- What’s On
Three Weeks Among Turkish Nomads
Irfan Orga was born and raised in Istanbul, and he served for many years in the Turkish Army. He was forced out of the army and the country because he defied the authorities to marry a non-Turk. He moved to London, where he lived on the edge of poverty with his Irish wife.
He began writing because no one would give him a proper job. Although he wrote in many different genres, he was always returning to the murky questions raised by his own history. The Caravan Moves On, first published in 1958, is very much in this vein. It purports to be the story of a trip he took to the south of Turkey in search of the Yürüks, the nomadic tribe that was still living in significant numbers in the Karadag Mountains at that time. But there are clear and early hints that this is a means to an end, and that what he is really writing is a meditation on Atatürk and his legacy. In the foreground is a rapidly modernising country in which all good citizens praise progress. And, hanging high above them, nestled in an almost inaccessible plateau near the top of the Karadag Mountains, are the only Anatolians who would be recognisable to their ancestors of a thousand years ago, and the only Turks who can still call themselves free.
So at what price freedom?
As he acquaints himself with the nomads and their way of life, he constantly returns to that question. He is still in two minds when he leaves them. The reader is left feeling just as uneasy. But his subjects remain magnificently impervious to doubt. The most memorable passages are the ones in which Orga forgets his modern angsts long enough to see these people almost as they see themselves. But, as beautiful and as haunting as these visions are, he never quite believes them, never quite connects. It is, he confesses, as if he is seeing them through glass. His admission takes on new significance once you have read the new afterward by his son.
If The Caravan Moves On reads like an ingeniously constructed, unreliably narrated jewel of a novel, it may well be because this is exactly what it is. It is hard to imagine why Irfan Orga might have wanted to be so tricky, but it becomes slightly easier if you return to the splendid autobiography that made his name. Portrait of a Turkish Family was first published in 1950. It is mostly about his childhood, which began in late Ottoman affluence and descended into the most appalling poverty during the First World War. More than any book I can think of, it describes how ordinary women and children closed the door on the Ottoman Empire to embrace the new Republic – and what they lost along the way.