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The trouble with travel writing is that too often any old schmoe with a backpack and a rail pass thinks he can do it. Jeremy Seal is something else: a traveler whose prose is funny and sometimes breathtakingly eloquent and one who, even though he speaks the local language fluently, doesn't hesitate to ask for a tourist brochure when he arrives in a new town. That lack of assumption makes Seal the perfect guide through the Turkey of the past and present in A Fez of the Heart, an attempt to trace the origins of a hat inextricably linked with Turkey but banned there in 1925 by Kemal Atatürk as a symbol of outmoded ways. Seal, who briefly taught English in Turkey in the 1980s, travels around small towns and big cities, scouting out old fez factories, searching for living, working fez makers. He finds only a few, but he knows -- as we do -- that his search is only an excuse to talk to the Turkish people, a way of linking their past with their thoughts and feelings today. Threads of Turkish history spread out like spiders' legs from Seal's narrative: he doesn't shy away from the troubled past -- or present -- of this largely Muslim country, bristling when he recounts how a jovial Turkish man tries to downplay the Armenian massacre of the early 1900s. Another local tries to convince Seal (a Christian) that Islam is a better religion because it's newer, and while Seal wants only to respect the man's religion, he isn't afraid to show exasperation and disbelief at his reasoning.
Seal clearly loves the Turkish people, but just as he refuses to submerge his sense of self while he's in their country, he refuses to condescendingly wave away cultural differences by saying, "That's just the way Muslims do things." Instead, he distills for us the essence of Turkish life: "Everywhere there was evidence of lives being lived, of a continuity through the generations in the deep-worn steps where endless feet had fallen. . ." Looking for a hat that's all but dead, Seal found a country whose heart is still beating strong, and he amplifies the sound so that we can hear it, too. -- Salon