The below review inaugurates an irregular series featuring recent works of Middle Eastern-themed fiction and non-fiction that have unjustly fallen by the wayside. Moris Farhi’s novel Young Turk was published by Saqi Books in 2004 and then more widely by Arcade Publishing in 2005. Though relatively unknown in the United States, Farhi is recognized as a major novelist in the United Kingdom, where he lives and works. His earlier Children of the Rainbow and Journey through the Wilderness received much acclaim in the UK, and in 2001 he was made an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) for “services to literature.” Farhi is of Turkish Jewish origin, and Young Turk is notable—among other reasons—for its depiction of the land of his birth.
Young Turk, by Moris Farhi. Arcade Publishing, 2005. 392 pages. $25.00
How did Turkey, perhaps the Sick Man of Europe’s most gangrenous limb, fare after the vivisection of the Ottoman Empire and the parceling out of its constituent parts? What of the attempts to forge a cohesive nation out of a dizzying array of millets? And how did the Holocaust touch a country that remained neutral throughout most of the Second World War? Moris Farhi’s Young Turk is a novel that attempts to address these and other questions regarding a remarkably complex and riven land that too often is perceived through an exclusively political prism, one that situates it neatly and self-servingly as a loyal ally of the West.
First, there was Atatürk. Otherwise known as Mustafa Kemal, the “Father of the Turks” almost single-handedly fashioned into a European-style secular state what had for centuries been the administrative locus of the Islamic caliphate. And that was after he routed invading Western armies aiming for a chunk of his beloved motherland. Kemal enshrined Turkish nationalism, as opposed to Islam, as the ideological underpinning of the embryonic state, attempting (often with a generous measure of brute force) to sear this value into the hearts and minds of pan-Islamists as well as members of non-Turkish ethnic groups. It is after the demise of Atatürk (1938) that virtually all the action in this novel is set, with the protagonists trying to cobble together a coherent Weltanschauung out of a host of differing and competing interpretations of “Kemalism.”
Reminiscent of a Robert Altman film in its presentation of a gallery of disparate characters with interlocking fates, this book’s division into thirteen related yet self-enclosed vignettes, each recounted by a different person, offers a richly textured portrayal of the many strata comprising Turkish society in the 1940’s and 50’s. “And His Fruit was Sweet to My Taste,” a harrowing yet ultimately life-affirming journey to a mental ward in France for survivors of the Nazi concentration camps, likely qualifies as the most powerful piece, matched only perhaps by the strikingly original trio “A Tale of Two Cities,” “Half-Turk,” and “The Sky-Blue Monkey.” Primarily focused on the Holocaust as it affects a group of Turkish Jews and their friends, these three segments also illumine the little-known but ruinous Varlık Vergisi wealth tax imposed by the Turkish government largely on members of minority communities (Jews, Greeks, Armenians) in 1942-44. Much of the material, such as the account of an attempted rescue of a Jewish family in Nazi-occupied Greek Salonica by a group of teenaged boys in Istanbul, manages to be both rousing in spirit and devastating in outcome. In an appendix to “The Sky-Blue Monkey,” Pepo the veteran relays his experiences with Atatürk at the battle of Sakarya during Turkey’s war against the invading Greek army. Farhi perfectly captures the charisma of the accomplished military tactician in his dialogue with Pepo, deftly tempering the passage’s overall tone of adulation for Mustafa Kemal Paşa with a refreshing dose of humor:
My Paşa patted me on the shoulder. “Find me a man who laughs at adversity and I’ll show
you a Jew!”
“I’m a Jew, my Paşa…”
“Which is why I’ve commissioned you to be my eyes and ears!”
“Allah be praised!”
“Are you religious, Pepo?”
“No, my Paşa…”
“Good. Keep it that way.”
“But I believe in God…”
“We all do. Otherwise we wouldn’t be fighting this war.”
“The enemy, too, thinks God is on his side, my Paşa.”
“Sure, he does. The Greeks love God. And God loves the Greeks. I should know. I was
born in Salonica.”
“Which makes this a funny war…”
“That’s right, son. Funny for God. Life and death for us mortals.”
Fraught as it is with history and politics, Young Turk might have proven cumbersome for those unfamiliar with the intricacies of the modern Middle East, yet Farhi succeeds in the difficult task of rendering coverage of even the most complicated ethnic rivalries eminently readable. Unfortunately, this is in certain instances done through a fair measure of simplification. We are informed, for example, that all the outrages committed by Turks in modern times (massacres of Armenians, ethnic cleansing of Greeks, oppression of Kurds—all of which Farhi expressly acknowledges) should be attributed either to the Ottomans who preceded Kemal or to the opportunistic demagogues who succeeded him and perverted his noble ideals. While it is imperative to give Kemal his due for having resuscitated a withering Turkey, and to recognize that he was in no way responsible for what is often termed the Armenian genocide of 1915-16, this should not obscure the fact that he played an important role in destroying the nascent Republic of Armenia in 1920 and annexing much of its territory. Similarly, Kemal must share some of the blame for catastrophes visited upon the Pontus Greeks by Turkish troops under his command in 1922-23. Finally, though it is true that Kemal often spoke of Turkish-Kurdish brotherhood and did not himself launch Turkey’s notorious (and in part ongoing) crusade against any and all manifestations of Kurdish identity, historians such as Andrew Mango have recently shown just how ambivalent was his position on the subject of the Kurds, especially after the consolidation of his power in 1923.
Farhi’s insistent attempt to absolve Mustafa Kemal of all responsibility for that which he often set in motion might not be quite as outrageous as maintaining that Stalin did not actually know about the gulags, but nonetheless bespeaks a frightening willingness to render truth subservient to ideology. Too often, Farhi allows what he believes should be the norm to actually replace reality, as in his conviction that the hyperbolic Turkish nationalism preached by Kemal is amenable to cultural pluralism. Appending an ethnic identity to each and every character he introduces, even when such a thing is completely irrelevant, and varying the ethnic identities so that we are presented with the full spectrum of Turkey’s heterogeneity, betrays at once an almost desperate wish that such multiculturalism be accorded recognition, and a telling sign that in reality it is not. And even as he rails against the chauvinistic brand of Turkish nationalism so prevalent in his native country (in one memorable instance savaging it as “suicide by collective onanism”), Farhi studiously avoids tracing its wellspring to modern Turkey’s construction on the basis of a single ethnic affiliation.
“Lentils in Paradise” and “Rose-Petal Jam” deal with adolescent awakening, the latter a ribald tale of sexual initiation, and the former boasting some of the most tantalizing descriptions yet of the inside of a Turkish hamam. “In the Beginning,” “A Wrestling Man,” and “Cracked Vessels from the Same Ruin” are the most Turkish of the lot, weaving local legends and provincial motifs into stories of love and loss. “Madam Ruj” is a melancholy tale of loneliness and unsated desire. In the poignant (and autobiographical?) thematic pair “When A Writer is Killed” and “He Who Returns Never Left,” concerned with the ordeal of the persecuted writer, Farhi tackles agonizing and clearly personal questions of identity, intellectual duty, and exile. Both pieces are excellent and linger in the imagination, what with the apparent element of personal narrative at play as well as the roles assigned to two compelling figures whose background presence pervades several stories: (real-life) Communist poet Nâzim Hikmet, and spellbinding national pedagogue Ahmet Poyraz, whose shamelessly sentimental “Go Like Water, Come Like Water,” a deathbed encapsulation of his unique philosophy, is the last of the novel’s thirteen chapters.
Indeed, despite historical shortcomings and ideological excesses, this is an extraordinary book. For sheer magnitude, Young Turk stands as a daunting example of what it truly means for a writer’s literary grasp to embrace a people in its entirety, framing this accomplishment with vivid reconstructions of time and place. From evocative recollections of Istanbul locales, such as the Sultan Ahmet Square, “where the Blue Mosque and the Byzantine monuments faced each other in historical debate,” to an examination of the tribulations of a circus trapeze artist, and more than one illustration of the plight of leftist intellectuals, Farhi emerges as a master storyteller with an insight into virtually all segments of the multi-faceted Turkish populace.
As with the collapse of any empire, of course, it is intriguing to witness the radically different interpretations of history put forth by those struggling to come to terms with a new political dispensation. The late historian Elie Kedourie, like Farhi a British citizen of Middle Eastern (in Kedourie’s case Iraqi) and Jewish origin, all his life held that ethnic nationalism was in the Ottoman realm a purely destructive force engendered largely by British political meddling. In Kedourie’s view, ethnic nationalism, having rent asunder a multinational empire and created in its stead a host of rabidly nationalist states ipso facto hostile to ethnic minorities, should be shunned as an alien and negative ideology by the peoples of the Middle East. This argument certainly is questionable, and remains decidedly peculiar in its nostalgia for a domain governed ultimately by Islamic law. Yet Farhi’s contention that Turkish nationalism is perfectly capable of conferring equal rights unto Kurds, Armenians, Greeks, Jews, and others, while equally questionable, and oftentimes at variance with historical practice, should not detract from a rare and welcome literary achievement: an iridescent collage of that fascinating country straddling Europe and Asia, both heir to and departure from the Ottoman experience.
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