Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Birds Without Wings

Birds Without Wings by Louis de Bernières

“A man is a bird without wings and a bird is a man without sorrow.” – Iskandar the Potter

From the very beginning of time, man has envied birds’ ability to fly free from the bounds of gravity and over insurmountable obstacles. It wasn’t until the 20th century, after thousands of years of dreaming and experimenting, that we conquered the skies and beyond. Looking at photographs of planet earth taken from outer space, one notices the significant absence of boundary markers. Other than land forms and bodies of water, the familiar continents and island nations, it is hard to tell where one country ends and another begins. The notion of national boundaries is a human invention and one that has been a source of conflict throughout history. Take the nation we know of as Turkey: one hundred years ago, it did not exist per se, but was part of the once powerful Ottoman Empire. Before the Ottomans, the Romans controlled this melting pot of western civilization and long before them were the Greeks. Viewed from orbit, this land shows no scarring from the wars fought over it, but on the ground, deep within the collective psyche of the people whose ancestors waged those wars, the scars are still there.

At its height, the Ottoman Empire incorporated Anatolia (Turkey), Armenia, the Balkans, the Black Sea, the western half of the Adriatic Sea, Greece, Syria, Palestine, Egypt, the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, and most of northern Africa and the southern Mediterranean Sea. Of critical strategic importance was The Bosporus, where the Black and Aegean Seas connect, because it was eastern Europe’s and Russia’s gateway to the Mediterranean. On the Western side of this narrowing is one of the world’s great cities. This city, first called Byzantium, was an important Grecian port for almost 1000 years until it was seized by the Romans and renamed Constantinople in honor of the Roman Emperor, Constantine (ca 330 AD). Constantinople eventually replaced Rome as the center of imperial power due to its location at the crossroads of the world. For the next many centuries the Romans continued to expand their empire until it began collapsing under its own weight. In 1453 the Arabic Ottomans took Constantinople, and the remains of the Roman Empire fell like a row of standing dominoes.

Under Ottoman rule Christians, Muslims, and Jews, mixed and mingled with Greeks, Turks, and Armenians. Given the rise and fall of first the Byzantine and then the Roman Empires, tribal, religious, and ethnic loyalties became secondary to the multi-cultural communities which developed. Birds Without Wings is the story of one such community: the fictional village of Eskibahçe, located in south western Anatolia. In this village, Christians of Greek and Armenian origin celebrated holy days with great frequency and even greater quantities of wine, and welcomed their Muslim neighbors to join in. While drinking was frowned upon by The Prophet, it brought a certain festive quality which many Muslims tacitly appreciated. So integrated was this society that Muslims and Christians often intermarried. In the words of Iskandar the Potter, the villagers “were very much mixed up, and apart from the rantings of a few hotheads whose bellies were filled with raki and the Devil [everyone] lived together in sufficient harmony”.

Unfortunately, the good times did not last. Empire builders in Eastern Europe and Russia had their eyes on Anatolia and The Bosporus. This required constant vigilance on the eastern border and the Black Sea, taking attention away from Greece. Greece used the opportunity to wage a successful war of independence from the Ottoman Empire, sparking a nationalist movement which slowly spread across Asia Minor. From 1829 to 1908, the Ottoman Empire continued to weaken, and religious and ethnic intolerance began to flare up. Turkish Armenians were first to be persecuted by the Muslim Ottomans who formed a dangerous alliance with Germany in order to resist the hostile Balkan states and the aggressive Russian Empire. The presence of German troops on Ottoman soil ushered in an era of suspicion and distrust. Political instability during this period provided the opportunity for a Grecian Turk, Mustafa Kemal, to rise through the military ranks and lead the brewing jihad – the holy war – aimed at reclaiming Turkey for the Turks by driving out the Christian Greeks and Armenians.

Birds Without Wings is a tragedy and a love story with moments of comedy; in other words it is a very human story. This book is also a blistering critique of ideology and religious extremism and the hatred they spawn. Louis de Bernières, best known for his novel Corelli’s Mandolin, tells the story of modern Turkey from several perspectives. The main narrator is an illiterate potter named Iskandar who has a poetic soul and speaks in proverbs. Iskandar has a son named Abdul. Abdul’s best friend is a Christian boy named Nicos who is the brother of Philothei, a girl of legendary beauty. The two little boys give Iskandar so much delight that he makes them clay whistles in the shape of birds which, when filled with water, imitate the calls of the blackbird and the robin. Abdul and Nicos take to wearing red and black shirts, respectively, while running about making bird calls, and soon come to be called Karatavuk (robin) and Mehmetçik (blackbird).

Mehmetçik, being Christian, knows how to read and write Greek, as well as Turkish in Greek characters. Karatavuk’s education on the other hand is limited to memorizing verses from the Koran in Arabic, a language no one, other than perhaps the imam, understands. After a bit of boyish negotiation, Mehmetçik agrees to teach Karatavuk to read and write Turkish in Greek characters, a skill which will prove invaluable later in life. While the boys are busy learning and playing, one of their contemporaries, Ibrahim, falls so deeply and obsessively in love with Karatavuk’s sister, Philothei, and is so relentless in pursuit of her, that both families agree to the marriage when the two come of age, with the understanding that she will become Muslim.

Mr. Bernières tells many stories within the 551 pages of this epic novel. He illuminates the plight of women in an illiterate Muslim society, he describes how truly cosmopolitan and civilized the Ottoman Empire was, and reveals how easily civilizations can succumb to self-inflicted wounds. Woven into the fabric of the tales from Eskibahçe is the life story of Turkey’s iconic leader, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Depending on whom you ask, Ataturk was either a liberating hero or a war criminal. Emotions aside, he was an opportunistic and charismatic leader with a talent for being in the right place at the right time. He was bold and courageous, frequently leading battle charges and miraculously surviving while all around him bodies piled up into mountains of rotting corpses. The ten year period following the Greek war of independence from the Ottoman Empire was when the western European nations were spoiling for war against the imperialistic Germans. The Ottomans, being aligned with Germany were therefore considered enemies of Britain, France, and Italy. Conflicts with the Balkans left the Ottomans weak and Greece, seeking to re-create its ancient glory by annexing Anatolia, attacked. Ataturk possessed a rare political genius that enabled him to play many factions against each other. He enlisted the Germans to help vanquish the Greeks and then used that relationship to re-equip the Turkish troops sufficiently to chase out the British and French who, like the Russians, wanted control of Asia Minor. The Italians wisely left of their own accord. Ataturk understood the threat posed by Germany and, had it not been so completely defeated in World War I, was prepared to fight to the death for independence.

A major theme of this book, and the one that makes it important to read, is the bitter hatred that still lies between the Turks and the Armenians. Each endured atrocities at the hands of the other which resulted in genocide nearly as horrible as that perpetrated against the Jews in Nazi Germany. Many Armenian soldiers volunteered to serve in the Russian army during World War I given how they were treated in the late Ottoman Empire, but the Bolshevik Revolution halted Russia’s western expansion leaving a population of Turkish Armenians at the mercy of the vengeful Turks. The horrific bloodshed between these two peoples went largely unnoticed by the greater world because, at the time, it was not important to the redrawing of European maps following The Great War.

In Birds Without Wings we see how ideology – big ideas which appeal to small minds – can take the heart and soul out of a society. Pursuit of ethnic purity – laced with nationalism, religious intolerance, and tribalism – caused suffering and hardship in Greece, Turkey, and Armenia. Turkey chased out the Christian Armenians and Greeks and in so doing lost the people who knew how to grow, make and do things, leaving only the consumers who then had nothing to eat or buy. A similar thing happened in Greece and both nations had huge refugee populations to absorb who had no possessions and did not speak the language.

In spite of the bloodshed and tears so viscerally described in Birds Without Wings, this book is also a celebration of the human spirit. In the same way we so often fail to learn from history, we also have the capacity to forgive and forget. Eventually, the Grecian Turks learned to speak Turkish and the Turkish Greeks learned to speak Greek. Turkey succeeded as an independent nation and Greece gave up on annexing it. A new normalcy settled on both nations and life went on. The Armenians, however, had no such resolution. United States President Woodrow Wilson redrew Armenia’s border with Turkey in Turkey’s favor, forcing hundreds of thousands of Armenians to flee. The resulting diaspora means that today there are more Armenians living outside of Armenia than within its borders. Armenians have neither forgiven nor forgotten.

It was the philosopher, Hegel, who said “the only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history”. I am inclined to agree with him as rhetoric heats up in our own country about the problems we have with immigration control. Most of us don’t have sufficient understanding of the social and economic impacts of undocumented aliens – positive and negative – to suggest constructive ways to address the problems. Birds Without Wings is a cautionary tale, a lamentation over humans’ inability to absorb the lessons of history into our DNA so that we stop hurting ourselves by hurting each other. The lesson for us here in the land of the free, if we choose to learn it, is to be careful that we don’t create a flock of sad, angry, and resentful birds without wings by applying simplistic solutions to complex problems. Rather than being carried away by ideology, perhaps we can engage in a thoughtful discussion about how to secure our borders so that we don’t inadvertently lose what makes America the world’s beacon of hope.

Copyright 2010 Teresa Friedlander, all rights reserved.