Books: Five highlights from 2017

Turkish writers continue to make great contributions in the academic and literary worlds, and with heightened international interest in Turkey, a substantial batch of their works, as well as valuable works on the country, have hit the shelves for readers in English in 2017.

One of the great pleasures of a spell at university is the time afforded to keep up to date with new literature, and it was my good fortune to read many of these works over the last year.

This summary of books from 2017, though doubtless incomplete, includes two overdue literary translations and three thought-provoking academic works that explore some of the issues most pertinent to Turkey and its neighbourhood today.


Save for a handful of big names, Turkey’s literary riches are criminally underrepresented in English. So, it has been gratifying to see new translations in recent years both of classic writers like Sabahattin Ali and of new Turkish novels by writers like Hakan Günday.

Few can be as deserving as Hasan Ali Toptaş of international recognition, and the recent English translations of Reckless in 2016 and Shadowless (Bloomsbury) this year provide a great introduction to his work.


Book cover of Shadowless by Hasan Ali Toptaş.


Shadowless is the story of Nuri, a barber who has gone missing from the Turkish village “furthest from the state and furthest from God”, to paraphrase the village headman who is initially tasked with finding him. Toptaş makes wonderful use of striking descriptive imagery, and the translation by Maureen Freely and John Angliss captures this and the distinctive tone of Toptas’s prose beautifully.

Easily the most intriguing release of the year, The Disconnected (Olric Press) by Oğuz Atay is recognised as one of modern Turkish literature’s most important works. Yet the novel lacked an English translation until this year; a testament to the difficulty of doing justice in any foreign-language to a convention-defying modernist masterpiece that plays with Turkish in ways that have earned it comparisons to James Joyce’s works, and a reputation as “untranslatable”.


Book cover of The Disconnected by Oğuz Atay.


The translator of this edition, Sevin Seydi, has a unique advantage in tackling this challenge: as a friend of Atay and the dedicatee of the original novel, she translated pages of the novel into English as it was written “almost as a game”, and a translated excerpt of the novel by Seydi and Maurice Whitby won the 2007 Dryden Translation Competition.

Oneworld Publishing was set to publish an edition this year that has not materialised; instead Seydi’s translation has been printed in a limited run of 200 copies available only directly from the publisher, Olric Press. As such, the book is not currently widely available (I am still awaiting my copy), but lovers of literature should hope this edition drums up interest for a wider release, and for long-overdue English translations of Atay’s excellent short stories.


As events centred on Turkey come increasingly to resemble an overblown, convoluted plotline from one of the country’s many crime dramas, the paperback edition of Heroin, Organised Crime and the Making of Modern Turkey (Oxford University Press) by Ryan Gingeras has reached us at a fitting time. This scholarly work represents a brave undertaking, presenting a historical account of organised crime in Turkey and its ambiguous relationship with the state.


Book cover of Heroin, Organised Crime and the Making of Modern Turkey by Ryan Gingeras.


This is a subject matter which has been largely unexplored and which, for self-evident reasons, can make access to primary sources difficult. Gingeras takes us from the late Ottoman period’s bandits and paramilitary groups, smugglers and kabadayis (local toughs) to the organised crime groups embroiled in more recent cases like Susurluk and the Ergenekon trials, outlining along the way a largely chronological history of how organised crime networks developed in Turkey alongside (and at times symbiotically with) the Republican state and the international drugs regime.

Lucid prose and an eye for engaging detail ensure that the fascinating subject area is never rendered drily: the pages are packed with anecdotes of clandestine organisations, undercover stings and illicit dealings.

Zeynep Tufekci’s Twitter and Tear Gas (Yale University Press) explores an area that has proven to be of crucial significance in incidents from 2011’s “Arab Spring” to last year’s election of Donald Trump and Britain’s vote to leave the EU: the effects of social media on protest movements and society more generally. The work utilises an impressive array of primary sources, including hundreds of interviews with activists, as well as various public and private “big data” sets that contain details of her subject movements’ online activities. Besides these, richly told accounts of Tufekci’s first-hand experiences with protest movements from the Zapatistas of Mexico to Istanbul’s Gezi Park occupation offer fruitful insights into the movements, with the fourth chapter on “movement cultures” providing particularly compelling examples.


Book cover of Twitter and Tear Gas by Zeynep Tufekci.


The author states that the book was written with the general reader in mind, and specialists may find the theoretical analysis light. To this layperson, though, Tufekci’s central thesis and observations were of profound interest: the massive potential of social media for near-spontaneous mass-organisation also brings structural weaknesses to social movements like the Arab uprisings, which as they bypass the leadership and formal structures that were previously required to create far-reaching movements.

The idea that “ancient hatreds” lie behind sectarian conflicts has become a tantalisingly simple explanation for a breathtakingly complex set of conflicts in the Middle East. Sectarianization (Hurst) will be the year’s most useful title for Middle East scholars seeking a well-grounded counterargument to this view.


Book cover of Sectarianization by Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel.


The volume, edited by Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel, includes contributions from 14 scholars of varied disciplines to make the case that so-called “ancient hatreds” are informed not by primordial group dynamics, but by contemporary geopolitics. A first section providing historical and theoretical context is followed by nine case studies.

The focus is mainly on Arab countries, though the case studies include chapters on Iran and Pakistan, and the ambitious goal of the work – to challenge a widely held and deeply engrained view espoused by individuals as notable as Barack Obama – lend it a broader significance, particularly for a country like Turkey, whose future is inextricably bound to the conflicts in the Middle East.

Finally, this year Turkey lost two important authors in Şerif Mardin and John Freely, who have left behind bodies of work that are well worth revisiting. Mardin was one of Turkey’s most influential thinkers, and the prolonged debate over his most influential ideas on Turkish society, such as the “centre-periphery” dichotomy dividing state elites and society, are a testament to their impact.


Book cover of Strolling through Istanbul by John Freely.


John Freely was an American physics professor and a long-term resident of Istanbul, where he taught at Boğaziçi University.  Freely authored dozens of travel and history books, including a city guide, Strolling through Istanbul (Tauris Parke), that captures the Istanbul of its time, and displays a profoundly detailed knowledge of the city and its history that will continue to inspire adventurous travellers and explorers today.