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Politics, religion, and culture where East meets West

Archive for the ‘Language’ Category

The Book on the Sidewalk

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

Seçmeler, by Peyami Safa.

Seçmeler, by Peyami Safa.

Weather-permitting, it is not uncommon to see a young man selling books outside of the Nâzım Hikmet Cultural Center in Ankara. As in many places in Turkey, the wares are carefully assembled on a repurposed aquamarine* bed sheet and laid out on the sidewalk for passers-by to politely ignore while the peddler busies himself with something else—in this case, reading.

On one particular late-May afternoon, I happened across this man after a perplexing transaction with an unctuous electronics salesman and a relatively gratifying transaction with a tobacconist. The point being, I was in a good enough mood to stop and look. I’d always found these displays somewhat romantic, yet crude. So while interested, I didn’t want to be seen patronizing the odd practice. I would rarely stop to look.

As usual, the books were mainly either beyond my linguistic abilities of comprehension or counter to my sense of propriety. One, however—an older, water-damaged paperback—caught my attention. It was a compilation, a volume of the collected newspaper articles and columns of the late Peyami Safa, journalist and novelist extraordinaire. An unusual find.

After several more minutes of nervous browsing, I picked the book off of the sidewalk for the third and final time, leaving a conspicuous aquamarine gap, like a missing tooth. The young man looked up from his book only when I approached him with my selection. He asked for three lira. I gave him five—it was worth far more than five lira to me.

A few days ago, I found the time to give that book some of the attention it deserves. Here’s one of the more serendipitous, yet disturbing, selections I found, titled “The Book on the Sidewalk.” I will let it speak for itself, perhaps to be expanded on later:

THE BOOK ON THE SIDEWALK

In yesterday’s article, “Book Morgue,” Salâhaddin Güngör had this to say about the book displays that have cropped up on nearly every street-corner: “There are so many valuable and rare books in those displays that one would be shocked what can be had for the price of a glass of Hamidiye water.”

In Turkey, there is nothing that suffers as much indignity as books. Not just Hamidiye water, but cigarette butts, filthy rags, old shoes, empty bottles, and even the broken wood and iron scavenged from rubble will all fetch a higher price than their own raw materials—and more buyers, too. Only books, only those damned, wretched books are placed on the same ground as dog waste and put up for sale without so much as a piece of cloth beneath them. When a country gives the same position to knowledge and literature as it gives to its heels, and places the nourishment of its mind underfoot, that suggests that books have about as much dignity as the brooms in grocers’ shops (at least the brooms are hung one or two meters off the ground).

Script both new and old, authors both great and insignificant, works from both east and west, compilations, translations, and every variety of writing, writer, and quality—all underfoot.

Fellow-citizen! There is a danger as dreadful as an enemy invasion hidden in this tragedy. Fellow-citizen! Great catastrophes will utterly destroy the progress of any nation where books crawl on the ground. Fellow-citizen! Good, bad, valuable, worthless, compilation, and translation, buy your share of these books! Sell your bedspreads if need be, but buy these books and get them off the ground!

 Tan, July 23rd, 1935

*I.e., the color of public pool locker room tiles. No, the peddlers’ bed sheets are not always aquamarine, but when they are, I remember it.

†A high-mineral-content water piped from Istanbul’s Belgrade Forest since 1902; apparently a subject of derision for quite some time now.

‡Referring to both Latin and Arabic script, the latter of which was officially canned in 1929 and replaced by the modern Turkish language.

Written by M. James

January 31, 2014 at 4:39 pm

Turklish

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Liberty.

Liberty.

Written by M. James

January 29, 2014 at 1:48 am

Geceyarısı Ekspresi

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Everyone who knows something about Turkey knows Midnight Express. And so do most people who know nothing about Turkey, wherein lies the problem with the film—its success. The film’s acclaim has left its broad American audience with an unflinchingly brutal portrait of Turks as prison rapists and torture artists, which the Turks do not particularly appreciate.

The cynic could, of course, attribute Turks’ dislike for the film to a perceived damage done to their vital tourism industry (probably true), but in my experience, the hurt is genuine. The film, they think, was just plain unfair—unwarranted. And what’s even worse is that it just won’t… go… away. Here’s a Turkish columnist’s wry commentary on one such new development.

The Express nightmare returns
İzzet Çapa; Hürriyet; January 13th, 2014

The calamitous nightmare that showed us as a kind of boogeyman for years, Midnight Express, is coming back.

The writer and “hero” of the novel, Billy Hayes, enemy of the Turks, will now take the stage in The Midnight Express, a one-man play starting January 22nd on Broadway. Billy will allegedly play out heretofore unrevealed details from his time in İmralı. Obviously running short on money, he is once again bringing up old issues of ours.

Ouch. But actually, the title is Riding The Midnight Express With Billy Hayes, and there is an indication that part of the purpose of the play is to “correct” some of the fictional fabrications from the movie. So maybe you shouldn’t be so critical, Mr. Çapa.

Fans of one-man plays about Turkish prison (appealing, no?) can go here for tickets.

Written by M. James

January 13, 2014 at 3:28 am

Süzme Sözler IV

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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:

Dünyayı idare eden tek bir kuvvet vardır: yalan..

In translation:

There is but one force that governs the world: lies.

Süzme Sözler III
Süzme Sözler II
Süzme Sözler I

Written by M. James

January 9, 2014 at 6:03 pm

LPG: rekor zam

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As Russia loses a reliable friend in Iran, it takes precautions in the Caucasus and re-engages with its energy clients. Today, a “yurtdışı maliyetlerdeki artış” (foreign price increase) is blamed for a sharp, overnight rise in the price of LPG (Liquified Petroleum Gas) in Turkey.

Turkey has been meddling in the Caucasus over the past few days, seeking to begin a settlement the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute between Azerbaijan and Armenia, with hopes for its own normalization (?) with Armenia. Russia is not interested in settling this dispute, much less doing so to Turkey’s advantage.

The vast majority of Turkish energy is imported from Russia.

Over a third of Turkish passenger cars use LPG otogaz.

LPG’ye gece yarısı 30 kuruş zam
İsmail Altunsoy, Zaman, 3 Aralık 2013

LPG vehicle owners awoke this morning to a record price increase. LPG’s per-liter price rose by 30 kuruş  [$0.15]. Along with the increase, the price of one liter of LPG in Istanbul climbed from 2.81 to 3.11 lira; in Ankara, from 2.61 to 2.91 lira. This most recent increase is the greatest one-time price increase made to LPG in history.

. . .

Written by M. James

December 3, 2013 at 3:17 pm

Gökalp on ümmet, devlet, and millet

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Though this particular problem may be historical, the general problem is a timeless one. What follows is a brilliant exposition of the three central concepts surrounding early Turkish modernization, and the three groups who fought for ownership of those concepts:

Gökalp, Ziya, “The Ideal of Nationalism: three currents of thought,” trans. Niyazi Berkes, Nationalism in Asia and Africa, ed. Elie Kedourie

When we look at social realities, we cannot fail to see that an Islamic ümmet, an Ottoman state (devlet), a Turkish or an Arab nation (millet) do exist. However, if this statement corresponds to any reality, the term “ümmet” must denote the totality of those people who profess the same religion, the “state” all those who are administered under the same government, and the “nation” all those who speak the same language. The statement will be valid and will correspond to reality only if the above definitions are accepted. It seems, then, that those who do not accept this statement deny it, not because its meaning does not correspond to reality, but because they do not believe that these words are suitable for denoting the respective meanings.

The Islamists say that the word “nation” [millet; Arabic milla] denotes what we cover by the word “ümmet.” The term “milla,” they say, means “sect” in Arabic. The perfection of a language means the existence of a meaning for every word and a word for every meaning, and also the existence of words expressing several meanings. Even if we ourselves do not do this, the language itself will. It is for this reason that the current [Turkish] language uses the word “ümmet” for those who belong to the same religion, and the word “millet” for those who speak the same language. As the majority of the people uses them with these specific meanings, we too must accept them. There is no use creating difficulties on questions of terminology.

The Ottomanists, on the other hand, believe that the “state” and the “nation” are synonymous. To them, the sum total of the citizens of a state constitutes a nation. This might be true, if we disregarded reality and took only the logical relation between the concepts into account. As a matter of fact, to have a state composed of peoples who speak the same language, or to make only those peoples who speak the same language an independent state, seems more natural and most desirable. But are existing states formed that way? If not, then how is it justifiable to disregard that which is existing and to believe that what ought to exist is really existing?

The Turkists, on the other hand, criticizing the theses of these groups, come to the following conclusions: (a) the ümmet and the nation are different things; (b) the nation and the state are also not the same. One may object to these conclusions, but only in so far as they do not correspond to sociological realities, and not by insisting that these realities should not be so. We must fit our concepts to the realities and not the realities to our own concepts!

Written by M. James

November 19, 2013 at 5:00 pm

Süzme Sözler III

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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:

Medeniyet için ne büyük bir leke, ne hazin bir mahrumiyettir ki çok dürüst, çok temiz ve samimî zekâlar hâlâ iyi bir diplomat olamıyorlar!

In translation:

What a great stain on civilization, what a sad deprivation, that very honest, upright, and sincere minds still cannot be good diplomats!

Süzme Sözler II
Süzme Sözler I

Written by M. James

November 16, 2013 at 3:57 pm