Saleem Sinai, the protagonist of Midnight’s Children is born on the stroke of midnight of Indian independence, and his life becomes an allegory for that of the Indian subcontinent. And while I can boast that I first come to Istanbul over half a century ago, I cannot pretend that my own life parallels that of a Turkish Republic. Even so, I have eavesdropped on important and interesting moments of that Turkish history, have met people, older than myself who remember and whose lives were shaped by the birth of a nation exactly one hundred years ago. I know enough to realise that this year’s centenary on 29th October is not just another candle on the cake.
For all that, I did recently discover that just a few days after my birth, some 100,000 people poured onto the streets of Istanbul for a lavish parade. The year was 1953 and given that the city had a population of less than a million (today it is some 16 million), this was an impressive turnout. Alas, the crowds were not there to celebrate my appearance in the world, nor even Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary’s successful ascent that day of Mount Everest, but to commemorate the 5OOth anniversary of the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople.
What my older self now finds surprising is that Turkey’s reconciliation with its Ottoman past began so many decades ago – shortly before the country joined Nato and while Turkish troops were still fighting the Korean War. In today’s Turkey, we talk today of neo-Ottomanism conviction that Turkey need no longer cling to the coattails of others, but will surge ahead on the current of an illustrious past—that it is no longer the handmaiden of someone else’s world vision but in charge of its own. Such growing confidence (and the attendant risks of going it alone) did not, of course, develop overnight, but I had always assumed that the young republic had very deliberately turned its back on an stale and unprofitable empire and the declaration of the republic was a way of starting all over again.
I was wrong: I read in Nicholas Danforth’s recent book The Remaking of the Turkish Republic that the 29th of May 1953 commemoration of the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople had already been ten years in the planning. The New York Times reporting on the day, described a procession of “men clad in the mail and peaked helmets of the Janizaries [stet], the Sultan’s elite troops” alongside units of Turkey’s present-day army and navy passing through the ancient Saint Romanus Gate—today’s Topkapı Gate – where the Ottoman armies first breached the land walls. If, even at the time, this seemed a quaint re-enactment—heritage not history—Turkey was not unique. Beefeaters were also parading that day through the streets of London in a dress rehearsal for the coronation of Elizabeth II a few days later.
I was hardly a conqueror when I first came to Istanbul in 1967 but a young, wide-eyed young teenager, overwhelmed by the sights and sounds of it all. When I think back on that time, , a clear spring day comes into mind and I see the green hillsides above the sea-blue of Bosphorus, tinged with the purple-pink blush of Judas tree blossom. I remember no colour at all in the Istanbul to which I arrived, by chance, on Independence Day, 29th October 1980 – just over a month after a military coup. I see night and streetlights so dim that is a wonder anyone bothered to turn them on at all. Only his week, I returned last night from Ankara on a high speed train cruised at 250 km. per hour into the station and couldn’t help but compare that to the excitement we all felt some time in 1981, when there was at last enough electricity to illuminate the skyline of Istanbul’s historical peninsula and Topkapı Palace, Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque emerged from darkness.
I can recall as a student being in Hatay, near the Syrian border, not on the 29th October but on a humid day in July where there was an annual parade to celebrate Hatay’s liberation from the French Mandate in 1939 – the last piece of territory to fit into the map of contemporary Turkey. It was the early 1970s and there were still a group of veterans from the 1919-1922 War of Independence alive and fit enough to march on parade. They all had bushy beards and montagnard-type uniforms with twin cartridge belts draped in an X across their chests. Only when they had passed were the symbols of progress and modernity allowed to join the procession. These were not so much floats as open-backed pick-up trucks proudly bearing refrigerators and washing machines and all the other accoutrements of what then constituted the good life. It is painful to think that while Iskenderun survived this year’s earthquake, nearby that good life in Antakya is under rubble.
It hard to imagine what sort of high-tech wizardry could even begin to impress modern Turkey. The declaration of the republic initiated an extraordinary programme of modernisation. Ataturk’s generation set about a programme of social transformation with an extraordinary attention to detail, encouraging the adoption of everything from a Western working week to European fashion. If Turkey feels more European than any other nation of the region it is partly because Turkish women enjoyed from an early date a legal framework guaranteeing equality with men. I know full well such enthusiasm needs to be qualified – that equality bestowed from on high is less valuable than equality that was fought for.
In that regard as part of my private hundred year tribute, I mention the name of Halit Çambel (1916-2014)– an extraordinarily gifted archaeologist. She worked with Robert John Braidwood who many believe was the role model for Indiana Jones but it was Halit who was in many way braver and more adventurous. I never met her but did meet her fencing teacher who was our gym teacher in Robert Academy in the 1960s, a white Russian emigree called Alexander Nadolsky. Fencing was her sport. In 1936, she became the first Turkish woman, indeed credited as the first Moslem woman ever, to compete at an Olympics. Games. The 1936 Olympics was famous for Hitler’s refusal to shake Jesse Owens hand, but Hait Cambel refused to shake Hitler’s. “If I knew I had to meet him, I wouldn’t have come she told the official who came to summon her for an audience. She went on to do so many wonderful things from helping to discover and decipher the Phoenician Hittite equivalent of the Rosetta stone to the way she looked after her discoveries as well as the people who lived there. I think my real fascination with her is that her grandfather was a grand vizier who translated detective fiction for Abdulhamid II. Though I was only to discover this much later, just such a character figures in my novel The Adventure of the Second Wife.
If commentators speak sometimes of Turkey trying to re-establish a regional zone of influence as a neo-Ottoman foreign policy, I have yet to hear of a political force calling for a restoration of the actual throne. Which brings me to another child of the republic, albeit an unlikely one.
I met him first the heir apparent to the Ottoman throne (“My name is Ertugrul,” he told me) at a cocktail party in Manhattan where he lived, famously, in a rent-controlled apartment. A New York Times article of 2006 quipped that no one would be happier were the Ottomans to be reinstated than his landlord who could bid adieu to a tenant who was paying such a measly rent. A few years later I managed to interview him during one of his summer visits to Istanbul, eager to speak with the last Ottoman royal to be born when the empire was still alive. Of course, he was born in 1912 (d. 2009) well after his grandfather Abdulhamid II had been deposed, and most of what he knew had been relayed to him by others rather than what he could himself remember. He spoke of a household composed of elderly concubines and of a monarch whose stark simplicity was at odds with the pomp with which he was surrounded. His abiding memory of authoritarian rule was the German “Fraulein” who ruled his nursery.
The anecdotes he told – of the plain steel letter opener the Sultan used to deal with his mail, of exchanging a jewel encrusted cigarette case for the plain box used by the American ambassador were all tales of the simplicity of majesty. It was clearly a style which he himself cultivated. Caroline thought to present him with a copy Osman’s Dream, a history of the Ottoman Empire and in that sense a history of his own family. She was carefully instructed by others to inscribe it to His Imperial Highness Prince Ertugrul Osman but he refused to let her do so, opting for plain Osman, instead. He was allowed to return from exile in 1992 to Turkey and he revisited one of his ancestral homes – Dolmabahce Palace. He did so as an ordinary member of the public on a a scheduled guided tour What struck him most as he rediscovered his homeland, he told me, was that “everyone spoke Turkish”. What had been for him a language of exile was spoken by everyone in the streets.
It makes sense that Turkey should have pulled out all the stops in 1953 to celebrate the historic conquest of a city they had reconquered from Allied forces only 30 years before. You might think that the Turkey in this year of all years would be equally exuberant in celebrating its foundation a century ago. Perhaps I do not watch enough television, or belong to the right Whatsapp groups, but this does not seem to be the case. It is not that contemporary society is less patriotic or nationalistic but perhaps unsure what form these sentiments should take.
My point of comparison is 25 years ago when miles and miles of bunting went up, months in advance, to mark the country’s 75th Jubilee. Amidst the flags and fireworks, one of my fondest recollections is the packaging on a whole, uncooked chicken in the refrigerator compartment of our local market, that was proudly decorated with the star and crescent logo of the celebrations that was ubiquitous in the run-up to the actual Republic Day.
I don’t suppose one has to speculate very hard on the reason why the mood now is far more subdued. Deadly earthquakes earlier this year, a rate of inflation at over 60 percent, bloodshed in nearby Ukraine, horror in the Middle East—these have all suppressed any appetite we might have to celebrate. And, of course, there was an election only a few months ago that seemed to cleave opinion in two, or at least force us to ask whose Republic it is. We are defined by how we remember the past but also how we use that memory to prepare for the future. The Turkey of today is still eager to reboot but not entirely sure which button to push.
If I am honest, there was a whiff of forced jollity about the celebrations back in 1998. I recall a sense of resentment that people were forced into a competition to see who could wave their flag the longest. “They think that by putting the flags up early, the Republic belongs more to them,” one shopkeeper told me at the time. “In fact, it belongs to all of us.”
I have an alternative explanation for today’s air of relative restraint. In anticipation of the 75th anniversary those years ago I did a couple of news features for CNN. The interview that sticks in my mind was with Hikmet Sebüktekin, a professor of applied linguistics and a pioneer in the teaching of English to Turkish speakers. I can’t discover his exact age, but he was about the same age as the Republic – old enough, in any case, to remember Atatürk visiting the working-class neighbourhood in Istanbul where he lived as a child, and to have witnessed the funeral train cortege when Atatürk died in 1938. He believed he was able to complete his own secondary schooling only because of the young Republic’s commitment to universal free education. While trying to get a scholarship to university, he attended one of the newly initiated adult education institutes where he began to learn English. From there he went to a teacher training college in Ankara and then won another scholarship to study abroad. Hikmet Bey was genuine in explaining his pride, as a child of the Republic, that he was able to bring home the knowledge he had acquired. Sadly, he died five years ago and there can be few of his generation left with those same memories.
To put it another way, the lives of nations and the lives of its citizens, like our lives and those of goldfish, obey different cycles. Back in 1998 there were still those for whom the founding of the Republic and the opening of a new chapter in history was a real memory, Today, in a country where the median age is under 32 – it is a performance, a parade, no more immediate than the marching Janissary band re-enacting the taking of Constantinople back when I was born. Seventy-five years is three generations around the dinner table; a century is of course something to celebrate – but also a lonelier journey into the unknown.