Hutan Hejazi: On the Spanish representation of Turkey

I was exchanging emails with my dear friend Hutan Hejazi from Spain before the national game between Spain and Turkey. I, Hutan and Eric Baum were the three amigos that started the Rice Anthro phd program in 2001-2 academic year.

Upon my request, Hutan produced an essay on Turkey’s repsentation in the pre-game period. Thanks Hutan!

 On the Spanish representation of Turkey

by Hutan Hejazi

The summer of 2008 would become an unforgettable one for most Spaniards.  They would win the European football championship for the first time in over forty years.  I was also among those standing on a crowded roundabout, wearing the team’s official t-shirt and a horn in hand, celebrating the championship with family and friends.  Weeks earlier, however, as the semifinals took place, something caught my attention.  Some Spanish news (i.e. CNN+, if I recall correctly) would describe (somewhat oddly) the manner in which the Turkish national football team played.  The news was using terms that were not usually employed when other teams were represented.  I recall fe (faith) and apasionado (passionate) among such terms—as in, the Turkish team played with a lot of faith and passion.  In other words, it seemed to me that there were locutions that evoked some kind of religiosity.  For some time I wondered if this news were using the same locutions to describe Islam, or radical Islam, as represented in the Spanish imagination.  My friends in Madrid would also repeat these comments in the same terms they heard in the news.  After all, were not Spaniards also passionate about their national team?  Did not Spain have to play with faith in order to win the much longed for Eurocup?  I did not research it then, but I did not forget about it.  But when I heard Spain would have to play against Turkey for the World Cup qualifiers in 2009, I wondered if the Spanish news would use the same terms.


Turkey, or the Ottoman Empire, is very present in Spanish culture and its importance may be traced back to one of the most important literary contributions it has made: Don Quixote.   Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, the author of what is considered among the first modern novels, would in fact lose the movement of his left arm fighting the Ottomans in the Battle of Lepanto.  Cervantes’ sobriquet would ever since be “el manco de Lepanto” (the one-armed man of Lepanto).  This Battle is in fact so present in the Spanish imagination that even one of the most popular football radio programs (Carrusel deportivo) referred to it during their first game in Bernabéu.  Lepanto evokes today not so much a battle between Christianity and Islam, as it does between the West and Islam.  For example, last year, in the Spanish daily newspaper El País [], an article described the Turkish team during the Eurocup as “a team that is particularly combative,” and then it says, “Turkey knocks again at the doors of Vienna, just like it did in the past as the Ottoman Empire.”  We should also bear in mind that many Spaniards view Turkey as an Islamic nation; and Islam, as a belligerent religion—a view that the Spanish Catholic Church has established for centuries.  A few years ago I remember someone telling me how Turkey should not be part of the EU because the problem with Islam is that it did not evolve.  This is a very similar view to that of Salman Rushdie when he said that the problem with Islam is that it had never gone through the Enlightenment.  As Webb Keane observes, Rushdie “was merely honing the dull edge of conventional wisdom.”   A conventional wisdom that, “in this case, may not only be wrong, it may be dangerous too.”  Moreover, we should mention that there are many “Turkeys” in the Spanish imagination: some are exotic and mystic, others are threatening and belligerent.    Within the context of the 2009 game, one can see a whole range of these representations.


El País, for example, characterized the Turkish team for its combativeness and “patriotic spirit” [].  ABC, another major daily newspaper in Spain, says that the Turkish team “appeals [to] a sentiment that is almost legionary in order to enter the World Cup” [].  Other smaller online news discuss it with much of the same terms used last year, when they represented the team as being “unified by an almost religious faith within the magic of football” [].  Before their first match in Bernabéu, Xavi (a Spanish player) says, according to a local daily newspaper in Seville [], that he expected a very competitive Turkish team, and added, “They are very aggressive and very patriotic in their game.”  Moreover, in another article by El País, titled “Turkey, Silence and Bodyguards” [], the team is represented as secretive and brutish.  It reports how a laconic Turkish bodyguard with a “unibrow and an aquiline nose […] and a Turkish shield emblem on his heart” prevented the journalist from entering the hotel where the team was accommodated.”


To conclude, Spain has much respect for Turkey and its national team, but among one of its representations Turkey’s team is viewed as belligerent, dangerous and stubborn.  It may not be necessarily linked to Islam, at least directly.  For instance, among Iranian expats at least, a Turkish stereotype is that of a brutish and stubborn man.  On the other hand, in the Spanish context, it indirectly evokes the Islamic background as represented within the Spanish imagination.  A term that I think is also very meaningful is the patriotic element.  Does this mean that Spaniards are not patriotic?  What does a “patriotic” game-style mean?  It seems that these representations evoke sentiment over technique.  Could this also be taken as an echo to Western reason over Oriental sentiment?  Perhaps that is a stretch, but there is definitely something to it.    


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.