Metal Firtina (The Metal Storm)
By Orkun Uçar and Burak Turna
304 pages, Istanbul: Timas, 2004
It is rare for literary works out of Turkey to cause a stir. It is almost unheard of for a Turkish novel to draw coverage from media outlets as diverse as Al Jazeera, the Christian Science Monitor, and Haaretz. So Orkun Uçar, a science fiction writer, and Burak Turna, a former journalist, were probably among the most surprised when their novel, Metal Firtina (The Metal Storm), became an international phenomenon. Originally published online as a simple PDF document, the book has sold nearly 300,000 copies since its first print edition debuted in late 2004. It’s particularly impressive for a work of fiction that has not yet been translated into any of the world’s major languages.
The story line is a relatively classic tale of war, conspiracy, betrayal, patriotism, and collaboration. As always, there are heroes and there are villains. But what is less time honored in this novel are the foes who do combat: the good guys (in this case, the Turks) engage in a desperate fight to throw back an invading evil empire (in this case, the United States). Set in the not-so-distant future (the year is 2007), U.S. forces attack unsuspecting Turkish troops stationed near the border in northern Iraq. This move, meant to create the pretext for war, is the opening salvo for a full-scale U.S. invasion of Turkey, complete with the bombardment of the capital, Ankara. In the author's vision, President George W. Bush, ensconced in the Pentagon's Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Florida, oversees the U.S. military campaign, which goes by the name of "Operation Sèvres." The codename is a reference to the Sèvres Treaty, which an exhausted and enfeebled Ottoman Empire signed at the end of the First World War. Although the treaty -- which envisioned carving the Islamic Empire into small homelands in Anatolia -- was never enforced, it still evokes deep nationalist fears among many Turks.
What could possibly prompt an American siege? The Americans, we are told, greedily eye the country's rich uranium, thorium, and borax reserves. But the authors let their hero, the Turkish double agent Gokhan Birdag, explain the wider rationale for war, as he reads from a secret file recovered from an American operative: "After a blistering attack, Anatolia will shortly be presented as a Christian land that needs to be rescued from the 'barbaric' Turks and the American military will be the hero of a belated crusade," a moment later, adding, "Didn't President Bush say that they 'just started another crusade' right after 9/11?" Forget the 53 years of U.S.-Turkish strategic cooperation. It was but a long prelude to a Christian-Muslim fight to the finish.
Uçar and Turna's treatment of Turkish society is as biting as their wider plot is outrageous. When Istanbul is attacked, the only concern of the city's well-heeled urban elite is how the siege may disrupt their plush lives. The wine-loving editor of a major newspaper writes about the rationality of collaboration with the invaders from the comfortable self-exile of his London flat. Turkey's notorious security services see an opportunity to settle old scores; they activate a secret operation to neutralize separatist Kurdish activists with the help of Kurdish tribes loyal to the Turkish state. The Turkish population at large can hardly muster much of a response at all, numbed as they are by years of economic crises and political manipulation. The only group that comes off looking good in Uçar and Turna's imagined world is the Turkish military, engaged as it is in a valiant resistance against the technologically superior U.S. forces.
Of course, it is the way the authors tap into and channel Turkey's rising anti-Americanism that explains their book's breakout success. A poll taken by the BBC in January indicated that 82 percent of Turks considered Bush's reelection "bad for the world." In this climate, the authors have been embraced as profound strategists and now regularly make the rounds at foreign-policy conferences and news programs. They have fed this anti-American sentiment (underscored by the United States' detention of Turkish special forces in 2003) by suggesting that their work is not merely fiction but reflects possible future scenarios. And, they have apparently found a receptive audience for their message: A survey conducted in March by the Ankara-based Pollmark Research Company found that 31 percent of the Turkish public believes that the United States might militarily intervene in Turkey.
For this enmity and mistrust to mar the relationship right now is odd, to say the least. The United States lent considerable support to Turkey in helping it overcome one of its worst economic crises, in 2001. It supports Ankara's bid to become a member of the European Union over the complaints of some current members. Washington's support was indispensable in jump-starting the construction of the Baku-Ceyhan oil pipeline, which will make Turkey an East-West energy corridor. And, in the past several years, the United States has assisted Turkey in its fight against terrorism, even handing over the leader of the Kurdish insurgents to Turkish authorities.
All of which suggests that the root of the problem between these two countries is something much simpler: the war in Iraq. Turkey, as a status quo power, expressed its discomfort with this war long before American troops began to amass in its backyard. Turkish public opinion, in a rare sign of unity, was almost uniformly opposed to the war either on anti-imperialist grounds or out of Muslim solidarity. Nor did Ankara wish to invite a war that might breathe new life into the idea of Kurdish independence.
It isn't inconsequential when a public is so ready to believe almost any conspiracy theory about one of its most tried and true allies. Clearly, Washington and Ankara must work with extra care and precision to see that their relationship isn't further damaged by the currents of public opinion. But, if there is a silver lining to this storm, it is that there is still ample reason to believe that the mistrust between these two countries was born -- and will more or less end -- in Iraq. And of course, in the meantime, the young authors of The Metal Storm are laughing all the way to the bank.