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Return of the Turk

Jan. 01, 2006

TURKEY IS NOT Europe. Since my arrival here a month ago, I have been collecting reasons big and small for why this is. But just as it is not Europe, neither is it the middle east. Some will argue that this is why many Europeans want Turkey in the EU, a country so well positioned geo-culturally between Christian Europe and the Islamic middle east that if there hadn't been a clash of civilisations, it might have invented one just to profit from its ability to bridge it. Yet however much we would like to think of Turkey as a secure walkway between east and west, it might come as a surprise to learn that Turkey's deepest cultural affinities lie not between al Qaeda and George W Bush, but with a corridor of Turkic peoples stretching to western China.
This is the central idea of Sons of the Conquerors: The Rise of the Turkic World, a highly readable account of travels in the Turkic world by Hugh Pope, the Wall Street Journal's correspondent in Turkey and a long-time Istanbul resident. If we feel a pang of shame at not knowing exactly what is covered by the word "Turkic," Pope lets on that he himself had only heard it for the first time several years after moving to the middle east. Pope becomes acquainted with the word in 1989 after a demonstration in the streets of Urumqi,  capital of the northwestern Chinese province of Xinjiang. The demonstrators are an ethnic group called Uighurs and their exiled leader (who died in 1995 in Turkey) is Isa Alptekin. In tracking down Alptekin, Pope becomes acquainted with an entire world that had been submerged by the Soviet Union. The book is an account of a decade of travel in the Turkic-speaking countries, stretching from Turkey and Azerbaijan to all those with the suffix "stan"—excluding the older stans of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Persian-speaking Tajikistan right up to the Uighurs in western China. The Turkic world. Pope's greatest achievement is that he succeeds in giving cohesion to this region. Through the course of his travels Pope discovers compelling connections from religion and food to ethnic traits and customs that link Turkey and the steppe. But the most compelling thread through Pope's book is that with the Turkish he has learnt in Turkey he can get by all the way to western China. In turn, the reader finds that without too much effort he has become acquainted with the major events of the past decade in this region, the political
lives of individual countries and, yes, where they are and what their capitals are. It prepares the ground for the main thrust of the book.
Pope gives new life to the claim made by Turgut Özal, former Turkish president: "If we do not make serious mistakes, the 21st century will be the century of the Turks and Turkey." Pope is more cautious than Özal, but despite this a powerful optimism runs through his experience of these countries. There is a sense that this region, with its rich natural resources, pragmatic Islam and hunger for a better life could attach itself to the rising star of its more experienced, cultural big brother, Turkey, to herald a new age for Turkic peoples. Pope makes many references to the great Turkic past: "The Ottomans proclaimed themselves caliphs of the Sunni Muslim world and spread Turkic settlers far and wide. They ruled over this vast empire for five centuries. Few people today realise that many other conquerors who seized the thrones of Iran and India—Mahmud of Ghazna, the Safavids, Nadir Shah, the Qajars, the Moghuls—were also of Turkic stock." While for many these are terrible figures from history, for Pope they are the heroes of a Turkic past on the brink of a revival.
In this strain, Pope admonishes an Iranian Azeri who suggests that the Turks are just aping the west. "Yes, just like Japan and China used to," Pope says. At other times, Pope succumbs to sentimentality: "The girls charged with thin, eerie war cries, the men with a howl worthy of their conquering forebears. I felt a surge of excitement as I mingled among them. For on their high-cheekboned faces and in their rough practised handling of the panting horses wheeled the wild and untamed spirit of the Turco-Mongol horde." Exciting stuff, but not likely to win the hearts of Europeans anxious about Turkey's otherness.
And this is part of the problem with Sons of the Conquerors: it makes Turkey seem decidedly unappetising as a potential candidate for the EU, because the author effectively argues that Turkey's closest cultural links and interests lie elsewhere. Judging by the intensely emotional level of the discussion in Turkey over EU entry, I'm not sure he is right. A high-level European diplomat recently confessed to me that the temperature of the discussions was so high that it had exposed the country's political immaturity. Immature or not, in the present climate, it is hard to imagine Turkey's sights set anywhere but on Europe. And while Turks show a certain pride in the distant reaches of their culture, there is, as one English professor living in Istanbul suggested to me, a touch of fatigue towards those people from the far-flung corners of the empire that they wish had been flung further.
Pope is best when he's not trying to sell us the unified Turkic future. His knowledge of the region, his meetings with the leaders of almost every country, his timely forays into the interior of these countries are gripping and fresh. The section on Uighur China is a penetrating analysis of China's treatment of its Turkic minorities and of the subsequent appeal of Islam for politically disenfranchised people.
It would be understandable if Turkey were to look east to its Turkic cousins and escape the grim demands upon it to play middleman between the present descriptions of west and east. Such an orientation would save it agonising decisions like that in 2003 when its parliament voted on whether to allow the US to use Turkish bases to attack Iraq. But this perspective is a wish rather than a reality. Turkey is positively aligned westward, and in Istanbul, where about a sixth of the population lives, even Anatolia seems far away, let alone the divided and disrupted politics of the steppe. Even if the EU bid were to prove unsuccessful, it is doubtful whether Turkey would make the turn needed to pioneer an "economic and cultural union of Turkic people." There is a deeply entrenched European aspiration in its political culture and, even in the Ottoman days, the steppe had been
left behind so long ago, that any self-respecting Ottoman would have been horrified to be called a "Turk." Still, the book's lingering pan-Turkic hope does not detract from the fact that by the time the last of Pope's adventures is over, he
succeeds in delivering a robust and current history of a region where the great game is indisputably back in play.