between US-based political published Politico and Berlin-based Axel Springer AG. Politico is a political journalism organization based in Arlington County, Virginia, that covers the issues, ideas and personalities behind politics and policy in the United States and in the global arena. The Axel Springer company is the largest publishing house in Europe and controls the largest share of the German market for daily newspapers; 23.6%.’ (Source: The Guardian)
‘Turkish Awakening’ is touchingly dedicated ‘Anneciğime’ – ‘To My Dear Mother’ in Turkish. That’s very sweet, but I’m curious about Ms Scott’s boyfriend, who features often in the text and obviously accompanied her on her fact-finding travels – yet isn’t identified by a specific mention in her dedication or acknowledgements. Is he Turkish? Does that explain why Ms Scott was able to travel so easily around the country interviewing locals? From her own admission, she couldn’t even pronounce her own Turkish name correctly when she arrived in the country at the beginning of 2011 (despite having been brought up by that Turkish Cypriot mother, and non-English-speaking grandmother) – yet two years later she had travelled to all corners of the country conducting interviews in colloquial Turkish with natives and taxi drivers from Istanbul to the Arab border and north to the Black Sea, and written this book.
Well, she is a classics grad from Oxford, so clearly is a clever young lady – but still, that’s an impressively rapid progression from zero to advanced competence in a language not generally considered easy for English-speakers. At the same time, judging from the articles she has had published in Newsweek, she also managed to research big-game hunting in Zimbabwe, and spend time in a refugee camp on the outskirts of Vienna.
Apart from the mother who gave her daughter a Turkish name but failed to teach her how to pronounce it, it’s easy to miss the other people who assisted in the compilation of this book, tucked away, as they are, in a brief afterthought of ‘Acknowledgements’ between the final page of the text and the very scholarly index. None of the names are identified in any way (boyfriend, proof-reader, British Ambassador etc) that might give us some clue as to how these people contributed to the project – so that obliges a curious reader, me for instance – to do their own research.
Two of the nine personally acknowledged have the surname Reddaway, one of whom, Alex, seems to get two mentions in the brief 80-word paragraph – so it’s possible he is the mysterious boyfriend. The other, Sir David, has quite an ‘Internet presence’, which makes interesting reading. He is a British diplomat like his father before him, having served in Iran, India, Spain, Argentina, Afghanistan, Canada and Ireland. Strangely, his previous experience in Iran, his fluency in Farsi and his Iranian wife didn’t impress the Iranian government, who rejected him as British ambassador to Teheran in 2002. The Wikipedia entry says “some Iranian newspapers (incorrectly) accused him of being ‘a Jew and a member of MI6’”. The sentence seems to say that Reddaway is neither a Jew nor a member of MI6, thereby implying that the rejection was just a capricious act of provocation by the Teheran government. Other sources suggest that the Iranians considered Reddaway to be a Zionist supporter (not actually a Jew); and there seems good evidence to suggest that he was, or had been a member of MI6. He was implicated in Wikileaks revelations that Turkey’s and some other delegations had been spied on by the British government at the 2009 G8 gathering in London.
While following leads on this gentleman, I chanced on an article entitled ‘The Reddaways: Britain’s Answer to Cambridge’s “Ring of Five” Spies’. The writer provides some fascinating background on Sir David Reddaway’s father Norman whose ‘first big assignment at the Foreign Office was to help Christopher Mayhew institute the Information Research Department (IRD), an agency designed to spread black propaganda throughout the world.’ Two of the IRD’s important achievements during the 1960s were, allegedly, orchestrating the overthrow of Iraq’s leader, General Qasim, and President Sukarno of Indonesia.
Qasim had led a military coup in 1958 that eliminated the Iraqi ‘royal family’, a puppet regime installed by Britain after the First World War. Qasim’s government had expelled foreign military (viz. British and US) from the country, made overtures to the Soviet Union, and threatened to nationalize Iraq’s oil industry. Britain and the USA denied involvement in his ousting, but . . .
Sukarno was a nationalist hero whose left wing, anti-imperialist policies made him unpopular with the Western Alliance. He was also overthrown by military intervention in 1967.
What has all this got to do with Alev Scott and her book about Turkey, you may ask. Well, the Turkish Republic has a chequered history of military coups ousting democratically elected governments – three times between 1960 and 1980, plus the post-modern bloodless coup of 1997. The country has experienced its longest period of political and economic stability since the AK Party of Tayyip Erdoğan won its first election in 2002. There is no doubt in my mind, however, that, had they not pre-empted it by rounding up a large number of high-ranking military officers, various academics and journalists in the so-called Ergenekon and Balyoz trials, they themselves would have been forcibly removed from office – and Mr Erdoğan would very likely have found himself back in prison.
There are many who believe that the CIA and NATO’s undercover Gladio operation were involved behind the scenes in those earlier takeovers. It is also probably true that the governing powers in the USA do not love Mr Erdoğan. His government, while having no local oil industry to nationalize, has been just a little too independent in its foreign policy, I suspect, refusing to get involved in George Dubya’s Iraq invasion, publicly criticizing Israel for its state terrorism in Palestine, and dragging its feet in the new US-led alliance against ISIS.
Ms Scott denies that her book is ‘intentionally’ political, which perhaps leaves her a legal ‘out’ – but the single cohesive thread running through it seems to be an unreasonably strong dislike for Mr Erdoğan and the AK Party government of Turkey. I say ‘unreasonable’ because the young lady is really a foreigner, with no serious attachment to the country, and focusing on the AK Party government rather locks her book into the present moment, and invites the fate of irrelevance when they are replaced by a new team.
Two other names featuring in the book’s acknowledgements are Andrew Boord and Roger Scruton. Again, no clue as to who they are and how they helped. However, I can tell you that Mr Boord is reputed to be a key man in Istanbul’s Anglican community, and owner of a company called Enver Borlu Business Consultancy services. According to his online bio, ‘In 1986 he began his career in Turkey as a lecturer at the Banking and Insurance Institute at Marmara University, Istanbul, while pursuing parallel freelance projects in journalism and business consultancy. In 1992, he was appointed special advisor to the Chairman of a leading Turkish multinational corporation . . . expanded his activities in political and risk analysis, and political lobbying for Turkey at the highest levels, and was granted citizenship of Turkey in 1997 while working for a prominent Member of Parliament with high level responsibilities on such bodies as the Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Commission. He was instrumental in the establishment of a successful political and corporate advisory company in Brussels in the year 2000.’
Wow! Another whiz kid, for sure. Straight out of Oxford University (1985, BA) into a lecturing position in Istanbul’s Marmara University. Interests in banking, big business, government, and Brussels. Became a citizen of Turkey in 1997 (retaining his UK citizenship I assume) at a very insecure time in the country’s recent history. Before or after the post-modern military coup, I wonder?
Roger Scruton – an elderly academic philosopher who has written a number of books, particularly as a champion of global conservatism. According to Wikipedia ‘Scruton first embraced conservatism during the student protests of May 1968 in France. Nicholas Wroe wrote in The Guardian that Scruton was in the Latin Quarter in Paris at the time, watching students overturning cars to erect barricades, and tearing up cobblestones to throw at the police. “I suddenly realized I was on the other side. What I saw was an unruly mob of self-indulgent middle-class hooligans. When I asked my friends what they wanted, what were they trying to achieve, all I got back was this ludicrous Marxist gobbledegook. I was disgusted by it, and thought there must be a way back to the defence of western civilization against these things. That’s when I became a conservative. I knew I wanted to conserve things rather than pull them down.”’
Fair enough – but given Alev Scott’s enthusiastic support for the anti-government demonstrations in Turkey during 2013, which many at the time compared to events in Paris in 1968, it’s surprising to see her acknowledge Scruton’s contribution to her book. She constantly refers to Turkey as a Middle East country, and an emerging economy, yet in her analysis insists on judging it by the standards of her own privileged life in post-modern, post-industrial England.
Through a longish life I have developed a deep-seated mistrust of politicians – but I am not one of those commentators, amateur and professional, who ascribe all of Turkey’s problems to one man, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and refuse to give him credit for any of the positive transformations that the country has undergone in the first decades of the 21st century.
When I first came to Istanbul in the mid-1990s, there were regular and lengthy power and water outages. Now there aren’t. The Golden Horn was like an open sewer. Now it isn’t, and people are once again swimming in beaches around the city. Inflation was, and had been for many years, running at 50-100%. Weak coalition governments seemed to come and go every few months. Turkey’s secular first woman prime minister was accused of large-scale corruption and formed a coalition with the overtly Islamic party of the day – subsequently ejected by that post-modern military intervention in 1997. In 2001 the Turkish Lira halved in value overnight, reaching an incredible 1,700,000 to the $US. Within two years, the AK Party government was able to knock six zeroes off the currency and keep it that way. Ms Scott writes of unregulated construction in the last two decades. In fact Istanbul’s huge growth spurt began in the 1960s when the population was less than two million. Now population growth has slowed and there are some signs of urban planning, and building and zoning regulations in a city of more than 15 million.
I agree that taxes on petrol and alcohol are too high. On the other hand, the alcoholic beverages market has blossomed in recent years. The wine sector has grown and diversified, there are now many varieties of the local spirit, rakı, and beer is comfortably sipped in outdoor cafes in many parts of Istanbul. Certainly some controls have been applied to advertising, and drinking in public places – but no more so than in the alcohol-loving nations of Australia and New Zealand.
Whatever threats Orhan Pamuk may have received in response to his support for accusations of Armenian genocide, the literary gentleman was never imprisoned, or even punished, and now, not only spends time openly in this country, but has established a ‘museum’ in trendy Cihangir to publicise his works of fiction.
Well, I did start out with the intention writing a review of ‘Turkish Awakening’ – but like Ms Scott, perhaps, my intention morphed as I began to write. The misgivings I felt while reading the book turned to more serious concerns. Possibly my suspicions are unfounded, but I do urge you to keep your critical faculties on the alert if you decide to outlay the rather hefty cover price on a copy of your own.
Turkish Awakening, A Personal Discovery of Modern Turkey, Alev Scott (Faber & Faber, 2014)