Boyd Tonkin: Athens and Ankara could redraw our mental maps

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The Independent Online

Platform discussions with novelists tend to be genteel and decorous affairs, and never before have I approached one with a niggling fear about how to keep order in the hall. Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish Nobel laureate whom I introduced at the South Bank in London last week, shared the anxiety that a few of his ultra-nationalist detractors might turn up to make a scene.

In the event, neither of us need have worried. The house was packed with young representatives of Pamuk's Turkey, as broad-minded and open-hearted as the writer himself. They applauded him lustily when he picked up a questioner who implied that the nation as a whole – rather than diehard chauvinists in the legal system – had put him on trial in 2005 for "insulting Turkish identity" by raising the Armenian massacres of 1915 in a Swiss magazine interview.

All the way from Pamuk to the new president, Abdullah Gul (in cultural terms, a long stretch indeed), Turkish attitudes to nationhood, to religion and to Europe have fallen into fresh patterns. Increasingly, they make a nonsense of the old dualities that set "western" against "eastern", state against mosque, tradition against modernity. Turks get annoyed, understandably, if told that their democracy should set a good example to a so-called "Muslim world" which, if it exists, might not be one to which they feel they belong.

And neither, as Pamuk eloquently explains, does a slavish imitation of an idealised Europe satisfy progressives any more. "Turkey should not worry about having two spirits," he says, "belonging to two different cultures, having two souls." For all the threats that beset it – of military intervention on one side, fundamentalist militancy on the other – a robust Turkish pluralism looks like the brightest spot in a benighted region. Might it begin to cast an influential light not just over Iraq and other points east, but to the west – even over Greece? It is, after all, the oldest cliché in the guidebook to point out how much the apparent arch-rivals on either side of the Aegean have in common.

And historians document in painful detail how Greek-Turkish enmities arise from broken kinship; chiefly, from the internationally-endorsed ethnic cleansing of the Treaty of Lausanne of 1923. That shotgun divorce saw 1.3 million Orthodox Christians (many Turkish-speaking) forcibly removed from Asia Minor into Greece, and half a million Greek-speaking Muslims shipped into the new Turkish republic.

Since then the rows and thaws have come and gone, with the fate of Cyprus – ruthlessly exploited by Athens and Ankara alike – the consistent stumbling-block to a lasting rapprochement. Yet mutual curiosity abounds, fed no longer just by family memories but by books and articles, exhibitions and films – such as Tassos Boulmetis's foodie-weepie blockbuster A Touch of Spice, about the displaced Greeks of Istanbul. This May, at the international book fair in Thessaloniki (an Ottoman metropolis until 1913), I noticed that the Turkish publishers association set up almost the swankiest stall of all – and one, inevitably, plastered with posters of Pamuk.

Greeks and Turks, twin legatees of the Ottoman estate, share much more than the elements of a much-loved cuisine. Both have had to wrestle with the fractured inheritance of an unwieldy multi-cultural empire that took a whole century (from 1821 to 1923) to unravel, messily. Both, living through this long aftermath, often seem preoccupied to the point of paranoia about what the rest of Europe thinks of them. Athens stages a successful Olympics: jump up the ladder of international esteem. Blazes char the woodlands of Arcadia as help arrives too late: slide down the snake of foreign disapproval. (Turkey, by the way, did send a fire-fighting plane.) A few days ago, campaigning in advance of next Sunday¹s general election, the Socialist leader George Papandreou blamed the New Democracy government not merely for mishandling the fires but for the "international defamation" of Greece in their wake.

In Turkey, an exactly parallel process sees every twist and turn of the country's bid to pursue accession talks with the European Union greeted by media paroxysms of joy or rage as the door edges open or bangs shut – the rage more frequent than the joy these days. For Pamuk, writing in terms that apply just as well to Greece, an emotional switchback-ride of pride and shame has marked his country's troubled commerce with the dominant powers. He notes that whenever a people feels deeply humiliated, "we can expect to see a proud nationalism rising to the surface".

For both Greeks and Turks, the oscillation between outward-looking and introspective moods has often stemmed from how they think others judge them: European institutions, the West, those distant heartlands of modernity that inspire yearning or disdain. But, as Pamuk argues, the old centres cannot hold. Washington or Paris, Brussels or Berlin: whatever happens in politics, none can any longer set the terms of cultural trade.

In this new world, a co-operative centre that embraced both Athens and Ankara could bracingly redraw our mental maps. By next week, Greece as well as Turkey should have a freshly mandated government. Foreigners who wish both countries well (there are plenty of us) will hope that they can plan a joined-up future that allows their people to look, and move, happily in any direction that they choose.

b.tonkin@independent.co.uk

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