Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 31, 2005

A Trip to Turkey

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 2:55 pm

Posted to www.marxmail.org on December 31, 2005

I have just returned from my second trip to Turkey in two years. As many comrades know, I have been married to a Turkish dissertation student and part-time political science professor for 3 and a half years. Two years ago my time was spent entirely in Istanbul with her parents, and with her sister, brother-in-law and their children. You can read my account of the trip at:


This time we also went to Izmir where her cousin Ceyda lives. This is a city that my wife much prefers to Istanbul, her home town. (The letter c is pronounced “j” in Turkish, so Ceyda comes out as “Jeyda,” just as fellow list member Sabri Oncu’s last name is pronounced “Onju”.)

I was looking forward to seeing Izmir with my own eyes since this city served as historical background for leftwing mystery writer Eric Ambler’s “A Coffin for Dimitrios,” a work that I reviewed at http://www.swans.com/library/art9/lproy07.html.

The character Dimitrios, a gangster and fascist operative, was expelled along with nearly all the city’s Greek population in 1922. (Izmir was then known as Smyrna–a Greek name–just as Istanbul was once known as Constantinople.) Greeks were expelled from Turkey and Turks were expelled from Greece in a massive population exchange that was a consequence of a civil war that had many of the same characteristics as the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo, and the one taking shape in Iraq. As I told Mine in Izmir, it seems that many of the most explosive conflicts of the past 100 years have been a result of the disintegration of the Ottoman empire.

Jet travel brings out the Luddite in me. Not only do I find the prospect of jet lag daunting, I am far more anxious about plane crashes than ever. This no doubt is a function of 9/11 and my own research into airline deregulation at http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/economics/airline_deregulation.htm.

My aversion to jet travel was certainly not relieved by news on CNN and BBC of two crashes that took place during my stay. One was a seaplane tumbling in flames from the sky over Miami Beach, the result of metal fatigue in the wings. The other was a crash in nearby Azerbaijan that was caused by flight instrument failure that made the crew unable to pilot the aircraft. (More about Azerbaijan, a Turkish-speaking former Soviet republic to follow.)

Although I tried everything I could to relieve the symptoms of jet lag (including taking Halcion), I remained as discombobulated as I was on my first trip. There is no experience more disorienting (I use the word advisedly) as waking up 3am in the morning and not being able to get back to sleep. I would lie in bed reading Bukharin’s “Philosophical Arabesques,” an MR review copy that I had promised to review for Swans, while watching arabesque performances on Turkish TV. Arabesque, as the name implies, is Turkish music in the style of the Egyptian legend Om Khalsoum for example.

Although I enjoy the music, Mine’s parents, especially her mother Meral, do not. Meral told me at one point that the music was even remote to her own experience as a Turk. I should mention that she and her husband Hasan, a retired Turkish Airline employee, moved from Üsküdar, a picturesque neighborhood in the old city, because it was becoming overrun in their eyes with orthodox Moslems. They much prefer their current neighborhood in Kadıköy that abuts Baghdad Street, which despite its name is studded with European department stores, Starbucks, etc.

People like Hasan and Meral are not happy that the current government is pushing for legislation that bans the sale of alcohol, as the Guardian reported on December 23:

There have been ferocious battles over banning adultery or outlawing headscarves. Now drink has become the battleground in Turkey’s struggle to define the country’s values – religious or secular, Middle Eastern or European.

Turkish liberals and secularists are angry about the efforts of the conservative government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan to limit and “ghettoize” the supply and consumption of alcohol.

The Ankara Bar Association filed a lawsuit this week seeking to reverse government instructions to municipalities that would restrict the sale and consumption of alcohol to designated areas. The lawyers argue that the government move is anti-constitutional.

According to a survey by the Merkez news agency, there are now alcohol bans in public places in 61 of Turkey’s 81 provinces. By law, it would be difficult for the government to issue a blanket ban on alcohol. Raki [a favorite of both Hasan and me] is the national tipple in Turkey, which also boasts a growing quality wine industry and Efes, a major brewer. Critics complain, however, that the Erdogan government is moving by stealth to institute a ban, to stigmatise drinking, and to step up pressure on the industry.

Turkish TV was replete with accounts of the trial of novelist Orhan Pamuk, who had been charged with “insulting” the Turks. In June 2005, Turkey introduced a new penal code that states: “A person who explicitly insults being a Turk, the Republic or Turkish Grand National Assembly, shall be imposed to a penalty of imprisonment for a term of six months to three years.” Pamuk was retroactively charged with violating this law in an interview given four months earlier to a Swiss magazine that included his observation: “I repeat… that one million Armenians and 30,000 Kurds were killed in Turkey.”

Each night Hasan watched news broadcasts on a Turkish government station that had a distinct tabloid angle. A typical report would be about a child being locked in a car or a celebrity couple splitting up. Usually I didn’t pay much attention but one evening I was fascinated to see a report that obviously was in the same spirit as the prosecution of Orhan Pamuk. It alleged that Armenians lured Turkish soldiers to their death during World War One. It also alleged that these Armenians would dress in rags in order to appear pathetic to Western observers, but beneath the rags, Hasan was anxious to point out, was expensive clothing.

I was intent to understand how such an open-minded and civilized society could have reached such a state. Since Jews enjoyed a high level of tolerance and even thrived in Ottoman society, what would explain the pogroms against the Armenians, Greeks and Kurds?

After 10 days in Istanbul, we flew down to Izmir where we picked up at the airport on Saturday by Bural (I am not exactly sure of the spelling), Ceyda’s husband. As we made our way into downtown Izmir, I said that I thought I saw a man wearing a ‘yarmulke,’ an orthodox Jewish skullcap. After Mine translated my comments to Bural, he laughed and said probably not since after all, this was “godless Izmir.” As had been pointed out to me in the past, Izmir was a city that remained indifferent or hostile to the new Islamic movement in Turkey.

That night we had a feast prepared by Ceyda. After dinner, Bural and his brother Oral–professional musicians–sang Greek and Turkish songs. Both are highly aware of and partial to the city’s Greek cultural roots. They also performed some songs that were written by Ahmed Kaya, a Kurdish protest singer who is regarded as the Victor Jara of Turkey.

Kaya, who died at the age of 43 in 2000 as an exile in France, was tried in absentia that year and given a 3 year and 9 month sentence for singing in front of a picture of Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan in Berlin in 1993.

Although I know of no full-length versions of Kaya’s songs on the Internet, you can sample his songs on the Tulumba.com website: http://makeashorterlink.com/?O5591246C.

Another great Turkish singer, and a native of Izmir, has taken a stand similar to Kaya’s.

The release of a new album by one of Turkey’s biggest pop stars has prompted a debate on how far Turks dare go in acknowledging their diverse ethnic and religious origins – especially when rebel Kurds are fighting for their own state and the secular establishment feels threatened by Islamic fundamentalism.

The album by the female singer Sezen Aksu entitled “Light Rises in the East” has sold nearly 500,000 copies since it was launched two months ago.

Accompanied by folk musicians of Greek, Armenian, Kurdish, Arab and Gypsy origin, the singer has controversially attempted to fuse Turkey’s mixed ethnic heritage in music. Newspapers have called the album a political call for unity. Ms Aksu says she is hurt by the thought of “valuable parts of this country being broken into pieces”.

(The Guardian, September 13, 1995)

We were Ceyda and Bural’s guests for our stay in Izmir. We were also in the company of their daughter Meliz who had recently become engaged to Mert, an ex-professional basketball player who had been forced to terminate his career after an onset of illness brought on by the use of ephedrine, an herb with weight-reducing properties. He assured me that drug use of all sorts, including steroids, are rampant in Turkish professional sports.

Izmir surrounds a bay that is connected to the Mediterranean. Located in the south of Turkey and enjoying warm ocean currents, it has a climate similar to Miami’s and palm trees to match. To get from one side of the city to another, the people of Izmir use ferry boats just as the people of Istanbul take ferries to get across the Bosphorus.

On Tuesday, the six of us took a ferry from Ceyda’s neighborhood in Kadifekale to Konak across the bay. There we spent the afternoon shopping in Kemeralti, an old fashioned shopping district with narrow streets overflowing with jewellers, drapers, shoemaker, and shops specializing in all kind s of goods from leather to olives and cheese that look like this: http://www.insecula.com/us/salle/photo_ME0000082237.html.

I love walking around streets such as these. Years ago New York had a shopping district on the Lower East Side clustered around Orchard Street that had the same kind of charm. Although I have not spent time down there in years, I am afraid that many of the shops have closed due to the death or retirement of the Jewish owners. Shops such as these are the ultimate anti-Walmart. Although socialism has often embraced the idea of workers taking over capitalist technologies and adapting them to their own needs (Bellamy’s “Looking Backward” a case in point), I strongly believe that the real need will be to preserve the Orchard Streets and Kemeraltis of the world.

Konak was also the site of the culmination of the victorious campaign to “drive the Greeks into the sea” as my hosts put it without the slightest hint of shame. Unlike the campaign against the Armenians, at least it can be said that the events recounted in Ambler’s novel were the logical outcome of a war inflicted on the Turks.

Greece had been allied with Great Britain in WWI, as Turkey had been an ally of the Germans. With the Anglo-American victory, there was an attempt to wrest back the gains of the Ottoman Empire and re-establish Western/Christian control. The 1920 Treaty of Sèvres, which ended the First World War in Asia Minor, carved up the Ottoman Empire and assigned the conquered territories to Greece. Greek troops had already occupied Smyrna in May 1919 under cover of French, British and American ships. It was up to Mustafa Kemal, or Ataturk, to drive out the Greeks in order to lay the basis for the new Turkish state. It was tragic that ordinary Greek citizens were to suffer the consequences, just as Turks in Greece would, but that seems to be the legacy of modern statehood–about which I will have more to say in the conclusion of this article.

The Turkish victory resulted in the removal of Winston Churchill from power in Great Britain. Churchill was a strong proponent of imposing the Western will on Moslems, just as Blair is today–all, of course, in the name of democracy.

The Greeks refer to the 1922 events as the “Great Catastrophe.” Although I suspect that official Greek history sees this more in geopolitical terms, it is the cultural aspects that are obviously much more important to people such as us.

The disaster of Smyrna meant the end of the three thousand year Hellenic presence in Asia Minor. A million refugees leave for Greece, a land that is familiar to them only barely in language. The populations of Athens and Thessaloniki double. Working and upper middle-class Greeks who had lived comfortably in Smyrna and other towns and cities in Turkey, become the bottom rung in a society that can barely take care of its own people. In the cafes and back streets of Athens and Thessaloniki Rembetika music, Greek Urban Blues, is being played and will have a powerful effect on the music and culture of Greece. The lyrics tell of the frustration of being poor in a strange land, and the sadness of exile as well as the misery of being reduced to a life of crime and drugs out of desperation and hopelessness. Smyrna which had been the cultural center of the Eastern Mediterranean is no longer multi-ethnic or beautiful. The entire city with the exception of the Turkish quarter has been destroyed. More than 150.000 Greeks of the Pontus region and more than 400.000 Greeks of Asia Minor die in the massacres. Of the half a million refugees who don’t go to Greece, about 200.000 Pontian Greeks go to Russia and the rest are dispersed all over the world.

Full: http://www.ahistoryofgreece.com/venizelos.htm

The next day Mine, Mert, Meliz and her good friend Haldun visited Dario Moreno street, named after the popular Turkish-Jewish singer and actor who owned a house there. Moreno died in 1968 at the age of 47. On the street there is an elevator that takes you up to the heights of Izmir. A Jewish businessman had felt sorry for the elderly who had to scale the steps to return home and built a steam-operated elevator that was eventually converted to electricity. It is a street such as this that truly expresses what was unique about Izmir. More about this street and other Izmir sites is at http://www.cankan.com/gizmir/13-interx_asans.htm.

Haldun, a male college student majoring in literature, told me that he had little use for Orhan Pamuk who he regarded as a mouthpiece for Western imperialism. Haldun was a very likable fellow, but I had gotten a bit annoyed with him after he installed a Turkish version of Windows XP on the Dell laptop that we had brought over as a gift for Meliz. There are complications when you use this operating system with an English keyboard. When you type a period, for example, it comes out as “ç” which is pronounced as “ch.” Meliz eventually solved the problem by discovering that you can toggle back and forth between the Turkish and English alphabet.

The longer I stay in Turkey, the more I feel the need to learn the language which would really help me to understand the country better. Since there is a good chance that Mine and I will someday buy a place in Izmir, this is all the more important. This was driven home when I and the rest of the gang spent an evening with an architect and his wife in their palatial apartment in the so-called “City of Blue.” This was a self-contained luxury complex with commanding views of the bay. As we ate dinner on their enclosed terrace, I felt myself fogging out after some hours of hearing nothing but Turkish. My feeling of desolation was amplified by a wind that was howling mercilessly. It was difficult for me to understand why a college-educated and wealthy Turkish couple would prefer to live in isolation from the colorful street life of Izmir. Perhaps being able to live in what amounts to a gated community is a sign that you have made it in the world. It is also obviously a symbol of how American imperialism, the world champion of gated communities, can impact urban life in a wonderful country like Turkey.

When we were hanging out at Ceyda’s, we would watch Azeri TV for laughs. This is the government-owned cable station from Azerbaijan that is available in Turkey. The Azeris are regarded as country cousins of the Turks, especially their dialect which evoked peals of laughter from Mine and my hosts. This was especially the case when it was used to dub American movies like “Star Wars.” I guess that Turks have the same reaction to Azeri pronunciation as a French literature professor would have to the utterances of a French Canadian hockey player.

Many of you might recall that Azerbaijan was involved in a war with another former Soviet republic, namely Armenia. Basically the conflict was driven by the same ethnic and social tensions that produced the WWI massacres. Nagorno-Karabakh was a 1,700 square mile largely Armenian enclave within Azerbaijan.

In 1992 Armenia seized control of the enclave and established a corridor through which military supplies and other goods could flow. All 50,000 Azeris, forming 25 percent of the population in Nagorno-Karabakh, were “cleansed.” This was merely the culmination of a population exchange between the two republics that began with the dissolution of the USSR in 1988. Some 300,000 Armenians and 200,000 Azeris fled across the border.

Of course the relationship of forces between the Turks and Armenians within Turkey was much less balanced during WWI. But in other respects the conflict was identical. Armenians were allied with Anglo-American imperialism and with the Russians, who were on the opposite side of the Germans and the Turks. Armenians had been fighting an on and off-again guerrilla war to achieve national independence since the 1890s. Ironically, the Ottoman court had dispatched Kurdish militias to put down the rebellion, which they did with relentless fury.

Historically, the Ottomans had permitted the Armenians, who were Christians belonging to a sect that went back 1700 years, and Jews a large degree of self-rule. As long as they provided tribute to this relatively benign feudal ruling class, they were free to worship as they pleased and to enrich themselves. In fact, there were never any pogroms directed at the Armenians living in Istanbul during this period. The Armenian elites in fact regarded the guerrilla fighters as a threat to their own privileged positions and urged restraint.

But with the economic decline of the Ottoman Empire, there was little chance that the old system of accommodation could continue. Just as the economic crisis of the 1920s led to the rise of fascism, so did the implosion of the Ottoman Empire lead to scapegoatism in a society that had previously been tolerant of national and religious minorities.

While this article is not the proper place to render a verdict on this extremely complex question, I tentatively have concluded that the proper way to view the events of WWI is in terms of a great massacre rather than a genocide, especially in light of the fact that it was localized to the Eastern regions of the country. Provisionally, it seems comparable to the slaughter of the Mayans in Guatemala during the 1980s rather than an attempt to systematically exterminate an entire race. This, of course, should not excuse what happened, nor should be interpreted as an endorsement of the sort of denial that operates within Turkish society unfortunately. It would appear to me that so long as Kemalism with its foundational beliefs is so deeply rooted in the Turkish psyche that it will be impossible to overcome the taboo over discussing the massacres honestly.

It is interesting to note that a shift has begun to take place with respect to the Kurds while the Kemalists have been reduced to an opposition status. Despite its Islamist roots, the ruling party in Turkey today seems far more interested in becoming part of the European Union than the Kemalists who despite their roots in a movement that tried to make Turkey more European are hold-outs against such a project.

The January 12, 2006 edition of the NY Review of Books has an article by Stephen Kinzer titled “Kurds in Turkey: The Big Change” that states:

The prospect of EU membership, which has given Kurds this new confidence, is reshaping Turkish political life. Old barriers to free expression have fallen, and everyone realizes that the remaining ones must also fall if Turkey is to join the EU. As more Turks step forward to challenge longstanding taboos, however, guardians of the old order are mounting a counter-offensive. Their most visible weapon is legal harassment. A prosecutor in one district of Istanbul has indicted the novelist Orhan Pamuk for telling a Swiss newspaper earlier this year that “thirty thousand Kurds and a million Armenians were killed in these lands.” The publisher Ragip Zarakolu is facing criminal charges against three works in his catalog. One is said to insult the memory of Ataturk, founder of the modern Turkish state. Another describes brutality suffered by Armenians during the last years of Ottoman rule. A third is accused of using “derogatory language” to describe Turkey’s policies in the Kurdish region.

Prosecutions like these embarrass and undermine the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which is strongly backing the EU project. They are part of a campaign by nationalist defenders of the old order to block Turkey’s progress toward the EU. This group of nationalists, which Turks call “deep state,” includes many local prosecutors, and also has powerful supporters in the army and bureaucracy. They fear the scrutiny of their operations and the strict limits on military power that EU membership would entail. To upset relations with the EU, they prosecute freethinkers in ways calculated to make Turkey look un-European. Government leaders believe that during the years ahead, they must not only try to bring their country into line with Europe, but also suppress forces within Turkey that seek to block their country’s transformation.

Full: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/18624

Yesterday I watched “Ararat,” a 2002 film by Atom Egoyan, a Canadian film director of Armenian origin. This is basically a postmodernist work that seems more about the problems of understanding history and making art than it is about its ostensible subject, the WWI massacres. As such, it has much in common with the works of Orhan Pamuk himself. I can imagine Egoyan and Pamuk showering praise over each other’s work.

Like many postmodernist works, it has a tendency toward self-reflection–in this case the making of a film titled “Ararat” in Egoyan’s similarly titled movie. In the movie within the movie, director Edward Sayoran (Charles Aznavour) is making a film that wears its sensibilities on its sleeves like Stephen Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List.” It is obvious that Egoyan himself would never make such a straightforward film.

The main character in the film is Raffi (David Alpay), a young Armenian who is stopped in the customs office at the Toronto airport upon returning from Turkey. He is interrogated by a customs officer played by Christopher Plummer who suspects him of smuggling drugs into the country within film cans. Their dialogue allows Egoyan to meditate on the topics which really interest him, namely how to get at the truth in human or artistic terms.

One of the key characters in the film-within-the-film is Arshile Gorky, the painter of Armenian descent who committed suicide in 1948. He was born Vosdanik Adoian in the village of Khorkom, province of Van in 1921. When he was 15, his mother died of starvation in his arms during the Turkish massacre. Much of the film is focused on the way that his “The Artist and His Mother” reflects the suffering of the Armenian people. You can see it at: http://www.legacy-project.org/arts/pics/g/gorkyartistmother01_lg.jpg

At the conclusion of “Ararat,” there are graphic scenes of Turkish cruelty to Armenians that don’t really mesh with the rest of the film. Although I am obviously disappointed in the movie, I strongly recommend it. To my knowledge, it is the only feature film ever to delve into the Armenian tragedy.

For all of the earnestness and obvious high level of artistic ability that characterize Egoyan’s film, it fails to deliver on the most important question, namely why such horrific events take place, and more importantly, how to prevent them in the future. Joanne Laurier, a film critic at the always astute wsws.org (at least on the topic of films!) had this to say:

Ararat was made, according to Egoyan, to counter those who have deliberately obscured the history of the genocide and those who have denied or continue to deny that mass murder took place. In the film, Adolf Hitler is quoted discussing his plans for exterminating the Jews with his generals in 1939: “Who remembers the extermination of the Armenians?” Many governments have never formally recognized the Armenian tragedy. Two years ago, United States Congress dropped a resolution backing the Armenian case after the White House claimed it would harm US interests in the Middle East. Therefore to make a film about the events of 1915 is a very worthy and legitimate enterprise.

Unfortunately, Egoyan, in attempting to counter the deniers by chronicling this history, is largely defeated by his fashionable hostility to “grand narratives” and to the objective treatment of historical events. He articulated this hostility in an interview with PopMatters, remarking that he believes that “small gestures” are more telling than “broad clinical gestures.” He claims, “Ultimately it’s about moments between individuals, negotiations not between countries but between mothers and sons, strangers in a hallway, stepdaughters and mothers.”

Egoyan is caught between two positions that are mutually exclusive: on the one hand, as someone initiated into the sacred rites of postmodernism, he essentially denies that objective interpretation of events or phenomena is possible. “The film is very much about interpretation,” he told Filmmaker magazine. “People have the right to interpret an object. They have the license to interpret something as they wish…. Nothing is fixed.”

Full: http://wsws.org/articles/2002/dec2002/arar-d16.shtml

In my own view, ethnic cleansing, genocide, mass slaughter, etc. are simply symptoms of an economic system in its terminal stages. The rise of capitalism as a world system involved the creation of nation-states that more often than not cobbled together peoples who had little in common. As long as the system was expanding, it was possible for such peoples to co-exist to one degree or another. As the ability of the system to deliver the basic necessities of life to the citizens of nation-states declines, there will be a concomitant rise in ethnic tensions.

In order to stave off such blood-letting, it is necessary to abolish the system that creates underlying tensions between Azeri and Armenian, Tutsi and Hutu, or Arab and Kurd. In the early 20th century, such hopes were invested in the revolutionary movement led by Lenin and his co-thinkers internationally. Despite the collapse of the USSR, there is no other type of movement that can replace it as a guarantee of a more tolerant and more just future.

1 Comment »

  1. If the Grey man ever reads this he would say, you have apparently never heard of Ghengis Khan, or Cortez, or the 30 years war. or or or which should indicated to you that exploitation, including mass murder go back far far further than capitalism. In fact it goes all the way back to Adam blaming Eve for being kicked out of the Garden of Eden.
    He might even add, no matter how internationalist ones claims to be there is at least a little nationalism in everyone. That means there is a little National Socialist lurking in every communist. NO matter how internationalist one claims to be a world with no borders is just as insane as a world with borders.
    That means that making decisions in a socialist or communists society will always be more complicated, and less ruthless than a society in which the strong or the rich make the decisions and every one else does what they or told or else they will suffer. Unless that National Socialist thrives in souls of the population it will be a population that is exploited by foriengers rather than by those who know you much better.
    At first a young person might feel some symphathy for the suffering children of other families in other places but with time the exploiter will learn to accept the suffering of children other than ones own. The poor liberal souls describe me as a despicable social darwinist. Yet they will not shape the world I will. I can adapt and discover ever new and more effectient ways to kill off my competitors and live a full life. A life free from fear of crop failures, free from fear of earthquakes, free of fear from desease, free of fear from man made poisons. In the universe that I create I am God. Some day this body will stop working. At that time not only I but every one who knows me will say, He lived life his way and no one stood in his way…..for very long anyways.

    Comment by Curt Kastens — March 1, 2017 @ 11:31 pm

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