Book Review - The Assassin From Apricot City

In The Assassin from Apricot City, Polish writer Witold Szablowski strikes an excellent balance between hard-hitting journalism, astute political analysis, and humorous observations. His reportage provides a fascinating insight into contemporary Turkey, its strengths and many contradictions.

Szablowski begins by exploring the diversity of opinion surrounding the demonstrations that took place in Taksim Square, Istanbul, in June 2013. Initially, aimed at preventing Gezi Park from being turned into a shopping mall, they became a direct action against Turkey's authoritarian government. Through interviews with demonstrators, students and local businessmen Szablowski explores the increasing polarisation of Turkish society and heightened tension between Islam and secularism.

Szablowski is eloquent on Turkey's conflicting aspirations towards and distrust of the West as represented by the main political parties. In one hilarious passage, he uses the length of politicians' moustaches to differentiate between them: "The nationalists have the longest ones...well groomed, trimmed along the upper lip....The socialists have a small feather-bed under their noses, which comes right down to their teeth...the ones who take the greatest care of their moustaches are the Islamists. Theirs are exactly the same size as the space provided for them by nature, and they keep them trimmed to a length of no more than five millimetres."

Interviewing ordinary Turks, journalists, academics and other experts, Szablowski traces Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's rise to power. The picture he draws is of a savvy operator who carefully repositioned himself politically in order to win votes. Once "a diehard Muslim" he has tempered his outward behaviour in recent years: "Erdogan now offers his hand to women without feeling that he is sinning. But privately he will never offer his hand to any woman, except for his wife." His authoritarian stance may yet be his undoing as he is increasingly battered by protests and political resignations.

In the east of the country Szablowski discovers that "[n]owhere in the world does a brother love his sister as much, nowhere do the children love their parents as much, or the parents their children." But in this close-knit community, where family honour is everything, this can become a deadly love. Women are routinely murdered after falling for the wrong person, for having a high school sweetheart or for being raped.

For anyone interested in this rich, varied, frustrating country, The Assassin from Apricot City is essential reading, seamlessly translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. Szablowski's combination of literary reportage and personal reflections are reminiscent of the late Ryszard Kapuściński's dispatches from foreign parts. The book ends with an image which perfectly summarises the country's competing influences: "a picture of two women standing side by side, up to their waists in water. One was in a Muslim costume, covering everything except her eyes. The other was topless."

Originally published in the