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Safranbolu, Karabük

Safranbolu, Karabük


Written by M. James

September 12, 2013 at 12:53 am

Süzme Sözler I

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From a 1935/6 collection of clever sayings about everything from nationhood to Hitler and Greta Garbo, by Turkish writer Raif Necdet Kestelli:

Büyük adamlara en yüksek rütbeyi ve en parlak şerefi devlet değil, millet verir.

Which, as I understand it, is an interesting look at the traditional Turkish regard for what constitutes a devlet as opposed to what constitutes a millet, and which is preferable.

In translation:

The highest distinction and most shining honor for great men is not to bequeath a state, but a nation.

Written by M. James

June 29, 2013 at 9:55 pm

Posted in Culture, Language, Turkey

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Two years of 28east

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May 17th, 2013

A lot can change in two years, and—looking back on my first few posts in May and June of 2011—I would say that a lot has changed. This is not to say that the Syrian crisis has been resolved, that energy pipelines have become less crucial, or that Arabs have stopped watching Turkish soap operas, but that the blog itself has changed. Where the first year primarily made “news analysis” its goal, the second year was unapologetically less focused. Though I still posted the occasional headline as a sort of mental bookmark, it was rarely accompanied by meaningful analysis. As of this writing, I haven’t read a newspaper properly in several months.

What the missing “news analysis” was supposed to be replaced by was “on-the-ground experience.” But even this didn’t regularly make its way to the blog, especially after my trusty laptop unceremoniously kicked the bucket. I described myself as “cut loose.” I hardly know how to categorize what has happened in the meantime, but it has led me to a number of interesting places and situations: Like conversations with communists outside rickety bars, late-night fights with kitchen-knife-wielding cab drivers, and short stays in seedy Trabzon hotels. Or like this desk with this old computer and this Turkish keyboard (getting used to it) on this hill overlooking a halogen-lit Ankara.

It also led me to a hard-hitting realization.

With my attempt “to actually start using the blog’s ‘Culture’ category” still a matter of great difficulty, it should have been obvious: I was missing the most crucial aspect of the culture—the language. Greetings, transaction terminology, and a basic grasp of grammar may be enough to blend in with the crowd, but it’s apparently not enough to know what the crowd is thinking. If Turks think in Turkish, then understanding Turkey requires a real understanding of Turkish. By now it seems obvious, it having been beaten into my head unrelentingly for the past six months, but it had never seemed as crucial as it does now. Accordingly, this post will be the first in the “Language” category, which will likely have a significant—if not central—role in the future of the blog.

But despite these obvious shifts in the method, or the means, of the blog; I’d like to emphasize—as I did last year today—that the aim, the end, remains the same:

This is merely an outlet, and a motivation, for thought. The reader is welcome to engage in, and improve on, this thought.



M. James

Written by M. James

May 17, 2013 at 2:54 pm

Things to do in Armenia

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Thank you for smoking

One of the many novelties of Yerevan, Armenia’s Barekamutyun metro stop.

Written by M. James

April 27, 2013 at 12:08 pm

Posted in Culture

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The fear factor: Slurpees and suspicion

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It is a common observation that for what most Turks demonstrate in hospitality, they make up for in paranoia and wide acceptance of conspiracy theories. I have mentioned some of these briefly in the past. The following anecdote, however, is exemplary:

“… the United States is funding the PKK.”

The assertion came out of nowhere — entirely tangential — but it was an interesting claim. Certainly not unbelievable, but hard to prove.

“How do you know?” I asked.


I laughed. Finally, a sense of humor.

But he did not laugh. I gradually began to wonder if he meant to say “nine-eleven,” and that he would somehow draw a connection between 9/11, international terrorism, and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). That would be interesting.

Instead, he proceeded to explain that the colors of the PKK’s current flag are identical to the colors used by the well-known international chain of convenience stores, 7-Eleven.

Apparently, he did not misspeak.

I nodded and waited for a punchline. Or a smile, a wink. Instead, he moved uncomfortably in his seat.

After one too many seconds, I agreed that it was quite a coincidence. Such ugly colors — after all, how many people could possibly want to use them? I expressed that I had no proof to contradict his claim, and the dialogue ended shortly after.

Though this particular encounter is certainly an unfair characterization of the majority of Turks, it is, I think, indicative of a certain culture of suspicion, conspiracy, and fear, especially as relates to Turkey’s “friendship” with the “West.” In the way of explanation, the fact that the country still plays host to acute paranoia should come as no surprise — the clandestine world of the Cold War was very active in Turkey, and not very long ago.

But this simplistic explanation is not a solution for the problem that this offers to the observer of Turkish politics. With irrational suspicion and fear comes unpredictability, and this aspect of the culture — while it is still alive — should be broadening every political analyst and forecaster’s margin of error.

Sometimes, if we wish to be honest with ourselves, our clarifications only reveal more obscurity. Although this encounter might explain quite clearly why there are no 7-Eleven franchises, licensees, or affiliates in Turkey.

Written by M. James

December 20, 2012 at 6:35 pm

Prospects for a liberal Turkish society

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The following was written as a guest post for Atatürk’s Republic, a collaborative blog that seeks to follow Turkish news, politics, arts, and culture.

Most liberal-minded individuals, if asked to choose between a multi-party and a two-party system, would choose the former. After all, liberal democracy is all about freedom of choice, and choosing between chocolate and vanilla is simply not satisfying when one might prefer pistachio, cookie dough, or “Karamel Sutra.”

But what most people do not seem to understand is that representative democracies are designed to be deliberative bodies, the essence of which is “settling.” Without “settling,” the liberal concept of value pluralism goes out the window, and with it, the very basis for our conception of a free and fair society.

If the voter refuses to “settle” on chocolate or vanilla, and instead prefers everyone to have a broader range of options, one of two things will happen:

(1) Once the voting is over and done with, the vast array of flavors will seek to mix themselves with whatever will give them a strategic advantage in legislation. Pistachio will mix with “Karamel Sutra,” and the sweet-and-sticky combination will satisfy neither pistachio- nor caramel-lovers. The concept of political parties as principled factions is lost completely when the principles are cast aside for expediency, as inevitably occurs in this case.* What’s more, banana and rocky road will be ignored completely.

(2) Chocolate will acquire a tyrannical rule owing solely to vanilla-lovers’ slight preference for a variety of other flavors, which will never attain a majority—and if they do, it will be dishonestly, by coalition. The party that is capable of organizing itself and sowing discord among the opposition will acquire, and keep, power.

In the first consequence, the purpose of the political party (democratically forwarding principles at the state level) is lost in a mindless scramble for power by majority. In the second, the state becomes as tyrannical as in a de jure “one-party system.”

This is one arena in today’s politics in which we cannot practically hope to expand the scope of individual freedoms. In order to maintain the classical liberal, laissez faire idea of “freedom from” (which is necessarily prior to the expansion of “freedom to” in a liberal state), the multi-party system must be shunned in favor of a two-party system and the citizen must take it upon himself to begin the “settling” process by choosing from a limited number of representatives.

Paradoxically, the severe limitation of choice necessitated by a two-party system is characteristic of a much more liberal, democratic system. It not only protects the people from tyranny and maintains the possibility of value pluralism, but it also entrusts the people with beginning the all-important, essentially liberal “settling” process that continues in the legislature.

Because this is not obvious to the average voter, a two-party system must be somehow (overtly or otherwise) established from above by strong tradition, or a constitution, in order to establish a liberal, democratic state. Only if a liberal tradition is pre-existing, if the power of the legislature is severely tempered, or if a country is ideologically homogeneous, can a multi-party system survive as “liberal.”

Of course, my interest in exploring this problem lies in the Republic of Turkey, which has a large, heterogeneous population, a powerful parliament, no tradition of liberalism to speak of, and a multi-party system. Predictably, Turkish society and government are grossly (visibly) illiberal.

From two different Turkish liberals in a period of two days, I heard the complaint that Turks vote on (a) emotions and (b) “lifestyle.” Kurds vote for Kurds (actually they don’t, but that’s a different story—they do still vote based on lifestyle), Anatolian Sunni Muslims vote for Anatolian Sunni Muslims, nationalists vote for nationalists, etc. Because of this fragmentation—this variety of flavors—no responsibility to compromise is ever placed on the voter. The result is an instance of consequence (2) above, where one party dominates the state. Half of Turkey may not want to have vanilla, but they couldn’t—and will never be able to—agree on chocolate.

And with a party in power that benefits from the disorder of the multi-party system, it is fairly unlikely that a two-party system will be enforced from above in the form of a new constitution, or otherwise.

What’s more, because the last decade has shown Turkey’s material success to be tied to economic, but certainly not social, liberalism, it is to be expected that Turkey’s near future will be characterized only nominally by “liberal democracy.”

If Turkish citizens are never confronted with the spirit of “settling” between the many flavors that they prefer, and are never themselves faced with the idea of value pluralism, they will never become liberal democratic citizens. And what more is a liberal democratic society than the collective conscience of its citizens?


*Some would aver that an effective two-party system is necessarily unprincipled if the opposing parties wish to shape themselves according to shifting public sensibilities. There are two responses: (1) That this is acceptable because their principles shift in order to garner votes, but do not shift while they hold offices, and they are able to remain honest to their principles for a given term. (2) That the only principle that truly matters is a faithful attempt at maintaining a two-party system for its own sake, as a safeguard against tyranny.

Written by M. James

November 2, 2012 at 9:09 am

Duygu the agnostic

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An example of a foreigner’s casual Turkish encounter, for the uninitiated:

I struck up a conversation with a young Turkish woman in the copy room. I figured it would have been awkward if I didn’t.

Her name was Duygu. We proceeded to discuss mundane things—like telephones, apartments, and the weather. I told her I was from the United States. She was from Bursa. We talked about New York and Bursa. Her father was a lawyer. She showed me his picture.

Five minutes passed. I started to excuse myself, but she needed a smoke, so we went outside. She offered me one of her Winston Blue Super Slims. I declined.

And then, without the slightest change of expression, tone, or posture, “Do you believe in God?”

So we talked about God for a while. Then we talked about mineral water. Then Turkish etymology.

An hour later—she is supposed to take me to a Fenerbahçe match, show me a neighborhood in Ankara, and introduce me to her father.

Written by M. James

October 31, 2012 at 5:36 pm

Posted in Culture, Religion, Turkey

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