The best books to understand the heart & soul of Turkey and its people

The Books I Picked & Why

Dinner of Herbs: Village Life in 1960s Turkey

By Carla Grissman

Dinner of Herbs: Village Life in 1960s Turkey

Why this book?

Reading Carla Grissman’s memoir of the year she lived in a small farming village 249 kilometres east of Ankara took me back to my first long stay in Turkey in 1990. I was in Göreme, Cappadocia for almost three months. It was still a small village then so Grissman’s account of her experiences thirty years earlier in a similar place, resonated with me. She found a generous people, strong communal spirit, and much happiness, and aptly named the book for Proverbs 15:17 which reads, “Better is a dinner of herbs where love is, than feasting on a fattened ox where hatred also dwells”. Village life was basic but Grissman expressed no judgements or desire to change things. Instead, she engaged and observed, resulting in a revealing look at a way of life that still continues in parts of Anatolia today.


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Turkish Awakening: A Personal Discovery of Modern Turkey

By Alev Scott

Turkish Awakening: A Personal Discovery of Modern Turkey

Why this book?

Turkish Awakening is the result of Alev Scott’s desire to discover the land of her mother’s birth and explore contemporary Turkish life and politics. Scott combines personal insights with an objective gaze to focus on a confusing and often contradictory culture, to try to unravel the complex relationships between modernity and religion unfolding in Turkey today. She chats with taxi drivers, examines how sex work and transgender inhabitants coexist, sometimes uneasily, next door to conservative Muslims recently relocated from the country, and explores the impact of popular soap operas featuring the newly rich on the aspirations of ordinary Turks and international tourism. The rise of the ruling Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi (AKP – Party for Justice and Progress) is covered as well as Turkey’s changing relationship with the EU. The book ends with Scott’s observations about the protests that sprang to life in Gezi Park in Istanbul and then spread throughout the country in 2013.

Turkish Awakening
is essential reading to better understand what makes the country and its people tick. 


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Dervish: Travels in Modern Turkey

By Tim Kelsey

Dervish: Travels in Modern Turkey

Why this book?

Dervish was published more than twenty years ago, but the Turks about whom Kelsey writes, archaeologists (and others) in search of the Ark, human rights activists, famous pop stars both straight and transsexual, Kurdish insurgents, desperately poor villagers and aspiring politicians, are still in existence today. Kelsey captures the contradictions inherent to life in modern Turkey, revealing a people as diverse as its varied geographical regions.


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Portrait of a Turkish Family

By Irfan Orga

Portrait of a Turkish Family

Why this book?

Orga’s memoir begins with scenes from his idyllic childhood as the son of a great beauty, adored by his autocratic grandmother and indulged by all. His was a prosperous family, their future secure under the Ottoman sultans until the First World War broke out and everything changed. They went from enjoying elaborate dinner parties, going to the hamam and sleeping on soft sheets, to living in poverty, waking in dank rooms, and never knowing if there’d be enough to eat. Orga writes without sentiment of the impact of the war on his upper-class family, and the complete reconstruction of society under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, founder of the modern Turkish republic. Orga lived and observed the tensions and struggles around sacred and secular life, the divide between rich and poor, and the importance of family to all. Despite the passing of the years, many of the events and consequences he recounts still play out in Turkey today.


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The Forbidden Modern: Civilization and Veiling

By Nilüfer Göle

The Forbidden Modern: Civilization and Veiling

Why this book?

One of the first things people still ask me about living in Turkey is, do you have to wear a headscarf? Whether a woman covers or not and the manner in which she wears her scarf reflects much more than differing levels of religious conviction. Göle explores the extremely nuanced and conflicting relationships around the subject, combining sociological research with historical analysis and in-depth interviews. She examines the ways young women form their identities in relation to the issue of covering, how they adapt fundamental religious tenets in response to the pressures of modernity, what covering contributes to debates about politics, nationalism, and other issues. Anyone wanting to know more about the practice of veiling beyond the standard modern/backward, secular/religious divides should read The Forbidden Modern. By the way, if you’re still wondering, the answer is no.


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