Prejudices are not born, nor do they die quickly

Just last week, on April 23, we celebrated National sovereignty and Children’s Day in Turkey. The date was chosen as the anniversary of the opening of the Turkish Parliament in 1920, at a time when the country was divided and occupied.

Next month on May 19 we will celebrate Ataturk Remembrance, Youth and sport Day; its date commemorates Mustafa Kemal Ataturk landing in samsun in 1919 to commence the Turkish War of Independence that was to last more than two years.

The Ottoman Empire was officially brought to an end with the Treaty of sèvres in 1920; Turkey officially became a republic on Oct. 29, 1923. As with most transfers of power, this was not a neat, clean break. Between these dates there ebbed and flowed the fortunes of the occupying powers and the Turkish nationalist resistance. When the nationalists opened their Parliament in Ankara in 1920, it was an act of resistance. It was not until Nov.

1, 1922 that the sultan, whose capitulation to the occupying forces the nationalists had opposed, was deposed and Turkey ceased being ruled by an Ottoman sultan.

so geopolitically, the task of ceasing to be subjects of a sultan and becoming a nation of citizens to whom sovereignty unconditionally belongs took over four years. The first few decades of the new young republic were spent in trying to make this transformation culturally complete, with changes to legal codes, rights for women, dress, the alphabet and many more. All things modern were embraced in the new young country that was vividly seeking to rebuild itself after the devastations of war.

But there is much in its Ottoman past that Turkey can be proud of. Whether it be the glorious court of suleiman the Magnificent, the architectural masterpieces of Mimar sinan, the dazzling maritime exploits of Ottoman naval captains or even the enterprising Turks who first brought tulips to Europe.

With a priority to modernize, it is only natural that the immediate focus of the Turkish Republic was on the future. But now the nation has found its place in the modern world and experienced a measure of economic success, it is fascinating to witness a resurgence in interest in all things Ottoman.

We are currently in the middle of the annual tulip festival in Istanbul, where the city is full of the dazzling bulbs that made fortunes some centuries ago. The television series “Muhtesem Yuzyil” (magnificent century) has thrilled Turkish audiences with a vivid dramatization of life in Topkapi Palace’s harem and selamlik in the times of the 10th Ottoman sultan.

The 1453 Panorama Museum at the other Topkapi — the gate in the city walls — depicts the conquest of Istanbul by Mehmet the Conqueror in a hemisphere with a 38-meter diameter, replete with all of the sounds of war and the Janissaries’ mehter band. In a new theme park opened in Eyup called Vialand, any comparisons with Disneyland melt away when you enter the section of the park called World of Legends.

Here, you can experience life in an Ottoman dungeon or, on the conquest ride, you can pass through the battle scenes of 1453. Here, too, is one of the most popular rides — free falling from the Justice Tower following a harsh sentence.

It seems that being Ottoman was never so much fun.

Although, as Roderick Cavaliero describes in his book “Ottomania,” the image of the Ottomans that appeared in Western arts and culture was just as much romantic gilding of the lily as an Ottoman theme park. He has subtitled his thesis “The Romantics and the Myth of the Islamic Orient.”

For as Cavaliero maintains, the description of the Ottomans we read in the poetry of Byron or Coleridge and the novels of Pierre Loti, and the images in the paintings we see hung in many national galleries in Europe, bear as much relevance to the reality of the Ottoman court as the Justice Tower ride in Vialand does.

He attributes romanticism’s roots to a revolt against the staid society of Europe by the population of the protestant north when they looked at their southern counterparts. They were enthralled by the flair and daring of the spanish, the romanticism of the Italians and the orientalism of the Ottomans.

Cavaliero defines myths as fictitious stories, involving supernatural figures or events and containing popular ideas about natural or historical phenomena. In the rich swirl of the craze of Ottomania he finds both positive and negative images. While the food and costumes of the era were indeed rich and vividly colorful, the concept of jinns and peris, and sensual indulgence steeped in idleness pervaded the European notion of the Ottomans.

His detailed study of the prejudices and their origins switches effortlessly back and forth between the myths and their corresponding realities, and the different presentations of them in the art and literature of the time. The reader with a detailed knowledge of the Romantic poets, playwrights and novelists will be delighted to see so thorough a treatment of them with a wide range of sources. If you have read little of Byron, Daniel Defoe, Walter scott, Tennyson, Mary shelley, et al., Cavaliero summarizes the key points of their writings so skillfully that you still feel included in his argument at every stage.

He focuses on the three main myths: those of a despotic sultan, of hidden but extremely sexual women and of the magic and devilry of the “Arabian Nights.” ultimately, he believes these myths were derived from a mixture of admiration for the Turks and fear of them in the heart of their European beholders.

But does it really matter whether 18th and 19th-century Europeans believed in virgins soft as roses and sultans in their seraglio? Just as any thinking man can see the story of the “Magnificent Century” is hyped to make it interesting to a modern audience, so too these old stories contain a measure of hyperbole.

We can see the sense in Cavaliero’s argument that paintings of the sexuality of the harem bore as much accuracy to the real thing as a Barbara Cartland novel does to real-life love.

since scheherazade needed to keep the sultan’s interest in her story so as not to lose her head, it is no wonder that the tales of “Arabian Nights” had as many cliffhangers as a week’s worth of “EastEnders” — and that they bear as much resemblance to life in the seraglio as “EastEnders” does to life for an average London family.

But Cavaliero warns us that just as these prejudices took time to grow, they will take time to die. “This belief originated in fear of Islamic military power, but it was stoked by the Romantic notion of Islam as an enemy of progress.

It persists today because the clash of prejudice is taking place in European market places, schools and benevolent institutions. The attempt to conceal it beneath a shroud called multiculturalism is failing because this only conceals, not changes.”

As Turkey seems to be moving toward a neo-Romantic reinterpretation of its Ottoman past, these are hard-hitting words not just for London, Berlin and Paris, but also for Istanbul and Ankara. As much as Cavaliero sounds a trumpet-call for the abandonment of prejudice, he also warns modern Turks against the rose-colored spectacles of nostalgia.

“Ottomania: The Romantics and the Myth of the Islamic Orient” by Roderick Cavaliero is published by IB Tauris (revised edition 2013) 12.99 pounds IsBN: 978-178076482-5

SOURCE: TODAY’S ZAMAN