“Turkey”, Andre Falk (1963)

January 7, 2012

A little while ago I came upon one of those old, forgotten, po-faced, unintentionally hilarious English-language travel guidebooks on Turkey. Simply called “Turkey”, it was published in 1963, written by a splendidly-named “Andre Falk”, surely one of the great travellers of Anatolia. I can only say that I wish today’s Lonely Planet guides were written like this.

Falk on Istanbul:

What is one to think of the local mosques, shapeless, dull and unimaginative, looking like asthmatic tortoises decorated by what might be pencils, rockets or phallic symbols?

The Golden Horn is not and probably never has been anything but a stagnant backwater, a sump full of floating vegetable waste at the foot of bare mounds.

The Grand Bazaar remains the biggest in the world, and probably was once the most exciting. But after numerous fires (its last layout dates from 1889 – the worst of periods) it is now the ugliest junk market to be found between East and West […] Let us move on. Everybody knows that the only places for decent shopping are in Rome and Paris…

On Ankara:

It takes an effort of the imagination to realise that this ultra-modern city was created from nothing. You take it for granted that you can live there without contracting malaria.

A gypsy caravan rotting in the backyard of an air-conditioned government building: that is more or less the picture of Ankara.

There is little life in public places, nothing to invite you to stroll about after office hours. Severe, ill-paid officials lock up files of state secrets in their briefcases and hurry off along avenues named after flowers for a game of loto with a colleague from the next department. Suffering diplomats stifle a yawn over the bridge table while the ladies are eagerly engaged in gossip. At the municipal restaurant the din of the musical medleys annoys the secret service agents who are straining their ears to listen to the diners’ conversations. A city you must see, of course, but a brief visit is enough.

On Anatolia:

It is a harsh, even brutal land, where nature and man combine to form a scene of extraordinary harshness.

From north to south you find carelessness, absence of style and no attempt at elegance […] Concrete, disinfectant, prison smells, grey buildings with the paint peeling off, such are the provincial hotels revealing the bad workmanship put into them. The restaurants are like canteens and the dining rooms like feeding troughs.

On Turks:

When a Turk says no, he raises his eyebrow, throws his head back and gives you a stony stare, as if he would like to see you fall dead at his feet. Such behaviour does not make for easy relations between men, but at least it is clear.

His endurance and his lack of imagination make the Turkish infantryman a redoubtable soldier: ‘the most reliable and the most obedient in the world’, wrote T.E. Lawrence, who had fought him in Arabia […] To tell the truth, it is rather a terrifying sight meeting Turkish soldiers.

Fortunately rugby is unknown in Turkey, for it would turn to a massacre.

The higher reaches of Turkish society are probably, man for man, more brilliant than their western counterparts, and this is all to their credit, for the intellectual professions are meanly rewarded […] When you meet a professor, a librarian or a hospital doctor, you are greatly touched when you learn the real incomes of these disinterested men.

The humble folk of the Anatolian mountains and plains are capable of generous and sometimes touching hospitality toward those who know how to behave properly, or towards those in genuine distress. But such a welcome is always tinged with suspicion. The foreigner is no longer the undesirable he was, but they still do not want him and he is automatically suspect […] There is no doubt ample historical justification for this distrustful turn of mind. We will merely add that it does not ease the task of the traveller, who bears no responsibility for the Ottoman Debt and cannot tiptoe about for weeks on end, hoping to make people forget about the Treaty of Sevres.

 On politics:

A democratic politician speaks in different tones when addressing the Council of Europe to when in his constituency accusing the republican opponent of being uncircumcised.

 On republican reforms:

Atatürk wanted to dress his Turks like Westerners. Apart from a slender few, all he did was to turn them into a lot of old tramps.

If revolutions have their necessities and progress has its demands, beauty still has its claims which one would like to see less disregarded by modern Turkey.

The effort to effect a complete revolution was asked for from the most conservative and static of peoples […] Left to himself, it seems, the Turk would only want to do one thing: remake his bed and go to sleep on it. Perhaps this is why, as soon as he gets home, the first thing he does is to don his house pyjamas.

On minibuses:

They say quite rightly that the drivers of these boneshakers are good; the reason is simple, the others are all dead.

On travel:

A plague on those archaists who dip their mandarins’ brushes in the pot of local colour and go off to the banks of the Ganges or the Nile to utter literary bleatings over the photogenic qualities of the squalid.

It is a frequent misfortune that when you reach your destination on a pilgrimage into the past all you find is fragments of pillars buried under weeds. The ideal journey is one which leaves you with the illusions of your imagination unbroken and arrives at no destination.

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