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“A brilliant book … full of wit and intelligence” – William Armstrong in Hürriyet Daily News

November 6, 2013 1 comment

Three years after publication, it’s good to see the reviews of Dining with al-Qaeda still coming in – especially since the last two say my memoir of Middle Eastern reporting life remains highly relevant despite the excitements of Arab uprisings that have grabbed headlines in the meantime. William Armstrong’s piece in one of Turkey’s main English papers today is already one of my favourites.

 

Click to see the book from Amazon.com

Click to see the book from Amazon.com

DINING WITH AL-QAEDA

By William Armstrong

6 November 2013

Hugh Pope is perhaps slightly unfortunate to have written “Dining with al-Qaeda” just before the Arab revolts erupted across the Middle East. As it is, you read his reflections on 30 years of reporting in the region with the knowledge of what was to come always lurking in the back of your mind. I wonder what he makes of today’s events in the Arab world; he comes across as a natural optimist, but three decades of covering the region have disabused him of any fantasies dreamt up in the Oriental Studies department at Oxford. Still, he’s able to stay free of any of the hard-boiled cynicism that affects many others in his line of work, and has written a brilliant, vivid book that is full of wit and intelligence.

One result of Pope’s many years of experience is a refusal to succumb to overarching intellectual schema, which he says is born of a “long-lasting suspicion of all ideological interpretations of the Middle East.” Instead, he allows himself “to go with the flow of the truer and more interesting confusion of everyday life … the vivacious human contact that make the region so addictive.” Far from making the book a lightweight read, this ideological skepticism has been hard-won through years of reporting some of the most intractable conflicts in the region. He may be buccaneering, but Pope has no spectacular Anthony Loyd-style reporter’s tale of psychological breakdown and heroin addiction, substituted by thrills on the perilous front line. Instead, he simply writes fluently of what he has observed and learnt, with a nice line in pithy summaries of people and places. Of Iran he writes: “I despaired of my own side for giving so many winning arguments to someone as sanctimonious and hypocritical as Khameini.” Of the Yezidis: “high on the scale of oppression, even in the Middle East’s competitive arena.” Of Turkey: a “free but distorted burlesque of conflicting viewpoints.” Of Lebanon: “Israelis were all over the south, neck-deep in the Middle Eastern delusion that conquerors were keepers.” Of Saddam’s Iraq: “a sinister B-movie.”

Much of the book is spent reflecting on Pope’s frustrating experience as a Wall Street Journal correspondent in Iraq as the war drums started rolling after September 11, and during the subsequent occupation. A principled and thoughtful journalist, he’s excellent at describing his exasperation at his own apparent futility to “bridge fully the gap between Middle Eastern reality and American  perceptions” during those dark days – a particularly tough task considering the state of the Journal’s tub-thumping opinion pages at the time. He doesn’t say it explicitly, but the disillusioning professional experience of the second Iraq War probably did as much as his family commitments to finally convince him to throw in the towel after 30 years on the beat. “As someone who tried to write articles that challenged the logic of that invasion, I felt by turns futility, emasculation, depression, and even physically sick,” he writes at one point.

The title “Dining with al-Qaeda” is grabby – (though somewhat less so than fellow reporter Edward Behr’s “Anyone Here Been Raped and Speaks English?”) – and refers to Pope’s nail-biting encounter with an al-Qaeda operative in Saudi Arabia shortly after 9/11. On the whole, however, he has too much experience to suggest that the region can be reduced to such sensational episodes. While it’s highly entertaining, “Dining with al-Qaeda” is also an astute warning from an authoritative voice about the clichés and blind spots that distort coverage of the Middle East.

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Tahrir, Taksim and the Ottoman Empire

October 7, 2013 1 comment

Screen shot 2013-10-07 at 22.19.44In 2011, a book review monthly sent me Michelle Campos’s Ottoman Brothers: Muslims, Christians and Jews in Early Twentieth-Century Palestine, asking for 5,000 words on all that it might mean. It set my head spinning, a dense, comprehensive battery of sources writing in 1908-1914, making me feel like I was in the same busy conference as a crowd of bourgeois Ottomans. There were also many uncanny parallels with what was going on in 2011 in Tahrir Square and other places of ferment during the Arab Uprisings. I wrote nothing about it at the time – I wasn’t part of those Arab events and wasn’t sure it was a fair to make the comparison. I delayed and prevaricated. I stopped hearing from the book review monthly. Then, in the summer of 2013, protests poured onto the streets of Istanbul outside my house, and I understood what I could and had to say. And, at last, I achieved a long-held ambition: to weave my electricity subscriber number into a story.

OTTOMAN GHOSTS

Istanbul’s Pro-Constitution Coup of 1908 Haunts Erdogan’s Turkey

By Hugh Pope

The Majalla, 1 October 2013

Elektrik 77 squareAn old enamel electricity subscriber disk, No. 77, hangs over the high wooden door to my Istanbul apartment. The number likely dates back to one of the Ottoman Empire’s first public power generators, and, in today’s metropolis, my bills duly come to subscriber No. 00000000077. My neighbor below, a prosperous Armenian furrier who cuts Dutch mink and exotic furs for the bourgeoisie, speaks fluent Kurdish due to his family’s once wide land-ownings in the pre-1915 east of the country. On the floor above, the direct descendants of the aga or commander of the 56th Regiment of Ottoman janissaries, whose surname translates as “Son of the 56th,” manage their family’s charitable foundation—set up in 1826.

The Republic of Turkey, founded on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire in 1923, spent most of the last century deliberately framing itself as the opposite of much that was Ottoman or even Islamic. Yet the Ottoman legacy remains tangible in many parts of Turkey’s geography and culture, and the Turkish people have become increasingly fascinated by their long-belittled past.

A taste for post-Ottoman chic (and kitsch) emerged in the 1990s, cropping up in places from restored Greek taverns to mosque design. The once-banished Ottoman royal family began making it into the society pages. For the secular rich, a restored Ottoman mansion became the desirable abode. The trend has reached new heights since 2002, as the pro-Islamic government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan restored parts of Istanbul to resemble an Ottoman Disneyland and blended neo-Ottoman themes into party ideology.

This has triggered a deeper debate. How much is Turkey still rooted in the Empire that held sway for centuries over territories in the Balkans and Middle East that now encompasses more than 30 modern states? And do these roots represent a past best forgotten, an inherited magnificence to be recreated or a cautionary history of the region’s ethnic, sectarian and historical cleavages?

Take, for instance, the scenes on the streets in front of my apartment building near Taksim Square during Istanbul’s 2013 summer of political unrest [my first blog on that here]. “Now nothing will be like it was before,” read one slogan spray-painted onto a nearby wall. There was an intoxicating spontaneity and a freedom to say anything at all, out loud and in public—including egregious insults hurled by both the government and secularist sides. But was this outpouring on city walls and social media really so new? Was it a replay of Egyptians’ freedom-loving chants on Tahrir Square two years before? Or the Syrians’ later demonstrations? Or was this an echo of something from the Ottoman Empire, whose own pro-secular and pro-Islamist ructions in 1908-1909 reached a bloody climax in that same Taksim Square?

Prime Minister Erdoğan certainly thinks they are linked. He insistently uses an obscure insult, çapulcu (“looter”), as a label for the pro-secular demonstrators against his government, recalling the name given to Bulgarian irregulars who joined the secularists against the Ottoman Sultan in 1909. In a way, he may be right. Taksim and Tahrir’s praise of freedom, their early anti-sectarianism, and their heady moments of civil society asserting civic rights, do echo exactly those that inspired Ottoman public squares and meeting halls in Jerusalem, Cairo, Beirut, Damascus and Istanbul in 1908-1909.

This early cycle of revolution and counter-revolution, of secularist nationalism and Islamism, is captured in vivid detail by the book Ottoman Brothers: Muslims, Christians and Jews in Early Twentieth-Century Palestine, by American Middle East specialist Michelle U. Campos (Stanford University Press, 2011). Just as with the heady days of 2011 when Arab peoples were carried away by the dream of an ‘Arab Spring,’ Istanbul’s pro-constitution coup of 1908 swept the empire’s multi-ethnic citizenry off their feet.

Above all—as in Tahrir in 2011—the word “hurriyya”, or freedom, seemed to herald a new dawn. “It sometimes seems as if one lives in a dream” one resident of Jaffa writes to his friend in Beirut in 1908. Another, reformist Rafiz Al-Azm, wrote that “wherever I met an Ottoman friend who was known for his love of freedom, whether in Syria or Egypt, we became overwhelmed with emotions, and our eyes burst with tears for the joy that was within us.” In 2013, such spontaneity was an unprecedented feature in Turkey too, as thousands of ordinary pedestrians expressed euphoria and togetherness with impromptu waves of clapping along the length of İstiklal Street leading to Taksim.

If Twitter and Facebook define communications now, the social media of the earlier era lagged only slightly behind, to judge by the wealth of telegrams, letters, wire reports, posters, diary entries and newspaper columns quoted by Campos. Crowds in Palestine shouted “Long live the Padishah [Sultan]!”—because the sultan had brought back the secular constitution—just as Turkey’s crowds shouted “We are the soldiers of Mustafa Kemal” (Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Turkey’s republican founder, who died in 1938 and invented Turkey’s secular constitution). In both Palestine then and Turkey today, months of extemporaneous meetings in parks and public places followed, in which all were welcome to express their views.

Among the Jews, Muslims and Christians in Palestine in 1908, and the Copts and Muslims in the first weeks of Tahrir in 2011, observers were astonished at the extent that people put aside differences to embrace and support each other. Then as now, the army leaned to the modernist side. Ottoman intellectuals’ narrative of “awakening,” “revolution,” “rebirth” and “throwing off tyranny” all “reasserted the empire’s role at the center of Europe rather than at its margins,” Campos argues. Similarly, the “occupy” spirit and “anti-authoritarian” language in Taksim and Tahrir persuaded European visitors in 2011-13 that these events were a breakthrough for Western values. The same language echoes in the title of Ashraf Khalil’s bracing account of Tahrir: Liberation Square: Inside the Egyptian Revolution and the Rebirth of a Nation (St. Martin’s Press, 2012).

Another parallel binds these oft-scorned neighbors of Europe to the old continent. The old Sultan cultivated an image of divine-paternal-political omnipresence, copied from the Austro-Hungarian Habsburg or Russian Romanov dynasties, while today’s Taksim demonstrators attacked Erdoğan as a “Putin,” shorthand in their minds for an oppressive Russian autocrat. And to cap off the comparisons: just as Tehran’s Green Revolution of 2009 came two years before the Arab uprisings, so did the Iranian Revolution of 1906 come two years before the Ottoman upheavals.

Of course, there are differences too. The scenes of ethnic and sectarian intermingling during the 1908 Ottoman constitutional revolution were more extraordinary than in 2011, with priests, rabbis and imams hugging and kissing in front of everyone. It was also accompanied by real changes in laws and prisoners’ releases, it was an empire-wide affair against an Islamic establishment backed by the army and a strong new political secularist faction, the Committee of Union and Progress, and it roundly defeated a 1909 counter-revolution by pro-Sultan Islamists in the old Taksim Barracks. By contrast, if there is a region-wide political movement involved in the unrest today, it is pro-Islamic, including Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Syrian and Egyptian Muslim Brotherhoods. There is no neat story line. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood now represents a failed revolution. Meanwhile, the AKP has overcome many traps laid by the pro-secular establishment and built itself into a new pro-Islamic status quo. Istanbul’s summer protests rumble on with tear gas-filled weekend moments on İstiklal, confounding the pro-Islamic Erdoğan, but not overthrowing him.

Neo-Ottoman aspects of Erdoğan’s policy, however, are clearly at a dead end. The AKP’s idealistic attempt in the late 2000s to create a Middle Eastern area of free trade, free movement of people, regular joint Cabinet meetings and infrastructure integration collapsed with the Arab uprisings. Erdoğan’s chief policy guru Ahmet Davutoğlu—foreign minister since 2009—denied this was an attempt to turn back the historical clock, and indeed it also looked like an attempt to copy the European Union’s success. But Davutoğlu read from Ottoman firmans (royal decrees) when visiting former Ottoman lands, drew attention to what he considered good Ottoman policies and publicly praised Ottoman leaders.

More dramatically, Davutoğlu repeatedly vowed to smash the Sykes-Picot agreement, the 1916 British-French pact that divided up the Middle Eastern lands of the Ottoman Empire. AKP leaders also seemed seduced by the ideal of Islamic brotherhood, disregarding the lessons of the Ottoman period. The Sublime Porte’s policy was rarely pan-Islamic and kept a suspicious eye on non-Ottoman Muslims. And the Turkish republic’s policy of caution, neutrality and commercial opportunism towards the Middle East was based on the memory of how pan-Ottomanism failed and realism about Turkey’s limited capacity for regional hegemony.

The republic’s skepticism was branded into the Turkish consciousness by how brutally short-lived the euphoria of the empire’s 1908 revolution proved to be. The 1909 Armenian massacres and Ottoman defeats in a new Balkan War made it even harder to keep all the empire’s religions and ethnicities in balance, and defeat in the First World War of 1914-18 devastated Turkey’s geography. Ultimately, the events of 1908-09 presaged the collapse of the Ottoman Empire—just as the Arab uprisings are now putting under pressure the Sykes-Picot borders drawn one century ago.

The 1908 upsurge of pan-Ottoman citizenship may not have survived imperial collapse, but other Ottoman ghosts live on. The long-lasting pain of the Greeks forced out of Anatolia in the 1923 population exchange has been excellently explained by Bruce Clark in his book Twice a Stranger: How Mass Expulsion Forged Modern Greece and Turkey (Granta, 2007). And a revelatory new book by French journalists Laure Marchand and Guillaume Perrier La Turquie et le fantôme arménien : Sur les traces du génocide, Actes Sud, 2013 (Turkey and the Armenian Ghost: in the steps of the genocide) found much that has survived the genocidal massacres of Armenians in 1915: survivors, converts, crypto-Armenians, derelict churches, descendants of ‘righteous’ Turks, artisans’ tools in second-hand shops, flour mills, abandoned houses, as well as songs and traditions that have blended into mainstream Turkish culture.

Do the Arab uprisings presage a worse fragmentation to come, a regional rebalancing as dramatic and bloody as the First World War? Michelle Campos’s book argues that the failure of Ottomanism was by no means a foregone conclusion, and that the 1908 outburst of togetherness and reform showed an empire that was arguably more tolerant than its European contemporaries. She also notes that later, the First World War’s European victors tried to buttress the political role they seized in the Middle East “by ignoring or even reversing the developments that had taken place in the last decade of Ottoman rule.”

Certainly, many Ottomans regretted the social disintegration. As Campos quotes an Ottoman Jewish writer in Liberty in November 1909: “Everyone says to give it time and our situation will improve … our situation gets worse by the day.” In Palestine, Campos argues, Zionism did not gain adherents so much as the failure of the idea of a common Ottoman identity lost the Zionists. She also details how the confused unscrambling of the imperial omelet made Arabs and Turks unintentionally lose their sense of common cause.

When Ottomanism did collapse, however, it rent apart the Middle East’s society and geography. Similarly, the retreat of the twentieth century order is today tearing open ethnic and sectarian divisions in Iraq, Syria and Libya, even putting pressure on the fault-lines of Turkey, the region’s most stable and successful twentieth century state. Indeed, when Foreign Minister Davutoğlu rejoices that the whole twentieth century was an aberrant “parenthesis” that has now closed, this may mean more challenges than opportunities for Turkey. Already, Kurdish intellectuals demanding autonomy in Turkey today regularly use the same arguments as Michelle Campos quotes from the Arabs’ Decentralization Committee in 1913:

“Every thinking Arab who understands the meaning of life demands that his place will be side by side with the Turk in this empire…where neither of them takes advantage of the other….But if our brothers do not want to understand this fact … then the Arab people want life and will struggle for it.”

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“Among the handful of books that explain the road to the Arab Spring” – Walter Posch, JIPSS

August 13, 2013 Leave a comment

Screen shot 2013-08-09 at 23.20.13A new German review of Dining with al-Qaeda by Walter Posch – a hands-on expert from Austria about Iran, Turkey and Kurdish affairs with Germany’s Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) – warmed my heart on many counts. Posch mostly likes the book and strongly recommends it; gives the longest review the book has yet had in German (in the Austrian  Journal for Intelligence Propaganda and Security Studies), and best of all says in conclusion (my translation, and I am far from fluent in German as Posch graciously says in the review): “Pope manages to make tangible the tensions inside the societies of Arab states, and between state and regime. After reading this book the reader really expects a political explosion, which indeed happened with the Arab Spring in the year that the book appeared. The Arab Spring does not make Dining with al-Qaeda obsolete, but is far rather to be counted among the handful of books that explain the road that led there.”

See on Amazon.com

See on Amazon.com

On the critical side, Posch is cautious about what he sees as selective and “frank, ostentatious yet viewable-by-all” autobiographical material, believes that I have misjudged and misunderstood academic reserve and work on Middle Eastern society and politics, and finds me too soft on Turkey (in my defence,  I felt I’d little new to say after writing Turkey Unveiled and Sons of the Conquerors). Still, Posch particularly likes the chapter titles (I’d worked hard on them!) and feels the book is “successful” overall. “This book is recommended not just for its easy readability and its rich colours [but also] as an introduction to how stories become articles … particularly impressive is his skill in presenting the various sides, for example seeing the same event from Palestinian and Israeli, or through Arab and American eyes”.

Rezension: Hugh Pope, Dining with Al-Qaeda. Three Decades Exploring the many Worlds of the Middle East, St. Martin’s Press, New York 2010

Posch_Walter_SWP_7651_2332

Walter Posch (SWP, Berlin)

Der britische Journalist und Nahostexperte Hugh Pope verfasste eine berufliche Autobiographie, mit der er den gelungenen Versuch unternahm, einen kritischen Blick auf das westliche Verhältnis zum Nahen Osten zu werfen. Ausgehend von seinem Werdegang gelingt es ihm, Zeitgeschichte und Analyse erfolgreich zu verbinden. Da er auf jedem Schauplatz des Nahen Ostens und der benachbarten Regionen journalistisch tätig war, ergibt sich eine Zeitgeschichte der letzten dreißig Jahre. Jedes der achtzehn Kapitel ist eine eigene historisch-politisch-biographische Vignette mit griffigem Titel und Untertitel, der meist die politischen Verhältnisse des jeweils behandelten Landes auf den Punkt bringt (z.B. The Plot in the Conspiracy: Spies in the Syria-Lebanon-Palestine Triangle S. 28-37; Hunting for Scapegoats: Foreign Interference and Misrule in Lebanon, S. 38-48; The Drunken Lover: Revolutionary Iran’s Struggle with Its Poetic Soul, 68-83; Dining with Al-Qaeda: A Saudi Missionary and the „Wonderful Boys“ of September 11, S. 132-155; Regal Republics – Democratic Kings: Syria, Jordan and the Dimensions of Dictatorship, S. 196-217; Stop Firing! This is a Military Situation: One Step behind the War with the Kurds,“ S. 249-271; u.s.w.).

Durch die achtzehn Vignetten zieht sich ein autobiographischer Faden, der freilich nur das verrät, was der Autor unbedingt enthüllen will – über sein Privatleben erfährt man genauso wenig wie über die Gründe für seine Niederlassung in der Türkei. Das ist insoweit von Bedeutung, als es meiner Ansicht nach den Mangel an substantieller Kritik an der Türkei erklärt – Pope ist seit 2009 der Türkeiexperte der renommierten International Crisis Group und lebt seit über zwei Jahrzehnten im Land, er ist also privat und professionell vom Wohlwollen der türkischen Behörden abhängig. Daher drängte sich beim Rezensenten der Verdacht auf, dass er bei den Türken Zurückhaltung übt während er bei allen anderen Völkern der Region, also bei den Arabern, Kurden, Iranern und Israelis mit Kritik nicht geizt.

Gleichzeitig plaudert er kurzweilig „aus dem Nähkästchen“ und erlaubt dem Leser einen Blick hinter die Kulissen der angelsächsischen Nahostberichterstattung, wenn er zum Beispiel von einer offiziösen journalistischen Faustregel über die „Nachrichtenwürdigkeit“ menschlicher Opfer schreibt, die in den 1980er Jahren für die westlichen Journalistengemeinschaft in Beirut galt: absolute Priorität hatten amerikanische Opfer, die gleich viel wert waren wie zwei Israelis, oder drei Europäer oder fünf arabische Christen oder zehn Muslime. Kriegsbedingt hatten es Iraner und Iraker am schwersten in die Seiten internationaler Zeitungen zu kommen, erst wenn iranischen Agenturen mindestens 100 Tote berichteten, war ein gewisser Neuigkeitswert gegeben. (S. 45) Pope war zwanzig Jahre lang Nahostkorrespondent bei UPI und dem Wall Street Journal, von dem er sich in gegenseitigem Einverständnis, aber aufgrund großer inhaltlicher und politischer Differenzen, trennte. (S. 261) Viele der interessantesten Szenen in seinem Werk schafften es seinerzeit nicht in das Journal oder wurden für eine amerikanische Leserschaft so überarbeitet, dass weder der ursprüngliche Kontext noch die differenzierten Beobachtungen des Autors erkennbar waren. So zum Beispiel in einem der Kapitel über Saudi Arabien (Mecca and Mammon: Crushing Religious Diversity in the Name of Islam, S. 117-131) wo er den don-quijotischen Kampf des mekkanischen Architekten und Kulturhistorikers Angawi gegen die Zerstörung des kulturellen und architektonischen Erbes des Islams zum Ausgangspunkt für eine exzellente Erörterung der saudi-arabischen Gesellschaft nimmt. Wie zu erwarten machte das Journal daraus eine Geschichte über wahnsinnige Wahhabiten, die nicht nur die USA angreifen, sondern auch verrückt genug sind, die Zeugnisse der eigenen Kultur in die Luft zu jagen oder zu schleifen.

Pope verfügt über beindruckende Kenntnisse der saudischen Gesellschaft und durch sein Talent, eine Geschichte in ihren kulturellen und politischen Kontext zu verorten, gelingt es ihm, die geistigen und ideologischen Strömungen des Landes einzufangen. Besonders hilfreich ist diese Methode in dem Kapitel, das dem Buch den Namen gab: Abendessen mit Al-Qaeda. Pope zeigt wie er durch den Kontakt zum Sohn eines politischen Gefangenen mit viel Geduld zu einem Abendessen mit einem Werber (da‘i) von Al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabien kommt. Der ungenannt gebliebene Werber sah sich dabei weniger als Mitglied der Organisation sondern als Propagandist für die Ideologie Al-Qaedas. Dennoch eröffnete er das Gespräch mit der Frage, warum es nicht besser sei den britischen Journalisten gleich zu töten. Pope beschreibt, wie er dies für eine leere Drohung hielt und wie sich langsam ein Gespräch basierend auf gemeinsamer Koranexegese entwickelte, bis der Werber schließlich mit Einblicken in das Innere Al-Qaedas aufwartet und glaubhaft beschreibt, wann und wie er die Attentäter, die für ihn „wunderbare Burschen“ sind, kennen lernt (S. 144). Was Pope zum damaligen Zeitpunkt nicht wusste, war, dass gleichzeitig sein Kollege vom Wall Street Journal Daniel Pearl in Pakistan mit einer anderen Al-Qaeda Gruppe in Kontakt war und von diesen grausam ermordet wurde – sie hatten ihn enthauptet.

Nach Popes Aussage waren er und Pearl jene Journalisten, die trotz des 11. Septembers ihrem Anspruch treu blieben und ein ausgeglichenes Bild von der arabischen Welt zeichneten. Pope, der auch an anderen Stellen an getötete Kollegen erinnert, nimmt Pearls Tod zum Anlass, die tragische Rolle kritischer Journalisten zu thematisieren, die zwischen den Wünschen unkritischer Blattmacher und der Brutalität islamistischer Fanatiker stehen. Das Abendessen mit Al-Qaeda wurde vom Wall Street Journal übrigens mit der Begründung abgelehnt, der Werber würde nicht mit Namen genannt werden, (s. 150) was bei Menschen, die im Untergrund leben, allerdings zu erwarten ist.

Neben dem Journal, gegen das er sich die eine oder andere Spitze nicht versagen will (wenn er z.B. von einer Redaktionskonferenz berichtete, in der die Unmöglichkeit diskutiert wurde, eine unabhängige arabische Stimme in diesem Blatt zu Wort kommen zu lassen S. 60-63), ist es vor allem ein britischer Journalist, den Pope mit einer überraschenden Hartnäckigkeit angreift: Robert Fisk, dem er verantwortungslose Übertreibung, schlampige Recherche und mangelnde tiefere Kenntnisse der Region vorwirft. Der Grund für Popes radikale Abrechnungen mit seinem Zunftkollegen liegt einerseits im Starruhm, den der Grand Seigneur der britischen Nahostberichterstattung genießt (Fisk ist der Autor mehrerer Bücher und war jahrzehntelang einer der wichtigsten Korrespondenten bedeutender britischer Zeitungen) andererseits jedoch auch in einer gewissen Enttäuschung des Autors begründet: freimütig gibt Pope zu, dass es die Artikel Robert Fisks waren, die ihm als Studenten der Orientalistik in Oxford den modernen Nahen Osten nahe brachten und den er am Beginn seiner journalistischen Karriere noch bewunderte. Als er mit ihm als Kollege zu tun hatte, wurde er jedoch von seinem arroganten Verhalten dermaßen enttäuscht, dass er ihn und seine Artikel nun mit kritischeren Augen sah (S. 21-26).

Pope studierte gegen Ende der 1970er Jahre Orientalistik mit Schwerpunkt persisch und arabisch in Oxford. Daneben spricht er noch fließend türkisch, deutsch, niederländisch und französisch. Obwohl er der gediegenen orientalistischen Ausbildung die Grundlagen seines Wissens verdankt, spricht er ausschließlich ironisch über dieses klassische Fach, dem er Weltfremdheit bescheinigt. Mit der Realität des Nahen Osten kam Pope nach eigener Aussage 1980 in Berührung, als die syrische Armee im März – April 1980 Unruhen in Aleppo brutal unterdrückte. Allerdings war die Lage des damals noch jungen Studenten eher surreal: während die Armee Artillerie und Granatwerfer gegen die syrische Opposition einsetzte, versuchte er sich in seinem Zimmer in einem Bordell in Aleppo durch die arabische Grammatik zu arbeiten und dabei dem homoerotischen Begehren eines arabischen Machos, der unablässig an seine Tür klopfte,  zu widerstehen (- mit Erfolg S. 9). In der Tat sind manche Sachverhalte nahöstlicher Wirklichkeit nur schwer in Vorlesungen und Proseminaren zu vermitteln.

Seine Verbesserungsvorschläge für die Orientalistik und Nahostinstitute entbehren dann ihrerseits der Realität, jedenfalls der Praktikabilität. So schlägt er vor,  westliche Universitäten mögen die Geschichte der Region des Nahen Ostens  „anderswo“ als in den genannten Fächern behandeln – wo und warum? Die Konkurrenz bei den Anthropologen, Theologen und Politikwissenschaftlern hat bisher eher selten mit  Nahostexpertise aufwarten können. Doch nach Pope würde nur so gewährleistet, dass man den Nahen Osten nicht mehr so behandelt, „als ob die dortigen Probleme irgendwie verloren und anders als jene im Rest der Welt wären.“ (S. 308) Doch genau das sind sie, wenn man zum Beispiel, wie er es tut, das Schicksal der Palästinenser und Kurden nicht unter den Tisch kehrt sondern ihnen große Bedeutung beimisst.

In gewisser Weise ist seine Kritik an der akademischen Ausbildung typisch für politische und journalistische Praktiker. Doch hier übersieht Pope zweierlei. Erstens  die politischen Schwierigkeiten, mit denen unpolitische Orientalisten oft genug konfrontiert werden (so zwang das Interesse für die Literatur esoterischer Sekten in der Türkei diesen Rezensenten sich während seiner Studienzeit intensiver mit der türkischen Innen- und Sicherheitspolitik auseinander zu setzen). Selbst die weltfremdesten Bücherwürmer sind unfreiwillig zu wahren Experten für politische Wetterlagen gemacht worden. Vielleicht ist, was Pope als Weltfremdheit auffasst, in Wirklichkeit akademische Diskretion, die durchaus auf Kenntnis der Politik beruht? Außerdem versagt der Autor ein wenig bei der Selbstreflexion: schließlich verdankt er der Orientalistik nicht nur seine Sprachkenntnisse, sondern auch seine nach wie vor „orientalistische“ Einstellung. So ist es letztlich seine historisch-philologische Schulung, die ihn die richtigen Fragen stellen lässt, und es ist in gewisser Weise „Orientalismus“ (eben nicht im Sinne von Edward Said!) wenn er davon ausgeht, dass die Völker des Nahen Ostens das Recht haben, ihr Schicksal selbst zu bestimmen. Genau diese Einstellung brachte ihn öfters in Schwierigkeiten und unterscheidet ihn von den meisten Politikwissenschaftlern, Studenten der Internationalen Beziehungen oder Mitarbeitern des Wall Street Journal.

Anekdotisch lässt er einen nicht zu unterschätzenden Aspekt seiner Karriere einfließen: die Begegnung mit Nachrichtendiensten. Sowohl Orientalisten als auch all jene, die sich entschließen, eine nahöstliche  Fremdsprache zu lernen, stehen unter Generalverdacht der Spionage. In Syrien, bei den Palästinensern und im Iran war das Misstrauen besonders groß – warum, so die entwaffnende Logik, würde man sonst eine der Sprachen in der Region lernen wollen? In der Tat wurde einer seiner Kommilitonen – der beste Arabischstudent Oxfords (S. 31, 32) –  Analyst beim MI6. Als britische Staatsbürger hatte es Pope natürlich besonders schwer, einerseits wegen der imperialen Vergangenheit Großbritanniens in der Region, andererseits, weil das Vereinigte Königreich einen der besten und aktivsten Geheimdienste der Welt unterhält. Vielleicht geht das Problem aber noch tiefer, denn  die Omnipräsenz britischer Spionage wurde im Laufe des letzten Jahrhunderts Teil der Folklore des Nahen Ostens. Es scheint aber wohl eher seine Tätigkeit als Journalist gewesen zu sein, die ihm die vielen Einladungen für Abendessen und lange Gespräche eintrug  –  unter anderem von französischen, amerikanischen und anderen Botschaftsmitarbeitern der besonderen Art. So auch von  einem jungen britischen Diplomatenehepaar, von dem er jahrelang nichts mehr hörte – bis zu dem Tag als er aus der Zeitung (woher sonst) erfuhr, dass John Sawers zum Chef des MI6 ernannt wurde. (S. 34). Pope gibt nützliche Tipps zur Vorsicht: immer davon ausgehen, dass das Telefon abgehört wird, niemals Witze über Spionage am Telefon machen, das ist eine Garantie für Spionageverdacht, Vorsicht bei Consulting-Tätigkeiten, denn der eigentliche Auftraggeber sitzt meistens wo anders usw. Doch die Regel lautet nicht, dass man Spione sucht, vielmehr, dass diese einen finden. (Mittlerweile gibt es genügend „graue“ Literatur und Tipps im Internet, mit denen sich die einfachsten Grundregeln gegen das „Abschöpfen“ und instrumentalisiert werden, leicht lernen lassen. Freilich, die nötige Erfahrung bekommt man erst bei der Arbeit.)

Zu seinen Vignetten gehören auch Beobachtungen über die zwischenmenschlichen Beziehungen in der Region, zwischen Mann und Frau und Mann und Mann. (Der Titel des Kapitels könnte von Rosamunde Pilcher sein: „Subversion in the Harem: Women on the Rise from Cairo to Istanbul S. 84-98“ aber er geht auf dieses Thema auch in anderen Kapiteln ein.) Hier greift er größten Teils auf eigene Erlebnisse zurück, was mit einer oder zwei Ausnahmen die geradezu ostentativ jugendfreie Natur der Episoden erklären dürfte. Er ergänzt daher gerne durch Beispiele aus der erzählenden Literatur und bastelt daraus eine – wenig überzeugende – Soziologie der zwischenmenschlichen Beziehungen des Nahen Ostens. Darüber hinaus belastet er den politisch interessierten Leser mit Tratsch und Klatsch von multikulturellen Paaren, die er in seinem Freundes- und Bekanntenkreises kennen lernte (S. 94) – sehr zum Ärger des Rezensenten, der ein guter Bekannter des Autors ist.

Dennoch ist das Buch nicht nur wegen seiner leichten Lesbarkeit und seines bunten Kolorits zu empfehlen. Seine Einblicke in die Art wie aus Geschichten Artikel gemacht werden und wie und unter welchen Umständen diese es dann tatsächlich in die Zeitung schaffen oder abgelehnt werden, ist eine gute Einführung für all jene, die keine formelle journalistische Ausbildung genossen haben, zu deren beruflichem Alltag jedoch verpflichtende Zeitungslektüre gehört. Besonders beeindruckend ist auch seine Fähigkeit, die andere Seite darzustellen, wenn er zum Beispiel dasselbe Ereignis aus palästinensischer und israelischer, oder aus arabischer und amerikanischer Sicht darstellt. Darüber hinaus gibt das Buch einen exzellenten Eindruck der gesellschaftlichen Verhältnisse von den 1980er Jahren zu 9/11 bis zur Zeit unmittelbar vor dem arabischen Frühling. Pope schafft es, die Spannungen innerhalb der Gesellschaften der arabischen Staaten und zwischen Staat und Regime greifbar zu machen. Nach der Lektüre erwartet der Leser eigentlich eine politische Explosion, wie sie im Erscheinungsjahr des Buches mit dem Arabischen Frühling auch eingetreten ist. Der Arabische Frühling macht Dining With Al-Qaeda nicht obsolet, vielmehr soll es zu jener Handvoll Büchern gezählt werden, die den Weg dorthin erklären helfen.

Erschien in: Journal for Intelligence Propaganda and Security Studies, 7.1.2013 S. 182-185

Turkey’s Armenian Ghosts

July 19, 2013 31 comments

For many years in Turkey, conversations became awkward if they turned to defining what used to be called the “events of 1915”. Basically, I had read one set of history books, which discussed the genocidal deaths of 1-1.5 million Armenians who died in the Ottoman Empire during the First World War deportations. Most Turks had read a completely different set of books. If there was a mention of the Armenian question at all, it was suggested that some unfortunate wartime accidents had been exaggerated by Turkey’s enemies as part of great conspiracy to do the country down.

Ergen, in Dersim/Tunceli. Photo by Antoine Agoudjian

This old lady in Ergen (Dersim/Tunceli, Turkey)  is an Armenian who converted to Alevism, the heteredox faith influenced by Islamic Shia thinking that predominates in that province. Photo by Antoine Agoudjian

Discussion, therefore, would usually soon choke up, having revealed a genuine absence of knowledge of what happened to the Armenians, accompanied by a naturally offended sense of personal innocence; a counter-assertion of the never-addressed trauma of the wrongs done to millions of Muslims expelled from their homes in the Balkans and elsewhere in the 19th and early 20th centuries; legalistic arguments about how by the 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide cannot be applied retrospectively; and among a few who worried that something awful could have happened, fears that any recognition of an Armenian “genocide” would result in expensive reparations, awkward atonement, and, not least, odium or worse for contradicting the official narrative of denial.

With such minefields to cross, therefore, I found I alienated less people by discussing basic facts of the case rather than how to label it. I agreed with the advice of Hrant Dink, the late Armenian newspaper editor, who would say it was counterproductive for outsiders to insist upon one label or another until Turkey was ready to debate fully and reach its own conclusion. He believed that processes like Turkey’s EU accession would bring freer information, and with that, understanding of what really happened. The trouble is, Dink was murdered in 2007, perhaps precisely because he represented what should have been a joint Armenian-Turkish road to reconciliation. Sadly, Turkey has yet to get far in undoing the official ideology of denial and hostility to Armenians that formed the mind of the young nationalist who pulled the trigger – let alone bring to justice acts of official negligence and even official complicity with this killer.

CouvNow a new book by the Turkey reporters of France’s Figaro and Le Monde newspapers has done an electrifying job of filling Turkey’s information gap. Surprises lurk under every stone turned over by Laure Marchand and Guillaume Perrier’s “Turkey and the Armenian Ghost: in the steps of the genocide.” (La Turquie et le fantome Arménien: sur les traces du génocide, Actes Sud, March 2013: Arles, France). It will be published in Turkish by İletişim in January 2014, and deserves to find an English publisher too.

The authors’ inventory of discoveries shows just how much that is Armenian has carried through into modern Turkey. They then use these to make a controversial yet compelling argument: that the Turkish Republic founded in 1923 shares moral responsibility for whatever happened to the Armenians. They contend that Turkey’s many decades of denying that there was anything like an Armenian genocide is actually part of the continuation of a pattern of actions by the Ottoman governments responsible for the Armenian massacres and property confiscations of the 1890-1923 period. For instance, the judicial “farce” of the investigation and trial of Hrant Dink’s murderer is, to the authors, proof positive that “since 1915, impunity has been the rule”.

There are other rude shocks. Some Turks now realize they were being misled by the old official narrative of denial, thanks to a new openness about and better understanding of the Armenian question in Turkey over the past decade. But how many appreciate that Istanbul’s best-loved Ottoman landmarks are often designed by Armenian architects? How many know that the famed Congress of Erzurum, corner stone of the republic’s war of liberation, was held in a just-confiscated Armenian school? And how many have heard, as Marchand and Perrier allege, that even the hilltop farmhouse that became the Turkish republic’s Çankaya presidential palace was seized from an Armenian family – and that descendants of the family, some of whom were well-enough connected to escape with their lives — can calmly be interviewed about this “original sin” of the republic? (The official history of the palace simply says that Ankara municipality “donated” it to republican founder Kemal Atatürk in 1921).

It seems apposite that the authors quote Çankaya’s current incumbent, the open-minded President Abdullah Gül, as saying while he toured the ruins of the ancient Armenian capital of Ani on Turkey’s closed border with Armenia: “That’s Armenia there? So close!”

Amid such evidence that Turkish perceptions can be naïve, one problem with the book is its unrelenting insistence that Turkey end its “fierce” and “obsessive” denial that a genocide happened (unlike, the authors point out, Germany, Serbia, Rwanda and others). This tight argumentation leaves the impression of a Turkey that is deliberately calculating and somehow evil, rather than the more likely case that it is clumsy, embarrassed and a prisoner of its own contradictions. A preface by U.S.-based Turkish academic Taner Akçam, a once-lonely pioneer who calls for Turkish recognition of the Armenian genocide, sets a trenchant tone and outlines the problem. “To recognize the Armenian genocide would be the same as denying our [Turkish] national identity, as we now define it”, Taner writes. “Our institutions result from an invented ‘narrative of reality’… a coalition of silence … that wraps like a warm blanket…if we are forced to confront our own history, we would be obliged to question everything”.

Marchand and Perrier brush aside any need for a transitional commission to study the history of the genocide, as suggested in the still-born 2009 protocols between Turkey and Armenia, because the genocide “is a fact that that is barely debated in scientific circles”. Even though the study of Russian archives on the matter is still in its infancy, for instance, the authors dismiss valid elements of the Turkish narrative as yet more ghosts whose abuse has made them an extension of the earlier misdeeds. Parts of the Turkish story are therefore mentioned in passing or only partially, like the massacres of Turks and Muslims by Armenian militias operating behind Russian lines, the 56 people were killed by Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA) terrorists during their 1970s and 1980s terrorist campaign against Turkey, or the fact that most of the one million refugees from the fighting in Mountainous Karabagh are Azerbaijanis who fled conquering Armenians. Also, there may be some ill-judged memorial ceremonies, but Turkey does not have a “cult” of Talat Pasha, a probable principal architect of the Armenian genocide. As the authors themselves point out, the site of his grave in a small official memorial park for the Committee of Union and Progress leaders of late Ottoman times gets little official or popular attention.

Guillaume Perrier and Laure Marchand

Guillaume Perrier and Laure Marchand

Still, Marchand and Perrier state early on that their mission is not to write history, but to “give visibility to what has been erased … to gather together an antidote to the poison of denial … because impunity is always an invitation to reoffend”. And here they succeed to a remarkable extent, finding much that remains of Armenians, even as Turkey nears the 2015 centenary of when they were effectively erased from Anatolia: survivors, converts, crypto-Armenians, derelict churches, descendants of ‘righteous’ Turks, artisans’ tools in second- hand shops, flour mills, abandoned houses, songs and traditions. “Turkey”, they say, “is still haunted by the ghost of an assassinated people”.

Indefatigably, the authors travel to remote mountain villages and with President Gül to the Armenian capital for a football match that was part of the ill-fated late 2000s reconciliation process. They listen to the Armenians of Marseilles, France’s second city where 10 per cent of the population are descended from Armenians who fled Turkey, and explain why France and its parliament are so sensitive to the Armenian question. (They also suggest that some in the Armenian diaspora have constructed a counterproductive dream of a “fantasy Armenia, a promised substitute land”.) They interview the grand-children of a brave Turkish sub-prefect, Hüseyin Nesimi, who tried to stop the massacres in 1915, but was quickly assassinated near Diyarbakir, presumably at the orders of an alleged local organizer of the killings. They sit with the family of an Armenian citizen of Turkey killed by a far-right nationalist fellow soldier while on national service – on April 24, 2011. They slip into the mountains and show in a feast of detail how the spirit of the Armenian ‘brigands’ of yore lives on with the left-wing TIKKO group (Turkey’ Workers’ and Peasants’ Liberation Army, founded, you guessed it, on April 24).

In Sivas, they visit the last few rat-infested ruins in the once-thriving Armenian quarter. In Ordu, they find the old Armenian quarter rebaptised “National Victory”, and the old main church now turned into the mosque. In another town, an Armenian protestant church survived as a cinema and now an auditorium, with no sign of its provenance. Elsewhere, the dismantled stones of Armenian monasteries and houses have become the building material for new houses, sometimes with their religious symbols becoming decorative features. State ideology, they think, “even wanted to assimilate the stones”.

They join an Armenian guide who arranges tours for diaspora visitors to find the many souvenirs of Armenian-ness in eastern Turkey – and inhabitants who are not as hung up about their Armenian connections as might be expected. This picaresque explorer has tracked down 600 former Armenian villages, in some of which 1915’s survivors occasionally lived on for decades (the authors even stumble upon one during their travels). Other small Armenian communities “hidden, forgotten or assimilated” still live in thirty small or medium-sized towns. They show how village names have been changed and the memory of Armenians has been expunged. Very few people in Turkey are aware that the now iconic and ubiquitous signature of “K. Ataturk” was one of five models of signature dreamed up for the new republican leadership by a respected old Armenian teacher in Istanbul – whose son tells the story to the authors.

The authors discuss the impact of Fethiye Çetin’s 2009 book ‘My Grandmother’, which lifted the veil on Turkey’s many Armenian grandmothers, saved from the death marches to become servants or wives. In Turkey there are now, the authors believe, “millions of grandchildren of the genocide” who, because of the way Armenian-ness has been denigrated, have not wanted to be identified “more out of shame than fear”. In a province like Tunceli/Dersim, “it’s rare to find a family that doesn’t have an Armenian grandmother or aunt”. Shared saints’ days, common dances and music have blended into a new Armenian-Turkish-Kurdish mix in which it is hard to tell where one ethnicity ends and another begins. The book recounts touching scenes from Armenian churches as some of the descendants of Armenian converts try to return to the Armenian church and community. Indeed, the picture that emerges gives new meaning to the sign held up by many in the massive funeral procession in Istanbul for Hrant Dink: “We are all Armenians”.

Marchand and Perrier do not spare Turkey’s Kurds, who they say need to accept not just that there was a genocide but also recognize their part in plundering and kidnapping from the Armenian death marches. Still, a mainly Kurdish-speaking city like Diyarbakir has played a leading role in trying to make amends for what happened to the Armenians, rebuilding a church that had fallen into ruins, and bringing the language back into official use at a municipal level. Much of Diyarbakir actually used to belong to Armenians – more than one half, the authors suggest.

Indeed, the authors point out that many of Turkey’s grand companies today got their start in places where Armenian businesses had been forced out. Crucially for their argument of continued responsibility, appropriation continued into the republic, with the wealth tax that crushed the “minorities” in 1942 and the state-tolerated actions that took successive tolls on minority properties in the decades thereafter. (This continues: the front page headline of Taraf newspaper today, 19 July 2013, is an angry denunciation of municipal plans to appropriate, knock down and redevelop the last stone houses of the abandoned old Armenian quarter in the eastern town of Muş). It’s not all grand state policy: they meet the family of an Armenian convert to Islam who came back from his years of military service to find that his lands had been peremptorily seized by his neighbours. There are harsh words about the energy that goes into the search for gold and valuables thought to have been hidden by Armenians as they were forced out of their homes: “pillaging is still today a national sport … a prolongation of the plundering.”

At first the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan looked as though it would lead Turkey out of this dead end. But it failed to see through normalization protocols with Armenia in 2009, and later it was Erdoğan himself who ordered the demolition of a monument to friendship with Armenia in the border town of Kars – on another 24 April. The authors give little credit to his government’s restoration of some Armenian churches and reinstatement of at least some Armenian property confiscated by the republic. Perhaps this reticence is because of the bad grace sometimes on display. At the reopening of the Armenian church of Akdamar on Lake Van, favorite of Turkish tourism posters, the envoy from Ankara managed to make a speech that mentioned neither the words “church” nor “Armenian”. Also, there were more than 3,000 active Armenian churches and monasteries in Anatolia before the First World War; now there are just six.

“Turkey and the Armenian Ghost” ends by conjuring up the changing spirit of the Armenian history debate in Turkey. This is largely thanks to the determination of Turkey’s academics since 2000-2005 to end what they knew to be an unacceptable and professionally untenable official policy and culture of denial. Clearly, it is real and trusted information developed by such experts at home, not the grandiose and sometimes hypocritical declarations by foreign legislatures, that has the best chance of changing the Turkish public’s mind. Marchand and Perrier’s stiletto-sharp impatience with the Turkish state’s slow pace or lack of official change may alienate many of those who most need convincing. But people can increasingly see more elements of what happened, and the deeply researched, convincing reportage in this book can help open up minds. “Of course it’s a genocide, but that’s a word that doesn’t work,” academic Cengiz Aktar tells the authors. “The only way to block the narrative of denial is to develop a policy of remembering, and to start the process of informing the population.”

Some old battles never die – the case of Istanbul’s Taksim barracks

June 14, 2013 7 comments
Screen shot 2013-06-14 at 09.02

The old Taksim Barracks

Inspired by a paragraph in Sean Singer’s fine article in the American Interest on the historical background of Turkey’s current unrest, I started looking for more reasons for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s insistence on rebuilding an Ottoman-era barracks on Taksim Square. Yes, it was partly intended to reverse an outrage against the fabric of the city by one of Istanbul’s many destructive modernisers, who leveled the barracks in 1940 to make Gezi Park. And surely the prime minister feels that he would lose face and a patronage opportunity by giving up the project. But is restoring it worth the high current domestic and international damage to his image? Perhaps there’s more to it than meets the eye. As Singer wrote:

Erdogan had addressed the protestors directly earlier in the day. “Do whatever you like”, he told them. “We’ve made the decision, and we will implement it accordingly. If you have respect for history, research and take a look at what the history of that place called Gezi Park is. We are going to revive history there.”

Erdogan was not referring to the Armenian cemetery that once stood nearby, but the Halil Pasha Armory Barracks, built in 1803–06. In 1909 the barracks were the site of a mutiny against the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), the ideological predecessors of the nationalists who founded the Republic of Turkey. The CUP had come to power in the name of constitutionalism in 1908 but eventually succumbed to the authoritarian temptation. It used the mutiny to justify the deposition and exile of Abdülhamid II, the last Ottoman Sultan to wield total power.

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Artillery damage done to Taksim barracks in the fighting

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A ‘revolutionary disguised as a preacher’, arrested by the CUP.

In other words, the barracks was the site of a pro-Islamic, anti-CUP Turkish nationalist revolt – and even today, Erdogan’s ruling party remembers Sultan Abdulhamid with fondness. I hadn’t realized that the ideological struggle over this barracks went back this far! One of the Turkish Wikipedia article on the barracks – and the “31 March Events” of 1909 – even tells how the “Action Army” that marched in support of the CUP nationalists and crushed the uprising in the barracks was accompanied by Bulgarian “çapulcus”, irregular looters/marauders, the same name that Erdogan gave to the mostly secularist, nationalist demonstrators that occupied Gezi Park in June 2013.

IMG_7686IMG_7689Most of these photos come from a May 1909 copy of the Ottoman “Resimli Kitab” (‘Picture Book’) magazine, a random volume I inherited from the late French writer Jean-Pierre Thieck, who must have found it in a flea market and realised that the events described in it would one day be relevant again. The big photo below shows how even back then, the international media was in the thick of things. This reporter certainly conducted himself with some style, and was no doubt also accused of being behind all the trouble. And yes, as on the left, there was an environmental angle too, with a picture of a tree that got damaged by the shelling.

"American Journalist wounded during the Taksim fighting"

“American Journalist wounded during the Taksim fighting” (the Ottoman text seems to say he works for an English newspaper)

Turkey’s Taksim Carnival Commune

June 10, 2013 1 comment
Revolutionary flags on the Taksim monument

Revolutionary flags on the Taksim monument

[This post written on 10 June, the day before the 7am police intervention that took control of Taksim Square, the Atatürk monument and the Atatürk Culture Centre. On 16 June, the police took control of Gezi Park as well. For the aftermath, see below].

I still couldn’t believe my eyes as I wandered this weekend round Taksim Square, along with thousands other visitors who thronged there this weekend to take in this extraordinary moment in Turkey’s political life. Even a few days ago there were just a few people camping out in what was once the small, unfrequented park, from where Turkey’s protests over the uprooting of a few trees blossomed into a national protest movement. A carnival atmosphere has now spread out from the park to include most of the square itself, a fair in which an alphabet soup of often little-known Turkish organizations have set up shop. There are revolutionaries, Marxists, Kurdish insurgents, anti-capitalist Muslims, environmentalists and many, many more.

Like all new-borns, a rush is on to name and define the wave of protests. Are they “a few looters”, in the inimitably dismissive comment of Prime Minister Erdogan? But if not that, then what? A Turkish Spring, a poll tax turning point, an “occupy” movement, Piraten or indignados? A political earthquake, sure, but on which of Turkey’s many fault-lines: secular-Islamist, rich-poor, new urban vs old urban, left-vs-right, Kurdish nationalist vs Turkish nationalist, Sunni Muslim vs Alevi, authoritarian vs anarchist, environmentalist vs shopping mall builder? Of course, the answer is all of the above and all of no one of them. As some leading lights of the small old leftist opposition parties put it, the demonstrators themselves probably have as little idea as the government about what  exactly the protests are about. Whatever the final judgment of history, there is already a “revolution museum” in a commandeered hut from the now suspended roadworks around Taksim. And while they wait, protestors take time out at “The Looters’ Cafe and Reading Room”,  stock up on supplies at the “Brigand Market”, and get their souvenir stickers from the “Taksim Commune”.

"Don't bow down" T-shirts being advertised by a penguin on Taksim Sq (a national symbol after Turkish TV news channel aired a penguin documentary instead of the peak of the protests).

“Don’t bow down” T-shirts being advertised by a penguin on Taksim Sq (a national symbol after a Turkish TV news channel aired a penguin documentary instead of the peak of the protests).

A “Taksim Solidarity Platform” has built a stage in the heart of the park for hosting groups like the “Looters’ Chorus” and is trying to rally its disparate members to agree reasonable demands – 35 groups mid-week, 80 groups now – and its officials rush about in union-style printed overshirts. Merchandising is putting its mark on proceedings: Turkish flags with secular republican founder Ataturk superimposed are popular; a T-shirt saying “don’t bow down” is everywhere; there is also a a scarf demonstrating unity in protest between all three of Istanbul’s main rival football clubs. There are many references to the “looters”, or çapulcu, including a T-shirt with the Turklish phrase “Everyday I’m chapuling”.

This is a rare time in which international media are interested in Turkey as Turkey, not as part of the usual effort to pigeon-hole the country as part of the Middle East, Europe, or the Islamic World. The only other time I can remember this happening is during the massive 1999 earthquake around Istanbul, when more than 40,000 Turks were probably killed and the outside world forgot its prejudices about the country and real empathy was on offer. Similarly, visitors from Europe say the “Occupy” atmosphere is suddenly making Turkey looking very European. Unfortunately, the muzzled way Turkey’s national media initially covered the events was a reminder of the non-European limits Turkey’s places on freedom of expression.

Something in the scene reminds me of the liberated atmosphere in 1996, when the UN’s Habitat Conference was held in Istanbul and Turkey’s non-governmental organisations were allowed to gather in an Ottoman barracks opposite the Hyatt Hotel . The idea of anything being allowed to organise legally outside direct state supervision was then very new (Turkey is still digging its way out from being so long the West’s own East bloc government). It was the first time many of the NGOs were really aware of the existence of other such groups, and all derived a great sense of solidarity as they met and talked. Another comparison would be with the first political chat shows in the early 1990s, when Turkey stayed up until dawn to watch people debating their way out of the country’s old black-and-white, enemy-or-friend view of life.

Today, the whole country is now talking about the protests, the new generation of  students who are its leading element, and the way there is a sense of happy, humorous liberation in the air. If only for this reason, I hope the authorities take a European view of this and continue to let this outpouring of democratisation run its natural course in Taksim Square – and that the protestors do find a consensus to take down the barricades, open the square up to traffic and allow all normal municipal functions to resume.

Still, nobody knows how this will end, only that how it ends will define much of the next decade. There are hardline revolutionaries among the protestors’ groups who do want to smash the Turkish establishment in the name of various ideologies. Still, they are far from the mainstream of the protestors, and it seems inconceivable that the security forces should launch sudden violent action against the currently large group of people in the square; yet everyone knows that one day the other foot will fall, perhaps not directly, but indirectly through the ongoing arrest-and-release campaign against social media ‘provocateurs’ or leaders’ public threats and intimidation of domestic and (openly now) foreign media.

The problem for the authorities is that now the protests are not just about Taksim, nor one small social class in Istanbul, nor even Istanbul itself. This movement has taken root all over the country. I was passed on the Istiklal Street pedestrian boulevard leading to Taksim by a band of young men who’d travelled all the way from the southern Taurus Mountains to march to Taksim to protest a dam being near them. And in the working-class dock district of Hasköy, I watched a squad of forty schoolchildren set off for the miles-long march to Taksim with matching blue flags and outfits.

So here are some more photos of the big party, even as we all wonder what form the hangover will take.

A line of stands in Taksim Square in front of the old Ataturk Culture Centre, now a corkboard of revolutionary slogans

A line of stands in Taksim Square in front of the old Ataturk Culture Centre, now a corkboard of colourful protest and revolutionary slogans.

Gezi Park on Taksim Sq is now full of people sleeping in tents, often students, and drew tens of thousands of visitors from all over the city over the weekend.

Gezi Park on Taksim Sq is now full of people sleeping in tents, often students, and drew tens of thousands of visitors from all over the city over the weekend.

Student activist networks from his tent. Gezi Park now has its own FM radio station too.

Student activist networks from his tent. Gezi Park now has its own FM radio station too.

A pick-up truck overturned in the first night of protests has become a wish-list of protestors' demands - typically, an end to the concrete covers up 98.5 per cent of the city.

A pick-up truck overturned in the first night of protests has become a wish-list of protestors’ demands – typically, an end to the concrete covers up 98.5 per cent of the city.

This group arrived from Antalya Province, 12 hours by bus, to protest a hydroelectric dam that will destroy their Tauros Mountain valley.

This group arrived in Istanbul from Antalya Province, 12 hours by bus, to protest a hydroelectric dam that will destroy their Tauros Mountain valley.

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Sample slogans from the political fair on Taksim Square: “Damn the Wage-Slave Order” (from an organisation called ‘Sweat’); “Against the New Sevres [a 1920 Treaty carving up Turkey by the imperial powers] – Long Live Our Second Liberation War” (from the People’s Liberation Party); “Long Live Revolution and SOCIALISM”; “Political Status to the Kurdish People [unreadable]…Mother-Language [Education]” (from the Freedom and Socialism Party); Hope is in You, the Organization, the Revolution; Forward for Revolution, Socialism or Death” …

The Museum of the Revolution

The Museum of the Revolution

The Kurdish nationalist movement has carved out its own corner of the square, where flags showing the jailed leader of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) are waved as here from an overturned police car.

The Kurdish nationalist movement has carved out its own corner of the square, where flags showing the jailed leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) are waved as here from an overturned police car and activists dance in long lines.

Left-wing groups are rushing to show their relevance by handing out free copies of their hard-to-read publications against capitalism and shopping malls - here delivered to the Taksim Square in a doubtless liberated supermarket trolley.

Left-wing groups are rushing to show their relevance by handing out free copies of their hard-to-read publications against capitalism and shopping malls – here delivered to the Taksim Square in a liberated supermarket trolley.

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Merchandising the revolution: The “We are looters but we feel good about it” scarf scores points off Prime Minister Erdogan’s dismissive labelling of the protestors

The square is 'defended' by numerous but pretty flimsy barricades put up by protestors.

Taksim Square is ‘defended’ by numerous but pretty flimsy barricades put up by protestors.

Paper hot air balloons lit with big candles float into the air each evening from Taksim Square, here seen rising over the 19th century bulk of Istanbul's Russian Consulate-General.

Paper hot air balloons lit with big candles float into the air each evening from Taksim Square, here seen rising over the 19th century bulk of Istanbul’s Russian Consulate-General.

POSTSCRIPT

The day after these photos were taken, on June 11, the police pushed the protestors off Taksim Square. The protestors responded with stone throwing, fireworks and in the case of one small group, Molotov cocktail throwing. The police then used high-pressure hoses and tear gas and tore down flags and banners. The police said they wouldn’t intervene in Gezi Park itself, but eventually, on the evening of June 16, they pushed them out of there too. Both sides accused each other of bad faith – the government saying protestors gave into radicals who only wanted a fight and refused to leave the square, and protestors who said they needed more time and commitments from the government. Once again, the police used force and tear gas in overwhelming measure. Protestors tried to win back the square on June 17, when the photos below were taken, but the police took strong measures to prevent that happening.

A tough column of protestors from the Turkish Communist Party moves through Nevizadeh restaurant street after a confrontation with police.

A tough column of protestors from the Turkish Communist Party moves through Nevizadeh restaurant street after a confrontation with police.

Middle-class girls fix their gear as they try to find a way past police lines to recover Taksim.

Middle-class girls fix their anti-gas gear as they try to find a way past police lines to recover Taksim.

Police in control of Gezi Park

Police in control of Gezi Park

Gezi Park and Taksim Square, back under government control

Gezi Park and Taksim Square, back under government control

Fixing the Gezi Park flowerbeds, the morning after the Taksim Commune was ejected.

Municipal gardeners fixing the Gezi Park flowerbeds, the morning after the Taksim Commune was ejected.

The debris of the revolution

The Taksim Commune RIP

The Turkey protests – aftermath or interlude?

June 5, 2013 Leave a comment
Chestnut seller to the protestors, on Istiklal St. on 1 June.

Chestnut seller at the height of the protests, on Istiklal St. on 1 June.

The world’s media has descended on Istanbul to find out more about our Turkish unrest, an extraordinary long weekend in which the secular middle class lost its complacency, overcame its fears and discovered political protest. A new sense of humour joined the usually stern-faced national narrative, people are somehow walking taller and it is amazing to hear great, spontaneous waves of clapping spreading among pedestrians walking up and down Istiklal St outside my house. Everything changed, even if the baleful music from the music shop opposite unfortunately emerged from the day of rioting stuck the same gloomy rut (Ol-muyooor, ooool-muyor, “It just isn’t happening…”).

The analysis is flowing fast. Here are just some good pieces in English I saw flashing past: Frederike Geerdink in Diyarbakir excellently explained why Kurds feel detached from the Istanbul excitements – a perspective that shines light on where Turkey as a whole really is today. Piotr Zalewski gave a fine account of the big day on Taksim. Henri Barkey pointedly noted how much he thinks this is about Prime Minister Erdoğan and his “yes men”, and the sharp wit of Andrew Finkel laid out how the PM needs to open up to local involvement in local decisions. Claire Berlinski’s acid take is a bracing antidote to mainstream news on Turkey. Nadeen Shaker had a fascinating interview with a perceptive activist, Ozan Tekin, about what the Taksim Square protests do and do not share with Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

At Crisis Group’s Istanbul office, we couldn’t resist adding our voice to the hubbub, putting together what we hope is a balanced distillation of how we find ourselves answering questions from the sudden inrush of new and regular visitors. You can find our “Turkey Protests: the Politics of an Unexpected Movement” on the Crisis Group website here. I also did a commentary for Bloomberg urging Mr. Erdoğan to engage the protestors. Watching the novel, calm, empathetic outreach of Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç at a news conference on 4 June, I felt that if Prime Minister Erdogan can execute one of his famous U-turns and do the same, it would do much to absorb the tensions.

I also attach some images from the scene on Taksim Square and Gezi Park, mostly from Monday 3 June. The upbeat mood was much the same in most places in Turkey. The country is an amazingly resilient place that actually enjoys a good crisis – it’s normality some people have trouble with! Still, ordinary folk are almost competing to get things ‘back to normal’ wherever they can by cleaning up and fixing the few broken shopfronts.

Still, nightly police-protestor confrontations that last for hours on the front lines have been frighteningly violent at barricades in Istanbul’s Beşiktaş district near the prime minister’s office, and in central Ankara. The new slogan rolling up from my street last night was a boisterous one: “Tyrant, Resign!” So for now we wait for the prime minister to return from his north African tour, and to discover whether we are now looking at the aftermath of an emotional outburst of popular sentiment, or whether the current precarious stand-off is just an interlude.

Where it all began - the corner of Gezi Park on Taksim Square, where an excavator's work on May 27 to clear space for a new pedestrian pavement brought a group of environmentalists to protest - and where, when police intervened by burning their tents and tear-gassing them, a national movement was born. (The plan to build a shopping mall on the park is real but was not actually why the trees here were going to be uprooted).

Where it all began – the corner of Gezi Park on Taksim Square where an excavator’s attempt on May 27 to clear space for a new pedestrian pavement brought a group of environmentalists to protest – and where, when police intervened by burning their tents and tear-gassing them, a national movement was born. (The plan to build a shopping mall on the park is real but was not actually why the trees here were going to be uprooted).

While protestors in Taksim largely avoided looting and vandalism, they did target the work machinery for the new underground tunnels in Taksim Square, a first stage in the government's top-down redesign of modern Istanbul's most important public space.

While protestors in Taksim largely avoided looting and vandalism, they did target the work machinery for the new underground tunnels in Taksim Square, a first stage in the government’s top-down redesign of modern Istanbul’s most important public space.

Still, there's going to be quite a lot of clearing up to do on Taksim Square!

There’s still quite a mess to clear up on Taksim Square.

An overturned police car on Taksim Square. However, I don't think more than a dozen vehicles were damaged in the first days at least.

An overturned police car on Taksim Square. Not many vehicles were wrecked like this one in the first days, but Interior Minister Güler said on 6 June that by that time a total of 280 workplaces, 103 police cars, 259 private cars, one house, a police station, 11 AKP political offices and one CHP political office had been damaged.

Another overturned car on Taksim Square, quite a contrast to a typical group of well-brought-up girl protestors, wearing the signature black of the protests.

Another overturned car on Taksim Square, quite a contrast to a typical group of well-brought-up girl protestors, wearing the signature black of the protests.

This group of high-school students skipped class for the third day (and didn't tell their families where they were off to either).

This group of high-school students in Taksim Square’s Gezi Park skipped class for the third day to follow the ebb and flow of protest (and didn’t tell their families where they were off to either).

University students moving off to man the barricades after meeting, singing and dancing under the trees of Gezi Park.

University students moving off to man the barricades after singing and dancing under the trees of Taksim Square’s Gezi Park.

Turkey is a resilient country and people quickly sought to take advantage of any new opportunities - here a man finds a new market in surgical masks protestors use to protect themselves from tear gas.

Turkey is a resilient country and people quickly sought to take advantage of new opportunities – here a man finds a market for surgical masks protestors use to protect themselves from tear gas.

The big clean up by the shops on the central pedestrian boulevard of Istiklal St. was particularly swift and impressive. The biggest problem was graffiti everywhere - some of it injecting an unusual sense of humour: "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" (a dig at mainstream media failure to cover much of the protests), "This country is beautiful when It gets angry", or "I've been a faggot for 40 years, but I've never seen [unprintable]".

The cleanup by shops on the central pedestrian boulevard of Istiklal St. was particularly swift and impressive. The biggest problem was graffiti everywhere – some of it injecting an unusual sense of humour into Turkey’s often self-important politics: “The Revolution will not be televised” (a dig at mainstream media failure to cover much of the protests), “This country is beautiful when it gets angry”, or “I’ve been a faggot for 40 years, but I’ve never seen [unprintable]” (More here).