I am one of those cautious travelers who would not dream of parachuting into a place without knowing something about the terrain below.  To arrive without preparation is to arrive advertising  with your face: Self Centered and Bored!  Amuse Me!   I don’t trust those who arrive in my San Francisco neighborhood that way,  and wouldn’t expect to be trusted by others if I act that way in their streets,   cities, rivers or shorelines.  For me, to travel is to try to add to the map, even if only in light erasable sketches, of the vast vaguely known territories in my mind.

So history, poetry, fiction, narrative non-fiction, politics all contend for attention once a date and destination are ascertained.

Turkey it is. Spring of 2012.

Stephen Kinzer’s Crescent and Star: Turkey Between Two Worlds seemed a volume made to order.  It’s relatively recent, published in 2001 and revised in 2008 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, a serious, old-line publisher.  Kinzer had been a resident of Istanbul as the NY Times bureau chief from 1996 to 2000.  He is the author of several very topical journalistic histories, All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Rise of Middle East Terror, and Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to IraqCrescent and Star is highly recommended by Joshua Landis, an astute observer and commentator on the Middle East (and particularly, Syria.)  All signs pointed to a book to be read seriously by someone  interested in Turkey, or if going,  interested in more than the trinkets on Istikal Street.  I buy it on its bonafides, without looking inside.

The problem begins almost immediately:  what kind of beast do we have here, a memoir, a history, a collection of  articles?   His preface puts me on alert.   ” …in 2001 Turkey was the most fascinating country in the world.  It still is.”   Ah!  This is a book written by a “fan.”  Often, fan reportage can be informed; it is usually lively and persuasive.  It is unlikely, however,  to be an unvarnished picture.  Better beware.  A cover blurb calling the book  “brilliant,” jumps out to needle me.  Brilliant? Really?

The table of contents is more suggestive than indicative of what we might learn:  “The Hero,” ” The Call to Prayer,” “Ghosts.”  For an analytically minded reader, these are frustrations.  I want to know what I am about to embark on;  do I want to go?  Ghosts?  Only two chapter titles point to actual “matters” in Turkey: “The Kurdish Puzzle,” and “Death by Earthquake.”  With such high recommendations however, I  lower the alert flags and begin.   Knowing little of Turkey myself why not start here?

A few pages stage the set:  there is a 1000 year history between Europe and The Turk dating from the Ottoman conquering of Constantinople in 1453,  which ended the 1500 years of Roman-Byzantium orientation.  We are reminded of the schizophrenic reports about Turkey in the capitals of Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries:  there they are, the vicious heathens, but then again, there they are,  the tolerant, sensual, luxury loving pashas.  Which to believe?

Dreaming in Turkish begins the book proper.  It is a sweeping, personal view of vast changes in Turkey in the hundred years since its founding, and in particular the last several decades.  With no detail to help us follow, Kinzer tells us that the founding vision and energy of Kemal Mustafa [self named, and called by most, Ataturk – Father of the Turks]  had turned by the 1990s into an ideology of “Kemalism,” wielded by an entrenched army autocracy, increasingly out of touch with democratic strivings.  He touches briefly on the coups of 1960, 1970, 1980 and 1997.  In particular, that of 1980, following a decade of turmoil, had a chilling effect on what Kinzer describes as “the flowering of Turkish democracy.”  He introduces us to two seminal opposition figures, Turgut Ozal, Prime Minster from 1983 to his death in 1993, and  Recip Tayyip Erdoğan, once mayor of Istanbul, founder and organizer of a nation-wide party [Justice and Development: AKP] and since 2002, the Prime Minster, a man who inspires great hope and great fear.

The chapter, The Hero, it turns out, is a reasonably wide view of  Mustafa Ataturk, how he rescued from certain dismemberment at the hands of European powers a good part of the old Ottoman Empire.   We read that the battle of Gallipoli, famous in  Peter Weir’s film, and in the memories of Australians and New Zealanders who lost so many young men there, looks quite different in Turkish eyes.  Mustafa led his army to the one Turkish military glory of WW I, stopping the combined British, French and Australian-New Zealand invasion forces.  [For a first rate documentary see Tolga Örnek‘s  Gallipoli, with footage from both sides of the line.]

Mustafa’s unwavering, and shocking,  “progressive” agenda following his ascension to leadership is quickly filled in:    giving women the right to vote, banning the head scarf, dropping the Arabic alphabet for a western one,  insisting on last names for everyone, implacably opposing religious meddling with the state.   Much of this will be news to the visitor and foundational for any informed idea of Turkey and its citizens today.

Yet all is not well, Kinzer lets us know.  The very changes Mustafa set in motion, he says,  have created obstacles to the change he envisioned. “…the heroic figure who devoted his life to destroying taboos was used for years to enforce taboos.”  So, even though a “fan” Kinzer is not unwilling to speak of the shortcomings he sees.

“Call to Prayer,” introduces us to the fluctuating currents of Islamic belief, and therefore, power, versus the power of the state Ataturk created, and the army has sustained — in benefit of its own power, to be sure.   This is not a treatise on Islam itself, nor even the practice of it by the people, but a review of the several army coups, and the accommodation and use the secularists have made of the expression of religious electoral power.

We learn of the growth of Islam into the militantly secular state Ataturk set up.  In particular we learn of Necmettin Erbakan whose successful grass roots organizing throughout Turkey made him a problem for the army, in power after the coup of 1970, and the large and secular Justice Party.  He was sent to Switzerland for his “health,” but called back for elections in 1973, the generals intending that his National Order party would siphon votes from the  more secular but populist Justice party. In choosing to embrace a religious power broker, the generals put the stamp of authority on his particular brand of Islam — Sunni, leaving a large minority of Alevi to chafe at the change in rules.

This is the kind of knowledge the thirsty observer soaks in: Alevi Islam?!  What is that? I thought there was only Sunni and Shia!   Autocratic Generals the protectors of democracy?  The generals in bed with the faithful?  Prolonged, successful organizing, allowed in a home-grown democracy — leading to outcomes not necessarily democratic?

Erbakan was eventually elected as Prime Minister in the 1995 elections, the closest in Turkish history, and finally raised into power through the kind of back-room deals politics lives on.  His party got 21% of the vote and two other parties got 20% each; not exactly a mandate.   He immediately began to offer himself as a new Muslim leader for the ages and visited Iran in the cauldron of its own theocratic consolidation, and then to  Libya where Gaddafi insulted him, and Turkey, in such blistering tones, and in public, that Erbakan’s minority popularity began to dissolve.  Women protested by the thousands against his favoring the headscarf.  Riots broke out in rural towns where fundamentalists were taking Erbakan’s lead and running with it.  Finally, the army stepped in, again, spring of 1997.

From his failure, and a reaction to his over-stepping, emerged a new party, the AKP with the former mayor of Istanbul,  Tayyip Erdoğan, as its leader.  AKP and Erdoğan have headed the government of Turkey since the elections of 2002.

Kinzer’s fairly tells us that Erdoğan’s ascension has left many Turks uneasy, but he himself, as of the second edition 2008, gives his fusion of “moderate Islam” with the secular state, a cautious thumbs-up,and points to a cross-current of values at the core of Erdoğan’s popularity:

“…it is not a simple uprising of religious believers against Turkey’s secular elite.  It is also the product of the rebellion of democracy against authoritarianism and of the periphery against the center.”

Kinzer’s chapter “Ghosts” looks at some of the “unspeakable” issues of the past that, buried, still have a mighty presence in national life.  He includes the  Armenian massacres of 1915  and fills us in a bit on the history leading up to the terrible years when some 1 million Armenians — residents of large tracts of Turkey for millenia, died — on forced marches, of starvation, under saber and hoof, before machine gun and rifle fire.  He refers to the Kurds as well but devotes an entire chapter to them, as the army and guerrilla Kurds continue in mutual retributions.  Among the ghosts, too, are the 1970s when disruptions, demonstrations and assassinations led to the 1980 generals coup, and the imposition of the constitution still in force.  For each of these events, much is hidden, not spoken of;  documents are not allowed into the hands of historians.  And, as elsewhere, when facts aren’t known, rumor and suspicion rule.  Kinzer argues that an overwhelming duty of the Turkish state is to allow research to go forward, that as difficult as it is, health only comes with the sunlight of knowing.

The chapter that surprised me the most is titled “Death by Earthquake,”  in part because I was aware, as most people in the west were, of the horrific earthquakes of 1999.  What I didn’t know was the profound effect they had on the nation as a whole — not in mourning and sorrow, but in being jolted out of a long-lasting insularity that as much as anything had kept Turkey from being part of the wider world.  The epicenter was only 50 miles from Istanbul.  The devastation was profound, and yet the government and army seemed incapable of responding.  Rescue teams from Japan, the United States, Greece and all parts of Europe arrived and went to work before national resources could get mobilized.  Local, and international television was there to show it all.

“The quake led millions of Turks to question institutions they had never questioned before, and to accept the necessity of changes they had resisted for years….some said that when the history of the Turkish Republic is written years or centuries from now, it will be divided into two periods, pre-earthquake and post-earthquake. “

Among other things, Greek aid to Turks, followed by Turkish aid to Greece in an earthquake there  27 days later, led to a major change in attitudes between the two people — antagonistic since the enormous, forced population exchanges of 1923.

None of this I knew, and am glad, as I go for a three week visit, that I now do.

In the end, Crescent and Star was a mixed  pleasure for me.  I understand why Kinzer would conceive of the book in thematic terms, rather than a more linear, historical narrative, but I confess, coming upon the coup of 1980 in several places, each time paragraphed next to a different matter, leaves me confused, having to refer back and forth to keep things straight.  Swooping from Erbakan in 1970 to his victory in 1995 compresses the decades too much.  Constantly sifting Kinzer’s opinion, or claims that “Turks think” with no substantiation for how he knows this, made me wary about  the glasses he was offering me to look through.   Some will prefer this manner of telling.  I do not.

I  learned that I prefer my history straight up, with the chaser of opinion on the side.

Kinzer himself is able to follow a more linear narrative, even when his space is limited.  His Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq is a quick run-through of  some 14 coups or invasions by American presidents, officials and businessmen.  Disappointing to read, not because of his writing, but of what he is writing about, he is perhaps taking his own advice to the Turks and exhuming some American ghosts.  When they are disinfected in the sunlight, and enough Americans know, we will return to our own democratic roots.

I’m undertaking another book on Turkish history, in part because of my less than happy take on Kinzer’s and because, again, of high recommendations by others.  Turkey Unveiled: A History of Modern Turkey is by Nicole Pope and Hugh Pope, journalists as well, and looks to be more to my taste. Let’s start with the Scythians 1,000 BC and race forward, skipping like a stone over water on Mehmett II, the Conqueror of Constantinople in 1453, on the Janissaries and their rise from a slave corps to a ruling corps over 400 years,  to 500 years of Crusades, the ashes of which threaten new conflagrations in the present era.  I’ve just begun, and will report later if Turkey Unveiled holds up to its initial promise.