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Eye on the News

Claire Berlinski
Supping Full with Horrors
A social evening with Turkish outcasts
23 April 2012

I came back late at night from the Distinguished Physician’s special dinner party for minorities, Leftists, and persecuted journalists. His villa in Istanbul overlooks the once-picturesque cove of Tarabya on the European shore of the Bosphorus. It is still picturesque, if you look only to your right. Harold Nicolson wrote of this view:

To the south, fringing the soft lip of the Marmora, another ruin; the frail façade of a palace on the shore. Three marble arches opening to the sea: the carved brackets of a fallen balcony, the waves below splashing on heavy capitals half-buried in the sand. And through the arches the wide level of the Marmora, blue as a lapis pavement, stretching across to the sharp shore-line of Bithynia: and beyond, the soft sweep of the mountains, twenty miles away: the snows of Olympus hanging in the sky. The Palace of the Bucoleon, the Palace of Hormisdas, that balcony where fourteen hundred years ago Theodora had dreamt of lust and love and Empire; a pavilion, merely, to the vanished palaces upon the hill, a pavilion, delicate and imperial, built out into the waves. Ruin had come and touched it with a gentle dignity.

If you look to your left, however, you see only a massive and monstrous gray concrete slab. It is a hotel, apparently, though it might be mistaken for a prison. Former Turkish prime minister Süleyman Demirel built it, the Distinguished Physician told me. What can you call the deliberate construction of a thing so ugly there but an act of vandalism? The kitschy neo-Ottoman hotels they’re building now at least suggest an appreciation that what was built in the past was beautiful and that it might be worthwhile to try to imitate it. This hotel simply expresses a contempt for history, a contempt for beauty, an eagerness to destroy both for all future generations.

But to the right, the view that Nicolson saw remains. The elites of this city—the vanished world—once understood Greek and Renaissance architectural ideals. To the right are order, balance, symmetry, careful proportions. An oleander tree in pink blossom separates a ruined villa’s marble courtyard from a sunken pool, now covered in moss. The tree is very old, to judge from its size, and someone thought a great deal when planting it about the way it would draw the eye upward, toward the terrace.

The Distinguished Physician’s house is a temple of exquisite artistic judgment. The carpets, the urns, the muted paintings on the wall, all were chosen by a man of taste. Even the deaf Persian cat seemed deliberately engraved over the windowsill. The Physician explained one of the carpets. There was a book on his coffee table, in French, about the excavation of Paleolithic Çatalhöyük. The Great Mother Goddess seated on a throne, her hands on the heads of leopards—could I see that these were exactly the carpet’s motifs? The book depicted the inhabitants of Çatalhöyük—bare-breasted, slender, smiling, cooperative, French with slightly Asiatic eyes. I asked: Does it make you melancholy? Yes, he said. Think of it: they were just as intelligent as we are.

What the Distinguished Physician didn’t mention, but what the Archpriest of the Ecumenical Patriarchate explained to me later in the evening, was that the hotel had been built over the ashes of the church of St. George, which was burned to the ground in the pogrom of 1955. When he explained that, I understood. How else to interpret the destruction of that view, the creation of that kind of savage ugliness in its place, but as an act of self-hatred and self-punishment? If ever you were tempted to doubt the existence of a collective unconscious, just look at that thing.

Earlier that day, the papers had reported that the government had agreed to return a few of the Armenian and Jewish graveyards that had been seized by proclamation in 1936. What, I asked a cynical Turkish friend, did this mean in practical terms? After all, I said, I would assume no one is aching to build a multistory shopping mall over these graves. “Oh, you might be surprised,” said the cynical friend. “Look on a map of Istanbul. Look where they are.” The Archpriest said that it was simply a matter of justice. He hoped that the government would return the rest of the Patriarchate’s properties. I asked: What would you do with these sites if ever they were returned? He didn’t know: they weren’t thinking that far ahead.

The designated representative of Istanbul’s long-suffering Jews joined the conversation. It would make no difference, he said, if all the properties were returned. After all, there was no one left to use them. But then he changed his mind. The Jews needed their graveyards back because they had nowhere to be buried.

The night before, I had been to a Passover seder. One guest said that he wasn’t worried for himself: “I can get my entire family out in two hours.” He wasn’t sure whether to be optimistic. Even if the economy collapsed, he said, Turks were used to that. They would do what they always did. Americans couldn’t handle a crisis, but Turks could. They could count on each other. The case for optimism: “Geographically, Turkey is in the best place in the world . . .”

“And the worst,” I said. He dissolved into laughter. He knew what I meant. Turkey has neighbors from hell. That’s the case for pessimism.

He said that America had chosen Turkey’s government. Most Turks believe that the United States supported, or at least did not discourage, Turkey’s sanguinary military coups, and indeed, there is some evidence that this is so. “Nothing happens here without America’s permission. It isn’t a criticism. It’s just the way power is. I respect it.” At least, he said, the people liked Erdoğan. It was the first time it had ever happened, he said—a prime minister the people liked. Once, it was scarcely imaginable.

Back to the dinner party. There was the ancient Greek doyenne in whose honor the party was held. “I don’t like Americans,” she said. I offered a frozen smile. Five minutes later she was introduced to the designated long-suffering Jew. “Tell your country that they need to finalize their borders,” she said.

“Shame on you, you anti-Semite,” I said. Everyone looked uncomfortable for a moment, until they mistakenly decided I was charming and spirited. Later, another guest said to me, sotto voce, “We enjoyed your saying that.” The Dutch-Turkish sociologist said, “The Greeks will say it outright; the Turks are too subtle. Turks will say, ‘America, how wonderful! What do you think of your foreign policy?’ They wait for you to criticize, and then smile quietly.” Yes, I said. I knew.

The Greek doyenne reported that elderly men were committing suicide in the public square in Athens, so distraught were they by the economic ruin. “Athens is the worst place in the world. Everything Hitler wanted, the Germans have, now.”

“But I can see it from the German point of view, too,” said the designated long-suffering Jew, not without a certain malice.

And who else? There was the journalist from the left-wing newspaper. Half of her colleagues were in jail, she said, the other half too terrified to write. She had seen Ahmet the day before. He and Nedim were too traumatized to be coherent. They reported that the conditions of their imprisonment had been exceptionally cruel. Both were filled with the deepest sense of betrayal. Both were aware that no one in Turkey had much cared. “We fought so hard against the coups,” she said. “But this is just as bad.”

There was less torture now, I pointed out. Yes, she agreed. That was true. They no longer used special tools. Then she said she was too tired to speak any more and left the table.

And another guest, telling me how astonished he was that when his doorman had a heart attack, he was treated for free at the local public hospital, revived, and sent home with a stent. A Turkish stent was free. A foreign stent cost 18 lira, about $10. He was given the choice. “Everyone has health care now. That couldn’t have happened before. This government has done so much for people, how can they not realize it?”

I drove back with the Cerebral Economist. We got stuck in the Saturday-night traffic in Bebek, the mating ground of the flashing-handbag nouveau-riches, for about two hours; en route to their superclubs, they had snarled the roads. Imprisoned on all sides by growling sports cars, we briefly discussed shooting our way out. The Economist said that he would vote for the ruling AKP despite everything. He didn’t trust the Left not to screw up the economy. “All they can think about is how much they hate foreigners.” He wondered out loud why that crowd disliked Americans so much.

“The Cold War was ugly,” I said. He smiled quietly.

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