Before the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, American military officers were reportedly screening The battle of Algiers, looking for insights into urban warfare and Muslim militancy. They would have done well to hand out Yashar Kemel’s They Burn the Thistles, too – partly because it’s set in the general area we’re now enmeshed in (more specifically, in the Taurus Mountains of Turkish Anatolia) but much more because it’s one of the finest accounts anywhere in literature of clannish peasant worldview.
The Village of Vayvay, where most of the action takes place, is old and rooted in the fertile soil of the Anavarza plain. That fertility makes life sweet, and Kemal invokes it over and over again in his descriptions, some of the most hypnotically incantatory nature writing I know.
This is a lesson Westerners might have learned better before they found themselves in the thorn forests of the Iraq adventure. Our fight has turned out to be less with radical Islam than with radical identity, with the very old very deep attachments to place and to each other that mark the societies we now fight. In our mobility and hyper-individualism we can scarcely conceive of such ties, and the meaning that adheres to them. But they come very much alive in this account. Half the world is explained in these pages, the half we need very badly to understand.