Books

Transience Permeates the Introspective Pages in 'Turkey Rediscovered'

Where Job scraped his sores, where Xenophon crossed the Euphrates, Krause Reichert links the stories he knows well to their terrain and traces.


Turkey Rediscovered: A Land Between Tradition and Modernity

Publisher: Haus Publishing
Length: 189 pages
Author: Klaus Reichert
Price: $22.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2016-12
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In late 2008, the critic-translator Klaus Reichert left Frankfurt. He gave lectures and toured two regions of Turkey. Neither area was frequented by that many from the West. This brief journal, supplemented by a chapter on kilims (flat-woven rugs), comprises Turkey Rediscovered.

What is left to discover again stays unclear for most of this enigmatic, angular book. Perhaps it's the choice of Eugene H. Hayworth in his translation, but the original title Türkische Tägenbucher expresses its impressionistic composition and diary mode better. Reichert types up his notes as he travels. They convey an erudite, unhurried reflection on the sights and sensations they provide him.

As a guest of the Ministry of Culture, the professor provides a steady pace as he traverses the biblical land of Uz. He begins in the Fertile Crescent, the very place from where Abraham departed for his forays with his one God. Urfa fills with stony relics. But it's on the streets where its legacy survives. "Suddenly I feel that I know many of the faces from the museums: Sumerians, Hittites, Assyrians, Syrians, Greeks, Romans, the conquered and the conquered, the masters and the slaves..."

Where Job scraped his sores, where Xenophon crossed the Euphrates, Reichert links the stories he knows well to their terrain and traces. At a site claimed by some as the world's oldest temple, the high and barren plateau of Göbekli Tepe ("Potbelly Hill"), he reflects on what may have been flourishing in 9000 B.C.E., even if not the fabled Eden claimed by some of its more imaginative exploiters today. "Stones, thistles, thorns -- that corresponds to the land after the expulsion of Adam, and if God shaped him from this dark plowed earth (adama), then Adam must have been a Moor." Typically, the literary scholar Reichert turns to language as it swirls in this landscape, to sift his thought, to add wry asides.

The present city lacks any lingering romance from these prehistoric presences. A Berlin-born Turkish woman now laboring (the verb is apt, for teachers are assigned to the hinterlands not by their will) in an English-language classroom shares her reactions to her Urfa stint. "A few ruins that amaze the foreigners, hype about the prophets for Persian pilgrims. Otherwise there are nothing but cell phone shops, the length of an entire block; dresses that are so ugly no one will wear them; inelegant, cheap shoes that pinch. Handicraft folklore and the corresponding music in the hotels." Boredom seeps in.

Moving on to Bergama, once the Greco-Roman metropolis of Pergamon, Reichert peeks into a dilapidated Orthodox church, occupied by crows and ravens. Much of the territory around Izmir was in turmoil nearly a century ago. After the First World War, massive forced transfers of Greek-descended populations to their long-lost "homeland" were carried out; a smaller group of similarly settled Turkish peoples in the Greek lands were sent back to Turkey. This leaves many ruined churches in the area, as well as lingering memories of distrust and resentment among families today.

To the evidence attesting to such losses, Reichert resigns himself, failing to talk with the few who still carry connections to these severed cultural ties, to the reality of everyday culture now around him. "Everywhere cats, bougainvilleas, tagetes, date palms, friendly people, fish in the many display cases that have not given up, fighting against their earthly destiny." Such stoicism suits Reichert, evidently.

Little of today's Turkish stress enters this purview. The Kurdish struggle remains very marginalized; the regime's contention with Islam stays muted. This may be part of the deal Reichert offers his hosts.

Transience permeates these introspective pages. In the underwhelming display of Troy as excavated and scrutinized by his fellow Germans in the recent past, he reasons: "Helmuth von Moltke visited Alexandrian Troas on his fact-finding trip to Turkey and lamented its decline. But what of this city, this place, would have remained if it had continued to exist to the present day? Nothing." Clever.

In Istanbul's fabled palaces and Hagia Sophia, Reichert fails to rouse himself to a traveler's rapture. Yet in the Chora Church, just outside the Byzantine walls, he notes typically a telling detail, in a less frequented attraction. In the Anastasis Fresco, as Christ redeems the dead in Hell: "Behind him, men and women swarm -- the pushing and shoving of a mob addicted to redemption, who want to squeeze the hands of the Saviour through the eye of a needle." Reichert sharpens his gaze when peering at art.

Therefore, he elaborates on Sinan, an Armenian conscript to the Janissaries who had to convert to Islam. After his military service, Sinan became chief royal architect. In the middle of the 16th century, he supervised a marvelous dome over the Selimiye mosque near the present-day Bulgarian frontier, at Edirne. This, as Reichert diligently recounts, made its designer "the Euclid of his age".

Finally, the author steps away from an elegant landmark to completion. He delves into kilims, with their "disproportionate symmetry". Drawing on composer Morton Feldman's appreciation for the patterns in this knitted fabric, Reichert looks as did his predecessor to John Cage and to Samuel Beckett's short text "Neither". Within this perspective, Reichert sees the imminent is at hand -- but not revealed except in the next ten minutes. Out of this unconventional repetition, Reichert contemplates Mark "Rothko's finding that particular scale which suspends all portions in equilibrium."

Thus ends his series of reflections on Turkey and its creations. Unpredictable, but this sense of suspension, in retrospect, fits Turkey Rediscovered, for here in a kilim, his discovery repeats and lingers on and on.

6

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