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A stone's throw from Europe

Hilal Sezgin on Europe's debt to the Middle East

"Mein Europa" (my Europe) is the title of a series that the Frankfurter Rundschau launched in response to the crisis in the European Union. Authors are asked: what are the inner contours of "their Europe" and to what extent do these correspond with Europe's political borders. Here, Turkish-German author Hilal Sezgin reminds Europeans of the huge debt of gratitude they owe to their Middle Eastern neighbours.

In 1973, the Bosporus Bridge in Istanbul was opened with some brouhaha. At that time it was the "only bridge in the world that joined two continents". The saying, despite geographical correctness and a justifiable pride in the architectural accomplishment, was a little off the mark. For one thing, it had been possible for ages to travel between the "two continents" for a couple of kurus: on a ferry, holding onto the railing, while waiters balanced trays with tea and almond biscuits. As a child, your eyes occasionally filled with tears; the Bosporus had an appetite for teddy bears, the ones you just wanted to show to the fish. This, however, had its benefits: you got more almond biscuits, because Turks are famous for not being able to stand the sight of a crying child.

The second problem with the saying (which also explains the short crossing time) is that in this corner of the world, the distance between the "two continents" is not especially great. Of course, the Bosporus is a magnificent strait, with little fishing boats, huge oil tankers and more than anything, a wonderful glint, all seven – or maybe it's now 17 – hills of Istanbul reflecting in its playful water. Only it doesn't function particularly well as a great divider of the continents. It's a stone's throw from here to there. If you didn't know better, you would take the Bosporus quite simply for a river – and we all know how much historical clarity the Rhine offered.

But good, you can't get around it, all geographic borders are a question of definition in the end, a symbol or quite simply a line that someone drew somewhere after some great war. More important than the line is the culture, which doesn't heed borders; these are never clearly drawn. Nonetheless one attributes geographic space and origins to cultures, to some degree. So, with which culture are we to associate the general "European cultural space"?

Europe regards its cemented cities full of well-fed, well-read inhabitants with pride – but nothing that Europe is proud of has European origins. Other than Obelix's hunt of the wild boar, Europe has created very little on its own. The formation of cities, agriculture, numbers and letters, legislation and every religion that is significant in Europe today – all these came from the Middle East. Whether Christ is a person, a god or both was decided in Nicea, in Asia Minor. This was also home to most antique philosophers and, purportedly, the poet Homer. England was proselytised by a man from Carthage.

Back then, anyone who came from the other side of the Bosporus would be warmly welcomed; he was assumed to bring with him something interesting and innovative, something that didn't exist in those European wild boary woods. The nobility of the Middle Ages delighted in the pleasures that came from the Far East, and in the southern Mediterranean, Arabs, Persians and travellers sowed the seeds of that which they had gleaned from the Indians and Chinese – the notion of research, teaching and universities.

Gutenberg merely copied the printing press for Europe and Luther's accomplishment was to translate the Bible anew. Europeans were good at studying, keeping things or developing them further but their own contributions to world literature appeared, with a few exceptions, in the last two hundred years. In general, it took far too long for geographic Europe to be culturally independent enough to have something to offer the rest of the world. This did not always happen peacefully, of course. But even the means of Europe's greatest sins – gun powder, naval navigation and the paper on which the subjugation of other continents was signed, sealed and delivered – had been taken over from the East.

How can one even say "Europe" without thinking of the Silk Road, Mesopotamia and the teachings of Baghdad and Cordoba? Without these, Europe would be nothing, a piece of dirt, a mere appendix of the Eurasian plate. The "European cultural space" is a child of the motherland that lies east of the Bosporus and west of the Amur; European museums are full of the evidence of this millennia long flow of gifts from East to West which the great minds of the Enlightenment and the German Romantic never tired of hailing. And yet there is this bizarre and massive amnesia. Europe has become stubborn, condescending and stingy. People prefer to keep to themselves; occasionally someone admits to having crossed the Bosporus westwards to copy something or other. The Mediterranean is too wide – thank goodness – to build a bridge over. No, bold Europe has nothing homey about it, certainly nothing inviting. Those risking their lives and their feet on the Nato wire in Morocco know this all too well.


Hilal Sezgin, born 1970 in Frankfurt, studied philosophy, sociology and German literature and is now an author and journalist at the Frankfurter Rundschau.

The article originally appeared in the Frankfurter Rundschau on October 7, 2005.

Translation: nb

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