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Alev Scott: ‘I was used to getting rape threats and death threats’

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Alev Scott is a London-born, Oxford-educated political journalist, who is on a mission to tell human stories from the very fringes of Europe - from Greece to Armenia, and everywhere in between.

Image courtesy of Alev Scott

Her most recent book, Ottoman Odyssey: Travels Through a Lost Empire, took her through 12 countries in the Middle East and Europe, tracing her ancestral roots (her mother is Turkish Cypriot) and has been called “lyrical” and “moving”. It’s also been nominated for the Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year, the winner of which will be announced at the end of this month in London.  

The book reflects on 800 years of Ottoman rule, and how relics of this past might influence the region’s present. It’s also a travelogue, meandering through a part of the world that’s beset by tensions but hugely important to a political writer in exile.   

Scott is half Turkish, and lived there for six years whilst working as a journalist - before her work, including reporting on the failed coup in 2016, got too much for Erdogan’s regime to handle. It was when returning to the country after a parent-mandated period of absence in Greece that she found herself unable to reenter. Despite the shock, being locked out of her home wasn’t entirely unexpected.

“I had a sense that I might be barred but I didn’t really, fully acknowledge it to myself, I don’t think,” she tells me. “It’s quite usual working as a journalist in Turkey to get a lot of death threats, especially if you’re foreign or half foreign, like me, and especially as a woman.

“I think I occupied that particularly hated role as a journalist in Turkey because I was half-half: half outsider, half traitor, female… all the things they hate. It was a sweet spot. I was used to getting rape threats and death threats and stuff, but it got quite extreme.

“My parents asked me to leave, actually, and I thought it was just for a while and that I’d go back. But I’d also got a warning from the president’s press officer about my latest articles, that I write just after the failed coup. I think looking back that was pretty much his way of saying, “Don’t come back.”

“So when I tried to go back they wouldn’t let me in, and I investigated at the Turkish consulate in London and I found out that I have an entry ban that has been placed by the Ministry of Interior, which is indefinite. I don’t know whether it will ever be lifted.”

It must be hard, when half Turkish, to be cut off from one’s heritage, especially as a journalist who cares deeply about the country. Is she still able to report on Turkey in the ways that she’d like, or has her displacement meant that that’s impossible?

“I tried for a while,” she says, “but it actually felt a bit disingenuous. I’m used to reporting firsthand, I’m used to interviewing people, and being there; the atmosphere as well as the events of what’s happening. I didn’t want to just be another talking head in London, or wherever I was.

“And also, emotionally it’s quite hard to keep yourself immersed in the politics of a country that you’re no longer in and don’t have access to. It’s slightly masochistic actually.

“I do occasionally write about Turkey. I was actually at the European Commission a couple of weeks ago, and I gave a speech about imprisoned journalists and the future of free speech. I do it when I think there’s an important reason to do so and there’s a big audience - and this was a huge audience of policy-makers at the EU and it was quite a big deal. So I thought it was worth it for that.”

She continues: “I feel that if the occasion warrants it I will write something. I used to be immersed in Turkish politics, you know, I was on Twitter all the time. I was constantly keeping track of what was going on… you can’t do that; it’s exhausting if you try to do that from afar.

“It’s a very bizarre, dislocated sense of being away from a place where everything is happening. I care deeply about what’s happening to the country, it’s not a purely academic interest - all my close friends are there, I know people in prison. It’s not easy. I feel ethically obliged to know what’s going on, but I’ve spent the last two years trying to work out the distance I can keep whilst still being relatively engaged.”

When I ask whether she is worried about retaliation from the government, even though she’s not in Turkey and isn’t reporting on its politics the way that she once did, her answer is decisive:

“I don’t think about it. If you think like that you never say anything, and what’s the point of being a journalist?”

Does she think that the world is going backward in the way it treats its journalists, especially those who are covering democracy?       

“In many parts of the world, yes. It’s not like it’s been great and now it’s not great, there have always been issues. Turkey’s record has obviously worsened quite dramatically in recent years - it’s the number one jailer of journalists in the world; more even than China or Iran. And I see really worrying parallels in Trump’s America, actually.

“I think Erdogan has the power to effectively create a situation where journalists are considered enemies of the state and are put in jail for life, and Trump excludes CNN journalists from his press briefings at the White House. They’re very different actions but they’re on the same punitive spectrum. I’m sure if Trump had his way Mr. Acosta (Jim Acosta, the chief White House correspondent for CNN) would be in jail.

“The institutions that the US has meant that it’s impossible for him to just put people in jail, but he’d like to. There’s the same inclination, there’s the same demonising of the press. He also calls critical journalists enemies of the state, just like Erdogan does - they’re really on the same spectrum; they’re just a few degrees apart.”

Scott lives in Athens now, which for her “is just a more fulfilling place to be a writer”, and is working on her third book, which she can’t say much about, other than that it focuses on “ the current crisis in democracy, and what we can learn from the ancients.” So, what did writing Ottoman Odyssey teach her about how the past influences the present? What are her key takeaways?

“On the negative side of things,” she says, “one of the things that troubled me was how current governments are able to politicise the past. I hadn’t fully realised before I conducted research for the book exactly how much that is the case, and how much the Turkish government is cynically using its Ottoman history - even though, obviously, there is no political continuity between the Ottoman Empire and the current Turkish government - but they manufacture one in order to influence foreign policy and to have influence in Muslim communities outside Turkey. That was very troubling.

“But on the more positive side of things, on a personal level, people are much more similar than they realise. I strongly believe that people have to learn about the history of their families, the history of the region and their communities. And I think when people share a language, for example, when they realise they share certain aspects of culture in different countries… they’re actually much more similar than people think.”

As becomes clear throughout our conversation, the similarities between people, rather than the differences, is what Scott took away most prominently from writing Ottoman Odyssey. The book is a journey through “through really conflict-ridden areas, especially in the Middle East” - including Israel, Palestine, and Lebanon - but she tells me that “It really struck” her how much more connected people used to be.

“Different ethnicities,” she says, “different religions, used to have more of a sense of community in the days of the Ottoman Empire, ironically, than they do today.

“The rise of the nation-state has just created these divisions amongst people, and when you look into how people used to live... for example I was in Jerusalem and I was interviewing this Jewish-Israeli family, and the wife was telling me that her grandmother had a Muslim-Arab “milk brother” (a term that means you’ve been suckled by the same mother) and this was a really common practice between Muslim and Jewish families in Jerusalem pretty much until the early 20th Century, where if you couldn’t produce milk for your baby but you had a Jewish family next door and the mother had a child you would give your baby to the mother and she would suckle.

“And it’s just really stuck with me, that this just would not happen today. It just wouldn't, because of the difference between being Jewish and Muslim in 21st Century Jerusalem… it’s so divided, compared to what it used to be. I feel kind of sad when I think of how these divisions have deepened with time instead of getting better.”

Scott is interested in thinking about how public figures use utopian visions of the past - leaders across the world harking back to an imagined collective history; a past that never was. The result of this rhetoric, of course, is MAGA hats and hollow voices that seek to return to some sort of historic golden age.

It’s not new, Scott says, although it is a “really interesting phenomenon” that has “existed in various forms throughout history.”

She says: “What I find interesting is the continuum between the West and the East - Trump is doing it; the “Make America Great Again” slogan. “Take Back Control” in Britain is very much trumped-up imperialism.

“It’s happening in Turkey as well, and what really interests me about President Erdogan doing it is that he cherry-picks the things that suit his own political agenda and ignores the things that don’t. For example, he’s constantly banging on about these glorious Muslim victories over Christian infidel armies… it’s totally irrelevant and he takes it totally out of context.

“He doesn’t talk about the brotherhood that existed between the minorities in the empire. He doesn’t talk about that; he’s much less interested in that. It’s just a very typical macho, militaristic take on the past - very typical “strongman”, and he does it to perfection, it really works well for him.

“I’m not at all interested in military victories; that’s not my focus at all. My focus is on the social legacy of the empire, and to what extent these communities still exist under the surface of what is apparently a very homogenous country. Turkey is supposedly 99% Sunni Muslim and ethnically Turkish, and that’s just not true.  

“I’m interested in what lies beneath the surface of the present and how we can discover that from looking not even that far back.” The Turkish Republic, she reminds me, is less than 100 years old.

Scott was travelling just as politics in Europe seemed to take a turn towards the “strong-man” led right. I ask what political feeling she got from those she met. Did she feel a nationalist agenda overall, or a move against it?

Although it’s impossible to generalise across 12 countries and multiple different people, the theme of communication and acceptance across traditionally hostile factions comes up again - as does the nationalism that we’ve seen rising across the continent in recent years.

She is, she says. “interested in both - I’m very interested in nationalistic people; trying to work them out. And I was also very interested in people who felt affinity in areas you might not expect.

“My mother’s side of the family is actually from Turkish Cyprus, and I grew up listening to stories of the 1974 conflict and so on and as I child I would always believe that Greek and Turkish Cypriots have hated each other. But I really found cases that contradicted that when I went.

“I’ve been back (to Cyprus) a few times since my childhood. This time I was actively looking for communities of Greeks and Cypriots that got on, and I really found them and that was really nice from a personal perspective as well as an academic one.

“But then you find completely the opposite. I found this guy in Serbia, near Kosovo, who was a Muslim and identified as an Ottoman - that’s what he literally said to me; he said he felt Ottoman. And that’s pretty much purely a Muslim claimed by Erdogan. Because Erdogan is always going on about how the Balkans are still under Turkish control. But he loved that, he bought into it, he wanted that - he wanted a Muslim leader in the form of Erdogan, because obviously Serbia is mainly Christian, so he was reacting against the Christian majority of Serbia and saying “no actually I’m Muslim, and I’m Ottoman, and I look to Erdogan.”

“He was totally stuck in the past - he couldn’t even speak Turkish, but he was obsessed with Turkey and obsessed with Erdogan. He even had Turkish television playing in the background in his house.”

In summary, “There were lots of crazy characters. It was a totally fascinating journey. The sheer variety of people’s sense of allegiance and identity is astonishing.”

There is also, of course, former warlord and leader of the Druze community, Walid Jumblatt, whom she encountered in Lebanon and describes as “mad”.

On the existence of the Druze community, Scott says that “this religious sect is not a secret, but all their practices are secret.

“Walid Jumblatt, this ex-warlord, is the leader of the Drews community in Lebanon. And the Drews exist. They’ve historically been secretive because they were persecuted under Muslim leaders. They’re not secret anymore, but their practices are very secret.

“So I went to one of their religious communities, which is almost like a monastery, but I was very much chaperoned and I wasn’t allowed to look around too much. As a non-Druze I will never be told the secrets; no one outside the community will ever be told about the secrets, but it’s a really fascinating religion and they incorporate elements not just of the Koran - they are classed as Muslim, but they believe in Plato; Plato is almost like a deity. They believe in Plato’s teachings and Pythagoras, and they see this great teaching, these great philosophers and great spiritual leaders of history.”

Alarmingly, she says, she “met one sheik who told me that judgment day was really soon and that I was going to die because I wasn’t Druze.”

It was during this visit that she went with Jumblatt’s wife to the ISIS-held Syrian border, where she was embedded within the army and witnessed a firefight. Despite the danger, it’s something that made her feel as a writer, covering conflict in the area, and as a journalist “very fortunate... that again was amazing access; I don’t even know any other journalist who has been there, or was there whilst it was under ISIS control.”

She pauses - “shit gets real” - before continuing: “I am a journalist so I did find myself in those situations, but I also did find myself in very much more academic… when I was trying to work out these places it was quite Indiana Jonesy, to be honest. I went from high action to very kind of theoretical scholarly stuff. It was a bit mad.”

She also spent time in refugee camps in Greece. The refugee crisis in Europe as a whole seems to have dropped out of headlines, the media seemingly bored of reporting on a constant barrage of bad news. What is the situation like on the ground?

“It’s pretty bad,” Scott says, but “not uniformly. I was in a camp on the island of Leros a couple of years ago and that was actually really well run, but it was small. There were only about 700 refugees in that camp so it kind of worked. But generally, there’s such a backlog.

“The worst place I’ve been was Moria, the infamous camp on Lesbos. And that’s just got, like, five times the number of people it should have, families in a tiny, flimsy tent… really horrific. Unaccompanied minors who had been forced to fight against ISIS, who had severe psychological problems. If they’re lucky they’re seen by a psychologist working at the camp, and they’re given some meds, and then the meds run out, and they’re in a worse position that before. It’s just absolutely horrific, and there’s really serious drug abuse, alcohol abuse, rates of suicide… it’s just horrific.”

She doesn’t blame the media for turning their eyes away from the crisis, though, and isn’t surprised, “because it’s just unremitting… it’s not a story anymore. It’s just an unremitting situation, with no development; it’s not dramatic. It’s not like things are changing in any way. It’s dramatically awful.

“Readers have a limit - even if one is sympathetic to refugees, as a reader, are you really going to force yourself to read a really harrowing story? No.

“I think it’s just really time for the EU to get its act together and get a policy that’s actually equipped to deal with them.”

BBC History describes the book as “viewing Europe from its southeastern corner” - as someone who has lived both in Eastern and Western Europe, is there a different view across the continent?   

“Yes, very much so,” she says. “I think one of the biggest identity crises that Turkey goes through is whether it’s part of Europe or the Middle East. When I lived in Turkey I thought that Turkey was the edge of Europe. And now I live in Greece I’ve realised that Greeks have a similar thing. More of them are convinced that they are Europe, that they’re part of Europe, but still there’s this sense that even Greece isn’t fully European.

“That’s really interesting, because I think we can have quite a simplistic view of what is and isn’t Europe. From somewhere like London we think, “Oh, Greece is Europe, it’s in the EU, it’s the cradle of democracy, it’s straightforwardly European. But then when you live somewhere you see… Turkish and Greek culture are so similar; they’re basically the same people. So how can you say that Greeks are European and Turks aren’t? You can’t; it’s too simplistic.”

Of the suggestion that Westerners might view Greece as wholly European and Turkey as more Asian, with its eyes towards the East and half its capital falling in Asia, she says, “Exactly - but that’s quite worrying. If we conclude that Europe is Christian, then what about Muslims who live in Europe? All the Muslims living in France, the UK - are they not European?”

There are no easy answers to these questions - of identity, of nationalism, and of how the world views certain nations and how those within these nations see themselves, and how this might lead to diplomatic breakdown and rising conflict both between individuals and communities and on a wider, more international scale.

We end, though, on a positive note - back on the theme of cultural acceptance and unexpected allegiance.   

“I had a really memorable conversation with an Armenian man in Jerusalem,” Scott tells me, “who was the son of survivors of the Armenian Genocide in Turkey. He’d learnt Turkish from his parents; he’d never lived in Turkey - his parents were dead, and he had no ostensible connection to Turkey left, although he did speak Turkish.

“So he and I spoke Turkish together in Jerusalem, and that was a really, really emotional experience. And I remember him saying to me, “If you speak the language you can’t hate the people.” He had every reason to hate Turks - his parents had fled the genocide, his relatives had been killed, he didn’t have any reason to be friendly towards Turks. And yet here we were, speaking Turkish together, and we really got on and felt this sort of affinity for each other.

“And it really made me think a lot about that statement of his, that if you speak the language you can’t hate the people, because you understand  the people. And I do think that language is the key to understanding. It was such a simple thing for him to say, but it really put a lot of what I had learnt on my travels into perspective, and helped me write the book, in the end.”

Ottoman Odyssey: Travels Through a Lost Empire is out now, priced £20, from www.stanfords.co.uk   

Alev Scott will be speaking at Stanfords’ Travel Writers Festival at Destinations: the Holiday and Travel Show, 31st January – 3rd February 2019 at Olympia London.

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