Turkish Delight

A Fez of the Heart    

by Jeremy Seal, Harcourt Brace & Co, 1995 ....   reviewed 4 December 1996 by David P. Stern


      A subtitle nicely captures the essence of the book: "Travels around Turkey in search of a hat." The hat is the fez, a bright red cone ending in a flat top, once the national headgear of Turkey. More than a hat, it was a symbol, and both its arrival and departure marked major shifts in the destiny of Turkey. The fez was decreed in 1820 by Sultan Mahmoud II as a symbol of a multi-cultural Ottoman Empire. "Henceforth," the Sultan announced, "I recognize Muslims only in the mosque, Christians only in the church, Jews only in the synagogue. Outside these places of worship, I desire every individual to enjoy the same political rights and my fatherly protection."

      A century later, in 1925, that same fez was banned, its wearing made a punishable offense. It was a decree by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of modern Turkey--the man who replaced Turkey's Arabic script with Latin characters (modified to its own style), who moved the capital from bustling Istanbul to far-away Ankara. Ataturk saw in the fez a relic of the old ways, and banned it in order to make way for the homburg and other European-style brimmed hats. The empire by then was gone, too, and the broad tolerance of Mahmud II (to the extent it was actually practiced) had given way to Turkish nationalism.

      Jeremy Seal knows his Turks: he had taught English in Ankara and speaks Turkish fluently. He is familiar with Turkey's long and varied history and its many cultures, and the reader who follows his "search for a hat" learns a great deal about them. Turkey is a nation in uncertain transition: the old ways, which Ataturk tried to dispose of, still persist. The modern and the old still coexist and still struggle for the nation's soul, through persuasion, intense political rivalry and even political assassinations. Meanwhile poor people still scramble for a living, European tourists still come to enjoy sunny beaches and magnificent antiquities, and non-Turks such as Kurds still try to carve out their own niche and to preserve their language.

      Through all this wanders Jeremy Seal, seemingly a wide-eyed innocent taking it all in, leavening his travelogue with a healthy sense of humor, listening to all and giving the reader a good sense of what Turkey and the life of its people are like.

      And you learn all you might ever want to know about that uncommon headgear, the fez. About its manufacture--as an Austrian export item and in an imperial factory in Istanbul--about the riots which followed its ban, and about the sikke, twice as tall, still being made in the town of Konya and worn by whirling derwishes in their wild dances. Seal even travels to the city of Fez in Morroco, supposedly the birthplace of the conical hat. The fez is hardly worn there any more--just by tourist guides and old men--and it has a different name altogether, tarboosh. The locals claim it came from Spain, or rather "Andalusia, when we Arabs ran it," a thousand years ago.

Go figure.


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Author and Curator:   Dr. David P. Stern
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Last updated 18 January 2002