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Turkey at the Crossroad, the Long Path to 'Avrupa'

By Dietmar Pieper, The Spiegel, 14th Oct 2008

Turkey's push towards Europe, a drive that is older than the country itself, has long to helped to hold the internally divided country together.

Editor's Note: The Frankfurt Book Fair, the world's largest publishing event, opened its doors for its 60th year on Tuesday. Close to 7,400 exhibitors from 100 countries are presenting literature at the event, including 3,300 German publishers. This year's guest country is Turkey, which is represented by 165 publishing houses. This week, SPIEGEL ONLINE will run a series of features and interviews about Turkey in conjunction with the book fair opening.

Part 1: The Long Path to 'Avrupa'

Next to the steep, red marble staircase, a small cable car provides a jolting ride up the hill. After having been given a good shaking, visitors emerge unsteadily from the car and look around. A hundred meters above the gate at the street below, in a house surrounded by hibiscus bushes and fig trees, lives Yasar Kemal. A world-class author, Kemal is considered the eminence grise of Turkish literature.

After greeting his guests, Kemal sits down in an armchair in front of the fireplace. A large window offers a panoramic view across the Bosporus, encompassing Istanbul's Asian and European sides. Ferries, oil tankers and fast, white yachts glide beneath the large suspension bridge connecting the two sides of Istanbul, the Occident and the Orient. The minarets of Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque punctuate the city's skyline.

Strong, black tea is served in small, stemmed glasses, and Kemal talks about his life. And what a life it has been! He spent his childhood in Çukurova, a fertile strip of land in religiously conservative southeastern Anatolia. At the age of five, he witnessed his father being stabbed to death during a family quarrel in the mosque. He began to stutter, but telling stories and writing poetry became his passion. He was a journalist and a socialist politician. He was imprisoned three times because the things he said and wrote displeased the powers that be. He was tortured and was long unable to talk about the experience. He refers, only half in jest, to prison as "the school of Turkish literature."

Kemal is a Kurd, and for he and his wife Ayse, a mathematics professor, it is a matter of course that they speak Kurdish at home. But it is the Turkish language in which he writes his novels, in his clear, almost calligraphic handwriting -- novels that always have something to do with the history of his country.

Kemal has experienced everything that can possibly happen to a writer and intellectual in Turkey. He has been condemned, and he has been venerated. He is even patriotic, in his own way. "Anatolia can be seen as a source for the world's cultures," he says. He is pleased that his country is being presented as the guest of honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair this year, but he says that he will not submit to the commotion of the fair and the stress of the trip again. "Younger people should do that," he says, emitting a deep, warm and slightly roguish laugh. He has been to Germany many times, including in 1997, when he was awarded the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade.

A few steps from the fireplace, in front a wall of bookshelves, is his desk, with a few sheets of ivory-colored paper and dozens of sharpened pencils on it. Kemal is working on the fourth volume of his "island novels," the story of refugees who are forced to start a new life on an island in the Aegean Sea. There are so many stories to tell, says Kemal, from the days when the Ottoman Empire was going under, and when World War I and the ensuing confusion plunged millions upon millions of people into hopeless destitution. But he also has a simple message to impart: "Anyone who starts a war should never see the sky again."

Kemal was born 1923, although he does not know the exact date. It was the year in which the Turkish Republic was founded. His life is closely intertwined with the history of Turkey, a history that has always progressed in one direction, politically, economically and culturally: from East to West.

Although Kemal has left his native Anatolia behind, and has been living in Istanbul for more than half a century, Anatolia continues to shape much of his life today. He grew up in the tradition of village storytellers. "At the age of eight, I sang folk songs in public. I was called Kemal the Singer," he says. It was not until he became a young man that he shifted gears to write. It was a difficult transition.

Instead of the Kurdish and Turkmen popular poets, his new role models were the great European novelists: Goethe, Tolstoy and Stendhal -- especially Stendhal -- as well as America's Faulkner.

Kemal's path through life has been long. His country, restless and wild, is still a traveler along its own path. "Turkey has been trying to become 'Western' for 250 years," he says. Avrupa, Turkish for Europe, is a fateful word for Turkey.

An especially radical figure in its past was Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish republic, who remains sacrosanct in Turkey to this day. "He was a strong leader," says Kemal. Great achievements are associated with this historic mission, as are immense sacrifices. The lives of millions of Armenians and Greeks, Kurds and Alevi have been lost along the way. "They were determined to turn the mosaic that Anatolia had become over the course of its history into a unified state," says Kemal, as he sits up in his chair with an angry expression on his face. "That was the greatest catastrophe."

Cem Özdemir is a good person to ask when it comes to explaining Turkey to the West. The Green Party politician, born in 1965 in Bad Urach in southwestern Germany, is both a bridge-builder and a self-starter. He was the first member of the German parliament, the Bundestag, of Turkish descent. On talk shows, he liked to refer to himself as the "Anatolian from Swabia," a region in the southwestern German state of Baden-Württemburg. He had the misfortune of accepting a donation from a dubious PR consultant, a scandal that made Özdemir front-page news. To clear his name, he resigned and ran for a seat in the European Parliament, but he may soon experience a roaring comeback -- as the national head of Germany's Green Party.

Özdemir is participating in a public discussion forum in Bonn. Turkey is the focus of this year's Bonn Biennale, a theater and cultural festival. The panel is discussing the modern and European characteristics of a country whose 74 million citizens are almost all Muslim. Is democracy taking hold? Is there a risk that Turkey could slide into Islamism?

There are no easy answers to these questions, as Özdemir explains with the nuanced picture he presents. But there are trends and developments, and there is reason to be cautiously optimistic. The politician, who calls Turkey his "second home," points to the reforms of the last 10 years: laws banning forced marriages, honor killings and marital rape, the relaxation of taboos relating to controversial issues like the Kurdish question, Cyprus and the Armenians.

"Whenever I appeared on Turkish television in the past," Özdemir says, "I would ask the interviewer, before an interview began, which topics we could not discuss. Sometimes it was so absurd that it boiled down to a choice of words. For instance, a journalist would say: We don't refer to the 'Kurds.' 'Okay, what are you calling them now?' I would ask. The journalist would respond by referring to something like the 'Southeastern Anatolia question.' That was Turkey. And this wasn't even that long ago."

There was a period in the 1990s when Özdemir was Public Enemy No. 2 for some Turkish media outlets. The tabloid Hürriyet had a penchant for printing his photo next to that of Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of the Kurdish separatist group PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party), the implication being: Look, two traitors! But Özdemir's supposed infractions amounted to nothing more than condemning the Turkish military's war against the Kurds and upholding democracy. He became the subject of vile threats, and bodyguards soon became a part of his daily life.

But things change, and Özdemir is convinced that they will continue to. "The fundamental issue is that we accept others, and that includes their religion or atheism, their Kurdish or Cherkessian language, their Alevi 'cem evi,' or meeting house, Jewish synagogue or Greek Orthodox church. That's all," he says.

Is this a vision? Of course it is. Özdemir believes that visions don't necessarily have to be harmful in politics. He's also a realist, though. "Unfortunately, Turkish society is deeply divided and, sadly, a large segment of the political elite is failing." His hopes rest on those who are not part of any camp: not the diehard Kemalists, who see every woman wearing the headscarf as the advance guard of a theocracy, and not the religious fundamentalists, who dream of infiltrating the state.

Özdemir gesticulates energetically on the podium in Bonn, and then he leans back to discuss the subject from a broader perspective. "From the Arab standpoint, Turkey was a colonial power first, then the West's listening post in the Cold War. Nowadays, Arab intellectuals look to Turkey because it presents the historically unique opportunity to achieve a democracy, with all its trappings, in a majority Muslim society." For the Arab world, says Özdemir, this is an alternative to the model of Islamism and to the authoritarian models of government in Tunisia and Egypt.

Özdemir's next sentence is a political one, meant to bring everything together: "Turkey must take this third approach." It sounds a bit mysterious, but perhaps this is the best prediction a politician can make when it comes to a country like Turkey.

 Part 2: Istanbul is Europe's Megacity

Yasar Kemal and his wife, Ayse, have had a new favorite haunt in Istanbul for the past few years. Once or twice a week, they drive from their home on the Asian side of the city across the bridge to the European side, to go out to dinner. Their destination is the "Istanbul Modern," a privately run art museum in a former warehouse in the port district that opened in late 2004. The museum restaurant offers a spectacular view of the water at the point where the Golden Horn inlet and the Bosporus converge. "We enjoy the quiet, the view, the art and the fine white wine," says Kemal.

Oya Eczacibasi is especially proud of having a celebrity of Kemal's magnitude as a regular guest. Eczacibasi, who comes from one of the wealthiest families in Turkey, is both the chief curator of the Istanbul Modern Sanat Müzesi and the heart and mind of the entire spectacular enterprise. A member of her staff calls it "the unofficial Turkish national museum for modern art" -- absent an official version.

Eczacibasi would never put it that directly, at least not publicly. The 49-year-old curator is the epitome of elegance and diplomatic reserve. But it quickly becomes clear that, beneath her polished exterior, Eczacibasi is a woman with an iron will.

"It took us 15 years to build this museum," she says. A contract with the city of Istanbul had already been fleshed out in 1990, but the agreement fell apart two years later. At the same time, Eczacibasi received her first painting as a gift to a still nonexistent museum. The large, two-by-five-meter (6.5-by-16-foot) work by the artist Fahrelnissa Zeid, titled "My Hell," now has a place of honor in the museum. The family that owned the work came to Eczacibasi and said: "We are giving you this painting. We are confident that you will build a museum."

A period of persistent lobbying work followed. "I spoke with many prime ministers and cabinet ministers, but no one was interested in a museum for modern art." Then, in 2003, it was, ironically enough, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the chairman of the Islamic Party for Justice and Development (AKP), who became fired up about the idea. "We showed him this building. We explained to him that it was very well suited for our purposes, but that it needed access to the street. He said: 'Don't worry, that will be taken care of.'"

And it was taken care of, so quickly and thoroughly, in fact, that the Istanbul Modern opened on Dec. 11, 2004, almost coinciding with the European Union summit in Copenhagen, at which the decision over negotiations between the Europeans and Turkey over Turkey's accession to the EU was made. An agonizing week of negotiations ended with a cautious "yes" vote -- with reservations.

Eczacibasi smiles when asked about whether Erdogan was thinking about Copenhagen when he threw his support behind her museum.

Most Germans would probably name London or Paris as Europe's largest city, or perhaps Moscow. But few would consider Istanbul, and yet there is good reason to believe that that honor should in fact go to Turkey's megacity.

According to current estimates, more than 10 million, possibly even 15 million people live along the Bosporus. A large portion of the metropolitan area, including the historic old city, is on the European side. Istanbul's three biggest football clubs -- Besiktas, Fenerbahçe and Galatasaray -- have participated in European competitions for decades. And two years ago, the EU Council of Ministers took a remarkable step when, on Nov. 13, 2006, it declared Istanbul Europe's Cultural Capital for 2010.

The road to that decision was just as remarkable as the decision itself. It began eight years ago, when a Turkish professor discovered that, in 1999, the EU changed the rules under which it awards the title and funding. Under the new rules, cities in non-European countries could also qualify. A group of private citizens quickly came together, declaring it their goal to make Istanbul Europe's official cultural capital. The politicians joined the effort later on, after all the preparatory work had been done.

Nuri Çolakoglu, the director of Istanbul 2010, is extremely proud of the award. "Our project is the first in this series that can be attributed to a purely civilian initiative." The project is also backed by copious private funding and economic might. In Turkey, leading entrepreneurial families, with names like Eczacibasi (pharmaceutical industry), Sabanci (banks, commerce), Koç (energy) and Dogan (media), play an important role as patrons of the arts.

Istanbul 2010 director Çolakoglu is the vice-president of the Dogan Group, which owns Hürriyet and the television network CNN Türk. If anyone has the wherewithal to make Istanbul 2010 a success, it's a man like Nuri Çolakoglu. A journalist by trade, Çolakoglu is a notorious early riser, constantly on the go and extremely well connected. "Together with six other madmen," he says, "I convinced Bernie Ecclestone to bring Formula 1 racing to Istanbul a few years ago. We kept needling Bernie until he said yes."

Çolakoglu shows off his offices with the practiced graciousness of a busy host. Istanbul 2010 is headquartered in a magnificent downtown mansion built as the winter home of an Armenian banker in the 19th century. Çolakoglu, pointing to erotic murals on the high ceilings, says that the owner occasionally lent his house to the sultan, so that he could meet his mistresses there.

The program for the big cultural festival is gradually taking shape. One of the high points will be a performance by the Berlin Philharmonic in exactly two years. Other events are still in the planning stages. "We want to offer the broadest possible panorama of our city and our country," says Çolakoglu. As part of his 2010 agenda, he wants Turks to "engage with our historical heritage, which has been overlooked for so long." The picture Istanbul will present to its citizens and the world will likely touch on taboos. From avant-garde artists to devout Islamic groups, Kurds, Armenians and other minorities -- the goal is to include them all.

 Part 3: 'Islamic Calvanism'

A bright yellow scrubbing machine moves back and forth across the sand-colored travertine tiles. The parade grounds in front of Atatürk's mausoleum in Ankara, with a capacity of 15,000, must sparkle before soldiers, politicians and diplomats arrive. Today, a delegation from India is here to pay its respects to Atatürk, the father of the Turkish nation, who died in 1938.
The site, known as Anitkabir in Turkish, is large enough to encompass a small city. The remains of the man who invented modern Turkey have been buried here since Nov. 10, 1953. No official visitor to the Turkish capital can avoid a visit to the memorial. When Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited Turkey in August, he traveled to Istanbul and not Ankara, to avoid having to bow in front of Atatürk's mausoleum. Throughout his lifetime, the legendary Turkish leader had nothing but contempt for Islam. He is said to have referred to the religion of Muhammad as "the absurd religious doctrine of an amoral Bedouin."

The veneration of Atatürk knows no limits in Anitkabir, which receives a constant flow of visitors from all over Turkey: men in dark suits and others in shorts, bent-over peasant women, chic urbanites who have flung a shiny "turban" over their heads and necks as a sign of their piety, and young girls in midriff-exposing tops.

The exhibit is a bizarre mixture of cult altar and Disneyland. It includes wax figures of Atatürk in formal dress and Atatürk at this desk, his complete wardrobe, from his military uniform to his gray silk pajamas, his revolver, cigarette holders, perfume flasks, hairbrushes and "Fox," his stuffed hunting dog. War panoramas with life-sized figures recreate scenes from the battles that made him a legendary figure when he was a general. The sound track blaring from the loudspeakers includes death cries and warlike chants.

The sarcophagus is at the center of the memorial, but the 40-ton block of stone is merely a solid piece of marble.

Atatürk lies buried in a crypt that is closed to the public. A camera transmits a live image from the interior of the octagonal burial chamber onto a flat-screen monitor. An information panel states that the body of this outspoken critic of religion was embalmed according to Islamic ritual and wrapped in sheets of cloth. The red marble coffin is pointed toward the Kaaba in Mecca.

Mecca lies thousands of kilometers southeast of Ankara in Saudi Arabia, and yet the dead man's entire life was oriented toward the West.

Aladdin Boulevard is a tidy street that passes through the center of Konya. The city in the Anatolian highlands was once the seat of the Seljuks, a Turkic people who began the conquest of Asia Minor in the Middle Ages. Today it is a stronghold for Islamic parties. In a recent election, more than 70 percent of the city's voters voted for Prime Minister Erdogan's AKP. Konya is nicknamed the "green capital" of Turkey, green being the color of Islam.

But while Konya's past mayors supported gender separation on public transportation and a total ban on alcohol within city limits, nowadays women with and without headscarves stroll in front of the stone Iplikçi Mosque, young couples walk hand-in-hand and roadside signs advertise shops licensed to sell beer, wine and Raki, the anise-based national brandy.

Akif Emre, a journalist with the pro-government daily newspaper Yeni Safak (also known as afak), believes, paradoxically, that Erdogan's AKP has a moderating influence. "There is a shift in mentality," he says. "Conservative people are in the process of developing a secular lifestyle."

Vedat Yöndem, a representative of the Konya Chamber of Commerce and Industry, sits in his freshly mowed front yard, extolls similar views. "In the past, we only paid attention to ourselves, but today we look to the rest of the world. We have become more open-minded." This sentiment is supported by the experience of many small and mid-sized business owners in Anatolia, who have created their own economic miracle and now play a self-confident role in a globalized world, conducting trade with the EU, Africa and China.

Turkish industry and agriculture were dependent on the government in Ankara for decades. The country was run in a centralized way and kept isolated from the outside world. But then, in the wake of energetic reforms introduced under Prime Minister Turgut Özal, thousands of new businesses sprang up in the 1990s.

Almost overnight, sleepy provincial cities like Konya, Kayseri and Gaziantep mutated into "Anatolian tigers," suddenly proud of their mushrooming industrial zones and gleaming office towers. There is such a strong, symbiotic relationship here between business and religion that sociologists see "Islamic Calvinism" at work.

But the ordinary people have remained deeply pious. For centuries, pilgrims have been converging on Konya to visit the sarcophagus of Mevlana Celaleddin Rumi, the great Muslim poet and mystic, and the founder of the Dervish order. Many treat the path to the grave of the master as a minor pilgrimage, even though Islam in fact forbids the worship of holy men.

"This house is the Kaaba of lovers. The immature are made adults here." These words, written in the Persian language, are inscribed above the "Gate of the Dervishes." In the 13th century, Mevlana taught the virtues of love and tolerance, as well as humility and modesty. To break the power of the religious order, Kemal Atatürk had Mevlana's monastery turned into a museum in 1926.

The faithful fold their hands together in front of Mevlana's stone sarcophagus. Others snap a photo with their mobile phones and keep going. Thick panels of glass protect the relics, which were once owned by the brotherhood and now belong to the state. They include a golden casket containing a strand of hair from the prophet's beard and a tiny, ornately decorated Koran. There is also an even smaller Koran, "written with the eyelashes of a beautiful woman, completed after 16 years, at which point the woman became blind," a winking guide explains.

It was not until 1954 that the Turkish government allowed the Dervishes to dance again. Even today the Sufis are not permitted to mark the anniversary of Mevlana's death in their house of worship, the "tarikat evi," but only in a public gymnasium.

For Vedat Yöndem, the businessman, this is yet another example of Kemalist distrust. "But we will not be able to separate ourselves from our roots," he says, with great confidence. "No one can force us to do that."

With additional reporting by Daniel Steinvorth. Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

Is this a political statement? No, of course not, says Çolakoglu, before letting out a laugh. "We try to avoid all things political. Politics are dangerous in this country."
 

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