Camel greeting

Sunday, 30 March 2014

Another Anzac Day in Turkey - Modern myths and legends

Another Anzac Day is just a few weeks away. It's not the big one. 2015, in fact, will see the centennial of that dreadful exercise in military futility known in English as the Gallipoli Campaign, and to Turks as the Çanakkale War. Next year visitor numbers will be limited, I understand, to politicians, celebrities and ordinary folk lucky enough to have their number drawn in a ballot.

'Evacuation' - Anzac statue in
Australian War Memorial Museum
This year, I guess, there are fewer restrictions, and the usual crowds of pilgrims from Downunder will converge on the beaches, battlefields and cemeteries where more than eleven thousand of their grandfathers left their mortal remains during eight months of bitter trench warfare.

One reason I am writing this a little early is that I wanted to bisect the dates selected by Turks and Anzacs to commemorate the event. For Turks, in fact, it has passed. 18 March is when they celebrate their victory - sadly ironic for Australians and New Zealanders who remember 25 April as the day our boys first came ashore at Anzac Cove. As far as Ottoman Commanders were concerned, the major threat came from battleships of the combined French and British navies attempting to storm through the Dardanelles, heave to at the entrance to the Bosporus, train their 15 inch guns on the Sultan's palace and offer him the chance to come out quietly with his hands up.

Like many well-laid and not-so-well-laid plans of mice and men, the naval gambit didn't come off. Three battleships (one French and two British) were sunk by the shore batteries and mines inhospitably emplaced by Ottoman defence forces. The Royal Navy and its French allies beat a strategic retreat, and Plan B was put into action. Plan B was, of course, the beach landings with which we antipodeans are more familiar. For their part the Ottomans, trusting in conventional military wisdom which favours the defenders in a marine-based invasion, backed themselves to turn it back - which they ultimately did, after eight months of fairly pointless slaughter.

These days, however, what we descendants of those Anzac lads choose to commemorate is something more symbolic. At the time, of course, the British Empire was still claiming to rule the seas and an empire on which the sun never set. New Zealanders, at least, were still colonials and thinking of Britain as 'Home'; the King and Country they were fighting for, George V and Mother England. Many of us these days, rightly or wrongly, look upon 25 April 1915 as the date we began to grow up as a nation, to cut the imperial apron strings and to forge our own identity. The brave young men who performed above and beyond the call of duty in those Gallipoli valleys and on the ridges planted the seeds of independence and self-determination in our national psyche.

The actual day of commemoration in Turkey may be different, but that bloody struggle has an equally important place in the popular consciousness. Defeat in the First World War heralded the end of the 600-year Ottoman Empire. Victory in the Çanakkale War marked the beginning of the rise of Mustafa Kemal who went on to lead the resistance movement that turned back a military invasion, expelled occupying forces and founded the modern Republic of Turkey.

Legends abound on both sides of extraordinary courage, heart-rending pathos and minor events with major repercussions. One such is known to Turks as ‘the watch that changed a nation’s destiny’. One of the crucial engagements of the campaign took place on the ridge of Conk Bayırı (Chunuk Bair). During that closely fought encounter, a piece of shrapnel is said to have struck Col. Mustafa Kemal in the chest – the watch in his breast pocket taking the impact and very likely saving his life. Turks often say, ‘If not for Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, there would be no Turkey.’

'A Man and his Donkey'
Melbourne War Memorial
On the Anzac side, an enduring story is that of Private Simpson who, with his trusty donkey, earned fame and gratitude by ferrying wounded comrades back to the shore under constant fire in an area known as Shrapnel Gully. Prints of the man and his beast hang on walls of RSA clubrooms, and a statue by sculptor Wallace Anderson in the Australian War Memorial in Melbourne enshrines the legend.

In Turkey too, statues are to be found that embody the courage and self-sacrifice of young men who managed to retain their humanity in those inhuman conditions. There is Corporal Seyit, a gunner who is reputed to have carried single-handedly three artillery shells weighing 275kg to the shore batteries silenced when the shell crane was damaged.

Another, in a location known to Anzacs as Pine Ridge, immortalises the deed of a Turkish soldier who carried a wounded Allied officer to safety.  According to an article in The Daily Telegraph, the officer, a captain, ‘lay in no man's land while a ferocious battle raged around him. A white flag tied to the muzzle of a rifle appeared from a Turkish trench and the shooting suddenly stopped. A Turkish soldier climbed from the trench, picked up the officer, delivered him to the Australian lines and returned to his own side.’ The story is considered reliable since it was reported by a Lieutenant Richard Casey who later became Governor-General of Australia.

It is a surprising thing to me that Turks seem to harbour no resentment against the descendants of those Anzacs who invaded their country and killed eighty thousand of their young men. On the contrary, I have found that my New Zealand nationality seems to give me a special status in Turkey. We are accorded free-of-charge a three-month visitor’s visa when we enter the country – a gesture, I am sad to say, our government does not reciprocate. The magnanimous words of Atatürk to the mothers of Anzac soldiers killed in action are often quoted:

Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives . . . You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side now here in this country of ours. You, the mothers, who sent your sons from faraway countries, wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well

I was a little saddened, then, to read the following article in my local Turkish newspaper last week (I am translating directly from the Turkish):

“On the 99th anniversary of the Çanakkale Naval Victory, and as Anzacs prepare for ceremonies commemorating their war dead, an 89 year-old insult has come to light.

A statue entitled ‘Evacuation’ in the collection of the War memorial Museum in the Australian capital city Canberra depicts an Anzac soldier leaning against a gun carriage with a Turkish flag under his feet . . . and beside the flag a human skull assumed to belong to a Turkish soldier. The gun carriage on which the Anzac soldier is leaning represents war and the disaster of Gallipoli. The Turkish flag and skull on which he is standing symbolize the territory they invaded and the enemies they killed.

The Museum’s website contains photographs, and information that the statue was modelled in clay in 1925, moulded in plaster in 1926 and cast in bronze in Melbourne in 1927. According to notes on the website, the 82 cm-high statue was later bought by the Australian War Memorial Museum and added to its collection.

While our boys during the Çanakkale War were waving a white flag to pause hostilities and behaving like gentlemen in carrying a wounded Anzac soldier back to his own trench, the continued presence of this statue in the collection after 89 years has drawn a reaction from history scholars.

Every year on Anzac Day, April 25, Australians and New Zealanders coming to pay their respects to their forebears are welcomed at Kanlısırt on the Gallipoli Peninsula by a monument depicting a Turkish soldier carrying a wounded Anzac soldier in his arms.”

Well, I checked it out and it’s true. There is such a statue in the Australian War Memorial Museum, and it seems to contain the details the Turkish columnist was objecting to. The sculptor referred to earlier, Wallace Anderson, served in France during the First World War, so he had first hand experience of the conflict. Apparently he saw it as his artistic mission ‘to show the public the qualities of Australian servicemen, rather than just the details of war’. This particular piece, entitled ‘Evacuation’, according to the museum website, portrays an ‘idealised depiction of Australian manhood’, an admirable sentiment, as far as it goes. We should recognize, however, that what may have been important to Australians and New Zealanders back there in the 1920s may have been superseded by the requirements of living in the 21st century global village.

One of the myths of Gallipoli, from an Allied point-of-view is that, although we were unsuccessful, we put up an almighty fight, and in the end, by remarkable feats of ingenuity and cunning, managed to spirit ourselves away from under the noses of the Turkish gunners without major loss of life. It is just possible, however, that those Ottoman commanders, seeing the invaders were obviously intent on vacating the premises, and buggering off back to wherever they had come from, elected to let them go without inflicting more unnecessary casualties. It may have been deemed necessary, in Australia in 1925, to maintain the myth by suggesting that, in spite of the manifest failure of the Gallipoli invasion, our boys had trampled on the Turkish flag and inflicted heavy casualties on those young men defending their homeland – but 90 years on we may want to accept that such jingoistic imperialism belongs, at best, to the footnotes of history.

One of my favourite New Zealand writers, Maurice Shadbolt, produced a book based on interviews he carried out in the early 1980s. Realising that the Gallipoli generation would not be around much longer, Shadbolt hunted out a number of survivors and visited them in old folks’ homes around New Zealand. ‘Voices of Gallipoli’ is a collection of transcripts of the interviews he conducted with these men, now in their 80s, some of whom had not spoken of their experiences from that day to this. Their poignant recollections convey, with dramatic simplicity, the contrast between the idealised heroic glamour of war and the dehumanising squalor, terror and personal loss of the Gallipoli experience:

“I lost my dearest friend, Teddy Charles, that day.  We joined up together and saw the campaign through together until Chunuk Bair.  There were no officers left, no NCOs. Just soldiers.  Teddy led thirty men forward to try and hold the ridge.  He called, “Come on, Vic”, but I was impeded by Turkish fire.  We never saw those thirty men again.  Later, in the dark, I thought I heard Teddy’s voice calling for his mother, then for me. But then the place was crawling with Turks and I couldn’t get to him.  He’s still on Chunuk Bair, a pile of bones.”

“Veterans of the Wellington battalion remember a member of the machine-gun section being sentenced to death for sleeping at his post. It happened in late July at Quinn’s Post. The sentence was remitted on medical grounds as the man had not been relieved from sentry duty at the proper time.  He continued to serve on the peninsula and was killed in the August battles.”

Interestingly, there is very little information about this book online – it seems to be out of print and I was unable to find an in-depth review. How many years must pass before we are able to view historical events with dispassionate objectivity? Very occasionally we are permitted a glimpse into a ‘familiar’ event through the eyes of another observer – and the experience can be sobering.

I read another Turkish source suggesting that, if the invasion of Gallipoli had succeeded and Allied forces had been able to supply and reinvigorate the Czarist Russian military, as was their aim, the Bolshevik Revolution might have been delayed and perhaps never have occurred. The red tide of British Imperialism might have flowed a little longer – and that of Soviet Communism faded before it began. The world might have been spared the mindlessly suffocating half-century of Cold War threats and posturing.

History is full of ‘Ifs’ and ‘might-have-beens’ . . . and it’s worth remembering that there are at least two sides to every story.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

The Kadıköy Bull - A picaresque tale

I don’t spend a lot of time in Starbucks. It’s not that I have any major philosophical objection to them. Their website tells me it is their “mission to inspire and nurture the human spirit,” and I applaud that. It also asserts that they are “passionate about ethically sourcing the finest coffee beans, roasting them with great care, and improving the lives of people who grow them.” No exploitation of labour in the developing world either. I can sip my latté with a clear conscience.

Kadıköy's rampaging bull
So there I was, the other day, in Altıyol Starbucks, Kadıköy, sitting high above the intersection where six roads intersect and the antique tram turns right into Bahariye Avenue pedestrian mall. With a few minutes to spare and nothing much else to attract my attention, I found myself reading the text of an informative mural on the back wall, purporting to tell the history of the Kadıköy Bull.

Altıyol is a popular meeting point for locals heading for an evening out in the district’s multitude of bars, cafés and restaurants. It’s an easy location to find, even for those unfamiliar with the area, because right there, on an island in the middle of the intersection, is a very realistic life-sized bronze statue of a well-endowed bull, head lowered, vicious-looking horns ready to gore and maim. Say, “I’ll meet you at The Bull”, and everyone will know where you mean. Ask for directions to ‘The Bull’ and anyone will point you the way.

Nevertheless I was curious to learn how, when and why the taurine beast had come to be in that location. Republican Turkey is replete with statues of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, mounted on a rampant stallion, at a blackboard instructing children on the use of his new Latin alphabet, or merely standing presidentially dignified in a well-cut suit gazing pensively into the future. Graeco-Roman Constantinople was, I understand, well supplied with imperial statuary mounted on pedestals in squares and fora around the ancient city. Ottoman Istanbul, however, a Muslim city, did not go in for idolatrous representations of the human form (or animal for that matter). So the Kadıköy Bull is a beast of a different nature.

So I read with interest the information on the back wall of the Altıyol Starbucks. ‘The Bull’, it informed me, was created by the French sculptor Isidore Bonheur in 1864 and erected, so to speak, in a square in the then French territory of Alsace-Lorraine. I say ‘then’ because that region has long been disputed. Lorraine is undoubtedly French – but German Shepherd dogs are alternatively known as Alsatians, a fact which hints at the problem. So it was that when Prince Otto von Bismarck was aggressively uniting Germany, his Prussian army humiliated the French and seized the disputed borderlands, acquiring, in 1871, as an incidental spoil of war, the bull in question. In Germany it remained, the Starbucks wall tells me, until Kaiser Wilhelm gifted it to the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet V in 1917.

All well and good – but I couldn’t resist googling that French sculptor, Isidore Bonheur. Sure enough, there was such a gentleman (1827-1901), and he did indeed specialize in animals, his bulls being apparently of particular note, one even having found its way to Venezuela . . . but not to Turkey, according to a definitive list of his oeuvres.

So I did a little more googling, and found varying stories on several websites. According to Milliyet newspaper archives, the statue was actually commissioned in 1864 from another French sculptor, Pierre Louis Rouillard (1820-1881) by Sultan Abdülaziz. It seems that sultan was quite a fan, and ordered a number of other pieces at the same time – which I now intend to keep an eye out for. A list of Rouillard’s works, however, states that The Bull was still in France for the Paris Exposition of 1878, and that M. Bonheur did in fact have a hand in its construction.

Another Turkish site, Finans Caddesi, concurs in attributing The Bull to the combined efforts of Rouillard and Bonheur, but returns to the Starbucks date of 1917. Originally, they tell us, he was set up in the grounds of the Beylerbeyi Palace - admittedly constructed as a summer getaway by said Abdülaziz in the 1860s, which may account for some of the confusion. This source, however, maintains that our bovine beast was actually a present from Kaiser Wilhelm to Enver Pasha, Ottoman Minister of War and leading member of the Young Turk triumvirate which more or less ruled the empire during the First World War. The Pasha was Number One OttoMAN at that time, but his star lost its glitter when his country was defeated. Sacked by the sultan, he and his two buddies Talat and Cemal fled into exile, presciently anticipating the Court-Martial that found them guilty in absentia of war crimes (including the infamous deportation of Armenians) and condemned them to death.

Enver, it seems, attempted to stay involved in the affairs of his country after the foundation of the Republic, but was not much loved by the founding president, Mustafa Kemal, which pretty much sealed his fate. According to biographers, deprived of a role in the new Turkey, Enver Pasha turned to meddling in the affairs of another new state, Soviet Russia, and was killed in a skirmish while fighting for his vision of a Pan-Turkic union in Central Asia. Originally buried where he fell in Tajikstan, his remains were apparently brought back to Turkey in 1996 and reinterred in the Istanbul district of Şişli.

But getting back to our Bull . . . according to Finans Caddesi, he was moved to the grounds of the new Hilton, opened in 1955 as Istanbul’s first modern five-star hotel. From there, for some reason, in 1969 he was relocated to Kadıköy, to the garden of the old local government building on the waterfront, whence it was a short rampage up the hill to his present site at Altıyol. Whatever the actual route taken, our beast, despite his seemingly immovable bronze bulk, has apparently made quite a tour of the city.

Well, I enjoyed the opportunity to learn more about Enver Pasha – an important figure in Turkey’s march to modernity, despite his tarnished reputation. Then I came across a website, Bir Istanbul Hayali, which took me back to the other claim involving Sultan Abdülaziz’s 1864 order, insisting that the controversial critter had been put to pasture in the garden of the newly constructed Beylerbeyi Palace in 1865. From there, for some reason, he was conveyed to a more rural setting, the so-called Bilezikçi Çiftliği (Farm), whence he subsequently visited a couple of aristocratic manor houses and had a spell in front of the Lütfi Kırdar Sports and Exhibition hall in Harbiye, before eventually finding his way to Kadıköy, first to the old council building on the waterfront and thence to the Altıyol intersection in 1987.

So who do we believe? Another site I visited was insistent that our Bull had been spotted at a Universal Exhibition in Paris. Faded photographs seem to confirm this, though there appears to be confusion over the date – this source sets it in 1867, however there was indeed an exhibition in 1878, and another in 1889 celebrating the centenary of the Storming of the Bastille. It is, of course, possible that there was more than one bull, but then that begs the question – where are the others now?

Isn’t the Internet a fabulous monument to the genius of humanity! Here I am sitting at my desk at home following these leads in a way I couldn’t have imagined not so very long ago. One of my favourite relatively unknown heroes is the guy credited with inventing the ‘www’, an Englishman by the name of Tim Berners-Lee. Well, to be fair, Good Queen Bess II did honour him with a knighthood in 2004, and in 2012 the Sultan of Oman awarded him the Sultan Qaboos Order for Culture, Science and Arts (First Class) – but still, where would Bill Gates and Steve Jobs have been without him? And who made all the money? But thanks to Sir Timothy I have been able to roam through space and time from the Bull in Kadıköy to the estate of a wealthy Ottoman Armenian back in the mid-19th century, and to learn about a talented and unusual musician in 21st century Los Angeles.

Names are important, aren’t they? And I liked the sound of that website Bir İstanbul Hayali – ‘An Istanbul Dream’. Maybe that’s why the name of that farm caught my eye – Bilezikçi Çiftliği. There has been much ado in recent months about one of the Turkish Government’s mega-projects, a third bridge across the Bosporus Strait, whose construction requires building approach roads through one of the city’s last extensive sylvan areas, the Belgrade Forest. Well, apparently the so-called Bilezikçi Farm is an extensive estate adjoining that forest, named after the Armenian Bilezikçiyan family who owned it back in Ottoman times.

The first hit in my next Google search turned up a news item from Milliyet newspaper in April 2006 reporting that one of Turkey’s largest companies, Alarko Holding, owned by a Jewish gentleman, İshak Alaton, was upset with the government. Apparently Alarko Holding was/is the current owner of the 400 hectare ‘Bilezikçi’ estate which borders on the Belgrade Forest – and in the interests of free market capitalism, was planning, for the benefit of wealthy foreign residents of Istanbul, a major development incorporating 4,000 luxury villas and sports facilities including basketball and volleyball courts, and a golf course.

Public park - or villas for wealthy foreign ex-pats?
According to the report, the government decided to step in and expropriate the estate, with the aim of turning it over for public recreation and forestry research, offering to pay Alarko €6.1 million as compensation. It seems Mr Alaton and his team believed they would get a good deal more from the wealthy foreigners, and were taking their case to the European Court of Human Rights – an interesting interpretation of ‘human rights’, you might think. As far as I can gather, the case has not yet been resolved – although construction on the 3rd Bosporus Bridge is well under way and the government continues to field a good deal of criticism over it.

As for the Bilezikçiyan family, like many of their congregation, they were extremely successful and influential people back in the days of the Ottoman Empire. Another source tells me that, in the 1850s, a certain Agop Bilezikçiyan and several other Armenian businessmen were involved in the establishment of Turkey’s first limited liability company, Şirket-i Hayriye, forerunner of the company that today runs Istanbul’s ferries. In 1910 their large rural estate was sold to a buyer referred to simply as Abraham Pasha, and shortly after, in 1913, passed into the hands of a certain Nimetullah Hanım, wife of that Enver Pasha we spoke of earlier.

What happened to ‘The Bull’ during those lost years? Did it ever, in fact, graze in the pastures of the Bilezikçiyan Farm? And what became of the Bilezikçiyans themselves? I have no idea how common it is or was among people of Armenian descent. I did come across a passing reference to the name in a fascinating paper discussing the activities of Armenian separatist gangs in Anatolia during the First World War. And undoubtedly Enver Pasha was no big supporter of Armenians. On a more peaceful and artistic note, I turned up a contemporary ‘Armenian Los Angeles-based musician and composer’, John Bilzikjian whose music I intend to hunt out.

In future, when I pass that muscular masculine bronze brute posing for photographs at the Altıyol traffic lights, I will perhaps muse a little on the transitory nature of human affairs, the complexities of history and the need we all have for a thread to lead us safely out of the labyrinth.

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Reporters Without Perspective – Upcoming elections in Turkey

YASTAYIZ!  screamed the front page headline in 5cm font in this morning’s newspaper – ‘We are in mourning!’ 14 year-old Berkin Elvan was admitted to hospital on 15 June last year after being struck in the head by a tear gas canister fired by police trying to disperse demonstrators. Yesterday, a month past his 15th birthday,  he passed away after spending 267 days in a coma. According to the family, young Berkin had been on his way to the bakery to buy bread when he became an innocent victim of excessive police violence sanctioned by Turkey’s AK Party government to silence protest against their undemocratic regime. ‘It is not God who has taken my son away. It is [Prime Minister Recep] Tayyip Erdoğan,’ said the mother, Gülsüm Elvan.

‘Turkey is weeping,’ said Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, leader of Turkey’s main parliamentary opposition party, CHP. ‘Will the Prime Minister call the family to offer his condolences? You can be sure he will not.’ In fact, Mr Kılıçdaroğlu did not use the Turkish word for ‘Prime Minister’ (Başbakan). In a play on words, he used instead the word ‘Başçalan’, which we might translate as ‘Thief-in-Chief’, in a clear reference to corruption accusations being levelled at PM Erdoğan.

Page 5 featured a lengthy piece by a popular female columnist, from which I quote (the translation is mine):

‘What if your child was shot in the head while going to buy bread? What if a gas canister went in behind his ear and he had to pull it out by himself? And he lost a huge amount of blood? He began to vomit? If his last words were “Don’t tell my father – he’ll be so sad!” Moreover if that day was Fathers’ Day? What would you do?

‘Yesterday we woke to very sad news. Berkin had left us after we had been praying for 267 days that he would awake from his coma. And police were spraying pepper gas and firing gas cylinders at the young people who had gathered outside the hospital to farewell their friend. For God’s sake, is this possible? What are you trying to do? To put more children into a coma? How many more children will you put in a coma? Enough is enough!’

Lawyers representing the family issued a statement saying, ‘[Berkin’s] young body resisted for 267 days against the damage caused by the gas canister fired by the police, the same way our people resisted against fascism.’ The newspaper also published 19 tweets by celebrities from Turkey’s sports and entertainment world expressing their profound sorrow at Berkin’s death.

Bakery in Turkey
Political demonstration in Turkey
Well, I am sad too. It’s a tragic thing when a young life is cut short – more so when that death occurs in sudden and violent circumstances. Most of us cannot imagine the trauma experienced by a mother and father as they watch their young teenage son waste away in a coma for nine months before dying in front of their eyes. It may well be true that Berkin was, as they say, on his way to the bakery – and it is unfortunate that his way lay through the middle of a political demonstration the like of which had been ongoing in the country for more than a fortnight.

What saddens me as much as the Elvan family’s tragedy however, is the way the young lad’s death is being used to score political points in the lead-up to local body elections on 30 March. Street demonstrations in Turkey are rarely peaceful. The people in our New Zealand Embassy in Ankara send out memos from time to time to ex-pat Kiwis living here. Among their warnings they include advice to avoid such gatherings, or even places where police may be congregating such as police stations and checkpoints. The reason is not merely the risk of suffering from police violence. Turkish police have, in the recent past, been targeted by terrorist groups including suicide bombers. It is by no means unusual for Turkish men (and women for all I know) to carry concealed weapons – guns and knives. Don’t mess with an American cop, an Australian cop or a Turkish cop. They tend to be a lot more pro-active than your old-time London bobby or friendly New Zealand constable, and for good reasons. Mob violence can escalate rapidly. If you’re in the crowd and all you get is a squirt from a water cannon, you may think yourself lucky.

The columnist knows this. She also must be aware that Turkey is a very diverse society where some live in communities not far removed from tribalism; where ancient codes of honour still have a stronger hold than the law of the land; honour killings, and revenge killings are not uncommon - and blood feuds may pass down through generations. When she employed those emotive sentences quoted above, and posed the rhetorical question ‘What would you do?’ was she so naïve as to be unaware of the actions her words might provoke? When she says, ‘What are you trying to do? To put more children into a coma? How many more children will you put in a coma?’ Who is the ‘you’ she is addressing? Does anyone doubt that she is more or less directly accusing the Prime Minister of responsibility for the death of young Berkin?

The lady is, of course, entitled to her political opinions, and even if I disapprove of what she says, I will defend to the death her right to say it. Well, maybe not to the death, but you get my drift. What I find especially interesting, and what is, in fact, my main purpose in putting finger to keyboard today, is that all the above words are quoted, not from some fringe anarchist broadsheet handed out by young intellectuals on a city street at the risk of imprisonment and torture, but directly from a mainstream Turkish daily newspaper. You may find it interesting too, even surprising, given that you have perhaps seen reports in news media recently referring to an analysis by ‘Reporters Without Borders’ which ranked Turkey 154th out of 179 countries according to its ‘World Press Freedom Index’. Turkey, say the borderless reporters, ‘is currently the world’s biggest prison for journalists, especially those who express views critical of the authorities on the Kurdish issue’.

No doubt these people are well-meaning souls who believe they have a role to play in building a better world. And I feel a certain patriotic pride when I see my own country New Zealand in 8th position, 24 places higher than the United States and 29 ahead of France. On the other hand, when I see the Maldives, Fiji and Kyrgyzstan ranked 50 places higher than Turkey I have some questions in my mind. Continuing down the list and finding that Turkey ranks below Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, Brunei and Burma, Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, even Thailand and Iraq, I have to say I find the RWB’s list beyond ridiculous. At least they place Turkey marginally ahead of Saudi Arabia (163), Iran (174), Syria (176) and North Korea (178) – small consolation.

That same newspaper is free to publish a large advertisement for the CHP opposition party in which their leader says, ‘This mentality which has been working to polarize the country for 11 years can no longer govern Turkey.’ I cannot exercise a vote in elections in this country, and I have certainly no involvement in party politics – but in the interests of fair play, I have to tell you that it is the present government which has opened up discussion on ways to solves the Kurdish problem in Turkey; which has allowed Kurdish people to use their language freely, give their children Kurdish names and broadcast programmes in Kurdish on their own television channels.

Dilek and I are currently moving ourselves into rental accommodation while our apartment building is demolished and rebuilt as part of the ongoing urban renewal taking place in Istanbul. Last week we had an electrician install light fittings, and got chatting while he and his apprentice worked. It turned out that the guys were from Mardin, a city down in the south east of Turkey close to the Syrian border and not so far from Iraq. They happily admitted to being Arab, and that their native language was Arabic – they had learned Turkish after starting school. It crossed my mind that, not too long ago, such non-Turkish national pride would have been frowned upon in this country, perhaps even punishable.

If Turkey was not obviously polarised when I first arrived in the 1990s, it was because deviation from the principle of ‘Turkishness’ was actively discouraged. Take the lid off a boiling pot and steam will erupt – but it will soon settle down. Keep a sealed lid in place and you risk an explosion. Despite what some sources may tell you, there seem to me to be healthy debates taking place in at least some media in Turkey these days. Even traditional opposition parties have moderated their stance on women wearing headscarves and other formerly taboo subjects. If they would only spend more time explaining what steps they would actually take to improve people’s lives in Turkey, the majority of voters would be a good deal happier going into that election on the 30th.

Monday, 10 March 2014

Into the Valley of Death – Another Crimean War?

What a strange education I had, or so I think now on looking back. When I was a lad in New Zealand there were still people referring to England (or Britain) as ‘Home’. My first primary school headmaster used to visit classes occasionally to brandish a leather strap he referred to as his ‘medicine’, and get us kids piping ‘Rule Britannia’ in our reedy little antipodean voices. Having pupils memorise chunks of poetry was a popular pedagogical technique. Alfred Lord Tennyson’s ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’ added to our sense of belonging to an empire on which the sun was still struggling to set, defended by men, any one of whom was worth ten or twenty of any other race on earth, and capable, when the chips were down, of staggering out into an Antarctic blizzard uttering a self-sacrificing epigram in ringing tones.

British lion defends Ottoman 'turkey' against
imperialist Russian bear
Well, there was one line in that immortal poem suggesting that ‘someone had blundered’, but most of it was clearly written to perpetuate the myth of men committed to facing, if necessary, overwhelming odds, and fighting or dying in defence of Empire. I have checked again and found one reference to the opposition – ‘Cossack and Russian’ – but no explanation of what those noble Light Brigade horsemen actually hoped to gain by charging into ‘the mouth of Hell’, other than death and/or glory.

In fact, the famous charge was little more than a futile sideshow in the Battle of Balaklava, the first major engagement in the Crimean War (1853-56). One might even think the whole war itself was a pretty questionable venture. I have no special reason to love Russians, but I have some sympathy for their plight, locked up in the largest, coldest most inhospitable and inaccessible land mass in the world. As the state of Russia (centred on Moscow) expanded from 1500 CE, one of its main driving forces was the need for access to warm water ports for shipping, trade and military purposes – and sandy beaches for summer holidays. Check your atlas. What would you have done if you were a Peter or a Catherine with Great ambitions?

For the Russians, it was pretty obvious that they had to have access to the Black Sea and if possible, a direct route to the Aegean or the Mediterranean. This involved fighting and conquering, or otherwise neutralising whoever was in the way – mostly Muslim Crimean Tatars, Ottomans and Circassians. An important tool in the Russians’ box of strategies was the Orthodox Christian religion which they used to enlist the support of allies, justify expansion and clear out unfriendly resistance.

Expansion as far as the Black Sea was pretty much accomplished during the 18th century, culminating in a victorious war against the Ottomans (1768-74). The Russian government formally annexed Crimea (not just the peninsula in those days) in 1783.

Again, however, a glance at the map will show that even possessing ports on the northern Black Sea coast doesn’t circumvent all your problems from a Russian point-of-view. Your ships still have to negotiate the Istanbul Bosporus and the Dardanelle Straits past the hostile eyes and guns of your resentful Ottoman neighbours. Wouldn’t it be nice to possess Constantinople/Istanbul itself, or drive a corridor through eastern Anatolia, emerging down in the northeast corner of the Mediterranean around the port of Alexandretta/Iskenderun? Of course both of these will involve further wars with those pesky Ottomans – though by now, the middle of the 19th century, they are not the fearsome military power they once were.

Still, you need a pretext for picking a fight, and what better than religion? How can good Christians allow those heathen Turks to control the holy places where Christ suffered and died? And there are Christian communities all through the region, Armenians and Syrian Orthodox for example, clearly in need of protection from the oppression and persecution of their Muslim overlords, never mind that they had all been co-existing in relative peace and harmony for centuries. Well, that protection idea caught on in Europe later, but at this stage, France and especially Britain were not about to let the Russians control the eastern Mediterranean and endanger their interests in that region and further afield in India. Hence the Crimean War. Let’s get over there, was the plan, and help our dear Muslim Ottoman friends defeat those dastardly Cossacks and Russians and keep them bottled up in their frozen wastes.

Well, international treaties and alliances make fragile bonds, and it wasn’t too many years before Britain and France were joining forces to finally erase the Ottoman Empire from the geo-political scene. Previously, however, in the 1850s and 60s, their sympathies lay more with Muslim populations suffering genocide and expulsion as a result of Russian expansion.

EGO | European History Online has this to say:Taking advantage of the favourable anti-Turkish sentiment, the Tzarist army conducted a military offensive against the Ottoman Empire in 1877/1878 which ended with the defeat of the Ottomans in the Balkans and the re-establishment of Russia in the Black Sea. In the Russo-Turkish War, Russian and Bulgarian soldiers and francs-tireurs killed 200,000–300,000 Muslims and about one million people were displaced.  After the war, more than half a million Muslim refugees from the Russian Caucasus and the areas south of the Danube, which were under Russian protection, were settled in the Ottoman Empire.’ (Paragraph 3, 2014.03.10)

But who remembers that now? Apart from the Crimean Tatars and the Circassians themselves, that is. As far as I am aware, the XXII Winter Olympic Games in Sochi went off with little disruption despite hopes held by the ex-patriate Circassian community of using the occasion as a stage to draw the world’s attention to the above-mentioned  ‘resettlement’. ‘The world’, sadly, for the most part, doesn’t want to know. It's got enough problems of its own, and anyway it’s hard to know which plaintive cries of genocide to take seriously these days. Add to that the fact that most First World countries have ethnic cleansing skeletons in their own historical closets, and you can see why they are reluctant to risk their glass houses by throwing stones at each other.

Of course there has to be a certain amount of posturing. Our local Istanbul newspaper published pictures of the US destroyer Truxton steaming through the Bosphorus on its way to wave the Stars and Stripes in the Black Sea. President Obama, according to reports, has been having stern words over the phone with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin; and Republican Presidential hopeful, Senator Rand Paul says that ‘if he were President, he would take a harder stance against the Russian President for his actions.’

The sad fact of the matter is that it is extremely unlikely Russia will let Ukraine and Crimea go their own independent way. About as likely as the United States handing Hawaii back to the native Polynesians, or Texas back to Mexico. Probably the best Crimean nationalists can hope for is more conciliatory gestures from Mother Russia along the lines of renaming Stalingrad as Volgograd, recognising that the earlier name had bad associations for locals who remember the mass expulsion of Crimean Tatars to Siberia in 1944.

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

"Once persecuted, Sephardic Jews find Spanish embrace "

I’ve written about this before, so this time I’m letting other sources do the talking. The first is an article that circulated widely in news media last month. It seems the Spanish Government is trying to make amends for a 500 year-old “mistake” that saw its entire Jewish population forced to convert to Christianity or leave the country. Well, better late than never, you’d have to say.

Where did they go, those hundreds of thousands of expelled refugees, obliged to leave their property and most of their worldly possessions behind? The following news item, fairly representative, says that these days Sephardic Jews live in France, Israel, Iraq, Yemen, after  originally going to Northern Africa and southern Europe.

Certainly - I'd love to become a Christian
“MADRID – They were burned at the stake, forced to convert or chased into exile. Now Spain is moving to right a half-millennium old "historic mistake" against its onetime flourishing Sephardic Jewish community: the EU country is on the verge of offering citizenship to descendants of victims — estimated to number in the millions.

The Spanish conservative government plans to make amends with a law expected to be passed within weeks or months in Parliament that offers citizenship to the legions of Jews forced to flee in 1492. Asked whether the new law amounted to an apology, Spanish Justice Minister Alberto Ruiz-Gallardon replied: "Without a doubt."

"What the law will do, five centuries later, is make amends for a terrible historic mistake, one of the worst that Spaniards ever made," Ruiz-Gallardon told The Associated Press in an interview.
Descendants of Sephardic Jews, he said, will be considered "children of Spain."

Jewish history seems to tell a more detailed and slightly different story:

“In the same month in which their Majesties [Ferdinand and Isabella] issued the edict that all Jews should be driven out of the kingdom and its territories, in the same month they gave me the order to undertake with sufficient men my expedition of discovery to the Indies." So begins Christopher Columbus's diary. The expulsion that Columbus refers to was so cataclysmic an event that ever since, the date 1492 has been almost as important in Jewish history as in American history. On July 30 of that year, the entire Jewish community, some 200,000 people, were expelled from Spain.

“Tens of thousands of refugees died while trying to reach safety. In some instances, Spanish ship captains charged Jewish passengers exorbitant sums, then dumped them overboard in the middle of the ocean. In the last days before the expulsion, rumors spread throughout Spain that the fleeing refugees had swallowed gold and diamonds, and many Jews were knifed to death by brigands hoping to find treasures in their stomachs.

“The Jews' expulsion had been the pet project of the Spanish Inquisition, headed by Father Tomas de Torquemada. Torquemada believed that as long as the Jews remained in Spain, they would influence the tens of thousands of recent Jewish converts to Christianity to continue practicing Judaism. Ferdinand and Isabella rejected Torquemada's demand that the Jews be expelled until January 1492, when the Spanish Army defeated Muslim forces in Granada, thereby restoring the whole of Spain to Christian rule. With their most important project, the country's unification, accomplished, the king and queen concluded that the Jews were expendable. On March 30, they issued the expulsion decree, the order to take effect in precisely four months. The short time span was a great boon to the rest of Spain, as the Jews were forced to liquidate their homes and businesses at absurdly low prices. Throughout those frantic months, Dominican priests actively encouraged Jews to convert to Christianity and thereby gain salvation both in this world and the next.

“The most fortunate of the expelled Jews succeeded in escaping to Turkey [in fact, the Ottoman Empire]. Sultan Bajazet [Bayezit] welcomed them warmly. "How can you call Ferdinand of Aragon a wise king," he was fond of asking, "the same Ferdinand who impoverished his own land and enriched ours?" Among the most unfortunate refugees were those who fled to neighboring Portugal. In 1496, King Manuel of Portugal concluded an agreement to marry Isabella, the daughter of Spain's monarchs. As a condition of the marriage, the Spanish royal family insisted that Portugal expel her Jews. King Manuel agreed, although he was reluctant to lose his affluent and accomplished Jewish community.

“In the end, only eight Portuguese Jews were actually expelled; tens of thousands of others were forcibly converted to Christianity on pain of death. The chief rabbi, Simon Maimi, was one of those who refused to convert. He was kept buried in earth up to his neck for seven days until he died. In the final analysis, all of these events took place because of the relentless will of one man, Tomas de Torquemada.

“The Spanish Jews who ended up in Turkey, North Africa, Italy, and elsewhere throughout Europe and the Arab world, were known as Sephardim — Sefarad being the Hebrew name for Spain. After the expulsion, the Sephardim imposed an informal ban forbidding Jews from ever again living in Spain. Specifically because their earlier sojourn in that country had been so happy, the Jews regarded the expulsion as a terrible betrayal, and have remembered it ever since with particular bitterness. Of the dozens of expulsions directed against Jews throughout their history, the one from Spain remains the most infamous.”

I didn't see any mention of Turkey in any of the articles about the Spanish Government’s recent overtures - nor that Ottoman Salonika had the largest population of Jews in Europe before that city was taken over by Greece in 1912. Anyway, let’s see how many descendants of the Sephardim take up Spain's invitation.