Turkish Modern: Bizim Köy

[This piece on Mahmut Makal’s “Our Village” and Turkey’s Village Institutes was published on the now apparently deceased Bülent Journal website in November 2014. As that site no longer exists, there’s no reason not to post it on here.]

“I didn’t deliberately mean to appear disillusioned about the situation in the village, but that was the reality. I wanted to tell the truth about everything, whether we liked it or not.” Today, Mahmut Makal is philosophical about his time as the only schoolteacher in the primitive Central Anatolian village of Nurguz in the 1940s. Sipping tea in his Ankara living room, the noisy traffic on the main road outside is a world away from the remote rural conditions he described in A Village in Anatolia. This year marks the 60th anniversary of the publication of that book, an English compilation of two Turkish titles comprised of Makal’s articles for the Varlık literary journal. A Village in Anatolia has long been hard to hunt down, and its birthday won’t be accompanied by a return to the shelves, but it remains a fascinating and valuable fossil.

The octogenarian Makal now lives with his wife in a grey Ankara suburb. In many ways it’s a typically austere republican household: a small picture of Atatürk hangs on the living room wall, a folded copy of Cumhuriyet sits on the coffee table, books on the early Turkish Republic’s modernising reforms fill a couple of bookcases. In his own books, Makal gave a ruthlessly unvarnished picture of existence in Nurguz. The first to appear, Our Village (Bizim Köy), caused a huge stir in Turkey on publication in 1950 and Makal spent 40 days in jail on politically motivated charges after its appearance. “It was all political,” he says. “The government didn’t like the fact that I wrote about the reality of the village. I was put in prison in March 1950 and there was an election the following May. The CHP [Republican People’s Party] was in power and for them it wasn’t good for people to know about the reality of villages. So they threw me in prison on charges of being a Communist.”

Makal was a graduate of one of the early republic’s pioneering Village Institutes. Established in 1940, the institutes’ objective was to educate local youths — both boys and girls — up to a basic understanding of technical and academic knowledge, after which graduates would return to their villages as missionaries of Turkey’s modernization project. Practical secondary education would thus be used to advance rural development, with the revolutionary values of secular modernity paramount. Makal remembers his time in the institute, which he attended from 1942, with great nostalgia. One of the institutes’ major aims was to spread literacy, on the back of a 1935 census which found that 80.8 percent of the population was still illiterate. This was combined with practical knowledge that could be applied directly to nurture village development on prescribed republican lines. “The institutes opened up a world for people. Unlike other schools, they didn’t teach us by rote, or by memorizing. We learned by doing — it was very original in that way,” Makal says. Contemporary educator Sabahattin Eyüboğlu echoed the mood of many intellectuals at the time, attributing to the institutes an almost miraculous ability to “transform pain into joy, weakness into strength, difficulty into pleasure, the teacher into a friend, the blackboard into soil.”

Over time, however, the state authorities began to see the egalitarian Village Institutes as a Trojan horse of communism. Enthusiasm for them was already waning when Makal was arrested, and today he blames the Cold War for their eventual closure. “‘Communism’ was a useful word. The Americans spread it as a dangerous concept and people were tricked,” he says. “If you ask me, when they closed the Village Institutes, they actually closed down Turkey.”

The tone of A Village in Anatolia is similarly pessimistic. Makal describes one dire village reality after another; an interminable struggle against the merciless extremes of weather, hunger, health catastrophes and the “backward” forces of traditional religion. The young teacher himself is nothing other than painfully sincere. The only humour in the book is unintentional, as Makal catalogues a series of almost comically bleak rural problems. He himself grew up in a village not too far away, but was unprepared for the conditions that confronted him in Nurguz. What’s more, the villagers there seemed resigned to their fate, and largely uninterested in the professed ideals of his school. His frustration simmers away throughout the book, but at times he slips into a more resigned disillusionment: “There’s a book that says: ‘Give up grieving — look to your life.’ I haven’t read that book; but I should have liked the writer to change places with me, and see whether he could give up grieving then.” Makal now accepts that the picture he gave was unrelenting, but says it had to be so: “That’s the way it was in the village. I was alone there. The effect of religion was very strong. When I saw what this meant, of course, my hopes began to disintegrate. I could have written something else, but I wanted to give the true reality of the village, even though it was against my own interests.”

“Village literature” flourished in Turkey’s early republican years, as the clash between rural tradition and officially-encouraged secular modernity gave writers plenty of material to work with. This mostly took the form of realist novels, but Makal’s books gave a sharp taste of direct non-fiction reportage. Perhaps this is why they were so controversial, cutting too close to the bone of a sensitive Turkish state. One of A Village In Anatolia’s book’s most memorable episodes comes when a hafez (who knows the Quran by heart) arrives in the village, bringing all life and work to a halt. The villagers are in awe of their new guest and desert Makal’s school, leaving him to reflect morosely: “What was a lone man to do against a force of this kind? … What sort of language would men understand? … The more I see, and the more I think, the more does my heart ache.” While the bookish Makal cherished the delivery of periodicals and newspapers for fresh reading material, the villagers saw newly delivered paper as good for little more than stuffing for windows as protection against the cold. Such episodes evoke Yakup Kadri Karaosmanoğlu’s gloomy 1932 novel Strange (Yaban), which narrates an Istanbul intellectual’s disabusing encounter with the “religious backwardness” of a Central Anatolian village. Indeed, the frustration captured in A Village in Anatolia is just one example of a recurring theme of Turkey’s village literature. Many disciples of the Kemalist modernization project such as Makal and Karaosmanoğlu found themselves in an ambiguous middle ground, denouncing stubborn rural tradition while still eschewing the official optimism demanded by the state.

Written at a time when the early zeal of the republican project was slowly unraveling, it’s tempting to read A Village in Anatolia as an unwitting demonstration of rigid positivist principles coming up against the stubborn complexities of rural reality. By giving his metropolitan readers such an unsparing view of peasant life in Turkey, Makal showed just how far the official project of secular modernity was from penetrating ordinary Anatolian villages. At the same time, his idealism prevents him from simply shrugging his shoulders and accepting things as they are. There is some truth in Bertrand Russell’s suggestion that “the secret of happiness is to face the fact that the world is horrible,” but this is something Makal never wants to do. He spends much of A Village in Anatolia lamenting the condition of life in his village, but he also seems to tacitly recognize the futility of his efforts to change it. This is perhaps where the tension at the heart of the book comes from: The young Makal was shaped by the republican enthusiasm of the Village Institutes, but as a teacher he was confronted by realities that the institutes could do little to change. Sitting in his Ankara apartment 65 years later, he is more sanguine: “I was often confused and melancholy. But the purpose of the book was to explain how I saw reality in the village, not to write what we wanted it to be.”