Swans Commentary » swans.com May 18, 2009  



Turkey On Trial


by Peter Byrne


Book Reviews



Dismorr, Ann: Turkey Decoded, Saqi Books, London, 2008, ISBN: 978-0-86356-656-1, 237 pages, US $19.95.
Onal, Ayse,: Honour Killing, Stories of Men Who Killed, Saqi Books, London, 2008, ISBN: 978-0-86356-617-2, 256 pages, US $19.95.


(Swans - May 18, 2009)   The title Turkey Decoded might suggest a white lab coat, but actually standing behind it is the prim figure of Sweden's former ambassador to Turkey, 2001-5. Her prudent, very diplomatic English and her cocked-ear bent on learning belie the cover's promise to reveal all Turkey's mysteries in a couple of hundred pages. At times, as on page 74, she slips into personal chitchat: "At a private party for around ten EU ambassadors, which my husband and I held in the amazing Cappadocian landscape of central Turkey..." But that's a slight flaw in a book that should have been much, much more personal and undiplomatic or else strictly business, keeping to its subject, which is Turkey's relationship to Europe and in particular to the European Union (EU).

Before her stint as ambassador to Ankara Ann Dismorr was a diplomat in Geneva concerned with human rights. The years of her residence in Turkey shook with the ups and downs on the road to membership of the EU. In these vicissitudes human rights were always an issue, and for Swedes a particularly sincere one, relatively free of hypocrisy. On their freshly laundered Protestant wings, they hovered, head-scratching aliens, over the abuse of minorities and a skewed set of laws.

Dismorr's strength is her stance as a learner. When she informs us that Istanbul is the most populous European city or that it contains three million Kurds, she is as surprised as she feels her readers will be. Her discoveries reflect the process Europeans have been going through in finding they really knew nothing about Turkey, and call attention to the contrary process of Turks abruptly having to unlearn what they thought they knew about Europe. It's a two-way street, but as the decade proceeds each lane diverges more and more.

Turks are right to insist that they had always been a part of Europe, sharing seven hundred years of history. Closer to us, Dismorr points out:

The causes of the decline of the Ottoman Empire bore until recently striking parallels with modern Turkey: a struggle between conservative pro-Islamic forces and Western reforms; conflicts between ethnic groups; interfering foreign powers; hostile neighbours; and poor financial management. The ongoing transformation is moving Turkey away from many of these parallels and comparisons. (Page 19)

At the birth of the Turkish Republic, Ataturk no sooner drove out the European invaders than he introduced Swiss and Italian legislation, Latinized the alphabet, dressed his compatriots in slouch hats and business suits, and set to mooning over Verdi and Puccini. By remaining neutral in WWII until the allied victory was assured, Turkey qualified as a founding member of the United Nations in 1945. It adhered to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development and the Council of Europe in 1949 and to NATO in 1952. It let itself be dragged into the Korean War at the behest of the U.S.A. In France's struggle to hold on to its Algerian colony, Turkey sided with the European colonizers.

Efforts to integrate with Europe had gone on for a decade when in 1959, not wanting to be leapfrogged by Greece, Turkey took steps to enter into an economic association with the newly formed European Economic Community (the EU in its initial form). But before serious negotiations could get underway, the military takeover of 1960 ended parliamentary government. Europe turned away with a blush when Prime Minister Menderes and two of his cabinet were hurriedly hanged.

It wasn't until 1963 that the Association Agreement was signed. Turkey then assumed it was on its way to full membership, but the road turned out to be endless. The reasons given were Turkey's political instability, human rights violations, and the disaccord with Greece over Cyprus. The island, independent since 1960, would be invaded by Turkey to fend off the Greek Colonels. Turkey's military again assumed control of the country by force in 1971, imposing "Guided Democracy." Another intervention in 1980 could only be termed a coup d'état. The Kurdish issue, also blocking progress with the EU, returned with force in the 1990s. But in all the years since 1963 Turkey had always understood that only political and economic conditions prevented accession talks from beginning and that they would lead to full membership. No one had openly challenged Turkey's eligibility for geographical or religious reasons. In Helsinki in 1999, after difficult negotiations, it was agreed finally to grant Turkey candidate status.

In Europe, however, an undercurrent of doubt could be felt. Did the EU really want to take to its bosom a populous Muslim country full of young people? When Ambassador Dismorr arrived in Ankara in 2001, Turkish prospects of full membership were dim. But in 2002, with the moderate Islamic Justice and Development Party (AK) in power, a flurry of human rights reforms was introduced and the national Security Council (the military) made to cede some ground. In 2004 the AK Party's tying its fate to Europe paid off and European membership talks were finally given the go-ahead.

But 2005 saw the reform process slow down. In 2007 the AK won sweeping presidential and congressional victories, but on the European side attitudes were hardening. Outright opposition to Turkey appeared in Germany and France. More Muslim immigrants in Europe were seen as a security risk. Dismorr wondered in 2008 whether the AK could implement and sustain the reforms in freedom of expression and women's rights. Moreover there was a deepening divide between Islam and the West. Conflict with the Kurds intensified as a result of their new strength in Iraq. In Turkey there were new fears of military coups. Europe's last enlargement had not been all that successful and made another unlikely in the short term and perhaps forever. Worse, after Dismorr's book went to press, the world economic crisis intensified with the EU economies crippled like those of the rest of the world and its Eastern European component in particularly dire straits.

Dismorr gives special attention to women in Turkey, the Kurds, US relations, Turkey's regional role, and its function as an East-West bridge. She hasn't cracked Turkey's code but is never irrelevant and ends by asking if the success of the AK Party, whether it brings Turkey into the EU or not, marks "the beginning of a post-Kemalist era."

On her arrival in Ankara in 2001, Ann Dismorr found women's rights neglected. But by 2004 the AK Party had brought them center stage with a new penal code. It made violence against women a criminal act against the individual, not against the family or society. Killings motivated by "tradition and customs," (in other words, "honor killing") would bring life imprisonment. Forced virginity tests and sexual assault within marriage became crimes. Rapists could no longer escape punishment by marrying their victim and the prison sentence for polygamy was increased. This was progress indeed on the legal front and a clear sign that the moderate Islamist party was hell-bent on getting into the EU. However, on the front where tradition and customs ruled, and laws were a distant abstraction -- and that was a considerable part of Turkey -- the fate of women remained bleak.

This hardscrabble realm is the terrain of Ayse Onal's Honour Killing, Stories of Men Who Killed. No diplomat, Onal is a Turkish journalist here writing in English. She has been repeatedly blacklisted by Turkish governments, most recently by the AK of Erdogan for implicating it in sectarian murders, including that of the journalist Hrant Dink. She has been arrested, shot at, and placed on a variety of death lists, notably that of Islamic fundamentalists. Reading her, we can't avoid a shudder and a thought for another heroic woman journalist, the murdered Anna Politkovskaya. But Onal has clearly forgotten her own well being in the face of a horrendous side of Turkish life:

Between 2000 and 2005, 1,806 women were victims of honor killings while a further 5,375 committed suicide in the face of family pressure. Even though women whose deaths are classified as suspicious are not included in these statistics, the figures average one honor killing per day. (Page 253)

As an investigative journalist, Onal set about visiting men in prison who had killed a daughter, sister, or mother. She managed this by subterfuge, for even the broadcasting company she worked for didn't see much interest in the subject and officialdom was obstructive. Over a year, she managed to travel to ten prisons and record interviews with sixteen convicts, talking to another fourteen in confidence away from the camera. The meetings fundamentally changed her views on a subject she had already given considerable thought. Even here she had to clear away clichés.

She found that a man doesn't gain honor or prestige by killing a woman who has been judged guilty. It's a myth, for instance, that he has great authority over, or respect from his fellow prisoners. Even the family that pressured him into murder shuns him after the deed is done. The culture insists that a woman stands for dignity and virtue. If she doesn't, she has to be eliminated. Someone has to do the dirty work but no more than a garbage collector is he admired. The woman's trespass isn't a domestic failing but a breach of family, tribal, or societal order. Group integrity can only be preserved by the woman's death.

In spite of Onal's long immersion in the misery of Turkish women, she could still be shocked. The word was that Nevzat had killed his fifteen-year-old daughter because she talked to her boyfriend on the telephone, and that he killed his wife because she condoned his daughter's telephone calls. When Onal asked Nevzat if he was sorry, he said yes. He hadn't realized how difficult prison could be for a man of fifty. Had he known, he would have shot his daughter and wife in the legs so that they suffered the rest of their lives as invalids. That way he would have had a much shorter sentence.

But on probing, the icy peasant who seemed like a monster turned out to have been unhinged by the very thought of sexual transgression. He had been in a panic to marry off his daughters before the least aspersion could be cast on them. His philosophy was that to have a daughter at all -- and he had several -- was a disaster. When his wife confessed that the fifteen-year-old was pregnant, he shot them both. The girl's lover denied he had impregnated her and announced proudly that to have married her when she carried another man's child would have sullied his reputation. So his honor was safe, as was Nevzat's in his convict's cell.

Murat came across as a tender-hearted young man. He had indeed held his mother dear. She favored him in return, as if compensating for the coldness of her weak husband. She hadn't been asked her opinion of him when she was married off as a child. In fact, at the time, she had already been aroused sexually by a cousin. When he reappeared in the gray years of her marriage, she began a passionate affair with him. This was facilitated by her husband's job as a night watchman. Regular employment was in fact his only personal asset. The tragedy began when Murat at puberty discovered his mother's secret. He was traumatized on hearing her repeat to her lover the same terms of endearment she used with him. For eight years he withdrew from all close contact with her.

In Murat's own relations with married women he sought to know why they betrayed their husbands. One woman said it was because she was beaten; another because she was ignored. The sensitive boy thought them justified and could not find it in his heart to condemn his mother. But he was haunted by the fear that other people might know the truth. When he tried to marry, the family of his betrothed refused him because of his mother. That the whole town was aware of the secret he kept for years festering within him began to prey on his mind. Various family members who had their own reasons to dislike his mother egged him on. An uncle practically put a gun in his hands and assured him that he would be out of prison in no time. So Murat committed the awesome crime of matricide though he had no blame for his mother and indeed loved her more than ever. His honor, which resided wholly in the gaze of others, was safe.

Far from casting her grim conclusions in the detached form of a sociological report, Onal relates them in a narrative style sometimes swollen with empathy. The reader often finds himself in a tale out of Boccaccio or confronting the swerves and reversals of a classic oriental fable. This disconcerting manner of reporting her findings has its rewards. Savory details of lifestyles far from our own nurture our interest. And we are never allowed to forget the tumultuous mix of contemporary Turkey where a tribal mindset can exist beside a modern cosmopolitan outlook.

Ayse Onal herself exemplifies the inroads of modernity. She hosts a TV show and on her prison visits had a cameraman with her to film her interviews. The ire she raises is, moreover, clearly due to her media access and not because of her books, especially not her books in English. Her introductory account of the travail of a teenage girl is enlightening in this respect. Remziye lives in an Istanbul shanty town, a whole area of which has been taken over by her Kurdish clan. The bright girl's stubborn intention to go on to high school is seen as a crime by her collective family. Remziye's only chance for escape is to find the patronage of a male other than her father. But, as she learns, this is not the way to freedom but only to another subservient role in a new man's house. Her female relatives especially are riled by her independence, and it's her own mother who will insist on the need for her to be killed.

Happily the media steps in and once Remziye's case gets aired her life is safe from her brothers who have been stalking her like professional hit men. Contributions roll in and she and the young man who has fathered her child are able to leave Turkey for a life elsewhere. Before their departure, Onal asks the new bridegroom:

"If your sister ran away would you shoot her, after everything you've been through?"

He replies without hesitation:

"There's running away and there's running away. If the person running away gets married as I did, that's fine, but if their intentions are bad it goes without saying I'd kill them both."


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Published May 18, 2009