It’s Wednesday, June 8. Evening. Back at our by now tried-and-true Hesperia Fera Suites in a cloudy and cool Barcelona. The manager recognized us and made sure we got a room with an exterior view this time. Nice! Anyway, it’s time to talk a little more Turkey.
First, a few words about Mustafa Kemal, better known as Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey in 1923. There are statues of him everywhere. No village is too small. The Turkish Government, to honor him, made it illegal for anyone else to ever bear the surname Ataturk. He is the one and only. Born in Salonika, then a part of the Ottoman Empire but now a city in Greece, he led the successful forces that defended the Turkish homeland at Gallipoli against for combined forces of the British Empire. At the end, the latter had lost some 36,000, with disproportionately heavy casualties taken by the Aussies and the Kiwis. When the British had the Greeks invade Turkey after World War I, Ataturk drove the latter back into the sea and declared the Turkish Republic. He made sure it was a secular state, used Roman rather than Arabic writing, educated and respected its women as well as its men, and understood and fostered its position as a strategic bridge between Europe and Asia. As far as I can tell, he deserves every one of those statues.
To be sure, Turkey is a super-patriotic country. Flags fly everywhere. Those who have read my blog entitled “Flagging Enthusiasm” will know that I am no fan of ultra-nationalism, especially since it tends to get in the way of internationalism and downplay our global humanity. Never have I seen so many flags except perhaps in the U.S. in the weeks just after 9/11 or in historic footage of Germany in the 1930s and 40s. A bit scary. However, it’s fair to mention that our two weeks in the country were during the run-up to the national elections June 12th. In every town or city we visited, campaign cars with loud speakers blaring cruised the streets and asked people to vote for their candidates. The conservative prime minister, Mr. Erdogan (the “g” is silent,) and his AK Party are likely to get yet another term. They have been good on balance for Turkey’s economy and have generally been reliable U.S. (and Israeli!) allies. Last year, moreover, Turkey, per this week’s Economist, had the world’s third fastest-growing economy. However, the man apparently has strong top-down tendencies, is pushing the country toward a more conservative Islamic stance, and doesn’t take criticism well. In fact, only China and Russia currently have more dissenting journalists in jail.
One modernizing thing Ataturk did that might be unfortunate was ban the Sufis. Per Latif, our left-leaning interpreter of Sufi music and our tourguide, the brotherhoods had involved themselves too much in politics during the later Ottoman Empire, so maybe their closure wasn’t so bad. Still, Turkey was a kind of motherhouse for Sufism. In this context, I should report that not only was our visit to Rumi’s tomb a disappointment, but I started feeling sick and had to go outside, where, sitting in a quiet corner of the mosque courtyard, I quickly began to feel better. Rumi like his teacher Shams al-Tambrizi and other Sufi poets such as Kabir and Hafiz quarreled frequently with the conventional religiosity of his times. Today he has been co-opted by mainstream Turkish Islam as a conventional saint. If you translated some of his Persian poetry into Turkish, Latif told us, most Turks would refuse to belief Rumi had written it. In contrast to Rumi’s crowded mausoleum in the million-plus city of Konya, once the capital of the Seljuk Empire, the modest tomb of Haji Bektash Weli in the village named after him, know first of all that I felt just fine in the latter. Versus the swarms of pilgrims at Rumi’s tomb, our group was virtually alone in this quiet, bucolic place in Cappadocia. Indeed, the next day we saw a free performance in the adjacent auditorium of the Bektashi sema, or Sufi meditational dance. Versus Rumi’s all-male whirling dervishes, here men and women together remembered God (i.e., did zhikr) by imitating the flight of birds. Not surprisingly, this 12th-Century teacher of Rumi’s teacher advocated gender equality and a de-emphasis on the rules and regs of conventional “Shariah” Islam in favor of personal mystical communion with the Beloved.
Before I get too spiritual on you, however, let me tell you in conclusion about my major find in Turkey: the one-Turkish-Lira massage chair. A few days into our drive around the high spots of the Western part of the country, I saw this rather impressive-looking coin-operated chair. It was in front of a smallish outdoor market in the middle of Turkish nowhere. I found 1 TL in my pocket—about 75 cents in our money—and took the plunge. Three minutes of Heaven. I mean, H E A V E N!!! First the chair tipped backwards about 30 degrees. Then it took you in its embrace. Rubbing and squeezing everywhere. Calves, spine, back of neck, head. Bliss! So you can imagine my joy when, hurting and exhausted after a very long schlepp with heavy hand-luggage through the Istanbul Airport, I spotted a chair near our Swiss Air gate. The founders of the hammam, the Turkish bath and all it included, had gone hi-tech and wanted to wish me a fond farewell. All the flags, second-class meals, relentless hawkers of wares, and minor inconveniences of travel in a materially less developed country disappeared in a final paroxysm of bliss. Here was a 9,000-year-old human civilization that has cobbled together one of the few functioning democracies and economic success stories in the Islamic world—a role model for its peers and the generator of a hundred wonderful memories for those of us, including me, who are lucky enough to visit. Farewell, Turkiye. I am so glad to have met you.
That’s it for today. My next blog will be on our time in Morocco.
Love from Cedar and me,
Reynold (Ren) Ruslan