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The best books on Turkish History

recommended by Norman Stone

Turkey is rediscovering its Ottoman past, says the British professor living in Ankara. He picks five books for compelling insights into Turkish history.

Interview by Alec Ash

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What is compelling about Turkey that would make someone read one book about the country, let alone five?

I must be quite autobiographical here, as I live in Turkey. I can remember the moment when I first arrived. I was met by five incredibly grim-looking policemen in black uniforms, black moustaches, grim expressions, standing curiously under a sign marked “Strictly No Smoking”. Serious country, I thought! But actually it’s rather nice living here. Once you arrive, you get rather fascinated by it. The newspapers and books are interesting, and it’s been around for a long time. I’d like to write a book about foreigners in Turkey, as that’s quite an interesting subject. Foreigners have always been enormously important here. There’s been some very good characters, and also of course some shysters. The list goes on and on.

How do you relate Turkey’s long and varied history to its present, to what you see around you?

That’s very interesting. When the republic was set up [in 1923] they decided they were going to start as if it was year one, and forget about all the Ottoman history. They thought it was just the old corruption. They dumped a lot of Ottoman documents and gave them to Bulgaria. They expelled the dynasty. Instead, they wrote a republican history which is just Turkish nationalism. They regarded religion, for instance, as something which is foreign and hostile. Then, as time went by, things changed. Now we have a Turkish government which is in sympathy with the Ottoman Empire. In fact, they talk about neo-Ottomanism all over the place. So Turkish history is very much alive. If you turn on the telly here, there are some very good serials about it.

When I look at the present government, which has been tremendously successful, it actually reminds me of Abdul Hamid II [one of the last Ottoman sultans] in the late 19th century. Before he went off the tracks, that was quite a successful regime. It was religious but it wasn’t particularly oppressive. What’s curious is that it made a bridge to the Kurds, which is an important division at the moment.

There’s a lovely long German compound noun, Vergangenheitsbewältigung, which means “coming to terms with the past”. Germany did a good job of it after the GDR. China is rubbish at it. How does Turkey fare?

They’re just rediscovering their history. It’s a wonderful thing to see it endlessly talked about. But they get terribly angry about the diaspora of Armenians, who jump up and down years later and try to compare what happened [during World War I] with Hitler and the Jews. That just doesn’t work.

What do you think people get wrong about the Armenian genocide?

The diaspora of Armenians seem to define themselves by their grievance. But they weren’t all just innocents. There were Armenian nationalists who were giving the Turks and the Kurds more or less as good as they got. They had troops in the Russian army, and the French were training more of them in Cyprus. I dare say it’s true that the Turks overreacted, but there is a degree of provocation on the Armenian side. You can’t really compare it to what Hitler did to the Jews. The situation is not the same.

And what do people get wrong about Turkey today, and its place in the world?

Turkey has very much been making a return. Even in 1995, when I came here, it counted as an exceedingly eccentric thing to jump from Oxford and come to Turkey. But it seems a lot less eccentric now. The country is in the news more, and you can tell you’re in the middle of an economic boom. They’re back. But they’re also held back, because the language is not Indo-European and it is quite a difficult language. So maybe they don’t get as many foreigners taking an interest in them as they might. English academe has not kept up with the Ottomans as it used to.

Let’s get stuck into the books, to better understand the country’s history and present. We’re beginning with Levant. Tell us about this book.

Philip Mansel’s book Levant is a comparison of Beirut, Alexandria and Smyrna in the modern age. He talks about how the Christians and non-Christians got on. Obviously he ends with the disaster of the Christians being squeezed out, and he feels that things went downhill after that. It’s an awfully good book.

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His heart’s in Alexandria. He studies the history of the British there, and makes the place come alive. I’m sure some of these Greeks must have been insufferable. You come across them in Evelyn Waugh and Olivia Manning, these Levantine Greeks. On the other hand, they did good. He also discusses the Great Fire of Smyrna [in 1922]. A third of the population was Greek, a bit more was Armenian, and of course afterwards they mainly went. It’s a very sad business, the burning down of the Christian quarter. But Philip is very fair-minded about it. He recognises that you can’t just say that the Turks burnt down Smyrna without looking at the background.

How is the Levant different to Turkey, in feel?

I don’t know Alexandria or Beirut very well. But the Levant is very different. Turkey is miles ahead. I was in Aleppo [in northern Syria] in January, and when you go north from Aleppo over the Turkish border it’s almost like moving up a lock in a canal. That part of Turkey is not even that progressive, but you can sense that things work. There are hospitals and schools and a civil service which does its stuff. The difference with Aleppo is night and day.

What’s your second choice?

Let’s give Jason Goodwin’s series of mysteries a puff. His central detective character is Yashim, an Ottoman eunuch in 19th century Istanbul, a very clever man who solves crimes – which are ingeniously done. Goodwin can tell a good story, and it’s remarkable what he knows about the Ottoman empire. He knows it better than I do, in the sense that he can tell you about cooking and that kind of thing, or the layout of the old Istanbul streets. The Bellini Card is the third and best in the series, set in Venice. An old Bellini portrait has gone missing and the intrigue is all about who had smuggled it. It’s very well done.

Turkey has a fine tradition of fiction itself, including contemporary writers such as Elif Shafak.

Oh yes, she’s very popular. I’m a little bit careful about ultra-modern stuff, because I mostly read old books. I’ve just got through the whole of Balzac all over again, and am about to launch into Maupassant. But the one Turkish writer they say is very good is [Ahmet Hamdi] Tanpinar. Orhan Pamuk regards him as a master.

What Turkish history book shall we talk about next?

Would modesty forbid me from talking about my own?

Go ahead.

It was a very interesting book to write, and the publishers and editors did a very good job. I was covering a thousand years of history, so I was bound to make mistakes. I don’t think there were any particular howlers, but there were an awful lot of small things that the editor picked up. I started off talking about the German refugees who came to Turkey. One of the best known was Ernst Reuter, who was subsequently the mayor of Berlin. I got the name of the concentration camp he was in wrong. And I was a bit out of my depth talking about 16th century Islam.

How important is Atatürk in the span of Turkish history?

It’s a cult of liberation. Especially for women, who after all, not so far away in this part of the world, are not allowed to drive cars or be a schoolteacher.That general emancipation is something that Atatürk did.

Another thing that was hugely important was the language reform [of the 1940s]. The Turkish sounds really need a Latin or a Cyrillic alphabet. You have eight vowels, including the umlauts. The Turks were very divided about it. The young Turks said you’ve got to change the alphabet. But there were an awful lot of people who said the Arabic and Persian words, of which there are millions, can’t be done without the old script, and if get rid of the script you can’t read the old poetry and whatnot. In the end, they simplified the language completely. They got rid of an awful lot of Arabic words, which I don’t think they should have done. But some say you have to do that if you are going to make the mass of the people literate. Because a sentence in Turkish, if put into the Arabic script, can mean one of 12 things – you have to understand the context. Literacy was terribly limited before 1940. I doubt there were more than 10,000 people in the country who could read and write.

How closely is Turkey tied to other countries that border the Black Sea? I was reading Neal Ascherson’s book Black Sea over the summer.

It’s a good book, that. And I think it is true that the Black Sea countries are connected.

I know you also wanted to talk about Ionian Vision by Michael Llewellyn Smith.

It’s quite an old book – it has been reissued but it originally came out about 1973. It’s about the attempts of the Greeks to take over Anatolia in 1919. This was his doctorate, and it’s terribly well written. He’s been through all the British and the Greek documents, which can’t have been easy.

At the end of World War I, a lot of people wrote off the Turks and said they’ve had it, and Anatolia was going to be partitioned with the French, the Italians and the Armenians, and possibly even the Kurds as well. The [Ottoman] Sultan would have been left with a tiny state, and would have been groomed to become a kind of Aga Khan [spiritual leader], representing Islam on the world level with the patronage of the British. He went along with the partition of Anatolia. To stop the Italians, Lloyd George encouraged the Greeks to land in Smyrna. They landed on the 15th of May 1919 and there was more or less trouble at once. Over the next two years, they spread out in the general direction of Ankara, trying to get hold of the European part of Istanbul.

The twists and turns of that campaign are quite extraordinary. Atatürk started off with a broken-down German staff car. He kept being shooed away because he wasn’t Islamic, but then he turned up in Ankara, which has a telegraph office which he used with genius. Then once he had his small army, the Bolsheviks picked him up – and that’s another side of things which is known about but which has never been prominently written about. The Bolsheviks kept him going, and essentially did a deal that the Turks got Armenia and the Bolsheviks got Azerbaijan. Sarkozy has just visited that area of the world, read about the history, and made a complete ass of himself. What does that little jerk know about it?

Louis de Bernières’s novel Birds Without Wings dealt with all this very well, by the way, but he didn’t get terribly good reviews.

What is the last Turkish history book on your list?

It’s by a man called Irfan Orga and it’s called Portrait of a Turkish Family. It was a bestseller in the 1940s and is still on sale. Orga was from a good Ottoman family. They lost everything in the [First World] War and he ended up in an orphanage. He went into the army and became a Turkish fighter pilot. He fell in love with an Irish girl, but if you worked in the Turkish state you couldn’t marry a foreigner. So he resigned, married her, and trained himself to be an English writer. He wrote this wonderful classic about an Istanbul family, which describes the atmosphere and disasters of 1918, how they struggled back on the road, where they travelled to, what they eat and so on. It’s very good stuff.

It became a bestseller, and the sad thing is that on the strength of it he bought a house in Colchester with his wife and she got a job in publishing, whereupon they got divorced. After that he never really recovered. He just knocked out potboilers about Atatürk and that kind of thing. They have a son, a quite distinguished musicologist, who wanted to take up his Turkish inheritance. So, aged 57, he travelled from England to Turkey and asked for Turkish citizenship. They said, yes but only if you do your military service! But this really is an awfully good book. It’s one of the many classic and wonderful books about Turkey.

When did modern Turkey begin? With the foundation of the republic in 1923, or earlier?

You can see the beginnings of it with the young Turks in the late 19th century. They’re thinking, how do we go about setting up a modern state? France was the example. You can see them talking about language reform, changing the script and giving rights to women. The thoughts were all there, but they couldn’t really do anything until the great smash of the war.

When the Egyptian uprising happened, I was in Egypt purely by chance. Newsweek rang me up and asked if Egypt could use an Atatürk. I said, I’m afraid not. I thought you’d have to have a First World War to get an Atatürk figure.

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Presumably Turkey itself is in no need of another Atatürk moment?

Oh no, that would just be a bore. Utterly unnecessary. Things are jogging along quite well. I had problems with my health last winter, I tried to use the private route and they did the usual business that private healthcare does to people aged 70 – they lie and weasel in order to get out of it. So I went down to the state hospital, and it worked like a charm. I got put on my feet again. That’s typical of modern Turkey and one of the reasons why this government is so successful. I shouldn’t really say this, but I would rather get my health dealt with in Turkey than in parts of England. You hear such awful stories of slovenly nurses with nose furniture and the telly on all the time. That would kill me.

Do you think Turkey will ever join the EU? Should it?

Well, the EU has always really just been a bit of NATO. If countries get into NATO, they get into Europe. It’s too big an economy to be ignored. There is endless to and fro, and Europe will protest, but I imagine Turkey will get into the EU in 10 years or so. I don’t particularly want them to. God, the Europeans try your patience.

Interview by Alec Ash

October 20, 2011

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Norman Stone

Norman Stone