Category Archives: Turkey

Rebuilding the Crimean Bridge

From Troubled Water: A Journey Around the Black Sea, by Jens Mühling (Armchair Traveller series; Haus, 2022), Kindle pp. 31-32:

Paradoxically, the two [Armenian] Hotel Fortuna employees were the most miserable people I came across in Taman. Everyone else in the small town was in high spirits; I met barely anyone during my three-day stay who did not rejoice in the bridgebuilding. Those who had found work on the huge building site, or who were hoping to make a living from tourists from every corner of Russia who would soon pass through their town on their way to Crimea, rejoiced. Those who had relatives on the peninsula rejoiced that they would no longer have to take the sluggish, chronically overloaded ferry to visit them in the summer. The director of the local history museum rejoiced because her display cases were now full to bursting with archaeological artefacts – Cimmerian horse harnesses, Roman drinking vessels, Genoan coins – found while the bridge’s groundworks were laid. Last but not least, the joy of Taman’s residents was shared by the 2,500 entrants into a nationwide poetry competition that the office responsible for the bridge’s construction had recently launched to encourage patriotic eulogies of their feat. The victor had not yet been chosen when I was there, but here is a sample of what I read:

Crimea and Russia
Forever inseparable
Wedded by a bridge
That looks like a temple

The bridge was indeed something of an unexpected windfall for Taman. The town, with a population of 10,000, had hitherto wallowed in such oblivion, even by Russian standards, that its old name of Turkish origin, Tmutarakan, had become a national byword for any godforsaken provincial backwater – a kind of Russian Hicksville. Soon though, thanks to the bridge, Taman would no longer be a dead end on the tip of a promontory but Russia’s last stop before Crimea.

There was as yet little sign of this earth-shaking change. The bridge was a building site, the holiday season had not yet begun, and Taman seemed to be only just stirring from hibernation. The local museum was open but deserted, the model Cossack village on the edge of town still closed. A Soviet tank on blocks in the market square stood as a memorial to the Great Patriotic War, and its aerial counterpart, a fighter plane, greeted you on the road into town. Both of them were mounted on concrete pedestals with the constantly cited – and constantly wrong – dates carved into them: 1941–1945. As everywhere else in the former Soviet Union, the hushedup war years of 1939 and 1940 – when Stalin was still making common cause with Hitler to carve up Central Europe – were missing.

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Fate of Bulgarian Turks

From Troubled Water: A Journey Around the Black Sea, by Jens Mühling (Armchair Traveller series; Haus, 2022), Kindle pp. 182-185:

Gürcan had spent the second half of his life in Turkey and the first half in Bulgaria, where he was born in 1969 as one of just under 800,000 Turks whose forefathers had escaped the expulsions of the early twentieth century. Later, in the socialist era, Bulgaria had been suspicious of its Muslim minorities but, for cynical reasons, expulsions were no longer the political weapon of choice. During the Cold War, the Turkish–Bulgarian border had hardened into the Iron Curtain, the stated objective of which was to keep the proletariat in the country. This meant that the Bulgarian Turks were trapped in the Eastern Bloc alongside the Bulgarians themselves.

Nevertheless, they remained a thorn in the side of the regime in Sofia. Centuries of Ottoman dominance in the Balkans had not been forgotten, and the mere presence of a Turkish minority stoked old fears. Nearly one in ten inhabitants of socialist Bulgaria was a Turk, and the ratio was rising slightly because the Muslims had more children than the rest of the population. This led the authorities to hatch a dastardly plan in the mid-1980s: they might not be able to get rid of the Turks, but they could make them disappear, make them invisible, by destroying their identity.

Gürcan was sixteen when soldiers appeared one day in his hometown of Kurkariya. They made their way through the factories, the collective farms, and the schools, taking the Turks aside in each one. The soldiers had a simple request: the Turks were to choose new names. Bulgarian ones.

Gürcan’s father, who had been called Enver Süleymanov all his life, was known as Encho Stanishev after the renaming campaign. Gürcan’s own new identity card was marked Gensho Stanishev.

He was still at school at the time. It was clear, he said, that his Bulgarian teachers were embarrassed by the campaign. ‘From one day to the next, they had to get used to calling us by different names. They were obviously ashamed, but not one of them dared not to go along with it.’

What made matters worse was that it was customary in Bulgaria to use patronyms in addition to first names and surnames. Gürcan’s full name, when his father was still called Enver, was Gürcan Enverov Süleymanov. Now he was called Gensho Enchev Stanishev. The situation was more complicated for Gürcan’s father, whose own father was long dead when renaming began. He and hundreds of thousands of other Turks were nonetheless compelled to adopt Bulgarian patronyms, which meant that they had to give their dead fathers posthumous new first names.

‘They forced us to change dead people’s names. Can you believe it? People long buried in the cemetery! What kind of a person thinks up such things?’

Gürcan’s expression was so indignant that it was as if the matter had occurred mere days back, not three and a half decades ago.

The official designation of this campaign harked back to the name chosen by the nineteenth-century Bulgarian resistance movement against Turkish domination: the regime spoke of a ‘process of renaissance’. In macabre fashion, this was quite apt for a scheme to rename the dead. Above all, however, it brought home to Turkish Bulgarians what the state really thought of them. Concurrently with the renaming campaign, they were banned from using their language. There was also a more severe crackdown on their religion, which had never been welcome in socialist Bulgaria.

Individual Turks who were not willing to be reborn as Bulgarians resisted the directives in the late 1980s. Riots broke out and people died. Ultimately, when communism’s imminent collapse seemed nigh, the regime decided to sort out the problem in the traditional fashion after all. For a three-month period in the summer of 1989, the Iron Curtain was raised exclusively for Muslims, and party secretary Todor Zhivkov proclaimed that the path abroad was open to anyone who wished to take it. The Turks understood that this was not an invitation but an ultimatum. That summer, around 350,000 of them packed up whatever they could lash to the roofs of their Soviet cars, and the roads south were black with people. It was Europe’s largest ethnic cleansing campaign since the end of the Second World War.

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Fate of the Circassians

From Troubled Water: A Journey Around the Black Sea, by Jens Mühling (Armchair Traveller series; Haus, 2022), Kindle pp. 118-120:

Paintings of the Caucasus by the Russian Romantics feature a recurring figure on horseback: a warrior in a black felt coat, with cartridge belts crossed over his chest, a rifle slung at an angle across his back, a dagger and sabre in his belt, his mouth a cruel slit, and his eyes under a felt hat proud, hard, glowing like coals.

Of the many mountain tribes against which tsarist Russia waged its bloody nineteenth-century war of conquest, it was the Circassians who epitomised the Caucasus in the Russian imagination. Over half a million of them lived in the mountain villages to the north and west of the mountain range’s spine at the time, making them the most populous group in the regional ethnic mosaic. When Russia, still drunk on victory from Catherine the Great’s conquest of the Black Sea coast, pressed southwards into the Caucasus from the late eighteenth century onwards, the Circassians put up the most stubborn resistance to its advance. In alliance with the other mountain peoples – including their close relatives, the Abkhazians – they ensnared the tsar’s troops in a gruelling guerrilla war that went on for several generations.

Nowadays, there are three autonomous republics in the Caucasus named after the Circassians and their ethnic subgroups: Karachay-Cherkessia, Kabardino-Balkaria and Adygea. In the most recent censuses, around 700,000 people there described themselves as Circassians. There are, however, a far higher number of Circassians who no longer live in the Caucasus.

When Russia temporarily broke the mountain peoples’ stubborn defiance in the mid-nineteenth century, it was clear to the army high command that war could flare up again at a moment’s notice as long as the Circassians were able to entrench themselves in their inaccessible mountain villages. A plan took shape, bluntly referred to by officers as ochishchenie (‘cleansing’).

The Circassians were given an ultimatum: they could either be resettled in the more easily controlled foothills on the northern flanks of the Caucasus or leave the Russian Empire, which now extended beyond the mountain range. Emissaries of the tsar travelled to Istanbul and put the Ottomans, who had recently been defeated in yet another Russo–Turkish war, under pressure to open their empire to Circassian ‘emigrants’.

There is debate about how many people were forced to leave the Caucasus around the fateful year of 1864. The Russian high command talked about a good 400,000; some people say it was two or three times that number. There is also debate about how many people did not survive the deportation. At least 50,000 people, or maybe even more than twice as many, perished as the Circassian villages emptied and the homes of displaced families were razed. Some died of hunger; others didn’t survive the forced marches into the Ottoman Empire; others again were driven onto overloaded refugee ships, some of which never reached the Turkish coast. Virtually no other people has drowned in the Black Sea in such large numbers as the Circassians. There are individuals living along the coast who will not touch seafood to this day on principle; they refuse to eat fish whose ancestors have gnawed at the bones of their own forefathers.

The Circassians who did make it to the Ottoman Empire were mainly resettled within the borders of modern Turkey, and various sources have estimated that between 1.5 and 2.5 million of their descendants currently live in the country. Others moved farther afield. There are about 100,000 Circassians in Syria and approximately half that number in Jordan, where they still form the king’s bodyguard in their traditional battle garb. A few thousand live in Israel, Europe, and the United States, and a few hundred in Egypt.

‘My grandfather still spoke Circassian to me,’ Bassel said, changing up a gear as he drove me southwards out of Sukhum, ‘back home in Damascus.’

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Fate of Meskhetian Turks

From Troubled Water: A Journey Around the Black Sea, by Jens Mühling (Armchair Traveller series; Haus, 2022), Kindle pp. 34-36:

When he revealed to me on our first taxi journey that he was a Turok – that is to say, a Turk – I studied his face somewhat quizzically from the side. The skullcap; the pointy, hawklike face; the salt-and-pepper moustache; the gold teeth.

‘A Turk?’ I asked. ‘You mean, a Tatar?’

‘A Turk.’

‘Really? Türkçe konuşuyor musunuz?’

His answer in Turkish was fluent, unlike my stammered question about his language skills. Having taken a Turkish course in Berlin a few years earlier, I’d been capable of ordering a kebab quite fluently ever since. Pasha, on the other hand, had grown up in the language.

It took me a few taxi journeys to understand that he and his parents were Meskhetian Turks. That is, Georgian Turks – or Turkish Georgians, depending on your point of view. The Meskhetian Turks had lived on the southern margins of Georgia, close to Turkey, since the sixteenth century. Where they originally hailed from remained an unresolved matter that only attracted their neighbours’ interest when the Turks and Georgians along the border discovered nationalism. In Turkey, they were henceforth regarded as Turks who had emigrated and assimilated to Georgia, whereas to the Georgians they were Georgians who had adopted Islam and the Turkish language under Ottoman influence. And so, both the Georgians and the Turks claimed the Meskhetians as their own while also viewing them as a bastardised, second-class people of mixed heritage. In this sense, Pasha’s ancestors shared a fate with countless ethnic minorities in the regions bordering the Black Sea. They fell through the cracks in the mosaic of emerging nation-states, and it was not they themselves but rulers in distant capitals, irked by this melee of peoples on the margins of their supposedly pure nations, who decided to which state they should belong.

One aggravating factor for the Meskhetian Turks was that Ioseb Jughashvili – aka Joseph Stalin – though no fan of nation-states, was a partisan of good old Russian-style imperialism. Scenting an opportunity to annex border areas of Turkey during the Second World War, the Soviet dictator pre-emptively expelled the Meskhetian Turks from their homeland. In light of his plans, they suddenly struck him more like Turks who might just, who knows, feel more loyal to the enemy than to the Soviet motherland. Stalin was an advocate of simple solutions. Justifiably or not, the Meskhetian Turks were a headache. No more Meskhetians, no more headaches. They had to go.

Pasha’s parents were newlywed at the time. His father was twenty and his mother eighteen when, out of the blue, one winter’s day in 1944, soldiers came pounding on their door in the southern Georgian village of Zarzma. Along with over 100,000 other Meskhetian Turks, they were herded into cattle wagons that rolled eastwards from Georgia and only came to a halt several thousand miles later. Roughly a third of them died during their deportation or shortly afterwards from hunger, thirst, hypothermia, disease, or a broken heart. Ultimately, Stalin’s planned expansion into Turkey came to nothing, but the ‘leader of peoples’ had managed to purge his mind entirely of one.

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Second Annexation of Crimea

From Troubled Water: A Journey Around the Black Sea, by Jens Mühling (Armchair Traveller series; Haus, 2022), Kindle pp. 12-14:

I have a very clear memory of the moment the Black Sea suddenly moved from the margins to the forefront of European perception.

I was on a pleasure cruise around Sevastopol’s harbour in March 2014. Less than a fortnight earlier, Russian soldiers had appeared in Crimea and surrounded Ukrainian barracks. Although their uniforms bore no insignia or rank, no one had any doubts about where they came from. Parliament had been dissolved and replaced with puppets under the Kremlin’s orders, a hastily arranged referendum on Crimea’s integration into the Russian Federation had been announced for the next day, and Ukrainian and Russian warships were facing off in the harbour – and yet tour boats continued to ply their trade between the destroyers as if everything were completely normal.

I had travelled to Sevastopol as a journalist to report on the act of political piracy that was taking place. I had no idea at the time that in 1773, not far from that same harbour, on the south-western coast of Crimea, Jan Hendrik van Kinsbergen had laid the groundwork for Catherine the Great’s annexation of the peninsula. All I knew was that I was witnessing Russia’s second annexation of Crimea.

The tour boat passed close to the warships’ towering grey hulls. The Ukrainian and Russian Black Sea fleets still shared the port in that tense time before the Crimean referendum, and I had hoped that out on the water I might gain a better understanding of their muddled positions. The boat was full of Russians from Sevastopol, high on alcohol and patriotism, who made no secret of the fact that they wished a plague on the Ukrainians.

‘Fascists!’ they roared at the ships flying blue-and-yellow flags. For weeks now, Russian propaganda had constantly dubbed all Ukrainians fascists. The same old story, I thought. A country on the warpath in search of some barbarians to fight. One man stood slightly apart from the others by the railing, staring silently out to sea. He was the only person apart from me who didn’t join in with the shouting. As we disembarked at the end of our tour, I approached him to enquire why he was there.

‘To say goodbye to the sea,’ he said tersely.

He was a Tatar. He had been born in Uzbekistan after his parents were deported under Stalin, and only when the Soviet Union collapsed, and Crimea and the rest of Ukraine gained its independence, had he been at liberty to return to the land of his ancestors.

‘Now the Russians are taking over again,’ he said gloomily. ‘I’m not going to wait for them to expel us a second time. My wife has family in Ankara. The day after tomorrow, we’re going to put the kids in the car and leave.’ His lips twisted into a bitter smile. ‘It won’t be the first time we’ve had to start from scratch.’

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Black Sea Neighbors

From Troubled Water: A Journey Around the Black Sea, by Jens Mühling (Armchair Traveller series; Haus, 2022), Kindle pp. 14-15:

The Black Sea is bounded by six states. Clockwise, in the order I visited them, they are Russia, Georgia, Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, and Ukraine.

Six and a half, if you count Abkhazia, a renegade part of Georgia that is kept on life support by Russia to prevent Georgia from joining any Western alliances.

Seven, if you count Moldova, formerly known as Bessarabia, which lost its coastline in the Second World War when Stalin moved the border inland.

Seven and a half, if you count Transnistria, a renegade part of Moldova, which is kept on life support by Russia to prevent Moldova from joining any Western alliances.

Eight, if you count Poland – the old Poland at its point of maximum expansion when szlachta noblemen persuaded themselves that their country’s ruling class was descended from the Sarmatians, an ancient barbarian tribe.

Eight and a half, if you count the Donetsk People’s Republic, a renegade part of Ukraine, which… you can fill in the rest.

Eight and a half, if Crimea belongs to Ukraine. Eight and a half, if Crimea belongs to Russia. Nine, if you’d prefer to let Crimea stand alone.

Nine and a half, if you count the ruined empire of ancient Greece, whose vestiges I encountered on every shore in the form of weathered stones; in place names mangled by foreign tongues; in family stories of scattered Black Sea Greeks; on the menus of countless Aphrodite Restaurants, Poseidon Cafés, Olympus Hotels and Amazon Bars, written in Cyrillic, Latin, and Georgian letters; and in the deep-seated Black Sea tradition of always expecting the worst from your neighbours.

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Greek Travails, 1949-2009

From Adriatic: A Concert of Civilizations at the End of the Modern Age, by Robert D. Kaplan (Random House, 2022), Kindle pp. 272-274:

The end of World War II brought not peace but a civil war lasting until 1949, between the Communists and the ultimately victorious right-wing loyalists, which resulted in 80,000 dead and 700,000 internal refugees. Because of the brutality on both sides, particularly against civilians, Greek politics would remain polarized for decades, divided between parties of the hard Left and the hard Right, so that a modern liberalism and a modern conservatism would find little room to emerge. Thus did Greece, abetted by its geography—as close to Moscow as to Brussels—become an ideological battleground of the Cold War.

Greece’s Cold War years were marked by weak governments as well as deep, internecine political divisions, which were further aggravated by the independence struggle on Cyprus, with its consequent calls for Enosis (or union) of the island with Greece. (Of course, this itself was an echo of the Great Idea.) In 1967, junior officers staged a coup, toppling the Greek government in Athens. This led to a particularly brutal seven-year military dictatorship in which the Athens “Regime of the Colonels” bore greater similarities to those of the Third World than to any government in Western Europe. The Colonels’ regime dissolved in 1974 after their failed political intervention in Cyprus led to a Turkish invasion and occupation of the northern part of the island.

It was only with the reestablishment of democracy in July 1974 under the conservative politician Constantine Karamanlis (who had returned to Greece from exile in France) that Greek politics began slowly—for the first time in history—to stabilize and achieve a modern, Western character. Greece, the birthplace of the West, finally reentered the West. This process was helped by the country’s admission to the European Economic Community (later the EU) in 1981.

Like membership in NATO, membership in the EU and Greece’s subsequent admission to the Eurozone represented purely political decisions on the part of the Western alliance. In fact, neither Greece’s bureaucratic institutions nor its economy was ever up to the standards of core-Europe and the West. Yet, it was felt (if never publicly admitted) that leaving Greece outside European institutions, given the country’s vulnerable geographical position and its long history of instability, would pose a greater threat to the West than bringing Greece inside them. As it turned out, the Greek variant of the Great Depression, in which the country was brought to its knees beginning in 2009 by widespread poverty, a dramatically declining GDP, and mass unemployment—leading to a far-left-wing government initially close to Moscow—was directly related to the country’s abject lack of preparedness for the rigors of the Eurozone. The Byzantine and Ottoman legacies of underdevelopment, while not determinative and always able to be overcome, still counted for something in Greece in the second decade of the twenty-first century.

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A Recipe for Pastourma

From The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos, by Patrick Leigh Fermor (Journey Across Europe Book 3, NYRB Classics, 2014), Kindle pp. 252-253, 263-264:

It was the first time I had tasted pastourma, an Asia Minor version of pemmican or biltong. (A couple of months later, I asked a Greek refugee tavern-keeper from Iconium how this amazing stuff was made. His eyes sparkled. ‘You get a camel or an ox, but a camel’s best,’ he said with elliptic urgency, ‘then you put it in an olive press, and you tighten it up till every drop of moisture has been squeezed out. Every drop! Then cut it up in strips and salt it, then lay it in the sun for a month or two – best of all, in the branches of a tree, so that the wind cures it as well – but in a cage, of course, so the crows can’t get at it.’ Then it is taken down and embedded in a paste of poached garlic and the hottest paprika you can find on the market, reinforced by whatever spices of the Orient are handy. When this has again been dried to a hard crust, it has nearly the consistency of wood: it keeps for years. Thin slices, cut off with a razor-sharp knife, are normally eaten raw; occasionally it is cooked, when the aroma, always unmanning to the uninitiated, becomes explosive. The taste is terrific and marvellous, but anathema to many because not only is the ordinary smell of garlic squared or cubed in strength – breath emerges with the violence of a blowlamp – but a baleful redolence of great range and power surfaces at every pore; people reel backwards and leave an empty ring around the diner, as though one were whirling in incendiary parabolas.)

As I grew better acquainted with the taste of pastourma, a specious and flimsy theory took shape about its origins. Turkish cooking, like Turkish architecture, is really a coalition of the civilizations of the races they invaded and conquered on their journey to the West: nearly everything can ultimately be traced back to the Persians, the Arabs and the Byzantines. Perhaps pastourma is the last culinary survivor of the days before the Turks irrupted into Western history. Dried meat is true nomad food, a primordial technique developed, perhaps, in the steppes of the Ural and the Altai, where camels were numbered by the hundred thousand: imperishable, palatable and sustaining.

‘I say, what have you been eating, old boy?’ Mr Kendal, halfway across the room with welcoming hand outstretched, stopped dead in his tracks. On the way from Mesembria, still unapprised of its social backlash, I had cut up the last slices of the pastourma the Turks had given me and eaten it under a carob tree, looking down at the low marshy country and the salt flats, and the far-off moles and cranes of Burgas. Now here I was at the British Consulate, whose windows commanded an enlarged version of the ships and the long mole I had seen from afar….

He sniffed. ‘I’ve got it! Pastourma! It’s the strongest I’ve ever smelt.’ A little later, in the living part of the house, Mr Kendal handed me a drink, saying he was a hero not to be using tongs.

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Byzantine Proustians of Bucharest, 1934

From The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos, by Patrick Leigh Fermor (Journey Across Europe Book 3, NYRB Classics, 2014), Kindle pp. 184-188:

Historians have been united in execrating the Phanariots. They have inherited the opprobrium that used to load the word ‘Byzantine’ with suggestions of flexibility, deviousness, lack of scruple, greed and tyranny. But there are signs that the Phanariots, too, are gradually being reassessed. It may be argued that their greed and corruption were laced by zeal for the Orthodox faith and that their share in the foreign affairs of the Ottomans, which the later sultans largely and most unwisely entrusted to them, was dictated as much, or almost as much, by anxiety for the Christian cause as it was by private ambition. It is possible that without their flexibility and genius for compromise, the principalities would have sunk into total subjection to the Ottoman yoke: that all the old national institutions, instead of degeneration, would have been obliterated completely, as they had been in the rest of south-eastern Europe. In nearly every family there was a prince with virtues to offset, in some measure, the vices of his kinsmen. Since the end of their long regime, many of their descendants have been prominent and devoted figures in Rumanian life, both in conservation and reform. But whatever their drawbacks may have been, in the period of their great ascendancy, the eighteenth century, in one thing they were pre-eminent: they were the only civilized people in south-eastern Europe. The Phanar itself was the last surviving fragment of lost Byzantium, and the courts of Bucharest and Jassy the last, faint, scarcely audible echo of the empire’s death rattle.

It was not only on their wealth but on their knowledge of languages and their wider European horizons, in a world of fanatic barbarism, that their oligarchy was based. From the first, when they became Grand Dragomans of the Porte, they were friends of literature and art; the first Rumanian bible was translated by the orders of Sherban Cantacuzene of Wallachia, and with all his faults, a figure as polished as Alexander Mavrocordato, Byron’s and Shelley’s friend and a leader in the Greek revolt, could have sprung from no other East European soil. They studied in Venice, Padua, Vienna, Paris and St Petersburg and it was mainly due to their civilized and cosmopolitan influence that Western ideas penetrated Rumania. The influence of French ideas, and the total linguistic hegemony of France among the elite, may have gone too far; there were certainly regrettable social side effects; but it did bring a vivifying blast of the Western world, a sort of belated renaissance, into the stifling isolation of the Middle Ages which Rumania was only just sloughing off.

All these different influences, it occurred to me later on (for I knew little or nothing of such matters then), had evolved into a society which was a mixture of late Byzantium and Proustian France. The architectural mood of Bucharest, after it had arisen from its oriental beginnings, was an amalgam of Second Empire and the fin-de-siècle, with a dash of early twentieth-century opulence. The modern buildings were irrelevant postscripts. A strong whiff of the earlier period hung unmistakeably in the social air: a climate which had also been subtly modified, during the last few generations, by a stern army of English nannies and governesses. But it left the bedrock of French influence among the boyars undisturbed, the result of a hundred years of study in the lycées of France and the Sorbonne, and of inhabiting Paris as an alternative capital.

The same life, in miniature, thrived in Bucharest; the most convincing relic of it was the plush, the brass and the chandeliers of Capșa’s restaurant. I could never tire of hearing tales of this not yet wholly evaporated epoch. Although it is the last period in history I would have liked to inhabit, there is an absorbing attraction about the robust, undoubting vulgarity and glitter which held Europe in its grip for these decades. The duels, too, which had played a large part in Rumanian, as well as the rest of European life, outside England – and, to a much lesser extent, still did – exercised a morbid, Dumas-bred fascination. Frequently fatal, they were fought with pistols or rapiers which made encounters with sabres in Austria and Hungary – where only slashing was allowed, but no lunging – sound much more innocuous. It was all frantically alien.

What distinguished these people then, and later, from the rest of pleasure-loving aristocratic Europe was their anti-philistinism: a fastidious passion for erudition for its own sake, for literature, painting, music, sculpture and the movement of ideas, that turned their houses into the haunts of Academicians. (Rather like France, again, Rumania has always been a country where a few women, through their brilliance, wit, beauty or hospitality, have played a more important role than in other countries.) The devotion to writing, in particular, went far beyond literary dilettantism and emerged, in many cases, in works of great distinction. Not alas, in Rumanian, a chauvinist might sigh. But at least these extra-territorial exploits released them from the wheel of patriotic nationalism, to which the poetic and literary genius of resurgent nations is indissolubly bound. Paris after all is no mean arena in which to shine. No wonder that Proust should have been so deeply intrigued by Rumanians in Paris and sought them out as friends.

I have gone on rather a long time about this because it was so different to anything I had come across in similar circumstances in the Danubian capitals further upstream. In Hungary the candlelit talk at the end of dinner would be more inclined to concern shooting or horses, a serious weighing of the comparative merits of bootmakers and saddlers in London or long discussions about mediatization, morganatic marriages, primogenitive quarterings, Hoffähigkeit, the exact degree of cousinage between the Festitich and Fürstenberg families and how many yokes of land the Esterházys owned. So it might, mutatis mutandis, in Bucharest, but not for long.

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Lebanon Before Independence

From Beirut 2020: Diary of the Collapse, by Charif Majdalani (Other Press, 2021), Kindle pp. vi-viii (preface to the English-language edition, which provides very helpful context for the diary entries, which I will refrain from excerpting):

For centuries, the religious mosaic and cultural diversity thus introduced into the lands that would become Lebanon were more or less well managed by the central powers of the empires on which Lebanon and its neighbors depended. Of course, there were clashes and conflicts, but everything remained under the slightly manipulative control of the dominant powers, and notably, from the sixteenth to the beginning of the twentieth centuries, of the Ottoman Empire.

When that empire collapsed in 1918, victorious France and Great Britain divided up the Middle East. It was France that secured the mandate over Lebanon, thus fulfilling the wishes of part of its Christian population, which sought to place itself under French protection and to avoid British rule. It should be noted that the Christians had long felt closely connected to France. Many had adopted the French language and culture well before the period of the Mandate, and had dreamed of the French taking control of the country to rid them of the Ottoman occupation. This privileged relationship between the Christians of Lebanon and the French also explains why the Lebanese never felt any hostility toward France. In the Lebanese worldview, France was never seen as an occupying power, but rather as an ally. Only the highly ideological left-wing discourse of the 1970s attempted to represent France as a colonial power, which it never really was in Lebanon, despite some instances of very transient irregularities. In fact it was with the assistance of the Christians, and on their advice, that the French determined the current borders of Lebanon in 1920: they adjoined a long band of coastline and the interior plain of Beqaa to the original Lebanon Mountains, along with the northernmost part of Galilee in the south. The overriding aim was to unite as many regions as possible where the inhabitants were Christian. The Maronites, the Eastern-rite Catholics and Greek Orthodox communities actively worked toward the creation of the new nation in its present form, and considered it to have been founded for them alone, even though part of its population was Muslim or Druze. During a relatively soft Mandate that barely lasted twenty-five years, the French successfully managed the antagonisms between the various communities. But when Lebanon acquired independence in 1945, the foundations for discord were already laid, notably regarding the definition of the country’s identity. The Christians still felt closely connected to the West, the Muslims for their part felt they belonged more to the Arab world. Nevertheless, the two communities both demanded and obtained independence together, then found a way of avoiding conflict by decreeing that the new Lebanon was not a Western country, but nor did it belong to the Arab world. This was the famous affirmation of national identity by a double negative.

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