Since I began visiting Turkey frequently as a child, I’ve always thought that it must be one of the strangest countries on Earth. It borders Iran and Greece, but it’s not European and not exactly Middle Eastern. It has elections and a heavy military intrusion into politics, but it’s not really a democracy nor a military regime. It’s home to enormous wealth, in the mansions on the Bosphorous with their multitude of Bentleys, and great poverty. It’s taken so much from the West and yet remains so idiosyncratically Turkish. It’s confused and confusing, and one of the most interesting destinations in the world.
My visits to Turkey have always begun with a stay with my extended family in Ankara, the city created to house the new Republican government. For a country with such a distinctive history and culture, Ankara’s capacity for mind-numbing monotony is quite remarkable. Only the bureaucratic at heart can enjoy Ankara’s attractions (the most interesting being a mausoleum): others would do well to avoid the manufactured metropolis.
Its polar opposite lies a mere 5-hour bus journey away, in one of the most beautiful and fascinating places on Earth, the former capital of Istanbul. It may be a cliché to say so, but Istanbul is the one of the only cities I have visited where I expect to see something genuinely surprising every day; an old Armenian woman, weighed down by her stunning, antique jewelry in a crowded minibus in Sariyer, a hip hop record store blasting some classic NaS in Beyoglu, a gaggle of peroxide blond, Istanbul socialites picking up Balenciaga bags in Nisantasi…
And then there are the aspects of Istanbul which, despite its uniqueness, make it so stereotypically Turkish; men playing backgammon in tea gardens overlooking the Bosphorous, the smell of freshly baked baklava, the markets full of Kurdish traders with their fresh produce, the poverty of those newly arrived from the rural South-East… All this activity, that which is unique to Istanbul and the normal bustle of a crowded Turkish city, takes place against an instantly recognizable skyline: centuries-old Byzantine and Ottoman palaces, mosques and homes, the modern architecture of a newly industrialised country and, of course, that vast, sparkling, deep blue body of water that cuts the city in half, the Bosphorous.
Despite the impression that Istanbul gives to Westerners, it is important to remember that Turkey is a country which has remained distant from European intellectual and cultural traditions. Visitors would do well to leave their Western conceptions of liberty, individualism and rationalism at home; the Enlightenment never reached the remote villages of central Anatolia nor the nomadic tribes of the East.
Turkish society remains authoritarian and hierarchical, with a strong deference to elders, authority (legitimate or otherwise) and the past. In Turkey, you are not viewed as an individual with a capacity for independent action. Your family history, your regional origin, your ethnicity and your religion determine who your friends are, which newspapers you read, which music you like, the area you live in and so on.
Aggravating this sense of fatalism is the deeply superstitious nature of Turks, with belief in the power of dreams and fortune-tellers widespread. Indeed, many Turks quite easily take what can only be fantasy as fact.
One particular event in my family history comes to mind: a man, who had fallen in love with my great-grandmother when they were teenagers, waited 50 years for my great-grandmother’s husband to die, only to be refused by his former flame and die himself the next day of a broken heart. “Events” like this often seem more likely to have their origin in the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez than my family history.
Factual stories of centuries-long family feuds and blood vendettas are also commonplace. Visits to my father’s tiny, almost pre-historic village in the heavily Kurdish east, with its very own sacred pear tree, have confirmed this aspect of Turkish culture.
Unsurprisingly, this is not a nation in which liberal democracy has had much success, experiencing three military coups in three decades. The military remains the most powerful institution in Turkey, a fact which becomes obvious to foreign visitors thanks to the pervasive army presence.
Tourists will also grow quickly accustomed to the image of Ataturk, a military commander who established the Turkish Republic and governed it under a single-party system. In front of every government building, in every store and café, in houses, hospitals and schools, Ataturk’s stern blue eyes are watching over the Turkish public. Despite the fact that I’ve spent a considerable amount of time in Turkey, I still find this hero worship of its founder more than a little disquieting.
Equally disquieting is the fact that, every time I visit Turkey, it seems the country has made few advances towards the nominally democratic ideals upon which it was founded. During my last visit, in September 2008, the government banned YouTube for broadcasting anti-Ataturk propaganda and was jailing journalists almost every week.
In 1951, the Turkish language’s greatest poet, Nazim Hikmet, was exiled to Russia and more than half a century on, it’s greatest novelist, the noble-prize winning Orhan Pamuk, has suffered a similar fate. Essentially, the Western media’s portrayal of Turkey as a beacon of hope in the political disaster zone of the Middle East could not be further from the truth.
This article may present a confusing portrait of Turkey. While this could reflect my own love-hate relationship with the country, it might also be the natural result of Turkey itself being a confused nation. Like the children of the large Turkish diaspora, it stands with one foot in modern, liberal Europe and the other in its Oriental past… desperately trying to keep its balance, and take a step forward.