Sunday, 18 August 2019

Book review: Ottoman Odyssey, Alev Scott (2018)

Before I talk in detail about this book I have to register the importance of the feeling of pleasure that reading it gave me. At the time I bought it, in a bookstore in Newtown, in Sydney, on one of my regular weekend outings, I had just started three other books of nonfiction by people who were, or had been, journalists. I finished one of them, skimmed one, and left off reading the third out of frustration. They were all Australian books but out of the three only one was readable. Even then, I had reservations about the author’s approach to her subject.

But here’s the thing: all three of those books had been brought to my attention by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) in programs on their local Sydney radio frequency. All three had been promoted probably without the people talking about them even reading them. Then, on this sunny day, I went into a bookshop and deliberately picked off the shelf a book that had as little as possible to do with the identity politics that those three books retailed in. Choosing this book by Scott was, consciously, a bird flipped at the local publishing industry, a business that has its usual methods of getting media coverage, and one that had let me down so badly.

Scott’s book is journalism but it is a kind of journalism that is more and more common these days. The author points, at the end of the book, to the danger that her brand of journalism faces, when she talks with a colleague, a man who had, like her, been singled out for censure by the Turkish government. She uses the word “activism” as an adjective to qualify the kind of journalism I am talking about.

One of the things that is most interesting about Scott’s book, in fact, is her own character as it appears from time to time in the narrative. More toward the end but throughout the book the author points to herself as an example of the kind of person she wants to talk about, or in order to register her reactions to the many different people she meets in the course of making her story. Now, there is nothing unusual about this kind of journalism. It is, in fact, a kind of commonplace for a journalist to includer him- or herself in the narrative. But it does mean that you are going to lose some of the control you have, as a journalist, over the messages you are making. At the core of journalism, indeed, is the idea of objectivity. If Scott tells us, when she visits a small village in Cyprus or Bosnia, that the man she is talking to wears a red shirt, then we have to believe this is true. But she cannot blithely bury her own ideological position vs-a-vis Ankara or Jerusalem.

At heart Scott is not in favour of nationalism although she does mention at different points how it functioned as an effective element of local politics in different places at the time the Ottoman Empire was disintegrating. And this book is about nationalism and religion, specifically, and how those two things combine within different individuals, and within individual communities, to influence personal conduct as well as politics. I hesitate to mention the positive role that nationalism played in Europe in the 14th century at the beginning of what came to be known as the Humanist project. With any tool or with any means to an end, sometimes what you use to achieve your goals can be constructive and sometimes the same thing, used by different people, can be destructive.

Scott singles out a kind of tribalism as an element in the political settlement in a number of different countries she visits, but especially in Lebanon, where the different groups of people in the community have their own representatives in the legislature and in other institutions such as the armed forces. This kind of extreme solution to the issues that Scott raises – the ways that people’s identities serve to mould the political settlement – is one of the insights that this book delivers. In a modern, pluralist democracy, most often the tribes that exist in the community correspond to the major political parties. The situation in a country in the Middle East can be very different and this dynamic can cause problems for politicians there that you won’t find in, say, Australia.

There are a number of different themes that emerge in the course of the book, although it is difficult to settle on one or two considering the broad range of places Scott visits in order to gather the material she needs to write her stories. Basically she is trying to pick out some common ideas that have emerged in the generations since the 1920s, when Turkey emerged from the ruins of the empire that had existed since the 14th century. The book’s subtitle is “travels through a lost empire” and the author certainly does a lot of travelling (although the government bars her from entering Turkey at a certain point in the tale). This is a useful book to read if you have some knowledge of the region already; it might be hard to gain access to it if you know nothing about the geographical area we know as the Middle East. My own May trip to the region certainly informed my understanding of what Scott writes.

What it makes clear is that Turkey today leverages its Ottoman roots to try to influence countries in the region through soft-power diplomacy, in the same way, for example, that China uses similar tools. Money to build mosques or to set up tertiary education institutions is linked to a crude branding strategy that emphasises the significance of past glories. Local politicians in different countries use this kind of jingoistic pork-barrelling to gain influence within the communities they lead. But this book is far too complex to enable a reviewer to make too many easy conclusions. You really have to read it if you want to understand the complexity of the region and the types of relations that have emerged, since the 1920s, between governments there and the people they govern.

Scott chronicles a dizzying array of different groups of people, each of which has its own history, its own forms of religious observance, its own values and allegiances and even, in some cases, professions. The region is characterised, thus, by a vast diversity of people and Scott is a worthy observer of this.

On the other hand, Scott’s opinion of Jerusalem I found unnecessarily harsh, and it was probably mostly due to her personal ideas about Israel. As a committed lefty, Scott feels an obligation to support the Palestinians and this aspect of her identity colours the passages that she writes about the old town with its high walls, many religious institutions, and shops selling tourist tat.

It’s salutary to contrast the things she says about the tourists who flock to the city in a steady stream, and the things she says about people with whose feelings she sympathises, such as the Greeks living in the northern part of Cyprus she meets and whose stories embellish the final pages of the book. Both groups of people are finding meaning doing their thing but Scott suggests that the feelings of rich Christians, from places like Europe and the US, as they stalk along the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem are, somehow, inauthentic. It’s really a shame. You sense, too, conflicting emotions for the author when she talks about the pronouncements of Turkish President Erdogan on the subject of Israel. On the one hand she doesn’t like Israel but on the other hand she doesn’t like Erdogan, so in such passages she’s caught in something of a quandary.

Scott’s English is sometimes slightly idiosyncratic and this might be due to her having spoken a different language when she was growing up. One solecism can serve to illustrate this point, where she talks about “boiling oil”, which is an impossibility in the domestic context. It might be possible in an industrial plant to get oil to boil but at home it can only get very hot, and will not boil on a regular stove. It might possibly become as hot as boiling water, but it won’t boil without special help.

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