Turkey is a country of such fertile complexity that we have seen almost any theory about its politics and society sincerely argued and apparently conclusively proven. Each passing year throws up new areas of controversy, making it clear that no one person or institution can claim to know everything about this ancient land. Not surprisingly, even Turkey’s most senior leaders and officials often appear to be caught off guard by events.
Over our nine years of reporting about Turkey, our understanding of the country has above all been broadened by the explanations of our Turkish friends and colleagues, and by government officials when they escape the bombast of formal statements. We have also benefited enormously from the informal help of correspondents for Turkish newspapers in the provinces, who, despite the depth of their knowledge of local affairs, have rarely had an opportunity to express this expertise in print.
A list of all the people to whom we are indebted would be very long, but we would like to express our particular thanks to Professor Asaf Savaş Akat, Șahin Alpay, Murat Belge, Yigit Bener, Mehmet Ali Birand, Hasan Cemal, Ilnur çevik, Professor Selim Deringil, Professor Nilufer Gole, Semih Idiz, former minister Kamran Inan, Elif Kaban, Neyyir Kalaycioglu, Professor Caglar Keyder, Merih Kihfaslan, Dr Kemal Kirişçi, Sami Kohen, Fehmi Koru, Dr Gun Kut, Bishop Meşrob Mutafyan, Ambassador Ozdem Sanberk, Fatih Sarıbaş, Ayşe Sanoglu, Ambassador Murat Sungar, and Professor Binnaz Toprak. Ertugrul Pirinçioğlu and his team at Milliyet newspaper’s Diyarbakır bureau offered a haven of hospitality and wisdom. The unfailing nerve of one particular Diyarbakır driver and his calm management of volatile armed men at checkpoints also saved us from moments of danger.
This book might have gone unwritten but for the enthusiasm and encouragement of Kathleen and Peter Hopkirk, and of our editor, Gail Pirkis. We would also like to thank others for their help and comments: John Ash, Jim Bodgener, Janet Douglas, Caroline and Andrew Finkel, Dolores and John Freely, Thomas Goltz, Dr Tony Greenwood and the staff of the American Research Institute in Turkey, William Hale, Renee Hirschon, Philip Remler, Philip Robins, Jonathan Rugman and, most of all, Maurice Pope. Dr Lucienne Thys-Șenocak of Koç University offered invaluable advice. Without Harvey Morris and Charles Richards, former editors at the Independent, as well as William D. Montalbano of the Los Angeles Times, much of the reporting might not have been done. Patrick Pope was a sterling travelling companion to the remotest destinations and selfless in his photographic assistance. Our thanks also to Howard Davies, whose sharp eyes did much to focus our text. Of course any judgements and mistakes remain our own.
To Virginia Brown Keyder we owe a debt of gratitude for the many cups of coffee and visits that kept our morale high. Our daughters Vanessa and Amanda showed exemplary patience. And the enterprise would have been all but impossible without the constant help and presence of Șerafettin and Hayriye Dogan.
Lastly we would like to pay tribute to the inspiration of the late Jean-Pierre Thieck, a passionate orientalist without whose guidance and unfailing enthusiasm Hugh might never have come to the Middle East, and who passed to Nicole the flame he carried in reporting for Le Monde. We still miss him greatly.
Turkey, patriarchal in its naive and smiling simplicity, would amaze our benighted romantics; it would astonish many among us who have lost their Christian faith, but have preserved their anti-Muslim prejudice. / Claude Farrere, 1925
We still find it hard to pin down precisely when we fell in love with Turkey. Perhaps it was through our young children, when the first moustachioed and apparently fierce Turk’s face melted into an open and loving smile at the sight of a small baby. Or maybe it was being offered a loan by an unknown taxi-driver after finding we had no money at the end of a long ride. Or perhaps it was during a visit to the set of Turkey’s best-known, most hilarious and most compassionate troupe of comedians.
On that day the tragedies of Turkish life came full circle with comic art as we left the company’s production building amid the mud, diesel fumes and concrete of a Dickensian suburb of Istanbul. An old man was sitting in -wait and appealed for help from the group’s comic hero. ‘You know how to dress up so well,’ the old man said, slowly peeling bandages off his head to reveal a horrible cavity where doctors had just cut out the middle of his face. ‘Could you possibly spare me a nose?’
Still wearing his baggy Ottoman costume from the set, the comedian, suddenly serious, called for his make-up box. Without a trace of impatience or condescension, he offered the old man hooked noses, long noses and pimply noses to try on. Then he said gently: ‘Take whichever one you like, but don’t you think you need something a little more permanent?’
Compassion, humour and a sense of the tragic are not qualities generally attributed to Turkey in the West. Indeed, our own first impressions of the country nearly crushed us. Driving in from Istanbul’s lowlying concrete airport, the air was dark and pungent with yellow-grey lignite smog, and the winter morning seemed barely to have dawned. A sullen sky pressed down all around us. From the rain-spattered windows of our clumsy Turkish-built taxi it seemed we were edging through a tunnel of thick traffic into a miserable underworld. It was a place where one could also imagine the bleak, feudal fatalism of Yilmaz Guney’s film Yol, or the outrageous brutality of Alan Parker’s film Midnight Express.
But in time our hearts were won over, not just by the people, but also by sweeping skylines of domes and minarets, by the calming patterns of Iznik pottery and by hours of soft padding through carpet bazaars. We also felt a sense of achievement, a stubborn pride in hard-won victories over the bureaucracy or in the purchase of arcane pieces of household equipment. We also felt a sense of discovery as our understanding of the Turkish language cleared. Nothing in Turkey was quite as it seemed at first, and indeed was sometimes almost deliberately disguised.
We also learned not to force on Turkey any easy categorization: European, Western, Eastern, Islamic, fascistic, anarchic, whatever. It has something of all these elements, of course. But Turkey is in a category all its own. One reason for the West’s difficulty in coming to grips with the country is that Turkey was never colonized and has never truly shared its history with one of the great European cultures. Nor has it been respectably grand, rich or independent enough in modern history to have attracted much literary, diplomatic or historic attention. Seen from Britain, for instance, Turkey has been either a minor wartime enemy, a poor cousin to oil-rich Iran and Arab states or simply a less powerful attraction than Persia, for whom Britons inherited a strategic fascination from the Indian Raj.
Impressions of Turkey almost always depend on the point from which the visitor approaches it. A visitor to Istanbul from Western Europe may see a poor copy of an East European city, which, despite its Westernizing airs, turns out to be run on frustratingly oriental lines. We had come from years of experience in the east, from Beirut, Tehran, and Baghdad: to us, Istanbul looked nearly as sophisticated as a Western European city. Turkish society, perhaps because of its lack of easy oil money, or the deep, long traditions of its state, also seemed to be built on a more solid and pluralistic foundation than those further east. We liked what the Turks had kept of their Muslim, eastern heritage - a heritage the Turks themselves were increasingly appreciating in the 1990s - but were glad of what they had learned from the West.
We also came to appreciate a country which, compared to the mature economies of Europe, is still involved in an amazing adventure of change. Turkey’s present-day economy is commonly compared to that of Spain twenty years ago; in some places it has caught up, yet in others it feels as if one is being given a privileged glimpse of what life might have been like in nineteenth-century London. We learned to overcome our own cultural and political prejudices about the Turks, which, although not realizing it at the time, we had brought with us as part of the baggage of our Western education. We hope this book will help to overcome some of the ideas about the country that go unchallenged in the West, prejudicing the sporadic and often marginal attention that the outside world generally affords to Turkey.
But while trying to judge Turkey on its own merits, we have striven to keep our own critical faculties intact. Turkey’s many contradictions make it the homeland of the absurd. When trudging through a mountain landscape in a remote corner of southeastern Turkey, a Turkish corporal, going miles out of his way to help two strangers on a rain-lashed night, replied to a question about his job with the proud announcement that he was in charge of his unit’s torture section. As he detailed his duties, it was hard to know whether to laugh or ciy.
We have not flinched at reporting those aspects of Turkish life which overlap with the rougher practices of their Middle Eastern neighbours; nor have we focused only upon them. The republican establishment in Ankara is much at fault for encouraging nationalist prejudice among the Turks, for failing to educate the population properly, for often preferring force to democracy and for decades deliberately isolating their country. The easy excuses for totalitarian behaviour and police brutality during the Cold War era are no longer accepted by Western partners nor, increasingly, by ordinary Turks themselves. Over the years improved communications have changed the Turks, relieving them of some of their suspicion of outsiders and allowing them to integrate more naturally with the outside world.
Turkey is no longer the poor, self-contained, predominandy peasant community in the back garden of Europe that it was thought, to be even as recendy as the early 1980s. The opening up of borders, and a new zest for commerce inside Turkey itself, has transformed this once economically unimportant outpost on NATO’s south-easternmost flank. The end of the Cold War has brought back to Turkey’s financial centre, Istanbul, much of the geographic and commercial importance that it enjoyed before the First World War, a position that had made it the centre of empires for more than sixteen centuries.
In the 1990s the people of Turkey have also embraced a revolution in mentality symbolized by the rule of the late Turkish President Turgut Özal. By an unpredictable and often uncontrolled process, civil society has started to overtake the old statist structures of the republican establishment. Whereas in the early 1980s one black-and-white state television channel aired programmes for a few hours each night, by the mid-1990s there were fifteen national television stations and hundreds of local ones. Everywhere the frontiers of public debate were being pushed forward on issues long taboo, such as Kurdish nationalism and the position of Islam.
Daily life has changed out of all recognition, as has the infrastructure of the cities. When we arrived, Istanbul was still using the same two nominally five-star hotels that had been in use for the past two decades. Ten years later, there are more than two dozen luxury hotels.
Supermarkets have sprung up everywhere, while new shops and restaurants open daily. Tens of thousands of new cellphones are registered each week. Groups of single men still frequent the birahane beerhouses, those with no work to do still sit in payhane teahouses chatting, playing cards and backgammon. But new cafes have become focal points for the younger generation, and indeed for women who otherwise have no meeting-place of their own. Ethnic, social and economic divisions have become more marked, but the expanding economy has provided hope and kept communal frictions down. The fact that the majority of poor people own their small gecekondu homes, often run up in a night on the outskirts of big cities - gradually transforming them into apartkondu concrete apartment blocks - has ensured that even among the poor, most people feel they have a stake in society.
Old Istanbullu people resent the invasion of Anatolian peasants that has caused their city to expand almost to breaking point and diluted its original families to a tenth of the city’s population. Previously known for its leafy streets, wooden houses and cosmopolitan sophistication - though never the ideal cleanliness with which nostalgia has invested it - Istanbul like other Turkish cities is now ringed by a sea of grey, unfinished apartment blocks thrown up in a fantastic jumble of confusion. The newcomers have gradually been transformed into an urban lower middle class, and, modernized by the new pro-Islamic Welfare Party, have gone on to take over the mayor’s office and even to acquire a stake in national government.
We were inspired to write this book by a wish to hand on something of the rich complexity of the Turkey we know, a Turkey much worthier of interest than might be expected from the narrow diet of news reports about Kurdish clashes, human rights violations and economic crises usually fed to the general reader. We attempt not to justify these events, but to go beyond them to examine a country still grappling with a proud but traumatic history. It is a mistake to dismiss the Turks as unfeeling or brutal, as our mailbag shows that people often do. Time and again it has been proved that if we are to encourage change for the better, then Western sermonizing has little impact compared with that of true Western involvement.
The Turkish population, prey to successive military coups, is slowly learning to speak up. Turkey is talking in many new voices, be they Kurdish, Laz, Alevi, secular or Islamist. Corruption in the state and society, once carefully hidden, is now being exposed for what it is. The danger zone of coups, terrorism and organized crime has not been passed. There are still dark, sometimes murderous elements at work who believe in imposing their ideologies on the country by force.
But the mosaic of Turkish society as a whole is rapidly emerging in new and brighter colours as its people move out of the drab uniformity forced on them by the heirs of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
Galloping from farthest Asia
like a mare’s head reaching for the Mediterranean
this country is ours.
Wrists drenched in blood, teeth clenched, feet bare
and soil smooth as a silken carpet
this hell, this paradise is ours. / Nazim Hikmet (1902-63)
Every school-day morning a nearly identical ceremony takes place the length arid breadth of Turkey. Children line up in school-yards from the gentle Thracian border with Greece to the steep mountains stacked up against the Iraqi frontier. In the massive concrete sprawl of Istanbul, in whitewashed Mediterranean villages, in the harsh towns of the Anatolian plateau and in hamlets hidden in the lush rain forests of the Black Sea coast, the voices of teachers rise above the excited chatter. When silence has been imposed, morning assembly gets under way, usually with the aid of a scratchy amplifier. Though not officially religious, the ceremony which ensues is part of a ritual indoctrination in the ideology of the Turkish republic founded in 1923 by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
‘I am a Turk! I am honest! I am industrious!’ the children shout in proud unison, whatever part their ancestors may have played in Turkey’s jumbled mosaic of ethnic groups, religions and migrations. The slogans are various, but the message is the same for the young would-be citizens of modern Turkey. ‘O Great Atatürk, I vow that I will march unhesitatingly along the road you opened, towards the goal you showed!’
Frowning down from an altar-like plinth is a black or gilded …