Orientalism – Alive and well in the NY Times

Turkey is a difficult country to get a handle on. Citizens themselves don’t find it easy. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who founded the Republic in 1923, is credited with uttering many wise words for the guidance of his people. Among the best known: “Happy is the one who says, ‘I am a Turk.’” He was a wise man, that Mustafa Kemal. He knew he needed to foster a spirit of Turkish nationalism that would inspire a war-weary people to fight once more for the survival of their country. He was equally aware that ‘Turkishness’ was not an easy concept to define, but he wanted to encourage the same feelings of patriotism others invoke when they say, ‘I’m Australian’, ‘I’m British’, or whatever. Try to define any of those words, however, and you may soon find yourself in difficulties. Possibly it’s enough to say ‘I’m American’ and believe it in your heart, without having to provide specific details of your personal creed and ethnic origins.

Camels in Turkey - a photo op for tourists

Camels in Turkey – a photo op for tourists

For that reason, I guess, it’s pretty nigh impossible for outsiders to grasp what is that makes an American or a Turk what he or she is – but of course that doesn’t stop us from trying, and often falling into the trap of stereotyping. In the opening years of the 21st century the Republic of Turkey seems to have emerged as an influential figure in international affairs, with a (sometimes disturbing) will of its own – so it’s not surprising that more attempts are being made to understand what makes Turkey tick.

I’ve just been reading a book review clipped from the New York Times and sent to me by an American friend. The book is ‘Midnight at the Pera Palace – The Birth of Modern Istanbul’ by Charles King, reviewed by Jason Goodwin – and it happens that I have books by both writers on my shelves at home. Mr Goodwin is a Cambridge-educated historian and novelist who clearly has a fascination for the old days of the Ottoman Empire. I haven’t read his novels – the book in my collection is ‘Lords of the Horizons’, a history of the Ottoman saga that begins in the third millennium BCE in the steppes of Central Asia and ends in 1923 when the last Ottoman Sultan is smuggled on board a British warship and spirited away from an empire that has ceased to exist.

Istanbul's Pera Palace Hotel - recently restored to glory

Istanbul’s Pera Palace Hotel – recently restored to glory

Charles King is probably a more committed historian, Professor of International Affairs and Government at Georgetown University, Washington DC, an institution, Wikipedia informs me, that is the oldest Jesuit and Catholic university in the United States. Feeling a need to learn about a mysterious region that attracts media attention from time to time, I purchased Prof. King’s ‘The Ghost of Freedom – A History of the Caucasus’, which I found both readable and immensely informative.

So I have nothing against either of these gentlemen. I respect their scholarship, writing skills and interest in helping outsiders, especially in the West, to gain better understanding of distant lands and people that continue to influence world affairs. I was, however, somewhat disappointed to find significant errors of fact and misleading statements of opinion in the review which I hope were not sourced from Prof. King’s new book.

Jason Goodwin does concede that Istanbul (and possibly by extension, Turkey) ‘is a rare blend of Islam and democracy’, but he can’t resist beginning his review with reference to the so-called ‘Gezi Park’ demonstrations of 2013. While distancing himself with the use of phrases like ‘many people felt’ and ‘Some suspected’, he manages to work in the one-sided opinion that a dictatorial government and its leader were using police violence to enforce their ‘narrow ends’ on a peace-loving population.

Ottoman army conquers Constantinople - May, 1453

Ottoman army conquers Constantinople – May, 1453

Well, he’s entitled to his views, although as a ‘historian’ one might expect him to be a little more objective – not to say knowledgeable. ‘Constantinople,’ he says in his review, ‘as Istanbul was known in the 1930s.’ Known to who? Even followers of popular music in the USA would be aware that it was ‘Istanbul, not Constantinople.’ and had been for nearly five centuries. And a quick glance at Wikipedia would inform the reviewer that the Pera Palace Hotel was built a good forty years earlier, in 1892, in a district not ‘decimated by fire’ (whatever that means) but even today characterized by an abundance of spectacular 19th century architecture.

Goodwin’s most outrageous sentence would have to be the one where he says that ‘Muslims [were] outnumbered, by one estimate, 15 to one’ in First World War Istanbul. According to 1914 census figures, Muslims in Istanbul numbered 560,434 out of a total population of 909,978 – ten times more than the figure that reviewer’s unreferenced ‘estimate’ would yield. Possibly he is thinking of just the Pera/Galata area on the northern shore of the Golden Horn where traders, ambassadors and other migrants from Europe had been allowed for centuries to take up residence in this ‘City of the World’s Desire’. If so, he should certainly know better. The real Istanbul, even Constantinople, was located on the other shore, enclosed by the walls of the ancient city, and reserved for citizens of the Empire – Muslims, Jews, Armenians and Orthodox Christians.

Goodwin suggests that Professor King’s book tells stories ‘the Erdoğans [referring to Turkey’s President] of today would gladly leapfrog’, and it may well be that the book contains anecdotes and historical asides that are not well known. Leon Trotsky, referred to as ‘Istanbul’s most famous interwar Russian guest’ is said to have preferred Germany, Britain or France. In fact the exiled Russian revolutionary did spend four years on an island off the coast of Istanbul before being granted a visa to live in France. He was, however, never permitted to enter Paris, and was eventually asked to leave the country. Subsequently he spent a brief period in Norway before moving to Mexico where we was assassinated in 1940 on the orders of Josef Stalin. He might have been better advised to remain in Istanbul.

Greek army invades Izmir - May 1919

Greek army invades Izmir – May 1919

I’m inclined to think that Turkey’s current leaders are more knowledgeable about their county’s history than Mr Goodwin would have you believe. They would certainly know, for instance, that the Treaty of Lausanne (signed in 1923) had very little to do with World War I. It was, in fact, an agreement reluctantly accepted by Western powers after the Greek invasion of Anatolia (that they had sponsored) was defeated by Turkish nationalists fighting for their country’s very existence. They would also know that those same Western powers had been manipulating the ‘Eastern Question’ with the use of ‘ethnic labels’ long before the Lausanne agreement was signed. Those powers had been talking about ‘Turkey’ and ‘Turks’ for centuries before that country came into existence and those people had any sense of national identity; encouraging Greek nationalism for at least a hundred years, and Armenians for fifty, with the aim of splintering the multinational Ottoman Empire from within.

Ottoman army liberates Izmir - September, 1922

Turkey’s nationalist army liberates Izmir – September, 1922

In his book, according to Jason Goodwin, Professor King compares Kemal Ataturk and his republican nationalists to the Bolsheviks in Russia with their ‘show trials, massacres and expulsions.’ If he did indeed make such a comparison, I am disappointed in the learned writer whose work on the Caucasus I found so interesting and informative. Surely he knows that the Bolsheviks were insurrectionists who, rightly or wrongly, overthrew their own legally constituted government, while the Turks had to fight and drive out invading enemies that had occupied their capital city, virtually enslaved their sultan and his ministers, and were intent on dividing the country amongst themselves. I am sure he must know that ‘Turkey’ had long provided asylum for Muslim refugees driven from neighbouring regions by Christian aggressors. Christian citizens, rather than being expelled from the new Republic of Turkey, were exchanged for Muslims from Greece – their situation having become untenable because of their jubilation over the above-mentioned invasion.

Circassian (Muslim) refugees fleeing Russian ethnic cleansing - 1860s

Circassian (Muslim) refugees fleeing Russian ethnic cleansing – 1860s

Well, as our reviewer concedes at last, the story of Istanbul is ‘complex and highly nuanced’, and (this he does not say) historians, like the rest of us, tend to view the world through the filters that lie behind their eyes. Possibly a double-filter is at work here, and Professor King’s work of scholarship has been misrepresented by a reviewer whose Orientalist nostalgia for a land of mystique and intrigue, of exotic harem slave-girls and omnipotent but mentally unhinged sultans immured in gilded cages has prevented him from following the last ninety years of Turkey’s development. Probably I should set aside the review and let Professor King speak for himself.

What worries me, however, is that others may not do this, mistaking the messenger for the message itself. This is all the more likely when there are Turkish nationals contributing to the distortion of their country’s image abroad. Killing time at the airport the other day waiting for my wife to return from a visit to the USA, I picked up a copy of the New York Times. Among other interesting bits and pieces, I chanced on a brief item announcing ‘US Warns of Attack in Turkey’. According to the article, an official US source had suggested that unspecified extremists might be planning an attack on the headquarters of a group opposing the beleaguered Syrian government of Bashar al Asad. The item went on to inform us that the group is based in the city of Gaziantep ‘near the Syrian border’ and contained the following intriguing sentence: ‘The statement, issued by the United States Embassy in Ankara, did not name the supposed planners of the attack, including the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, which has been active along Turkey’s 560 mile border with Syria.’ Huh?

Well, first of all I’m wondering why a New York newspaper has to run an article about a vague possible threat to supporters of a civil war thousands of kilometres and an Atlantic Ocean away from downtown Manhattan. But leave that aside. How does the writer justify making a connection, in the same sentence, between unnamed planners, and ISIS or ISIL, the latest in a long line of Islamic bogeymen bringing terror to the West? Why do Western ‘news’ sources insist on referring to Turkey’s government as ‘pro-Islamic? They never seem to feel a similar need to label the US government pro-Roman Catholic, or pro-Zionist despite compelling evidence that it is.

Interestingly, the by-line of this item links it to a woman in Istanbul with the distinctively Turkish name of Şebnem Arsu. She quotes a spokesman from the Economic Policy Research Foundation in Ankara saying ‘the US has intelligence operations all along Turkey’s borders. They must have gathered information that pointed at risks that can’t be dismissed.’ As for me, I’m not convinced those US intelligence gatherers would have the degree of fluency in the Arabic, Turkish and Kurdish languages necessary to operate in the region with greater efficiency than local spooks – but maybe I am underestimating US resources. Be that as it may, it is once again clear that, if you want to gain a better understanding of the modern Republic of Turkey, you’d do well to double check anything you read in the New York Times.

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Those Terrible Turks!

Among the surprises that I experienced in my first year of teaching English in Turkey was calling the roll and finding that one of the students was named Genghis. Well, I have to admit that was after I’d begun to get my head around the idiosyncrasies of the Turkish alphabet, and realised that’s how we write the word spelled ‘Cengiz’ in Turkish. Anyway, there he was, a slightly overweight 15 year-old, with nothing much to distinguish him from his uniformed classmates – Genghis!


Now, of course, I think nothing of it. I have worked with and taught several more Genghises, and suffered no physical harm at their hands. I have had colleagues and students, to all intents and purposes, quite normal, well-adjusted human beings, despite carrying the name Atilla. Kubilays and Timurs have passed through my classes arousing no more interest than if they were so many Michaels or Tylers. Nevertheless, my initial experience of shock, or at least surprise, illustrates an essential disjuncture between the world-views of the peoples of Western Europe and Western Asia. Clearly, an educated, law-abiding, middle-class Turkish couple choosing to name their new-born son Genghis, are unlikely to have in mind the same picture of a barbarian chieftain leading his marauding hordes out of Central Asia that the name conjures up in Western circles.

Genghis Khan and his Heirs –
Exhibition at the Sabancı Museum


What I want to explore here is the thesis that Western views of Turkey have been shaped by historical and societal events going back at least a millennium and a half and continuously reinforced by subsequent events, and by religious and political leaders for their own, sometimes questionable, purposes.

I’m taking, then, as an arbitrary starting point, the activities of one, Atilla the Hun, who terrorised the Western and Eastern Roman Empires in the 5th century CE. This legendary character headed an empire that extended well into Western Europe. His military forays took him through Germany into France and Italy, and threatened the twin capitals of Rome and Constantinople. Atilla’s origins are not entirely clear, but certainly the Huns emerged from Central Asia, and may have spoken a Turkic language. Undoubtedly there is a long-standing association, in European minds, of Turks with mayhem, rapine, and generally uncivilised, anti-social activities.


For some reason, this association does not seem to extend to Arabs, despite the fact that the armies of the Prophet swept through North Africa and into Spain in the 7th century CE, establishing an empire that stretched from Spain to India. Perhaps it is because Europeans recognise the debt we owe to Arab scholars who preserved the writings and wisdom of the classical world, which later fuelled the European Renaissance. Or perhaps it is that the rise of the Seljuk and Ottoman Turks established them as leaders of the Muslim world, relegating the Arabs to a minor role in international affairs. Perhaps too, the European mind, for some centuries, considered it unnecessary to distinguish between Turk and Arab, finding it convenient to tar both with the black brush of Islam. In recent years, with rising fears in the West of cross-cultural clashes and axes of evil, the focus has tended to be on the adherents of Islam rather than on Arabs, who have arguably contributed more to the negative image of Muslims in the US and Europe.


Whatever the case, it was the Turks who bore the brunt of Western Europe’s fear of and antipathy towards the Muslim religion, which seems to have emerged strongly in the 11th century. It was in 1096 that Pope Urban II launched the First Crusade – an army (or two) of Christians from Western Europe who set off on the sacred task of defending Christendom from the Muslim ‘invaders’, and liberating the Holy Places (Jerusalem etc) from their clutches. As usual, there is debate amongst historians as to the exact reasons for this and subsequent waves of Crusaders that launched themselves eastwards.

In the first place, there was certainly an appeal addressed by the Byzantine Emperor Alexus Comnenus to the Pope in Rome for his help in fighting the Seljuk Turks who had recently defeated the Eastern Christians in a major battle, and begun serious incursions into Syria, Palestine and Asia Minor. While it may seem at first attractive to imagine brother Christians helping each other against a common (heathen) enemy, in fact, there was little love lost between the Eastern and Western churches. It had been only 40 years since the final schism in 1054, which firmly established their mutual incompatibility.

Secondly, it is certainly true that Western Christians were at least partially motivated by the belief that the Holy Places of their religion had fallen into the hands of unbelievers. It is also true, however, that these places had been in the hands of Arab Muslims for more than 400 years. Why the sudden concern, we might ask? Undoubtedly the Turks posed a threat of a different kind. The Eastern Christians had managed to maintain a buffer against Arab Islam, and Constantinople had withstood their attempts to conquer it. The existence of this Eastern barrier had protected Europe from Muslim invasion at a time when it would have been particularly vulnerable. The Arabs were obliged to take the long way around, via North Africa, into Spain, by which time, we may imagine, their supply lines were somewhat stretched. Suddenly, however, in 1071, the Byzantines had been heavily defeated by a Muslim Turkish army – it could have looked like the thin edge of a new wedge.

Third, this event happened at a crucial time in European history. European Christendom was a fragile, relatively new bud. The Carolingian Empire of Charlemagne that had emerged in the mid  8th century, had fallen apart by the middle of the 9th. A century later, the Pope had found a new hero in a German king by the name of Otto, and begun grooming him to be temporal ruler of a new Holy Roman Empire. However, Europeans at that time had no real concept of themselves as such, and Western Europe was divided into numerous warring feudal states. The Seljuk Turks, then, might be seen as a convenient threat whose existence could be used as a means of uniting Europeans against a common enemy. In fact, they were not ignorant barbarians, as their art, architecture, literature and philosophy show. Educated Westerners know the verses of Omar Khayyam, through the translation of Edward FitzGerald, and the Sufi philosophy of Mevlana Rumi. But religious leaders, and seekers of political power are not always interested in the whole truth, and a timely war can help paper over internal divisions and generate a unity of spirit and purpose, as Margaret Thatcher and the Bush father and son can verify.

So, the Seljuk Turks became the Pope’s bogeyman to terrify Western Christians into laying aside their internecine squabbles and uniting under the banner of true religion. They were assured of finding a place in paradise in return for fighting the good fight against the Saracens, pagans, infidels and Ishmaelites who were polluting the Holy Places. It may also be that the Holy Fathers were a little envious of their Eastern Christian brethren who had retained a temporal empire to go with their spiritual dominion, and saw an opportunity to bring them down a peg or two. Certain it is that the forces of the 4th Crusade in 1204 took time on the way to engaging the Muslim foe, to stop over long enough to besiege, conquer and loot the Christian city of Constantinople. That city remained in Western hands until the Byzantines were able to retake it some 50 years later, by which time much of its fabled wealth had been relocated to Italian cities, and Byzantine power had been seriously diminished.

Genghis Khan, on the other hand, deserves much of his bad press. His armies swept through Central Asia and the Near East in the early 13th century. After his death, his son Ogedai continued the thrust into Hungary and Poland. Whether or not the Mongols were Turks is a moot point, but certainly they were not Muslims at this time in history. Muslims in fact suffered at least as much as Christians from Mongol depredations – Persia (modern Iran) was invaded and much of Islamic-Arabic civilisation was destroyed. Ironically, it may well be that Genghis and his Mongol hordes thus assisted Christendom by facilitating their re-conquest of the Iberian Peninsula.

Timur, (Tamerlane), another Central Asian warlord, and another open to several interpretations, is in fact less known in the West, perhaps because he caused more damage to Turks, fellow Muslims and Hindus than to Christians. The Ottoman Empire was on the rise in the late 14th century when Timur and his armies defeated Sultan Beyazit, creating an inter-regnum and a serious blow to the emerging power in Anatolia and the Balkans.

Nevertheless, all these events and characters have been lumped together in European folk history to create an image of ‘The Turk’ that, by the 16th century had crystalised into a heathen figure of darkness and savagery. I haven’t personally counted them, but I have it from a source[1] I have no cause to question, that there are thirty-five references to Turks in Shakespeare’s plays, all of them referring to a fearsome threat in the East. Indicative of the confusion in European minds is the play ‘Tamburlaine’, written by Christopher Marlowe in 1587. Timur, as discussed above, undoubtedly had a far more recent connection to Central Asian Turkishness than the Ottoman Sultan, but English theatregoers were encouraged to cheer Beyazit’s defeat and humiliation at the hands of Marlowe’s hero.  Of course, the reign of Kanuni Süleyman (1520-66), known in the West as Suleiman the Magnificent, marked the pinnacle of power of the Ottoman Empire, as his armies achieved dominance through North Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Europe as far as the gates of Vienna, while his navy controlled much of the Mediterranean. The existence and power of the Ottoman Empire at this time were a major spur to the ocean-going explorations of Western European nations, who needed a safer route to the East.

The Ottomans were not, in fact Turks, in any genetic sense of the word. It had been nearly 500 years since their ancestors had conquered the Byzantine army at Manzikert. Modern DNA analysis suggests that the genes of those Seljuk invaders had been thinned by intermarriage with the indigenous inhabitants of Asia Minor. Ottoman Sultans filled their harem with toothsome young lasses from the lands they had conquered, and by the 16th century, Süleiman’s Turkic blood would have been well diluted. To be Turkish, in fact, did not convey a very high status in a cosmopolitan empire whose citizens included Christians, Jews, Arabs and Persians. European use of the title ‘The Grand Turk’ to refer to the Ottoman Sultan, and the name ‘Turkey’ to refer to their dominions, likely sprang from an attempt to belittle and diminish a people they, perforce, had to respect and fear. Atatürk, the founder of the modern Turkish republic, had his work cut out for him in his attempt to forge a unifying identity from those who remained after other national groups had split off and gone their separate ways.

However, I am jumping ahead of myself here. We are still back around the turn of the 17th century, but the tide was turning in European affairs. The Ottoman Empire was still a major force, and would remain so until its final demise in the First World War. However, new military technology and training, professional armies and the ability to work together against a common enemy were beginning to give an edge whereby rare and infrequent victories over the Ottomans became more regular and eventually the expected norm. Fear of ‘The Turk’ began to be replaced by a curiosity and interest in things Turkish. As trade and diplomatic relationships increased, wealthy Westerners began to imitate and adopt aspects of Ottoman/Turkish art and culture – it was known as ‘Turquerie’, and was particularly fashionable from the 16th to the 18th century. By the 19th century, as the Near East became increasingly accessible to the Western traveller, ‘Orientalist’ artists began to portray ‘Ottoman culture as colourful, exotic and sensual, qualities to be seen the work of the French painter Ingres who was particularly keen on depicting ‘odalisques’ – less exalted members of the Ottoman harem whom Ingres is most unlikely to have seen, particularly in the unclothed state in which he was fond of showing them.

From quaint, sensual and exotic, it was but a skip and a jump for Europeans to accept the diagnosis of the Ottoman Empire, generally attributed to Czar Nicholas I of Russia, as ‘The Sick Man of Europe.’ As the 19th century wore on, the major European powers became more confident in using the Ottomans in their power games, now attacking, now supporting, as they manoeuvred around to ensure that each got the best deal when the ‘Sick Man’ finally expired. The Ottomans, and thereby the Turks, came to be seen as enfeebled, dissolute and corrupt, and fair game for Western empire-builders as they jockeyed for position in the new world that was emerging. It is entirely understandable. The once-feared enemy had become vulnerable, and it was too tempting to mock and belittle now that the threat had passed.

Nevertheless, it can be dangerous to start believing your own propaganda. I have written elsewhere on the Gallipoli campaign in 1915, and the war that led to the emergence of modern Turkey in the 1920s, so I don’t intend to repeat the details here. It is pretty clear, though, in retrospect, that the British and their Allies in the First World War seriously underestimated the ability of Turks to defend their own shores from foreign invasion. It is also clear that certain influential figures in the military misrepresented ‘The Turk’ to the British public. Again, I dealt somewhat harshly with Winston Churchill in an earlier piece, so I’m leaving the poor man alone this time. There is another gentleman, however, who does deserve a little attention. T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia) was undoubtedly a scholar and a gentleman (at least on his father’s side, though he apparently adopted his mother’s family name, for reasons we don’t need to go into here). Nevertheless, it does now seem that some of the more titillating passages in his ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom’ may have been influenced by his quirky sexual proclivities, which included paying a military colleague to administer beatings to him.

Coming up to more modern times, I recently watched ‘Midnight Express’, that 70s classic film of a young American’s experiences in a Turkish prison. Well, I guess, it has come to be recognised as a somewhat exaggerated and distorted presentation of Turkey and its justice system. Billy Hayes, the real-life victim, and the scriptwriter who turned his book into a screenplay have subsequently admitted that fairly major liberties were taken in the making of the film. Perhaps there is no significance in the fact that the owner of MGM studios at the time was an Armenian-American, but you can’t help wondering. I have to say that, as I watched it, I couldn’t escape the feeling that, perhaps, US authorities, concerned at the activities of their young citizens abroad, might have had some input, in the interests of scaring them into being more careful. After all, Billy Hayes confessed in the film, if only to his father, that his aim was to make money by selling hashish back in the USA. I don’t know what the law says in Turkey or America, but in New Zealand, if you are caught in possession of more than a certain amount of a particular illegal substance, there is an assumption that you are a dealer.

Well, Turks get a bad press; I guess that’s what I want to say. Some of it, perhaps they deserve. Show me the perfect country and I’ll move there tomorrow. But a lot of it they don’t deserve, and I’ve tried to show how our attitudes in the West have been shaped by ignorance, and sometimes, even by deliberate distortions. Turks themselves are not wholly innocent in the unfortunate image they have abroad. I recently asked some Turkish friends if Genghis Khan and Atilla the Hun were Turks. ‘Probably not,’ was the unanimous answer. And perhaps, to be fair, those names are not as common in classrooms as they once were. But sabre-rattling is an activity much-loved of nationalists everywhere, and the ignorant are easily exploited by unscrupulous politicians. In the end, the only defence is true knowledge. Seek it out!