New Turkey versus old clichés

The understanding foreigners have of Turkey and whether or not anything can be done to improve their understanding are age-old questions. Previous efforts made to this aim show that certain foreign perceptions of Turkey are embarrassingly impervious to change. Whatever the Turkish government does and however bad things gets, foreign audiences will be inclined to regard Turkey as a “land of contradictions” and will always expect it to take a positive turn eventually.

In her first column for this publication, Ece Temelkuran discussed the challenge of explaining Turkey to a foreign audience. “[I]f my country is now treated as one of those crazy countries where anything can happen,” she asked “is it still worth trying to write in this language of strangers?”

Not surprisingly, the question of how strangers understand Turkey, and whether anything can be done to improve their understanding, is an old one. Looking back at previous efforts certainly shows how embarrassingly resistant foreign perceptions can be to change. But at the same time, the stubborn persistence of certain stereotypes and clichés may also help prevent Turkey from being “written off as lost” the way Temelkuran fears. Whatever the Turkish government does, and however bad things get, foreign audiences primed to think of Turkey as a land of contradictions will remain ever ready for the country to take a positive turn. 

As Turkey, in the course of the past century, went from the “new Turkey” to “Turkey” and then the “new Turkey” again, Western audiences were slow to keep up. In the early decades of the Turkish republic, Turkish and non-Turkish writers alike were at pains to convince readers that the Turkey they thought they knew – old, oriental and Eastern – had been replaced by a new, vigorous and Western-looking state. Only after the start of the Cold War, as Americans in particular became better acquainted with Turkey, did authors finally assume with confidence that their readers realized everything that had changed since 1923. This meant that, by the late 50s, the “new Turkey” of the 30s and 40s had become simply “Turkey,” the land of contrasts and contradictions we have come to know. For Western readers, or at least Western publishers, these clichés proved an enduring source of titles, advertising copy and book-jacket blurbs up until today. 

The question now is whether Erdogan’s much-heralded “new Turkey” will represent a radical enough change to reshape the country’s clichés. If a series of recent books are any indication, Western readers are still demanding the same colorful mix of West and East that they have for the better part of a century. 

In 1947, the Turkish-American author (and granddaughter of Namik Kemal) Ekrem Selma published a book called Turkey: Old and New.” In it, she explained  to young American readers that “[t]he new Turkey, with windows opening to the east and to the west, is a maze of contrasts.” As her writing makes clear, this was still a time when many Americans apparently remained unaware of what these contrasts were, and what made the new Turkey new. 

Indeed, this was the starting assumption for much of what was written about Turkey during these years. One striking example is A Land for Pioneers, an official U.S. government guide to Turkey written in 1943 and distributed to soldiers and diplomats through the early 50s. It begins:  

"Turkey may make you think of sultans and veiled women, of men in baggy trousers and red fezzes, of Turkish delight, Turkish coffee and Turkish baths. If it does, forget it. You can still find the Turkish Delight and coffee and baths, but the sultans and veiled women are gone, and the baggy trousers and red fezzes are all in the museum... In the last twenty years Turkey has turned her way of life upside down. In place of the old Empire of the Sultans there is now a young, strong Republic. In place of the baggy trousers and red fezzes, you will find that people wear the same cloths as Americans do."

The surprise and disappointment some of these American soldiers and diplomats felt at finding the old Turkey of their fantasies gone came up frequently in the 50s. In 1954, for example, Bulent Ecevit poked fun at the way some responded when they got to Ankara and had their expectations dashed:

"To many of them the name Turkey implied an exotic oriental country, with low divans covered with oriental rugs, hookahs, large braziers with burning charcoal in the middle of rooms… women wearing long pants in the harem style, and so forth… Well, we did not have any of these any more…. Our friends from the New World would not stand so much disappointment. Something should be done about it. With no help coming from the Turks, they took the initiative in the true pioneer spirit. They cleared the old bazaars of all the articles left on the shelves from the old days. They bought old rugs, hookahs, brass pitchers, braziers and trays…. Now when a Turk wants to show his son the way his forefathers furnished and decorated their homes, he takes them to some of his American friends in Ankara."

After visiting Istanbul a year later, Ian Fleming voiced a similar sense of disappointment in From Russia With Love. Of the Eminönü skyline, he wrote:

"[T]he old European section of Istanbul glittered at the end of the broad half-mile of bridge with the slim minarets lancing up into the sky and the domes of the mosques, crouching at their feet, looking like big firm breasts. It should have been the Arabian Nights, but to Bond, seeing it first above the tops of trams and above the great scars of modern advertising along the river frontage, it seemed a once beautiful theatre-set that modern Turkey had thrown aside in favour of the steel and concrete flat-iron of the Istanbul Hilton Hotel, blankly glittering behind him on the heights of Pera."

Quickly, though, with the help of accounts like this, visitors stopped expecting an oriental fantasy. Instead, guidebooks came to embrace the very contrast Bond found so jarring as a new cliché in itself. The jostling of East and West, not to mention tradition and modernity became go-to features of the no-longer-new Turkey. During the course of the ensuing decades, the contrast between democracy and despotism was added to the mix of contrasts. By the 1990s, red fezzes and veiled women had become tropes that could be ironically, or semi-ironically, referenced in Turkey book titles. Alongside Turkey Unveiled, there was A Fez of the Heart, which featured this “quintessentially Turkish headgear” as “the key to understanding a country beset by contradictions.” 

By the time Turkey entered the 21st century, the formula for marketing accessible single-volume overviews of its history, culture and politics was well established. Subtitled “Turkey Between Two Worlds,” Stephen Kinzer’s 2008 Crescent and Star depicted the country as “[a] nation of contradictions — poised between Europe and Asia, caught between the glories of its Ottoman past and its hopes for a democratic future… between its secular expectations and its Muslim traditions.” In 2016, Ece Temelkuran’s own Turkey: The Insane and the Melancholy was sold on similar terms. Her Turkey was “a nation of contradictions and contrasts” that “long occupied an uneasy middle ground between a secular West and Islamic East.” Now, Kaya Genç’s The Lion and the Nightingale offers another “contemporary journey through the contradictory soul of the Turkish nation.” His Turkey is “a land torn between East and West” not to mention “between violence and beauty” and “between its glorious past and a dangerous, unpredictable future.” 

When publishers persist in presenting Turkey as a land of insane lions and melancholy nightingales, foreign readers may well conclude it really is one of those crazy countries where anything can happen. But while these historically hard-won clichés present an obstacle to writers trying to change foreign perceptions of Turkey, they pose a challenge to Erdogan as well. Western audiences may prove impervious to more nuanced or sophisticated takes on Turkey’s future, but for the same reason they will be loathe to ever dismiss Turkey as just another Middle Eastern dictatorship. The cliché requires that the future be full of not just danger but democratic hopes and secular expectations as well. For better or worse, readers will demand that Turkey remain a land of contradictions for decades to come.

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