A restless, kaleidoscopic view of an empire’s legacy

Journalist Alev Scott’s book ‘Ottoman Odyssey’ traverses the cultural and social history of the region to explain the present.

Courtesy of Pegasus
Ottoman Odyssey by Alev Scott, Quercus, 336 pp.

The Ottoman Empire stretched from Baghdad to Algiers, Mecca to Budapest, Benghazi to Tbilisi before it was dismantled in the wake of World War I. It left its mark, not only on present day Turkey, but also throughout the region. Journalist Alev Scott, whose mother is Turkish and father is British, set out to explore the empire’s legacy.

Halfway into her project, Scott was barred from reentering Turkey, where she had been living for a number of years. Her reporting had run afoul of the current Turkish regime. “My entry ban motivated me to go out and explore the ways in which the empire shaped the histories of people,” she writes – putting the odyssey in Ottoman Odyssey. She roams through 11 countries, “asking questions about forced migration, genocide, exile, diaspora, collective memory and identity, not just about religious coexistence.”

Under the empire, non-Muslims were allowed to organize their own law courts, schools, and places of worship “in return for paying ‘infidel’ taxes and accepting a role as second-class citizens: a system of exploitative tolerance that allowed diversity to flourish for centuries.” Such was not to be the fate of modern Turkey, with what Scott witnesses as the state’s “fierce nationalism and a racism derived from the long-held belief that Turks are genetically superior to Arabs, and, by extension, anyone with dark skin.”

Scott’s writing is restless and kaleidoscopic, hurrying from anecdote to anecdote, insight to insight. One minute you are in Armenia with her, driving past the ruins of a village that was toppled in the 1988 earthquake and in the next you are passing a village inhabited by Yazidis, a persecuted minority who were branded devil-worshippers. This type of minutiae peppers the travelogue.

As for the Armenian slaughter of the early 20th century, which nations around the world have condemned as genocide, “It is the one thing that almost all Turks, regardless of religion, background or political alliance, agree on: the genocide is a myth.” This denial, Scott suggests, in rooted in the Turkish educational system, which is dictated by the state.

As Scott travels on – to the Dodecanese islands, the Balkans, the Levant – she experiences and writes compellingly of those serendipitous moments of travel. After being denied permission to return to her apartment in Istanbul, she writes, “I can be ‘of’ Turkey while I am not in it. Geography does not confer identity. It makes us homesick, but it does not define us.”

Speaking Turkish is a great pleasure for her and a thread that ties together these far-flung journeys. “Again and again on my travels, I saw this – language is the key to a shared culture, and to understanding people.” On the other hand, she acknowledges the many barriers: “I thought about people who lack this privilege to cross borders freely, about  those who have never left home, those who can never return, and those who identify with an ancestral land they have never seen.” She continues, “The more I travelled, the more powerful and yet obscure I found the emotional connection between geography and identity.”

For all the empire’s scope, Scott brings an intimacy to the proceedings. This is true not only because of the family memories she recalls, but also because of the tight focus she keeps on her subjects. She’s attentive to all their idiosyncrasies.

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