Saturday, May 13, 2006

'Writing Turkey' : Middlesex U. Conference

Why is this conference called 'Writing Turkey' ?

It is meant to echo, we were told, the expression "talking turkey" .

After a late 10:10 a.m. start, the Conference quickly got going with a historical bang under the sub-head 'Writing Then' with Professor Gabriel Piterberg's (pictured above) paper on Ottoman succession involving the political machinations leading up to the assassination of Genc Osman during the 1617-23 period.

Things apparently hit the fan when Genc Osman wanted to transfer the imperial capital from Istanbul to Damascus or Bursa or some other point East. This attempt was seen and feared as being an attempt to transfer power from the imperial centre to the provinces. If I understood him correctly, Professor Piterberg saw this as a paradigm for a recurring phenomenon in Ottoman history which has been coined by Cemal Kafadar as "schizoid mental topography". All that he said suggested to me that this concept may shed some light on the Kemalist elitism of modern Turkey.

Continuing the 'Writing Then' theme, David Barchard (pictured left) a historian currently living and working in Ankara presented a paper on what was being written by British politicians and pundits about the Ottoman Empire during the 19th century. His starting point was 1821 marking the Greek War of Independence and the setting up of a "mono-ethnic state", as he put it. He quoted Richard Madden's (1830) statement on the situation concerning Greeks and Turks in Crete.

He also focused on the massacre of Bulgarians by re-settled Circassians (makes you wonder why Circassians were re-settled in Bulgaria) in 1876 at which point he dates the complete collapse of the turcophile lobby in Britain. He mentioned a quote by E.G. Bennett (1913) illustrating how Turkey had been the victim of it inability to counter the p.r. power of the press.

The next speaker spoke on Ottoman women writers of the 19th century. Mentioned were Zeynep Hanim, Melek Hanim and Halide Edip Adivar. That brought us to the end of the historical portion and to our first coffee break.

Following the break, Professor Tunc Aybak (pictured right) kicked off the decidedly political 'Writing Turkey into Europe' portion of the proceedings with a talk on so-called 'Eurasianism'.

"What's this ?" you may well ask.

First, it is a recognition by both Turkey and Russia of their common answer, perspective and historical experience to the question :

"What does Asia mean to us?" (as asked by Dostoevsky in "Goktepe" and exemplified by the two protagonists in Orhan Pamuk's novel "White Castle").

I personally would also have added the related question :

"What does Europe mean to us ?"

And in fact Professor Aybak quoted Pushkin as saying, with reference to Russia, that "the state is the only European".

Apparently 'Eurasianism' was raised to the level of official discourse in Turkey by Tuncer Kilinc at a conference in 2002 well attended by Turkish political elites of all stripes and persuasions.

Some leading proponents of Eurasianism are Alexander Dukin ("a leader of the Eurasian movement"), Atilla Ilhan ("the oldest Eurasianist"), Ismail Gaprinski and Sultan Galiyev (two Tatar intellectuals).

Some core values of Eurasianism are an opposition to U.S unilateralism and to Anglo-American liberalism.

The following speaker Professor Mehmet Ugur pointed to the existence of a consistent history of strong Turkish reservations to EU integration chiefly classed in two historical periods :

1) 1959-1974 characterised by ambivalence for economic reasons and
2) 1999 to the present day characterised by ambivalence due to identity/security issues.

Next on after the second chap, Fadi Hakura promised to "prove" to us by appealing to poll after poll and survey after survey that Turkey was not "confused" on the issue of EU accession.

After listening to him I was more not less convinced about the existence of genuine cognitive dissonance issues in Turkish society with regard to EU accession.

Next came our star and celebrity personality of the day : Mr. Mehmet Ali Birand(pictured left). He was the sole speaker in the 'Writing Turkey Today' segment giving us the 'low down', the fresh scoop, the word on the streets of Istanbul and Ankara, as it were.

He saw relations with the EU and IMF as the key measures for the success or failure of the AKP ruling party and commented that the AKP must stick with these institutions or secularists (like him?) would "fry them", presumably at the polls.

He was insistent that the European project was "the only" security and guarantee of secularism and democracy in Turkey. (If that is the case, it does make you wonder about the forces arrayed against secularism and democracy).

Birand referred to the existence of a love/hate relationship between the secularists and the AKP yet seemed to think it noteworthy to mention that the ruling party did not provoke the populace during the Cartoon Crisis as nearly all other Islamic countries had done.

He did, however, come back to the point that Erdogan's candidacy for the Presidency in 2007 would create political tensions in the country after that date. He also added not to expect much in the way of substantive progress on EU-TR relations until after the elections

Birand must have felt he had to respond to Aybak's paper on Eurasianism since he addressed it directly by expressing a fear of Turkish assimilation by Russia itself . (Aybak later rebutted this fear by mentioning the serious social dislocations occasioned by the collapse of the Soviet state system which left Russia impotent to 'swallow' up Turkey).

Birand concluded his piece with the conviction that not even a French referendum could prevent TR's accession to the EU (how so ? by force of his own personality, perhaps?).

Fazile Zahir was next up in the presentation on 'Writing for Tomorrow'. She had apparently chosen to live in a village of 250 called Canli somewhere in Mugla. (Whatever for? What is she trying to prove?).

Anyway, all she had to say was a bunch of unflattering anecdotes about the domestic life of her villager neighbours. She also gave us a sociology lesson on the "tanidik" system for getting things done and on the role of family solidarity.

She's in favour of Turkey joining the EU but only because it would serve to elevate it in the realm of human rights etc. I certainly got the feeling she had no real love for the people she had chosen to live among. To her, they seem no more than guinea pigs or lab rats in some social experiment she is running.

Afterwards during the coffee time, one of the earlier lecturers called her an "orientalist" . In these circles, there is no greater insult one can hurl at anyone the to call them an 'orientalist'. Especially to someone who still (for some incomprehensible reason) clings to her Turkish identity : "Am I 'Faz' or 'Fazile' ? I am both", she says. Yeah, sure hon.

Next with Alev Adil, Andrew Finkel and Maureen Freely came what we might call the PEN sessions.

Finkel (right) gave a fascinating inside look at Turkish journalism from about mid-1980 onward. He apparently worked for GUNES. It was founded by Asil Nadir for the purpose of securing for himself political influence and safety. Finkel's feeling is that the media of the time was not a vehicle for public reform. Newspapers were bought by rich industrialists and businessmen almost as fashion accessories. But now, he says, the media have changed and they have to make a living on their own merits by earning the respect of their readership.

I think this presentation was really crying out for more in depth analysis and left unanswered, mainly because of time constraints, questions about the reasons for the problems experienced and why we should be confident that things were now better or on a better footing.

In the final session we had Labour councilor Nilgun Canver chime in and say what politicians normally say at such events.

The 'Open Discussion' time generated much heat and some light. People seemed bewitched by and kept coming back to this Eurasianism concept and kept asking and commenting on it which called forth some more interesting input from Tunc Aybak.

There was also quite a bit of discussion, as a result, of how to define Europe : "What really is Europe?" people kept asking out loud.

The twofold implication of this question (and the ensuing discussion) is that "Europe" surely is a very nebulous concept and that whatever it is, Turkey should not be excluded from it.

Well, nobody said it, but again most surely the elephant in the room must be that Christianity was one of if not the most defining thread of what 'Europe' and European identity has meant throughout most of its recorded history.

I did not have the face to stand up and make a comment to this effect since Europe itself had decided NOT to make any mention or reference to its Christian heritage when drawing up the European Constitution.

What then is the most excellent basis for any overarching identity ?

Perhaps some of us need to recover it afresh, and some of us need to discover it for the first time. If you're wondering what I mean click HERE to find out.

But back to the Conference : If you don't think Europe is about Christianity then it must be about Human Rights , right ?

That's what some people said; most notably Alev Adil. But, just when everybody thought there was agreement in the room Tunc Aybak jumped up from his seat and raised the temperature of the room a few degrees by saying the U.S. (by which I think he really meant "the West" thus including "Europe" in his indictment) had lost the moral high ground in that area since 9/11.

M. Ali Birand made the closing statement by saying, in effect, that Turkish accession was in danger only if the European economy did not ramp up over the next few years as lots and lots of money ($40 BILLION just to upgrade the agricultural infrastructure) would be needed for the integration of Turkey into the EU.

Mehmet Ali Dikerdem who, along with Gerald MacLean, had been the overall organisers and administrators of this day conference then dismissed us.

So in conclusion, all this plus a nice Turkish lunch layed out by Iznik Restaurant: £15

Feeling Turkish again for a day : PRICELESS.

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