(Author: Yakup Kadri Karaosmanoglu) + (Year: 1932) + (Goodreads)
(Around the world: Turkey)
Initially I was not sure about this book. Having read Kiralik Konak, I couldn’t fully grasp where the author was going and why he had a sudden change of heart as to his world views. However, I quickly realized that at the beginning of the book he heavily used irony to introduce the strange world of Anatolia to the reader.
Similarly to what I said in my review about The Bridge on the Drina, I think that a person who has never had any kind of contact with Anatolia, and with Turkey outside of Istanbul in general, would have a problem completely understanding Yaban (translated as The Strange on Wikipedia; whereas yabancı is a foreigner, an alien [though not one from outer space]).
This book represents a world that has hardly changed from the time it was written, or, as a matter of fact, the time it is set in, or any time before that. Anatolia is not anything that one could just imagine. The people living there are, and seem to have been for a really long time, suspended in a certain timelessness. Their world might change as the outside world does, but their mindset doesn’t necessarily need to follow.
The main character in Yaban is a veteran from the war, the son of a rich family from Istanbul, who loses his arm during WWI and, defeated, decides to “look for himself” in a quiet village in Anatolia, supposedly somewhere close to Sakarya (which is still far away from inner or Eastern Anatolia, which is yet another, completely different world). What this man is not prepared for is that even though he is from the same country, even though he speaks almost the same language, albeit much more refined, even though he has lost his arm to protect these people, they will never see him as one of them. He is always rejected as a crippled outsider, unwanted and unwelcome. The most that he ever achieves is to be tolerated, but never sought after.
The world has changed a lot since the times of the book – the Turkish Liberation War (1919-1922), but I wouldn’t say that Anatolia has done so, too. I had the opportunity to live in Ankara, the second biggest metropolis in Turkey, and to travel around the country, and I can understand the character of this book very well. While in university life I could almost fit in, especially considering that I speak the language, whenever me and my friends would go on a trip to any other city in Anatolia, we would stick out like a sore thumb. On one occasion we were walking on a seemingly empty market street in a rather big town, only to have every single person from every single store come out to gawk at us in a matter of seconds.
Therefore, this special mindset can be attributed to the culture of this mainland part of Turkey. The closed societies, everyone knowing everybody else, the people sticking together in times of need, but always mistrusting outsiders. This is something that, I believe, was a common phenomenon all over the world before globalization and multiculturalism, but in many parts of the world, and especially Europe, where by many standards Turkey is, it has changed a lot since. More so, even if strangers and foreigners are noticeable in small towns all over Europe, they are still more welcome.
I think that this lack of change in Anatolia can, therefore, be attributed to the continuing conflict between European culture and Islamic tradition. And when I say Islamic tradition, I especially need to underline the word tradition. Because religions of all kinds are tightly linked to following a set of rules which resist time and change and, in some cases, get much stronger with time and under the pressure of outside forces to evolve.
What bothered me in this story is also closely linked to the traditionalism of religion. Yaban is very actual today. I am afraid to say that in the last century it has never been more close to the reality of the current situation than today. The book is set right in the middle of Ataturk’s war for the liberalization of Turkey. Ataturk’s ideas were very controversial at the time. Today he is widely beloved, but that was not necessarily so during his rise to power. He was also considered an outsider and even an oppressor by some. And the main reason for that was that Ataturk shared many of the European values, including the idea that religion should not play a central role in society. Which means that after he became head of the newly born Turkish Republic, he lowered the importance of religion and went ahead to educate the people in a new set of cultural values.
In recent years religion has been re-gaining its positions, which means that more and more people become torn between Westernization and dedication to Islam. And this time around the government, in opposition to Ataturk’s principles, is promoting the role of religion, therefore taking a step back from what was achieved during the Liberation War. And never has the following quote from the book been more relevant to society, and not in a good way:
– I know, you are one of them.
– Who are “them”?
– The ones who support Kemal Pasha [Ataturk].
– How can a man be a Turk and not support Kemal Pasha?
– My friend, we are not Turks.
– What are you, then?
– We are Muslim, alhamdulillah, praise be to God.
(translated by me)