Tales of Ottoman women – and a little revisionist history

Üsküdar on the Anatolian shore of the Bosporus is one of my favourite districts in Istanbul. I lived there for three or four years in a small apartment I bought before the current property boom began. For the money I paid I would have been lucky to buy a car parking space in downtown Auckland.

salacak view

Looking past the Maiden’s Tower to Hagia Sophia and Sultanahmet.

These days Üsküdar is rapidly moving up-market. Its ferry terminals despatch passengers to Beşiktaş, Eminönü and other parts of the city. It is a major station on the Marmara Metro line that dives through a tunnel under the Bosporus, linking “the two continents of Europe and Asia”, if you’re one who believes that Ancient Roman stuff – and a newer line heading out through this huge city’s Anatolian urban sprawl. It has possibly Istanbul’s most magnificent views – from here you can stroll along the Bosporus foreshore and watch the sun setting behind the domes and minarets of the city that served as capital of three major world empires.

The Üsküdar Municipal Council is a go-ahead team providing services to citizens rich and poor, while restoring its rich heritage of Ottoman buildings, constructing major new facilities such as sports and cultural centres, developing parks and open recreational spaces, and encouraging commercial projects.

Florence nightingale2

A little imperialist propaganda. Did she actually get to the battlefields?

Last week I spent a day strolling around my old haunts, bringing myself up-to-date on what’s going on in this fascinating district. In my primary school days we were told about the brave English nurse, Florence Nightingale, who cared for her empire’s soldiers wounded in the Crimean War back in the 1850s. We were never told why those imperial troops were over there fighting the Russians in Crimea. Much like the heroic horsemen of the Light Brigade, ours was not to reason why. Nurse Nightingale’s hospital was in Scutari – and after coming to Turkey I learned that was what Brits insisted on calling Ottoman Üsküdar.

It was a stubborn insistence, obstinately ignoring the fact that Üsküdar, and Istanbul itself, had been in Ottoman hands for 500 years. As you cross the Bosporus on your ferry, one of the many mosques you see was commissioned by Rum Mehmet Pasha, grand vizier of Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror in 1469 – four centuries before Ms Nightingale appeared on the scene.

According to official figures, there are 186 mosques in Üsküdar, a tribute to the district’s importance in the religious life of Istanbul’s Muslim community. I have a vivid memory of the first night I spent in my new apartment, woken at an unholy (in my opinion) hour before sunrise on a summer morning by a mind-numbing cacophony of sound from 186 muezzins competing, with the aid of electronic amplification via speakers attached to the tops of their minarets, for the attendance of the prayerful.

Well, it is not my intention to enter into a discussion about the religious ramifications of modern electronics. I am continually learning about the role Üsküdar has played in the life of local Muslims, and I find the subject endlessly enthralling. The final station on the Marmaray Metro line after Üsküdar is called “Ayrılıkceşmesi” – “The Fountain of Departure”. It was here the faithful gathered in bygone days before embarking on the long overland journey to the Holy City of Mecca, a pilgrimage all good Muslims are required to make at least once in their lifetime.

Cemevi

Karacaahmet Cemevi and tomb

High on the slopes between Üsküdar and the neighbouring district of Kadıköy lies the extensive cemetery of Karacaahmet. It is a vast necropolis, these days intersected by busy urban roads, but still providing an important oasis of oxygen-emitting trees for those yet alive in this vast urban conglomeration.

As I passed one entrance of the cemetery I noticed a conspicuous sign calling attention to the Karacaahmet Cemevi and tomb. In case you don’t know, a “cemevi” is a place of worship for followers of the Alevi sect. Alevis are an intriguing demographic in Turkey, making up between 10 and 20% of its people. That statistic in itself is thought-provoking, given Turkey’s 80 million population. Why such inaccuracy?

Modern Turkey is a nation of paradoxes, one of which is that, while its founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, established a secular republic, citizens are still required to state their religion and have it recorded on their official ID document. They don’t have to identify as Sunni Muslim or Alevi but Sunni is what most Turks are, at least in their cultural upbringing. Alevis, on the other hand, insofar as you can pin down their heterodox beliefs, adhere to the Shia branch of Islam – and have traditionally had an uneasy relationship with the Sunni majority. For that reason, I was surprised to see this cemevi so publicly announcing its presence. I had heard of its existence but never previously been able to locate it. I’m happy to see that, in spite of the antipathy many Alevi people seem to feel for the AK Party government, they are at least now able to identify themselves openly – as may not have been the case in the past.

Janissaries_Troops01_full

Janissaries – once a feared fighting force. Later more interested in political conservatism.

Then there was the tomb – of someone called Karaca Ahmet, and I just had to check him out. Well, it seems he was a famous Muslim mystic who lived back in the 13-14th centuries. He belonged to the Bektashi sect and was born in Khorasan, way to the east of modern Turkey, but came to Anatolia to bring the good news of Islam to the benighted Christians of the Byzantine Empire. At some later date, the Bektashis espoused Shia Islam and became influential in the military Janissary corps. After overthrowing a sultan or two, the Janissaries were forcibly disbanded by Mahmut II in the early years of the 19th century, and the Bektashis, along with all the mystical sects, were outlawed at the foundation of the republic in 1923. Subsequently it seems they set up shop in Albania, where they continue to flourish.

Strange, strange and strange! Most Alevis I know profess to love Atatürk, who banned the Bektashi sect; and distrust the current AK Party government, who seem to have made their lives more comfortable and secure. The Sunni majority, meanwhile, has a traditional suspicion of their Alevi neighbours, yet they are happy to be buried in the cemetery of Karacaahmet, the oldest Muslim burial ground in Istanbul, and the largest in Turkey. At this stage I am still seeking answers.

Another fascinating feature of Üsküdar is that the largest and best known of its 186 mosques were built for, or commissioned by women. The first you come across as you disembark from the ferry is one dedicated to Mihrimah, beloved daughter of Süleiman the Magnificent, built between 1546 and 1548 by the renowned Ottoman architect Sinan. But I’ve written about Mihrimah before.

Yeni Valide

Interior of Yeni Valide Mosque

Across the road is another fine example of imperial Ottoman architecture, the mosque erected between 1708 to 1711 for Rabia Gülnüş Emetullah, wife of Sultan Mehmet IV and mother of Ahmet III. This good lady had a roller coaster life, born a Christian on the island of Crete, captured and taken as a slave, educated as a Muslim in the royal palace, becoming favourite of the Sultan Mehmet, exiled for a spell when her husband was overthrown, and finally returning to the harem after her two sons, first Mustafa II and then Ahmet III restored her to grace. Her mosque is said to count as its most prized possession, a coat once worn by the Prophet Muhammed himself.

Ahmet III is one of those Ottoman sultans who seem to have suffered from a bad press. He is most known for presiding over “The Tulip Age” and being ousted by a popular revolt of citizens infuriated by the opulent lifestyle of the sultan and his courtiers. I’m of the opinion that he can’t be so lightly written off. Certainly, the Ottoman Empire was on the decline by the time he ascended the throne in 1703. Ahmet, however, made serious efforts to stem the ebbing tide, looking westwards for innovations, belatedly introducing the printing press, fostering literature and the arts and making early attempts at industrial development. He was the last Sultan to achieve military success against the expanding Russian Empire.

The Ottoman court had never been known for parsimoniousness. Ahmet’s lavish expenditures were nothing new. His attempts at modernisation, on the other hand, were – arousing the ire of the Janissaries, who had become a powerful force of reaction. Ahmet was overthrown by a rebellion, possibly with foreign assistance. Its ringleader was portrayed as a romantic figure in France at the time – and Ottoman decline accelerated.

kösem

Life and times of Kösem Sultan – updated for the 21st century

Further up the hill behind the Üsküdar market place, in a district less frequented by outsiders, are two older mosques, also commemorating the lives of influential women. Çinilli Mosque is known for its beautiful ceramic tiles, an important art form in a culture that forbade religious icons and the depiction of the human form. That name also obscures the fact that this mosque was commissioned by Mahpeyker Kösem Sultan, another woman of Christian origin who came to the capital as a slave and rose to exert unprecedented influence over the empire’s affairs.

Kösem Sultan was the leading figure in a recent season of Muhteşem Yüzyıl (“The Magnificent Century”), a Turkish series dramatizing goings-on in the Ottoman court at the peak of the empire’s power. She was favourite, and wife of Sultan Ahmet I, who lent his name to Istanbul’s best-known tourist district, and had the famous “Blue Mosque” built. Widowed at the age of 28 after 14 years of marriage, Kösem directed her talents to palace politics at a chaotic time in the empire’s history. Coups and assassinations kept the throne room functioning like a conveyor belt. Through all the oustings and regicides, Kösem maintained her influence, seeing two of her sons ascend the throne, serving as regent for the elder, Murad IV, until he came of age; and briefly for her grandson, Mehmed IV, 7 years old when elevated to the sultanate. Unfortunately for her, Mehmed’s mother had ambitions of her own, and had Kösem strangled in her bedroom at the age of 61.

Atik Valide

The mosque of Nurbanu Valide Sultan, 1583

Nearby is an older mosque, dating back to a more stable time in Ottoman history, when the tradition of fratricide tended to simplify the problem of royal succession. Atik Valide is actually a külliye, a large complex including a hospital, school, soup kitchen, caravanserai and public bathhouse. It was one of the last major works of the great architect Sinan, commissioned by Nurbanu Valide Sultan, the first woman to exercise real power behind the Ottoman throne. Her origins are uncertain, but like those others she came from beyond the borders of the empire. Some suggest she was the illegitimate daughter of a brother of the Doge of Venice. Like those others she was educated in the palace harem and became the wife of Sultan Selim II. Selim, who came to the throne in 1566 on the death of his father, the Magnificent Suleiman, was weak, and relied on the advice of others, especially his wife. His reign, however, lasted only 8 years before he died, ending Nurbanu’s power. Apparently, she turned her hand to funding charitable projects, including the Atik Valide complex, completed just before she died in 1583.

Armenian church

Surp Garabed Armenian church

Despite its important role in Ottoman Muslim history, certain districts in Üsküdar were also home to Christian and Jewish communities. At the top of the hill in Bağlarbaşı, three cemeteries exist side by side, home respectively to the mortal remains of Muslim, Greek Orthodox and Armenian citizens. Not far from Kösem’s mosque is a large Armenian church, Surp Garabed. First built in 1593, it was renovated several times over the centuries, finally being rebuilt in 1888 after the earlier building had been destroyed in a fire. Interestingly that rebuild took place during the reign of Sultan Abdulhamid II, reviled in the west as “The Red Sultan” for allegedly massacring large numbers of innocent Armenians. That surely begs a question or two.

As I wandered back down the hill towards the coast I passed an enormous construction site, the last stage of a mega-project initiated by the Üsküdar Municipal Council. Already completed are new premises for the council itself, a large events hall for hosting weddings and the like, and an impressive indoor sports complex. The huge excavation next door will apparently be filled by a modern shopping mall. Does Istanbul need another shopping mall? Evidently some think so.

Council complex

Üsküdar Council’s mega-development

Emerging on to the level streets of the old commercial district I came upon a smaller monument easily missed: a marble column, a large stone ball, and a brass plate with a barely legible inscription informing passers-by that this was one of the projectiles launched against the walls of Byzantine Constantinople by its Ottoman conquerors back in 1453. That siege witnessed the first major use of cannons in warfare, brought about the end of the eastern Graeco-Roman empire, struck terror in the hearts of Western Europe, and arguably marked the transition from the Medieval to the Modern Age.

Cannon ball

Cannon ball that changed the course of history

Ending this little expedition on the Bosporus waterfront opposite the plush Çırağan Palace Kempinski Hotel, I was intrigued by a row of restored warehouses dating back to the reign of Selim III at the beginning of the 19th century. Taken over by the state alcohol and tobacco monopoly Tekel in the early years of the republic, these stone buildings currently house the State Opera, Ballet and Theatre administration, as well as hosting performances previously located in the Atatürk Culture Centre in Taksim Square. The AKM has been the focus of court cases and protests accusing the government of destroying the secular republican legacy of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Certainly, it is planned to demolish the unattractive 1960s venue – but recently announced plans indicate that its replacement will preserve some features of the original and will still bear the name of Turkey’s revered founding president.

Üsküdar is certainly worth a visit.

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Şeb-i Arus: A Death and a Wedding – Bringing people together

I had to work last Friday afternoon. I wasn’t 100 per cent happy, but I was doing a favour for a young colleague who wanted to swap her afternoon classes for mine in the morning. The reason? She was heading to Konya for the weekend.

42 magic cube

42 – More than just a number

I’ve had occasion to write about Konya before. First and foremost, number plates on the cars of its citizens are prefixed with its administrative number, 42. The mystical significance of that number is strengthened by the city’s history as the home and last resting place of Jalal al-Din Muhammad Rumi, the 13th century Sufi philosopher also known as Mevlana or simply Rumi.

Rumi was born in 1207 CE in Khorasan, in present day Afghanistan, but his family moved to Anatolia in 1228 on the invitation of the Seljuk Emperor, Alaeddin Keykübad – the one mentioned in Edward Fitzgerald’s translation of Omar Khayyam’s ‘Rubaiyat’. Undoubtedly the Seljuks recorded dates using the Islamic lunar calendar, but it has been determined that Rumi passed away on 17 December 1273. Accordingly, a two-week festival is held every year in Konya to mark the event, known as Şeb-i Arus in Turkey.

channel 42

Konya television

The phrase Şeb-i Arus is an interesting mix of Persian and Arabic words meaning ‘Wedding Night’. These two languages bear a similar relationship to modern Turkish as Latin and ancient Greek do to modern English: they were the languages of religion, science, medicine, literature and the arts, and scholarship in general. The founders of the Republic of Turkey, aiming to make a clean break with their Ottoman past, attempted to ‘return’ to a pure Turkish, employing a Latin alphabet. The latter reform was successful (though not everyone was happy) but the former was doomed to failure from the start.

But why ‘Wedding Night’ you may ask. The reason is that, according to the Sufi philosophy, the true life of the spirit begins after the death of the physical body – so that material ‘death’ is in fact a transition to a higher plane of existence whereby the human soul is ‘wedded’ to the ultimate reality.

don't be sad

Grieve not! The thorn in your foot brings news of the rose you were seeking.

Well, not all of us are able to dismiss so lightly the apparent reality of life on Earth. Veil of illusion it may be, but the world of friends, family, study, work, marriage, children, food and shelter, sickness and health, demands our attention – and we ignore its demands at our peril. So what’s a person to do?

Sufism (Tasavvuf in Turkish) is not a sect of Islam – it has been called the inner, mystical dimension of that religion. Its appeal to non-Muslims is its rejection of the dogma associated with orthodox religions. According to the Mevlana website Rumi’s doctrine ‘advocates unlimited tolerance, positive reasoning, goodness, charity and awareness through love. To him all religions were more or less truth.’ . . [Like India’s Mahatma Gandhi, he] looked with the same eye on Muslim, Jew and Christian alike.

sema 2

Sema ceremony

Orthodox Sunni Muslims represent the majority in Turkey, and Sufism is a largely Anatolian phenomenon. Its followers regard it as the purest form of Islam, but most of its sects were outlawed after the foundation of the Republic because they were perceived as politically reactionary. The Mevlevi followers of Rumi, however, were permitted to continue as a kind of living cultural treasure because of their emphasis on the spiritual importance of music, poetry and dance. Interestingly, these are also features of Alevi worship – whose adherents represent a substantial twenty per cent minority in modern Turkey.

Alevism is a heterodox belief system which seems to defy simple definition. Like the Alawites across the border in Syria and elsewhere, they trace their origins back to the disputed question of who would succeed the Prophet Muhammed on his death. They differ from the Alawites, however, in that some of their practices and traditions seem to stem from older Turkish folk beliefs. In this they appear to have something in common with Sufism, though there is no officially recognised connection.

ney

Ney musician in Persian culture

The most obvious identifying feature of Mevlevi worship is Sema – the characteristic ‘whirling’ of devotees accompanied by a chorus of chanting, and the eerie, breathy music of the ney. The dancers wear tall brown felt headgear and white robes that swirl outwards as they spin with one hand turned down to the earth, and the other upwards towards the heavens.

The dance represents a mystical journey of the spirit towards truth and perfection, leaving the ego behind. The dancer returns from this spiritual journey ‘as one who has reached maturity and greater perfection, so as to love and to be of service to the whole of creation.’ You might think the world could do with more of that!

The ney is reputed to be one of the world’s oldest musical instruments. It is a kind of flute with a recorded history of nearly 5,000 years. It is identified symbolically with the life force, the spirit breathed into earthly creatures by their source and creator (click to hear the sound).

For two weeks every year, a festival is held in Konya,  location of a striking green-tiled tomb housing Mevlana Rumi’s mortal remains. Thousands of visitors, from all over Turkey and further afield, congregate for festivities culminating in the ‘Wedding Night’ on 17 December. This coming Thursday will mark the 742nd anniversary of his death – and Rumi’s words still serve as inspiration for people of all faiths.

opening doors

If every door opened immediately, hope, patience and desire would have no meaning

∞ “My soul is from elsewhere, I’m sure of that, and I intend to end up there.”

∞ “Set your life on fire. Seek those who fan your flames”

∞ “Christian, Jew, Muslim, shaman, Zoroastrian, stone, ground, mountain, river, each has a secret way of being with the mystery, unique and not to be judged”

∞ “You were born with potential.

You were born with goodness and trust. You were born with ideals and dreams. You were born with greatness.

You were born with wings.

You are not meant for crawling, so don’t.

You have wings.

Learn to use them and fly.” 

Tören

Istanbul concert, December 2015

∞ “I searched for God among the Christians and on the Cross and therein I found Him not.

I went into the ancient temples of idolatry; no trace of Him was there.

I entered the mountain cave of Hira and then went as far as Qandhar but God I found not.

With set purpose I fared to the summit of Mount Caucasus and found there only ‘anqa’s habitation.

Then I directed my search to the Kaaba, the resort of old and young; God was not there even.

Turning to philosophy I inquired about him from ibn Sina but found Him not within his range.

I fared then to the scene of the Prophet’s experience of a great divine manifestation only a “two bow-lengths’ distance from him” but God was not there even in that exalted court.

Finally, I looked into my own heart and there I saw Him; He was nowhere else.”

Sebastian Martyrs and the Cult of Atatürk

October and November are big months in modern Turkey. Three important dates in the history of the Republic are commemorated:

  • 6 October – The liberation of Istanbul
  • 29 October – The foundation of the Republic
  • 10 November – The anniversary of the death of the founding president, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
Mustafa Kemal and friends in Sivas, September 1919

Mustafa Kemal and friends in Sivas, September 1919

I’ve been in this country long enough to have witnessed a few annual returns of these dates, and it seems to me that of late the celebrations have become somewhat muted. Possibly that’s understandable. The elitist old guard have taken a bit of a beating in recent years from the new political kid on the block, the Justice and Development Party. The AKP, to use its Turkish initials, ‘Islamic-rooted’ as the foreign press persistently tells us, has been governing the country since 2003. Despite vociferous opposition from the left, right and centre of the traditional political spectrum, the AKP has won majorities in five parliamentary elections, and succeeded in having its candidate elected president in the first general election ever held for that position.

The country’s military leaders, long-established protectors of the sanctity of the constitution (which they wrote), have been nudged back to the more conventional role of defending the state from outside threats. Middle-aged social mediaholics, prefacing their Facebook profile names with the initials TC (for Turkish Republic) are convinced that the country is plunging headlong into a dark medieval night of alcohol prohibition, judicial beheadings and compulsory black burqas for women. You can understand their despair, given their total inability to make an impact at the ballot box.

sivas_turkiye_haritasinda_yeri_nerede

Location of Sivas province

As for me, I’m an optimist. Foreign visitors to Turkey have long been puzzled by the seemingly idolatrous adulation accorded to statues, photographs and death masks of the nation’s founder. I, at least, have read enough about Atatürk’s achievements to sympathise with the veneration accorded him. In a nutshell, if it hadn’t been for Mustafa Kemal Pasha, no country remotely resembling the modern nation of Turkey would exist today.

I do feel, however, that the time is right for authorities to lay aside the conventional blind adoration and work towards a realistic appraisal of Atatürk the man. While this may require some acceptance of his human failings, it will, I am convinced, result in a more profound appreciation of the mental and moral strength required to overcome the seemingly insurmountable odds stacked against his people in those days.

I worked in a school for some years whose commitment to secular Kemalism would rank among the more dedicated. From the day they entered our doors, pupils were drilled in the minutest details of the great man’s life, the colour of his eyes (piercing blue), the names of his father, mother  and sister (Ali Rıza, Zübeyde and Makbule respectively), the colour of the family home in Salonika (pink); and encouraged to shed tears of grief at 9.05 am every 10th of November. By the time they reached high school, it was difficult to get them to attend school ceremonies on those most sacred days in the Republican calendar. Most of them had had enough. Which struck me as sad.

British troops in Karaköy, Istanbul, 1919

British troops in Karaköy, Istanbul, 1919

Another thing that struck me as sad – and somewhat surprising in view of the school’s dedication to the lore of secular republicanism, was how many of my students thought that the Liberation of Istanbul had something to do with the conquest of Byzantine Constantinople by the 15th century Sultan, Mehmet II. Very few seemed to be aware that, after leading the army of National Salvation to victory against the invading Greeks, and driving them out of Izmir, Mustafa Kemal turned his troops northwards towards Istanbul, faced down the threat of war with the mighty British Empire, and watched the invaders leave as they had come, without firing a shot. The disgrace to Great Britain actually led to the collapse of David Lloyd George’s government and Winston Churchill’s (temporary) exile to the political wilderness. Whether Kemal Pasha’s eyes were blue, brown or bloodshot red, you’d think that would be something worth telling kids about.

29 October was the date in 1923 when the newly established parliament of Turkey proclaimed the foundation of the Republic. It has enormous symbolic importance, and is celebrated annually as Turkey’s equivalent of America’s 4th, and France’s 14th of July. As an actual historical event, however, the proclamation was a formal acknowledgement of a situation that had already existed for over three years. The nation’s Republican parliament (Millet Meclisi) had been inaugurated on 23 April 1920, in the new capital city of Ankara. Nevertheless, Turkey without Istanbul would be inconceivable, and one might argue, therefore, that winning that city back from the armies of occupation was an event of unparalleled significance.

Undoubtedly the fledgling Republic of Turkey suffered a great loss when its first President passed away on 10 November 1938. On the other hand, they were lucky to get him at all. Few nations in the world have been blessed with a leader whose multi-faceted genius encompassed military victories against fearsome odds, constitutional revolution, and statesmanship on the international stage. And of course, no one lives forever. Have you ever paused to consider what might have happened to Christianity if Jesus Christ had been allowed to see out his three score years and ten, instead of being martyred in the prime of life at the age of 33? Atatürk made it to 57, and it could be argued that his best years were behind him. How would he have dealt with the traumas of the Second World War, and pressure to give his people the vote? Possibly it’s for the best that we didn’t have to find out.

Sivas's famous kangal dog

Sivas’s famous kangal dog

It does seem to me though, that the outpourings of grief on anniversaries of his death, sincere though they may be, militate against a genuine appreciation of Atatürk’s outstanding achievements. Certainly he lives on in true Turkish hearts, and in that sense, is not actually dead – but the reality is that he’s not coming back. The Republic needs to move on, and to do that, 10 November provides an opportunity to give thanks for his life, and to begin evaluating, with a vision unclouded by tears of mourning, exactly what relevance his legacy has for Turkey in the 21st century.

Strange to say, my inspiration for this post did not actually come from any of those dates listed above. Last week there was a festival held in our new park by the seaside at Maltepe. Entitled ‘Sivas Günleri’, it was a celebration of the cultural identity of a region in central Anatolia east of Ankara. Sivas, its citizens driving cars whose number plates are prefixed with ‘58’, is, in area, the second-largest of Turkey’s 81 provinces, and one of the most sparsely populated.

It was a very Turkish festival. Two large marquees had been erected in the vast public square of the new park. The larger of the two housed displays of Sivas’s various districts, displaying local handcrafts and traditional costumes, and serving tea and snacks to mustachioed middle-aged and elderly gentlemen, one assumes hailing from those parts. There was also a central auditorium with a stage from which various minor dignitaries were holding forth about whatever these kind of guys like to hold forth about – with a rather sparse audience exhibiting scant interest in what they had to say.

Help yourself

Mouth-watering Sivas cuisine

The adjacent marquee held more appeal, not only for me, but for the crowds in attendance. It contained a number of restaurants serving Sivas cuisine, and stalls purveying local produce: honey, fresh and dried fruit and vegetables, and a marvellous variety of peculiarly Turkish delicacies. I bought a doll in traditional costume for my granddaughter, Kiri, and a packet of sweets made from hazel nut paste, which were a taste sensation! Then, since it was around lunchtime, and my salivary glands were in a state of high excitement, I allowed myself to be enticed by the sight of lamb carcasses rotating on spits over hot coals, and sat down to a meal of sırık kebab. Words cannot describe . . .

But what has this got to do with the Turkish Republic and its revered founder, I hear you ask. Well, Sivas, in contrast to its current relative insignificance, has a very colourful history. My sources tell me there was a Hittite settlement in the area as early as 2,600 BCE, though little is known about the town until the Roman general and political luminary, Pompey, founded the city he named Megalopolis, which later became Sebaste. You may be interested to learn, as I was, that the name ‘Sebastian’ derives from the Latin adjective meaning a citizen of that city.

Apparently Sebaste was quite a hive of early Christianity, back in the days when the Roman Empire was trying to stamp it out – and consequently is remembered for a number of martyrs, by churches that go in for that sort of thing. One particularly memorable event involved forty soldiers back in the 4th century who, to demonstrate the error of their ways, were exposed naked overnight on a frozen lake in the middle of winter. Well, nights can get pretty chilly out there on the Anatolian steppe at an altitude of around 1,500 metres, and there weren’t many signs of life the next morning; but to make certain, local authorities had the bodies burned and the ashes cast into a nearby river.

Sivas's 4th century 40 martyrs

Sivas’s 4th century 40 martyrs

Continuing the tradition of misfortune, Sebaste’s location at the eastern reaches of the Byzantine Empire exposed it to the earliest depredations of Turkic invaders in the 11th century. By the 12th century it had become Turkish to the extent that it served as one of the capitals of the Seljuk Empire, and in 1408, was incorporated into the expanding Ottoman dominions. In spite of Muslim conquest, however, Armenian and Orthodox Christian communities survived, with their churches, into the 20th century.

The Republican connection dates from September 1919. British and French armies had occupied the Ottoman capital Istanbul at the end of the First World War, and their governments began the process of dismembering the empire according to plans they had been making in secret for some years. The last straw for Turkish patriots was when a Greek army, sponsored by the victorious allies, landed in Izmir, intent on re-claiming their once extensive Byzantine territories.

There is some debate about the circumstances surrounding Mustafa Kemal’s departure from Istanbul and arrival in the Black Sea port of Samsun on 19 May 1919. Nevertheless, that date is recognised in modern Turkey as the beginning of the War of Liberation (Kurtuluş Savaşı). He wasn’t alone, of course, but it was undoubtedly Kemal Pasha’s charisma that inspired his war-weary people to one further struggle. Two congresses were held, in Erzurum and Sivas, laying the groundwork for the forthcoming conflict, and these two cities are recognised as crucial in the foundation of the Republic.

Sivas has two other claims to fame. One is its status as the home of the kangal, a large breed of dog renowned as a guardian of livestock and villagers against wolves, bears and jackals.

The other, less honourable, is a shameful event that took place on 2 July, 1993. On that date, the city was the venue for a cultural festival attended by a gathering of artists, writers and intellectuals, many of whom were Alevi. A mob of religious extremists set fire to the Madımak Hotel where many of the visitors were staying, resulting in 35 deaths.

Stop the killing - there are better things in life

Stop the killing – there are better things in life

Again there is some debate about the reasons for the attack. Some say it was targeting a gentleman by the name of Aziz Nesrin, who had angered orthodox Sunni Muslims by translating Salman Rushdie’s controversial novel, ‘The Satanic Verses’, into Turkish. Others say it was more generally directed at the Alevi community as a whole. It was asserted at the time that local police stood by and allowed the arsonists to do their work unmolested. That’s entirely possible – although the government of the day did seem to do its best to bring perpetrators to justice.

Well, the 1990s are not so long ago, when you think about it. Those were bad times in Turkey, as opponents of the present government should not forget. The history of Sivas has a lot to teach us, if we choose to listen.

The Alevi Sect in Turkey

I’d like to share this article with you about the Alevi sect in Turkey. I did write a post on the subject some time ago, but this writer has done more personal research, and the accompanying photographs are very evocative. The views expressed in the article do not necessarily represent my own, but the subject is one that needs a wider readership in Turkey and beyond.

Faith and Fear in Istanbul

Text by Ömer Warraich184348_newsdetail

Photographs by John Wreford

In many ways, it resembles a traditional mosque. The worshippers slip off their shoes and tread slowly over rows of intricate, hand-woven rugs. Everyone is dressed demurely and the women tie scarves over their hair. Before the prayers begin, they sit cross-legged on the floor. Above them is a domed ceiling, in the center of which dangles a large chandelier.

But look closer and there are some key differences. The dome has 12 edges, Under each is a portrait of a different turbaned man. All of them have thick beards and piercing eyes, their faces shadowed by a saintly penumbra. These are the 12 imams revered by Shiites—Imam Ali, his son, Imam Husayn, and the 10 who came after them. All but the last of them were killed.

The timing is different from a traditional mosque as well. It is Thursday evening, the time of the week when many Sufis across the Muslim divide gather for spiritual remembrance, rather than Friday afternoon, when most Muslims meet once a week for prayer. There is no pulpit. There isn’t even a niche in the direction of Mecca. Instead, the worshippers sit in a circle of about 50 men and at least twice as many women. They sit near each other, the women as prominently placed as the men. Read the whole article

Human Rights, Democracy and Islam in Turkey and the Middle East

The longer I live in Turkey the more I come to understand the incredible diversity of this allegedly homogeneous country. One of the first statistics a visitor learns is that Turkey’s population is ninety-nine percent Muslim. One of the most quoted sayings of the nation’s founder and first President MK Ataturk is the one that goes: ‘How happy is the one who says I am a Turk!’
One face of Islam in Turkey
The official homogeneity, however, masks on-the-ground reality. A superficial indicator of this is the clothing worn by women in Turkey. The wearing of some kind of headscarf is traditional in this part of the world, and you will meet every variation, from the black burka covering all but the eyes, to the brightly coloured silk Armine fashion accessory complementing designer jeans and stylish make-up. Young ladies in the latter category are quite likely to be seen strolling the streets arm-in-arm with a bare-headed mini-skirted female friend, or publicly embracing a male one (probably without a miniskirt). Those women enveloped in black from head to toe are anathema to the secular fashionistas of Nişantaşı and Baghdad Ave, many of whom nonetheless fast during the holy month of Ramazan.
On a deeper level, it is estimated that ten to twenty percent of Turkey’s population belongs to the Alevi sect, whose brand of Islam stems from the Shi’ites, one of the two main branches of Islam. Origins of the split date from the early days when the Prophet Mohammed died without making it clear who should take over his leadership role. Turkey’s Muslims are predominantly Sunni, but the Alevi group, while maintaining a distinct identity, seems to have little in common with the fundamentalist Shi’ites who hold sway in Iran, or even the Alawi dictatorship of beleaguered Syrian president, Bashar al Assad. Further complicating the matter is the fact that many, though by no means all Alevis are ethnic Kurds, another twenty percent demographic who supported the foundation of the Republic of Turkey, but have resisted cultural and linguistic assimilation.
Apart from these major subsets, the boundaries of the republic contain several other ethnic, linguistic and religious groups: the Laz of the Black Sea region, Arab speakers in the southeast, descendants of Circassian refugees from the Caucasus region. Communities of Armenians and Eastern Orthodox are to be found, their churches and cemeteries occupying prominent sites, especially in Istanbul. Jews remain, still performing rites in the Ladino dialect their ancestors brought from Spain in the 15th century. There is a sprinkling of Catholic and Protestant churches catering, one assumes, to small local congregations, with a little proselytising on the side – and one or two evangelical Christian sects clearly carry out missionary activities.
As a result of the foregoing, there are two conflicting forces at work in modern Turkey. One is the homogenising assimilating process set in motion of necessity by the republican founders back in the 1920s when armed struggle alone would save the land from division, partition and annihilation by the victorious allies after World War One. That struggle could only be initiated by creating a national identity with common roots of history, religion, language and culture, whose owners’ sacred duty was to defend the land on which they stood. Creating and sustaining this identity required a certain amount of myth-making, propaganda and suppression of dissent.
The other force, steadily gaining strength, is one acknowledging the diversity of Turkey’s population, and seeking recognition and equal rights for all citizens. Tension between these two forces has been causing conflict such as the so-called ‘Gezi Park’ protests in the early summer. Perhaps surprisingly, far from indicating a failure of democracy in Turkey, this tension is entirely healthy. The democratisation process implemented by Turkey’s government over the past ten years has been slowly granting acceptance and equality to groups previously marginalised. Ironically, this reforming government is the one accused by some citizens of harbouring an ‘Islamist’ agenda – while the protesters are the conservatives supporting military enforcement of exclusive, so-called secular Kemalist values.
On location in Mardin, SE Turkey
I try to keep a finger on what’s going on in the world of Turkish soap operas. It’s a losing struggle, since there seem to be dozens of them, and they generally run for two years at most. Many of them are obsessed with intrigues in the lives of the rich and famous, showcasing palatial houses in the stratosphere of Istanbul’s top-end residential market. While channel-surfing the other day, however, I did come across one that provided a refreshing alternative to the usual fare. ‘Adını Kalbime Yazdım’, (I’ve Written Your Name in My Heart), moved, in the episode I watched, between that Istanbul world of wealth and privilege, and the southeastern city of Mardin near the Syrian border, where the architecture is distinctly Arabic and many of the locals speak Turkish as a second language. The main man, Ömer, a tribal leader, is evidently making a life for himself in the western metropolis, and is engaged to a fashionable young city girl. His mother, however, back in Mardin, has taken it on herself to promise her number one son to the daughter of a rival clan chief, in an attempt to patch up the blood feud that has been seething for years. Our guy speeds back to his hometown to sort things out, but has clearly lost touch with Mardin realities. Rejecting the local girl after agreement has been reached is an unforgivable affront to the honour of both families. His own brother feels obliged to cleanse the sin in the time-honoured tradition – with a bullet.
Recently there was a conference in the Mediterranean coastal city of Antalya: An International Symposium on Children At Risk and In Need of Protection. A press release announced that one in three new brides in Turkey is under eighteen on her wedding day, and that thirty-five percent of these girls are actually ‘second wives’ – understood locally to mean a girl taken by a man in an unofficial ‘religious’ ceremony when he feels he needs a little more excitement than his first wife is providing.
The point I want to make here is that there is more to Turkey than what is common among the secular elite of Istanbul who move from fashionable Etiler, Nişantaşı or Baghdad Avenue to the ski slopes of Uludağ and the beach resorts of Bodrum and Antalya and back, with trips abroad for variety. Undoubtedly the gnomes of Brussels who oversee the European Union are well aware of this, which perhaps explains their reluctance to see Turkey’s eighty million people gain free access to their civilised Christian club. It is certainly a better reason than their stated objections to the Cyprus problem, abuse of human rights and police violence against citizens.
As suggested above, a major irony of the Middle East these days (and for our purposes here let’s include Turkey by reason of its Muslim identity) is that so-called ‘Islamist’ political parties are often the ones championing human rights, participatory democracy and national sovereignty. ‘Secular’ leaders, in contrast, are more likely to be reactionary, authoritarian and subject to undue influence by foreign powers. This creates difficulties in the minds of ordinary citizens in Western democracies, who are accustomed to associating religion, especially the Muslim religion, with intolerance and backwardness.
Take Iran as an example. Persia has been a land of high civilisation and culture since the dawn of history. This continued until the 18th century when the Great Powers of Europe, especially Britain and Russia, began playing their expansionist games. The games turned to frenzy with the discovery and rise to prominence of oil as the energy to power the 20th century. Anglo-petroleum interests moved in, the Middle East was occupied and divided into ‘spheres of interest’ and ‘mandates’ after the First World War, and a gentleman by the name of Reza Khan emerged from village obscurity and ascended to the throne of Persia with a little help from the Brits. Shah Riza himself apparently offended his erstwhile allies by insisting on Iran’s remaining neutral during the Second World War, and was forced to abdicate in favour of his son, the latter we must assume being more amenable to British Imperial interests. Fifty years passed with exploitation of the country’s oil wealth by foreign interests aided and abetted by the local elite who enriched themselves at the expense of the ordinary Persian.
Finally, locals, in 1951, managed to elect a more sympathetic and effective Prime Minister who promptly nationalised the oil industry and encouraged the departure of Mohammed-Reza Shah. The new dawn didn’t last long, however. The British government, keen to protect its own interests but lacking former imperial might, persuaded the new US President Dwight D Eisenhower to get involved. The ensuing CIA-sponsored coup d’etat ousted PM Mossadeq and reinstated the Shah, who restored the status quo and ruled with an iron fist of oppression for twenty-six years until the Islamic revolution led by the Ayatollah Khomeini overturned the puppet monarchy in 1979. Well, I’m not extolling that gentleman’s virtues or holding modern Iran up as a model of democratic freedom – but you might want to ask, who is responsible?
Similar case studies can be offered in Iraq and Afghanistan. The United States government supported and armed the Afghan Taliban fighters in their struggle against Russian invasion in the 1980s, then left the country to sort itself out after the Soviets had withdrawn. Saddam Hussein too was initially a useful US ally back then when he sent his military against the demon Iran. Unfortunately, the enemy of my enemy may quickly cease to be my friend, and become my enemy too. Sad to say, the US government seems still not to have learned this lesson. Instead of addressing the root causes of frustration and anger among Middle Eastern populations, President Obama’s administration is continuing a policy of unilateral aggression, using its unmanned drones and SEAL commandos to invade the sovereign territory of other states and take out people considered hostile to its interests regardless of collateral casualties and damage to property.
Three examples. In early October, according to an article in Time, the CIA and FBI working with US military forces captured Abu Anas al-Liby, an alleged Al Qaeda leader in Tripoli, Libya. A few weeks later, in apparent retaliation for government complicity, the Libyan Prime Minister was kidnapped at gunpoint by local militia apparently working with ministerial personnel. I was talking to two exchange students from Libya the other day. They were keen to talk and their English was remarkably good. I couldn’t resist asking how things are in their country these days. ‘Much better’, said one. ‘Nowadays everyone has a gun. In the old days it was just the police and the soldiers.’
Around the same time as the action in Tripoli, a contingent of SEALs (what a nice innocuous name for a murderous organisation) entered Somalia and inflicted casualties while failing in their objective of capturing or eliminating a leader of another terrorist group, Al Shabab. Just the other day a US drone strike was reported to have killed a Taliban leader in Pakistan, along with anyone else who happened to be in the vicinity at the time.
Successive US administrations supported the military dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt for 29 years until he was overthrown by popular demand in 2011. His major appeal in the West was support for Israel, not something Egypt had been noted for in the past. Subsequent elections produced a government with Islamic connections (not altogether surprising in a country whose population is ninety percent Muslim). A military coup in July this year ousted the new democratically elected government and is bringing its leader, Mohammed Morsi, to trial. The US government was conspicuous in its refusal to acknowledge the event as a coup, but more recently has been obliged to take punitive economic measures against the military regime in the face of mounting international criticism of police and military brutality.
A new report by Amnesty International has accused the Egyptian regime of persecuting and rejecting refugees from the ongoing civil war in Syria. Of course it is a major problem for any country to deal with flows of penniless displaced persons from a neighbouring state, but these people are Muslims and fellow Arabs. In contrast Turkey, often the target of criticism by the Amnesty International people, has so far allowed around half a million fleeing Syrians to take refuge within its borders and is doing its best to provide for them. Fortunately the government of Turkey has managed so far to keep the country from descending into the sad state of its Arab neighbours. Anti-government protesters these days seem largely content with pressing the emergency stop button on the new rail link joining European and Asian Istanbul that passes through a chunnel beneath the Bosporus.
I wouldn’t, in normal circumstances, look to a blond Hollywood movie starlet for guidance on political matters, but I was interested to see an article about Blake Lively in our local newspaper last weekend. The Turkish journalist had apparently caught up with her in Paris, and they were burbling on about the usual film star stuff – how the poor girl’s biggest problem in life is trying not to eat chocolate so that she won’t lose her figure. Before finishing, however, the interviewer couldn’t resist seeking Ms Lively’s opinion about democracy in Turkey and police abuse of human rights. I don’t know anything about politics, she said, but I really want to go and see Turkey for myself. The young lady went up considerably in my estimation. Perhaps she could invite that sensitive novelist Paul Auster along when she comes.

The Anatolian Crane – Symbol and reality

It’s great to see a growing environmental awareness in Turkey. Local councils are encouraging residents to sort their garbage and take an interest in the recycling process – and the message is starting to get through. Bicycles are more in evidence on the streets of Istanbul – and not just the cheap supermarket model ridden by children and poor people who can’t afford a car. Activists are protesting about the loss of green areas to urban development projects.

Demoiselle cranes –
sacred in religion and symbolic in folklore
All this is laudable, but in any country (excluding Singapore and Monaco perhaps) urban conglomerations make up a small percentage of the total land area. What goes on in those rural areas is arguably of greater importance than what happens in cities. In the end, a city is a place where nature is sacrificed to the needs and comforts of technology and civilisation.

Measured by land area Turkey is the second largest country in Europe, behind only Russia (the largest country in the entire world). Turkey is more than twice the size of Germany, and 30% larger than France. Not surprisingly, then, the empty spaces of Anatolia are home to varieties of plants, birds and animals that have died out in more developed parts of the continent. I came across an article in Today’s Zaman, my English language Turkish newspaper, on the subject of the Anatolian, or Demoiselle, crane:

It is not an exaggeration to say that the crane is one of the most prominent symbols of Anatolian culture. If we look only at music, we see the crane appearing in Musa Eroğlu’s folk song “Telli turnam selam götür sevgilimin diyarına…” (Oh my crane, carry my love to the lands of my lover…), or even in the group Yeni Türkü’s folk song “Telli Turna” (Demoiselle Crane).
Biologist Ferdi Akarsu performed tireless research on these cranes of Anatolia for three years. Interestingly, he came across 45 different folksongs in the Turkish Radio and Television Corporation (TRT) archive that deal with cranes. But are we talking just about folksongs? There are of course also sayings, carpets, hand embroidery and even religious ceremonies that include the crane. The “turna cemi” of the Alevis and the “sema” of the Mevlevis carry suggestions of this bird as well.
So what has happened to our birds? According to field research begun in 2010 by the Nature Association (headed by Akarsu), there are just 12 pairs of breeding Demoiselle Cranes left in Anatolia. The number of juvenile cranes is just 19. This research demonstrates that these cranes are disappearing faster than previously thought.  Read more . . .

What Would Atatürk Say – if he came back today?

One of the things that impressed me in my first years living and working in Turkey was the seemingly unabashed patriotism in evidence everywhere I looked – pictures of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Republic in every school classroom and government office; statues of the great man in every public square throughout the land; the national anthem sung with fervour at football matches, public ceremonies and school assemblies; the army held up as the sacred guardian of democracy and secularism; the nation’s flag an object of pride and revered symbol of those who had spilt their blood, even given their lives to establish the Republic of Turkey.
‘That watch changed the destiny of a nation’
For me, coming from a country where the gloss of patriotism had been long since tarnished by the lies of scheming politicians, it was a touching experience to be amongst a people so clearly imbued with such loyalty to their nation and belief in the rectitude of their young republic. I remember, in New Zealand, a time when cinema audiences would stand, as the curtain rose, to a stirring performance of ‘God Save our Gracious Queen!’ Younger generations would hardly imagine that such naïveté was ever possible.
That gracious lady was queen, not of New Zealand alone, but of the British Empire, whose star was beginning to fade. The loss of India, embarrassment in Egypt, Iran and Malaya, and the rise to global supremacy of the USA and the USSR, were beginning to push Westminster, London, to the sidelines of world affairs. The threat of nuclear global annihilation, the madness and hypocrisy of the war in Vietnam and a growing awareness of the plight of minority peoples were producing a generation of youth cynical about those in power and not afraid to express their opposition. As New Zealanders remained seated prior to watching the latest exploits of James Bond on cinema screens, the British national anthem was sent happy and glorious to the trashcan of colonial history.
Of course, there are those who may still shed a tear for the passing of a great age, which undoubtedly brought benefits to the world as well as harm. So it is understandable that, in Turkey, there are fears in some circles that abolishing the requirement for primary school students to recite the Oath of Turkishness marks the end of Atatürk’s secular experiment, and clearly demonstrates the anti-republican agenda of the incumbent government. But is it really so?
The secular republic that Mustafa Kemal and his followers established in 1923 was paradoxically overwhelmingly Muslim in the composition of its population. The imperial ambitions and expansion of its northern and western neighbours over two centuries had seen a huge influx to the Anatolian heartland of Muslim refugees expelled from their ancestral homelands, and the encouragement of nationalist secessionist activities within the Ottoman Empire.
When that empire was fighting vainly for its very existence in the First World War, and shortly after its death republican forces expelled foreign armies of occupation, the continued presence of Christian minorities became virtually untenable outside of cosmopolitan Istanbul. The freedom-fighting spirit that Mustafa Kemal harnessed to fight the invaders was a pragmatic coalition of Turkish nationalists, patriotic Ottomans and proud Muslims of many backgrounds. There was a need to unite against a common enemy that inevitably masked differences which later emerged: indigenous groups (Kurds, Laz, Arabs) and refugee immigrants (Circassian, Crimean Tatar, Greek) with their own distinctive languages and cultures; Muslims who did not identify with the Sunni majority (Alevi); Jews and tiny remaining Christian groups, all of whom, to a greater or lesser extent, found themselves obliged to mouth jingoistic slogans of Turkish nationalism with which they felt little affinity.
So the oath that children in schools had been obliged to recite since 1932 has finally been shelved as part of the democratisation package recently introduced by the Turkish parliament. Will that mean the end of secular Turkey? I don’t think so. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk laid down six principles as the foundation stones of his new republic: republicanism, nationalism, secularism, populism, étatism, and reformism/revolutionism. Since his day, the country has been ruled by a ‘secular’ elite. When an elected government strayed too far from the ‘approved’ path, the army could be relied on to step in, remove them and guide the nation back . . . to what?
Nationalism is only one-sixth of those six principles – and to retain its integrity in the long-term, the republic must formulate a definition of ‘nation’that is inclusive rather than exclusive. Secularismmeans separation of church (or mosque) and state – it doesn’t mean the abolition of religion. The vast majority of Turkey’s population is Muslim. All democratically elected governments have to pay lip service to this, and most have done far more. Populism means equality, but you don’t have to be long in Turkey to see that there is an unofficial class system lurking not far below the surface, and the military has been intimately bound up with its preservation. Etatism was a mixed economic model that allowed for private enterprise while acknowledging a need for state involvement and oversight – perhaps the ‘Third Way’ that Tony Blah’s New Labour Party in the UK was seeking but never found. Free market capitalists hate it, of course, since it implies state-imposed limits on human greed – and this Kemalist principle fell from favour. What happened to reformism/revolutionism? Successive governments became conservative and used Kemalism/Atatürkçülük as a stick to ensure conformity.
Alongside the statues and pictures of Atatürk you will always find sayings attributed to Turkey’s great founder and leader. Once again, however, there has been a tendency to pick and choose which ones will be remembered and which laid aside. Perhaps the most important of these is the one which goes (freely translated): ‘It is not enough to see my face. The important thing is to understand my ideas and my motives.’[1] Atatürk himself said, ‘There are two Mustafa Kemals: one is the creature of flesh and bone you see before you; the other is the spirit of revolutionary idealism that lives inside all of us.’[2]
Being a true Kemalist, then, is not about hanging his picture on your wall and admiring his steely blue eyes. It does not mean just taking on board the principles that suit your interests and quietly sidelining the others. The words in Atatürk’s Address to Turkish Youth cut two ways – if your fortresses and shipyards are under foreign control it is your duty to rebel and fight. He achieved what he did, founded the republic with vision, determination, popular support and strong leadership. Following him now and in the future means studying his ideas and understanding what he did and why he did it.
For one thing, Atatürk recognised that military victory was only the beginning of the new republic’s struggle. In the long-term, all the achievements of the army would be lost without continued economic development and sharing of prosperity amongst all citizens, not just the privileged few. Leadership does not mean sitting comfortably in your palace enjoying the benefits of civilisation while sending others to do the fighting and the dying. Ataturk won the respect of his people and the right to make hard decisions that not everyone agreed with – including many of the privileged elite – by being a leader who led from the front. He was prepared to put his credibility and life on the line. In the 1915 action known in Turkey as Anafartalar, and to Anzacs as Chunuk Bair, he was at the head of his troops setting an example for others to follow, and the fob watch that stopped a fragment of shrapnel from entering his heart is a powerful symbol of this.
Atatürk is often called the first teacher of the new republic. He emphasised the importance of education for all, and one of the aims of his alphabet reform[3] was to make literacy more accessible. Everyone knows that the education system in Turkey is in desperate need of a makeover. The state system is seriously underfunded, and allowing the private sector to take up the slack is not the answer. It may quieten the privileged minority who can afford to send their children to private schools, but it does not provide quality education. In the end, the main aim of private business is to maximise profits, which, whatever idealistic slogans are propounded by the owners, translates to bums on seats, window-dressing and reducing teacher salaries, which are always the largest item of expenditure.
In recent years the government of Turkey has been pushing ahead with moves to revamp the constitution. These moves have met with considerable resistance from the conservative opposition. From their objections, an outsider might get the impression that the existing constitution was the sacred one written by Atatürk and his brothers-in-arms back in the 1920s – a document akin to the Ten Commandments, set down in stone for all time, infallible and immutable. In fact, the document they so staunchly defend was penned by the generals who carried out the military coup in 1980. It instituted provisions to keep Kurds out of parliament, suppress left wing politics, and used religion and extreme nationalism to gain support for its moves. That constitution is desperately in need of change, but it takes time to carry out serious structural reform in a democratic environment. When criticism comes from both extremes, we may think that the reformers have got it about right. The first necessary change was to pull the teeth of the military who had been the force behind those wishing to retain the status quo. Europe and the US may secretly prefer to deal with dictatorial regimes when doing so simplifies the business of looking after their own interests – but they will never welcome such countries into equal partnership. For Turkey, accepting the result of the ballot box is an important step on the road to establishing a truly democratic republic.
The foreign policy of the government is another area in which Turkey comes in for considerable criticism. On the one hand, it is said that Mr Tayyip Erdoğan’s government is in the pocket of the United States, slavishly doing their bidding like a well-trained lapdog. On the other hand, the accusers assert that Turkey is following a Neo-Ottoman path aimed at undoing secular democratic reforms and restoring Islamic Shariah law. It’s hard to imagine that both accusations can be true – although US friendship with the hand-amputating, woman-flogging Wahhabi extremist Muslim Saudi royal family suggests that they have fewer objections to fundamentalist Islamic dictators than they would have us believe.
Interestingly, the government of Turkey is about to purchase a new rocket defence system from China. The project was put out to tender and the Chinese bid was not only the lowest, but the Chinese also included in the deal an undertaking to share technological expertise, and help Turkey to carry out much of the manufacturing of hardware within its own borders. Tenders from Western nations (and Russia, whose bid was also passed over) did not include such cooperation. Of course, no country, especially one as strategically located as Turkey, can afford the luxury of divorcing itself from the world’s only superpower. However this government has proved to those with eyes to see that it is by no means in America’s pocket, and is capable of formulating and following its own policies for the good of its own people.
A recent news item announced that New Zealand had been visited by several Chinese warships – I wonder what US leaders think of that. NZ, however, unlike Turkey, is far from the highways of geo-politics and strategy, and like a small child, can count on a little parental indulgence. When NZ’s Labour government back in the 70s instituted a ban on nuclear-powered and armed vessels in its waters, the US were naturally peeved, but they lived with it. I wonder if the Chinese vessels currently in Auckland Harbour have nuclear technology on board, or if the Chinese government would let on if they did.
Getting back to Atatürk, he sought and received help from Soviet Russia during Turkey’s War of Liberation. Atatürk was not a Communist but he was a realist. The West would divide and annihilate his country. They were supporting the Greek invasion. If the new Soviet state would aid his struggle, he would accept their aid and deal with the consequences later. As far as I understand, there were none. No doubt Turkey’s membership of NATO meant that it had the backing of the US and Western Europe to discourage Soviet incursion during the Cold War – but the West too undoubtedly benefited from Turkey’s large military, and from being able to locate bases on Turkish soil. It wasn’t a one-way street.
The second decade of the twenty-first century is shaping to be an interesting one for Turkey. The economy continues to show strong signs of good health and growth. Undoubtedly, political problems in the region continue to pose problems, not only locally, but for the world beyond. Turkey is on the spot. It has a long history of dealing with its neighbours, and Western powers would do well to soft-pedal their criticism and lend an ear to what Turkish spokespersons on foreign policy have to say. As for the people of Turkey, I have heard some express a nostalgic wish for a resurrected Atatürk to return to the nation’s helm. It can’t happen, of course – but I suspect that, if he were looking down from somewhere on high, he would not be totally disappointed with the current state of the republic he founded.


[1] Beni görmek demek, mutlaka yüzümü görmek değildir. Benim fikirlerimi, benim duygularımı anlıyorsanız ve hissediyorsanız bu kâfidir.
[2] İki Mustafa Kemal vardır: Biri ben, et ve kemik, geçici Mustafa Kemal… İkinci Mustafa Kemal, onu “ben” kelimesiyle ifade edemem; o, ben değil, bizdir!
[3] Abolishing the Arabic alphabet in favour of a Latin-based one.