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Modern and mythless: Turkey today

Zafer Senocak looks at the mythological vacuum in a Turkey that remains divorced from its past.

Early in the 20th century in the Ottoman Empire, young writers and intellectuals – people like Yahya Kemal (1884-1958) and Yakup Kadri (1889-1974) – debated the possible mythological content and references of a Turkish culture which was reshaping itself with an eye on the West.

Ottoman history had nothing comparable to Europe's Renaissance and Enlightenment eras. Phenomena such as the French Revolution were viewed from afar, with a good deal of scepticism. There was no such thing as a translating facility which might have transmitted works of European literature and philosophy. There was a dense cultural barrier between the Ottoman Empire and the Western world.

But around the mid-19th century the Turkish intelligentsia began casting its eye with increasing curiosity on Europe, particularly on France. A hunger for new ideas overcame the centuries of lethargy and self-containment. That is how far back the roots of Turkey's orientation towards the West go. Social reforms in the Empire were the harbinger of a cultural revolution which was to be completed half a century later by Mustafa Kemal, the founder of the Turkish Republic.

Most reform-minded Turkish writers were quite aware that a modernisation of their nation's culture could not be based solely on contemporary dynamics, but also – and always – on old traditions and mythological sources of inspiration, that is to say, on the foundations of the Turkish imagination. There was a search for a fundamental mythology as a source of inspiration for modernisation.

A Classical period such as was experienced in Germany in Goethe's time would have been inconceivable without a re-connection to Greco-Roman antiquity. Western art and literature had begun separating itself from medieval Christianity back at the start of the Renaissance. Artists were inspired by the Ancient Greeks and their humanistic ideals, and by the process of the Enlightenment. Beginning in the late 18th century, a rationalist-positivist view of science and its technological achievements led to the much-discussed and highly controversial phenomenon of "modernity". Emancipation and alienation became key concepts in the minds of modern thinkers and in their efforts to find meaning and mystery in an alienating world which was functioning with ever increasing efficiency. Authors such as Kafka, Beckett and Camus were the most prominent interpreters of those ideas. All of them were zealously translated into Turkish.

But what did the history, literature and philosophy of Antiquity mean to Turks who were emancipating themselves from Islam? As they began to regard the French novel, the English theatre and European poetry as models for their own creative works, how did they relate to the underpinnings of these artistic endeavors? What did Virgil mean to them? What came to supplant the Islamic mysticism which, for centuries, had provided the inspiration for their music and literature?

Not even the early Arab openness to Greek philosophy was really present in Ottoman culture. Rather, its sources of inspiration were to be found primarily in millennia-old Persian cultures and in a diluted memory of Byzantium (with the latter’s culture admittedly bearing some traces of Antiquity). The situation was made even trickier by the fact that there certainly was, in Turkey, a geographic/territorial identification with Antiquity. Even today many ancient cities, such as Troy and Ephesus, and their archaeological remains, are situated in Turkey. But for the most part they have remained alien bodies in the Turkish-settled Anatolian landscape, the legacy of exiled and extinct peoples, unpleasant gaps in Turkish memory rather than sources of creative inspiration. Today "Efes," the Turkish designation for Ephesus, is recognised mostly as a popular brand of beer.

It was mainly European archaeologists, such as the German Heinrich Schliemann, who set out to uncover the ancient stones and walls on Anatolian soil. The founding of a native Turkish archaeology was certainly a first step in the effort to absorb that geographic legacy culturally as well. But even now, visits to these historically and culturally important sites in Turkey are made largely by foreign tourists and just a small class of interested locals. Those sites do not arouse the Turkish national spirit, nor are they given an appropriate level of recognition in Turkish schools. Turks still prefer to make pilgrimages to the shrines of Muslim saints. And if there is any Turkish city laden with mythology, it is Konya, site of the tomb of the poet and philosopher Mawlana (1207-1273). Mawlanas works were not only written in the Persian language, they were created under the influence of Iranian culture.

Clearly, the problem of mythological sources could not be unequivocally resolved in modern Turkey. The alienation perceived there vis-à-vis the roots of Western culture was not overcome. Attempts to introduce instruction in Greek and Latin as part of the school curriculum were quickly abandoned. But since modern Turkey's Kemalist revolution cut off all ties to the Arab-Islamic world, what resulted was a modernity without any mythological underpinning.

In the early days of modernisation, many writers tried to deal with material both from ancient Greece and from Muslim myths and legends. But gradually the "Oriental" legacy came to dominate, so that references to Ottoman-Islamic tradition are often to be found in present-day works, such as the novels of Nobel Prize-winner Orhan Pamuk.

Admittedly, those references appear within a post-modern framework and are thus a reflection of Turkey's social and cultural reality today. This revival of a perceptible tension between the Muslim legacy and Anatolia's repressed, forgotten roots in Christianity and Antiquity could perhaps yield an easing of rigid polarities. That would inject a new dimension into the debate over whether or not Turkey is part of Europe. The focus would then be on the border-crossing rather than on the barrier.

But post-modernity as a philosophical bridge cannot replace modernity, it merely underscores its weak points and contradictions; it is a consequence, sometimes of the relief which follows pain and tension, sometimes of the memory of pain itself. It is illusory to believe that one can resolve or simply skip over the questions which modernity has raised, because of their seeming arbitrariness and opacity. Hence Turkey as it is constituted today seems like a prefabricated building erected on soil pregnant with history.


The article originally appeared in German in Die Welt on 9 December, 2006

Zafer Senocak, born in Ankara in 1961, has lived in Germany since 1970, where he has become a leading voice in German discussions on multiculturalism, national and cultural identity, and a mediator between Turkish and German culture.

Translation: Myron Gubitz

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