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December 13, 20171298Views


Alev Scott's new book is an entertaining and informative introduction to modern day Turkey.

Did you know that Turkey still practises camel wrestling or that it boasts a huge industry of "genuine fakes"? Did you know the country gets €700mn a year from the EU as an accession state or that 40 per cent of Turks are employed off the books? Turkish Awakening: Behind the scenes of Modern Turkey fizzes with facts such as these.

Having lived in Britain all her life, in 2011 the book's author Alev Scott went to live in Istanbul, the capital of several empires, and the unofficial centre of gravity of modern Turkey. She may be half Turkish but this is no elegy for a second-rate power fallen from Ottoman grace but rather a punchy love-letter to an unstable beau she's struggling to understand.

Stringing together wickedly fun bundles of information is an overall theme that the country's ultimately stuck in an "awkward adolescence" - a hormonal twilight zone expressed most forcefully in mood swings between insecurity and hubris.

[Read Henry Hopwood Phillips on the 'Islamic reformation']

Scott's unafraid to list the aspects that spawn the insecurity. Whether it's the fact Turkey has the highest number of journalists imprisoned in the world or that both the government and its citizens love to abandon thought to the ultimate bugbear of Middle Eastern metaphysics, i.e. dark conspiracy theories, she deftly narrates the darker side of the nation's bulk.

And what a dark underbelly the nation rests on. Law 5816 exists to punish "crimes committed against Ataturk" some 80 years after his death; the police force is one of the most "over-deployed" in the world, beats those in detention and takes bribes; and apparently it's a place where superstition is "deeply ingrained".

Which leaves one questioning what exactly is keeping the show going on. Scott's answer is undoubtedly Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a neo-Ottoman baddie supported by an undereducated Anatolian hinterland. His "modest background", his "covered wife", the fact he "nearly made it as a professional footballer" and did make it as a bus driver, apparently endears him to the poorer, more religious folk, making them think he's one of them - a Turkish Putin.

But Vladimir Putin rarely insults the architects of anything that might be associated with Russian greatness. Erdogan, on the contrary, loves to characterise the Turkish Republic's founder, Ataturk, as a "drunkard"; tells his supporters not to use the founder's head on Turkish flags; has been to prison for reciting a poem that included the lines:

"The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers".

And finally, in Ahmet Davutoglu, possesses a Prime Minister who wants to repair the "damage" of the last 90 years - a fairly transparent reference to the Republic of Turkey itself, Ataturk's project.

These statements and actions reflect Turkey's awkward relationship with Islam. The default answer on the religion section of Turkish ID cards, for example, is Islam, yet overt displays of the faith are seen as un­-Turkish, squabbles over females covering their heads at university flare up periodically, and the Turkish attitude to family matters can still be classified as far more Islamic than Western.

What's interesting is that the conflict manifests itself in the author too. Scott is honest and pins the Kemalist flag to her mast, before admitting she has "an automatic suspicion and distaste when confronted with a mix of religion and education: it produces a sort of mental curdling akin to the mixing of yoghurt and lemon", she claims. A statement that has the effect of punching a tree hard: it needs contextualising and explaining.

Some of the book's more insightful sections touch less upon religion than education where Scott quotes Dickens ("little pitchers to be filled up with facts") to sum up the Turkish attitude to its youth. She's also strong on the odder political foibles of her patria, noting that the unusually large Communist following in Turkey is not attributable to the fact her compatriots are particularly gullible to the ideology's claims, but that Communism marks a symbolic, formal rallying point to oppose the "fascist" mentality of the Turkish government: it's a big, intellectual v-sign.

It's the passages on the districts of Istanbul that really steal the show, however. Whether she's describing upmarket Nisantasi, Bebek and Etiler; down-and-out Catma Mescit, Kadin Pazart, or bar districts like Asmali, Mescit and Galata - her jibes are always on point. The sketch on Cihangir makes me laugh every time I read it. The location is a sort of Istanbul for Beginners, where expats go to have their cake and eat it when it comes to claiming an exotic address while not really living in Turkey proper. I almost moved there, having been sized up by estate agents who no doubt saw me as a naive yabanci (foreigner), only a couple of months ago, and reading Scott's account feels almost as if she's been spying on me.

This is a quick, spirited romp; not a particularly deep, analytical book. If it has faults, it's that it can feel Istanbul-centric, with the odd adventure elsewhere feeling a tad token and tangential. Scott also drops stats here and there without contextualising them. For instance, the reader is told that in 2011 female labour participation fell to 31 per cent, without being told what it was before.

[Advertisement: Buy 'Turkish Awakening: Behind the Scenes of Modern Turkey' from Amazon here)

Moans aside, however, this is a superlative introduction to Turkey, a country I know and love. And Scott is ultimately correct to hope that Erdogan, with his obsession for rehabilitating an aggressive, militaristic past (urging youths in December, 2012, to look forward to 2071 when they can celebrate the anniversary of the battle of Manzikert, a Seljuk
victory against the Byzantines), will not still be a major player in a fully­ matured Turkey. The West may feel desiccated and hollow to observers, but its main ideological
opponents, Russia, ISIS & China feel jejeune, exaggerated and burlesque, a caricature of Christian, Muslim and Han interests. Turkey must therefore have a hand in encouraging a deeper confluence of trends and beliefs, rather than falling easy prey into the trap of neo-Ottoman posturing.

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