A lively, engaging report on modern-day Turkey, a nation poised between democracy and military rule.
Kinzer (Blood of Brothers, 1991), former Istanbul bureau chief for the New York Times, is unabashed in his enthusiasm for the Turkish people and their rough-edged, yet vibrant, centuries-old society. This quality energizes his consideration of Turkish history as reflected by their 21st-century dilemmas. The Turks were reviled for centuries in Europe due to Ottoman imperialism. Kinzer explores the political paradoxes that followed the Turkish Republic’s establishment in 1923 by national hero Kemal Atatürk, whose example created “Kemalism”—essentially the state’s secular religion. Atatürk embodied the fiercely guarded, masculine Turkish traditions, but he advocated a “Westernization” of Turkey in civic and social matters. Another paradox lies in the uneasy Turkish dance with democracy, crucial to its acceptance by the European Union, yet repeatedly checked by the nation’s skittish and powerful military. Strangely, Turks continue to put their faith in this regime, pointing to the successful 1997 “postmodern coup” against Necmettin Erbakan’s Welfare party, which promoted fundamentalist Islamic rule. Yet the military’s prominence has been tainted by the Kurdish conflict; Kinzer determines that the Kurdish PKK revolutionary group cynically prodded the army into “scorched-earth” warfare and civilian atrocities, thus damaging Turkey in the court of international opinion. (A similar historical resonance exists in a continued unwillingness to acknowledge the 1915 Armenian genocide.) Kinzer varies his intelligent untangling of these thorny matters with more personalized depictions of the Turkish people and the (mostly) good times he’s spent among them. These range from their rituals of communal water-pipe smoking and consumption of the powerful liquor raki, to Kinzer’s surprise interrogation by rural security forces as a suspected PKK sympathizer.
Kinzer’s well-executed travelogue addresses the “striking contrast between freedom and repression [that] crystallizes Turkey’s conundrum,” and will satisfy anyone curious about the future of this vibrant, volatile society.