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A Poem for the Military Politics in Turkey

December 24, 2010

Constantine Cavafy was one of those Globally-educated guys that you ran into at the end of the 19th century. Born in Alexandria to a Greek family, he spent plenty of time in England as well. And befitting his 1863-1933 timeline, he clearly had no clue about modern Turkish politics.

But I ran into his poem “Waiting for the Barbarians” while killing time on Chapati Mystery today, and it struck a chord for me. I know Turkey has plenty of its own poets that it doesn’t need to be obverting others, but still. It may be just that I don’t have a classical enough background to be understanding complex English poetry, and my Turkish isn’t good enough to understand the contextual clues and cleverness of much Turkish poetry.

But still. “Waiting for the Barbarians” – to me – smacks of the awkward lack of military-civilian divide, the way both sides see each other, and the way many anti-AKPniks view the military coups of yore. It sounds like something I could hear from many a Western-Liberal Turkey-watcher. It sounds like how many think. What else can you ask for?

I’m purposely vague about my politics here, because they’re ultimately irrelevant to how I think you should view Turkey. And this poem doesn’t really represent how I think of Turkey. But it is representative of many. So follow the jump and get your culture fix of the day, courtesy of a Levantine of the High British Empire.

What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?

The barbarians are due here today.

Why isn’t anything going on in the senate?
Why are the senators sitting there without legislating?

Because the barbarians are coming today.
What’s the point of senators making laws now?
Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating.

Why did our emperor get up so early,
and why is he sitting enthroned at the city’s main gate,
in state, wearing the crown?

Because the barbarians are coming today
and the emperor’s waiting to receive their leader.
He’s even got a scroll to give him,
loaded with titles, with imposing names.

Why have our two consuls and praetors come out today
wearing their embroidered, their scarlet togas?
Why have they put on bracelets with so many amethysts,
rings sparkling with magnificent emeralds?
Why are they carrying their elegant canes
beautifully worked in silver and gold?

Because the barbarians are coming today
and things like that dazzle the barbarians.

Why don’t our distinguished orators turn up as usual
to make their speeches, say what they have to say?

Because the barbarians are coming today
and they’re bored by rhetoric and public speaking.

Why this sudden bewilderment, this confusion?
(How serious people’s faces have become.)
Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,
everyone going home lost in thought?

Because night has fallen and the barbarians haven’t come.
And some of our men just in from the border say
There are no barbarians any longer.

Now what’s going to happen to us without the barbarians?
These people were a kind of solution.

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