Spot the Errors

By Stone, Norman | The Spectator, August 16, 1997 | Go to article overview

Spot the Errors


Stone, Norman, The Spectator


Norman Stone

THE TURKISH LABYRINTH by James Pettifer Viking L18, pp. 288

The Spanish Labyrinth, by Gerald Brenan, is a classic. Brenan lived for years in Spain between the wars, and you can still read him with profit if you want to know about the Spanish civil war. For James Pettifer to use this title for a book on modern Turkey is not on the face of things absurd.

Spain and Turkey have a remarkable amount in common, once you get below the surface - a powerful Islamic influence, a great empire in the past, some difficult nationality problems and, nowadays, a transition from military-led politics towards the pieties of the Atlantic. Even the Turkish economy, now larger than Sweden's, fits with membership of 'Europe' rather better than those of ex-communist states, which are way behind in free-market laws and customs.

Mr Pettifer has a fit about this. He attempts an anti-Turkish essay, where geopolitics and travel description intermingle with remarks about political Islam and its contest with the secular republic inherited from Kemal Ataturk's days in the Twenties and Thirties. Then, a self-consciously modernising elite tried to pull the country away from its imperial Ottoman past, but it has not really worked. Istanbul is a vastly over-populated, polluted dump, says our author. There is state terror against a `Kurdish intifada'. They torture chaps by stapling their foreskins (in a Moslem country?). Economic 'progress' gets inverted commas. Literacy is not really what they say. Freedom of speech is not what they claim. There is cholera in outlying parts. The Turks in Germany are dozy, selfisolating and given to alcoholism (Moslems, again?). Turkey blackmails the Greeks with weaponry, massacring defenceless civilians in Cyprus and forcing poor Athens to splash out on defence. The place is so awful that its only real hope is political Islam, which offers equality and some sort of show on the road. Not that Mr Pettifer is particularly keen on it, however. At one point, looking out of a train in western Anatolia, he sees an old woman feeding her goat, muses that she has lost a son who has contracted scrotal cancer from stitching trainers out of kangaroo skin in some Istanbul sweat-shop, but then philosophises -- after all `this is Asia', and in the eyes of Allah the goat matters more than the woman.

Some of these things are just demonstrable nonsense. The Palestinians' intifada consisted of carefully calibrated provocation of the Israelis - stone-throwing by adolescent boys, who could not be fired on, even by dummy bullets, for fear of terrible television pictures. The Kurdish business in Turkey is fairly obviously a Kurdish civil war, and is not about throwing stones. However, there is not much point in answering what Mr Pettifer says, because his central problem is simply that he knows little about Turkey. You will find this book worth reading only in the sense that spotting its inaccuracies, guidebook to hand, will while away the flighttime roughly from Istanbul to Innsbruck, much as your children would do the airline magazine's `Spot the Differences' puzzle.

Mr Pettifer is in the habit of writing guidebooks to difficult places -- something on the Greeks, something on Bulgaria, something on Albania. Perhaps his writ, there, runs further. Here, he seems to have flipped through a few books (though he gives no references for such evidence as he offers), spent some time in an Istanbul hotel, taken a bus journey along part of the Black Sea coast, taken a train to Ankara, done a trip to the south-east, and then gone on an excursion to Berlin. He makes so many mistakes even with proper names in the acknowledgments that we can assume he knows no Turkish. He cannot even get the food right - Turks might eat dolma but not dolmades, and I do not think that even Pettifer's goat would be eating keflifu. He knows no German, either, to judge from the mis-spellings ('Speissburgers' at least gets a capital, and not just, as with gastarbeiters, the wrong plural; 'Weding' and 'Kreutzberg' are distortions of parts of Berlin that even a casual glance at a map would have properly identified). …

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