On football matches: to mark silence or to boo

Greek-Turkish-trinkets

FOOTBALL IS known as the beautiful game. There are plenty of people who like to see sport as metaphor for life. Like many things, football is really just one of many *parts* of life, so perhaps we should recognise it as such and not read too much into it.

Still, based on several recent incidents, I can’t help but wonder if people’s behaviour at football matches doesn’t offer a perspective on societal dynamics, perhaps on a nation’s psyche or even the deeper workings of the human spirit.

Last Friday, a football match in the Greek city of Larissa was delayed when players, coaches and officials sat down as a protest to urge authorities to work harder to cater to refugees coming to Greece and as a mark of respect for refugees who had lost their lives in recent days attempting to cross the Aegean.

It was the Greeks, after all, who gave us the concept of philanthropy (φιλανθρωπία), which translates literally as “love of humanity”.

Apparently in Greek, there are four different words for love, one of which is agápē (ἀγάπη) from whence we get “agape”, but which translates as a sense of brotherly love and charity. Thomas Aquinas saw agápē as the wishing of good upon another.

I can’t help but compare the actions of the footballers in Larissa with the Turkish football fans in Istanbul who booed and jeered during a pre-game minute of silence for the victims of terrorist attacks in Paris last November, just as fans at a match in Konya had earlier disrupted a minute’s silence for the (mostly Kurdish and leftist) victims of the Ankara bombing in October.

Observing a moment’s silence as a mark of respect is not a commonly recognised practice in Turkey, but the actions of the Turkish crowds raised eyebrows around the world, to say the least.

In considering the Turkish crowds, the uncouth behaviour of a portion of a football crowd should not be taken as a reflection of an entire nation or people. The Greeks and the Turks have much more in common – in cultural, social and culinary terms – than nationalists of either strip would ever admit. But for a fleeting second I wondered if, after years of living, travelling, working and researching in Turkey, perhaps I should have been spending my time on the other side of the Aegean…

Until I stumbled across the reaction of Fatih Terim, the manager of the Turkish national team, who decried the “cruelty” of the booing Konya crowd and said better that Turkey had lost the match (after which it qualified for UEFA 2016) and not one life had been lost.

 

 

Reasons to be cheerful

01-diyar-boysANOTHER YEAR ends. Hallelujah to that!

It’s been a torrid year in many regards, but it strikes me that there are always reasons to be cheerful.

02-blue-mosqueSkylines, cityscapes, landscapes, wondering what lies beyond the horizon. Hope.

04-galata

First love, broken hearts, bad poetry.

03-deyrul-zafran

Reconciliation, forgiveness, redemption, revenge.

06-sulukluhan

Conviviality, community, living-together-ness.

08-kuzguncuk

The changing of the seasons.

09-uskudar-ferry

The freedom to travel, nostalgia, wanderlust, longing for home.

10-mardin-kites

Dreams, disappointments, glorious failures.

11-giragos-candles

Those places where angels hover, unseen.

13-cay-evi-boys

Humanity.

14-deyrul-zafran-vault

Humanity!

Amen.

 

Sokakta hayat var: streetlife in İstanbul

THE GRAFFITI on the wall in Kadıköy said, ‘Sokakta hayat var’: life is on the street.

In Gedik Paşa, down the hill from the Grand Bazaar, the cobblestones run rough. A Georgian woman serves me breakfast. Churches domes – Armenian, Greek – emerge above the roof lines, looming over shops, workshops, teahouses and streetfronts. Set back. Hunkered down.

In the shop, buying fruit. The shopkeeper is unusually frank, not mincing words about Turkish history, the untoward things that have gone on; of course, he’s Kurdish. Locals come and go; he speaks openly, not holding back. Then I realise, it’s a Kurdish neighbourhood.

Near Süleymaniye Mosque. Cats under the trees in the graveyard, and rooks hovering. Gypsy children. Girls in headscarves and mantö, presumably devout, arm-in-arm with their boyfriends.

pomegranate-stallBetween the bazaar and Eminönü, the man selling pomegranate juice. From Mardin. Untalkative. The Türkmen women, with their elaborate head dresses, as if they are concealing beehive hairdos under floral patterns. Serene countenances with an Asiatic cast. They hover over the flagstones, gliding like swans.

Lights blazing at night; traffic continues, shadows, fumes, beams of light. People in the street, children, old men; cries and exclamations. The world afoot, each individual on their own vitally important errands; independent yet synchronised. Islam is the religion of trade – every one buying, selling, lugging shopping, offloading something, haggling, bargaining, reaching a deal. Pushing carts laden with fruit, socks, stationery, nail clippers, sunflower seeds in brown-paper bags. The bearded hoca sitting opposite the church, with his wares laid out beside him on the footpath. The small boy manning the till at his father’s corner shop.

The next morning, the call to prayer. Seagulls hover and squawk. A view of the Blue Mosque from an attic window.

On the hill between Kadıköy and Üsküdar, the cemetery with its cypress trees and family plots. The scent of lopped fig trees. On Nuh Kuyusu, the stonemasons tapping away at marble headstones. The barber in his basement-level shop, looking wistfully at the street.

mihrimar-sultan-2In Üsküdar, by night. Mopeds going the wrong way, on the footpath, through red lights. The blind men, one in dark glasses, sitting outside the mosque, smiling benevolently, their canes folded neatly on the bench beside them. The wind through the plane trees.

Turkish women, with their dark eyes, their chatter and inflected vowels, aswirl around me, like shades. The Mihriman Sultan Mosque, a drab tortoise in the daylight, now illuminated in pastel shades, peach, saffron.

So many shops, so many specialising in one thing: çiğ köfte, chicken kebabs, börek, baklava. The street pedlars with mussels or simit. The büfes, with their wet hamburgers and cheesy toasts and sosislis. But nowhere to get a drink.

The Syrian refugee family, sitting, cross-legged, on cardboard boxes on the grass, presumably where they will sleep for the night. The little girl, perhaps eight years old, sitting so upright, so proudly. So heartbreakingly proudly. As the commuting masses rush past her unheeding. Night descending. The ferries moving across the dark waters. The lights on the Bosphorus Bridge flickering.

Next day. Karaköy. Scents of the sea, of the fish in the bazaar, of diesel fumes. The cries of the fishmongers. And the growl of the ferries.

Meeting my new Kurdish friend. Sitting on the little stools. Talking so intently that we keep ordering more tea, glass by glass.

st-anthony-churchIn St Anthony’s. Muslim pilgrims in a Catholic church. The headscarved girls taking selfies with the altar as a backdrop. Lighting candles that flicker in the water trays. The attendant telling people not to take photos and pointing at the pictures of forbidden activities, proceeding to answer his phone when it rings.

On İstiklal, the folksingers. He with red hair, playing a güsle; his rich baritone perfectly in harmony with her soprano. Gypsy junkies nodding amid the assembled crowd, jerking awake to clap politely after each song. The 3/4 (or perhaps 7/8) rhythms and tapping feet. Of course, the singers are Laz – his red hair.

The blind man busking with his recorder, his wife, with eyes unseeing, clutching his arm and talking on her phone. Heading down toward the Galata Tower. Nargile smoke. Wisps of coconut and cherry bomb.

singers-istiklalLeaving Karaköy again on the ferry. The silhouettes, the cardboard cut-out canopies, the domes, the minarets, like silverware: candlesticks, salt and pepper pots. The sun emerging from behind the clouds to set the Bosphorus ablaze, a flickering sheet of beaten gold.

On the Asian side again. The fire truck, siren blaring, stuck in gridlock.

After dark, the flagstones slick with rain. No moon in the sky.

Life is on the street.

The ‘colour revolutions’ continue: Tbilisi, Kiev and beyond

IT IS WELL documented that Georgians love a drink, and it appears that they’re pretty keen on a demonstration, too. Georgia saw a peaceful transition of power with the Rose Revolution in 2003, the first civilian uprising that led to the downfall of an authoritarian and undemocratic regime in the 21st century. Here was an example of popular resistance – citizens brandishing roses, no less – to an out-of-touch regime leading to the ouster of said regime and the bloodless shifting of power and a, seemingly, bright new era of democracy, political openness and development.

Sadly, things didn’t quite turn out that way. Putative wunderkind-president Mikheil Saakashvili grew increasingly autocratic during his years in power, spurring Georgians to returned to the streets and squares in 2009, 2011 and 2012 to remonstrate against his despotic ways. Georgia might now get a chance for a fresh start after the electoral victory of new president Georgi Margvelashvili in October this year.

Georgia was the first of the ‘colour’ revolutions to have unfurled over the last 10 years, first starting in the post-Soviet realm, other notable ones being the Orange Revolution in Ukraine (2004) and the Tulip Revolution in Kirghizstan (2005). This penchant for mobilisation amongst diverse and predominantly youthful segments of society was also apparent in the Green Movement that arose in Iran after the disputed presidential election of 2009 and which, to my mind, despite its lack of success in bringing about positive political change, provided template and inspiration for the uprisings across the Middle East since 2011 that have been characterised as the Arab Spring.

tbilisi-squareBut the dream that these revolutions fostered and fed on was greater and brighter and sunnier than the everyday realities that eventuated. Despite successful removal of regimes in Ukraine and Kirghizstan, most of the uprisings haven’t yet amounted to lasting, substantive change. Political change is a gradual process, on a road strewn with pitfalls and unforeseen backtracks, particularly so when institutions are arthritic and when those calling for change come from diverse backgrounds, with often radically different agenda and divergent ideas of how a political future should be constructed, and when new political stakeholders fall into the same traps that befell their predecessors. So it is that Foreign Policy rated the outcomes of the colour revolutions as ‘terribly disappointing’.

The reasons for such ‘terribly disappointing’ results could bear some intense scrutiny and in-depth analysis (looking for a PhD research topic, anyone?) but a quick and dirty analysis might put them down to a lack of robust civil society organs, inability to construct robust democratic institutions, a lack of an educated middle class. Perhaps most telling has been a propensity for the victors to not heed the rule of law, or, alternatively, to appropriate the revolution to their own ends, riding into the presidential palace on a wave of populist enthusiasm which they then ignore or override, pushing through their own agenda once ensconced in the corridors of power. No doubt there is many an Iranian who would describe the events and aftermath of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran in just those terms.

Things went awry in a similar way in Ukraine in 2004. The Orange Revolution had a popular momentum. It was seen as evidence of Ukraine’s determination to ‘return’ to the European fold, however this westward lilt was derailed and aspirations to a new, open political arena were never realised. Many Ukrainians have, however, recently decided that they disapprove of the direction that the government of Viktor Yanukovych is taking. Ukrainians have taken to the streets to voice their displeasure. And it seems that a number of Georgians are joining them. Perhaps having recently experienced a peaceful election and a change of government, these Georgians are hankering after a street protest…

All glib remarks aside, it would seem that there are grounds for solidarity between Georgians and Ukrainians, and it is not just a penchant for rabble-rousing that brings people from Tbilisi to join the EuroMaidan protest in Kiev. Both Georgia and Ukraine have been cosseted and smothered by their overbearing neighbour Russia, Georgia depicted by many Russians rather patronisingly as a playground where they may enjoy the beauty of the landscape and tap into a primal spirituality, Ukraine depicted as a bread basket. Georgians bristle as such a characterisation and have shown themselves eager to throw off Russia’s jealous embrace. Georgians are keen to assert their European credentials (a categorisation which in their idiom does not include anything Russian). It would appear that many, if not a majority of, Ukrainians are similarly inclined.

It’s apparent that Yanukovych in his recent (re)turning to the embrace of Russia overstepped the mark, assuming that his own authority allowed him to do what he felt best for the country, despite what the masses wanted. The gatherings in EuroMaidan would suggest an (apparent) majority of the populace would prefer Europe. This was hubris on Yanukovych’s part, a miscalculation as to the weight of his authority. I’m tempted to draw parallels with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan response to the protests in Gezi Park earlier this year. Erdoğan’s hubris, his inflated sense of self-importance, clouded his judgement and fomented a political crisis that might have been avoided if he had paid more attention and given more credence to what punters on the street were saying.

In fact, apart from both being responses to the domineering posturing of Russia, the ‘colour’ revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine shared other parallels. An inspiration for many participants in both uprisings was the OTPOR movement that arose in Serbia in the late 1990s as a civic youth movement that used non-violent means to protest against the regime of Slobodan Milošević and that is credited with playing a pivotal role in his eventual downfall. After their success in Serbia OTPOR members provided inspiration and training in methods of non-violent resistance for like-minded groups in the ‘colour revolutions’ that broke out in the former-Soviet realm. OTPOR also inspired activists in the early 2000s in Albania, Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan, and more recently, having morphed into an organisation called CANVAS. Under the direction of Srdja Popovic who was central to the genesis of OTPOR, the same activists and strategies were involved in protests in countries including Egypt and Tunisia during the Arab Spring.

twitter-graffitiOf course, it’s a favoured tactic of un-democratic or authoritarian regimes to espy foreign plots in any instance of local resistance or dissent. Lazily dismissing discontent as the work of pernicious outside forces is a convenient way of avoiding the hard work of addressing bothersome social and political issues or admitting shortcomings in one’s own administration; it also has the benefit of rallying loyalists to the cause. Russia saw only foreign hands manipulating the ‘colour revolutions’ in the early 2000s, rather than acknowledging that free-thinking citizens of newly independent nations might actually want to strike out on their own. (Indeed, Russia remains convinced that Western governments continue to meddle in the former-Soviet realm.) And in Turkey earlier this year, Prime Minister Erdoğan pointed the finger at unspecified and ill-defined foreign lobby groups, accusing them of fomenting large demonstrations that went on for several weeks. Whether he believed his own cant or if it was a way of galvanising his supporters is difficult to discern, but during my time in Turkey in June I certainly encountered punters who parroted his lines. (I don’t know that Erdoğan is much of a student of local geopolitics, so I’m not sure he’d be that familiar with the ‘colour revolutions’, but he was certainly aware that, at the time that the Gezi protests were continuing, people power removed his buddy Mohammed Mursi from power in Egypt.)

In fact, seeing civic movements of this nature effectively removing unpopular regimes from power only makes unrepresentative governments more stridently blame external agents and foreign governments for all sorts of problems. Such assertions may grow louder as the political equilibrium is shifted. In the various ‘colour revolutions’ and beyond, it is undeniable that foreign nationals have participated and in some instances actively facilitated and organised popular resistance, but that is not to say that foreign governments have worked to undermine rival or neighbouring states on the geopolitical stage. Rather it appears that common aspirations, shared across borders by citizens of many nations, an empathy with others suffering under heavy-handed regimes, is at work and is prompting common people to action.

Christmas in Iran

IT MAY SEEM incongruous, but every December Christmas decorations appear in Tehran. Perhaps it’s not such a weird idea, after all, there was a Persian at the nativity – so the legend goes – but no Westerners as such: Melchior, one of the Three Wise Men, was a Persian scholar.

Received wisdom, meantime, may generally equate the Islamic Republic of Iran with an attitude of extreme intolerance, and a monolithic populace conforming to some (misperceived) Islamic stereotype. In reality, pluralism and diversity are part and parcel of the Iranian social fabric. So, while Khomeini’s stern visage may glower from oversize billboards, in some shops you will find Christmas trees, cards and even nativity scenes.

si-o-se-isfahanIn Tehran, this is likely to be a middle-class phenomena, evidence of the pro-Western stance of significant segments of Iranian society. In Isfahan, in the neighbourhood of New Julfa, south of the Zayandeh River, Christmas is more than an aspirational Western affectation, for this is the Armenian quarter, home to a centuries-old Christian community that has long been embraced as an integral part of the Iranian nation. Here, Armenians celebrate Christmas with gusto on January 6th as is the case with the Eastern churches (for the Western churches, this is Epiphany).

New Julfa is in effect a part of Armenian that has been picked up and placed in the heart of historical Persia. The centrepiece and focal point of the neighbourhood is the imposing Vank Cathedral, dating from the 17th century, but there are a dozen churches, schools and an Armenian cemetery. Far from a cowled, tremulous, oppressed community, Armenian identity here is proudly upheld and displayed. The language that rings through the streets here is Armenian, not Persian.

The exterior of Vank Cathedral, with a central dome reminiscent of a mosque, is bulky and commanding; the interior reveals more lightness of touch, more artistic flourish. The artwork here – allegorical frescoes, tilework – are a hybrid of  Eastern and Western styles: some floral motifs are apparently painted in a Persian miniature style, but to my eye would not be out of place in French baroque cathedrals.

vank-cloistersIn the cloisters, Armenian girls, no less sassy than their Persian counterparts, congregate and chatter. They wear a jeans-sneakers-tunic-headscarf combo to comply with Islamic dress restrictions, but they carry it off with a certain insouciance, headscarfs slipping back from mahogany tresses.

The Armenians were brought by Shah Abbas to his new capital in the early 17th century, shifted wholesale from Julfa, on the Caucasian fringe. Abbas intended them to act as his agents in political and economic dealings with the West. As detailed in a post on Ajam Media Collective, the Armenians  slotted neatly into the Persian socio-political framework, forming a relatively autonomous merchant oligarchy.  At the time, the Ottoman Turks to the west had made it illegal for their subjects to trade with Shi’ite Persia, so the Armenians stepped into the breach, creating flourishing trade networks across the Ottoman realm and further into western Europe.

The Armenians became an integral part of the upper crust, as it were, in Abbas’ Isfahan – notable Armenian families invited the shah to celebrate Christmas. However, as Monash University scholar James Barry points out, Abbas did not necessarily champion the Armenians’ cause out of the goodness of his heart, or some benevolent notion of multiculturalism. In fact, Abbas was being much more pragmatic. It was political and commercial expediency, pure and simple. Abbas distrusted the Persian (Muslim) commercial classes – and perhaps feared a strong Persian merchant bourgeoisie as an oppositional power – so nurtured and promoted the Armenians in their stead.

There are Armenian communities elsewhere in Iran, including Tabriz, another important trading city. St Mary’s Church, near the Tabriz bazaar, proved inviolate behind firmly closed iron gates when I passed through in 2008, but in The Way of the World, his outstandingly wonderful travel memoir, Nicolas Bouvier relates living in the Armenian community of Tabriz through the winter of 1953. He tells how on his first night there the locals came to see he and his travel companion, “these foreign Christians, escaped from an easier world”.

tabriz-bazaarWith exquisitely dexterous prose Bouvier details the freezing winter and evokes the sense of community, local rivalries, characters and dramas, including the saga of an Armenian girl who took her own life because she’d fallen in love with a local “Muslim”(it is not specified whether he was Persian, Kurdish or Turkish). To the modern reader, Bouvier’s book recounts an altogether less-troubled world. They drive in a Fiat from the Balkans, across Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan without any of the attendant issues that would waylay modern travellers. However, the fragmented nature of the world-wide Armenian community is apparent: as Bouvier observes them tuning into the Patriarch of Echmiadzin (at that time within the Soviet Union). “Each Christmas he sent to his brothers in Iran faint but politic encouragement over the air-waves of Radio Baku,” Bouvier tells us.

Meanwhile, communal relations between Persians and Armenians remain strong. Armenians are free to celebrate Christmas in Iran, and increasingly Iranians journey to Armenia for their holidays, including Nowruz, the Persian New Year. Iranians head north into Armenia to enjoy the more liberal atmosphere, to escape the constraints of Iran’s Islamic dress code and to hear Persian music acts that are banned at home. This is all made possible by a simplified visa regime between the two countries that has come alongside strengthening ties between Armenia and Iran and that makes zipping across the border relatively straight forward. Interestingly, however, Armenians appear to enjoy holidaying anywhere other than Armenia, heading in increasing numbers into  Georgia, or even Turkey.

That Armenians would choose to holiday in Turkey strikes me as particularly incongruous given the historical controversies and modern acrimonies that pollute relations between these neighbours. The Turkish-Armenian border remains closed (despite the protestations of many on both sides of the border) and diplomatic relations frosty. The closure of the border, in turn, hobbles the economic development of Armenia, meaning that significant numbers of Armenians, many of them women, head to Turkey (passing by way of Georgia) seeking employment or economic opportunity. It is estimated that up to 20,000 Armenian women are working in Istanbul, centred on the historical Armenian neighbourhood of Kumkapı. As they are without papers, they effectively form an economic underclass, however they perform an important role in certain segments of the economy.

The contrast with the buoyant and assured entrepreneurial class in Abbas’ Iran could not be more stark. In Istanbul are women performing menial roles – often those that Turks won’t do – raising their families alongside them in straitened circumstances and sending money home to relatives in Armenia. This is in contrast, too, to the status of many Armenians in pre-20th century Istanbul, and other cities of the Ottoman realm, where Armenians often played prominent roles in politics, trade, society and literature. (For example see Mavi Boncuk’s post about Armenian lexicographers who played an important role in developing the Turkish language.)

The Armenian presence was all but expunged from Anatolia during the poisonous events of 1915. This was a tragedy for the Armenians, and I would assert that it was a tragedy for Turkey as well, as yet unreconciled. It means that in İstanbul, and elsewhere in Anatolia, where Armenians lived for thousands of years, Christmas may not be (openly) celebrated. Meanwhile, across the border, in the Islamic Republic of Iran, where the mullahs hold sway, the Armenians are busily exchanging Christmas cards and adorning shops with decorated trees.

Sharing sacred spaces

ohrid-dance-1A new issue of the Levantine Review has just been published, and appropriately enough in the lead up to Christmas it includes my review of Sharing Sacred Spaces in the Mediterranean, a scholarly volume of papers from European anthropologists and ethnologists detailing shared customs, rituals and devotional practices.

Christmas may not necessarily be a ‘space’ that is shared, but in our globalised world it is observed well beyond the bounds of Christendom. Perhaps this is partly due to pervasive Westernisation, but of course the Christmas story and festival has echoes and parallels in other traditions, and Jesus, at the heart of the celebration, in theory at least, is revered in Islam as well as Christianity.

Christmas is often sold as the season of goodwill to all men (OK, humanity may be more appropriate); Sharing Sacred Spaces records many an instance of goodwill amongst adherents of various faiths. It is an investigation into shared experiences, intermingling, communal living and devotional practices in the Mediterranean littoral, from Morocco to Lebanon, by way of Turkey and the Balkans. I have already referred to this volume in earlier blog posts, including one about St George and one about Sarajevo (a post which, two months old, is still receiving a gazillion hits – anyone got any idea why?).

gazi-husrevThe chapters of the book are ethnographic studies, most of which include the ‘thick description’ that was called for by the great anthropologist Clifford Geertz, that is, close observation of cultural and social practices, human activities, everyday rituals; what makes the description truly ‘thick’ is the in-depth analysis of the political, environmental and societal contexts in which these events occur.

Even though the volume may be looking at sharing and intermingling in sacred spaces, it struck me how commonplace so many of these interactions were, not out of the ordinary but part and parcel of daily life as it has been unfurling for, in some cases, centuries, life as it had been before the encroachment of the perils and constraints of modernity. There may also be something of the all-happy-families-are-the-same/every-unhappy-family-is-unhappy-in-its-own-way dictum in the intercommunal and interconfessional interactions recorded in this volume for they are as complicated as they are diverse.

ohrid-taxiAnd while this is a scholarly collection, there is enough observation of ritual, custom and practice to appeal to some general readers with an interest in the cultures of the Mediterranean. Some of the chapters are exercises in immersion, or so they seemed to me as I read. They evoke the feel of olive-wood tesbih/rosary beads, the curls of incense smoke, the excitement of crowds gathered, the whisper of feet on flagstones, light through arched windows, icons, candles. The miscellany of religious practice, the accoutrements that contribute to sanctity, the power of objects invested with spiritual dimensions, the soulfulness of things.

The various authors who contributed to Sharing Sacred Spaces clearly spent a long time in the field: to observe, analyse, and in some way understand the customs, events and ritual related. It was enough to evoke some melancholy on my part at missed opportunities in my own itineraries over the years, places that I have observed but not sought to truly comprehend, places like St Anthony’s in Beyoğlu in İstanbul, the neglected, yet operational, Armenian churches in Diyarbakır in Turkey’s southeast. These are places where tradition persists and modern practice evolves and people come and go despite perceived divisions that may exist between them and despite sometimes hostile political environments. Intercommunal interaction can continue in places such as this, as Galia Valtchinova elegantly put it in her chapter of this volume, as long as there is an ‘equilibrium between earthly powers and divine order’. Long may this equilibrium reign…

In a lather: Ottoman soaps

bosphorus-2008ALL HISTORY is contested. This is pointedly true in Turkey, a country which for decades wilfully ignored its imperial history, but which has – all of sudden – rediscovered its Ottoman past. Increasingly, Turks are taking pride in an era when the Turkish polity was the dominant player in the broader region, when the sultans, ensconced in the so-called Sublime Porte, called the shots in southeastern Europe, the Middle East and north Africa.

This is yet another aspect of neo-Ottomanism, a multi-faceted concept, which for some means a projection of soft power, for some signals resurgent expansionary intent on the part of an ‘Islamist’ government and for others Turkey’s re-acquainting itself with its neighbours.

In the cultural sphere, neo-Ottomanism means renewed appreciation for and use of the motifs, iconography and tropes of Turkish history. It also means soap operas. And the biggest soap opera inside and outside of Turkey at the moment is Muhteşem Yüzyıl (literally “Magnificent Century”), which depicts the life of Sultan Süleyman I, widely regarded as the greatest of all Ottoman sultans.

So, what’s to be contested? Plenty, it seems… Rather than allowing the Turkish viewing public an escapist, broadly fictionalised, weekly instalment that allows them to muse on the glories of the House of Osman, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has weighed in, decrying the series. He declared that the government had issued warnings to the producers and had suggested the judiciary rule against the series. Erdoğan’s beef appears to be with certain historical inaccuracies and the show’s unhealthy preoccupation with the goings-on of the harem and depiction of Süleyman engulfed in miscellaneous palace intrigues rather than in the saddle, where, as Erdoğan has it, he spent 30 years, on campaign, extending the boundaries of the realm and the glory of Islam.

Blogger and academic Ece Algan has posited that Erdoğan sees himself as a latter-day Süleyman, the man who will lead the Turks to another cultural and geo-political zenith, thus tawdry portrayals of Süleyman detract from his image as a statesman, a world leader.

Whatever the case it seems to have escaped Erdoğan’s notice that Muhteşem Yüzyıl is a soap opera. Aimed at a mass market. The show is about entertainment, not historical accuracy, nor projections of soft power. In fact, a real-life descendant of the Ottoman sultans has remarked as much. The son of the last Ottoman şehzade (prince), Osman Selaheddin Osmanoğlu, told Hürriyet Daily News he watches the show “but I don’t take it seriously since it is only a soap opera”.

And an entertaining soap it is. (Plenty of episodes, beginning with the first, are viewable online.) It doesn’t qualify as a bodice ripper (Islamic sensibilities are at work here, whether historically accurate or not!!), but there’s plenty of sumptuous costumes, the full measure of outlandish Ottoman headgear, elaborate sets, hammy acting, battle scenes and cheap-looking CGI. All of this, as well as requisite plot lines involving the duplicity, conniving, emotional manipulation and rampant bitchiness (counterpointed by macho posturing) from the assembled cast. It amounts to a hell of a lot of fun.

There is an element of Orientalist fantasy to it all, which perhaps explains some of its appeal to modern Turkish viewers. Indeed, Orientalist stereotypes – intrinsically negative – creep into many portrayals of Turkey in popular culture. Of these, Lauren Rosewarne notes the swarthy, soccer-obsessed, underhanded baddies in recently released Taken 2, which is set in İstanbul. Of course, the (Western) hero here is honourable and upstanding, in contradistinction to aforementioned baddies. (For some added locational authenticity (!), Taken 2 features a fight scene in a hamam.)

blue-mosque-interiorOrientalist considerations aside, TV viewers are lapping up Muhteşem Yüzyıl. It has attracted a domestic and international audience of some 150 million, much of it, ironically enough, in former Ottoman possessions of the Balkans, but also in central Asia, southern Europe and the Arab world. The size and spread of this audience isn’t lost on Turkey’s Culture and Tourism Ministry who appeared somewhat bemused at Erdoğan’s recent outburst and pointed out the economic benefits of such a wildly popular show.

That said, the series has no shortage of detractors within Turkey. Thousands have registered their displeasure with the Turkish broadcasting watchdog, noting the perceived decadence and licentiousness of the intra-palace goings-on as portrayed. Perhaps it is to this gallery that Erdoğan is playing. Alternatively he may be attempting to distract attention from more pressing, intractable political issues. Or it could be just more evidence of a worrisome authoritarian streak, which seems to becoming more pronounced after a decade in power. (Witness his ramming through planning of a controversial, oversize mosque – for some, large to the point of vulgarity – on İstanbul’s Çamlıca hill.)

Concerns with the themes and impact of Turkey’s historical soap operas are not restricted to elements within Turkish society. The Macedonian parliament has moved to ban Turkish shows on the grounds that due to the popularity of Turkish buy-ins Macedonian-made shows aren’t getting a look in, but also because, in the words of the Information and Society Minister, “to stay under Turkish servitude for 500 years is enough”.

Exactly how watching a foreign-made TV programme amounts to servitude may not be immediately obvious to all, but in this corner of the world memories are long and often nationalism-infused, so even innocuous phenomena like soap operas may be seen as the vanguard – or aftertaste – of cultural subjugation. Like I said, all history is contested, and agenda driven. Now, it seems, so is the mundane act of sitting down to watch the tellie.

Turkish footprints in Europe: redux

FOLLOWING ON from my recent post about neo-Ottomanism and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan receiving an award in Sarajevo, it seems that Turkish efforts in the Balkans extend beyond diplomacy. Turkish initiatives at preserving the architectural heritage of the Balkans were recently recognised. The SE Times reported in September on restoration works that the Turkish International Cooperation and Development Agency have been undertaking in various Balkan countries. As detailed in the SE Times article, a Harvard art documentation specialist, András Riedlmayer, highlighted the Ottoman heritage of the Balkans as the common heritage of all the Balkan peoples.

Such an observation echoes that of the historian Maria Todorova who remarked that it’s not a matter of looking for the Ottoman legacy *in*the Balkans, rather it is the case that the Balkans *are* the legacy of the Ottomans.

This idea, when considered alongside reawakening Turkish interest in the region, is likely to make plenty of people living in the Balkan states pretty stroppy, if not give them the willies… Balkan nationalists of all stripes swear black and blue that the period of Ottoman rule was one of unremitting woe and deny that there is any Turkish imprint in the cultures of the modern Balkan states.

It would be wrong to construe Ottoman rule as a period of universal bliss, but to insist that there was no cultural exchange, no fruitful impact, no mutual accommodation, that people who lived alongside each other for centuries had no appreciable, enduring, positive impression on each other is nothing so much as blinkered. To insist that a particular culture could have been in stasis for – in some cases – up to 500 years only to emerge undiluted, untainted by Turkish influences, once the Ottomans were expelled from the Balkans is just bloody mindedness.

Even as nationalists in the Balkans are doing their best to forget the Ottoman era, many a modern Turk is re-acquainting himself with the events and personalities of the same period. ‘Neo-Ottomanism’ also manifests itself as an awakening interest amongst Turks in their own recent history, a departure from the official line that has for so long highlighted ‘progress’ and ‘modernity’ and dismissed the past.

Turkey’s recent home-grown enthusiasm for Ottomanica is not without its own nationalistic offshoots. You can bet your boots that Turkish nationalists would be just as loud as Balkan nationalists in denying there was any Turco-Balkan symbiosis that contributed to their modern culture; they would state that Turkish culture is just that and nothing more – Turkish – and that centuries interacting with Greeks, Albanians, Serbs, Romanians, Vlachs, among others, contributed nothing. Of course, this position is just as implausible as that proposed by Serb or Greek nationalists. So while we can say that the Turks have left a sizable footprint in Europe it is also the case that Europe has left an indelible mark in Turkey.

Turkish nationalists’ re-imaginings of Ottoman history are sometimes highly revisionist. Soap operas and blockbuster movies take on a Disneyfied air. National stereotypes are clumsily drawn,  goodies are implausibly noble, and baddies take venality to new heights…

The high-tide mark – as it were – of (Ottoman) Turkish expansion into Europe was on the outskirts of Vienna. The first tilt at Vienna was made under Süleyman the Magnificent in 1529, resulting in one of the few tactical retreats the Ottomans experienced under his leadership. Süleyman’s reign is the subject of a wildly popular TV series, Magnificent Century, which appears to boast many of the characteristics of a bodice-ripper and which has been viewed by enthusiastic audiences across Europe and Central Asia.

Meanwhile the path that Süleyman and his army followed as they advanced on Vienna has been designated as a long-distance walking route, the Sultan’s Path.  Starting at the tomb of the sultan, at his namesake mosque, the Süleymaniye, in İstanbul it passes through Bulgaria, Serbia, Croatia and Hungary to end in the centre of Vienna. And while Süleyman’s route was a means to a military confrontation, the newly designated trail is intended as a “path of peace, a meeting place for people of all faiths and cultures”.

The Sultan’s Path is one of many long-distance paths in Turkey. The names of some of these trails –  St Paul Trail, the Lycian Way, Abraham’s Path, Via Egnatia, among others – reveal the Greek, Roman and Biblical legacies of Anatolia and the cultural impressions laid down in Turkey *before* the arrival of the Turks in the 11th century.

The most recently opened path is a cultural route in İznik. It is hoped that this will become a catalyst for slow and sustainable tourism in the area. It will allow people to travel at ground level, so to speak, feeling the rugged hide of the Earth beneath their feet. And as part of the European Institute of Cultural Routes’ network of paths that stretches across Europe, it may well demonstrate the interconnectedness of Europeans of all persuasions who for countless centuries have been striking out on foot to destinations distant and encounters unknown.