The Anomie Within

Through the open window, along with a breeze that’s small relief for the mugginess of Istanbul in summer, comes a screech, a series of staccato honks, and shouting. Two men are in each other’s faces, livid, gesticulating wildly. One is a taxi driver. The other is an impressively groomed fellow who leaped out of an Audi coupe. Their cars are idling, doors akimbo, nose to nose in the one-lane street. The driver of the Audi is yelling that he’d flashed his lights, claiming right-of-way, and that the cabbie should have yielded the road. The cabbie is yelling that the yuppie is a son of a donkey who drove the wrong way down a one-way street. This goes on for several minutes, with the insults growing ever more baroque. Cars pile up behind the taxi and blast their horns, onlookers get drawn into the ruckus, and the block descends into cacophony.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve witnessed scenes like this, and not just out my window. Rows occur all over Turkey, all the time, over all manner of infractions. There’s a marked coarseness to public life, an absence of civic spirit, a lack of trust in—and consideration for—others. Society is segmented and polarized; tempers flare easily; civility is lacking. There are relatively few murders and muggings, but there’s a lot of unfocused anger and a wearying amount of hassle.

Don’t get me wrong: Once you’ve established a personal connection—however tenuous—Turks are some of the most heartfelt and generous people you’ll meet. Even routine, essentially transactional relationships—with plumbers, doormen, merchants, you name it—are likely to be characterized by unaffected rapport. But when it comes to truly impersonal interactions, among anonymous citizens, reflexive and unrepentant selfishness is the rule. People who are models of behavior to friends and coworkers treat strangers with shocking disregard. Witness the yuppie who thought nothing of driving the wrong way down the street—fellow motorists’ interests be damned—and wasn’t apologetic or abashed when caught. Notice the detritus that litters public spaces such as parks and beaches by the end of the day—no thought having been spared for tomorrow’s visitors. Pick up a newspaper and read column after column full of contempt, libel, and lies—so many public figures having dismissed empathy, honesty, and facticity as at best inconveniences and at worst intolerable impediments to the advancement of their faction.

The aggregate of all these—often minor, occasionally egregious, but more or less constant—offenses is a kind of ambient social tension. One doesn’t always feel it, but over time it ineluctably frays the nerves. Under such conditions, is it any surprise that Turkish politics are a travesty where the winners take all and vulgar majoritarianism is celebrated as “advanced democracy”? Or that in 2013, seemingly out of nowhere, Turks fed up with this state of affairs turned a local conflict over the development of Istanbul’s Gezi Park into a cause célèbre and a catchall, nationwide protest movement, with millions of citizens taking to the streets, for a period of weeks, in the face of beatings, tear gas, and rubber bullets, with no common end other than to say “no more”?

How did Turkey end up like this? That, more or less, is the question Ece Temelkuran sets herself in Turkey: The Insane and the Melancholy. “Turkey is a rough country,” she writes.

An ordinary Turk visiting Britain would be shocked to see the amount of time Brits waste on apologising and thanking each other. Let alone the time wasted on waiting in a line. Except for a few individuals who are determined to maintain their own politeness against the general current, we hardly ever say sorry. And I don’t mean big political “sorries” to Armenians or Kurds who have been massacred or tortured; I mean the basic, quotidian “sorry” to someone we bump into on a busy street. Apologies are a sign of weakness in a land where we pretend that bad things never happened.

Part memoir, part historical rumination, part jeremiad against the current government, Temelkuran’s book is an attempt to come to grips with her “troubled, ill-fated and perplexing country” and its “great, long madness.” The portrait she paints is uncomplimentary but loving; its harshness is born of honest observation and heartfelt concern. Her anger is genuine, deep, and unsparing, but—not unlike the withering critique one might offer a wayward but still beloved spouse—its aim is to prompt reflection and improvement, not to wound or slander.

Temelkuran’s relationship with her homeland is by her own admission fraught. Born in 1973 as what Americans used to call a red-diaper baby—her parents, both committed political activists, met when her father worked to get her mother out of prison after the 1971 coup d’état—she was raised on Lenin, Trotsky, and other icons of the Left in a house that she elsewhere has described as full of “frustration and smoke.” After studying law at university, Temelkuran made a career as a journalist, focusing on human-rights stories and Turkey’s bedeviled relationship with its Kurdish and Armenian minorities. By 2010, she was one of the country’s most prominent pundits, with a clutch of prizes, a widely read column, and a political talk show, but her position was growing increasingly precarious. A vocal critic of the government, she came under pressure as Recep Tayyip Erdoğan—then the prime minister, now the president—consolidated power, clamped down on opposition, and reined in the media. In 2012, after she wrote a particularly scathing column about the state’s massacre of Kurdish “terrorists” who turned out to be no more than run-of-the-mill smugglers, she was fired and blackballed from the profession. (Turkish media, apart from a few marginal redoubts, is controlled by conglomerates headed by cowed and sycophantic oligarchs.) Since then, Temelkuran has turned her efforts mostly toward literature—she has published several novels and collections of poetry—though she continues to write about Turkey for international media outlets.

Gezi Park, Istanbul, June 11, 2013. Meg Rutherford/Flickr
Gezi Park, Istanbul, June 11, 2013. Meg Rutherford/Flickr

Temelkuran locates the root of the problem in Turkey’s willful historical amnesia. “The founders of this country proclaimed the Republic to be year zero,” she writes, “thus rendering prehistoric anything that had happened before.” Nothing illustrates this point more starkly than the language reforms of the 1930s. In order to facilitate the spread of literacy and create the basis of a “modern” national identity, Turkish was purged of Arabic and Persian loanwords and the old alphabet was scrapped in favor of a new one derived from the Latin. As a result, the “people’s bond to its past was severed in a single night,” she writes. “I’m talking about grandchildren who couldn’t read letters from their grandfathers, people who couldn’t understand wills and land titles dating back to the Ottoman era, people who were unable to read old poetry or even love letters found in the attic.” This severance created a “void . . . in the collective consciousness,” she argues, as well as a hole in the country’s soul. “Is it possible for a people who cannot read its own love poems to have a history of love?” she asks. “I wonder what it would be like if a German couldn’t read Goethe or an Englishman stared blankly at the sonnets of Shakespeare.”

This rupture also induced a kind of societal madness and schizophrenia. The experience of the late Ottoman Empire had been traumatic, as the state collapsed in a series of humiliating military defeats and society was harrowed and rent apart by decades of forced population exchange and retributive ethnic cleansing—culminating, infamously, in the Armenian Genocide in 1915 and the mutual expulsion of Anatolian Greeks and Balkan Turks in 1923. And yet these topics were not to be spoken of or acknowledged; they were to be forgotten, denied, repressed, ignored. This created a sense of “befuddlement” in those who “witnessed history first-hand and then had to memorise a completely different version of events”; and it has left Turks today haunted and “exhausted . . . by the ghosts lurking below the surface of our memories,” Temelkuran writes. “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.”

“The expunging of the events of 1915 from Turkey’s official history established a practice of forgetting,” Temelkuran argues. “The rest is just a prolonged and uninterrupted loop.” The republic’s history is little more than the “constant pruning of bloody political retaliations” and “a chronicle of vendettas”—as exemplified by the country’s repeated military coups and its murderous repression of Kurds, Alevis, and other minorities. The need to pretend otherwise—to lie about what happened and what continues to happen—only compounds the problem. “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.” Due to this ceaseless cycle of trauma, “anger and hate have permeated even the most minute spaces of quotidian life, rendering its smallest requirements inapplicable,” she argues. This “process of moral corruption” has affected not only the country’s politics but also “one-to-one relationships” among citizens.

It’s hard to recommend Temelkuran’s book as the place to start for someone who knows nothing about Turkey. Its shambolic structure and narrative lacunae will make it hard to follow for anyone who cannot piece things together and fill in the gaps. It contains occasional factual inaccuracies (e.g., claiming that Turkish soldiers had to participate in the Korean War because the country was a member of NATO, when its participation preceded, and was actually geared toward securing, that membership; and asserting that Turgut –zal was “installed by the coup” of 1980, when in fact the generals’ preferred candidate was Turgut Sunalp); it romanticizes the Turkish Left (e.g., portraying Deniz Gezmiş—a controversial icon in the mold of Che Guevara—as a wholly laudable and sympathetic figure, with no mention of the fact that he was also a kidnapper and bank robber); and it exudes more than a whiff of elitism and willful disregard for the concerns of the pious, nationalistic, long-suffering masses, who support Erdoğan not only because he talks and acts like them, but also because he delivers services and makes them feel included in the political process. As a result, it tells something less than the whole—or even a balanced—story. And yet I couldn’t help but nod along as I read it. For all its limitations, Temelkuran’s book does a masterful job of capturing the mood of the country nowadays, at least among the minority of educated, right-thinking folks who are maddened and driven to despair by Turkey’s ongoing, atavistic descent into authoritarianism, terror, and—in the Kurdish regions abutting Syria and Iraq—something just short of civil war.

Temelkuran shines in describing the ways that Erdoğan has exploited and exacerbated the country’s polarization, employed a “rhetoric of exaggerated victimhood” that appeals to the crowds’ basest instincts, and offered a false “promise that [Turkey’s] relationship with the past would finally be mended” by embracing an ersatz Ottomanism of “wooden swords and janissary marches” but no “actual pictures of history.” She is also a careful observer of social phenomena, such as the way in which the boom of popular culture and entertainment options since the 1980s has narcotized society against mobilization, while gated communities and shopping malls—“a parallel universe where everything is more hygienic and less tense”—have begun to replace organic neighborhoods and genuine public spaces, thereby facilitating political quietism.

But Temelkuran’s pièce de résistance is her portrait of the Gezi Park protests of 2013. Those events, which “started out as a protest against the development plan for Gezi Park but grew to include wider concerns about freedom of the press and freedom of expression, and about growing injustice, inequality and conservatism in Turkey,” were notable for their breadth and intensity, but above all for their tenor: that is, for “simply ‘being nice.’” This may sound absurd to a foreign audience accustomed to thinking of defiance as unruly, but “when there is a culture of extreme violence surrounding you, and you choose to reject this mind-set by just being polite, this becomes an act of resistance,” Temelkuran argues.

What did this niceness look like? Turkish nationalists stood shoulder to shoulder with Kurds and Alevis; “secular socialists held umbrellas for anti-capitalist Islamists as they prayed in the rain.” And every morning, after manning barricades and clashing with police throughout the night, these disparate protesters made a point of coming together to clean up the detritus. It’s hard for an outsider to appreciate just how groundbreaking such mundane acts of humanity were. Because of “its extreme political polarisation, the chasm between social factions, an on-and-off three-decade-long civil war,” Turkey had traditionally been a place where different groups disliked and distrusted one another. But during the protests, people “who came from completely opposite political wings and from all walks of life, all struggled together. Those who wanted to kill each other one week before . . . were hand in hand when the tear gas was sprayed on them.” In the protesters’ “persistent politeness,” Temelkuran sees the sign, indeed the birth, “of a larger philosophy: that others matter as much as yourself, and that compassion for others is not a sign of weakness.”

Temelkuran ends her book on a cautiously optimistic note. Writing after the elections of June 2015, when the strong showing of the liberal, leftist—and largely Kurdish—Peoples’ Democratic Party seemed to augur the beginning of a new era, in which Erdoğan’s authoritarian impulses would be partially checked, and minorities would be included in the democratic process instead of subjected to the same old cycle of terror and repression, she expresses the hope that Turkey will “turn over a new leaf.” Alas, it wasn’t to be. Erdoğan rekindled war with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party in order to rally nationalist support and called snap elections in November. The results of that second vote were more to his liking. Turkey is now once again at war with Kurdish militants as well as ISIS, which has taken to bombing Ankara and Istanbul. This has been the country’s bloodiest year in a generation.

Making matters worse, on July 15, a faction of the military allegedly associated with the religious movement of Fethullah Gülen staged an abortive coup d’état. Turks of all political persuasions and backgrounds rallied around the government, in support of democracy, but in the aftermath the government has embarked on a series of wide-scale purges. Hundreds of officers, thousands of soldiers, and dozens of journalists have been arrested, while tens of thousands of police officers, bureaucrats, judges, professors, academics, and even teachers have been suspended or dismissed. The government claims that these moves are aimed solely at rooting out the Gülenist threat, and promises that those who are cleared will be reinstated, but its actions strike many observers as excessive and indiscriminate. Whatever the government’s true intentions, the upshot of the purges will be to strengthen Erdoğan’s hand. Since anyone who expresses reservations about the government’s actions is liable to be accused of supporting the coup attempt, it is hard to see any opposition force mustering the will to check his consolidation of power.

As bleak as things look, I’d say there’s still reason for hope—at least over the long term. As Temelkuran notes, the spirit of Gezi abides, albeit latently. Despite Erdoğan’s machinations, the deplorable security situation, and growing concern that the purges will turn into an outright witch hunt, there is no erasing the memory of the protests and the sodality they engendered. “A phantom that defended brotherhood and trust in one’s fellow humans roamed over our cities in a world that taught us fear so it could then sell us security,” she writes. “All that’s left now may be our ‘cool’ gas-masked photos on Facebook and a little fairy dust, but we all saw the phantom!” Turks who participated in the movement learned to trust one another, and liked the feeling: “Despite all the pepper gas sprayed by the police, everyone felt as though they had just taken a deep, expansive breath.” I fear that the good people of Turkey will have to hold that breath for a while. The good news is, they have impressive lungs: That’s one side benefit of screaming.

Marc Edward Hoffman is a writer; he lives in Istanbul.