President’s Rajeb Tayib Erdogan’s vow this week to reintroduce Ottoman Turkish in the country’s schools stirred various controversies. The language, which is based on Arabic letters, was banned almost nine decades ago by the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kamal Ataturk. The move to return it to Turkey transcends the battle of wills between the Islamist current that President Erdogan has led in the country for over a decade and the secular nationalists. The move also resonates far beyond Turkey, especially across the Arab world. For an Arab, it stirs different feelings.
My generation that grew up at the centre of the Arab ‘mashreq’ in the 1980s and early 1990s saw Turkey as a distant country, whose name evoked vague historical episodes in the remote past: the Ottomans’ invasion of Egypt and the Levant in the early sixteenth century, the Ottomans’ fights against crusading knights in the eastern Mediterranean, the Ottomans’ attempts at conquering Vienna, and the late Ottoman period which was invariably presented to Arab schoolchildren as a period of laggardness and lethargy. And so, some of these episodes conjured, in my mind, an admiration of Turkish past, a cultural closeness; some aroused an antipathy.
Until I actually visited Turkey. There, I realised that there is a major difference between Ottoman’ness and Turkishness. The historical episodes that the name ‘Turkey’ had stirred in my young mind in the 1980s and 1990s did not resonate at all with the Turkish experience in the twentieth century. And crucially, these episodes were – also for the Turks, as they were for me – distant and remote. Because in my first few visits to Turkey I moved in highly liberal circles, talking to upper middle class Istanbulites, these historical episodes, seemed to me from my conversations with my counterparts, to be, not only remote to them, but also to have unpalatable connotations. There was a subtle, yet distinct, reaction, an unmistakable message from my counterparts, that ‘they are different’; their heritage, worldview, and identity were separate from Ottoman’ness. They were Turks, with nothing “Ottoman” about them. Or so they wanted me to see them.
Over the years in which I visited Turkey, it became clear to me that Turkishness, at least in Istanbul and in the upper middle class urban centres, has been anchored on the detachment that the Ataturk Republic had affected between Turkey and its history. That detachment was not about religion, or the use of Arabic letters in language; it was not about the head-scarf, or any symbol of Islamic presence in the society. It was primarily about identity. Twentieth century Turkey looked to the West, and mainly to Europe, not only for its economic development, trading prospects, or cultural inspiration. The experience that was slowly distilled in the psyche of the Turkish middle class throughout the twentieth century shifted the Turks’ view of themselves. The strong conviction that Ataturk, and those who came after him, had was that Turks should become westerns; they crushed the society’s linkages to the previous five centuries, and in so doing, they altered the society’s cultural outlook – and for many, their identity.
It was puzzling. I was very familiar with westernisation projects in Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Syria, and Iraq. All achieved notable successes, and suffered major failures. They left their marks on their countries’ – and on the Arab world’s – politics, economic structures, social customs, educational systems, and of course cultural frame of reference. But with very few exceptions (most notably Lebanon whose cultural heritage is vastly different from any other part of the Arab world), these Arab westernisation attempts never penetrated deep enough into their societies to affect a transformative change of how large social segments perceived their identities.
In many of my essays, I considered the inability of Arab liberals to ‘connect’ with the largest sections of their societies, to be the most fundamental failure of the Arab liberal age in the first half of the twentieth century. And yet, when I saw the exact opposite result in Turkey, it felt strange. The dramatic success of Ataturk’s project made Turkey, to my Arab mind, feel bizarre. I loved being able to walk in Istanbul’s Grand Bazzar in the morning, sip tea while taking-in Istanbul’s gorgeous skyline punctuated by the city’s marvellous mosques, enjoy a delicious dinner at a seafood restaurant on the Bosporus while listening to a Turkish song evoking both ‘huzun’ and sumptuous delight, then spend the night at a trendy bar in Galata or Bebek. Istanbul’s seamless alternation between the East and the West, like a beautiful woman equally alluring in an oriental kaftan and a little black dress, dazzled me. It gave me much more ‘westernisation’ than anything Cairo could offer; and much more ‘orientalism’ than London could ever give – or want to give.
But Istanbul’s detachment from my heritage, my Arabness, my intellectual and emotional links to the Islamic civilisation, made me feel an alien, made Turkishness come across to me as a notion I can never relate to.
Now that Turkey, at least parts of Turkey, is rediscovering their Ottoman’ness, the cultural dilemma that the country is undergoing, becomes interesting to me. To some extent, Turkey is trying to connect with the strongest and oldest pillars of its (and my) identity – major currents in our shared history. Yet, I do understand that wide social segments of the Turkish society are highly apprehensive of their country’s reconnection with that history. They see this ‘rediscovering’ as part of a wider attack on Ataturk’s legacy; some situate it within a project to Islamise the country. For many, including friends of mine, it is a top-down imposition of a cultural viewpoint that does not appreciate twentieth century’s Turkish’ness, a view that does not see it as an independent, stand-alone, and successful identity.
For the vast majority of Turks, it is of absolutely no importance if some Arabs feel that twentieth century Turkish’ness has snubbed them, have distanced itself from the shared history that Turkey and those Arabs had had. After all, those Arabs, including myself, are not part of Turkey’s social fabric. And for some Turks, it was the Arabs who had left Turkey at its moment of need in the early twentieth century.
Yet to me, what is important is the richness that today’s Turkey has, unintentionally, arrived at. As sections of the Turkish society seek to reconnect with their history (our history), others fight that move. Arguments fly in the air on why each side is mistaken, why each side is on the wrong side of the country’s historical flow. Passions are ignited. Those who assertively invoke Ataturk’s legacy as Turkey’s sole way forward, and those who adamantly want to connect the country with its Ottoman heritage, put forward uncompromising narratives. Both sides feel that their country is at a historical junction. Yet, the society moves on. Whenever I visit Istanbul I see Turkey’s Ottoman and Westernised facets blend seamlessly. And though the country’s politics are highly polarised, the society absorbs both sections smoothly. It is that subtle cultural fusion that engenders the country’s intellectual richness. And that I relate to.