Stephen Kinzer’s rambling walk through the saga of modern Turkey will delight the ordinary reader with an interest in this ‘bridge nation’, while occasionally distressing the historian.
The dedication of this revised version (‘To the People of Turkey’) signals that Kinzer writes from the heart and with affection rather than from the discipline and precision one expects of the historian. This is not a criticism of Kinzer’s formidable work but rather an attempt to define its genre. Those who come to Kinzer’s writing—as this reviewer did—through his superb treatment of the Nicaraguan conflicts (The Blood of Brothers) will anticipate the bent of Kinzer’s method.
Kinzer, the erstwhile Istanbul Bureau Chief of the New York Times, does not hold back his own views and even prescriptions for the nation that has become his subject. The book’s earliest pages telegraph this. Published in 2008, the book’s introduction observes that ‘(A) new regime has emerged in Turkey that is likely to govern for years to come. This is good, because this regime draws its strength from the people’s will, but it is also disturbing.’ The first chapter’s opening line introduces us to a personal preference: ‘My favorite word in Turkish is istiklal.’
This is not a bad thing, for Turkey and ‘the Turk’ have been referents of oddness and even incarnate evil for Westerners since Medieval times. A Western writer who can be forthrightly described as turkophile is well placed to be a sympathetic and even accurate guide into this unfamiliar people and its complicated composition. For Western observers—as for the Turks themselves—ambiguities abound: Is Turkey a Middle Eastern country? Or is it European? Is Turkey Muslim? Or secular? Is the nation comprised of a single ethnicity that represents turkishness? Or is Turkey a composite state with large and venerable minorities whose adherence to the national mythology is tenuous?
Kinzer’s introduction of many of Turkey’s hard-wired enigmas is often channeled through a conversation with one friend or another. This adds an appealing personal hook for the non-expert reader (a group to which this reviewer manifestly belongs). The author effectively personalizes issues that are difficult to grasp in the abstract.
One emerges from Crescent and Star impressed with several facets of Turkey’s challenges and opportunities that are not independently unique, but that—in combination—profile Turkey as an exceptional nation.
First, one senses that events of the 20th and 21st century have left Turkey a conflicted nation. The coming to terms with its past has been uneven, leaving the Turks deeply divided as to the answers to difficult questions and even to the degree to which those questions can be permitted consideration. For example, what exactly happened to the Armenians? What would Turkey’s heroic paterfamilias, Ataturk, think of Turkey’s governing Islamic party?
Second, Turkey oscillates between a xenophobia that was for generations practically prescribed and a longing to join and be respected among the community of nations. A deeply existential variation of this theme turns on the place in the world outside of Turkey’s boundaries in which the nation most naturally belongs. Is it the complex of Muslim nations in its neighborhood? Or is Turkey’s belonging place rather the frustrating and often humiliating European family?
Third, who are the appropriate custodians of Turkey’s identity and well-being? Is it the generals, who have stepped in ‘to restore order’ so often as to constitute in some minds a backstop against political and cultural experimentation gone wrong? Or is it the Turkish people more generally, their will channeled through democratic process? Or ought trust in the guidance of Islamic centers of guidance be the nation’s modus operandi, no matter how ‘undemocratic’ this option might turn out to be?
Fourth, what is to be expected of Turkey’s minorities, preeminently the Kurds? Can a stateless people whose population straddles multiple nations in the region be entrusted with the challenge of becoming one component of a Turkish state? Or is independence—and therefore separation from and rebellion against the Turkish state—an irremediable instinct that must be suppressed? And who gets to say? Kurds or non-Kurds? And if Kurds, which ones?
The mere partial enumeration of these questions shines a light on the appropriateness of the book’s subtitle: Turkey Between Two Worlds. The phrase is patient of more than one application.
Turkey emerges from Kinzer’s wide-ranging description as a country between. As I write this review eight years after the publication of Crescent and Star’s 2008 revision of a 2001 original, news of a failed coup and the suppression of dissent with which it has been met have barely faded from the front pages. A 2nd revision would doubtless add even further texture and color to the nation’s between-ness.
But Stephen Kinzer has moved on to other things, and it would would be too much to ask of him a life-long chronicling of Turkey’s wrestlings with its betweens.
What he has given us is an impressionistic portrait of a nation that can confuse, but can also be loved, a people that is in the midst of drafting its own future, a state that must decide the purpose toward which it governs, a place and a people of disturbing beauty.