The juggling balls of Turkish punditry soar into the air from the first pages of The Assassin from Apricot City: Reportage from Turkey, by Witold Szabłowski: caricatures of prostitutes and dervishes, chadors and miniskirts, a people torn between East and West and all topped by a classical reference to the Bosporus as the River Styx, flowing between life and death.
Luckily, these stark juxtapositions soon smooth out into a well-tuned voice, seamlessly translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones (including a fine rendition of the catchphrase “burası Türkiye”: “That’s Turkey for you”).
Szabłowski never intended to write a history book, but says the disclaimer in the publisher’s colophon that the reportage is fiction is an error: “Everything [in the book] is true,” he says. Certainly, the book is an excellent introduction to Turkey’s debates about almost everything going on in the country—fresh, confident, funny without mockery and spiced with cleverly phrased insights.
Many of the thirteen main chapters seem to arise from reporting trips, including the author’s coverage of Taksim Square’s Gezi Park protests of 2013, honor killings, Islamist politics and the most disturbing chapter, the tale of two prostitutes who stand for seats in the Turkish parliament. One cups her hand in front of her mouth as her tale emerges through habitual tears, “as if she’s afraid the words will spill out of her.”
The author’s wide-ranging experiences are clear in a chapter on illegal migration from the Aegean coast to Europe. He meets migrants in Turkey trapped “on the bridge” between Africa and the European Union, with “bags under their eyes that have stuck to their faces for good,” splitting pumpkin seeds in front of a TV as they wait for their boat to leave some rocky beach and “watching the weather channel so intently that it looks like you could improve it simply by staring.”
Szabłowski’s expertise on Poland emerges when he tells the back story of the would-be assassin of John Paul II, the Polish pope shot by a Turkish nationalist gunman, and an unvarnished view of Nâzım Hikmet, Turkey’s great twentieth-century poet, who spent a significant period in exile in Warsaw as Mr. Borzęcki. Hikmet gained Polish nationality because his great-grandfather had been an exile from Poland to Turkey, becoming an Ottoman army officer and penning a seminal study of Turkey’s potential. (According to Szabłowski, it was the inspiration for some of Atatürk’s later reforms, such as changing the alphabet from Arabic to Latin.) Surprisingly, the Polish literary world of the 1950s and early 1960s barely remembers Turkey’s literary lion, unimpressed by the translations of his poetry, his romantic communism or his rampant failings as a husband and father.
As a Westward-leaning Eastern European appraising the West’s own East European state, the author also has a sensitive nose for hypocrisy, authoritarian tendencies and how bureaucracy-led governments work. He winkles out the agents provocateurs, describes eloquently how the secularist Atatürk has become a divinity, and overall is refreshingly free of Western European clichés about Islam. In a chapter that looks into Turkish sexual taboos, he meets an Istanbul Casanova whose chat-up lines include a critique of Islam for forbidding the joys of extra-marital intercourse.
The book has a few misspelled names and the odd mistake. The walls of the ancient city of Diyarbakır are made of black stone, not black brick, and the ruling Justice and Development Party is not the best promoter of women politicians, a place it must cede to the Kurds’ Peace and Democracy Party. Several times, too, the book trips up on political facts about who did what and when. For instance, it was the Kemalist–secularist establishment that started the process of Turkey’s EU membership negotiations in 1998–2002, not Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who may have sealed the deal in 2005 but since then has actually helped crash the process.
Still, Szabłowski’s comic-strip theater of the absurd gets to the soul of Turkey and masterfully conjures up a conspiracy-theory approach to politics in which anything is possible. For instance, a secularist professor seems briefly plausible when he says: “Erdoğan tells lies [about becoming a pro-EU democrat] in order to introduce Shari’a law in Turkey.” But soon an anonymous voice chimes in from another corner that the Turkish prime minister is just a puppet who “wants to strengthen Islam, but an Islamic Turkey is a weak Turkey, and a weak Turkey is desired by all the Jews in the world.”
Chatty vignettes include the story within a story of Turkish shoemaker Ramazan Baydan, who happened to produce the shoe thrown at US President George W. Bush in Baghdad (chief export market for this exact style of shoe since then: the US). It seems not to matter that many characters actually end up sounding like Szabłowski himself, as when an Istanbul district imam pours out the core of Turkish angst to his Polish visitor: “You say Islam is backward, our democracy is weak and our traditions are foolish. You tell us to change, because it’s you people who know how one should live in the twenty-first century. And when we try to change—and in fact we’ve been doing nothing else ever since Ataturk’s day—you laugh at us.”