By Foster, Charles
Contemporary Review , Vol. 264, No. 1537
TURKEY is a boring country. This is very surprising. Why it should be dull is one of the few real mysteries left to international travellers. Istanbul exemplifies this unhappily. Of all the really great cities it is the most sterile. It is a hygienic, well-fed, well-scrubbed place, and the charisma has been scrubbed off with the dirt.
It should be a deafeningly resonant place. It is strange that the hooves of the Mongols' ponies and the hooting of the riff-raff of the Fourth Crusade and the harem grunts of the sultans in Topkapi Palace should have been so completely drowned out. It is easy to suppose that they have been overwhelmed by the revving of the tour buses and the multi-lingual vacuity of the Sultanahmet bars. This is sacrilegious and wrong. Sacrilegious because the resonance from great events is robust enough to outdo any petty commercial littleness: and wrong because the noise which has filled Turkey and forced everything else out is the clang of swords being beaten into ploughshares.
There are a number of standard reasons for places being dull. None of them fully explains the phenomenon of Turkey. Milton Keynes exemplifies most of these factors and their inter-relationships. Milton Keynes is new, well-organized, in flat, anonymous no-man's land socially and geographically, and it is inhabited by people who like these things. It has plenty of excuses. Turkey has none.
Turkey is fantastically old and has been successively raped and glorified by a galaxy of glamorous dynasties. It is and has always been a key bridge between Europe and Asia, and the merchants and armies passing through have seen just about all that altitude and anthropology and colour and geology have to offer. I first of all came at Turkey from the air. I got a taxi along the dual carriageway from the airport, and wound through the tenement blocks and past the leisure centres on my way to my doss house near the Blue Mosque. I was bored on that trip. I thought that it might have helped if I had come to Istanbul through the cabbage fields of Bulgaria; or on the bus from Iran through the high blue rarefied land of Kurdistan, which looks like Narnia; or if I had trundled slowly in through the red farms of western Anatolia. I thought that then, perhaps, I would know the size of Turkey and the nature of its neighbours and of its schizoid confusion, and would look sympathetically on its boredom. So I did those things, and I am not sympathetic. Its age and its variety condemn it.
Turkey has not been a little, broken-backed nation. The Ottoman Empire was one of the largest and most durable ever, and its soldiers have historically been very good at killing people. It now brandishes its tourism with ironic pride. Scholars on their way back from Troy and Gallipoli are held up in the crush of middle-manager Turks motoring to their Marmaran beach chalets. It has a cafe culture, a big inflation problem, a host of extremely fierce, reactionary neighbours, some archaeological sites of supreme importance, and a number of other features which should make it a colourful place.
It is not under-discussed or appreciated. 'Turkish' means exotic to western children and sensual indulgence to western adults. The story-book Turks may have been devious fratricides: they were never steady, flat, nine-to-five men. They may be open to criticism for wearing tastelessly bejewelled shoes with turned-up toes: they could never be criticised for wearing tidy grey lounge suits.
It is not enough to take refuge in paradox, asserting that every reaction has a counter-reaction, and that Turkey is boring precisely because it is cosmopolitan: because distinctive national flavour becomes diluted by the flood of alien personality: that you lose your soul if you sleep with too many women: that cosmopolitanism always has in it the seeds of assimilation and anonymity. New York is a bizarre cocktail with a revolting taste. It is not, unfortunately, bland. …