“The Dervish House” Ian McDonald

Ian McDonald’s book “The Dervish House” is set in Istanbul, in the middle of the 21st Century. It opens with suicide bombing of a tram, that doesn’t kill anyone but the bomber herself. One of the witnesses, Necdet, lives at an old dervish house and starts seeing djinn in the aftermath. Another resident of that house (Can, a young boy with a weak heart who wears earplugs to prevent being startled by loud noises) is also a witness, via his toy robot. The other point of view characters (another 4 of them) are also residents or connected with the dervish house. There is Leyla, a young woman from outside Istanbul but part of a large extended family in the city just starting out in marketing. Georgios is an old man, one of the few Greek Christians left in the city, who was once both an economist and a political activist. Ayşe owns a high class antiques & art gallery in the dervish house, and her husband Adnan is a trader (in the stocks & shares sense) with a foolproof scheme/scam to get rich.

The plot follows the six characters over the five days starting with the suicide bombing on a Monday. At first each story seems separate, even Ayşe and Adnan are only linked by their relationship not by what’s going on in their story. Necdet sees djinn and tries to find out why. Can sets out to be a Boy Detective and find out about the suicide bombing. Leyla starts work trying to secure funding and promote a startup nanotech business belonging to one of her cousins. Georgios hears his girlfriend from his student days is back in town, and is also invited to a government thinktank to “think outside the box” about threats to the city. Ayşe accepts a commission to hunt for a legendary Mellified Man despite some misgivings. And Adnan has a scheme to sell cheap (and illegal) oil from Iran to make a huge profit. In the end, all these disparate stories come together – some links are visible early on, but others stay separate till nearly the end.

For all that the plot is mostly about the aftermath of a bombing, and about potential terrorist activity, I didn’t really find it terribly urgent. I wasn’t particularly worried that anyone would die even when they were in danger. Instead the charm of the book was in its snapshot of the life of a city. The characters cover a range of sorts of people – those with money, those without, men, women, single, married, young, old, Christian, Muslim, secular. They all felt distinct, and like their stories and actions grew out of who they were. For all I’ve just said there was no urgency to the plot, I still wanted to know what these people would do and how their stories linked up. Just it’s not driven by the action.

I’ve never been to Istanbul, and I don’t claim any particular knowledge of Turkey, so I can’t say if McDonald gets it right enough for someone who does. However it feels like a plausible near future Turkey to me. There are differences most notably that there’s new tech, like ubiquituous nanotech to do things like help people concentrate or other mental alterations. But these haven’t changed the world into something unrecognisable, in the same way that ubiquituous mobile phones have changed our world but the world is still full of people being people. I guess it’s an anti-singularity novel – McDonald doesn’t seem to think that technological change will at some point accelerate to the point where there’s a discontinuity and afterward the world will be unrecognisable and “post-human”. Instead technology will change, the details of our lives will change, but the old men will sit in cafes in Istanbul gossiping about their neighbours etc.

I enjoyed this book. It’s not necessarily one I’d rush out to recommend to everyone nor is it a particular favourite, but I’m glad I read it.

Turkey: The New Ottomans

The third episode of Alan Little’s series about Turkey took a more in depth look at Turkey’s past & present relationship with Europe. One of the themes that Little was drawing out was that even tho the collapse of the Ottoman Empire was a hundred or so years in the past it was still the precursor for the Bosnian War in the 1990s. The Ottoman Empire had had Islam as the established religion – Christians & Jews were second class citizens. Only Muslims could be part of the government & in territories near to the core of the empire the ruling class were imported from the core. But as the empire spread the elite came from conversion of the native peoples, and this was the case in Bosnia. After the collapse of empire a lot of the Muslim elites left or were otherwise eradicated from the lands they’d previously ruled, but in Bosnia more of them stayed. The rise of a more modern nation state after the break up of Yugoslavia led to less tolerance of the Muslims, and Little pointed out that there was a folk memory of oppression beneath the Ottomans which was then turned against their Muslim countrymen.

Where this ties into modern Turkish/European relations is that the links & common cultural ground between Turkey and the Balkans are still strong – Little interviewed one Turkish businessman, who is descended from Bosnian refugees, and he was saying that trade links with the Balkans made obvious sense because the regions are so intertwined. So even with Turkey’s current focus on strengthening relations with their Arab neighbours the Balkans & other parts of Europe are still some of their biggest trading partners. And it’s this feeling of being aligned with Europe that lead to the AKP pushing to join the EU.

Little stated that it was the desire to join the EU that lead the AKP’s government to push through reforms on issues like human rights. And then the failure to join, with imposition of further conditions that Turkey regard as unfair, not only pushed Turkey towards their Arab neighbours but also stalled the reforms as not being “necessary” any more.

It’s been an interesting three programmes, although I feel it ended up a little incoherent. This was mostly down to events overtaking the programmes – both the protests in Turkey & the second Egyptian revolution (or coup, depending on how you like to think of it). But even so, I wasn’t always sure I knew what the take home message for each segment was supposed to be.

Turkey: The New Ottomans

The second episode of Turkey: The New Ottomans was called “North Africa and the Middle East” and was actually mostly a compare & contrast of the political situation in Turkey and in Egypt. Allan Little’s thesis was that the two are interesting to look at side by side because in Turkey an elected Islamist government has spent the last decade or so acting within a secular democratic constitution, whereas in Egypt the elected Islamists moved to reject any secular governmental practices & policies in favour of religious ones. As with the first episode, he had clearly had the idea for & written this programme before events caught up with him – so there were inserted references to the not-a-coup-honest in Egypt at the end of June, but the overall narrative of the programme was based on the Muslim Brotherhood being in power.

It felt a little odd having Turkey held up as an example of a functional system given the protests against their government & the authoritarian leanings (and human rights issues) of that government, but in terms of what Little was looking at this was the case. And when the first Egyptian revolution in 2011 overthrew Mubarak the hope (both internally for a lot of the protestors & externally from the West & Turkey in particular) was that Egypt would follow Turkey’s lead in marrying Islamist politics with secular politics.

One of the key differences between Turkey & Egypt in this context is the position of the military in the two countries over the last several decades. Little compared the legacy of Attaturk (who took power in Turkey after the Ottoman Empire fell, and is seen as the founder of the Turkish Republic) to that of Nasser (who took power in Egypt after the Second World War and can be seen as the founder of the modern Egyptian state). Attaturk is still remembered as a national hero in Turkey today, and the military were the power behind the throne since his time. Nasser however is less fondly remembered, and this is the result of his disastrous war against Israel (the 6 Days War). This war also humiliated the military in the eyes of the people. So Little was saying that in Turkey the military were a presence that would enforce the secular state constitution, and so the Islamists in Turkey are operating in a framework where that is seen as “the way things work”. However in Egypt the way the state was run was what Mubarak said, so once the Muslim Brotherhood took power they saw themselves as free to set up the country the way they wanted.

Another difference between the two situations is that the AKP when they took power at the state level had already a lot of experience at the municipal level – for instance the current Prime Minister of Turkey, Erdoğan, used to be Mayor of Istanbul and Little was saying he’d done a good job in the role. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt had been in prison or exile before taking power.

Of course the events since the programme was initially conceived meant that Little’s point was undercut a bit. The overthrow of Morsi by a popular protest then military intervention might be Egypt getting itself on track for a more secular solution to government. Or perhaps not.

Turkey: The New Ottomans

Instead of an In Our Time this week we listened to the first episode of a recent series about Turkey from Radio 4. In the series Allan Little is looking at the current political situation in Turkey, both in terms of how it’s developed over the last few decades & how it’s interacting with the rest of the world.

This episode covered the internal politics & focussed on the rise of the AKP (the current ruling party in Turkey) and how they compared to the previous rulers. Around a hundred years ago the Ottoman Empire fell, and Turkey became a republic. The military were heavily involved in the formation of this republic, and there have been several coups over the years as the military replaced leaders they no longer approved of. The regime was authoritarian, but also very secular and focussed on being a part of the West. Little spoke to various people who were targeted by the previous regime because of their religion as much as anything else – anyone who was a practising Muslim was automatically suspect. Study of the Ottoman past was also suspect – textbooks for children glossed over it in a few paragraphs, archives of Ottoman papers etc were locked up & academics forbidden to look at them.

The growing discontent with the secular authoritarian regime led to the formation of the AKP about a decade ago, and at first this was seen as the dawning a of a new era. The election of the AKP put an Islamist but still Western-leaning party in power. Little talked to both members of the AKP and some of the same people he’d interviewed about the previous regime, and the picture all of them painted was of hope for the future at that time. The AKP were heavily invested in the idea of becoming a part of the EU and this drove both increasing prosperity (via their economic policies) and human rights reforms (to make themselves palatable to the EU).

However over time the AKP has become more authoritarian in its turn. Little opened the programme with a bit he’d recorded on the day the demonstrations in Gezi Park started (and I guess he had had the idea for the series before and had to re-write it as events caught up with him). Little, and some of his interviewees, linked the changes to both increasing confidence on the part of the AKP and to the rejection of the Turkey’s application to join the EU. Little made the point that majority rule is not the only thing required to make democracy a functional form of government – the rights of the minority & the right to oppose the elected government are also important. He was saying that the AKP are using their election to justify any changes they want to make, including talk of changing the constitution to make the AKP’s grip on power even stronger. This hasn’t sat well with the growing middle class, and it’s their discontent that is driving the recent protests. The next two programmes in the series will (I think) go into more depth about the change of focus from the West to the Arab world, so Little only covered it briefly here.