To read Türkiye Diary (The Bridge) is to lounge on wicker deck furniture, with comfortable pillows, ensconced on a terrace overlooking the Sea of Marmara in the warm summer night, drinking raki, eating mezze—those fatal Levantine hors d’oeuvres—and listening as a raconteur cagily lets slip indiscretions, eased by raki, night sea air, and a life spent doing things the raconteur is now not sure he should have done.
Thomas Goltz belongs unapologetically to the Gonzo school of journalism. Whether illegally trying to cross the Soviet Border after the Armenian earthquake of 1988, springing a hapless Iranian refugee from a Turkish jail, to cozying up with secret policemen, to reporting on American corporate skullduggery in Iraq, Goltz’s charge sheet against himself is long. Take the most straight-shooting of Americans, from Fargo, North Dakota, and plunge him into the cultural labyrinth which is Turkey, and you get a book that is a cross between Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad and Nazim Hikmet’s Human Landscapes from my Country.
Türkiye is a memoir, an insider’s guide to Turkey since 1980, and a grudging love letter to its maddening opacity. The value of Goltz’s vignettes, including long-forgotten episodes, is not for History with a capital H, but for the zeitgeist he records. Goltz recounts the car crash involving a minister, a mafioso and a murderer (and a good time girl), how the then prime minister, feted in Western capitals, secretly invested in casinos and had rival promoters dispatched, and how the state enabled a murderous, jihadi Kurdish movement to counter its left wing rivals in the Kurdish Workers Party. Like baklava, Turkish political stories feature endless layers.
Amid all these events, it becomes clear that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has continuously strengthened his rule on the back of mistakes by his opponents, from the Woodstock-like sit-in of Gezi Park in 2013 to the violent coup attempt of 2016. Goltz’s conclusion is that if we had expected another outcome we have only our own illusions to blame. Mainstream media reporting from Turkey presented a pro-Western, loyal NATO ally. Turkish talent for intrigue left foreign observers hopelessly wrong footed.
Did the western powers even try to get Turkey right? It is hard to tell, as Goltz chronicles the mistakes in the way America mishandled and underestimated its NATO ally, stoking an ever-greater antagonism in a people that once considered the United States as a savior. In 2008 America sent a warship through the Bosphorus in violation of the Convention of Montreux, which few State Department officials had ever heard of. The mission was spurious. The reaction of Turkey was one of hurt and outrage.
Goltz provides an even-handed summary of the challenges to the Turkish state: Armenian revenge assassination, Maoist revolutionaries, nationalists extremist and above all the significant Kurdish minority. He endorses the soft side of Turkish nationalism, where Turkey is the country of everyone who lives in Turkey—a message that lives on even if it tends to get lost in the loud identity politics that blights so many countries today. Given the passions on all sides, Goltz’s balance is commendable. He is sure to get nasty comments from just about everyone.
To some extent Türkiye is also a handbook for what a journalist should not do, including bribing police to help free a political refugee, trying to deploy a modem in a Soviet police state and sleeping rough among Syrian refugees. Stringers do crazy things in order to be taken on full-time. Instead their stories get expropriated by well-known correspondents. The system is designed to exploit them. They are the infantry, expendable, and they know it.
When Goltz is not exposing himself to physical danger, he must confront his relative comfort with the misery around him. He reflects as he sees refugees being deported from the Greek Island of Lesvos back to Turkey:
I have never felt so ridiculously privileged and safe in my life, especially compared to all the poor souls getting shuffled between worlds like a poorly cut deck of cards.
The book ends with today’s conflict ensnaring the Turkish government, the Kurdish parties, the Americans and the Russians. It is a difficult story to untangle. The only way Goltz can cut through the Gordian knot of this narrative is with a vivid thought experiment describing Erdoğan celebrating the 100th anniversary of the 1923 founding of the Republic. The ending will surprise you.
Goltz has made an unaffected, Mark Twain-like effort to tell this story, and to bridge, as in the subtitle of the book, an observer’s innocence with the Turkish labyrinth. For this reason it is a valuable book for understanding Turkey. It also alerts us to the yawning gap between news as it is reported on CNN and how it is gathered by brave and perhaps foolhardy journalists.