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The Armenian genocide

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[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below] [4th update below] [5th update below]

To mark the centenary of the beginning of the Armenian genocide, I’m linking to two articles—and two only—that I’ve read on the subject of late. One is the remarkable essay in the January 5th issue of The New Yorker by staff writer
Raffi Khatchadourian, “A Century of Silence,” in which he writes about the historical memory of the genocide in southeastern Turkey—and how it is being recovered—through the prism of his family’s own history. At 14,000 words the essay requires a certain time commitment but is well worth it.

The other piece, in the April 20th issue of TWS, is by Boston College political science prof Dominic Green, “A great calamity: One century since the Turkish genocide of the Armenians,” in which he reviews “They Can Live in the Desert but Nowhere Else”: A History of the Armenian Genocide, by Ronald Grigor Suny, the Charles Tilly Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan. Green writes

This year is the centenary of the Armenian Genocide; the commemoration falls on April 24. On that day in 1915, the Ottoman government arrested hundreds of prominent Armenians in Istanbul. This April 24, when memorial ceremonies are held in Armenia and in the cities of the Armenian diaspora, the Turkish government will be congratulating itself with diversionary celebrations of the Gallipoli campaign. The centenary has raised the diplomatic temperature and precipitated many books. Ronald Suny’s is the best of them: Balanced, scholarly, and harrowing, it should be read by all serious students of modern history.

I’ll certainly read it à l’occasion.

I should also mention Turkish-German director Fatih Akin’s new feature-length film, ‘The Cut’, which has the Armenian genocide as its focus. Akin is a fine filmmaker, having directed the excellent Head-On and the very good The Edge of Heaven, though his Soul Kitchen wasn’t too memorable IMO. This one is his biggest budget and most ambitious film. It begins in 1915 in Mardin, in southeastern Anatolia—near the present-day Syrian border—where a blacksmith named Nazaret Manoogian, played by the French actor Tahir Rahim, lives a happy life with his wife and daughters, ages 10-12 or thereabouts, when Ottoman soldiers storm Armenian homes in the middle of the night and send their inhabitants packing. Nazaret is separated from his wife and daughters, the latter sent on the death march to the south while he’s impressed into a work gang, all of whose members have their throats summarily slashed when the soldiers are done with them. But Nazaret’s press-ganged Kurdish executioner couldn’t bring himself to commit the deed, going through the motions and sparing Nazaret’s life, but cutting his vocal cords nonetheless, definitively depriving him of speech. This part of the film, which depicts the genocide as it must have unfolded—with the round-ups, robbing and rape of those on the death march, massacres and mass starvation—is well-done and quite powerful, though one is provided with little information as to why it’s all happening. Turks and Kurds will wince at the way they’re portrayed, even if a small handful are shown to have acted honorably and/or with humanity. Nazaret ended up in Aleppo and, with the war over, learned that his wife had died but the daughters hadn’t, that they’d been married to rich Armenian businessmen living in Cuba. So he set off on his journey to find them—and this is the rest of the film—taking a boat to Havana, where, communicating via writing and hand gestures, he learned that they had moved on to Minneapolis, Minnesota. So smuggling himself to Florida, he made his way to the Twin Cities, where he was informed that the daughters were now somewhere in North Dakota. F—cking North Dakota. So that’s where he went and where his journey ended, some seven years after he was separated from his family. As for whether or not the ending is happy, sorry but no spoilers.

This part of the film doesn’t work. What started out as an epic saga on the Armenian genocide—a subject on which there are precious few cinematic treatments—ended up as a story about a father looking for his lost family—and, with the film’s 2¼-hour running time, a long story indeed. And having the protag lose his voice was an unnecessary contrivance. Technically the film is impressive—it was shot in five countries (Jordan, Malta, Germany, Cuba, and Canada) on three continents—but otherwise it’s a disappointment. A blown opportunity. In the version shown in France the Armenian characters speak Armenian (Rahim and others being dubbed) but I read afterward that they speak English in the main version for the international market. If the one I saw had been this, I’d have given the pic the thumbs down from the get go. Hollywood press critics who saw the film at the Venice festival had the same reaction to it as did I (e.g. here, here, and here). French critics were also on the same wavelength (though Allociné spectateurs were far more positive; for once I go against the vox populi). Armenian trailer w/French s/t is here, English one is here.

UPDATE: Ronald Grigor Suny has an op-ed in the NYT (April 23rd) on “The cost of Turkey’s genocide denial.”

2nd UPDATE: Ronald Grigor Suny has another piece, this an excerpt in TDB (April 24th) from his new book (see above), “Yes, the slaughter of Armenians was genocide.” The lede: “The Turkish government may not want to admit it, but the murder and removal of millions of Armenians was genocide.”

3rd UPDATE: Sabancı University political science professor Ayşe Kadıoğlu has a most interesting essay in OpenDemocracy (April 24th), “Skeletons in the Turkish closet: remembering the Armenian Genocide.” The lede: “Just like the skeletons that were discovered in Diyarbakır in 2012 nearly 100 years after they were buried, Turkey’s past is haunting its future and demanding that we remember the tragic events of the Armenian Genocide.”

4th UPDATE: Le Monde dated April 23rd has an eight-page supplement on the “Génocide des Arméniens,” in which there’s a full-page interview with Boğaziçi University historian Edhem Eldem, who was one of the organizers of the groundbreaking 2005 Istanbul conference on the Armenian genocide, the first ever held in Turkey on the subject. In view of the century-long brainwashing of Turks as to what to happened to the Armenians in the final years of the Ottoman Empire and the hyper-nationalism in Turkey—which is constitutive of the Turkish national identity—he is not optimistic that the Turkish state will recognize the fact of the genocide in the foreseeable future.

5th UPDATE: The website Public Books has a review essay (May 1st) on Ronald Grigor Suny’s book by Christine Philliou, Associate Professor of Ottoman and Modern Turkish History at Columbia University, “The Armenian genocide and the politics of knowledge.”

THE_CUT

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Turkey’s new PM

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There is much to say about Turkey these days—a country to which I am personally attached (and will be visiting soon for non-touristic reasons)—, particularly its recently elected president—the first-ever by universal suffrage—, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and his plan to modify the constitution so as to transform his office into an elected sultanate. More on that some other time. I just want to link here to a couple of op-eds read over the past two days on RTE’s hand-picked replacement as prime minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, the erstwhile grand penseur foreign minister of “zero problems with neighbors” fame—and whose doctrine, at the end of his five-year stint as FM, should have probably been renamed “problems with all neighbors”…

The first piece, which appeared in the NYT (August 28th), is by Marmara Üniversitesi international relations prof Behlül Özkan, “Turkey’s imperial fantasy.” Özkan, who was a student of Davutoğlu’s and “has read hundreds of his articles and books,” knows of what he speaks. Money quote

[Davutoğlu] was a distinguished scholar of Islamic and Western political philosophy, and a genial figure who enjoyed spending hours conversing with his students. In his lectures, this professor argued that Turkey would soon emerge as the leader of the Islamic world by taking advantage of its proud heritage and geographical potential… Mr. Davutoglu’s classroom pronouncements often sounded more like fairy tales than political analysis…

The other piece—cross-published on the MEF website (August 28th)—is “Basting Turkey’s new prime minister,” by Daniel Pipes, a MENA specialist whom I normally link to with reticence, as his political world-view is 180° opposed to mine (and he is intolerant of views that differ significantly from his; e.g. several years ago he refused to authorize publication of a comment of mine on one of his blog posts, but which did not contain incendiary language and was in no way insulting; he manifestly did not like the fact that he was being critiqued from the left, c’est tout). But, like the proverbial stopped clock that gives the right time twice a day, he is occasionally worth reading and not off base (e.g. see here and last paragraph here). And Pipes is indeed worth reading here, as he recounts a conversation he had with Davutoğlu in 2005. Pipes concludes

As Turkey’s 26th prime minister, Davutoğlu faces a bubble economy perilously near collapse, a breakdown in the rule of law, a country inflamed by Erdoğan’s divisive rule, a hostile Gülen movement, and a divided AKP, all converging within an increasingly Islamist (and therefore uncivil) country. Moreover, the foreign policy problems that Davutoğlu himself created still continue, especially the ISIS hostage emergency in Mosul.

The unfortunate Davutoğlu brings to mind a cleanup crew arriving at the party at 4 a.m., facing a mess created by now-departed revelers. Happily, the contentious and autocratic Erdoğan no longer holds Turkey’s key governmental position; but his placing the country in the unsteady hands of a loyalist of proven incompetence brings many new concerns for the Turks, their neighbors, and all who wish the country well.

On this specific question at least, Pipes and I are pretty much on the same page.

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Winter Sleep

Kış Uykusu

Saw this masterpiece of a film yesterday, directed by the great Nuri Bilge Ceylan and the well-deserved winner of the Palme d’or at Cannes this year. A 3¼ hour Turkish film d’auteur with not a dull moment. At no point did it drag or tax my patience. Variety critic Justin Chang got it exactly right

Don’t be daunted by the running time: This character study from Turkish master Nuri Bilge Ceylan is a richly engrossing experience.

Nuri Bilge Ceylan is at the peak of his powers with “Winter Sleep,” a richly engrossing and ravishingly beautiful magnum opus that surely qualifies as the least boring 196-minute movie ever made. Following Ceylan’s sublime 2011 drama “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia,” this equally assured but considerably more accessible character study tunnels into the everyday existence of a middle-aged former actor turned comfortably situated hotel owner — and emerges with a multifaceted study of human frailty whose moral implications resonate far beyond its remote Turkish setting. Simultaneously vast and intimate, sprawling and incisive, and talky in the best possible sense, the film will be confined to the ultra-discerning end of the arthouse market thanks to its daunting running time and deceptively snoozy title, but abundant rewards lie in wait for those who seek it out at festivals and beyond.

For the rest of Chang’s review, go here (also see the reviews in Screen Daily and Indiewire; French reviews are naturally tops). As one learns in the closing credits, the film is inspired by “several short stories” by Chekhov (and there’s also some Shakespeare in there). The acting is excellent all around—particularly the protags Haluk Bilginer (Aydın) and the beautiful Melisa Sözen (Nihal)—, the dialogue is intense, and the cinematography spectacular (the film is entirely set in Cappadocia, which is one of the most breathtaking corners of the world I’ve seen). No release date yet for the US but it will make it there. Those who live in France and have the slightest interest in cinema (or Turkey) should see it ASAP. Trailer is here.

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ErdoganGulen

The website of the French journal Esprit has a lengthy interview (en français), “La fin de l’illusion turque,” with Ahmet Insel, who teaches economics and politics at Galatasaray University in Istanbul (and is a founder of the İletişim publishing house). It’s one of the most interesting analyses I’ve read of late on the current political situation in Turkey, and notably on the conflict between RT Erdoğan and the Gülen movement, and the role of the military in this. Insel says that an AKP national vote of 45% or above in tomorrow’s municipal elections—which he deems probable—will represent a big victory for Erdoğan, providing him with the legitimacy to launch an all-out offensive against the Gülenists (not to mention anyone else he feels like going after). But in the (improbable) event that the AKP wins less than 40%, many AKP militants will start looking to a post-Erdoğan era and which may provoke a split within the party, such that the AKP could lose its current majority in the Grand National Assembly.

But whatever happens in tomorrow’s elections

le Premier ministre restera condamné à une posture défensive. Il va passer le reste de sa vie politique à craindre l’ouverture de nouveaux dossiers, la publication de nouvelles preuves accablantes. Qu’elle soit lente, en passant par une phase «poutinienne», ou rapide en cas de défaite aux élections locales, la chute de M. Erdogan est inéluctable.

Sooner rather than later, inshallah.

What Insel has to say to about the Kurdish question is also most interesting. Erdoğan wants to cut a deal with the PKK but his hands are being tied by various domestic actors, not the least of whom is the nationalist Turkish public, i.e. the AKP base, and its ethnic conception of the Turkish nation.

Insel, who is quite smart, also has an interview in today’s Libération, “Turquie: «Erdogan est mortellement blessé, mais il ne tombera pas tout de suite».”

2009 municipal elections

2009 municipal elections

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That’s what this Time magazine article on Turkish PM Erdoğan’s Twitter ban and nationalist demagoguery calls him. As for what a honey badger (en français: ratel) is and does, take a look at this YouTube linked to in the article. Beurk!

I’ve been trying to decide who’s worse, Erdoğan or Putin. They’re both equally unspeakable, in fact, with Erdoğan maybe only slightly less awful due to Turkey’s more or less democratic institutions—though which are seeming less these days—, institutionalized party politics, and more or less free and fair elections. But if Erdoğan and Putin were to switch countries, I would definitely fear Erdoğan more than I do Putin now.

Christopher de Bellaigue has a review essay in the April 3rd NYRB, “Turkey goes out of control.” The books under review are Soner Cagaptay’s The Rise of Turkey: The Twenty-First Century’s First Muslim Power and two on the Fethullah Gülen movement, one by Joshua D. Hendrick, the other (in Turkish) by Ahmet Şık. Cagaptay is a curious case. He was a fierce critic of Erdoğan and the AKP through the last election—repeatedly warning in numerous articles and op-eds of the threat the AKP posed to secularism and Turkish democracy—but then did an almost 180° turnaround. Though he doesn’t come out and praise Erdoğan personally—at least not so far as I’ve seen—he’s now bullish on Turkey’s future—economically, geopolitically, etc—under the current regime and expresses not a peep of criticism of Erdoğan and his government, not even during the Taksim/Gezi Park movement last June. So he’s become a sell-out changed his mind. Ça arrive.

UPDATE: Zeynep Tufekci, UNC-Chapel Hill prof—and to whom I linked several times last June—, has a very good post on her Technology and Society blog on “The day the Turkish government banned itself from Twitter.” The lede: People in Turkey have banned the ban.

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Istanbul Olympics

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Thank God Istanbul didn’t get them. As one gleans from the above image—by a local anti-Olympics group—hosting the games would have had all sorts of deleterious consequences: white elephant facilities, ecological carnage, bulldozers working overtime 24/7 and razing at will—as if Istanbul needs more of that (and with the AKP’s construction clientele enriched ever further and with the attendant corruption)—, and damage to the city’s historic and cultural patrimony. And this being Turkey, there is the matter of demonstrations and the way the police there deal with them (I wonder if the IOC wasn’t thinking of Mexico City 1968 in its deliberations). And then there was the question of cost (image below). Turkey may have boomed economically over the past decade but that boom is slowing down and with the economy hitting some walls. The Olympics are colossally expensive and almost always huge money losers. Economically speaking, the games would have been a bad investment for Turkey. (À propos, Parisians—myself included—were so disappointed that Paris lost out to London in hosting the 2012 games; but in the years after 2005, when that decision was made, there were no regrets; what a relief Paris didn’t get them).

Last but not least, there’s prime minister Erdoğan. Winning the 2020 games would have been a huge political and personal victory for him. Losing them was a big slap in the face. And if there’s anyone who needs to have his face slapped—figuratively and perhaps literally too (what an interesting idea)—, it’s RT Erdoğan. It was reported that big crowds gathered in Taksim Square on Saturday night to celebrate the city not getting the games. How gratifying.

On the Turkish activists who campaigned against Istanbul hosting the games—and lobbied the IOC—, ex-Istanbul based journalist Jay Cassano has an informative article in Jadaliyya.

Changing the subject from the Olympics, Christopher de Bellaigue had a very good piece in Slate two weeks ago, on “Turkey’s hidden revolution.” The lede: How Prime Minister Erdoğan accidentally fostered a generation of Turkish liberals. The emergence of a significant liberal current among the forces vives in Turkey was one of the revelations—for those outside Turkey, at least—of the Taksim Gezi Park movement in June. A very positive development, c’est le moins que l’on puisse dire. The existence of this current is a big difference between Turkey and the Arab world. The latter lacks it. Tahrir Square is not Taksim. And that’s not going to change anytime soon.

UPDATE: Journalist Cengiz Çandar has an article in Al Monitor on Istanbul losing the Olympics.

How much will the Olympics cost?

How much will the Olympics cost?

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Istanbul, 5 juin 2013 (photo: AFP/Aris Messinis)

Istanbul, 5 juin 2013 (photo: AFP/Aris Messinis)

Edhem Eldem, professeur d’Histoire à l’Université du Bosphore (Boğaziçi) à Istanbul, a une tribune dans Le Monde, daté le 30 juillet 2013, sur le premier ministre turc et sa politique. C’est l’une des analyses les plus pertinentes que j’ai lu dernièrement sur le sujet. On pense plus que jamais de la fameuse phrase prononcée par M.Erdoğan dans les années 90, quand il était maire d’Istanbul : “La démocratie est comme un tramway, il va jusqu’où vous voulez aller, et là vous descendez”…

Voici la tribune du professeur Eldem

La question de la laïcité – et par conséquent de l’islam – en Turquie n’est pas nouvelle, puisqu’elle remonte aux origines de la République. Toutefois, avec l’arrivée au pouvoir de l’AKP (le Parti de la justice et du développement) de Recep Tayyip Erdogan en 2002, elle a pris une nouvelle dimension ; depuis les récents événements de la place Taksim, on ne parle presque plus que de cela.

Ce discours comporte le risque de tout réduire à une fausse dichotomie entre islam et laïcité, d’autant plus que la laïcité turque se réduisait souvent à un contrôle étatique sur un islam sunnite tacitement reconnu comme religion nationale. Ce qui comptait surtout, c’était de paralyser le pouvoir politique de l’islam – notamment des confréries – et de maintenir les apparences d’une modernité occidentale jugée incompatible avec la plupart des signes extérieurs d’appartenance à l’islam, tel le voile.

Le coup d’Etat de 1980 changea sensiblement la donne ; la junte, inspirée par la politique américaine, s’imagina pouvoir mieux combattre les “rouges” en se servant (more…)

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