Eurasia Newsletter

bringing the minds of Asia, Canada and Europe together

Month: September, 2015

Turkish drift

In a recent article in the newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung, journalist Thomas Fuster writes about Turkey and about how the country seems to be drifting away from Europe for good.

There was great talk about Turkey’s desire to enter the European Union ten or more years ago. Well-known Irish writer Colm Tóibín, who should have known better, wrote a much-translated article advocating the country’s admission, in view of the fact that Ireland was conservative and backward before it joined but had improved since, so what reason was there to keep out the Turks? This was remarkably silly, as there was no real comparison, no real knowledge of Turkey in the article, no appreciation of the difference between the two countries, nothing, in fact, except the usual Irish writer’s desire to run down his own country. That was in 2003. But at the time it seemed something like a test of Europe’s openness and liberalism as to whether the Union would expand to let in the first Moslem state into what had been a traditionally Christian regional club.

Historically, Europe had always defined itself in opposition to the Islamic world, which was a threat on its periphery. As soon as Europe got rid of the Moslems on its Western flank in Spain, they regrouped to take over the former Byzantine territory, Greece, and the Balkans. Indeed, the warlike encounter with the non-Christian “heathens” prepared Europeans for their voyages of discovery associated with dreams of world conversion and world conquest involving other heathens.

In his article Fuster points out that, just as Turkey has geographically been both in Asia and Europe, it has never ceased to be torn between the secular modernism of Atatürk and the nostalgia for the Moslem Middle Eastern world most recently purveyed by Erdogan. He quotes with approval Turkish historian Selim Deringil as saying: “When an identity crisis lasts for 200 years, it is no longer a crisis, but an identity.” In other words, the centrifugal, contradictory desires for a modern European-style nation-state and for the greatness of the Ottoman past are what make Turkey the peculiar country it is.

Fuster looks back over the history of the Turkish candidacy. The talks, which have been sputtering on for ten years, are supposed to bring the candidate countries closer to the EU, but with Turkey the opposite has happened. Turkey now meets fewer EU standards than when it started. This is due to the political evolution under Erdogan. On the other hand, Europe itself is suffering from what Fuster calls “enlargement fatigue”. And popular feeling does not seem to be as open to letting in a Moslem country as it once may have been.

Yet Europe, Fuster says, needs to have a partner it can rely on on its southeastern flank. The Middle East is engulfed in turmoil again, and Europe gets to feel the consequences in terms of refugees in the Mediterranean. “It is not enough to recall Turkey’s role as a bridge between the West and the Moslem world only during acute crises, like at the present”, he observes. Turkey and Europe need to talk to each other and mend their relationship. “The current paralysis suits only the troublemakers in the Middle East – and neither Ankara nor Brussels can afford that.”

Melancholy of the Coast

Further Canadian observations on a visit to the West Coast: Vancouver is not B.C. Once you get away from the metropolitan area, where a lot of the city’s buzz and energy comes from its Asian population, you find yourself in a different world. I could never quite put my finger on it before, when I lived here, but the B.C. coast is a melancholy place. A beautiful place, but a melancholy place. There is little energy there. You get a sense of the futility of human activity. You catch yourself thinking: what’s the use? Just watch the bald eagles soaring in the mist, and listen to the Pacific waves lapping on the beach…

It’s a funny thing about finding places melancholy. You don’t find your own home place melancholy. Other places are melancholy, and foreign nations are melancholy. Not me, not us. I must admit that the people of B.C. don’t find their coast melancholy, and are somewhat surprised to hear me say it.

When the English come to Ireland they think it is melancholy. At least they did in the old days. The Irish do not think so themselves. Perhaps it is or was projection on the part of the English. For centuries, they did their best to make Irish history melancholy. Maybe they felt guilty as a result.

Or they might have been twigging on something unconscious. Sometimes landscapes make us aware of something hidden or unexpressed within ourselves, let us say an inner landscape of feeling. The English have a repressed Celtic side. This expresses itself in their melancholy, and God knows there are enough melancholy English poems, from “Il Penseroso” to Keats’ “Nightingale”.

The English do not think of themselves as melancholy, but the French do. The French see melancholy and depression as being something of an English specialty, along with “la morgue anglaise”, that haughty detachment that seems to attach to the English in all the French stereotypes. The French took over the word “spleen” from English for melancholy feelings and moods. They think it is no accident that they should need to borrow an English word for this.

Now I look out on the Pacific from a deserted beach on Vancouver Island, and the sighing of the sea and mournful call of the gulls means that all I can do is sigh in response and forget the outside world. I feel if I sit for long enough on this beach, I will never leave it. I have heard the siren call of the B.C. coast.

Vancouver revisited

This time I am writing from Vancouver. I am here for the 50th anniversary of Simon Fraser University, my alma mater. On the night of September 9, I attended a celebration in the Academic Quadrangle of SFU on top of Burnaby Mountain just outside the city.

Every time I come here I notice how much the place has changed. I think, in the first instance, of all the new building, and the Skytrain on its concrete pylons that has extended out into the suburbs and to the airport. But in terms of atmosphere and mentality, the place has changed a lot too. Today I strolled down Robson Street in the afternoon sun. It used to be known as “Robsonstrasse” because of the German shops there. Now there is no trace of that left. I also drove down West Broadway in the blocks that used to be very Greek. Alas! Orestes’ restaurant with the whitewashed Greek windmill on top is no more. The European identities that made the place interesting in previous decades are giving way to identities from Asia. Vancouver is becoming more of an Asian city than anything else.

As always, though, I am struck by how little cultural mixture or cosmopolitanism this brings with it. People live in their own cultural worlds, especially their own language worlds. Language lets you be who you are, at least in your own head and within your own group, and keeps strangers out. English occupies the space of exchanges between groups, as functional and characterless as a high-rise or a shopping-mall.

The Chinese-Canadians have been here for so long, but their language world has remained a no-go area. It struck me as a newcomer here in the 1970s that white guys didn’t learn Chinese, though they grew up hearing it every day on the street and heard it their whole life long. I guess they still don’t learn it. And the other ethnic groups, from Asia, let us say, don’t learn it either.

Meanwhile there are signs in Chinese on storefronts all over the city, not just in Chinatown. Now of course there is a new complexity: new waves of immigrants are bringing Mandarin as well as the traditional Cantonese. The Chinese presence has an undeniable vitality to it. Its complex language world cordons it off like a Forbidden City, because the others can’t be bothered to learn it. But how long can that go on?

NEW: see  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H5vQn7LRjRg for a video version of this post.