12 May 2007

1684) A Turkic Labor Of Endurance

 This content mirrored from TurkishArmenians  Site © pix Fate was lying in ambush for Time-Life photographer Ergun Çağatay as he arrived at Paris's Orly Airport on July 15, 1983, to fly to İstanbul for his wife's birthday; a home-made bomb exploded, killing eight people around the Turkish Airlines ticket counter and injuring 60 more. Çağatay was one of them. He suffered burns to 35 percent of his body. . .

Lying in his hospital bed in the days that followed the attack, Çağatay tried to make sense of what had happened. The bomb that ripped into him was part of a 13-year terrorist campaign by an Armenian group against Turks. Wrapped up in his own international career Çağatay had never thought much about this vengeful blood feud. But being bombed just because he was a Turk got under his skin -- all that skin that was being agonizingly grafted from his legs onto his face and, in particular, onto his camera-holding hands.

He learned how little France did against the perpetrators of the bombing. He meditated on earlier moments of discrimination that had blocked his progress. As convalescence turned into weeks, months and years (he was to wait five years before could he take a photograph again) an idea took root, of which he would never let go. His response to this personal calamity was to put together a book about who the Turks really were -- a great survey of the Turkic-speaking peoples of the world.

Back in 1983, the idea of a book on the Turkic world was quixotic. Few people even knew the term "Turkic." Although at least 140 million speakers of Turkic languages stretched in a crescent from the Balkans to Siberia, they were rarely the subject of coherent study. The few academic specialists around preferred to study the runic alphabets of ancient Turkic nomads -- not the culture of modern Turkic nations, which were seen as vulgar. A major reason for this was Soviet disapproval, especially of Turks interested in such potentially troublesome ethnic research. When Çağatay recovered enough to restart work, he could not get a Soviet visa to travel to Central Asia. Only with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 could his project get under way.

The Turkish government of the day, fascinated with the rediscovery of its Turkic cousins to the east, gave his project a generous advance. But that was not enough, and Çağatay always had trouble raising funds from a disinterested Turkish elite. A rare exception followed a visit to Greece by Turkey's main business association. The ignorant abuse that targeted the delegation prompted one of its members to help Çağatay reverse the perennial humiliations of just being Turkish. "You only want one car?" Çağatay was asked by the executive from a subsidiary of the Koç Group that assembles Land Rovers. "We'll give you two!"

Çağatay's cars could not drive east for months. His dream was blocked by the same bureaucratic hurdles, leadership rivalries and brigandage that have long kept apart the various peoples of the Turkic world. But over the next 13 years he managed to mount a dozen expeditions of one month or longer. In the end he visited 15 countries, about half of the number of countries in the world that have an indigenous Turkic population.

Adventures abounded. His most alarming moment came on the way to little-known Tuva, a small Buddhist Turkic republic wedged between Mongolia and Siberia. He had heard of an alternative route through a great forest, a shortcut which would save a day's drive. But Çağatay's two jeeps nearly sank under waves of mud churned up by huge wood-hauling equipment. Then they stopped to ask the way from inspectors at a once-secret gold mine.

"The inspectors told us not to stop when we got to the next town, nor the next. The towns were full of convicts -- open prisons with no guards but the trees," recalls Çağatay, now 70-years-old. "We drove through so fast we were gone before they really realized we were there."

The travels produced the 305 fine images now collected in "The Turkic-Speaking Peoples." They are filled with a listening thoughtfulness; in one of them the reader can almost hear an upcoming drumbeat from a shaman witch doctor at work in a round yurt. Even the author's favorite picture, a churning wall of horses and men caught up in a game of bushkazi, or "grab-the-goat," radiates a measured, portrait-like quiet. Çağatay wanted this to be more than a coffee-table book. At first he tried to persuade fellow Turks to go to Central Asia to write about an accompanying text about what they found. He was disappointed. "They weren't motivated, and didn't know enough," he says. "Actually I didn't know enough. I bought books and read like mad." His travels convinced him that much more united the Turkic peoples than had met others' eyes, including a common history of rejection; a rebellious nomadic heritage; a quick temper; resilience; defensiveness; militarism; and a cultural shortsightedness. There was also the Turkic defiance of risk, shared by Çağatay himself when he visited a former biological test site wearing Bermuda shorts, sandals and a T-shirt.

Çağatay eventually decided his pictures should be flanked by a state-of-the-art survey of international academic thinking about the Turkic world. The resulting 34 essays, edited by Doğan Kuban, a leading Turkish professor of architecture and a Turkic specialist, range from art to language to the difference between Tatars and Turks. Many are original and compelling. Often they subtly reflect Çağatay's resentment that their Turkic subject is so often belittled and ignored.

The project ran out of money again when Çağatay had most of his travels behind him. He lost heart as major Turkish art-publishing houses offered only derisory amounts to publish the book, even though they were attached to rich banks. Central Asia is full of Turkish contractors, but only two agreed to sponsor trips in exchange for photographic work. Çağatay expected his project to collapse. "Once I closed the office, I knew I would never be able to open it again," he says. "I lived on a roller-coaster."

But if an Armenian bomber started Çağatay's journey, it was non-Turks who were vital to its completion. Guy Pagy, a chess partner from Çağatay's youth in İzmir, and the scion of a Levantine trading family with French roots, threw a financial lifeline to the project. This gave Çağatay the confidence to switch the language of the book from Turkish to English, and to take his work to the Frankfurt Book Fair. There he attracted the attention of the German-based publishing house Prestel, which would not have gone ahead without the backing of the Prince Claus Fund from the Netherlands. Even the book's launch in İstanbul was hosted by the consul-general of Sweden, Ingmar Karlsson, who said he was inspired by Swedish and other Scandinavian explorers who pioneered the study of the ancient Turks from the 18th century onwards.

"The Turks forget their own history," Çağatay said after the launch party, where his litany of misfortunes continued (many of the invited guests couldn't reach the city center, closed to traffic for the visit of Pope Benedict). Now he is trying to arrange a Turkish edition of the book, but it's an uphill battle. "We Turks seem to have banned thinking," he says. "We have a beggar economy, and I have just YTL 50 in my pocket. It's the story of my life."

12.05.2007
HUGH POPE İSTANBUL

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