Talking Turkey

A dispatch from 1920s Turkey proves that diplomats don't always live up to their straightlaced—and boring—reputations.

Diplomats do not always live up to their straightlaced reputations. Take G. Howland Shaw, on the staff of the American High Commission in Istanbul in the aftermath of World War I.

He spent the early months of 1925 as the commission's "delegate" in Angora (Ankara), the Turkish capital and bastion of Mustapha Kemal's nationalist movement. It was a hardship post. In March he sent a report, which was forwarded to Washington, where it was much appreciated by Allen Dulles, at the time a Middle East expert: "[Brimming with] life and humor . . . Do you not think that the excellence of this dispatch should be noted on Shaw's efficiency record?", he minuted. The report's frankness recalls Wikileaks—but it is also politically incorrect, occasionally bigoted.

"There is but one decent street in Angora and it is not decent all the way. Just where it becomes decidedly bad it begins to be known as the 'Grande Rue de Stamboul'; where it is good . . . it has . . . no name at all."

"[There is a constant] servant problem! It is next to impossible to induce a Constantinople servant to go to Angora even by bribery . . . My first servant was an ex-German soldier whose marketing was strictly limited and very expensive because of his inability to speak Turkish. [He] was also something of a thief . . . The present incumbent is a Croat and is really ideal except that he seems to be taking to drink and after a few glasses of douzico, is capable of little but sleep. He claims that he is curing a tooth-ache.

"The Delegate's residence has many windows . . . It really makes no practical difference whether they are shut or open—just about the same amount of dust comes in during the summer months and the same amount of cold air in winter . . . The windows don't fit very well. . . .

"It is my practise to make weekly inspection of the premises . . . [It] begins with the counting of the spoons . . . I run my hand over the furniture and invariably find dust, but sometimes not in unreasonable quantities. The carpets are turned back—a different corner each time in order to make deception[by the servant] impossible. . . .

"[There are three "distractions" in Angora: Waiting in the station for the incoming daily train from Constantinople, listening to the Grand National Assembly—parliament—debate and] Fresco's! . . . the only even superficially Christian restaurant at Angora. I am using the term Christian as synonomous [sic] with Western . . . [actually] the Fresco brothers are Jews . . . The dinner itself is not very appetzing—stringy meat, canned vegetables or an omelette cooked in goat's grease . . . During the winter months the windows are boarded up to keep out the cold . . . [In other seasons] there are armies of flies or if one prefers to dine in the garden, plenty of mosquitoes and the slowness of the service gives one ample time to think of the possibilities of malaria. But there is music at Fresco's in the evening—a Russian orchestra . . . [or] a sad person who plays the piano. And there are electric lights at Fresco's . . . as a rule . . . [but] every now and then . . . you dine with a candle stuck into a plate on every other table. Finally, Fresco's is very expensive. Prices are almost as high as in the hotels of Pera [a posh neighborhood of Constantinople] . . . But . . . you are glad to see a lot of people, to be warm . . . and you don't pay any particular attention to the Minister of Foreign Affairs who is getting disgustingly drunk in the table next to you. . . .

"It would be wrong to send a well brought up diplomat to Angora—as wrong as it would be to send a little boy brought up on Fifth Avenue to play with little Italian boys on Mulberry Street or little Jewish boys on Ludlow Street—for the procol at Angora is rather like an American automobile of about 1900. You never know when it will work. . . .

"Angora is not a bad place [to work] so long as you don't expect any results . . . In the first place it is difficult to see the officials. They are sick a good deal of the time…. When you finally get to an official . . . you find it impossible to get any answer from him. How many foreigners in Angora have prayed that they might at least get the answer 'No'. The subordinates . . . must consult the Minister; the Minister must consult his colleagues; the Cabinet must do something or other . . . a daily exhibition of 'passing the buck'. . . .

"There is only one determining factor in Angora: Mustapha Kemal Pasha . . . The government is a disguised dictatorship . . . Like most Turks he has no loyalty to his subordinates—he uses them to the limit . . . and then throws them into the discard. He cannot abide men of first rate ability and independent views. . . "