Turkey is a nation of contradictions and contrasts. Though considered democratic, the Erdogan government has increasingly begun to resemble a dictatorship, jailing it opponents and violently suppressing dissent. And though Turkey is notionally secular, the Justice and Development Party’s power has fed the creeping influence of religious conservatism, with figures in the party denouncing abortion rights and attempting to criminalize adultery. Having long occupied an uneasy middle ground between a secular West and Islamic East, Turkey has been drawn into the conflicts of its neighbors, including the Arab Spring, the Syrian civil war, and the rise of ISIS. In this fascinating portrait of a nation in turmoil, the renowned Turkish journalist and novelist Ece Temelkuran provides a vivid and deeply personal account of the crisis afflicting modern Turkey. Temelkuran identifies a long-running culture of repression and authoritarianism that has plagued Turkey throughout its history, a culture she traces back to the fall of the Ottomans and the continued climate of denial around the Armenian genocide. But, she firmly believes there is still a strong voice of dissent in Turkey, and she argues that the Gezi Park protests of 2013 represented a glimmer of hope that has not yet been fully extinguished and may still grow to rejuvenate democracy in the country. Providing unique insight into Turkey’s ongoing political turmoil, this is a timely look at a country that is caught at the center of many of the changes and much of the turmoil of the Middle East today.
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About the Author
Ece Temelkuran is one of Turkey’s best-known authors and political commentators. She was a columnist for Milliyet before her criticism of government repression led to her losing her job. Her previous books in English include Deep Mountain: Across the Turkish-Armenian Divide and Book of the Edge. Zeynep Beler currently lives and works in Istanbul.
Read an Excerpt
The Insane and the Melancholy
By Ece Temelkuran, Zeynep Beler
Zed Books LtdCopyright © 2015 Ece Temelkuran
All rights reserved.
"Geography means destiny." – Ibn Khaldun
"I am unsure as to how one goes about expressing a point of view completely at odds with the Western world. It is in a sense an irrational – unwesternly – point of view. A point of view with an unintended touch of comedy, a view that to me is rather naive. It is my impression that we are a rather immature people who are drastically inclined to interpret events and reality on the basis of miracle and myth. In ways that would make a rational Westerner chuckle when to us it is deadly serious." – Oguz Atay, Diaries
"Yesterday is yesterday, today is today, and tomorrow is tomorrow!"
Uttered in English by a guest speaker from Turkey, this bizarre exclamation naturally might have taken by surprise the audience gathered at Cornell University on 7 October 2003. The bald and overweight elderly man at the lectern beamed as he translated, word by word, the axiomatic quote whose Turkish original he had made a custom of repeating through the years. After all, voicing this profound insight had earned him a decade in total governing his country as Prime Minister, between 1965 and 1993, before a stint as President, as well as the moniker "Father", which was to endure until his death. The man at the lectern was Süleyman Demirel, Turkey's ninth President, and he was completely assured that the tautology, even more glaring in its ludicrousness when recited at Cornell University, was even now a perfect analogy for Turkey's relationship to its past:
"Yesterday is yesterday, today is today."
In Turkey, this widespread aphorism is used not only by politicians but also by ordinary people on a daily basis. Ask anyone, "How can you say such-and-such when you were claiming the exact opposite yesterday?" and they will respond, with just as much aplomb and glee as Demirel himself:
"Yesterday is yesterday ..."
If it's consistence you're after or you mean to question morality, you had better forget it. For whatever was said or done yesterday was yesterday. The aplomb and glee stem from the comfort of this legitimised point of view. No one can judge you based on your past deeds, just as the state cannot be held responsible today for what it did yesterday. Those who attempt to question the past are destined to be forgotten, just like everything else that belongs in the past. The issue at hand is not yesterday but the present, or, even more importantly, the future. The aphorism is also relevant to political ethics. In that sense, Turkish politicians are the most privileged politicians on the planet. For Turkey is one of those exceptional countries where, when a politician is questioned about a past deed, the inquiring party is the one who is insulted and told off. To question the past signals inadequacy, naivety, obsolescence, an inability to deal with the present, and being a spoilsport, for which you will ultimately be dropped from the game. To question the past means early defeat. You have failed in catching up with the present and being up to date. Better to take a new position in step with the changing times.
* * *
Better to forget. And, even better, to forget – or remember – whenever and however it is deemed suitable by the current political climate. That is why, for Turkey, the past is a constantly shifting, ever-changing point in the distance. The Gallipoli Victory, with Mustafa Kemal Atatürk amongst its commanders, is painfully and ecstatically recent. But that same 1915 can sometimes feel like a million years ago ...
* * *
The roots of this common moral stance reach way back, to a practice of forgetting starting on a day in the far past. It is thanks to this practice that the torture of hundreds of thousands of people during the military coup of 1980, the incomprehensible atrocities inflicted on the Kurds in the Diyarbakir Prison or – just a month ago – a mine tragedy that took 301 lives, or – just two weeks ago – a child killed by a police bullet or – just three days ago – thousands of olive trees unlawfully cut down, or the fact that those who called for peace with the Kurds last year are rallying for war today, or – just this morning – the rape and slaughter of an adolescent girl can all be considered to have happened a long, long time ago. It's so long ago ... it's practically prehistoric.
THE ORIGINS OF FORGETTING
"What, those? They're practically prehistoric ..."
If you ask the local villagers and townspeople about the old Armenian churches, left derelict in the centre or at the edges of cities or in the midst of what are now the fields and hillsides of Anatolia, they are bound to say to you: "What, those? They're practically prehistoric."
"Just what do you mean, prehistoric? It's barely been a hundred years. The Armenians were driven out and massacred in 1915. What do you mean prehistoric?!"
Let's say you dared venture the hatred this reply is likely to provoke. He shakes his head indifferently, and might say, "Oh sure, the Armenians. They left."
Where did they go?
"It was a long time ago. They left by way of that bridge."
So where did they go?
"Left by way of that bridge, over there."
You needn't ask, "Then after the bridge, where?" for the answer is evident. Packing up (or without packing up), one day, for reasons unknown, the Armenians set out by the hundreds of thousands for "prehistoric" times.
In Fethiye, well known to European and Russian tourists, there are vacant stone houses sitting atop a hill. They stand there without windows or doorframes, resembling corpses with gouged-out eyes and gaping mouths. Like ghosts frozen mid-scream. When you try to trace Kayaköy's history, the story begins sometime BC and invariably ends up at "practically prehistoric". Once again, the Rum population who resided here just left by the thousands one day for reasons unknown. No one has taken up residence in the village since. It just sits there like some cursed hilltop town from a fairy tale. Just ask the villagers and they'll point you towards the bridge over which the Rums left. They'll tell a story, the missing pieces of which fall from sight, one by one, from whichever bridge was en route to the practically prehistoric.
The oldest bathhouse in Ankara is called the Sengül Hammam. If you ask for directions, you'll come up with a newly named avenue or street that no one really knows. Only if you persist will they tell you its actual location, the one mired in their collective memory: "In the old Jewish Town."
There are no longer any Jews in the Jewish Town. So where are the Jews? Or the Christians of Ankara, for that matter? There will doubtless be a bridge at a convenient distance for them to gesture towards. It is there for the Assyrians of Mardin and the Rums of Trabzon. For the thousands of Alevi Kurds of Dersim. Since the founding of the Republic, the bridges have been funnelling all its narratives into an endless void, a black hole in the shape of its "befores" and "yesterdays". Ironically, most of Turkey's bridges are named after either Atatürk or the Republic ...
* * *
The transformation of historical truths into fragmented stories or even, increasingly, fairy tales, the amnesia that provides politicians with the facility to laughingly claim that "Yesterday is yesterday, today is today," could be claimed to be a state policy – or even that the country has been founded on this very same amnesia. The Republic of Turkey has depended on forgetfulness; it's true. The founders of this country proclaimed the Republic to be year zero, thus rendering prehistoric anything that had happened before. As such, those who "left" (were driven out, annihilated, compelled to leave) passed over a bridge into prehistory and now speaking about them is prohibited. The reason for the silence, however, isn't any official prohibition, but rather an agreed-upon forgetting that has gradually come to encompass everyone, citizen by citizen. It isn't as if this practice of forgetting has been forced on us by the state at gunpoint. In the words of the essayist Nurdan Gürbilek, who dwells on and writes about Turkey's "spirit":
"The Turkish state of mind or the original Turkish spirit is just as closely associated with the acute desire for immidiate change of place as it is with its persistent inability to reach that goal."
In this sense, time, for this nation, is also merely something to be trodden on while passing through. To live here means to strive for immediate arrival in the future. For the future-bound, those who recall the past are the rickety pieces of junk they zoom past in their ultramodern cars. Those who remember have something of the old, useless, broken and debased about them. It must be due to this that the mothers of the disappeared, who have been meeting on Istiklal Avenue every Saturday for many years, are viewed less like their revered contemporaries in Argentina and more as an "old-fashioned" spectacle. We don't have an inkling about how many hundreds of weeks they have waited here, the mothers we have watched get old while the photos of the lost children they hold in their laps remain forever young. This lack of curiosity, this ready listlessness and indifference is learned. Just like forgetting was learned in 1915, so too is the reluctance for recollection and the dismissal of curiosity. These women don't intrigue us, in the same way that we don't wonder why the old Armenian buildings in the centre of Istanbul are vacant – if we see them at all, that is. On the hyper-touristy Istiklal Avenue, along which flows the entire world, the Saturday Mothers whose children were lost in the unsolved murders of the 1990s now seem to be merely a static monument of shame for the Japanese tourists who stop and soberly snap pictures. The inability to see even when history sits up and bites us can only be due to a well-practised blindness. Today, Turkey has become a true master of the forgetfulness that it has perfected through repetition of the practice of forgetting, disinterest and blindness that started in the wake of the country's founding. Everyone on the streets is wont to tell you the same: "Turkey has the memory of a goldfish!"
Oddly, when this is said, the luxuriating grin often accompanying the "Yesterday is yesterday, today is today" statement is nowhere to be seen. Yet, as also mentioned at the beginning of this book, being compelled to experience two different emotions by one situation, to read two contradictory meanings into one sign, is part of this country's temperament. After all, "This is Turkey!"
HOW IS INDIFFERENCE LEARNED?
This is how.
Every child who grew up on the West coast like me will remember those nights. The International Fair has opened. In essence a commercial and cultural fair, for Izmir's residents it's more like a traditional week of amusement. Families go on day and night trips. They browse the pavilions allocated to country representatives in the forested park grounds in the middle of the city. For the children, however, the greatest pleasure is found in the flashing lights of Lunapark. Starting during the day and extending into Lunapark at night, the merriment soon draws to a close and it is time to return home, with all the children exhausted. And if you happen to be past the age when you can be picked up and carried, you whine fruitlessly: "But I'm so tired, mum!"
Strangely, anyone who has ever grown up in Izmir has received the same reply to their whining:
"It's because of the electric cables passing underneath here. That's why the fair makes people so tired."
You grow up hearing this and are always just as exhausted with every fair season. Having grown up to adulthood with this explanation, those children are bound to tell their own children the same thing:
"It's because of the electric cables passing underneath here ..."
To begin to understand that the tension below ground stems from something other than electric cables, that we are exhausted not by "currents" below the fair but by the ghosts lurking below the surface of our memories – that requires a lot of growing up.
* * *
It had never occurred to me to wonder about this enormous blank space in the middle of the city of Izmir where the Izmir International Fair was situated. This was despite the fact that I had already written the book Deep Mountain: Across the Turkish–Armenian Divide and that I was aware that this state of indifference in Turkey was conditioned or learned behaviour. And yet each "Turkish" child is unknowingly instructed in not asking or not thinking to ask why the owners of those beautiful old apartments left and when, or how it was that the congregations of the magnificent churches in Anatolia suddenly vanished, or why those who were once here no longer are. Despite knowing all this, for years the fair continued to exist in my mind as a place that was "exhausting due to electric cables". I never wondered how there could be such an empty stretch right in the middle of the city. It never even occurred to me to take this as a sign that there was something there to wonder about. No matter how ludicrous, first impressions are resistant to correction. Learned forgetfulness and indifference aren't things that can be cured so easily, even by the most willing. So, finding out that the enormous expanse in the middle of Izmir had once been the Armenian and Rum district, that it had been burned to the ground ... eradicating one's learned blindness could be a greater challenge than one could ever bargain for.
Lying is exhausting. With each telling the lie deepens, grows, becomes more complicated. After a while, the body of the lie surpasses the truth you have been trying to hide. The roots of the lie increasingly draw nourishment from your soul. The lie exhausts you; it eats away at you. That is why a motherland that, since its creation, has practised relating a history of victories rather than defeats, of festivities instead of massacres, of rebirth in paradise instead of death, exhausts us and eats away at us.
This must be why the people you address – the villager asked about the Armenian church, the townsman who has no idea where Kayaköy's residents went, the urbanite in Ankara who acts like she doesn't know about the history of the bathhouse – are wont to tell you something different once the conversation intensifies. The villager, for instance, might tell you that he learned cooking, weaving and bricklaying from Armenians. Or, overcome with the sadness of a calamity she herself never witnessed, a resident of Izmir might raise her raki glass to old friends, in the direction of the visible lights of the Greek islands. Or a resident of Ankara might recall what the Jews used to do on Mondays, how he used to covet their festivities. They were never mourned because they were supposedly forgotten. And those who remain here have stories of their own. Each family tells of a journey that starts with a faraway tale. "My kin came from far, far away ..." – that's the first sentence in the stories of many families in Turkey. Much was lost on that journey and many hardships encountered before settling here. Such is the bloody and woeful story concealed beneath the oft-repeated cliché of Anatolia's "bridge of passage". Now even those who have remained here bear the anxiety of the bridge they are in the process of crossing.
* * *
One justification for Turkey's memory loss, related as it is to the past but not limited to the past, as well as eclipsing the present day, is that: "There is just too much going on in the country right now – it's impossible to keep track of it all." It's true: much does go on. There can be enough items on the agenda for Turkey in one day to last a European country an entire year. Considering the state of the political and social agenda, it's like we are all extras in a Jackie Chan film. We are dealt slaps and kicks at such a fast pace we cannot count them. We barely get a chance to cope with one blow before we receive another. Part of the reason, however, is that we never could, or did, pause the film and question the first blow that was dealt.
* * *
The expunging of the events of 1915 from Turkey's official history established a practice of forgetting. The rest is just a prolonged and uninterrupted loop. As such, Demirel's aphorism – "Yesterday is yesterday, today is today" – is not his personal invention but rather an apt evaluation of Turkey's essence. After all, Demirel was so perceptive about his people, who embraced him with cries of "Father! Father!" at rallies, he stopped at nothing to have three left-wing youths hanged in 1971 to make an example of them. As the executions were being voted on in Parliament, he turned to face the members of his own right-wing party and bellowed, "Raise your hands! Raise them!" The executions of the three young men were to go down in Turkey's political history as the murder of innocence, and striving so hard to make it happen was only possible with the assurance that those days would be forgotten. (The young men – Deniz GezmiS, Hüseyin Inan and Yusuf Aslan – are leading symbols of Turkey's culture of dissidence. Keep reading and you'll find out about their resurrection decades later.) Ultimately, both Demirel and the people know that fathers are capable of killing and then declaring the past null and void. That we should forget; that we should not speak of it. That, in the end, all those who leave use the bridge that erases memory ...
Excerpted from Turkey by Ece Temelkuran, Zeynep Beler. Copyright © 2015 Ece Temelkuran. Excerpted by permission of Zed Books Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Introduction Yesterday Today Tomorrow Yesterday The origins of forgetting How is indifference learned? Orphans, fathers and resentment “Such a generation we shall raise…” Fascism or downright vengeance? Turkey’s disorganised photo album Today/Morning A woman’s “unindictable” murder “Us” and “them” The hour of “Long live our Padishah!” The bloodiest front in social projects A split-meaning, split-screen way of watching: news hour in Turkey Goddamn it! The grey daubs of the city: proving presence through absence The mesmerising vulgarity Children of the “zero problem” policy: the expedient and inexpedient The meatballs of “the people” beat Macbeth to death Opposite meanings of the peace sign: Kurds and Turks Official memory versus actual memory Tomorrow: “What Will Become of This Bridge of Ours?” Appetite and hope Down! Down! Down! Down! Women and children first! Middle Easternisation and the question “Should we go?” The “safety valve” that cannot be located Broken bridges, new bridges Index