The Return: Part II, Talkin' Turkey

Thursday, June 23, 2022

I was at a hippish-type of place in Çukurcuma, not far from the AirBnB I'd rented in Cihangir. A friend of mine runs an art gallery there and she'd invited me to a soiree. It was a nice evening. I'd always despised Cihangir, which is lousy with youngish western foreigners, but Çukurcuma is alright. A DJ was playing cool- sounding music that was dribbling in the background, and we were all sipping red wine and talking about the paintings on the walls. 

It's good to be back












A couple of dudes, old-school Turkish leftist types, started chatting me up. It turned out we had some friends in common, people I'd known from the various times of my life that I've lived in this city. Talk turned to politics and the Russia-Ukraine war, and they asked me what I thought. I deflected, half-knowing what would come next. Of course they blamed the US for everything. 

Followers of contemporary Turkish politics are likely familiar with the objections that have recently been made by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to NATO’s proposed expansion to include Sweden and Finland, as well as Ankara’s efforts to avoid antagonizing Moscow in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Yet it is not only Erdoğan and his government which have exhibited a lack of enthusiasm for backing up Washington’s response to the Ukraine war. Turkish public opinion, too, has demonstrated a clear tendency to hold the United States and NATO, rather than Moscow, as responsible for the conflict. A poll conducted in March indicated that more than 48 percent of respondents blamed NATO and the United States for the conflict, with only 34 percent viewing Russia as the primary culprit. Later polls have borne similar results

Even more notable is the fact that these numbers were largely consistent across the spectrum of Turkey’s fractured political landscape, with supporters of Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party and the main opposition Republican People’s Party similarly viewing Turkey’s NATO allies, rather than Russia, as principally to blame for the war--a position that people in other countries, including the United States, have also taken. 

I get it: the US caused all of this by needlessly expanding NATO into Eastern Europe, blah, blah, blah. Of course, it might be a good idea to ask why people in all of those former Warsaw Pact countries were so desperate to join NATO in the first place. 

Going back even further, you could also ask the same question with respect to Turkey itself. 

The June 28, 1945 New York Times article bore a portentous message: “Turks Said to Get 4 Soviet Demands.” With World War II winding down in the aftermath of Germany’s surrender the previous month, officials in Turkey—which had been neutral throughout the course of the war—had been given an ultimatum from their powerful neighbor to the north. Moscow was insisting, as part of a new treaty it wished to sign with Ankara, upon the return of two of Turkey’s eastern provinces—Kars and Ardahan—which had been transferred to Turkey in the aftermath of the First World War. 

Sound familiar? NYT p. 1, 
August 7, 1945















    

This demand—which had been presented alongside other stipulations, including the opening of Soviet military bases in Turkey—prompted officials in Turkey to take an unprecedented move. Taking their first steps toward abandoning the policy of neutrality that the country’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, had embraced with Turkey’s creation in 1923, Prime Minister İsmet İnönü sent a delegation to London within days of receiving Moscow’s letter. 


NYT, p1, December 21, 1945

 














These meetings, initiated by Turkey’s Republican People’s Party government, would lead to Ankara’s gradual integration with western European, and eventually American, diplomatic and military institutions. In 1949, Turkey became one of the founding members of the Council of Europe. Following the victory of the opposition Democrat Party in 1950, Turkey volunteered to send troops to fight in Korea on behalf of the US-led UN coalition. In all, Ankara would dispatch 15,000 troops in the war, suffering more than 900 casualties. In 1952, Turkey and Greece simultaneously joined NATO. 


But yeah, I guess this too was just another example of Washington's war-mongering.


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What's in a Name?


Some people have been asking what I think about Turkey's "name change," i.e. from just plain "Turkey" to the new and exciting "Turkey-yay!" (as "Türkiye" is pronounced, sort of). 


Who knows? Maybe they're on to something. 


"Turkey-yay!"














Actually, I remember back in 1992 a number of my students at Marmara University "correcting" my references to "Turkey" on the black board. Then Turkish president Turgut Özal had, they assured me, settled this issue by formally changing the country's English-language name to, you guessed it, Türkiye. 


I tried to explain to them that it wasn't really the job of the president of Turkey to determine the name that is used for their country in other languages, but this was met with skepticism. When I asked why they felt the country's English-language name needed to be changed, I was told that sharing a name with "a stupid bird" was an obvious insult to Turkey. 


Some birds bring disrespect,
others greatness













On the one hand, this is easy to make fun of, especially since the Turkish word for "Turkey" (the bird) is hindi, which derives from Turkish words relating to "India" (Hindistan) and "Indian" (Hintli). As is the case with French (where the word for the bird is dinde, or "from India," d'Inde), the Turkish word for the bird, like the English one, comes from the mistaken premise that the Turkey is a bird that is native to Asia. 


What isn't so easy to make fun of is the fact that this actually resonates with some people in Turkey. While Turkish president Tayyip Erdoğan's newfound insistence that the English-speaking world call the country (and, now, it's national airline) by a new name strikes me as an obvious ploy to appear as a defender of Turkey's interests at a time of spectacular economic mismanagement, what does it mean that so many people in Turkey would consider the name a deliberate insult?


Because there is meaning to this. I don't think it's simply a case of people being ridiculous, or trying to distract the public from bigger problems, although these are without question components behind the government's sudden interest in changing the country's name. 


I don't plan to change every reference to "Turkey" in my upcoming book to "Turkey-yay!" But, it still might be worth thinking some more about where all of this is coming from. In some ways, Ankara's current efforts at a name-change is the story of Erdoğan's rule in a microcosm: he's making a crude attempt to exploit people's sense of resentment. However, in many cases these resentments derive from causes that are, in fact, real, and actually aren't so funny. 


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Are you a Turk across empires? Order a copy today, then get another one for your library.  

More commentary, photos, and links can be found in the Borderlands Lounge.   

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