Notes from Istanbul

January 8, 2015

I've been in Istanbul for the past few weeks, working in various libraries in town and mainly searching for inspiration. With my book coming out last month and a grant from Montana State University to spend, it seemed like coming here would be a good idea.

While I don't feel particularly under the gun to get a new book project immediately underway or anything, I do have a couple of ideas that I thought might be worth exploring. Mainly, however, I wanted a change of scenery. While winter break is normally a pretty pleasant time in Bozeman--the powder has been pretty good, from what I understand--I really felt a need to get away and spend a bit of time thinking about what I'd like to do next. In any case, with a nearly five-week winter break--one of the advantages of teaching in a ski-town, I suppose--there's actually plenty of time for everything.

So, in addition to meeting up with friends and hanging out in some old haunts, I've also been doing a lot of reading and writing. I'm not sure why, but being on the road has always helped me to think. On the one hand, the physical distance helps me concentrate--away from my friends, work, and even my own apartment, I'm able to focus more on what matters to me, or at least come up with other ideas regarding what should matter. 

This has been the case for years with me--decades, actually. Even back in the 90s when I was teaching in Istanbul, I would spend six to eight weeks every summer traveling around the Balkans, former USSR, the Middle East, and elsewhere, carrying a diary, some books to read, and vocabulary notebooks for the various foreign languages I was trying to learn then. Some of the more impactful decisions that I have made in my life--such as resolving to go to graduate school and leave Turkey--were made while riding the trains and buses of Romania, Macedonia, and other places, where I met people, saw things, and wrote down my ideas as they came to me. 

Ismail Gasprinskii in his office
I guess that this was part of my attraction to what became the topic of the book I just published (you didn't think I'd make it through an entire blog post without linking to it, did you?). What I liked about the story of the pan-Turkists was what I saw as the free-wheeling nature of their times and lives, an aspect of their story that seemed to have been lost amid a historiography that tended to focus more or less exclusively upon the ideas and writings in their published writings. Rather than just discuss their writings, I look more closely at the lives and careers of İsmail Gasprinskii, Yusuf Akçura, and Ahmet Ağaoğlu from a perspective that I could relate with personally--through travel. 

Politically, things haven't changed so much in Turkey since the last time I was here in May-June. Stories about president Erdoğan's intolerance for criticism--such as the recent detention of a sixteen year-old in Konya--continue to make the rounds in Turkey and elsewhere. In Turkey, insulting the country's leaders is a crime, but it's worth keeping in mind that doing so was a crime long before Erdoğan came to power in 2003. 
Indeed, as is the case with much of the political nastiness that has occurred in recent years, there were precedents in the pre-Erdoğan years that most of the president's critics have now seem to have forgotten. As off-message and even counter-intuitive as this might sound, Erdoğan, is largely a reflection of the authoritarian system under which he was created. 

But there is also an important difference. In the past, the military, bureaucracy and judiciary formed a sort of permanent state that cracked down on what they considered to be destabilizing elements from a variety of sources--leftists, rightists, secularists, Islamists, separatists, etc. This wasn't democratic, either, but at least wasn't carried out in the interests of a single party. Now, the authoritarianism of the former permanent state has been largely replaced by the authoritarianism of a single political party. As bad as things sometimes were for some aspects of civil society in the decades before Erdoğan, Turkey hasn't been in a situation like this since the Menderes era of the 1950s. 

Then, as now, the politicians in charge took advantage of a pre-existing constitution that had been created with the intention of suppressing, rather than encouraging, the public's participation in politics. As Mustafa Akyol points out in a recent piece, however, this is a phenomenon that really goes back to the country's founding. 

Syrian refugees in the Mideast
Another feature of Turkish life that has become increasingly noticeable during my past couple of visits has been the growing number of Syrian refugees on the streets of Istanbul. In Turkey, a country with a population of about 75 million people, there are over one million refugees. While many of these refugees live in camps near the Turkish border with Syria, many others wander the streets of Istanbul and other cities, begging or working odd jobs. There doesn't seem to be an overarching method of dealing with them. 

Of course, there is a long history of Muslim refugees coming to Turkey and the Ottoman Empire. In the 1980s and 90s, hundreds of thousands of Muslims came to Turkey from Bulgaria, Bosnia, and Chechnya. In the years following the Crimean War (1853-56), which saw the flooding of Istanbul with Muslims refugees from Russia, the Ottoman state created the Muhacirin Komisyonu  (the "Refugee Comission"). The job of the commission (as I discuss in this article) was to avoid a re-enactment of the humanitarian catastrophe that marked the aftermath of the Crimean War by directing incoming refugees away from the big cities and toward areas of the empire that had been targeted for agricultural or industrial development. Institutions responsible for matters like this still exist in Turkey, but now, as was the case in Ottoman times, refugees still find ways of going where they want to go. 

This is especially the case if, as has been claimed by the political opposition in Turkey, the AK Party government has been making it possible for Syrian refugees to vote in elections in Turkey. Indeed, whether or not this charge is true, it seems inevitable that most of these refugees will, eventually, become "Turks." Such was also the case with many of the Bosnians, Bulgarian Muslims, Chechens, and others who came to Turkey in recent decades, but the sheer numbers of refugees from Syria--one in seventy-five people in the country are now Syrian refugees--will without question have a much stronger impact upon Turkey's demographics, society and culture than was the case with more recent waves of newcomers from the Balkans and Caucasus. 

One of the reasons why I called my book "Turks Across Empires" was because I wanted to underscore that much of Turkey today is made up of people whose forefathers came from Russia, the Balkans, and other places from outside today's Turkey. Indeed, if you look at people's faces in this country you can see the genetic diversity in people's eyes, hair color, and other features. "Turks" really have come to Turkey from across empires, often arriving--like today's Syrians, or the Bosnians and Chechens from the 90s--from places where Turkey has historical ties but where most people are not ethnically Turkish. This, too, is something that the newcomers have in common with the ancestors of many of today's self-identifying Turks. 

All in all, it's been a fun time here. I've seen a lot of old friends, eaten a lot of Turkish food, and visited a lot of my favorite spots. It's also been great to just be unmoored from my everyday surroundings for a while, to get away from what I'm used to and allow myself to drift a bit. At the same time, however, I'm looking forward to heading back home--a term that I probably wouldn't have been comfortable using for Bozeman until a couple of years ago. 

The Borderlands Lodge awaits.  

Like the Borderlands? You'll love the book! Order your copy now at the OUP website.   

More links, commentary and photographs available poolside at the Borderlands Lounge

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