Talk by Jeremy Seal on his recently published book the ‘Meander East to West along a Turkish River’. He talked about his journey along the river Menderes from it source in Central Turkey to its mouth on the Aegean Sea. Tuesday 11 December 2012.
Meander: East to West Indirectly along a Turkish river - Jeremy Seal, 2012 - Interview
1- What gave you the idea of tracing a river from source to sea and why Meander (Büyük Menderes)?
I had never imagined that there might still be an actual river called the Meander – or had assumed it must have been mislaid after all this time or mythical in the first place. So when I noticed a sign by a river in western Turkey a few years back, I was immediately taken with the idea of travelling it.
2- How did you find the locals along the way? Were they perplexed by what you were trying to do?
They were perplexed; there is little by way of travelling tradition on the Meander. People cross it by bridge as they once crossed it by cable-ferry, and they fish in it, but there are very few boatsmen. So it was a surprise to discover a foreigner in a red canoe trying to make his way down this river. I say ‘trying’ since great swathes of the upper river are choked in fallen willows and other foliage.
3- Is there another river in Turkey or elsewhere you would like to follow its course, which one would it be and why?
I’m very taken by both the Euphrates and Tigris, not least because damming has made them more navigable than they once were; the main question in each case relates to security.
4- Clearly with a small back-pack, a foldable canoe and no back-up team doing the entire stretch of the river would be impractical and possibly dangerous. How much did you skip uninteresting / unnavigable sections?
I covered the entire river either by canoe or on foot; I only abandoned the canoe when I was obliged to do so, either on account of dangerously fast-flowing gorge sections (around the town of Çal) on for much of the lower plain on account of there being insufficient water.
5- This wide river valley was a major conduit of trade, invading armies and a gateway between the mild Aegean zone to the hinterland of Anatolia, as you state in the book. Do you however think progress in modern Turkey has somewhat bypassed these market towns along the river?
These towns do have a backwater quality in that they remain agricultural centres rather than industrial or service-oriented ones. Nor are they much visited by tourists. There is a palpable sense that modern Turkey is focussed elsewhere.
6- Your fascination with Turkey is nothing new, a country you first visited over 25 years ago and this is your third book about the country. Can you tell us more about your first exposure to the country and your experiences then?
I first visited Turkey in 1984 as a teacher of English. I was 22 and impressionable; the impression Turkey then made has stayed me with until now. I was based in Ankara, and free to take a long-distance bus every weekend to different points of the compass: Amasya, Ürgüp, Mardin, Fethiye, Trabzon, Istanbul…
7- Your first book’s ‘A fez of the heart – travels around Turkey in search of a hat’, inspiration comes from a fez found in your parent’s attic. Do you think this quintessentially Ottoman-Turkish hat, that was banned to the pain of death in 1925, is a good guide to understand the republican revolution that brought secularism and modernity to the country, and were you happy with the way the idea of the book evolved through your travels to the places associated with this transformation?
I think the fez is an excellent entry point for foreigners trying to engage with something of the cultural strains and stresses that Turkey is subject to. I also accept that the book, written in the early 1990s, makes sweeping generalisations about what might be called the Turkish soul; it’s a book, in short, which should not be taken too seriously, not least because its over-riding tone is comic.
8- Clearly Meander today is not the same today as it was in its pristine antiquity with agricultural irrigation taking a lion share of its waters. Do you think this difficult balance between ecology and the needs of its bordered population is sort of achieved or do you see danger signs for the river’s future?
The river, as I show in the book, is in large part a mess. Its flow has been reduced or even removed by irrigation systems all along the valley, and there is considerable industrial effluent from leather factories (in places like Uşak) and olive oil presses (Sultanhisar etc) and pesticides and fertilisers (Söke and elsewhere). So I certainly worry for the future health of this once-lovely river.
9- You clearly like to input research both before and after your trips and this was obviously the case with your second book devoted to Turkey, ‘Santa – A Life’. Do you think here in the West we are still a million miles from understanding things we think we know, such as Santa Claus? What was the most remarkable discovery for you during the research for this book?
That a) Turkish hospitality was abundantly confirmed in the fact that many local people put me up for the night, fed me, bought me tea or offered me company or directions and b) that I did not once run into a bureaucratic blockage. The answer in Turkey appears to be: don’t ask and nobody will stop you!
Generally, what I love about Turkey is that there is so much to learn. This is an infinitely complex and rewarding country, with the capacity to keep students of its life and culture busy for ever.
10- Do you find it hard to strike the balance between descriptive writing which is the essence of a conventional travelogue and social / historical analysis that seems to be your hallmark as you strive to get deeper into the soul of the country you clearly love. Do you sometimes have to consciously stop yourself from veering too deep in your meanderings for the sake of the flow of the narrative?
Good point: I’m often advised by readers that they enjoy my travel narrative and find my historical analysis rather more demanding. It is, of course, but it’s also integral to my particular interest in the country.
11- Can you tell us more about some of your favourite ‘close to heaven’ spots in Turkey please?
Yes; just been to Göbekli Tepe, a Neolithic site near Urfa which is about to explode into peoples’ consciousnesses. Wonderful and moving place. I’m also a great devotee of Cappadocia which, with its soft valley landscapes and wonderful apples, is my favourite walking place in Turkey. I think that Gaziantep is fabulous; great food, wonderful old quarters and excellent heritage accommodation of the sort that, hopefully, may begin to proliferate across the interior. I also spend a lot of time in the touristy southwest which I adore; for family holidays, it either has to be Kayaköy or Çıralı.
12- You clearly enjoy the less tourist trodden and unspoilt parts of Turkey, yet by writing about these places, do you think you are contributing to the risk of their future alteration by that publicity? Should morality enter the decision making process of a writer?
I think that tourism – a certain type of tourism – should play an increasingly important role in the economy and culture of almost anywhere in the world, and this is certainly the case in Turkey. And while there has been a marked downside in areas where tourism has been applied on an industrial scale, not least in terms of landscape ruination, I do not think this is primarily the fault of the tourism writer. In fact I make a point of writing about places which attempt to offer something more authentic – family-run pansiyons, for example, where genuine friendships and understandings can flourish – and am happy to condemn places shrouded in concrete where the only imperative is making money.
13- You clearly were treated well in all your travels across Turkey, yet you still had some harsh words concerning the substandard accommodation at the market-town of Yenice. Do you think you were a bit unfair on the hoteliers of this out-of-the-way town?
Good question: I’m a great believer in the principle that the reader is my employer. I have to be in the business of telling it as I see it even if that means occasional insults. In fact, while Yenice does not come out of the book very well, it’s the case that I’m enthusiastic about the vast majority of the places that I visit in Meander.
14- If you could travel in terms of space and time in Turkey where and what period would you choose and why?
Here’s an odd answer; I’d love to know what Cappadocia felt like in the 12th century if only because the scale of the underground cities there lends the impression that the raiding – by the likes of Turks, Tartars, proto-Mongols, Arabs – must have been extraordinary. A dangerous time, no doubt, but one which showed the immense adaptability of the local people.
15- Any plans to have your books published in different languages, including Turkish?
Some of my books are published in other languages. I’d love all of them to be published in translation, Turkish included, but it’s a question of finding publishers ready to collaborate on such ventures.
16- Have you got any other Turkish themed books planned for the future?
Yes! I am researching the next one even as we speak but I’m not prepared to provide any details for the time being! Suffice to say it has a strong historical bent and is set in the relatively recent past…