Balkan eye in the sky

Mika Waltari: from Helsinki to Istanbul

Article published on Sept. 24, 2008
Article published on Sept. 24, 2008
2008: the EU’s year for intercultural dialogue and the centenary of Finnish writer Mika Waltari’s birth, who travelled Helsinki to Istanbul by train in 1929. For the integration train, Turkey may be only a stop along the way, but a necessary one. Imaginary journey via Berlin

(Image: Suomen historia by K. O. Lindeqvist/ Wikimedia)Mika Waltari’s Yksinäisen miehen juna (‘The Lonely Man’s Train’, 1929) takes us on a trip from Helsinki to Istanbul, through a Europe taking a breath between world wars and still balancing on the edge of the old and the new. The travel book turns eighty next year, but Waltari’s way of seeing our part of the world and its people seems timeless. In ‘searching for our time’, the protagonist is primarily searching for himself and confronting adulthood. The train’s movement is unstoppable, making its way toward a new, modern unknown. The individual considers directions and put together timetables and routes. In the end, the decision is simply a question of whether or not to stay on board.

Via Germany

In European integration, the train’s movement has gone geographically broader and politically deeper. Finland’s special position has been its proximity to the east as well as its position as part of the west. Its voluntary decision to get on the train in 1995, together with Sweden and Austria, was emotionally important. As a humanist, historian and a European, Waltari would wonder about today’s dissembled discussions about expansion, deepening of ties and Turkey’s EU membership. For him, Istanbul was the destination.

(Image: RokkenMurf/ Flickr)Passing Augsburg on the trip south from Berlin, where the religious peace principle ‘He who governs the territory decides the religion’ got its name. In a February 2008 low-key speech in Cologne, Turkish prime minister Erdogan calls on Turks living in Germany to remain loyal to Turkey. The membership process is a two-way street; has the candidate now put on the brakes? Erdogan’s concept of Turks as an emotional community within Germany is interesting. When turned around, the Augsburg principle is: those who decide the religion govern the land. So if the loyalty of Turks living in Berlin is to their former homeland, does the prime minister in Ankara, rather than the chancellor in Berlin, have power in Kreuzberg? Identities, loyalties and symbols are still surprisingly important in Europe. Why else would a flag, song or slogan become central problems in negotiating a constitution?

Istanbul – have we arrived?

The lonely man’s train is at its destination. Waltari was disappointed: he wound up in Istanbul, not Constantinople. ‘I have already waited too long; for me this city has become a symbol of all that is unattainable and foreign.’ What Waltari had come to find no longer existed.

(Map: Tcdd network/ Wikipedia)

Today, Istanbul is a metropolis of 10 million residents. Outwardly, it hardly differs from that of other cities. Its heart beats with enthusiasm and youth, but it holds on to its traditions. Turkey’s integration started in earnest when it joined NATO in 1952. Ten years later the EEC agreement comes along and in 1996 the customs agreement with the EU. Now a political player in the EU, Turkey reacted to demands with caution, despite its desire to gain membership, which is used as a threat. At the same time Turkey’s young people and their potential to spur growth in the entire area enchant an aging Europe.

The biggest barriers to Turkey’s EU membership are other countries

Repression of the Armenians in 1915 no doubt served Mustafa Kemal’s attempt to unite the ailing man that was Europe. As his legacy, Kemal left Turkey to Turkey, but at the same time created an ultra-nationalist ideology, secularism and a strict military to oversee it. The EU demands that Turkey admit its past faults, but closes its eyes to its own. Germany is probably the only country that has had to truly look at itself in the mirror. 3 million Armenians now have their own land. Nearly as many live in the USA and Europe. As for other minorities, Kurds make up at least 15% of the Turkish population, and their rights have been minimised. Can Turkey control its churning nationalism and even accept the formation of an independent Kurdistan? The biggest barriers to Turkey’s EU membership are other countries that have already ensured themselves a place on the integration train – countries that still have answers to only a fraction of the questions put to them along the journey.

(Photo: Robertraderschatt/ Flickr)Waltari wanted to ‘feel and live within himself the painful individualism of the countries and of the people’ from one edge of Europe to the other. You too will meet the continent’s people and countries ‘united in diversity’ in the cars on the train headed for integration in Europe. Waltari also says that people everywhere are the same. It makes no difference whether it is Istanbul’s Hagia Sofia Orthodox Church, a mosque or a museum. As implied by its name ('Hagia Sofia' means Holy Wisdom), being European does not depend on whether you wear a fez, a headscarf or a bowler.

This is an adapted version of the original article by the winner of the European Young Journalist of Finland 2008