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Jul 18 2005

Two on Turkey

With Turkish accession one of the most important issues facing the European Union, people interested in the question could do much worse than read these two recent, and reasonably short, books that focus on the country: Crescent and Star, by Stephen Kinzer, and The Turks Today, by Andrew Mango. Both illustrate and explain contemporary Turkey, and both have accession as a theme throughout their books.

Kinzer was the first New York Times bureau chief in Istanbul, serving from 1996 through 2000. The book reflects that period; it was published in 2001, and obviously the last four years have been eventful in Turkish politics and for the country’s EU prospects. But in less than 250 pages, he tackles the history of the Turkish Republic, many facets of its society, the forces driving its politics, and its outlook for the future. After each chapter of exposition, he offers a meze, an intermezzo, more personal anecdotes that illuminate a corner of the Turkish room.

Here’s a bit from the second one:

The first friends I made in Turkey told me that if I really wanted to understand their country, I would have to drink a lot of raki. These were wise people, so I took their advice. Every year the annual level of raki consumption in Turkey rises by slightly more than one million liters, and my contribution to the increase has not been inconsiderable. …
Many countries have national drinks, but raki is much more than that because it embodies the very concept of Turkey. The mere fact that a Muslim land would fall under the spell of a powerful distilled drink is enough to suggest this nation’s unexpected and tantalizing appeal. …
My excitement rose with each glass as I realized how much Turkey has to share with the world, to give the world, to teach the world.
I should have stopped there, but you never do with raki. That is its blessing and its curse. As months and years passed, raki began to work subtly on my mind. Slowly the delight I had found in discovering Turkey became mixed with other, more ambiguous emotions. No longer did my evenings end with the exhilarating sensation that I had found a jewel of a country poised on the brink of greatness. Raki led me inexorably toward frustration and doubt. It never shook my conviction that Turkey is a nation of unlimited potential, but it did lead me to wonder why so much of its potential remains unrealized. Turkey is undoubtedly the country of the future, but will it always be? Can it ever become what it hopes to be, or is it condemned to remain an unfulfilled dream, an exquisite fantasy that contains within it the seeds of its own failure?

Kinzer alternates modes, sketching with broad strokes and painting sharp miniatures. Because he draws on his reporting, even his sketches have firm lines. It’s too bad that Erdogan only gets one line in the book, but Kinzer does show where his party came from.

His basic thesis is that Turkish society is ready for the future, even ready for the EU, but that its institutions were not willing to recognize the need to change. It’d be interesting to know what he thinks today.

My favorite meze touches on the theme of opening. It starts like this:

Everyone in the seaside village of Adrasan knows Ali Tasgan, but not by his real name. Nearly half a century ago he exchanged it for a one-word moniker that he shares with ten thousand of his countrymen: Koreli. …
Koreli is theh Turkish word for Korean, but neither Ali Tasgan nor any of the other Turks who bear that name has a drop of Korean blood. They are veterans of the Korean War, the first and only foreign war in which soldiers of the Turkish Republic have fought. The bravery they exhibited on Korean battlefields earned Turkey a permanent place in the grateful memories of South Koreans. It also deeply impressed countless soldiers who were part of the Allied force fighting North Korea and China on that remote Asian peninsula. …
Time has shown, however, that the true legacy of the Korelis had nothing to do with their willingness to race across minefields or charge uphill toward machine-gun nests. They were the first large group of Turks since the founding of the Republic who left their country and saw the world beyond. With their return, Turkey changed forever.

Mango’s writing is not as felicitous as Kinzer’s; he’s more scholar than reporter. (I’ve been trying to read his biography of Ataturk since the paperback edition came out. It’s on the back burner.) The book was finished in May 2004, and the change from the immediate past covered by Kinzer is visible from the first paragraphs:

In January 2003 a mass-circulation newspaper in Istanbul published a letter from a young doctor who had been put in charge of a health centre in a remote mountain village of south-eastern Turkey. He had been sent there under a programme which prescribes compulsory service in deprived areas for newly registered doctors. But the administration had failed to equip the health centre, which it had set up as a political investment. There was no dispensary in the village, and local people preferred to travel to the nearest market town for medical care. The doctor was underemployed. His living and working conditions were primitive. … Electricity and telephone connections were intermittent. But the doctor could access the internet through his mobile telephone. Surfing the net one day, he learned of a competition to take part in a seminar organized by the European Union in Brussels. He applied and was successful. A few months later he was in the building of the European Parliament meeting colleagues from other countries.
This simple personal story encapsulates some of the main traits of Turkey at the beginning of the third millennium: an inadequate administration with limited means at its disposal which it uses to provide social welfare and at the same time to garner votes; improved communcations which allow villagers to travel in search of better services; working wives; a powerful military deployed in the south-east to defeat a Kurdish nationalist insurgency; a young population eager to reach out to the outside world, enthusiastic for new technology and, above all, determined to achieve success for themselves and their country.

Mango’s first 100 pages give a better and more systematic history of the Republic than Kinzer does. He filled in gaps in my knowledge, particularly post-WWII and pre-1980. If understanding Ataturk is essential to understanding modern Turkey, understanding the post-Ataturk transition reveals much that was hidden.

The second half of the book covers themes and places. He’s particularly strong on “catching up” and on high culture. I thought he was weakest on Kurdish issues. Not that I could cite chapter and verse on problems, or refute an acknowledged expert, but his rhetoric so closely parallels narrow nationalist rhetoric from other countries that I can’t help but be suspicious that there’s more to the story than Mango is letting on. Kinzer–for all that he is generally focused on Istanbul–is a good complement here, particularly because he was a reporter during the period surrounding Ocalan’s capture.

On the EU, Mango makes key points:

No country can replicate another’s experience. But similarities exist. In the case of Turkey, the most important similarities are with southern Europe and not with the Middle East. Like the countries of southern Europe, Turkey has copied the laws and institutions of republican France. Its social networks are similar to those in Italy. Its economic development through the agency of large family-owned conglomerates was paralleled in Portugal. The kulturkampf fought in Turkey between securlarists and religious believers has ranged [raged?] throughout continental Europe. If the Turks speak of ‘Europe’ as a place outside their borders, so too did Spaniards, Greeks and other peoples now within the European Union. Just as Turks tend to say bitterly that they have no true friends outside their community, so too Greeks saw themselves as a ‘people without brothers’ (anadhelfo ethnos)

Neither author glosses over Turkey’s problems. Both provide considerable information and insight; both are well worth reading.

About the author

Doug Merrill

Writer, editor, translator, project manager, reformed bookseller. Currently based in Berlin, following stints in Moscow, Tbilisi, Munich, Washington, Warsaw, Budapest and Atlanta. Also blogs at A Fistful of Euros, though less frequently than here these days.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2005/07/18/two-on-turkey/

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