Turkey Unveiled: A History of Modern Turkey, by Hugh and Nicole Pope, two journalists working for the Wall Street Journal and Le Monde, gives us insights into the most divisive issues of Turkey today. A more recent analysis of modern problems and trends in Turkey written from a Western insider's point of view is provided by Stephen Kinzer, former Istanbul bureau chief of the New York Times, in Crescent and Star: Turkey Between Two Worlds.
John Ash approaches the history of the city in Istanbul: The Imperial City by casting a lens on the more than 20 pivotal historical events or periods beginning with the pre-classical era through to the present day.
Another great read on the Byzantine empire is A Short History of Byzantium, John Julius Norwich's condensed version of a three-volume epic about one of the most enduring empires on Earth.
Ottoman Centuries: The Rise and Fall of the Turkish Empire, by Lord Kinross, has established itself as the definitive guidebook on Turkey during the Ottoman Empire. In thoroughly readable prose, Kinross leads you through history while providing the context for understanding Turkey today.
Constantinople: City of the World's Desire, 1453-1924, by Philip Mansel, provides an accurate and colorful history of the Ottoman Empire while sprinkling the pages with attention-grabbing little morsels of lesser-known trivia.
Jeremy Seal's A Fez of the Heart: Travels Around Turkey in Search of a Hat is an excellent travelogue that succeeds in capturing the sights and smells of his destinations while ostensibly on the hunt for the legacy left by the fez.
For Orhan Pamuk, Istanbul: Memories and the City is a (tedious) personal reflection on life growing up in the "melancholy" of an Istanbul in transition. Descriptions of faded apartment buildings, and the tension between tradition and convention are as much a self-portrait as a window into the city at the crossroads of civilization. The book also includes dozens of black-and-white photos of the city, allowing a glimpse of Istanbul before major modern investments in restoration.
For a modern woman's view of what it's like to work, live, and travel in Turkey, pick up the recently compiled and released Tales from the Expat Harem: Foreign Women in Modern Turkey. It's a compilation of essays, stories, and travelogues by various non-Turkish women.
Midnight Express: Fact or Fiction?
The 1978 movie Midnight Express, directed by Alan Parker and scripted by Oliver Stone, elicits strong resentment in Turkey for the portrayal of Billy Hayes, who, in spite of a well-publicized crackdown on drug smuggling, took a dumb risk and lost. The movie, which won the director an Oscar, is a hideously graphic (and mostly fictional) account of human rights violations in a Turkish prison. The truth is that the real Billy Hayes acknowledges the inaccuracy of many of the scenes in the movie; he was in a low-security prison, and no guard was killed in order for him to escape. Actually, the Turkish government released him.
The name of the movie derives from the midnight train service from Istanbul to Edirne, which, at the time, briefly traveled through Greek territory. During the 1960s and 1970s, the Turkish government reacted to international criticism (particularly from the U.S.) of its harsh sentencing guidelines with a discreet and diplomatic trick. Foreigners convicted of drug-related offenses were divested of their passports and released during appeal. Then they were quietly ushered onto the Midnight Express train, where, once in Greece (and with the complicity of Greek guards on the train), they hopped off the train and were jailed until they could obtain new passports from their consulates. The Turks were thus able to maintain a hard-line stance without jeopardizing diplomatic relations.
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