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Tag: Turkey

Blood and violence in Turkey

Saturday, 16 July, 2016 0 Comments

Snow Orhan Pamuk’s brilliant novel Snow is recommended reading for those trying to understand the forces at work in Turkey these days. Early in the book, the central character, Ka, is sitting in the New Life Pastry Shop in the east Anatolian city of Kars when an Islamic extremist kills the director of The Education Institute, who had barred headscarf-wearing girls from attending class. Because the victim was carrying a concealed tape-recorder, Ka is later able to get the transcript of the fatal conversation from his widow. In this excerpt, the killer pours forth his murderous ideology:

“Headscarves protect women from harassment, rape and degradation. It’s the headscarf that gives women respect and a comfortable place in society. We’ve heard this from so many women who’ve chosen later in life to cover themselves. Women like the old belly-dancer Melahat Sandra. The veil saves women from the animal instincts of men in the street. It saves them from the ordeal of entering beauty contests to compete with other women. They don’t have to live like sex objects, they don’t have to wear make-up all the day. As professor Marvin King has already noted, if the celebrated film star Elizabeth Taylor had spent the last twenty years covered, she would not have had to worry about being fat. She would not have ended up in a mental hospital. She might have known some happiness.”

Upon hearing this nonsense, the director of the Education Institute bursts out laughing. Pamuk describes the end of the transcript thus:

“Calm down my child. Stop. Sit down. Think it over one more time. Don’t pull that trigger. Stop.”
(The sound of a gunshot. The sound of a chair pushed out.)
“Don’t my son!”
(Two more gunshots. Silence. A groan. The sound of a television. One more gunshot. Silence.)

Talking of Turkey and fanaticism, of blood and violence, From Russia, with Love, the fifth 007 novel to feature the British Secret Service agent James Bond, might not be where one expects to find insights relating to last night’s coup, but it’s full of surprises. Ian Fleming wrote the book in 1956 at his Goldeneye estate in Jamaica, and the story was inspired by the author’s visit to Turkey on behalf of The Sunday Times to report on an Interpol conference. Fleming returned to London via the Orient Express, but found the experience drab, partly because the restaurant car was closed. Bond observes:

“From the first, Istanbul had given him the impression of a town where, with the night, horror creeps out of the stones. It seemed to him a town the centuries had so drenched in blood and violence that, when daylight went out, the ghosts of its dead were its only population.” — Ian Fleming, From Russia, With Love


Glossolalia: Aramaic lessons

Friday, 20 May, 2016 0 Comments

This is the week of Pentecost, which is associated (Biblically) with “speaking in tongues,” a phenomenon linguists call glossolalia. So, in honour of all things semantic, we’re devoting this week’s posts to language. We started on Monday with Singlish, followed up on Tuesday with decacorns, moved on to Euro English on Wednesday and met Parsey McParseface yesterday. To end this mini-series, it’s time to consider whether past language can tell us anything about present and future language.

First, the present: A new study from the Gallant Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley has major implications for how we understand language structuring in the brain. Published in Nature on 28 April, “Natural Speech Reveals the Semantic Maps That Tile Human Cerebral Cortex” reveals that we use our entire brain — and not just the temporal lobe, as once believed — to group words by meaning. Every “brain dictionary” appears to be unique, but they share some surprising similarities.

Now, the past: Aramaic was once the lingua franca of empires, but today it’s reduced to about half a million speakers, who call it Assyrian, Chaldean, Mandaic and Syriac, to name but four varieties. According to the Bible, the Aramaeans were named after Noah’s grandson Aram and they started out a small nomadic group. By the 11th century BC, however, they ruled large tracts of Mesopotamia, covering parts of modern-day Turkey, Syria and Iraq, including the fabled city of Babylon. Modern Aramaic Aramaic was the English of its day and unified a large number of peoples across an enormous region. It was a sign of sophistication; it was the key to experiencing life beyond the parish, and it was the language Jesus spoke.

There are many differences between English and Aramaic — English is apparently easy to learn, while Aramaic is not — but that had little effect on English’s emergence as a global language, or on Aramaic’s rise and fall argues John McWhorter in “Where Do Languages Go to Die? The tale of Aramaic, a language that once ruled the Middle East and now faces extinction.” Snippet:

“At this point, I am supposed to write that English’s preeminence could end as easily as Aramaic’s. Actually, however, I doubt it: I suspect that English will hold on harder and longer than any language in history. It happened to rise to its current position at a time when three things had happened, profoundly transformative enough to stop the music, as it were: print, widespread literacy, and an omnipresent media.

Together, these things can drill a language into international consciousness in a historically unprecedented way, creating a sense of what is normal, cosmopolitan, cool even — arbitrary but possibly impregnable. If the Chinese, for example, rule the world someday, I suspect they will do it in English, just as King Darius ruled in Aramaic and Kublai Khan, despite speaking Mongolian, ruled China through Chinese translators in the 13th century C.E. Aramaic held sway at a time when a lingua franca was more fragile than it is today.”

As John McWhorter notes, literacy and media are driving the dominance of English. Those Gallant Laboratory finding about the brain’s semantic maps were published in English in Nature, the world’s most cited scientific journal. Empire is playing a role as well. The Gallant Laboratory is located in California, not in China. If the Chinese rule the world someday, “I suspect they will do it in English,” says McWhorter. Maybe. But Beijing has imperial ambitions, too, and the language of the Ghost Fleet masters and commanders will not be English. More about that another day, however.


The power of Twitter

Friday, 21 March, 2014 0 Comments

Background: France has a $1.7 billion deal to build a compact aircraft carrier for the Kremlin.

Foreground: Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister, admits that while Paris cannot imagine delivering arms to Russia, there is the harsh reality of employment. With his tweet, he reassures Putin that he can humiliate Western Europe as much as he likes.

Background: Hours after Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed to “wipe out Twitter” following a stream of tweets alleging corruption in his inner circle, Turkey blocked access to the social news site.

Foreground: Claire Berlinski is an American novelist, travel writer and freelance journalist. She read Modern History at Balliol College, Oxford, and she lives in Istanbul amid a menagerie of adopted stray animals.


The woman who mistook the ham for a turkey

Tuesday, 24 December, 2013 0 Comments

A generation ago, in this part of the world, it was the custom to kill a pig towards the end of November. The animal would be around six months old and the resulting meat was accordingly tender. Covered in salt, the pork would be stored in a barrel and coming up to Christmas a choice ham would be taken out and readied for the feast day. The preparation involved brushing off the salt and steeping the ham overnight in water. On Christmas morning, it would be boiled with carrots, parsnips, turnip and onion.

Anyway, one Christmas, Mrs Murphy, who lived over in the west and was famous for her taste in all matters, arrived with her husband, John, and plates of the ham were duly served. “That’s a lovely bit of turkey,” she declared after a mouthful of the delicious white meat. Those who had cooked it suppressed a smile, but for years after they dined out on the fact that their produce and their cooking of it had deceived such an epicure.

Ham


Advent appeal for Syria’s refugees

Friday, 29 November, 2013 0 Comments

The numbers coming out of Syria are numbing. The latest UN report warns of “a generation of damaged children” because more than half of the 2.2 million Syrian war refugees are, in fact, children. Up to 300,000 Syrian children living in Lebanon and Jordan could be without schooling by the end of this year, and the suffering of Syrian refugee children in Turkey is appalling. “Under rain and without shoes, Syrian refugee kids fight for lives in Istanbul” reports Today’s Zaman. Snippet:

“The biggest ethnic group among those who leave for Turkey are Sunni Arabs, who cannot speak Turkish to find a job.On Tuesday, heavy rain hit Istanbul, making it impossible for Syrian refugees to remain in parks. In Istanbul’s Şirinevler neighborhood, for instance, an IHA correspondent photographed several Syrian children, some of whom even lacked shoes and were living under a small tent made of plastic bags.”

As we prepare to celebrate the onset of Advent on Sunday, our thoughts should turn to these most vulnerable victims of the Syrian conflict. Those doing incredible work for Syria’s war refugees include The International Rescue Committee, Doctors Without Borders, Save the Children, The International Medical Corps and The International Orthodox Christian Charities. They deserve our support at the time of year when thoughts are meant to turn to “Peace on the earth, good will to men.”

Syrian refugees


Erdogan channels Assange and Morozov

Tuesday, 4 June, 2013 0 Comments

“Now we have a menace that is called Twitter. The best example of lies can be found there. To me, social media is the worst menace to society.” As protests engulf Turkey, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is blaming social media for the unrest. His targeting of Twitter, which has become a hub for activists and a major news source as Turkey’s mainstream media have downplayed the crisis, will be watched with interest by Evgeny Morozov, who has made a profession out of his cynicism for the popular notion that the internet can be an agent of regime change. In the internet-inimical Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, which hosts a regular Morozov column, the Belarus-born author argues that the net is, in fact, a tool for mass surveillance and political repression.

Echoing Morozov’s fears, the alleged-rapist, Julian Assange, took to the New York Times at the weekend and declared, “The advance of information technology epitomized by Google heralds the death of privacy for most people and shifts the world toward authoritarianism.” The notorious fugitive from justice was reviewing Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen’s book, The New Digital Age. He continued: “But while Mr. Schmidt and Mr. Cohen tell us that the death of privacy will aid governments in ‘repressive autocracies’ in ‘targeting their citizens,’ they also say governments in ‘open’ democracies will see it as ‘a gift’ enabling them to ‘better respond to citizen and customer concerns.’ In reality, the erosion of individual privacy in the West and the attendant centralization of power make abuses inevitable, moving the ‘good’ societies closer to the ‘bad’ ones.”

When the dictatorial Erdoğan, the seedy Assange and the skeptical Morozov are on the same page, it’s time to count our digital spoons.

Twitter Istanbul


Snow is melting in Turkey

Monday, 3 June, 2013 0 Comments

It’s hard to put a finger on the individual spark that lit the fuse in Istanbul’s Taksim Square, but the air was filled with a number of combustibles: Secularists point to the recent barrage of restrictions on alcohol; intellectuals highlight the number of journalists in jail (there are more reporters in prison in Turkey than in any other country in the world); activists complain about the country’s draconian anti-terror laws, and environmentalists are enraged by mega urban-development projects that involve the nihilistic destruction of nature. All in all, people have tired of Prime Minister Erdogan’s authoritarianism and they want him to know how they feel about creeping Islamism.

Snow Orhan Pamuk, the winner of the 2006 Nobel Prize in Literature, brilliantly captured the tensions at the heart of Turkish society in Snow. Early in the novel, the central character Ka is sitting in the New Life Pastry Shop in the east Anatolian city of Kars when an Islamist murders the director of The Education Institute, who had barred headscarf-wearing girls from attending class. Because the director was carrying a concealed tape-recorder, Ka is later able to get the transcript of the fatal conversation from his widow. In this excerpt, the killer pours out his mad idealism:

“Headscarves protect women from harassment, rape and degradation. It’s the headscarf that gives women respect and a comfortable place in society. We’ve heard this from so many women who’ve chosen later in life to cover themselves. Women like the old belly-dancer Melahat Sandra. The veil saves women from the animal instincts of men in the street. It saves them from the ordeal of entering beauty contests to compete with other women. They don’t have to live like sex objects, they don’t have to wear make-up all the day. As professor Marvin King has already noted, if the celebrated film star Elizabeth Taylor had spent the last twenty years covered, she would not have had to worry about being fat. She would not have ended up in a mental hospital. She might have known some happiness.”

Upon hearing this absurdity, the director of the Education Institute bursts out laughing. Pamuk describes the end of the transcript:

“Calm down my child. Stop. Sit down. Think it over one more time. Don’t pull that trigger. Stop.”
(The sound of a gunshot. The sound of a chair pushed out.)
“Don’t my son!”
(Two more gunshots. Silence. A groan. The sound of a television. One more gunshot. Silence.)

No fiction writer in recent years has come near Orhan Pamuk in his depiction of the spiritual fragility of the Islamic world and its rage against the “godless West”.


Turkey’s disgraceful prosecution of Fazil Say

Saturday, 20 April, 2013 0 Comments

On Monday, a Turkish court convicted the country’s best-known pianist and composer, Fazil Say, for the crimes of inciting hatred and insulting Islam. Say was given a 10-month suspended sentence in absentia, for a series of tweets he sent to his 44,000 followers. The chilling point of the suspended sentence is that he will go to prison if he repeats the tweets. What exactly did Say say? He joked about imams and muezzin; he joked about which kind of booze will be available in the afterlife; and he forwarded a rhyming couplet from a 12th century Persian poet about the garden of Eden, wine and sex.

The abuse of the courts by Turkey’s Islamic-leaning government to punish “insults” makes a mockery of its claim to be a democracy. There can be no democracy without free speech, and without an independent judiciary Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan needs to be told that there can be no democracy, either.