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Watch out - this book has a hidden agenda.
on 1 August 2007
Venomously biased, full of distortions, mis-translation, and mis-quoted sources. Unless you already know a lot about Turkey and the Turkish language, stay away from this one. This book is a deliberate attempt to mislead. It disguises a deep-rooted contempt of Turkish culture and Turkish people behind a thin veneer of poisonous jokes. Its mean-spirited political agenda is never stated clearly - never out in the open, where the average reader might have enough information to argue with Seal's reasoning. Instead, the bias sticks like mud between the lines. This is an exercise in classic yellow journalism, communicating emotional bias in place of facts and reason.
Seal quotes sources out of context for the specific purpose of obscuring or reversing the original author's intent. For example, a reference to the classic travel account, "On Horseback Through Asia Minor," by Capt. Frederick Burnaby, directly reverses the explicitly stated position of Burnaby. In 1876 Burnaby traveled through Turkey to investigate the rumors of Turkish atrocities which were current in Europe at that time. Burnaby found NO evidence to support those rumors - instead, he was impressed with the fairness of Turkish treatment of the Armenians, and he was unimpressed with the cleanliness of the Armenians. Seal, the rumor-monger for a new age, takes one line of Burnaby out of context, and uses it to support his contention that the Turkish people are racist and unfair to Armenians and Kurds - and always have been. I only happened to catch this because I had just finished reading Burnaby myself - but it calls into question the honesty of all Seal's other references. Be warned that if you read this book, you will need to check every reference for accuracy and context.
I have lived five years in Turkey as a foreigner, and I speak Turkish - better than Seal, apparently. I can attest that Seal's attempt to portray the Turkish people as racist or ethnocentric is grossly unfair.
Seal claims to be fluent in Turkish, but his writing is filled with mis-translations and distortions. For example, he goes far out of his way, to a remote village, looking for the most reactionary backwaters of Turkish culture. During this excursion, he claims to be communicating with his guide entirely in Turkish (unlikely). The guide, a man from Istanbul (who almost certainly speaks good English) brings two shotguns, to shoot "Kurds." In Turkish, the word for Kurdish sounds very like the word for `wolf' - especially to foreign ears. So of course the shotguns are for wolves. For an very inexperienced Turkish speaker, it might be possible to make this mistake, on first hearing, but for the misunderstanding to continue he must be willing to believe the worst - that an educated man from Istanbul might go out shooting Kurds in the country on the weekend. Seal allows his "joke" to go on for almost four pages, and even then does not clearly explain his mistake, thus leaving a residue of suspicion, distrust, and ill-will.
He makes a routine practice of changing the names of Turkish towns - improvising mis-translations and using those in place of the honorable old names. He calls the town of Gaziantep `Warrior Pistachio' - just to be funny. But, while Gazi does mean something which might be translated as warrior, Antep does NOT mean pistachio. Many pistachio's are called `Antep' because that is where they come from, just as we might talk about Washington apples, or Florida oranges. He calls a village hospital `Blackberry General,' when in fact the name of the town does not mean Blackberry, and the direct translation of "Hastanesi" is simply `Hospital,' NOT `General.'
Seal says you have to be suspicious of any language which does not have its own word for sex. As always, his jokes are all at the expense of Turkey, always laughing AT his subject. But consider this: how good can Seal's Turkish really be if he doesn't even know any words for `sex?' There are probably as many words in Turkish as in English. (I don't know exactly - I haven't counted.)
Seal definitely has some political/racial axes to grind (especially with regard to the Kurds) but, beyond that, what he really seems to want most is for Turkey to devolve back a hundred years, to return to the bad old days of the declining Ottoman Empire. In this light, he resents and ridicules every advance the Republic of Turkey has made in the direction of modernization, and he mocks Ataturk - whose reforms prevent him from being able to effectively look down his disdainfully Imperialist nose, and thereby consider himself a real adventurer.
Seal travels around Turkey asking about fezzes and Sultans, and congratulating himself on how he has struck a nerve. He thinks upsetting people is a point for his side, but the reality is that some of his questions and presumptions are as inappropriate and offensive as a foreign tourist traveling around the American South hoping to photograph smiling African-Americans picking cotton by hand. If that same foreigner also interviewed KKK members and visited the Arian Nation (while ridiculing all other views), and then wrote about his experiences as the "REAL" America, what would we think of that? That's what Seal has done with Turkey.
He clearly despises his subject. Seal has carefully constructed an emotionally charged image of Turkey as a country which usurps power, and has no right even to exist. To this end, he painstakingly seeks out all the lunatics, fundamentalists, and reactionaries, and points out every Turkish transgression he can find, whether factually grounded or not. If you have lived in Turkey, speak Turkish, and have done some reading, you may want to read this for the purposes of argument. Otherwise steer clear.
The best contemporary Turkish travel book I know is sadly out of print, but you might find it [online]: "Journey to Kars," by Phillip Glazebrook. If you can't find that, Mary Lee Settle's "Turkish Reflections" is also very informative, and well researched.