ISTANBUL - September 2011. At a glance from the outside, which cannot help but be superficial, Turkey today looks like a place into which Islam has sunk its nails. I found proof of the truth of this perception in the wood-paneled Robinson Crusoe bookstore on the Istiklal pedestrian mall, while leafing through a book by the brilliant Turkish cultural critic Nurdan Gurbilek, entitled "The New Cultural Climate in Turkey." What troubles his country, in the author's opinion, is the obsessive, almost metaphysical, longing for Turkish originality.
Where might this so-called originality be sought - where does it reside? That is precisely the question. Like Portuguese saudade and German Sehnsucht, the Turkish longing for originality has no clear focal point, and is accompanied by an underlying, vague sense that somewhere, somehow there's a chance that things will be better. The "high priestesses" of this Turkish religion of longing are undoubtedly the classical singers, preservers of Ottoman court music, who enjoy a higher standing than any Islamic cleric today. For who will challenge the statement that he who seeks to reach the depths of the Turkish soul should look to the traditional singing of the Turkish nation?
Amid this lofty priestly status, one person stands out in particular: the most revered star of classical Turkish music, Bulent Ersoy, who used to be a man and fought, and still fights for her right to be transgender, belonging to both sexes and yet to no sex. Under the oppressive military dictatorship of the 1980s and '90s (the period Israelis view as the "golden age" of Israeli-Turkish relations ), Ersoy was barred from singing in public, which only served to increase the worship of her. She went from being a singer to hosting television shows, and her stormy love life, scandalous in itself, became a regular focus of paparazzi pursuit and tabloid headlines.
The figure of Bulent Ersoy is an answer of sorts to the Turkish yearning for originality. If we try to analyze the nature of this phenomenon, it turns out that beyond the pornographic anecdotes stands the idea that for Turkish art to be good, it must be artificial in the extreme. Therefore, it is best to place it in the hands of people who have shed their natural physicality and become unreasonable or unnatural creatures in the eyes of some - like the eunuch singers of the Ottoman court and the revered transgender singers of a later date.
What drives this point home even more forcefully is the novel that is considered the greatest work of literature in the modern Turkish language. This is Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar's "A Mind at Peace." Tanpinar ostensibly wrote a love story set against a realistic backdrop of contemporary, bourgeois Istanbul here. But what lends the work its originality is a secondary character in it, named Suad, who functions as the dark villain, who detests the petit-bourgeois mediocrity of his surroundings, and yearns for something big, original and even cruel to happen - which he himself cannot name. In the process of searching for it Suad destroys everything in his path, and eventually himself, like Hedda Gabler in Ibsen's play.
I left the Robinson Crusoe bookstore. At the newspaper stand outside, a headline blared the story of the worsening relations with Israel, which suddenly seemed to be the necessary response when your religion commands you to be original - which is to say, a hater of routine and mediocrity and also peace, even at the price of destroying yourself.
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