Thinking about Turkey on Thanksgiving (2 cents)

I am easily geographically influenced.  If I were to spend a weekend in Youngstown Ohio, for example, I would probably be convinced that it is an extremely important place and has played a key role in the history of the world.  But with regard to Turkey, I think I am on the right track.

Turkey as the meeting place of east and west.  Western Turkey as part of the Greek and Roman empires, as the heart of Christian-Moslem conflict, as the route of great movements of invaders from west and east.  Turkey, where Europe meets Asia (just cross the bridges east over the Bosporus; “Welcome to Asia”, the signs say, and when you leave the bridge, nothing looks any different.).

Touring western Turkey, in addition to visiting the most secular of Islamic countries, you are also visiting ancient Greece and  Rome, and the most powerful of Orthodox Christian empires.  Istanbul itself, Roman and then Byzantine until 1453, the heart of the Islamic Ottoman empire through World War I, and a secular republic (with its own tensions) from 1923 forward.

You sense a lot of tragedy in this history.  Periods of prosperity, of cosmopolitan greatness, of diversity.  Followed by periods of invasion and war, and utter desolation.  This was as true of the early twentieth century as it was of the fifteenth, or the seventh centuries.  The old, tolerant Ottoman empire backed the wrong horse, as they say, siding with Germany during World War I.  The empire was doomed to extinction, and in the post-war days of glory and optimism, western European powers decided that Turkey could be theirs.  The Greeks, the Italians, the French, the British, the Russians all had eyes on sphere of influence, or boundary changes.  Which western European country, for example, would not want to control the Dardenelles and the Bosporus, and gain a virtual grip on the Black Sea and be able to limit the new Soviet Union’s access to the Mediterranean?  And the Greeks, who had broken away from the Ottoman empire in the 19th century, now saw their chance to expand their own boundaries into those areas of western Turkey, along the Dardanelles and the Aegean coast, which were not only historic Greek empire lands, but which even in the 20th century had large numbers of ethnic Greek, and Greek speaking, residents.

Sometimes, you can learn more about an area from fiction, than you can from reading histories, especially, when the characters and their problems remain in your mind long after the book has ended, along with the political and geographic factors inherent in their dramas.

If you read one book about Turkey, and you should, that book is Louis de Bernieres’ Birds Without Wings, an extraordinary historical novel, centered on a small village in southwestern Turkey, not far from the vibrant, largely Greek port of Smyrna (now renamed Izmir), a village with Turks, and Greeks, and Armenians, all of whom start the twentieth century thinking of themselves as Ottomans, and for whom the war brings unbelievable, and totally unanticipated, changes.

The book is extraordinary on so many levels.  It is a picaresque novel of the best kind.  Adventure upon adventure, more fantasy than real in conception, but at the same time credible.  It is a descriptive novel; you know exactly how the village of Eskibahce looks.  If you stumbled upon it, you would recognize it immediately.  It is a historical novel, with the ins and outs of the political and military threats that led to the collapse of the Ottoman empire, to the murder of so many Armenian Ottomans, to the mass population transfers that affected all of the Greeks of Smyrna, for example, and all of the Turks living in the Greek islands which are visibile from the Turkish coast.

In Eskibahce, you meet the imam and the priest (and their families), you meet the potter and the ice-man, and the local nobleman, and the anchorite, and the pharmacist, and the residents of the local brothel, and the former prostitute who becomes the mistress of the local aga.  You meet beautiful Philothei, and her unfortunate fiance, Ibrahim.  You meet the two young boys, who become the closest of friends (one Christian/one Moslem), and follow them through war (including some painfully but beautifully detailed scenes at Gallipoli), and afterwards.

Throughout, you are also following the life story of Mustafa, soon to be Mustafa Kemal, and finally to be Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, along with the other Young Turks who created a republic out of the remains of an empire, and you follow the European political movements and military movements that tried to thwart their plans.  And you sense the results, good and bad, of their efforts.

I cannot recommend this book too highly.  I looked on Amazon to see what others thought of the book.  Overall, it gets 4.5 of 5 stars, which is about as good as you can get for a book that has a significant number of reviews.  To be more specific, there are 44 Amazon customer reviews.  33 of the 44 reviewers give it 5 stars.  And some of the others complain not because of the book, but because they believe that the book is too sympathetic to the Turks because it does not overtly accuse them of an Armenian genocide.  (I think the criticism is misplaced; the book is equally harsh on anyone, except perhaps the few Armenians who lived in Eskibahce and were marched from the town, robbed, raped and shot.  This mini-massacre was attributed to unbridled Ottoman troops, to be sure, and not to a government policy, but the results were the same.  And there is some discussion of the Armenians having allied themselves with the Christian Russians (helping the Russians procure arms, etc.), and therefore appearing to be a fifth column during the First World War.  The times were very complicated.  And totally out of anyone’s control.

So, it is Thanksgiving, and we in the United States have, putting aside a few years 150 years or so ago, had a peaceful history on our home grounds.  There is much to be thankful for, although none of us know what will happen tomorrow.  But had we been born in Turkey in 1900, think how different things would be.

The prose is beautiful.  The book flows and flows.  It is really a book you would like to read at one sitting, although I doubt that anyone can sit still and read 630 pages at one setting, no matter how much you might want to.

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