“The thing about Turks is that we are very ignorant,” my professor explains during a wild non-sequitur from the subject material. He smiles broadly, with childlike enthusiasm, as if to reassure us that his English is not, in fact, failing him. “We find one thing that we think is right and we cling to it.”
In saying this, he is displaying the extent of his strangeness: a decidedly un-Turkish willingness to criticize Turkishness. At the American-founded university where he teaches, his strangeness makes sense. In a place where the highest concentration of Muslim head-scarved girls can be found in a Complex Analysis class, Turkey’s burgeoning identity crisis seems less threatening. His Australian-refined English and short ponytail endear him to the entire class—all of whom are native Turks except for me—making them more willing to engage in the strictly English discussions.
Speech is uncommonly free here. The sprawling, hulking, traffic-riddled cityscape of Istanbul—complete with modern universities, giant shopping centers, and some 18 million residents of varying cosmopolitan dispositions—is a world away from the perpetual Kurdish war zone of southeastern Turkey, but it is the nexus at which Turkish culture and politics are violently crashing into a new era.
The city of Istanbul, once called Constantinople and Byzantium before that, capital of empires for thousands of years, is an epicenter of the friendly and the threatening, the fascinating and the outright bizarre.
There is one man revered by every Turk, and his name is Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. His cult of personality is understandable, given his accomplishments for the nation. In the period after the First World War, when the Ottoman Empire was in decline, he took on the roles of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, and most of the other founding fathers combined. He led a series of successful military campaigns to push back the land claims of the victorious Western forces seizing the spoils of the fallen Ottomans. Once he had succeeded in securing a homeland for ethnic Turks, he moved the political capitol away from the cultured and historic city of Istanbul to Ankara, deeper in the Anatolian Turkish heartland.
The man is the stuff of lore and nation-building character, his story further refined into otherworldly perfection by years of adoration. As the stories indicate (and objective history confirms the majority of his accomplishments), he was personally responsible for the success of every institution that brought Turkey into the modern world. He switched the written language from Arabic to Roman script, reforming and improving education in the process. He insisted that the government be built around democratic republicanism and fierce secularism, a feat that surely succeeded only by his decree. He brought unfamiliar victory to the military and at the same time insisted on women’s equal place in public life.
There is no such thing as a bad picture of Ataturk. In almost every household and shop there is a different portrait of him: smartly dressed in his artillery officer’s uniform, astride his war horse; clad in an immaculate tuxedo, gazing up from his working desk into the unseen future; smiling in his garden, wrapped in a fur coat and leaning on his custom cane rifle.
It’s hard to know just how much is man and how much is legend. After all, a law that expressly forbids publicly disrespecting Ataturk still technically remains in effect. (The same law, sporadically enforced at best, forbids such “anti-Turkish” speech as that which so delighted my professor.) But passing portrait after portrait of his iconic visage along the historic walled streets near Dolmabahçe Palace, it becomes very difficult to imagine that he was undeserving of even his most lavish praise.
If only modern politics represented him.
Five times a day in the City of Minarets, the Call to Prayer echoes out across the city, swelling as each megaphone-enhanced chanter adds his voice to the multitude. The sound bounces off the hills on both sides of the Bosphorus Strait, so that you can never quite be sure if it comes from the Asian or European shore.
What is particularly strange is that nothing seems to stop, at least in most parts of the city. The shops and bazaars stay open in the tourist districts, and in the more business-oriented districts men in identical dress suits scurry from one out-of-place skyscraper to the next. Although millions of İstanbullular stop to face Mecca and answer the Call, there are thousands if not millions of others eager to keep the claustrophobic bustle of the city in full swing.
Perhaps the biggest identity crisis for modern Turks is this duality of desire: on the one hand, an urge to adhere to an Islamic faith that has not only sustained the population through the course of multiple empires but has evolved and adapted to modern life and globalization better than either theocratic Iran or Saudi Arabia; on the other hand, an insatiable thirst for modern megamalls, fast cars, and EU membership.
This city marks the spot where the West ends: literally as the eastern edge of Europe, and figuratively as a cultural buffer between the European Union and a myriad of Central Asian and Middle Eastern influences.
On May 26, during the week before our final exams, a bomb detonated at a megamall near campus. It was not clear if the intended target was the civilian population in the mall itself or the Police Academy across the street. There were no casualties, but several people were severely injured and one young woman lost her leg.
The attack was one of many telling signs of the on-again-off-again conflict with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Kurdish militant-political group based southeastern Turkey. Both Turkey and the United States consider the group to be a terrorist organization, and the group has a history of violence to match.
But as you might suspect, the situation is not so simple. The Turkish Constitution is chock-full of deliberately obtuse restrictions designed solely to keep Kurdish groups from having legitimate representation in parliament. In recent elections, Kurds have circumvented these restrictions by running as independents, without any party allegiance, with surprising success. In the streets of Istanbul, many see this as a hope for a peaceful resolution to a decades-old conflict, but in the meantime combat continues.
There are no heroes, there are few villains, and there are mountains of failures of good intentions. Somehow, I doubt that the nuance of human nature is any consolation to the families of the dozens of Turkish soldiers killed in recent skirmishes in Kurdish territory since the PKK ended its self-imposed ceasefire. It certainly won’t put that young woman’s leg back on.
One sunny afternoon, I found myself sitting in the same professor’s office, chatting about any number of things. None of them were the subject he taught.
“Turks have trouble expressing themselves,” he tells me with the same unfaltering smile. “Not just in English, of course there is that, but in Turkish, too.”
After my time in the city, I can’t help but disagree. The Turks express themselves just fine. They just live in a world that can’t be put into words.