Turkey Under Western Eyes

By Kaya GençSeptember 6, 2015

Turkish Awakening by Alev Scott

MUCH INK has been spilled on the subject of Turkey over the last two years. Turkey watchers have taken over the op-ed pages of leading international papers and conducted long, tireless campaigns. The Gezi events of Summer 2013 were the undoubtable catalyst, leading writers of all stripes to offer their expertise on subjects such as “the Turkish model,” “the Turkish authoritarianism,” and “the Turkish democracy.” In the past two years, Turkey has become profitable subject matter like never before; even the meaning of the “Turkey expert” — or “Turkey analyst” or “Turkey watcher” — has changed. These roles have become rational, entrepreneurial steps one needs to take if one is to make a successful career in international relations — particularly, and most profitably, in Middle East–themed think tanks.

In the 2000s and early 2010s, American or British publications were served with two à la carte menus about Turkey. According to the first one, the country was, before everything else, a splendid bridge between cultures and two continents. It represented the best of both worlds, a multicultural heaven undergoing what was ominously called a period of “normalization.” This process, according to the chefs in charge, consisted of getting rid of “fanatics” and “extremists” who disrupted Turkey’s new, liberal outlook, thanks to whose imposition the undesirables suddenly started finding themselves locked up. With the disappearance of the “extremists” from the public sphere, a tolerant society was manufactured, which tourists from all continents were invited to experience at bargain prices.

According to the other, more recent à la carte menu, Turkey is a fascist semi-dictatorship, condemned to live perpetually under dark clouds; a one-party rule and total control of social activities have made life unbearable for its citizens. Turkey is what Germany was in the 1930s. A much-discussed open letter published in The Times of London (July 2013), which compared a conservative meeting in Istanbul to the Nuremberg Rally, was among the earliest samples from this menu. Writers who subscribe to this view take obvious pleasure in applying Christopher Hitchens’s label of “Islamofascism” to Turkey’s conservatives, who are thus portrayed as “brown shirts” with a sinister plan to create an Islamic state inside Turkey’s borders. Turks, according to this menu’s chefs, are brainwashed followers of sinister dictators with whom they are secretly, or not so secretly, in love.

At close inspection, however, both menus turn out to be the product of like-minded chefs who seem to take their cue from the anti-republican discourse of the 1990s, which portrayed the Turkey of the 1930s in almost identical terms. In the world of this discourse, conspicuous in its lack of nuance, Turkey is represented as a country whose painful modernization disturbs; when stripped of its modern garments, Turkey’s reflection in the Anglophone discourse comes across as the most repressive. When applied to the Turkey of the 1930s, this discursive lens makes the country’s Ottoman past look like a lost paradise. When applied to the 2010s, the same lens makes the lost Kemalist-secular legacy look again like a lost paradise from which the Turks are barred.

It is to a handful of writers who take such romanticizations with a pinch of salt that we owe more nuanced, palatable, reliable literary representations of Turkey. The frequently ignored truth about Turkey is that its political culture is founded on a history of paradoxes: the late Ottoman society was heavily modernized before the republic came along, so the pre-republican culture was far from being the recently invented bucolic society, untouched by modernity. (There goes your “backward society vs. modernity” argument.) The seeds of democratic politics in Turkey (its conservative, liberal, and socialist traditions) were planted by figures who came from the Kemalist tradition and the Kemalist Republican People’s Party. (There goes your “Kemalists were fascists” argument.) Even more confusingly, many Kemalist figures were in fact leading intellectuals of the Ottoman era, whose Arabic script they continued to use privately whilst preaching top–down Westernization. (And there goes your “Ottomans were ignorant oppressors of humanity” argument.) To put it differently, Turkish democrats came from the ranks of Kemalists who themselves used to be reformist Ottomans.

Such nuances, so vital to understanding modern Turkey, are not easily discerned by the growing army of Turkey watchers; indeed, they are seen as boring details by any international newspapers’ op-ed page editors on the lookout for the angriest, most reader comment-producing voices out there.


In the walled garden of Turkey-writing I just sketched, Alev Scott is a wild rose, to borrow an expression from her own debut book, Turkish Awakening. With no claims to academic Turkey expertise, Scott writes beautifully about a country she has experienced deeply and thoroughly. Her continuous focus on personal experiences has an unsettling, undermining effect on clichéd views of a complex culture.

Daughter of a Turkish mother and British father, Scott moved to Istanbul from London, where she had worked as an assistant director in opera and theatre. Her large-sized pictures of various facets of Turkey owe considerably to her previous artistic experience. Turkish Awakening’s cast of Turkish characters are presented to the reader somehow like opera figures; in the 13 chapters that make up the book, these characters express themselves powerfully through their gestures, postures, and voices, which Scott takes obvious pleasure in capturing through her luminous prose. Turkish Awakening is a vivid book where observations and arguments are made with passion; it is difficult to find in it a page that lacks intensity.

Scott opens her book with a cab scene, which for the reader functions as an introduction to, and metonym of, all things Turkish. “The Naïve Newcomer to Turkey is best represented as a passenger in a yellow taxi cab, lost in the chaos of Istanbul,” she writes. “In the first months after my arrival, I fitted this tableau perfectly.” It is through the reflective plane of Turkish places, people, and customs that we get a better picture of the book’s author: she never silently observes, but almost always passionately meditates on, what is going on in Turkey.

“The taxi business is a very good example of the lingering Byzantine practices still going strong in Turkey,” she informs the reader. “Behind the ostensibly upright system in place, favors are bestowed, scores are settled, and nothing is straightforward.” After a detailed description of how taxi licenses are issued (the astonishing amount of 250,000 pounds sterling has to be paid to get a license!), Scott reflects on how cabbies act to earn back this money. “In the heart of tourist land […] you will find specialist taxi drivers who quadruple the distance actually needed to drive from, say, a hotel near the Blue Mosque to Taksim Square, often neglecting to put the meter on, and sometimes even crossing over to the Asian side and back again.”

Although she has little sympathy for vultures, Scott is not at all angered by unlicensed pirate (“korsan”) taxis. From the terrace of Istanbul’s legendary Grand London Hotel (“a dusty testament to 1930s third-rate grandeur”) she watches a scene involving a pirate taxi driver and an undercover cop. A car pulls up, all passengers rush outside, leaving the “walrus-like driver” of the pirate taxi and a young undercover cop alone inside the vehicle:

I will never forget that korsan driver. Middle-aged, beefy, his mustache bristling with rage, he railed against this poor policeman like some kind of supercharged King Lear, swearing his own moral superiority and denouncing the character of the trembling young man before him with biblical fervor. After a few minutes, the policeman called for backup, and a slightly more robust-looking man turned up to take on the driver. He was very quickly reduced to the same state of intimidation, as King Korsan bellowed and fumed amid a steadily growing crowd of onlookers.

At the tragic finale of the scene we find King Korsan surrounded by cops. He looks “like a mighty, wounded stag, awesome in his rage, pitiful in his capture,” and we learn that, for a while, Scott was able to hear his cries. “Then, in an eye-watering finale, he staggered towards the original undercover policeman, threw his arms over him like a father, and wept.”

Scott is constantly on the lookout for such dramatic Turkish behavior. Whilst trying to get a residence permit, she learns how pedantic Turkish officials are about the application documents. Or are they? For “[h]owever unapproachable official Turks may appear, you can be sure that a human heart beats somewhere beneath the uniformed exterior,” she muses. “Turks are capricious and therefore human, preferable by far to an anonymous computer system or the chillingly anodyne officials in the US or Britain.”

This is a central theme in Scott’s comparative analysis of the merits of British and Turkish societies. In Turkey she finds no official accountability for the actions of state officials who can mistreat their citizens at will, ask for bribes, and so on. Meanwhile, in Britain, public life is much more strictly regulated. On the feelings-and-humanity front, however, Turkey triumphs, while the people of the country Scott left behind seem increasingly heartless.

Scott does a good job at describing the complexities of Turkey’s political culture. She admires Mustafa Kemal’s modernizing reforms, which she characterizes as “a healthy dose of radical, modern secularism to present a progressive face to Western challengers.” She defends them against accusations of being anti-Islamic: “He was anti-backwardness, be that the result of religious practice or the broader traditional mores which included superstition, antiquated hierarchies, unbending social etiquette and a general distrust of outsiders and their ways,” she writes. “His reforms were not targeted mainly against religion per se but against the stagnant conservatism that regarded things like scientific education and industrialization with the utmost suspicion.”

Scott’s admiration for Turkish modernity is strongly balanced by her critique of Kemalists whose devotion to their political hero she reads in religious terms: she is thus surprised to observe

how similar the Kemalists are to evangelicals, following the inspiration of a quasi-prophet — the only difference being that the gospel of Secularism is preached. Kemalists are as devoted to Atatürk and his doctrine as religious fanatics are to their idols, and his life story, teachings and speeches are taught extensively and emotionally from kindergarten up to university.

Such political analyses are woven into Scott’s continuous fascination with Istanbul. She compares life in Istanbul to “dealing with an opera diva: you accept the tardiness and the tantrums because you cannot resist the beauty of her art, a gift which silences the mediocrity of all rivals.”

In the chapter on Turkey’s education system, entitled “The Dickensian Model,” Scott comes across other dramatic figures. While teaching Latin at Istanbul’s Bosphorus University, she is shocked to see that her students never ask any questions, focusing instead on just getting a top grade and moving on to the next course. Turkish students, in Scott’s eyes, are products of the kind of utilitarian education system Charles Dickens had critiqued in Hard Times. It is a walled garden where creativity is heartlessly, systematically stifled:

Only one of my students asked anything in the spirit of enquiry rather than for exam-focused information. He was a unique individual in more ways than one. […] A leftist, despite his formal English, he would stay behind after class to discuss Marx and the Beatles with me, and one memorable afternoon he delivered an awkwardly phrased but impassioned polemic on the atrocities committed by America on the English language. According to İbrahim, Americans should not be allowed to speak English, because it is a language fit only for the elegance of traditional English expression, as delivered by proper English people. İbrahim despised phrases like “I figured” and “That sucks” and refused to watch any Hollywood films on principle; previous exposure to the movie genre had instilled in him a hatred of actors like Tom Cruise and other prominent examples of the American Uncouth.

Figures like İbrahim appear with increasing frequency in Scott’s account as she continues to describe the recent political turmoil in Turkey, be it the May 2013 law that restricted sale of alcoholic drinks after 10 p.m. or the cordoning-off of the base of Galata Tower in Beyoglu after residents complained about young people making unbearable noise there late at night.

To make things more intuitive for her readership, Scott often draws comparisons between Turkey and Britain (e.g., “Taksim Square in central Istanbul, the traditional site for democratic public protest like Trafalgar Square or Parliament Square in London”). For Turkish Awakening’s target audience consists of London-based readers who want to understand what on earth is going on in the streets of a country they are probably accustomed to seeing as a holiday destination rather than a complex society, with an even more complex past. Turkish Awakening belongs to an intriguing new genre: at once city guide, travelogue, and tale of self-discovery.

And what about orientalism? Can Turkish Awakening be considered a symptom of it? “In 1978, Edward Said’s Orientalism was published and gave the term a negative connotation,” Scott writes towards the end of her book. “Said argued that most orientalist views simplified and patronized ‘the Orient’ (a patronizing term in itself). The Orient, i.e., anything east of Europe, was seen as ‘exotic’ but also as backward, static and inferior to Western society.” She then goes on to acknowledge that her book, too, might be placed in that genre: “This book is a form of orientalism, of course, in that it generalizes and objectifies a Middle Eastern country.”

This admission, in fact, is one of the ways Turkish Awakening attempts to move beyond an orientalist epistemology. On several occasions, when the gallery of fascinating Turkish figures manages to disturb her liberal beliefs, Scott decides to take a step back and analyze the source of her purportedly “enlightened” dissatisfaction. Indeed, the most interesting aspect of Turkish Awakening is its author’s frequent irritation at things she observes, and then the subsequent irritation at her own status as an irritated observer. This self-reflection may be seen as part of a cure against orientalism.

Such a self-conscious gaze does not produce the kind of à la carte discourse, prepared in haste and with little effort, that I excoriated above. When objectification and generalization are made through self-deconstructing eyes, they can turn into their opposites. And that’s what happens in Turkish Awakening.


Kaya Genç, the Istanbul correspondent of the Los Angeles Review of Books, is writing a history of Turkish literature for Harvard University Press. His book on “Angry Young Turkey” will be published by I.B. Tauris.

LARB Contributor

Kaya Genç is the author of three books from Bloomsbury Publishing: The Lion and the Nightingale (2019), Under the Shadow (2016), and An Istanbul Anthology (2015). He has contributed to the world’s leading journals and newspapers, including two front page stories in The New York Times, cover stories in The New York Review of Books, Foreign Affairs, and The Times Literary Supplement, and essays and articles in The New Yorker, The Nation, The Paris Review, The Guardian, The Financial Times, The New Statesman, The New Republic, Time, Newsweek, and the London Review of Books. The Atlantic picked Kaya’s writings for the magazine’s “best works of journalism in 2014” list. A critic for Artforum and Art in America, and a contributing editor at Index on Censorship, Kaya gave lectures at venues including the Royal Anthropological Institute, and appeared live on flagship programs including the Leonard Lopate Show on WNYC and BBC’s Start the Week. He has been a speaker at Edinburgh, Jaipur, and Ways with Words book festivals, and holds a PhD in English literature. Kaya is the Istanbul correspondent of the Los Angeles Review of Books.


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