How did it happen in Turkey but not elsewhere?

How did it happen in Turkey but not elsewhere?

On the plane to Sydney, Australia this week, I took to reading Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar’s “The Time Regulation Institute” (1961). I had time; the flight from Abu Dhabi to Sydney takes 12 hours. Penguin Classics recently published an English translation by Maureen Feely and Alexander Dawe. It is a lot of fun to read and I highly recommend it. I am not a literary critic, so don’t expect me to say things about the novel itself beyond this. But I have something to say regarding the experience of reading an old Turkish novel in English. I find it easy to read and understand. Tanpınar’s original work in Turkish was not like that for me. I have to confess that it was much harder to read and understand. Either something, like the style of Tanpınar, was lost in translation, or I had difficulty in understanding Tanpınar’s Turkish. I also had a copy of “Five Cities” with me, which is a compilation of Tanpınar’s five essays on Turkey’s five major cities. Reading it, I decided it might be the style that was lost in translation. Better to get the storyline in “The Time Regulation Institute,” which is definitely marvelous, I have to say. Now that I understand the plot better, I can read the original easier.

And how important it is to understand Tanpınar’s world! It was while reading the essay on Erzurum that I started to think what it must have been like to be a part of a group of nation builders in the 1930s, as Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar was. He was born in 1901 and died in the early 1960s. His was the generation that managed the transition from the Ottoman imperial past to a Republican future, from a multicultural empire to a Turkish nation-state: A generation that was trying to build a new foothold for themselves in Anatolia amid the ruins of an old empire. They were successful in building a nation-state.

Local elites’ aspirations were the same all across the vast Empire’s geography, yet that epistemological break with the past was only achieved in the case of Turkey. Why?

Take Erzurum, a city in the northeast. In 1855, Erzurum was part of the Tabriz-Erzurum-Trabzon Silk Road. Its population was then around 130,000. When Tanpınar first visited the city in 1913 as a child, part of that old splendor – vivid markets and cosmopolitan culture – were still there. When he visited the city in 1923, however, he found it had changed. After a decade of war, massive population movements and a hollowed-out imperial government, the city was a shadow of its former self. The population had declined to a few thousands and the old Silk Road was no more. Erzurum’s economic capabilities had diminished enormously, as always happens with population movements. Think about the mess that a crumbling empire leaves behind. Muslim populations from the Balkans and Caucasia leaving their homes and taking refuge in Anatolia, while Armenian and other Christian populations were vacating the same space they had lived and prospered in for centuries. So Tanpınar’s generation saw their world fall apart. In this environment, those nation-builders decided to make a clean break with the past. It was the age of the nation state and they decided to build one as well.

That was a painful process. Tanpınar tells of his encounter with Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in Erzurum in 1923. He was a teacher in a modern school in Erzurum. Atatürk asked him whether the closing down of madrasas, the religious schools, might lead to anger among the public. “I do not think that closing down madrasas will lead to a reaction” Tanpınar said, “because madrasas are institutions in survivance.” He used the term in the same sense as Derrida’s “le survivance.” It denotes “the surviving of an excess of life which resists annihilation.” No use, it just exists. That was the basis of that epistemological break with the past. When he heard the term “survivance,” Atatürk repeated it twice, as was his habit, Tanpınar notes. He said “Yes, in survivance; Yes, in survivance,” as if in a trance. Then he added reluctantly “But you never know for sure.”

In order to get rid of the old tradition, you need to invent a new tradition. Nation-state building is about imagining a community, as the scholar Benedict Anderson noted years ago. That process of “imagining” is what Tanpınar writes about in “The Time Regulation Institute.” Have fun reading it, I know I did.