Turkey – a country torn between East and West, Islam and Islamophobia; permeated with both conservatism and post-modernity. As he travels across this fascinating and beautiful country, Szabłowski heads for the most remote villages and towns to meet young women who have run away from honour killings, wives forced by their husbands into prostitution, a family of immigrants from Africa who dream of a better life, and Kurdish journalists and freedom fighters.
A polyphonic portrait of contemporary Turkey, The Assassin from Apricot City masterfully evokes the present-day dreams and hopes of ordinary people, weaving a story from their potent and mesmerising tales.
Praise for The Assassin from Apricot City
World Literature Today’s Notable Translation 2013
Winner English PEN Award 2013
Winner European Parliament Journalism Award 2011
Winner Beata Pawlak Award 2011
Nominated for the 2011 Nike Prize, Poland’s most prestigious literary award
‘A reportage book cannot get much better than this…excellent pieces of journalism…The Assassin from Apricot City is right there in the footsteps of the best tradition of Pol…ehm actually world class reportage. If you want to know something about contemporary Turkey from the pen of a brilliant foreign reporter, this is the book you were looking for.’ Lorenzo Berardi, Book Worm’s Head
‘A bold and bracing look at Turkey’s underbelly.’ Colin Thubron
‘the book is an excellent introduction to Turkey’s debates about almost everything going on in the country—fresh, confident, funny without mockery and spiced with cleverly phrased insights…Szabłowski’s comic-strip theater of the absurd gets to the soul of Turkey and masterfully conjures up a conspiracy-theory approach to politics in which anything is possible.’ Hugh Pope, The Majalla
‘Szabłowski’s Turkey is a land of paradoxes: Kurds who praise family values but kill their daughters and sisters if they’re raped, artists who loath the West but crave its approval, love-struck young men who long to sleep with their girlfriends but know this would make the women unmarriageable…he tells poignant stories about tangible men and women, a broader picture begins to emerge—baffling as the image may be.’ Jacob Daniels, World Literature Today
‘Witold Szablowski strikes an excellent balance between hard-hitting journalism, astute political analysis, and humorous observations. His reportage provides a fascinating insight into contemporary Turkey, its strengths and many contradictions…essential reading, seamlessly translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones.’ Lucy Popescu, The Huffington Post
‘This is not a travelogue: Mr Szablowski is a time-traveller, a disenfranchised Pole who hangs out like Gulliver in a land where politics, crime, humour, home economics and family life seem topsy-turvy yet strangely familiar…We need Mr Szablowski at our side as we walk through Istanbul’s covered bazaar, or follow a protest march. He captures the spirit of Turkey in the way that a handful of Turkish writers, such as Aziz Nesin and Emin Colasan, have done.’ The Economist
‘Its epigrammatic chapters brim with colorful characters from across the country’s varied human landscapes, which the Polish journalist has come to know intimately after many years on the beat… part of what makes “The Assassin from Apricot City” a success is the way it complicates supposedly rigid divisions. The people it describes emerge in various shades of grey, which is perhaps one mark of good journalism.’ William Armstrong, Hurriyet Daily News
instead of a preface
The yellow and white ferry wheezes, groans, spits a cloud of smoke into the sky and moves off.
We are sailing from Europe to Asia. The journey takes about a quarter of an hour. Here there are businessmen along with beggars, women in chadors with women in mini-skirts, non-believers with Imams, prostitutes with dervishes, the holy with the unholy – all Turkey on a single ferry.
‘The captains of these giants are the modern-day Charons,’ says Tayfun, a poet friend of mine from Istanbul. ‘Why? Because the journey across the Bosporus is both beautiful and alarming. Like death.’
In fact the Charons are cool professionals. Otherwise their job would be impossible. The Bosporus is very narrow, in some places barely a few hundred metres wide, but there are thousands of boats and ships going past each other here. Manoeuvring on these waters, and finally steering a huge ferry straight, to the last centimetre, into a small berth – here there is no room for Romanticism or Greek mythology.
Well, unless you are a passenger. In which case, be my guest. When dusk falls and thousands of muezzins start to proclaim that Allah is great, the conversations cease and people sink into a melancholy, metaphysical mood. I often take advantage of this to ask a few random Turks: ‘What’s it like living with this strait? Is anybody here interested in the daily journey between continents?’
They shrug their shoulders. They don’t understand what I’m asking. A strait is a strait.
Only Tayfun the poet isn’t in the least surprised by the question.
‘I have a sort of strait inside me too,’ he says, throwing a large piece of pretzel towards the seagulls chasing the ferry. ‘Every Turk hovers between tradition and modernity a thousand times a day – the hat or the charshaf [veil]; the mosque or the disco; the European Union or dislike of the European Union.’
He has hit the nail on the head. The whole of Turkey is torn in half by an invisible strait. In the morning my female friends drink espressos with their boyfriends, eat croissants and talk about world literature. Then in the afternoon they put on their headscarves and go to their grandmothers’ houses for Turkish coffee.
My male friends will grab a beer and have fun at the disco. But as they drink, they sing songs from two hundred years ago. They act like tough guys who aren’t afraid of Allah or Mohammed, but at Ramadan they dutifully fast, and when their sons grow up a bit, they rush off to have them circumcised.
In the conservative east of the country I myself have seen imams who fly the European Union flag outside their mosques, and shops with clothes for conservative Turkish women will have sexy underwear on sale. ‘If a woman covers her face the entire day,’ the salesmen explain, ‘they’re all the more keen to please their husbands at night.’
Being on the border has its advantages. The Turks are creative and quick to learn languages, instantly able to win over people from a wide geographical latitude. Although they are in the worst position imaginable – sharing a border with restless Syria, Iran and Iraq, they are simultaneously part of the Middle East, the Caucasus and the Balkans – they are able to get on well with almost everyone.
But this life on the border has its price. The West regards them as fanatics, and the East as lackeys of the West. Al-Qaida carries out terrorist attacks in Turkey, and for half a century the European Union has refused to accept the country as a member, because it is too big and too culturally alien.
Our ferry has reached the middle of the strait. In the distance we can see the two bridges which straddle the shores of the Bosporus. Tayfun the poet gazes first at the European side, then at the Asian. Finally he sighs and says: ‘Every Turk is a bridge like that.’