Poet, essayist, novelist and journalist Kaya Genç traveled throughout Turkey for a year to create this compelling portrait of a nation.
After the 2016 coup attempt in his native Turkey, Kaya Genç – a novelist who also contributes to the New York Review of Books, The Guardian and Artforum – pondered the central conflict of his nation: its artistic soul versus its military might. To gain greater insight, Genç spent 2017 traveling throughout Turkey and speaking with citizens from all walks of life. His narrative provides a broad, deep overview of Turkish history and shows, from a unique and informative perspective, how the past weighs on Turkey’s present.
The London Review of Books called this “a spelling-binding story.” Bloomsbury said, “Weaving together… memoir, interview and… autobiography, Genç takes… a contemporary journey through the contradictory soul of the Turkish nation.”
Lions and Nightingales
At the beginning of 2017, Genç explains, Turkey faced turmoil trying to reconcile the contrasting yet fundamental aspects of its character: an authoritarian, militaristic and nationalistic rule set against a parliamentary democracy, cultural vitality and pluralism – the lion versus the nightingale. Genç asks: Is Turkey Asian or European, secular or Islamist, and is it vested in the future or in the past?
Recep Tayyip Erdoğan made the country wealthy and self-confident.Kaya Genç
Genç understands that a strong state offers security, infrastructure growth, increased wealth and, for Turkey’s Islamist contingent, a resurgence of religious values. But it also, he points out, brings political repression, negative environmental impacts, rollbacks of secularism and undesirable shifts in foreign policy.
Genç presents Turkey’s divided nature as stemming from its complex history. He cites ancient Greeks, Romans, Persians, Goths, Byzantines and Ottomans as powerful cultural influences. Genç details how, at the start of the 20th century, a group of heterogeneous progressives – the Young Turks – sought Turkish independence.
Historians wrote critically about Atatürk because of the strength of his trust in his vision: He could accept no alternate to or critique of it. Now Erdoğan was displaying the same confidence.Kaya Genç
Genç explains that, after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire following World War I, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk led the Turkish War of Independence, laying the foundations for the modern Turkish state by blending secularism with militarism and nationalist pride. These modernizing reforms became known as “Kemalism.” But Genç makes it clear that Atatürk’s regime, however pioneering, was repressive.
No Democratic Tradition
Genç refers to Turkey’s sympathies for the German Nazi Party, though Turkey remained officially neutral during World War II. He underscores that the state did not hold its first multiparty election until 1946, though the ruling party rigged the results. Turkey suffered repeated military coups and unstable coalition governments between 1961 and 2002, when the Justice and Development party (AKP) came to power under Recep Erdoğan.
Genç tracks the AKP’s 2017 referendum to amend the constitution and institute a presidential system in place of the parliamentary process. He recognizes that some saw winning the referendum as a defeat for Turkey’s “militant secularism.” Though political forces corrupted the election, Genç acknowledges that the AKP prevailed.
Allies and Enemies
Genç paints Erdoğan as hoping that, when Donald Trump took office as president of the United States, he would end US support for Syrian Kurds, but America continued to arm them. The United States, Genç says, prosecuted Turkish citizens for circumventing sanctions on Iran and for laundering money, and it recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, thus offending Islamists. Turkey, Genç relates, joined Russia against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Syria.
Genç delves into Erdoğan’s increasing moves to restrict freedom of the press. Arts funding, the author reminds readers, has dried up, leaving the country bereft of cultural producers. Military might has consolidated presidential power.
Anyone linked with the coup’s alleged perpetrators were detained. The Turkish government wanted to stop them fleeing to Greece.Kaya Genç
Genç mourns that after the attempted coup in 2016, detentions became so common that people stopped finding them shocking. Government control of the media grew, as did, Genç details, travel bans that prevented civil servants, artists and academics from leaving the country. Few Turks, he regrets, have fought these developments.
Genç concedes that the patriarchy is strong, despite a feminist tradition dating to the Ottoman Welfare Organization of Women in 1908. Genç bemoans women’s 28% employment rate, a rate that is 65% for men. Many women, he discloses, marry strictly for financial survival.
Arts and Culture
Genç reveals the ways that the Turkish state affects filmmakers, journalists, poets, choreographers, novelists and philanthropists. Many artists and thinkers, he recounts, at first supported Erdoğan, whose pivot to a traditional Islamist identity shocked them.
The AKP, Genç laments, imprisons artists and intellectuals. He describes expatriate Turkish artists and intellectual communities in Berlin, Amsterdam and New York. Many still in Turkey, Genç fears, are inured to oppression. The nightingales have not lost hope, Genç contends, but the lions are in control.
A Welcome Overview
Turkey is a confusing, contradictory nation, and its swing to Islamism and extreme repression surprised many Western observers. Those seeking the truth about Turkey – and running into government lies and indifferent citizens – report constant frustration, so Genç’s hard-earned observations prove especially welcome and useful; they also speak to the author’s bravery. Genç has produced an unusual, revelatory narrative. Most recent books about Turkey focus on its tyrannical leader, but Genç traveled the country specifically to elicit the vox populi and to create a rich, multilayered portrait. He writes like a poet, paying great attention to emotion while never neglecting the hard, practical realities of Turkish life. His report is a treasure for all readers, and especially for politicians, diplomats, students and anyone seeking a greater understanding of this pivotal nation.
Kaya Genç’s other books include Under the Shadow, L’ Avventura and An Istanbul Anthology. Other compelling works on contemporary Turkey are Erdogan Rising by Hannah Lucinda Smith, Ottoman Odyssey by Alev Scott and Erdogan’s Empire by Soner Cagaptay.