In her introduction, Alev Scott states that Turkish Awakening is as much about her personal discovery of the land of her mother’s birth as it is an exploration of contemporary Turkish life and politics, and she is true to her word. She skilfully combines personal insights with an objective gaze to focus on a confusing and often contradictory culture, teasing out a much fuller picture of Turkey than is usually offered. As a result Scott goes beyond the overused East meets West paradigm usually applied to writing about Turkey, to try to unravel the complex relationship between modernity and religion which is so much a feature of daily life in Istanbul.
I particularly liked her chapter titled ‘Conversations with Taxi Drivers’. As a long term resident of the city, with reasonable Turkish, I’ve come to know that if you want the low down of what’s going on, your local taxi driver is a great source of information. Scott goes well beyond what I’ve ever managed to find out, and reveals some surprising facts about Istanbul and its inhabitants.
From this first chapter she goes on to detail the ‘village in the city’ nature of many Istanbul neighbourhoods. Most surprising is the way prostitution and transgender inhabitants coexist, albeit sometimes uneasily, alongside their devout Muslim neighbours who have relocated from the country. She goes on to explore the influence of popular soap operas featuring the new rich, living in ostentatiously flashy homes most Turks can only dream of, and the way these surreal stories have brought Arab tourists to Turkey in search of their new heroes and heroines.
She even writes about her experiences teaching in a highly regarded government university. Through her experience, we see how the respect with which teachers are regarded in Turkey clashes with low salaries, a serious lack of resources and students whose primary aim in learning is to know only the answers to the exam questions and nothing more. Indepth academic research is shunned in favour of multiple choice based exams, and excellence for its own sake has become a sad remnant of a distant past.
The book is rounded out by looking at Turkey’s changing relationship with the EU, no longer seen as a positive aspiration, and the rise and rise of the ruling Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi (AKP – Party for Justice and Progress). Having initially been seen as a praiseworthy example of moderate Islam, Scott reveals how the AKP is now seen as the harbinger of a darker future facing Turkey.
Many of her observations were made against the backdrop of the 2013 Gezi Park protests. During that summer Istanbul, Ankara, Eskisehir and numerous other Turkish cities saw extraordinary displays of public unity against what many saw as an increasingly Draconian government. Scott captures the vitality and hope of those days brilliantly, but her perspective is very much coloured by being in that particular moment. Consequently the book ends on a high which could be misleading to readers unaware of more recent Turkish history. Granted, Scott does offer some analysis of events from the perspectives of supporters of Atatürk, the founder of the modern Turkish republic, as well as those who continue to support the AKP. However I suspect she might offer a significantly different take on events were she to rewrite the final chapter now.
Nonetheless this is a seriously good read which will see you turning the pages non-stop until you reach the end. Scott gives us fascinating glimpses into her personal experiences in Istanbul and Turkey, breathing fresh life into modern history so that we live and feel it as we read. Turkish Awakening A Personal Discovery of Modern Turkey is one of the most engaging histories of contemporary life in Turkey I have read for a long time. I highly recommend it.