Ian Racey's Reviews > The Dervish

The Dervish by Frances Kazan
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did not like it

This is a work of propaganda. It devotes itself to crafting a grossly distorted picture of post-WW1 Turkey in which the population of Anatolia is racially homogeneous (which is to say, entirely Turkish) and peaceloving, and the source of all fighting and violence during the Turkish War of Independence is foreign armies greedily invading the country to carve it up into colonies for themselves. What's more, in Frances Kazan's Istanbul, every character in the book--American, Turkish, British, even those who are siding with the grasping, colonialist Allied Powers--just knows that the Turks are peaceful and blameless, and takes it for granted that any apparent Turkish violence or aggression is really the result of the British disguising their troops as Turks and using them as agents provocateurs.

Kazan doesn't need to worry about the Armenian Genocide that Turkish authorities were still prosecuting at the time the novel takes place; the Armenian Genocide couldn't have happened because in her Anatolia, Armenians apparently don't exist. There's much glee when the Turkish army beats back the French expedition that had occupied Cilicia, but what's never mentioned is that the reason for the French presence in Cilicia in the first place was to protect the Armenian survivors whom the Turks were again attempting to exterminate as they returned to their homes after being forcibly deported during the war. (Until WW1, Cilicia was in fact known as Lesser Armenia because of the ethnic makeup of its population.)

Nor is Kazan's Anatolia apparently home to any native Greeks; the only Greeks present are the soldiers of the Greek army from the Athenian kingdom on the other side of the Aegean, who land at Smyrna to begin their invasion of Turkey. (The Greek population of Istanbul is acknowledged, but not that of Anatolia.) Again and again, Kazan brings up the atrocities committed by the Greeks in their occupation of Smyrna. Since the actual Greek landing at Smyrna in 1919 wasn't accompanied by any brutality at a level beyond that which occurred during the hundreds of other military offensives throughout Europe and the Middle East in the 1914-1923 decade, we've got to wonder if she doesn't have an ulterior motive for the stress she gives it. Kazan never gets around to mentioning the Turks retaking Smyrna in 1922; she never gets around to mentioning the fire that burnt through the Greek and Armenian half of the city for nine days, destroying it while leaving the Turkish quarter untouched; she doesn't mention the tens of thousands of Greek and Armenian women, children and civilian men who the Turkish forces murdered, raped or deported into the interior to be worked as slave labourers until they died. It's difficult not to conclude that Kazan wants to make sure that when you hear about the Great Fire of Smyrna and the horrors that accompany it, you associate it in your head with vindictive Greeks visiting atrocities upon defenceless Turks rather than the other way around.

Whenever an American historical character is introduced, you can always tell if they're going to be ridiculously biased in favour of the Turks because Kazan will be sure to have characters talk about how completely neutral they are. The first time this happens, it's when Admiral Bristol is introduced. Bristol, who was simultaneously American high commissioner (ambassador) in Istanbul and commodore of the US Navy's Black Sea flotilla during the novel's events, is notorious for always siding with Turkish authorities, blaming the Greek and Armenian populations in Anatolia for the violence they suffered from the Turks and going so far as to have any American newspaper coverage suppressed if he felt it wasn't sufficiently pro-Turk, in order to foster American business interests in the region. So of course, before he appears, other characters have been sure to let the protagonist know that Bristol is always neutral regarding the conflicts between Turks and Greeks.

When the missionary Annie Allen makes the ludicrous statement that "Knowing the Turkish people, I guarantee the meeting will be peaceful," when discussing the famous massive Turkish Nationalist demonstration in Sultanahmed Square, Bristol replies, "It's not the Turks I'm worried about. You know as well as I do the protest will be saturated with Allied spies." Annie Allen did indeed know the Turks; her desperate reports to Bristol about Turkish atrocities against the Armenians in Talas were among the accounts that Bristol suppressed because they didn't fit his desired narrative of Turkish virtue.

And after all that, there's also the fact that the book is very poorly written. The first paragraph of chapter one makes me suspect it had no copyeditor: Pale-faced soldiers lounged against the barrier smoking cigarettes, their half-closed eyes follow [sic] us as we hurried into the station yard. French, or were they English? I could not tell; their bland expressions gave no clue.

I just ... I'm unfamiliar with this idea of identifying a soldier's nationality through his facial expression. I'd always just assumed that if the soldiers were wearing British uniforms, they'd be from the British Army, whereas French soldiers would wear French Army uniforms. But no, apparently that's so poor an indicator that even if I see a soldier in British uniform (or French; Kazan doesn't specify, even though her protagonist, Mary, would definitely be familiar with the difference), I should be unwilling to hazard a guess at his nationality unless I can read it in his expression.

Characters in this book do not talk like human beings, and I don't just mean because they've got a peculiar aversion to contractions. When Mary whispers to her Turkish lover, during a post-coital snuggle, "Talk to me, Mustafa; say something," he replies, "Words cannot adequately express the turmoil of the human heart," which sweet nothing apparently comes out in a "sigh". Eat your hearts out, ladies.

So ... yeah. Noxiously revisionist in its storytelling, and without the beauty of prose to still make it readable.

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Reading Progress

September 4, 2017 – Started Reading
September 4, 2017 – Shelved
September 20, 2017 – Finished Reading

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