Friday 2 September 2016

Turkey 2016 and 1981

The coup attempt of 15 July failed, as we all know, and though predictably enough President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has used the fallout to persecute many more than just the infiltrating faithful of Fethullah Gülen's religious movement which launched it, my liberal friends in Turkey persuade me that the Gülenists' success, having infiltrated every institution in Turkey, would have been much worse.

Travelling on Turkish Airlines last week, it was impossible to escape the triumphal literature both in the brochures (pictured above) and on the screen. On the return journey I was drawn back to the time of the last major coup in 1980. Arriving at Bodrum's domestic airport on Sunday, having been discharged from the Acibadem Hospital, I picked up a copy of Orhan Pamuk's Silent House, chiefly because it was set in those days. I suppose four of us had not been so very stupid to travel to Turkey by Interrail the following July; the curfews and the heavy army presence meant we were quite safe (though, terrorists apart, I'm convinced Turkey still is a safe country, and has always been a hospitable one). Friends were more worried that we might be arrested for having drugs planted on us; Midnight Express was then very fresh in most people's minds. Anyway, we were fearless and probably unthinking, but nothing adverse happened to us beyond the clearly malevolent intentions of soldiers around the ancient site of Pergamum.

Dug through the old pics and found some to pepper this entry with - above are my travelling pals Lottie, Christopher and Clive, at Eminönü Harbour shortly after disembarking the train from Thessaloniki at Sirkeci Central Station. All was not entirely well then; I had a massively swollen foot, infected from a cut I'd aquired falling down some steps on the Folkestone-Calais ferry - three days sleeping rough on two trains and one railway platform meant that I hadn't tended to it. Shortly after this, having found a very cheap hotel near Sultan Ahmet Mosque, we walked, or rather I hobbled, across the Galata Bridge, up and along Istiklal Caddesi to the German Hospital (now, I'm told, no more), where I got treatment for next to nothing. Two days mostly resting on the San Hotel's roof saw the foot return to its normal size. So hospital visits have framed my many visits to Turkey to date.

As then, this August trip to the D-Marin Festival was not affected by coup or coup-failure fallout. Once in the relaxed coastal strip around Bodrum, you would hardly have known it had happened, superficially at least. I asked young cellist Cansin Kara, now studying in Munich and kicking off my festival experience at 7am last Thursday morning with Bach's First Cello Suite in a park by the sea, how it had affected him. Apart from postponing his summer return, he said, only in the sensing that people were more anxious. Cansin pictured below on the right at the end of a blissful hilltop early supper above Turgutreis with his contemporary, the equally brilliant violinist Emre Engin.

Fortunately Erdoğan, for all his growing authoritarianism, is no Putin, and there will (inshallah) always be a strong opposition in a country still divided 50/50 between the forces of progress and those of religious conservatism. Just how complicated it all is finds expression in this superb long article by Christopher de Bellaigue in The Guardian. If you don't immediately have time to read it all, this is good for clarification:

Erdoğan trumpets his adherence to the will of his people, but he does not blindly pursue its whims. Having oscillated between Europhilia and Islamic fervour, universalism and isolationism, war and peace, it is clear that his political trajectory is that of a pragmatist who likes to keep his options open. His failure to pursue a ban on alcohol, despite the fact that it would please the base, is another instance of his pragmatism. That he regards secularism as useful - perhaps as a means of averting sectarian conflict - was demonstrated when he urged Mohamed Morsi to build a secular state after coming to power in Egypt in 2011.

I first realised it wasn't all black and white around the coup when my Istanbul friend Serhan Bali, editor and publisher of the Turkish-language classical music magazine Andante, sent me what he'd written on Facebook shortly after the failed coup. No fan of Erdoğan, he pointed out what a disaster it would have been had Gülen come to power. I excerpt:

Why this coup now? The biggest prosecutions for this (Gülen's) movement were to be put into operation in the coming days and when these devotees learned this they wanted to seize power as quickly as possible. As you may guess that was their intention from the beginning, but when they learned that the government intended to close in for the kill, they accelerated their agenda. Thank God they couldn't succeed because it was a half-baked plan, If successful they would have grasped all the power in Turkey, closed the Parliament and invited Fethullah Gülen to the country. He would have descended the stairs of the plane like Ayatollah Khomeini did after the Iranian Revolution.

Erdoğan and Gülen were close collaborators in the early 2000s. Because of this gang hundreds of high-ranking officials in the arms were put on trial because of a pseudo coup attempt. They forged the documents and because of this many generals and colonels were put in jail, accused of having attempted the coup against the Erdoğan government. It was a huge lie. But this partnership deteriorated after Erdoğan felt Gülen's overwhelming presence as a threat to himself and to the country. Gülen had become too powerful a personality. After the war between these two powerhouses increased, attacks from the government began against the Gülenists’ presence in the state and the enormous wealth that they possess in the country.

So much for now; as for then, the atmosphere leading up to the generals' coup of 1980 is well captured in Pamuk's second novel, a polyphony of voices centring on the visit of three grandchildren to a bitter and manipulative 90-year-old woman in the crumbling 'silent house' of the title by the sea near Istanbul. The confused adolescent longing for action in that violent climate is represented by a cousin of the siblings who joins the Nationalists and persecutes the brightest voice in the book, the rather distant one of the intelligent young Nilgün, mostly because he thinks he's in love with her and that she's out of his league.

The characters of the feckless young Metin, who hangs with a vacuous fast set, the bitter grandmother and the compassionate dwarf Recep who runs the household are compellingly drawn. But perhaps the most fascinating figures are the alcoholic historian grandson Faruk, who also gets to speak in the first person, and his grandfather Selâhattin, whose tirades and disquisitions appear through the mouth of his unloving, and unloved, wife. Both, like the invisible figure in between the generations, Faruk's father, are obsessed with trying to pin down the evasiveness of their city and their country through facts and 'true stories'.

Their real-life counterpart, so brilliantly portrayed in Pamuk's Istanbul: Memories and the City, is one of four Istanbullu writers poised, like Pamuk himself, between the influence of western (especially 19th century French) literature on their country and the attempt to find out what it really means to them. They are all in thrall to hüzün, a Turkish word with an Arabic root which Pamuk sets out to define, before devoting an entire chapter to its complexities, as 'a melancholy that is communal rather than private. Offering no clarity; veiling reality instead, hüzün brings us comfort, softening the view like the condensation on a window when a tea kettle has been spouting steam on a winter's day'.

There are so many poetic passages conveying this peculiar state throughout Istanbul, but let's stick to the subject: Reşat Ekrem Koçu, author of the Istanbul Encyclopedia of fascinating facts and unexpected focuses, begun in 1944 but abandoned in 1951 'on page 1000, at volume four, while still on the letter B'.

In just the same way Lonely House's chronicler is destined to fail, to be sidetracked, to have most of his achievement destroyed, and his historian grandson is also destined not to get very far with his amassing of local stories; similarly his notebook is wantonly chucked aside by the negative spirit of 1980. A little of Pamuk on his real-life Don Quixote:

Koçu was one of those hüzün-drenched souls who helped create an image of a twentieth-century Istanbul as a half-finished city afflicted with melancholy. Hüzün is what defines his life, gives his work its hidden logic, and sets him on a lonely course that can only be his final defeat, but - as with other writers working in a similar vein - he did not see it as central and certainly did not give it much thought.

And later:

The real subject [of the far from finished Encyclopedia] is Koçu's failure to explain Istanbul using western 'scientific' methods of classification. He failed in part because Istanbul is so unmanageably varied, so very much stranger than western cities; its disorder resists classification. But this otherness we complain about - it begins, after we have talked for a while, to look like a virtue, and we remember why it is we treasure Koçu's Encyclopedia - because it allows us to indulge in a certain chauvinism.

Koçu was also gay, and Turkish society has always had an ambiguity towards homosexuality when it was not absolutely welcoming of it. I digress to give you a song from one of the greatest singers ever, Zeki Müren, who so amused us back in 1980 (I still have a cassette with treasurable photographic artwork). We didn't appreciate then that he was a great performer of the sanat (classical) repertoire who made it popular with millions. 'Zeki Müren NOT homosexual,' Turks would exclaim in simulated outrage. But he did less to conceal it than his western counterpart, Liberace. And everyone seems to have known that the other great singer of the time. Bülent Ersoy (now 64 - Zeki died in 1996), was a transexual. Take a look at this. Shame, as always, there's no translation, but the hands speak as eloquently as the voice.

My last wish on the Bodrum trip was to visit the Zeki Müren Museum in the town he loved so much. That should have happened before I went to the airport. But the emergency hospitalisation intervened.

Back to hüzun. In Istanbul, Pamuk hints at it before he writes about it, in a wonderfully evocative passage in the fifth chapter of Istanbul.

I love the overwhelming melancholy when I look at the walls of old apartment buildings and the dark surfaces of neglected, unpainted, fallen-down wooden mansions: only in Istanbul have I seen this texture, this shading. When I watch the black-and-white crowds rushing through the darkening streets on a winter's evening, I feel a deep sense of fellowship, almost as if the night has cloaked our lives, our streets, our every belonging in a blanket of darkness, as if once we're safe in our houses, our bedrooms, our beds, we can return to dreams of our long-gone riches, our legendary past. And likewise, as I watch dusk descend like a poem in the pale light of the street-lamps to engulf the city's poor neighbourhoods, it comforts me to know that for the night at least we are safe from western eyes, that the shameful poverty of our city is cloaked from foreign view.

Pamuk finds a kindred spirit to capture the private and public strangeness of Istanbul in photographer Ara Güler, whose archive-library of images from the 1950s and 60s he spent many hours inspecting for images he used in the book.

I ordered this up for J's birthday. Most of the black and white photographs are haunting in one way or another for their street scenes and their panoramas of the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn with the smoke of ships and boats hovering above. Something of this remained in 1981, when Christopher took this photo as we emerged from the station.

If I had to choose one image from the bigger book of Güler's photos it would be this one of Sirkeci in 1956

not least because Pamuk writes about it so eloquently in his introduction. He described it as 'the perfect incarnation of the Istanbul of my childhood,' not for the evocative outward details but because of this:

The way the driver has tilted his head forward, the confusion of the horse as it accommodates this gesture, the clumsy manner in which the cart has strayed onto the tramlines and the way the tram in the background sits waiting, perhaps patiently, perhaps not...what we see here is modernity set against tradition, the ideals of order, discipline and authority set against the disordered helplessness of poverty and technical inadequacy. These are elements at the heart of so many of Güler's Istanbul photographs, and they generate such delightful tensions.

I was surprised, during this June's visit, that so many traces of the old way of life remained - not least those porters carrying such heavy loads on their backs, which first struck me as we headed towards the Grand Bazaar in 1981. There's a fuzzy photo of an overloaded worker in the old album, but this street scene with my three pals at the centre of it is better. It makes a nice counterpoint to my post laden with June photos of Istanbullus.

Did we sense the melancholy then? I think not - youth is too keen to savour what it sees as exuberant exoticism. Soon we were off around the south-west, hitching lifts like this from Didim via Aphrodisias to Pamukkale

and greeted with a friendly curiosity and hospitality wherever we went, not least during an unforgettable evening at a family party during ramadan in Bergama. Fond shot of boys and sheep (soon to be a bairam victim?) in the ruins there to conclude. Those kids will be middle-aged men now.


Susan Scheid said...

In an interesting, and certainly fraught, way, our election in the US has brought the rest of the world much closer, and closer to the center of our national attention: Putin, Farage, and Erdogan are all examples of this. It is overwhelming to try and get on top of it, let alone to understand the dynamics sufficiently to learn the correct lessons. In the case of Turkey, I'm particularly glad you highlighted the Guardian article, and your own understandings and experience (not to mention reading) are welcome, too. I recently read a piece in the Financial Times, "Capitalism and democracy, the strain is showing," and I was struck by an observation about Russia and Turkey: "the rise of illiberal democracies or outright plebiscitary dictatorships, in which the elected ruler exercises control over both the state and capitalists. This is happening in Russia and Turkey." Fareed Zakaria wrote of this a decade or so ago, and I remember being struck by his discussion of liberal and illiberal democracies. So, might it be the case in Turkey, that, in addition to the forces of religious conservatism, there is also need to be concerned about simple majoritarian democracy that does not take into account individual rights? (As Zakaria has written, "a liberal democracy is a political system marked not only by free and fair elections, but also by the rule of law, a separation of powers, and the protection of basic liberties of speech, assembly, religion, and property.")

I have begun to wonder more and more if some of the movements on the left, as well as on the right, are not on their way to falling into the trap of majoritarian rule as a panacea. I don't really understand the Momentum concept in the UK well enough to know, but over here, the penchant for direct action like that of the various "Occupy" efforts seems to contain within it the seeds of illiberal democracy--not intentionally, I would say, but as a possible effect.

David said...

Good to have such detailed thoughtfulness, but I have to repeat that Erdogan is not - yet - anywhere near Putin. But his nationalist drive has the capacity to go that way. As one of my Turkish friends put it in an email today, nobody yet knows how far the ostensible drive to purge institutions of Gülenists - and there seems no doubt they were deeply embedded - will catch up 'intellectuals, journalists and all other innocent people'.

As for left mirroring right in some respects, the Corbinistas have shown how hideous blind support can be in attacking anyone in the party who doesn't agree. The Marxist agenda and the old ties with Russia and Middle Eastern dictators comes back to haunt JC. I've given up all hope of the Labour Party for the moment and signed up for the Lib Dems. There's no one especially strong or charismatic in their ranks but they're the most pro-Europe and the most likely to get a coalition together, which would be the only viable opposition to the current, ever more dismaying Tory cabinet. We fear that May no longer has a double game in appointing those Brexit goons.

Susan Scheid said...

Thanks for this, David. Just as with Sophie in Djenne, it's critically important to have insights from closer by. Very, very hard to ascertain from my side on the pond what's going on in England, let alone Turkey!

David said...

Likewise - I'd not have heard about the Taco vans (one always wants to add -gate, but nothing seems to derail the Trump lunacy) had it not been for you. The weekly bulletins and their links are very much valued.

Willym said...

What have you been doing to yourself? I have only just caught up with my blog reading - between entertaining (if that's the word for being stuck in a classroom) 29 Security Managers from around the world and preparing for my final move to PEI I have been neglecting many things. I finally had time to catch up and was trying to figure out what was going on when I read your most recent and there was reference to a hospital in Bodrun. Then I read the previous entry. You're right thank god for agony, in this case it was a good thing. I'm just glad they caught that stone before it did further damage and that you heeded the warning and were in a place were you could get proper treatment. You have to admit that it's a bloody wonder what modern surgery can do without having to be too invasive. I do hope you're on the mend with no noticeable side effects?

Your take on the Turkish situation was very interesting - I know our friend Gulay was worried about her family there given their political leanings. I'm rather happy that our godson and his family got out of Ankara just before the whole thing fell apart. I'm sure as a diplomat he would have been safe but...

Looking forward to seeing you and the diplomate on our way through London. Please take care of each other - physically and spiritually.

David said...

It was my body that did it to me, Will, and with no prior warning in terms of pain in the side... I must say the super Cansu from the festival swung into action, though I doubt if I'd have got on a plane constantly throwing up like that. The stomach plays up a bit, and I've been rather tired, but otherwise back to normal - if only the NHS would get its act together to give me a date for the removal of the stent. It has to be done by the end of this week, and despite three calls to the doctor who contacted urology, they haven't been in touch.

In one way it's more reassuring to be there because Turkey is so evenly split between progressives and religious conservatives. But of course Erdogan really holds all the cards and in the current state of emergency can do what he wants.