Turkey at the Crossroads The Long Path to 'Avrupa'

Turkey's push towards Europe, a drive that is older than the country itself, has long to helped to hold the internally divided country together.


Editor's Note: The Frankfurt Book Fair, the world's largest publishing event, opened its doors for its 60th year on Tuesday. Close to 7,400 exhibitors from 100 countries are presenting literature at the event, including 3,300 German publishers. This year's guest country is Turkey, which is represented by 165 publishing houses. This week, SPIEGEL ONLINE will run a series of features and interviews about Turkey in conjunction with the book fair opening.

Next to the steep, red marble staircase, a small cable car provides a jolting ride up the hill. After having been given a good shaking, visitors emerge unsteadily from the car and look around. A hundred meters above the gate at the street below, in a house surrounded by hibiscus bushes and fig trees, lives Yasar Kemal. A world-class author, Kemal is considered the eminence grise of Turkish literature.

After greeting his guests, Kemal sits down in an armchair in front of the fireplace. A large window offers a panoramic view across the Bosporus, encompassing Istanbul's Asian and European sides. Ferries, oil tankers and fast, white yachts glide beneath the large suspension bridge connecting the two sides of Istanbul, the Occident and the Orient. The minarets of Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque punctuate the city's skyline.

Strong, black tea is served in small, stemmed glasses, and Kemal talks about his life. And what a life it has been! He spent his childhood in Çukurova, a fertile strip of land in religiously conservative southeastern Anatolia. At the age of five, he witnessed his father being stabbed to death during a family quarrel in the mosque. He began to stutter, but telling stories and writing poetry became his passion. He was a journalist and a socialist politician. He was imprisoned three times because the things he said and wrote displeased the powers that be. He was tortured and was long unable to talk about the experience. He refers, only half in jest, to prison as "the school of Turkish literature."

Kemal is a Kurd, and for he and his wife Ayse, a mathematics professor, it is a matter of course that they speak Kurdish at home. But it is the Turkish language in which he writes his novels, in his clear, almost calligraphic handwriting -- novels that always have something to do with the history of his country.

Kemal has experienced everything that can possibly happen to a writer and intellectual in Turkey. He has been condemned, and he has been venerated. He is even patriotic, in his own way. "Anatolia can be seen as a source for the world's cultures," he says. He is pleased that his country is being presented as the guest of honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair this year, but he says that he will not submit to the commotion of the fair and the stress of the trip again. "Younger people should do that," he says, emitting a deep, warm and slightly roguish laugh. He has been to Germany many times, including in 1997, when he was awarded the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade.

A few steps from the fireplace, in front a wall of bookshelves, is his desk, with a few sheets of ivory-colored paper and dozens of sharpened pencils on it. Kemal is working on the fourth volume of his "island novels," the story of refugees who are forced to start a new life on an island in the Aegean Sea. There are so many stories to tell, says Kemal, from the days when the Ottoman Empire was going under, and when World War I and the ensuing confusion plunged millions upon millions of people into hopeless destitution. But he also has a simple message to impart: "Anyone who starts a war should never see the sky again."

Kemal was born 1923, although he does not know the exact date. It was the year in which the Turkish Republic was founded. His life is closely intertwined with the history of Turkey, a history that has always progressed in one direction, politically, economically and culturally: from East to West.

Although Kemal has left his native Anatolia behind, and has been living in Istanbul for more than half a century, Anatolia continues to shape much of his life today. He grew up in the tradition of village storytellers. "At the age of eight, I sang folk songs in public. I was called Kemal the Singer," he says. It was not until he became a young man that he shifted gears to write. It was a difficult transition.

Instead of the Kurdish and Turkmen popular poets, his new role models were the great European novelists: Goethe, Tolstoy and Stendhal -- especially Stendhal -- as well as America's Faulkner.

Kemal's path through life has been long. His country, restless and wild, is still a traveler along its own path. "Turkey has been trying to become 'Western' for 250 years," he says. Avrupa, Turkish for Europe, is a fateful word for Turkey.

An especially radical figure in its past was Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish republic, who remains sacrosanct in Turkey to this day. "He was a strong leader," says Kemal. Great achievements are associated with this historic mission, as are immense sacrifices. The lives of millions of Armenians and Greeks, Kurds and Alevi have been lost along the way. "They were determined to turn the mosaic that Anatolia had become over the course of its history into a unified state," says Kemal, as he sits up in his chair with an angry expression on his face. "That was the greatest catastrophe."

Cem Özdemir is a good person to ask when it comes to explaining Turkey to the West. The Green Party politician, born in 1965 in Bad Urach in southwestern Germany, is both a bridge-builder and a self-starter. He was the first member of the German parliament, the Bundestag, of Turkish descent. On talk shows, he liked to refer to himself as the "Anatolian from Swabia," a region in the southwestern German state of Baden-Württemburg. He had the misfortune of accepting a donation from a dubious PR consultant, a scandal that made Özdemir front-page news. To clear his name, he resigned and ran for a seat in the European Parliament, but he may soon experience a roaring comeback -- as the national head of Germany's Green Party.

Özdemir is participating in a public discussion forum in Bonn. Turkey is the focus of this year's Bonn Biennale, a theater and cultural festival. The panel is discussing the modern and European characteristics of a country whose 74 million citizens are almost all Muslim. Is democracy taking hold? Is there a risk that Turkey could slide into Islamism?

There are no easy answers to these questions, as Özdemir explains with the nuanced picture he presents. But there are trends and developments, and there is reason to be cautiously optimistic. The politician, who calls Turkey his "second home," points to the reforms of the last 10 years: laws banning forced marriages, honor killings and marital rape, the relaxation of taboos relating to controversial issues like the Kurdish question, Cyprus and the Armenians.

"Whenever I appeared on Turkish television in the past," Özdemir says, "I would ask the interviewer, before an interview began, which topics we could not discuss. Sometimes it was so absurd that it boiled down to a choice of words. For instance, a journalist would say: We don't refer to the 'Kurds.' 'Okay, what are you calling them now?' I would ask. The journalist would respond by referring to something like the 'Southeastern Anatolia question.' That was Turkey. And this wasn't even that long ago."

There was a period in the 1990s when Özdemir was Public Enemy No. 2 for some Turkish media outlets. The tabloid Hürriyet had a penchant for printing his photo next to that of Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of the Kurdish separatist group PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party), the implication being: Look, two traitors! But Özdemir's supposed infractions amounted to nothing more than condemning the Turkish military's war against the Kurds and upholding democracy. He became the subject of vile threats, and bodyguards soon became a part of his daily life.

But things change, and Özdemir is convinced that they will continue to. "The fundamental issue is that we accept others, and that includes their religion or atheism, their Kurdish or Cherkessian language, their Alevi 'cem evi,' or meeting house, Jewish synagogue or Greek Orthodox church. That's all," he says.

Is this a vision? Of course it is. Özdemir believes that visions don't necessarily have to be harmful in politics. He's also a realist, though. "Unfortunately, Turkish society is deeply divided and, sadly, a large segment of the political elite is failing." His hopes rest on those who are not part of any camp: not the diehard Kemalists, who see every woman wearing the headscarf as the advance guard of a theocracy, and not the religious fundamentalists, who dream of infiltrating the state.

Özdemir gesticulates energetically on the podium in Bonn, and then he leans back to discuss the subject from a broader perspective. "From the Arab standpoint, Turkey was a colonial power first, then the West's listening post in the Cold War. Nowadays, Arab intellectuals look to Turkey because it presents the historically unique opportunity to achieve a democracy, with all its trappings, in a majority Muslim society." For the Arab world, says Özdemir, this is an alternative to the model of Islamism and to the authoritarian models of government in Tunisia and Egypt.

Özdemir's next sentence is a political one, meant to bring everything together: "Turkey must take this third approach." It sounds a bit mysterious, but perhaps this is the best prediction a politician can make when it comes to a country like Turkey.


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