Turkey: Turkish delights

Well, knock me over with a feather! I have receiving regular dire warnings from my countryfolk at the New Zealand Embassy in Ankara advising me to stay away from Turkey in general, and Istanbul (where I have been living safely and happily for more than 15 years) in particular. So, credit where credit is due, I want to share with you this article that appeared in the NZ Herald today, 25 April.


Pretty magnanimous words, don’t you think?

The day is significant because hundreds of Australians and New Zealanders are currently in Turkey to commemorate the Gallipoli Campaign when our grandfathers, loyally following orders from their British Imperial masters, invaded the Ottoman Empire and spent eight months doing their best to kill its young men and capture its capital, Istanbul.

As happens every year, local people are extending customary hospitality to their former enemies, and local authorities providing security to ensure commemoration services proceed in comfort and safety.

Read Ms Wade’s article. Once you get past her opening remarks about a young man’s traditional circumcision operation, you’ll find that she and her fellow tourists had “an unforgettable . . . wonderful time.”


Beyond the war graves and remembrance is a vibrant land with a rich history, writes Pamela Wade.

Apr 25, 2017

It’s not the sort of thing you’d share with strangers, but after 10 days together and over 2500km of travel in a grand circuit around Turkey, we all felt like friends. There were 39 of us, Kiwis and Aussies, on this Insight Vacations tour and although it was the Gallipoli centenary and Anzac Day services that had brought us all together, the bulk of our time was spent exploring an older history.


Photo: NZ Herald

Tour director Barcin has a university education that gives him an effortless command of not only the seven complicated centuries of the Ottoman Empire, but thousands of years of Greek and Roman history before that.

Literally thousands: five, in fact, at Troy, where nine levels of settlement have been excavated down to its beginnings in 3000BC. Wandering around the site, past walls, ditches, foundations, columns both standing and tumbled, and a theatre of tiered seats, the age of the place was hard to grasp, despite Barcin’s best efforts. What was obvious, however, was the sheer beauty of the ancient stone, softened by feathery fennel and bright red poppies against a background of the distant Dardanelles.


Photo: NZ Herald

Some on the tour were deeply into history and the literary and religious connections, and everyone was impressed at Ephesus to be walking on polished marble pavers once trodden by Cleopatra, Mark Anthony and St Paul. For many of us, however, the visits to such sites, including Pergamon and Assos, were more about appreciating what remains rather than studying their origins. Pictures rather than words, perhaps, and no less legitimate for that. After listening to the explanations about what we were seeing – temples to Athena, Artemis, Dionysus, a towering library, a 10,000-seat theatre on a steep hillside, Roman baths, an Acropolis, the home of modern medicine, statues and so much more – the temptation was irresistible to use it all as the most glorious photoshoot ever.

The tour isn’t all archaeology, legend and history. There was shopping, too. Astute stall-holders, knowing their market, shouted “Kiwi! Cheaper than The Warehouse!” as we walked past; others went for flattery: “Beautiful rugs! Like you!” or pathos: “We have everything but customers.

Few, in the end, held out against the pretty scarves, the “genuine fake watches”, the evil eye pendants or the tapestry bags; but the serious shoppers waited for the visits to the factories. Fabulous fine lamb’s leather made into truly stylish jackets displayed in a catwalk fashion show; dozens of colourful wool and silk rugs unrolled with a flourish as we drank perilously strong raki; gorgeous decorated plates at a pottery visit that began with a mesmerising kick-wheel demonstration.


Photo: NZ Herald

Then there was the culture: an evening of traditional dance in an underground theatre began deceptively low-key, but wound up to an exciting climax that sent us away buzzing. We saw real Whirling Dervishes spinning unfathomably long and fast; and met a friendly lady who lives in a house burrowed into the rock, where Helen Clark’s signed portrait hangs (at least during our visit) in pride of place.

This was at Cappadocia, the scenic high point for most of us, which is saying something in this country of bays and beaches, forests and farmland, white terraces and snow-capped volcanoes. Pillars of sculpted tufa capped by gravity-defying slabs of basalt make for a fantasy landscape, and to see it in low sun as a hundred hot-air balloons float overhead is unforgettable.

Actually, it was all unforgettable: Gallipoli, the poppies and tulips, the cats, the food, the friendly people. There were mosques, markets and museums; a cruise, calligraphy and coloured glass lamps; sacks of spices, pyramids of Turkish delight, tiny cups of atrocious coffee. I had a wonderful time.


Turkey, Armenia and the Tragedies of Wars

I came across this article on yahoo.com, and I’d like to share it with you. The writer, Merve Sebnem Oruç is a managing editor in online journalism and a commentator in Turkey.

Australians commemorating Anzac day at Gallipoli

Australians commemorating Anzac day at Gallipoli

“Gallipoli is a good place to start for resolving the historic dispute between Turkey and Armenians.

“The Battle of Gallipoli was one of the most critical scenes in Turkey’s history. Britain and France opened an overseas front in Gallipoli in East Thrace and tried to overcome the Ottomans. The Russian Empire was promised the capital Istanbul by the two of Entente Powers of World War I. It was a fight for the survival of a nation, a struggle for life or death.

“The victory in Gallipoli didn’t help Turks win the war but it gave hope to resist and start the war of independence a couple of years later. The resistance is honoured every year on March 18 in Gallipoli and on the shores of the Dardanelles.

“Gallipoli is of significant importance to others like Australia and New Zealand. Each year, on April 25, they commemorate the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) who died in Gallipoli. This is known as ANZAC day.

“It was a battle away from home. It wasn’t even their war. They were dominions of the British Empire when the war broke out. Gallipoli is now a symbol of their national identity and existence. Their nations were born there.

Armenians remember 24 April with greater sorrow

Armenians remember 24 April with greater sorrow

“This year is the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Gallipoli. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has invited more than 100 world leaders, including Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan, to attend centennial commemoration ceremonies. The UK’s Prince Charles and the prime ministers of Australia and New Zealand are expected to take part in the ceremonies as well.

“It is upsetting that Sargsyan has decided to reject the invitation, which would have helped lead us one step closer to understanding and reaching closure on the tragic events of 1915. The invitation, after all, was yet another historic move following Erdoğan’s statement.

“Turkey will commemorate the centennial on April 24 instead of the regular memorial date, March 18, in a symbolic gesture of compassion. April 24 also marks the start of the deportation of Armenians by Turkish unionist authorities – it is the day Armenians around the world traditionally commemorate their ancestors who were killed in that campaign.

“Ten years ago, merely talking about 1915 [in Turkey] was a feat of bravery, but now there is no taboo when discussing anything out loud.

“Discussing and understanding history is more conducive to progress than being stuck at the same point for years, and Gallipoli is one of the most appropriate places to start.” Read the whole artice.

Bodrum to Gallipoli – A week’s wandering in Aegean Turkey

A major benefit of receiving visitors from abroad – apart from the happiness of catching up with family and old friends – is the motivation they provide for getting out and seeing the sights of Turkey through fresh eyes. We had a family wedding in May which brought guests from the USA, and took us down to Bodrum a month or so earlier than usual. Then some old neighbours arrived from New Zealand, and together we took a slow trip through the Aegean region back to Istanbul.
Here are a few highlights:
Myndos is the ancient name for the modern village of Gümüşlük-by-the-Sea where our journey began. There is no evidence to indicate that it had much more importance in those days than it has today – which is perhaps its saving grace. The Bodrum Peninsula is in serious danger of succumbing to the curse of over-development, but the existence of classical ruins beneath its humble surface has so far saved Gümüşlük from the worst depredations. Its small natural harbour and sandy beaches lined with atmospheric fish restaurants and small shops selling tasteful handcrafts, and jams and marmalades made from locally-grown fruits, attract visitors desperate to escape the English breakfasts, English football and Turkish nightclubs that blight other resorts on the peninsula.
Recently archeologists from Bursa’s Uludağ University have been fossicking around remains of temples, churches, theatres and bathhouses – and council workers laying pipes accidentally turned up a Roman necropolis. So far, fortunately, nothing’s been found that’s likely to attract coachloads of tourists or titanic cruise liners.
Magnesia-on-the-Meander. Certainly there are other sites on the road deserving a visit, but this one is a little publicized gem. My previous visits had been in the heat and dust of July or August, so carpets of red, purple and yellow spring flowers made for an extra delight. The city was renowned for its temple to Artemis Leucophryeno which, in its heyday, was little inferior to the better known temple at Ephesus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Sadly, not much remains today, but a short walk will take you to a 20,000-seater stadium, wonderfully preserved as a result of being buried for centuries under a landslide caused by a 7th century earthquake. Incidentally, our word ‘magnet’ is said to come from lodestones found in Magnesia.
The modern town of Selçuk is a popular base for tourists wishing to visit Ephesus and other neighbouring cities of classical antiquity. Americans and touchingly credulous Roman Catholics climb a nearby mountain to pay their respects at a site purported to be built over an earlier house once inhabited by Mary, mother of Jesus (or of God Himself, if you are of that persuasion). The ‘purporter’ was apparently a stigmatised ecstatic visionary German nun who, despite never having left her home territory of Westphalia, provided directions to the said house, delivered to her in a visitation from the said Mary.
If you do go to Ephesus, I recommend shelling out a few extra dollars for admission to the terrace houses, a work in progress recreating the lives of well-heeled Ephesians back when the apostle Paul was writing to them (well, maybe not to those Ephesians). An international crew of dedicated archeologists is carrying out unbelievably painstaking work reassembling wall frescoes and floor mosaics from thousands of fragments that you and I would probably not even notice.
It is generally understood that carpet-sellers in Turkey are a local hazard to be avoided at all costs. However, an exception to the rule is a government-sponsored co-operative located behind the (currently closed) Selçuk museum on the back road to the 13th century Mosque of Isa Bey. We stumbled upon it by accident and allowed ourselves to be inveigled in. It did, however, turn out to be a worthwhile mishap. Apart from providing a place for master (or mistress) weavers to work and train young apprentices and market their wares, the centre also gives insights into the age-old art of silk production. One interesting fact I learned – the ancient Egyptians used silk threads to cut the stones used for pyramid building. Well, true or not, I have always wondered how those artisans of old were able to accurately cut thin sheets of marble for lining their temples and churches.
It’s a bit of a trek from Selçuk – and probably you need a vehicle of your own – but Aphrodisias is a magical site well worth a visit. At this point I have to give a plug to my friend Adrian. We were fortunate to find him in town, sipping a cold ale at Eksellans Bar on Saturday evening, and he was gracious enough to let us tag along on his Sunday tour. Aphrodisias is, of course, named for the goddess Aphrodite, since there was a major cult of followers located in the city in ancient times. I wouldn’t be the first to suggest a connection between the Greek goddess, earlier Aegean deities Cybele and Artemis, and the cult of the Virgin Mary that subsequently developed when Christianity became the state religion in these parts.
For my money, Aphrodisias is a more atmospheric site than the better known, and more accessible Ephesus. Precisely because of its lesser accessibility, of course, you will find fewer tour buses from the cruise liners of Kuşadası. The on-site museum is a treasure house of fabulous sculpture, and the almost intact stadium redolent of Russell Crowe’s ‘Gladiator’. If you are lucky enough to have Adrian in your party, you will be treated to translations of the many inscriptions for which this site is renowned.
The modern Turkish town of Bergama is located at the foot of the acropolis of the ancient city of Pergamon. Many of the best finds are more likely to be seen in the eponymous museum in Berlin, but still it’s a spectacular site with a breath-taking theatre built on the precipitous hill. Roman engineers brought water by aqueduct from 40+ kilometres away, and some local inventor came up with the idea of parchment. Apparently commodity traders in Cairo had started stock-piling papyrus in anticipation of a shortage thereby creating a shortage, and got their come-uppance in a big way!
A brisk walk from the bottom of the hill will bring you to the Asklepius Medical Centre, whose residents included the famous physician Galen. Among its patients were some with psychiatric disorders, who were treated with music, dream interpretation and the sound of a sacred spring burbling down the corridor. Incidentally, if you’re looking for place to stay with a little ambience I can recommend the Athena Pension, an old Greek house with a view of the acropolis from its walled garden.
Following our hosts’ recommendation, instead of retracing our steps, we took a back road through Kozak – according to locals, the richest town in Turkey because of its trade in pine nuts. The road brought us out a little north of Ayvalik where we stopped for lunch at a delightful little place called Zeytin Altı Kır BahçesiA Country garden under the Olive Trees. As with many of the best Turkish eateries, its menu was limited to what they do best: grilled köfte and gözleme, both of which were delicious! We also picked up a few local products, fruit juice and a kind of molasses (pekmez) made from mulberries, and some tasty sliced olives in tomato sauce.
Our final stopover was the town of Çanakkaleon the southern coast of the Dardanelles, where we booked a tour to the killing fields and cemeteries of Gallipoli, that long-ago exercise in military futility that has nevertheless bequeathed a sense of identity to Australia, New Zealand and the modern Republic of Turkey. My guests and I felt a strong admiration for the Turks who have allowed former invaders to maintain cemeteries to their fallen heroes, to build a large memorial on the crucial ridge of Chunuk Bair, and have even erected a signpost directing visitors to Anzak Koyu (Anzac Cove).
One of our fellow travellers on the tour bus was a young Maori lad who told us that he intended to perform a haka in honour of his ancestors who had fought and died for a king and empire to whom they had little cause to feel obligated. It was an impressive one-man performance that brought a tear to my eye – and a little anger against an elderly Anglo-Australian woman who demanded indignantly to know why we had to be subjected to such a spectacle.
A curious incident occurred as we were about to board the ferry that would take us across the water to the town of Eceabat. One of our guides, a young Turkish lass calling herself Zuzu, with a Goth hairdo and numerous body piercings, announced that we would in fact take a later boat because there were a few Turkish police on our intended ferry, and ‘they kill people’. I wonder what what the short-stay tourists made of that.

Another Anzac Day in Turkey – Modern myths and legends

Another Anzac Day is just a few weeks away. It’s not the big one. 2015, in fact, will see the centennial of that dreadful exercise in military futility known in English as the Gallipoli Campaign, and to Turks as the Çanakkale War. Next year visitor numbers will be limited, I understand, to politicians, celebrities and ordinary folk lucky enough to have their number drawn in a ballot.
‘Evacuation’ – Anzac statue in
Australian War Memorial Museum
This year, I guess, there are fewer restrictions, and the usual crowds of pilgrims from Downunder will converge on the beaches, battlefields and cemeteries where more than eleven thousand of their grandfathers left their mortal remains during eight months of bitter trench warfare.
One reason I am writing this a little early is that I wanted to bisect the dates selected by Turks and Anzacs to commemorate the event. For Turks, in fact, it has passed. 18 March is when they celebrate their victory – sadly ironic for Australians and New Zealanders who remember 25 April as the day our boys first came ashore at Anzac Cove. As far as Ottoman Commanders were concerned, the major threat came from battleships of the combined French and British navies attempting to storm through the Dardanelles, heave to at the entrance to the Bosporus, train their 15 inch guns on the Sultan’s palace and offer him the chance to come out quietly with his hands up.
Like many well-laid and not-so-well-laid plans of mice and men, the naval gambit didn’t come off. Three battleships (one French and two British) were sunk by the shore batteries and mines inhospitably emplaced by Ottoman defence forces. The Royal Navy and its French allies beat a strategic retreat, and Plan B was put into action. Plan B was, of course, the beach landings with which we antipodeans are more familiar. For their part the Ottomans, trusting in conventional military wisdom which favours the defenders in a marine-based invasion, backed themselves to turn it back – which they ultimately did, after eight months of fairly pointless slaughter.
These days, however, what we descendants of those Anzac lads choose to commemorate is something more symbolic. At the time, of course, the British Empire was still claiming to rule the seas and an empire on which the sun never set. New Zealanders, at least, were still colonials and thinking of Britain as ‘Home’; the King and Country they were fighting for, George V and Mother England. Many of us these days, rightly or wrongly, look upon 25 April 1915 as the date we began to grow up as a nation, to cut the imperial apron strings and to forge our own identity. The brave young men who performed above and beyond the call of duty in those Gallipoli valleys and on the ridges planted the seeds of independence and self-determination in our national psyche.
The actual day of commemoration in Turkey may be different, but that bloody struggle has an equally important place in the popular consciousness. Defeat in the First World War heralded the end of the 600-year Ottoman Empire. Victory in the Çanakkale War marked the beginning of the rise of Mustafa Kemal who went on to lead the resistance movement that turned back a military invasion, expelled occupying forces and founded the modern Republic of Turkey.
Legends abound on both sides of extraordinary courage, heart-rending pathos and minor events with major repercussions. One such is known to Turks as ‘the watch that changed a nation’s destiny’. One of the crucial engagements of the campaign took place on the ridge of Conk Bayırı (Chunuk Bair). During that closely fought encounter, a piece of shrapnel is said to have struck Col. Mustafa Kemal in the chest – the watch in his breast pocket taking the impact and very likely saving his life. Turks often say, ‘If not for Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, there would be no Turkey.’
‘A Man and his Donkey’
Melbourne War Memorial
On the Anzac side, an enduring story is that of Private Simpson who, with his trusty donkey, earned fame and gratitude by ferrying wounded comrades back to the shore under constant fire in an area known as Shrapnel Gully. Prints of the man and his beast hang on walls of RSA clubrooms, and a statue by sculptor Wallace Anderson in the Australian War Memorial in Melbourne enshrines the legend.
In Turkey too, statues are to be found that embody the courage and self-sacrifice of young men who managed to retain their humanity in those inhuman conditions. There is Corporal Seyit, a gunner who is reputed to have carried single-handedly three artillery shells weighing 275kg to the shore batteries silenced when the shell crane was damaged.
Another, in a location known to Anzacs as Pine Ridge, immortalises the deed of a Turkish soldier who carried a wounded Allied officer to safety.  According to an article in The Daily Telegraph, the officer, a captain, ‘lay in no man’s land while a ferocious battle raged around him. A white flag tied to the muzzle of a rifle appeared from a Turkish trench and the shooting suddenly stopped. A Turkish soldier climbed from the trench, picked up the officer, delivered him to the Australian lines and returned to his own side.’ The story is considered reliable since it was reported by a Lieutenant Richard Casey who later became Governor-General of Australia.
It is a surprising thing to me that Turks seem to harbour no resentment against the descendants of those Anzacs who invaded their country and killed eighty thousand of their young men. On the contrary, I have found that my New Zealand nationality seems to give me a special status in Turkey. We are accorded free-of-charge a three-month visitor’s visa when we enter the country – a gesture, I am sad to say, our government does not reciprocate. The magnanimous words of Atatürk to the mothers of Anzac soldiers killed in action are often quoted:
Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives . . . You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side now here in this country of ours. You, the mothers, who sent your sons from faraway countries, wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well
I was a little saddened, then, to read the following article in my local Turkish newspaper last week (I am translating directly from the Turkish):
“On the 99th anniversary of the Çanakkale Naval Victory, and as Anzacs prepare for ceremonies commemorating their war dead, an 89 year-old insult has come to light.
A statue entitled ‘Evacuation’ in the collection of the War memorial Museum in the Australian capital city Canberra depicts an Anzac soldier leaning against a gun carriage with a Turkish flag under his feet . . . and beside the flag a human skull assumed to belong to a Turkish soldier. The gun carriage on which the Anzac soldier is leaning represents war and the disaster of Gallipoli. The Turkish flag and skull on which he is standing symbolize the territory they invaded and the enemies they killed.
The Museum’s website contains photographs, and information that the statue was modelled in clay in 1925, moulded in plaster in 1926 and cast in bronze in Melbourne in 1927. According to notes on the website, the 82 cm-high statue was later bought by the Australian War Memorial Museum and added to its collection.
While our boys during the Çanakkale War were waving a white flag to pause hostilities and behaving like gentlemen in carrying a wounded Anzac soldier back to his own trench, the continued presence of this statue in the collection after 89 years has drawn a reaction from history scholars.
Every year on Anzac Day, April 25, Australians and New Zealanders coming to pay their respects to their forebears are welcomed at Kanlısırt on the Gallipoli Peninsula by a monument depicting a Turkish soldier carrying a wounded Anzac soldier in his arms.”
Well, I checked it out and it’s true. There is such a statue in the Australian War Memorial Museum, and it seems to contain the details the Turkish columnist was objecting to. The sculptor referred to earlier, Wallace Anderson, served in France during the First World War, so he had first hand experience of the conflict. Apparently he saw it as his artistic mission ‘to show the public the qualities of Australian servicemen, rather than just the details of war’. This particular piece, entitled ‘Evacuation’, according to the museum website, portrays an ‘idealised depiction of Australian manhood’, an admirable sentiment, as far as it goes. We should recognize, however, that what may have been important to Australians and New Zealanders back there in the 1920s may have been superseded by the requirements of living in the 21st century global village.
One of the myths of Gallipoli, from an Allied point-of-view is that, although we were unsuccessful, we put up an almighty fight, and in the end, by remarkable feats of ingenuity and cunning, managed to spirit ourselves away from under the noses of the Turkish gunners without major loss of life. It is just possible, however, that those Ottoman commanders, seeing the invaders were obviously intent on vacating the premises, and buggering off back to wherever they had come from, elected to let them go without inflicting more unnecessary casualties. It may have been deemed necessary, in Australia in 1925, to maintain the myth by suggesting that, in spite of the manifest failure of the Gallipoli invasion, our boys had trampled on the Turkish flag and inflicted heavy casualties on those young men defending their homeland – but 90 years on we may want to accept that such jingoistic imperialism belongs, at best, to the footnotes of history.
One of my favourite New Zealand writers, Maurice Shadbolt, produced a book based on interviews he carried out in the early 1980s. Realising that the Gallipoli generation would not be around much longer, Shadbolt hunted out a number of survivors and visited them in old folks’ homes around New Zealand. ‘Voices of Gallipoli’ is a collection of transcripts of the interviews he conducted with these men, now in their 80s, some of whom had not spoken of their experiences from that day to this. Their poignant recollections convey, with dramatic simplicity, the contrast between the idealised heroic glamour of war and the dehumanising squalor, terror and personal loss of the Gallipoli experience:
“I lost my dearest friend, Teddy Charles, that day.  We joined up together and saw the campaign through together until Chunuk Bair.  There were no officers left, no NCOs. Just soldiers.  Teddy led thirty men forward to try and hold the ridge.  He called, “Come on, Vic”, but I was impeded by Turkish fire.  We never saw those thirty men again.  Later, in the dark, I thought I heard Teddy’s voice calling for his mother, then for me. But then the place was crawling with Turks and I couldn’t get to him.  He’s still on Chunuk Bair, a pile of bones.”
“Veterans of the Wellington battalion remember a member of the machine-gun section being sentenced to death for sleeping at his post. It happened in late July at Quinn’s Post. The sentence was remitted on medical grounds as the man had not been relieved from sentry duty at the proper time.  He continued to serve on the peninsula and was killed in the August battles.”
Interestingly, there is very little information about this book online – it seems to be out of print and I was unable to find an in-depth review. How many years must pass before we are able to view historical events with dispassionate objectivity? Very occasionally we are permitted a glimpse into a ‘familiar’ event through the eyes of another observer – and the experience can be sobering.
I read another Turkish source suggesting that, if the invasion of Gallipoli had succeeded and Allied forces had been able to supply and reinvigorate the Czarist Russian military, as was their aim, the Bolshevik Revolution might have been delayed and perhaps never have occurred. The red tide of British Imperialism might have flowed a little longer – and that of Soviet Communism faded before it began. The world might have been spared the mindlessly suffocating half-century of Cold War threats and posturing.

History is full of ‘Ifs’ and ‘might-have-beens’ . . . and it’s worth remembering that there are at least two sides to every story.

Turks and Anzacs – A strange friendship

Overcoming Conflict: How The Battle Of Gallipoli Sparked A New Friendship – OpEd

By Onur Işçi and Sevin Elekdağ

Every year on April 25, Turks join with Australian and New Zealand friends to commemorate ANZAC Day. On this day 98 years ago, with the Allies at their side, the newly formed Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZACS) landed on the Gallipoli peninsula to invade the Ottoman Empire’s capital, modern-day Istanbul, and take control of a precious WWI supply route to Russia. As support for the war waned, the British came to Australia with a propaganda machine aimed at encouraging young Australian men to sign-up to fight in this war on a foreign land half a world away. Over the next nine months, the Turks fought a bloody battle against the ANZACs, and while the Ottoman army ultimately prevailed, both sides suffered great hardships and heavy casualties. Read more

The Soft Power of the Idiot Box – Turkish TV in the Arab Spring

The Turkish word for a TV series or soap opera is ‘dizi’ – and ‘dizzy’ is probably a good word to describe the effects that Turkish TV series are having these days in this part of the world. For a start they are huge business in Turkey itself.  There is a series for every niche market in the country. From the working class lives of ‘Coronation St’ and ‘East Enders’, through the decadent wealthy suburbia of ‘Desperate Housewives’ and the James Bond machismo of ‘Valley of the Wolves’, there is a local show with appeal for every sector of Turkish society.
Sultan Süleiman and his desperate housewives

If you promise to keep my secret, I will confess that most weeks I sidle alongside my good lady, Dilek, on the couch in our living room and up-date myself on the constantly frustrated attempts of the eponymous heroine to bring her rapists to justice in the series ‘Fatmagül’, and more recently, the on-again off-again relationship of Kuzey and Cemre[1]in ‘North and South’. Lead actors in these shows are household names in Turkey, commanding salaries comparable to the CEO of a medium size business. Their pictures and latest escapades are everyday fare in the gossip pages of local newspapers, and scandal-hungry paparazzi lie in wait behind every Ferrari and Audi SUV.

So seriously do Turks follow the labyrinthine twists and turns of their on-screen heroes and heroines that some have difficulty separating the actor from his or her role. It was reported that one avid fan had slipped a note into the hand of Selçuk Yöntem, the thespian playing middle-aged Adnan Ziyagil in ‘Forbidden Love’, warning him that his young wife Bihter was cheating on him. Beren Saat, the real-life persona of beautiful Bihter, is adored by thousands of adolescent male Turks, whose tender hearts have been dealt a bitter blow by her recent engagement to local pop star Kenan Doğulu.
But it’s not just Turks who are going dizzy over the dizis. Waheed Samy, general manager of Egypt-based Memphis Tours, was reported as saying he believed that Turkish TV series ‘are responsible for a 50% increase in the number of tourists to Turkey.’ ‘Forbidden Love’, based loosely on a 1900 novel known in Turkish as ‘Aşk-ı Memnu’, was one of the first Turkish series to be dubbed into Arabic. It reportedly attracted 85 million viewers at the peak of its popularity, setting off a trend that has grown into a multi-million dollar industry with far-reaching effects in the Arab world. One journalist referred to the phenomenon recently as ‘the Turkish TV series spring’ – a reference to the more violent events taking place in public squares of the same countries.
Abdullah Çelik, a spokesman for the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism, was quotedas saying that revenue from the sale of local TV series abroad had reached $65 million by the end of 2010 – up from zero in 2006. Monetary figures were not available for 2011, but he went on to say that 10,500 hours of TV series had been sold abroad that year. Not a small thing in times of global economic recession.
Of course, it is not merely the economic effects of this ‘soft power’ revolution that is attracting attention. A recent article on Euro News reported interviews with young people from Arab countries explaining the appeal of these Turkish shows:
“(What you see in this series is) you can be Muslim and you can be modern. They show that part of life (that) some of the Arabic people (are) deprived of – technology, nice living, modern life. They show the part of life that we don’t have in some of our countries,” said Auhood, an Iraqi tourist.
“It (the series) shows all the Muslim people can be open minded, open life, they can have modern life style,” added Asma, from Egypt.
It could be said that the possibility of Islamic culture coexisting comfortably with modern democracy as portrayed in these programmes is doing more to undermine autocracy and inequality in Arab countries than all the munitions supplied by the arms industries of the major world powers.
Still, it seems not everyone in Turkey is happy with the direction the Turkish film industry is taking. An Istanbul MP said she believed that these series hurt the image of Turkey abroad by glorifying corruption and immorality. The Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan himself, entered the debate in the past week with pointed criticism of the enormously popular ‘Muhteşem Yüzyıl’, set in the 16th century Ottoman Golden Age of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. His beef seemed to be that the real Suleiman spent much of his life in the saddle, leading his victorious armies to conquests throughout the Middle East and Eastern Europe, even to the gates of the Hapsburg capital, Vienna. The screen version of the illustrious Padishah, known to Turks as ’The Lawgiver’, seems to have a preference for other mounts in the inner sanctum of Topkapı palace’s harem.
Well, you can see the PM’s point, and, as a keen amateur historian, I have some sympathy for the argument that says young Turkish kids are getting a distorted picture of the Ottoman Empire at the peak of its power – an image perhaps more in line with that of Western Orientalists, who portrayed the ‘Grand Turk’ and his ‘Divan’ as dissolute, debauched and degenerate, ready to avail themselves of sexual opportunities in whatever form they came most conveniently to hand.
Conversely, not everyone is as devoted to the search for historical truth as we may be ourselves. I watched, in a cinema not so long ago, another recent product of the Turkish film industry, ‘Çanakkale’. Çanakkale, as my readers will know, is a town on the Dardanelles Straits that lent its name to the First World War fiasco we in the West know as the Gallipoli Campaign. The ‘Çanakkale War’ is dear to Turkish hearts, being the only theatre of the ‘Great War’ where Ottoman forces achieved significant success. The details and myths are well known to every Turkish child, and the film reinforces them all – from the heroic exploits of artillery corporal Seyit, single-handedly lugging 12 inch shells for the shore-based batteries, to the fob watch of Colonel Mustafa Kemal (later Atatürk) which saved the future president from a shrapnel fragment in the heart.
The thing is, though, I have yet to meet anyone (and I mean Turks here) who actually liked the film. Sad to say, bayonet charges, sinking Royal Navy battleships, and life in the trenches may be true-life events, but they don’t capture the hearts and minds of cinema-goers and couch potatoes. We don’t get to know anyone in the film, and consequently we don’t engage with it. Steven Spielberg understood this, which is why he didn’t call that film ‘The Normandy Invasion’ – but invented a GI private by the name of James Ryan, thereby generating a touching story with human interest, and probably making a good deal of money into the bargain.
Furthermore, there may well have been younger generations of viewers for whom ‘Saving Private Ryan’ brought to life an important historical event that might otherwise have remained remote and meaningless to them. There may even have been some who left the theatre with an urge to learn more about the war their grandfathers fought in all those years before. For the rest, it was a couple of hours of entertainment; incidentally presenting to the world out there an American view of themselves they would like us all to believe. And why not? Cinema as nationalist propaganda is not to be underestimated. Just ask the Greeks.
Huh? Run that by me again. How did the Greeks get into this? Well, apparently the board of their state-run TV channel ERT just last week fired their general manager over a documentary focusing on the effects of Turkish TV series on Greek society. It seems that series such as ‘The Magnificent Century’, ‘The Bitter Age’ (‘Acı Hayat’) and ‘The Tulip Age’ (‘Lale Devri’) have gained a large following on the other side of the Aegean – and this is disturbing divines of the Orthodox Church and ultra-nationalists of the so-called ‘Golden Dawn’ movement. The ERT board evidently bowed to political pressure and Mr Kostas Spyropoulos’s head rolled.
So what’s the answer? I’ve never been a big TV watcher, so personally, I probably wouldn’t care much if all the series, soap operas and made-for-TV dramatisations of great classics disappeared from the air waves. Nevertheless, I recognise that I represent a tiny minority of the world’s population, most of whom are mesmerised by what they see on the idiot box. For that reason if no other, it seems to me that Turks should be pretty happy about how Turkish television is forging a new image for their nation on the world stage.
My step-daughter, Perin, for her doctoral dissertation, came up with an interesting term ‘Wild-Westernisation’, to describe the uncontrolled processes by which the Republic of Turkey has been assimilated and is assimilating itself, into the modern world. Turkey has long suffered from a poor image abroad, as a result of forces largely beyond its own control. It’s my feeling that there is currently a parallel reverse process going on which we might term ‘Wild-Turkification’, whereby a new image for the country is being shaped by media events like ‘Muhteşem Yüzyıl’ and the ‘Eurovision Song Quest’. I think, if I were representing the country at a political level, I would be inclined to go with the flow, and bathe in the reflected glory, now that those uncontrollable forces have taken a turn for the better.

[1] Pronounced Jem-reh

Turkey and New Zealand – Border Monuments

Regular readers may remember a piece I wrote a year or so ago about the Turkish dessert, ashure. My short essay won a competition on the website ‘Changing Turkey in  Changing World‘.  I attempted to retain my title in their second ‘Big Idea’ competition, but this time I could only manage runner-up.  The topic was:

Border monuments are often designed to celebrate mobility and interconnectedness. According to the architect Cecil Balmond, “A border offers identity but one that is enriched by neighbours, so that it’s not so much a line of separation as a local set of interconnected values.”
We are seeking short essays (max. 1,500 words) on any European border monument. Entries are invited on these or any other border monuments located in Europe. We are particularly interested in learning why those monuments were built in the first place and how they contribute to the connection between two separate communities.

And here’s my response . . . 


The question calls for a European border monument, so I should briefly explain why I am focussing on four – two of which are far from Europe. In doing so, I have in mind questions of my own: If borders are lines drawn to keep people apart, is their real existence on a map, or in the human mind? Do values connect on the ground, or in the mind? Does the uniting of people take place in a physical location – or in the mind?


My home these days is in Istanbul, but I come from a country about as far from Turkey as it is possible to get. My hometown, Auckland, New Zealand, is 17,000 kilometres away. Carry on a little further, you’ll cross the International Dateline into yesterday, and be on your way back. When my father’s ancestors left the old country, Scotland, in June, 1842, they endured a four-month sea voyage. When I board my Airbus 340-600 on 13 January, I’ll be looking at a trip of 31 hours and 20 minutes. I will check out with Turkish Police at Atatürk Airport, and get a going-over from the NZ border people when I arrive in Auckland. In between, I will fly over half the world, mostly at an altitude of around 10,000 metres.

It is self-evident that borders these days are not as straightforward as they used to be. Turkey has an almost 10,000 kilometre-long border on land and sea – but where do customs officers do most of their business? Airports, I guess. New Zealand has 15,000 kilometres of coastline, and no border with another country – yet we are one of the world’s most peripatetic people, constantly crossing international borders, especially to destinations in Europe, where most of us have our roots.

Not many New Zealanders have roots in Turkey. However, a surprisingly large number visit the country each year – many of them on a pilgrimage that has become an annual event towards the end of April. They flock to the town of Çanakkale, attend a solemn dawn parade with politicians and neighbours from Australia, and visit the cemeteries and killing-fields of that long-ago exercise in military futility, the Gallipoli invasion.

The first time I visited that desolate landscape was with a group from the Turkish school where I had begun working as a teacher of English. The date was 18 March, a few weeks before the latter-day Anzacs would arrive, but the day on which Turks commemorate their victory. The highlight for me was ascending to the ridge overlooking the peninsula, known to Turks as Conk Bayırı, and in Anzac legend as Chunuk Bair. This narrow strip of land was the key to the campaign, and the objective of a twelve-day battle in August 1915. Reports tell us that it was the only Allied success of the entire Gallipoli invasion – sad when you consider that a small force of New Zealanders fought their way up and held the ridge for a mere 48 hours, suffering horrendous losses, before being driven off by the Ottoman counter-attack.

The positive thing, from a New Zealand point-of-view is that there, on that ridge of ghosts, stand two memorials. The larger one commemorates the hero of the Ottoman defence, Colonel Mustafa Kemal, who went on to become the founder and first president of the Republic of Turkey. Alongside is a second shrine, to the memory of the young men from New Zealand who fought and died on that lonely ridge, so far from home and family. It is this latter monument on which I will focus, and to which we will return.
Atatürk Memorial,
Wellington, NZ

Seventeen thousand kilometres away, on a hillside near Wellington, the capital city of New Zealand, a site chosen for its remarkable similarity to the terrain of Gallipoli, stands another monument, this one to the memory of that same Mustafa Kemal (later Atatürk). There is no line on any map linking or separating the two countries. The distance between them is as great as possible between two places on planet Earth – yet these two monuments so far apart, represent an interconnectedness, a sharing of history and values, that transcend mere physical distance.

Young men from New Zealand and Australia, loyal citizens of the British Empire, spent a month travelling by ship to Europe, to fight for King and Country in the Great War.  Thousands of them never returned, but left their remains on foreign fields. One might expect that Turks, at least, would harbour some ill-feeling against people who travelled so far with aggressive intent – but it is not so. Inscribed on that monument near Wellington are the magnanimous words of the Turkish leader:

“Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives . . . You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side now here in this country of ours . . . You, the mothers, who sent your sons from faraway countries, wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.”

It was in recognition of this great-heartedness, that the government of New Zealand raised a memorial to Atatürk on the ridge above Tarakena Bay, and in acknowledgment of the Turkish government’s allowing the building of the NZ shrine at Chunuk Bair – commemorating the 850 Kiwi ‘Johnnies’ who ‘lie in the bosom’ of the Turkish Republic. These two monuments link the hearts and minds of two nations whose birth pangs can be traced to those bloody months on the Gallipoli Peninsula in 1915. The words of a Turkish poet, Necmettin Halil Onan, are inscribed in huge letters on a hillside overlooking the Dardanelle Straits, and the lines could be as true for New Zealand as for Turkey:

Traveler, pause. An era ended
Where you heedless tread. Listen
And hear, in the silence of this
Mound, a nation’s beating heart. [1]

But there is more to this connection. A few years ago I was wandering along Raglan Beach, on the West Coast of New Zealand’s North Island, when I chanced upon three carved wooden sculptures, unmistakably Maori: a traditional tattooed male figure, a bird and a dolphin, all silver-grey and weathered by the winds and salt spray sweeping in from two thousand kilometres of one of the world’s wildest seas.

Aotearoa, as the indigenous Maori people call New Zealand, is a lonely, isolated land, bordered on all sides by vast oceans, and, it goes without saying, no contiguous neighbours. Anthropologists tell us that these islands were the last habitable landmass to be populated by humans, who made their landing less than a thousand years ago. Those first arrivals, the Maori, maintained their splendid isolation for perhaps five centuries before Europeans began to arrive from the late 1700s. For the next hundred years, immigrants from Europe faced a journey of four months on a sailing ship. And there we are to this day, descendants of those intrepid pioneers, inhabiting a cluster of islands in the South Pacific Ocean, far from our roots in the British Isles, speaking a language whose closest relations are half a world away. The carved figures are not of European origin, yet they speak eloquently of our isolation, and search for identity.

I have seen a lot of Turkey, but there is a line I have yet to travel – east from the capital Ankara through the Anatolian cities of Sivas, Erzincan and Erzurum, to Kars and the Armenian border. Out there, 1174 kilometres, and a universe away from the European metropolis of Istanbul, lies the town of Manzikert (Malazgirt in Turkish) in the province of Muş. As every Turkish school child will tell you, this was the site of a battle in 1071 CE, when the forces of the Seljuk Turkish Sultan Alparslan defeated the army of the Byzantine Emperor, Romanus Diogenes. His victory opened the way for Turks to sweep into Anatolia, where they remain today – in defiance of the feelings of many Western Europeans, who wish they would return to whence they came.

My fourth monument is there, in that remote East Anatolian town – erected in 1989 to commemorate a long ago battle. It may be debatable whether this edifice is in Europe, but the Turks indisputably are, as out of place with their language and traditions as we white New Zealanders are down there in the South Pacific. It’s a strange world we live in, and sources of conflict are easy to find. The borders we draw, on the ground and in our minds, are often lines of defence. Crossing them to make connections requires imagination and breadth of vision. My four monuments can be seen as unconnected and irrelevant – or as pointers to a new world where we seek the values we share, rather than the differences that divide us.

Word count (including Preamble) = 1495

1 My translation