On borders, or the crossing thereof

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Gjirokastra, Albania, 2008

In a world currently in flux, where great numbers of people are afoot, there is much talk of borders.

Various voices in New Europe (!), claiming to be acting to preserve their identity, by which they presumably mean Christian identity, appear intent on closing borders to those fleeing unspeakable horrors in Syria and elsewhere. Fences bristling with razor wire are being erected.

In Australia, a land/continent/nation-state that is, as our national anthem tells us, girt by sea, there has long been talk of border security. A pernicious euphemism that is now routinely trotted out to disguise acts of bastardry under a cloak of national interest.

But borders are like rules: they are made to be transgressed.

As the great anthropologist James Clifford argues:

“Borders are never walls that can’t be crossed, borders are always lines selectively crossed: there’s a simultaneous management of borders and a process of subversion. There are always smugglers as well as border police.” [1]

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Through the mountains to Ioannina, Epirus, Greece, 2008

And where borders are transgressed, exchanges take place. The French academic Beatrice Hibou observes:

“Difference, not homogeneity, is what makes for the richness of exchange. Borders create opportunities; they are not simply sites of separation or obstacle points.” [2]

For me, borders are always a moment of trepidation, but also exhilaration. I remember new adventures arising as I crossed: Georgia-Armenia, Croatia-Bosnia, Croatia-Montenegro, Albania-Greece, Turkey-Iran, Turkey-Syria, Spain-Morocco. And at those I by-passed, skirted, like China-Tajikistan, China-Afghanistan, a sense of wondering at the adventures that beckoned…

Reşat Kasaba reminds us that borders are relatively modern inventions. In days past there were the seats of emperors and kings, but in between were the marches…

“Ottoman expansion involved the conquest of a series of castles, major towns, and crucial waterways and passes. Beyond these, one would be hard-pressed to find any indication of where the Ottoman lands ended. There were no border posts or barbed wires that separated the Ottoman Empire from its neighbours, and one certainly did not need a passport to travel to and from the territories of the surrounding states.” [3]

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Van railway station, en route to Iran, 2008

And across the marches, these ill-defined nowhere-lands, moved a multitude of people, facilitating exchange, trade, cultural cross-pollination, the lifeblood of human progress and endeavour.

 “In addition to nomads… hundreds of itinerant merchants constantly crisscrossed the border areas and kept the Ottoman Empire always linked to its neighbours and to the world at large.

“Within the context of Ottoman expansion, it became quite typical for the nomadic tribes who populated the border regions of the empire to form a human link between the Ottoman heartlands and other places that were under the control of neighbouring states. Their vast arcs of migration extended to hundreds if not thousands of miles and frequently went right through the frontier regions.

“In an alternative portrayal that did not privilege stasis but focused on groups such as nomads, itinerant traders and migrant workers who routinely transgressed these lines of demarcation, the border zones would appear more as areas that connected the Ottoman Empire with other parts of Asia, Europe and Africa and not as barriers that separated these lands from each other.” [4]

 

[1] Clifford, James, On the edges of anthropology, (Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press) 2003, p.59

[2] Hibou, Beatrice, “Conclusion”, in Joel Migdal (ed) Boundaries and Belonging (Cambridge University Press) 2004, p.355

[3] Kasaba, Reşat, “Do states always favour stasis?” in Joel Migdal (ed), Boundaries and Belonging, (Cambridge University Press) 2004, p.29

[4] ibid, pp.30-1

 

 

Turkey’s soap-led cultural flowering

IS IT PART OF A prime minister’s role to pass judgement on the nation’s prime-time TV broadcasts? It may remain open to question, but as noted in an earlier post, Turkish premier Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has expressed his disapproval of the hugely popular soap opera Muhteşem Yüzyıl. The Turkish viewing public doesn’t appear to be taking his tut-tutting to heart if the 1.2 million ‘likes’ on Facebook for the series are any indication (as noted on the official website). Muhteşem Yüzyıl and other historical TV series have been credited with inspiring interest in other Turkish artforms, particularly novels, both within Turkey and beyond.

In fact, the popularity of the TV series is increasing beyond Turkey’s borders. Sociologist Nilüfer Narlı, from Bahçeşehir University, notes that soap operas are raising Turkey’s profile in the international arena, particularly in the Arab world and the Balkans, a projection of soft power in the  cultural sphere in formerly Ottoman domains. This is happening not only at an diplomatic level, as government officials from Turkey and its neighbours interact, but also at an individual level as the television-watching public ponders the narratives, events and themes of historical Turkish soap operas and of the history (or histories) that lie behind them.

blue-mosque-2010At the vanguard is Muhteşem Yüzyıl, appropriately enough as the series focuses on the life of Süleyman, perhaps the most celebrated of all Ottoman sultans, and commander of the Ottoman campaign against Vienna in the 1520s. Formerly known only as a ruler and military figure, Süleyman, through this portrayal, is now seen as an individual, a lover, a human figure, which is prompting – presumably only in some quarters – a reappraisal of the Ottoman era in the Balkans.

As reported in the SE Times, revisiting history can provoke different reactions.  Birgül Demirtaş, an Ankara-based Balkan expert, argues that in the wake of Muhteşem Yüzyıl the Ottoman centuries, previously regarded in the Balkans as a “black page”, are now being re-evaluated through a prism of “common history”. On the other hand, Milica Mijovic, from the Serbian publishing house Narodna Knjiga, while conceding that “everyone across the region watches it”, remarks that period dramas such as Muhteşem Yüzyıl have made the “Balkans almost nostalgic for a not-so-fabulous past”. It’s not unequivocal enthusiasm, is it?

The Bosnians, perhaps most likely to be fans on the basis of their shared Islamic faith, are lapping it up. A competition, which attracted hundreds of applicants, was run on the Bosnian channel Televizja OBN to find people who most resemble Sultan Süleyman and his bride Hürrem and who would ring in the New Year in Sarajevo. Well, presumably the competition was to find people who look like Halit Ergenç and Meryem Uzerli, the actors who portray the great sultan and his one true love respectively, rather than the actual real-life historical figures. (For mine, Meryem Uzerli has something of Kate Hudson about her, but I’m not sure if the real Hürrem did…)

aya-sofya-2008One can only wonder if the Turkish premier approves of a sultan-look alike performing a midnight countdown, but his earlier condemnation of the series resonated in some quarters. Turkish Airline THY promptly dropped Muhteşem Yüzyıl from its inflight entertainment services after Erdoğan’s criticism. However, one carrier’s loss is another’s opportunity, it would seem, because Emirates promptly snapped up the series for its own inflight channels. This is the first Turkish TV series to have featured on any of the Arab airlines, a situation which will probably win the drama an even wider viewing audience.

Meanwhile, Erdoğan’s outburst, which was duly echoed by various of his AKP parliamentarians, has been greeted with dismay from many observers. The Erdoğan government had earlier been praised by demonstrating itself willing to confront aspects of Turkey’s history which had been taboo and to make some efforts to address, or at least discuss, past wrongs. There are various skeletons in closets that the AKP were willing to examine, but which had long been denied or glossed over by the Kemalist apparatus, or on which debate had been stymied by staunch Kemalists. The AKP’s approach was initially welcomed as part of a grand reckoning  that could see Turkey casting off historical millstones and forging on in a new era of openness and accountability. However, as columnist Semih İdiz has written, it would appear that AKP is no more an impartial in its approach to history than the Kemalists were. Agendas are still imposed, and histories must be viewed through particular prisms, just different ones to those in play before.

Perhaps it’s just history repeating itself – a historical re-enactment, if you will – this time with different actors and different spectators choosing alternative rose-coloured glasses to embellish the view.

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.

Exhibition captures shared legacy of the Balkans

Highlighting the shared history of the various communities in the Balkans should act as something of an antidote to prevailing (mis)conceptions of a region that has become known as a byword for sectarian violence and intolerance. Generally speaking, the media throughout the 1990s and since has peddled tales of “ancient hatreds”, fuelled by various observers, not least amongst them Robert Kaplan, whose Balkan Ghosts, published in 1993, can be seen as part of a wider narrative relegating the Balkans to not-quite civilised status, a fringe region different to the rest of Europe, where barbarity is still the norm, a shortcoming that broadly could be sheeted home to almost five centuries of Ottoman (Turkish) rule.

In fact, the Balkan region during the period of Ottoman rule *was* different to the rest of Europe in that there was widespread intercommunal cross-pollination and tolerant co-existence. Historians argue that Sultan Mehmet, the conqueror of Constantinople in 1453, thought of himself as assuming the mantle of the Byzantine emperors (and the attendant glories of ancient Rome) rather than stamping out the Greek empire. Ogier de Busbecq, a 16th century envoy from Vienna, who betrayed no love for the Turks, remarked that Turkish merchants were reluctant to put out to sea each spring until Greek priests had blessed the waters in Istanbul. Edith Durham travelling in Albania did a double take seeing Bektashi dervishes vesting the tomb of St George; ‘I thought you were all Muslims,’ she asked a sheikh. ‘So we are,’ he replied, ‘but of course we keep St George’s Day.’ And Leon Sciaky’s memoir of old Salonika tells of street pedlars who could speak six languages. I could go on… but I ask, where else in Europe could you see or record such things?

It would be naive to assume that the Ottoman centuries were a unbroken period of intercommunal bliss. Of course there were moments of persecution, injustice and intolerance and a social hierarchy constructed along religious lines that would be anathema in a modern democracy, but cross pollination and co-existence were just as significant factors in daily life, such that there are identifiable echoes between Greek, Turkish, Albanian and southern Slavic languages, music, food, folklore, customs and architecture apparent even today.

It is these more positive aspects of the Ottoman Balkan centuries that are on show in this exhibition that will tour Athens, Belgrade, Berlin, Prizren, Skopje and Tirana in months to come. You can click through to some of the images by visiting the map.

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IN RELATED news, the 28th Sarajevo Winter Festival was recently launched. A fixture on the Balkan cultural calendar since 1984, the festival continued even throughout the siege of Sarajevo from 1992-5. This was a mighty gesture of defiance in the face of Serbian paramilitaries, who appeared pretty intent on destroying the multicultural fabric and cultural artefacts of the city. The festival was a reflection of the show-must-go-on attitude of the Sarajevan arts community during that trying time, and continues to this day as a manifestation of the inherent joie-de-vivre of the city’s inhabitants.

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