Thursday, July 3, 2008

Setting the record straight on off-the-record meetings

We met with a group of consular and political officers at the U.S. Consulate in Istanbul this afternoon. There've been comments (I won't go so far as to call them complaints) from various quarters about the consulate's request that the meeting be considered off-the-record. There have been some obligatory references to freedom of speech and some rather uncharitable comparisons between Turks' and the FSOs' willingness to talk openly with us. All of these complaints strike me as something closely akin to rubbish (if not, in fact, the beast itself).

Of course the consulate briefing was off-the-record. Individual officers in any country's foreign service don't have on-the-record opinions - their opinions are the official party line. While I'm sure we could have gotten an on-the-record briefing, it would have differed very little in content or flavor from the papers they gave us or the State Department website. Going off the record allowed the FSOs present to actually voice their opinions on U.S.-Turkey relations or whatever.

Furthermore, comparing the consulate's position with the more open-mouthed Turks we've met on the street is ludicrous. Of course they didn't speak with us off the record. There is a huge difference between the private opinions of individuals and the public opinions of governments, particularly the United States. Private citizens, for all their being wonderful people, do not have a foreign policy agenda and do not worry about plausible deniability, but governments do. We never talked with members of the Turkish foreign policy community, which is a shame. But if we did, it either would have been a) on the record and the party line, or much more unlikely b) very off the record and something approaching not the party line.

I know it's fun to criticize the U.S. government. I know that unfavorably comparing the U.S. to whatever country you're currently touring is chic and hip. But this is a little ridiculous.

Turkish Mystery solved!

I went to pick up Ross (yes, readers! The one and only Ross Williford!) at the airport this afternoon and was confronted with a hilarious and appropriate sign.

Seriously, 20 feet.

The "Meeting point? Meeting time?" Turkism makes so much more sense now.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Forward into the past

We went to the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations this afternoon. Our guide, a history professor from the local Bilkent University, prefaced the tour of the museum by telling us that Turks had thought their history began with the Ottoman Empire until Ataturk revealed that Anatolian history stretched back to the beginning of history. Thank God for Ataturk.

Turkish identity began in 8000 BC and has been going strong ever since through the empires of the Hatis, Hittites, Phrygians, Lydians, Greeks, etc. Of course none of these groups were actually native to Anatolia Ataturk defined the Turkish ethnicity as anyone living in Anatolia, and apparently this was applied retroactively as well.

Seriously, 20 feet.

What's that carved on that dagger? Could it be... a crescent?! Do you think it's a coincidence that the Hittites made a dagger with a crescent? Of course not! They were loyal Turks eagerly anticipating the establishment of the Republic some 4000 years later.

Of course I'd be remiss in my description of Turkish heritage if I didn't mention the Phrygian king Midas (yes, the Midas), who many people wish was buried near the sight of Gordion, which is in turn near Ankara (but he's probably not). Midas is yet another bit of Turkish heritage that had little to do with the Anatolians of antiquity and has less to do with Turkey today. But damn it all, he lived and died in Anatolia, so he's a Turk.

I was hitchhiking down a long and dusty road.

The museum is very excited to have such a personage as Midas in Turkey. At times they control their glee.

Seriously, 20 feet.

And at times they don't.

Seriously, 20 feet.

They're not alone in being excited about this. When we went to visit Gordion and Midas ourselves I learned that part of the compulsory military service Turkish men undergo is a quick 'cultural appreciation' tour of the country so they learn just what they're fighting for. One of the major stops on that tour is Midas' tomb, which I'm sure really helps to stiffen their resolve to never surrender an inch of their homeland.
Boys, those barbarous Greeks are coming a-raping and a-pillaging yet again and we have to hold them here. I won't tell you to think of your sisters, who will be despoiled by their priests and left for dead. I won't tell you to think of your homes, which will be burned down and demolished by those Orthodox dogs. I want you to think about Midas, a good man and a good Turk who fought and died for this country some 3000 years ago. Do you want some Greek taking pictures of his tumulus? Buying postcards at his souvenir shop? Do you?
Actually, Turks take their Anatolian history very seriously across the board. The museum is one of the major pit stops for Turkish children who come into Ankara from eastern Anatolia for their first dose of TURKISHNESS. At some level it's admirable what Turkey's done with its history. It has this incredible smörgåsbord of cultures that have somehow been blended into a tapestry of identity that, factual and accurate or not, certainly makes for a good story.

At some times the layers of identity are pretty obvious.

Seriously, 20 feet.

Layer of Identity 1 would be the original Ankara Castle, which was built by the Byzantines out of whatever materials were readily available (this includes columns, etc. from the Greeks... let's call them Layer of Identity .5). More recent layers of identity were made of brick (patriotically red brick, you'll note) and a stucco clocktower that could be found anywhere in Europe.

But the assimilation of so many cultures that weren't really meant to be assimilated into Turkish identity hasn't always been easy. Often Turkey has had to turn those cultures, and history itself, upside down to make it all fit together.

Seriously, 20 feet.

Ha! Upside down! Man, I kill myself sometimes.

In all seriousness Ankara really is a fantastic place to see the contrast of Old and New Turkey and get a feel for all the layers of identity that have been pressed together to create Turkish identity. On the hill surrounding Ankara Castle you can see what is very nearly the original village of Ankara that existed before 1922.

Seriously, 20 feet.

Stretching out around the castle, though, is Republican Ankara, a testament to 90 years of rapid growth and modernization.

Seriously, 20 feet.

Whoever said Ankara was a boring city was patently wrong. Istanbul is a beautiful blend of old and new. Ankara has that same old and new, but the line between the two is much more stark.

That is old Ankara.

This is new Ankara.

That is old Turkey.

This is new Turkey.

Maybe these things make it a bad place to live - maybe having to choose between old and new Turkey keeps you from experiencing the full flavor of the other. But boring it is not.

Anıtkabir (or, I think I finally get this whole secularism thing)

We visited Anıtkabir this morning to pay our respects to the father of Turkey. I'd had a bit of a laugh before coming after I read that guests were not required to remove their shoes in the mausoleum (the traditional show of deference in Islamic holy sites), but they were required to remove their hats (the traditional show of deference in Christian holy sites). Cheers for Westernization.

I was hitchhiking down a long and dusty road.

I came to Anıtkabir expecting ridiculous levels of nationalism and secularism, and by and large I wasn't disappointed. The complex surrounding his tomb features a series of museums detailing the exploits of the early Turkish Republic, housed in such humble and propagandaless buildings as the Towers of Independence, Liberty, National Pact, Revolution, Republic, Defense of Rights, Victory, and Peace. I read through a description of each next to a scale model in the Tower of Independence and learned about the various relics secular historical artifacts housed in each. Was any of this religious? No, surely not. Preserving hairs from the Prophet's beard is religious. Preserving Ataturk's toothbrush is merely due diligence to the Anatolian historical record. I did a double take when I came to the description of the Tower of Victory's contents, however.
Inside the tower the cannon car carrying Ataturk's holy corpse from Dolmabahce Palace to Sarayburnu is on display here.
Well there's no talking around that one.

This, of course, forced me to reevaluate the admittedly shaky understanding I had of the Republic's secularity. The simple summation, that Ataturk and the Republic are SECULAR, can't really be squared with the explicitly religious overtones at Anıtkabir. I think I've worked out an alternative - it is the philosophy of the Turkish Republic that the purpose of religion is to strengthen the state, not subvert it. As such, religion, even state-sponsored religion, is permissible, or even desirable, so long as it encourages a strong government control and doesn't conflict with Kemalist philosophy. Revering Ataturk's cadaver, or referring to him as Gazi, or referring to military casualties as şehit, is entirely in keeping with this.


Armed with a greater understanding of realpolitik we went through the attendant museums depicting the Ataturk's campaigns and reforms during the early years of the Republic. The museum was fascinating both as a display of Ataturk's reforms, which I'd never actually seen listed out before, and as a display of the official party line on said reforms.

Ataturk's optimistic 'Peace at home, peace in the world' philosophy was a big hit at the museum. Yet how can that be achieved when the state commissions huge oil paintings reminding the Turks of Greek Orthodox priests leading a horde of barbarous Greeks in raping and pillaging their way through Izmir? Is that what leads to peaceful and comradely relations with Greece? Nationalism has never really lent itself to positive propaganda about neighboring countries, yet rubbing more salt in the Greek-Turkey relations wound seems excessive.

Boston Massacre anyone?

Other information presented in the museum was fascinating because I'd never heard it before. For example, during the Hat Law reforms all Turkish women Westernized their dress willingly. Oh! What a relief! We've been having this silly headscarf argument over nothing!

Also, periodic Ataturk quotes provided the proper context:
"To write history is as important as to make many history. It is an unchanging truth that if the writer does not remain true to the maker, then it takes on a quality that will confuse humanity."
Let us repeat, there was no Armenian genocide.

Sunday, June 29, 2008


Ankara's always been described to me as a European city stuck in the middle of Anatolia. I guess maybe that's true, but it really depends on how you define a European city. New Ankara was built European, that's certainly true. There are wide boulevards and grand hotels, and everything there looks very fresh. If that's your definition of a European city, then sure, Ankara is Western and Istanbul is Eastern. Yet from what I've seen in a day, the Ankarans seem more Eastern and the Istanbullus seem more Western. There are more heads covered in Ankara, more tank tops in Istanbul. Istanbul, for all its Eastern-influenced buildings and organic, winding, chaotic streets, seems more like a Western city just based on the people who live there. For all the Kemalists' work to make Ankara the beacon that brings Turkey into modernity, contact creates Westernization, not city planning, and contact is at its height in Istanbul.

We visited Koca Tepe Mosque, which was built in the 1980s to resemble the Blue Mosque in Istanbul (Clayton later pointed out how interesting it was that they chose to imitate a mosque built in the heyday of the religious autocracy from which the Republic is so desperate to distance itself). Mosques in the Ottoman Empire were typically built with a bazaar either beside or underneath that would provide revenue for the mosque's operation. Koca Tepe has a similar system, though it's been adapted to the modern age.

How Western!

We checked - the supermarket doesn't sell alcohol.

I went for a walk during halftime of the Spain-Germany match this evening and watched a guy get hit by a car. I stood on the sidewalk and took pictures while the Turks to either side of me stood and ate popcorn.

He's dead, Jim.

The whole thing was deliciously reminiscent of Pamuk's recollections of taking a picnic to watch the old Ottoman houses burning down along the Bosporus. See? I can be an Istanbullu too. But I'm in Ankara.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Cappadocia musings

We've been exploring the Cappadocia area for three days now. I feel like I've got a pretty good handle on it. There are lots of carved out sandstone cones.

I was hitchhiking down a long and dusty road.

Some of these can be climbed through.

I was hitchhiking down a long and dusty road.

And then there are more churches than you can shake a stick at. Though while we say churches, it would probably be more accurate to describe them as small chapels, or perhaps religiously-motivated broom closets. Most of them, while very grand and ornate, could not have held more than a dozen worshipers comfortably, which I guess explains why there are so many.

The one thing I haven't seen a whole lot of are helpful signs in English and other foreign languages (or really even in Turkish, for that matter). There are certainly plenty at all of the tourist destinations in the area, but I've no idea how you'd get to them if you weren't from Cappadocia.

I'd postulated earlier that this might be to preserve and protect the jobs of local guides who are thus made indispensable to both foreigners and Turks coming to see the sights, as the tourists wouldn't be able to find the sights in the first place without a local taking them to the nondescript out-of-the-way location at which they're found. Yet it could also simply be that everyone goes by public transport around here - no one, foreign or Turk, is going to actually drive to Cappadocia and then try to drive around to the various sites. They'll just dolmuş.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Preliminary Cappadocia

We've recently arrived in Üçhisar, a smallish town in the Cappadocia area. Preliminary exploration of the neighborhood at dusk revealed a friendly purple-shirted Turk and a colossal climbable conical castle.

I was hitchhiking down a long and dusty road.

I was hitchhiking down a long and dusty road.

I was hitchhiking down a long and dusty road.

Views of the smaller cones surrounding said conical castle.

The aforementioned friendly and purple-shirted Turk turned out to be so friendly that he showed us all around the towers, explaining the original uses of various mysterious stoneworks. None of his explanations seemed particularly feasible (particularly his assertion that a certain basin was originally used to store large quantities of Efes that came out of a spigot at the bottom) yet they were certainly entertaining.

I was hitchhiking down a long and dusty road.

It was only after a lengthy tour of the ruins that we discovered our friendly purple-shirted Turk wasn't so much a friendly Turk as an unemployed but enterprising Turk, and that the free tour of the ruins he'd provided wasn't free so much as... not free. All of this came as something of a shock.

He assured us that he only wanted a little money. I had unsettling memories of Cairo, where this phrase really translates as "I am going to attempt to estimate your cumulative net worth and ask for twice that. Ready set haggle." I braced myself for the worst - how much would the 'tour' be? 20 YTL? 30? 40?

He asked for 5 YTL. What a wonderful country Turkey is. Even the hustlers are more reasonable!