BOOK REVIEW / Dancing to destruction

Can Turkey, torn by civil strife and identity crises, heal itself?Dervi sh: The Invention of Modern Turkey by Tim Kelsey Hamish Hamilton, pounds 18
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The Independent Culture
Tim Kelsey's Dervish offers a fascinating look into modern Turkey's struggle to forge its cultural and political destiny. His vision is of a Turkey whirling, dervish-like, between the glory of its Ottoman past and its new economic realities, between Ataturk's secular legacy and current Islamist tendencies, between its furtive longings for democracy and its often brutal political violence.

But despite Kelsey's observations on torture and corruption, nepotism and fascism, he presents a finally optimistic view of a country nourished and sustained by the very oppositions that could destroy it.

In a very readable style - part journalistic travelogue, part Anatolian road movie - the author explores the contradictory elements that leave Turkey at a crossroads, poised between her Eastern neighbours and the European community, and between different visions of her future.

Ghosts are everywhere. Kelsey visits Anatolian villages where Kurds live near the silent graves of massacred Armenians, and where tribal drug lords are in league with government forces against the Kurdish Worker's Party.

Against this background of civil war, born-again Christian tourists arrive in search of Noah's Ark (supposedly on Mount Ararat), oblivious to the existing Christianity of many of the locals they hope to "convert", and unaware that they may soon become unlikely hostage pawns of the PKK (Kurdish Worker's Party) in their bloody conflict with the Turkish state.

Kelsey also visits the villages of the Yezidi, the so-called "devil worshippers" whose religion venerates the fallen angel. He finds them impoverished and under attack from their Muslim neighbours, dependent on migrant deutschmark wages for their daily bread, and forgotten and forsaken by the West. And he goes to Syriac Christian villages in the south-east, villages that will eventually be destroyed by Turkish forces, which accuse the villagers - already struggling for survival - of being Armenian sympathisers or Kurdish PKK guerillas.

And yet, amidst these tragic examples of intolerance, Kelsey offers observations of true brotherhood. He meets an old Armenian in Istanbul, who, despite the fact that most of his family were victims of Turkish genocide, still holds on proudly to his Turkish identity and speaks of peace and tolerance. He recounts the moving spectacle of a mystical faith-healing service in an old Istanbul Armenian church, where Muslims and Christians pray side by side.

The fatalistic observations of people trapped in Kafka-esque situations are humorous, disturbing and often moving.

With visions of Midnight Express fresh in his memory, Kelsey tries unsuccessfully to gain access inside a prison. He discovers that the warden, who earns a pittance and does not have the right political connections in Ankara, is as much a prisoner as his charges. In a desperate attempt to economise, he eats with them in the prison canteen, and envies the costly medical services to which they have access.

During his spell inside he also meets a murderer serving a 20-year sentence whose family is proud of the position he has reached - making tablecloths in the prison. In the harsh Anatolian winters, locals commit petty crimes just to get inside.

At a whorehouse, the traveller speaks with the madam, who defends her trade and pleads for the moral high ground against the "decadence" of the West. He meets a poor, but educated night watchman who reads Proust when he's not frisking punters, and a young prostitute who dreams of life as a surburban housewife.

Later, Kelsey comes across a genius inventor from a small village, whose efforts to market his fantastic inventions are rebuffed by bourgeois bureaucrats from the big city, and befriends a policeman who, despite his position, reads left-wing writers and produces esoteric verse on the themes of peace and freedom.

The policeman's best friend is a fascist furniture salesman, who rants about "cleaning up" Turkey, while soft-porn films blare from his show- room television.

In the same town, Kelsey interviews the technical director of a new steel factory, which produces nothing but employs a thousand workers - all friends of friends of someone important in Ankara.

While staying in Istanbul, the writer offers glimpses into modern Turkey's identity crisis through the eyes of a transsexual entertainer (the latter- day equivalent, says Kelsey, of the Ottoman "zene" or drag queen) who wants to run for office and models herself on "La Ciccolina", and through the rivalry between a popular singer and a pretty young pop star, packaged "like a hamburger".

But perhaps the strongest image of the new Turkey, is evoked during his visit to Konya, a stronghold of Islamic fundamentalism.

While visiting Konya's Islamist leader, Abdullah Buyk, Kelsey is warned by a hotel clerk warns: "Mystics say the law is in the heart, and all religions are equal, but the religious say it must be in the gun."

In the same town he accompanies a Sufi healer as he cures a bloated, diseased merchant by massaging him with holy oil and clearing his "blockages".

With this reference to Sufism - the popular spirituality that could not be stamped out by Ataturk's secular modernisation process nor by Islamic fundamentalism - Kelsey's message seems to be that Turkey, for all that ails it, will heal itself.