The Talk of Turkey

Stephen O’Shea on the outcome of the election

One sunny afternoon last month I sat drinking a glass of tea in the office of a functionary in Mus, a market town in eastern Anatolia known for producing sugar beets, tobacco and violence. In the 1980s and 1990s, the Turkish Army put down an insurgency in the area, killing tens of thousands of people, most of whom believed eastern Anatolia should be labelled western Kurdistan. During the First World War hundreds of thousands of locals from the region were sent on death marches northwards to Mount Ararat and beyond, their dreams of a greater Armenia dashed by the new Turkish nationalism. Leaders intent on murderous mischief – Alexander, Xenophon, Xerxes and their successors – had always seemed to pass this way, perhaps contributing to the reputation of Mus among Turks as a backwater best left undisturbed. A famous Ottoman song has sorrowful soldiers trudging up the ‘steep road’ to Mus, and never coming back. On my return to Istanbul, I heard it sung on two separate occasions by big-city acquaintances who, after expressing great amusement at the thought of anyone spending a weekend in Mus, felt compelled to give me their rendition.

The functionary nodded in resignation as he heard that I, too, had come to pick over the region’s violent past. Seventy miles from Mus lay my destination, the plain of Malazgirt, or Manzikert, where in 1071 the Seljuk chieftain Alp Arslan had cut to pieces a Byzantine army sent out to secure the Empire’s borders. After the battle, Anatolia (or Asia Minor), which had been Greek and Christian, became Turkish and Muslim. More tea was poured and arrangements made, and I glanced above my host’s head at the photograph of Kemal Atatürk fixed to a bulletin board. Likenesses of Atatürk are everywhere in Turkey, on banknotes and dashboards, in restaurants, bars, stores, hammams, hotels and offices, but this portrait was startlingly rakish.

Our talk came to an end when a group of middle-aged men in shiny suits burst in, all of them sporting carefully trimmed, crescent-shaped moustaches and the glossy, tanned complexions seen on political smoothies everywhere. After a round of perfunctory handshakes they left as quickly as they had come, and as we, too, headed for the door, the functionary traced an imaginary moustache above his upper lip, his forefinger and thumb exaggerating the points of the crescent on either side of his mouth. He nodded significantly towards the politicians and said, in a low voice: ‘Alp Arslan.’

Outside on the main street of Mus his meaning became clearer. What had been a dusty and deserted road was now lined by white Toyota minivans. Pictures of the politicians we had just met grinned from posters and banners plastered everywhere. They were members of the MHP (Nationalist Action Party), an ultranationalist grouping that likes to evoke the pre-Ottoman, pre-cosmopolitan days when Turks rode the range alone. Their leader in the 1970s, an Army putschist turned deputy prime minister, was generally thought to be complicit with the Grey Wolves, a right-wing death squad. His name was – what else? – Alparslan Türkes. Many of the MHP’s present-day opponents remember all this, but a brush with respectability in the past few years, during which nationalists formed part of Bülent Ecevit’s coalition Government, briefly gave extremists hope that in this year’s election their Europhobic corporatism might strike a chord among the voters.

Despite their impressive motorcade, the MHP looked like losers in Mus. For one thing, many of the townspeople are Kurds, a word an ultranationalist can hardly bring himself to say – the preferred evasion is ‘mountain Turk’. For another, many Kurds feel no affinity for the Atatürk tradition, either in its nationalist or its secularist form. On the other side of the road a second Mitsubishi-Toyota motorcade idled its engines, this one festooned with pictures of men with impeccably sculpted topiary on their chins and cheeks, a sign of their allegiance to the Happiness Party, the more religious of the two Islamic parties in Turkey. The Party reveres the legacy of Necmettin Erbakan, the pious Prime Minister whose state visits to Libya and Iran and talk of jihad against Jerusalem led to his being eased out of power by the Army in 1997 – the Turks, who are connoisseurs in such matters, refer to this as the ‘Postmodern coup’. The bearded Happiness supporters, in prayer caps and loose-fitting robes, stood in brooding silence as we set out from the moustachioed nationalist camp. Like the rest of Turkey, I paused in the middle, between the two extremes.

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