Border Thinking: In Memory of Yaşar Kemal

Yaşar Kemal, one of the greatest novelists writing in Turkish, passed away today. In memory of Yaşar Kemal, I offer a  review of Andrew Davison’s new book: Border Thinking on the Edges of the West: Crossing Over the Hellespont.  İnce Memed, Kemal’s monumental novel set in the  mountain villages of the Taurus mountains, is utilised by Davison to challenge (what he characterises as) ‘Western’ ways of thinking about ‘others’ beyond the borders. In doing so, Davison critiques both prevalent ways of thinking about borders, and portrayals of lives beyond those borders–one instance of which he finds in the Hellespont (the Dardanelles strait connecting/separating ‘Europe’ and ‘Asia’).

Structured in two parts, Davison’s study juxtaposes two different ways of approaching ‘others’ who live to the east of the Hellespont. The first part looks at ancient Greek texts, and points to a particular tradition of thinking about and a particularly violent pattern of interacting with others. Davison identifies this tradition as the precursor to present-day ‘Western’ ways of thinking about and interacting with others in IR and world politics. The second part could be read as an emphatic discussion of Kemal’s İnce Memed, offering a glimpse of lives to the east of the Hellespont–a picture that does not get reflected in the texts analysed in the first part.

By juxtaposing ancient ‘Greek’ texts with ‘Turkish’ literature, Davison offers a path beyond the prevalent ways of thinking about borders, and violent practices that are warranted by such thinking. In doing so, however, he becomes vulnerable to the criticism that the ‘others’ are portrayed as having no  political thought, but only  their ‘culture’.  The assumption being, in order to recover ‘others’  alternative ways of thinking about borders one should bypass IR and political science and go directly to their ‘cultural texts’.

Such criticism, if directed to Davison’s study, would not be fair. For, the first part of Davison’s book also looks at ‘culture’ to the west of the Hellespont, by focusing on texts such as those by Heredotus. However, such texts are so widely and deeply analysed in prevalent traditions of political thinking that any study that focuses on them comes across as ‘political thought’ whereas the latter is received as ‘cultural studies’.

Given the paucity of studies on political thinking originating from the east of the Hellespont, the assumption prevails: ‘others’ thinking need excavating from their ‘culture’. That political thinking as found in the ancient Greek texts were adopted, protected, translated, cherished, elaborated upon and further developed by those who peoples who have lived on the east of the Hellespont is often overlooked. Given such oversight that is characteristic of many fields, including IR, we fall back on the ‘East/West’ binary when thinking about borders. Even majestic attempts to challenge prevalent ways of thinking about borders and lives beyond those borders are structured around this binary.

Davison’s book is likely to appeal to students of political science, especially those interested in border thinking, who appreciate the insights of studying crossover literature and/or adopting crossover methods in the study of (world) politics. The study also offers a wonderful appreciation of Yaşar Kemal’s writing. Finally, for those who are familiar with Davison’s earlier studies on Secularism and Revivalism  in Turkey and Corporatist Ideology in Kemalist Turkey (with Taha Parla), this book offers a different way of engaging with politics in Turkey, by offering insight into lives that are moulded by (through accepting  or resisting) the politics analysed in the first two books.