Turkish Delights A Traveler Returns to Turkey, Finding Much Changed, Much the Same

Article excerpt

IN the robust image of poet Nazim Hikmet, Turkey is a "country shaped like the head of a mare/ Coming full gallop from far off Asia." His lines hail the successive migrations of Turkish peoples that spilled westward into Anatolia almost a thousand years ago, making the vast central grassland their own. A little poetic license allows another, more contemporary picture.

Today, legions of tourists bus inward from Turkey's ample shore, creating gridlock in the streets of ancient Greek cities. They parade in ceaseless single-file lines through the extraordinary underground towns like Derinkuyu, and, by their very numbers, endanger the venerable troglodytic homes and churches of early Christian Cappadocia.

In the nearly two decades that separate Mary Lee Settle's first sojourn in Turkey from her recent one in 1989, the western third of Turkey has been discovered and developed for tourists. Bodrum, that quiet jewel of the turquoise coast, where once the author spent three years writing a book, now hosts visitors who prowl the expensive leather, silk, gold, and rug shops, while rock music wails in the streets. In a land where the cuisine is among the world's finest, the most touted restaurant in Bodrum is Italian, not Turkish.

Because Settle, who won the 1978 National Book Award for her Turkish-set novel "Blood Tie," writes so graphically and sensitively about the peoples, the landscape, and the history of this nation, the book is being marketed as an exotic sampling of Turkish delights. That slant is reinforced by the dust jacket, which illustrates a tropical dreamland punctuated with architectural examples of the many civilizations that have flourished there. But the book is less, and much more, than these distracting embellishments.

Settle is not a utopian tour guide. She declines to romanticize what she sees. She is capable of admiring the delicate workmanship of a Seljuk gate, and in the next breath reporting the growth of sterile, cement-block apartment buildings that surround most modern Turkish cities like a grim, gray shroud. How much more bewitchingly untrue the wedding she attends would be if she were only to catalog the plaintive eastern Turkish music that was played and turn a blind eye to the bottles of Coca-Cola on the tables and the Western jeans on the guests. No, regardless of the publicity, this book is no simple vacation enticement.

Still, contemporary travel and tourism are never very far from Settle's meditations. As she leisurely circles out from Istanbul, beyond the so-called tourist line to Trebizond, then zigzags through the middle third of the nation, and finally enters Bodrum - the city whose people and sights once mesmerized her - she confronts, with confessed reluctance, the transformation of Turkey from a peasant country to an urban, industrial one. It is almost as if this "hard, lived-over ground," so rich in tradition, breached some unwritten code when it chose to modernize. …