What It’s Really Like To Live In Turkey Right Now

Photographed by Cem Talu.
I first met the journalist and author Ece Temelkuran in Istanbul's Cihangir — a district filled with coffee shops, trendy bars, and boutiques. It is a far cry from the devastated city we have seen on TV screens in recent weeks. Over beers, she talked to me about her country's psyche almost as if the place were a person — a person conflicted in their politics, consumed by their religion, and grappling with deteriorating mental health. Ece's new book, Turkey: The Insane and the Melancholy, is a look at the country's history. It uses relics such as photos of politicians and nationalistic slogans as launching pads to ask, "What does it mean to be Turkish anyway?" In doing so, the book tells a story that runs from the start of the Ottoman Empire to the Gezi Park protests of 2013, where people staged a mass sit-in to demonstrate (mostly) against Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan's authoritarian brand of leadership. Since the events of Gezi — during which more than 8,000 injuries were recorded — things have hardly calmed down in Turkey. In the last year alone, there have been more than a dozen bombings in the country, which many view as the gateway from the Middle East to Europe. Some of these attacks are thought to have been engineered by the Islamic State terror network, in retaliation against Turkey's alignment with allied forces fighting ISIS in Syria. Others have been attributed to the PKK, the Kurdistan Workers' Party, which has long been angered by Turkey's denial of rights to Kurdish citizens. Then, less than a month ago, a military coup took place in Istanbul. Armed forces sieged broadcast buildings and took hostages. Erdoğan, still president, managed to quash the uprising, with the number of people killed during the struggle reported to be around 300. The subsequent fallout has been intense; Turks thought to be associated with the suspected coup organizer, a Muslim cleric called Fethullah Gülen, reportedly have been incarcerated, lost their jobs, or disappeared. Amnesty International has reported human rights breaches spanning from torture to execution, which the government has denied.
Meanwhile, amid the chaos, Temelkuran occupies a dubious position. A critic of both Erdoğan and Gülen, she sits in neither one camp nor the other. But she fears getting caught in the ongoing crossfire between the two parties. She talked to Refinery29 from Istanbul about her opinions on the state of Turkey and how the rest of the world might try to make sense of last month’s uprising. After the June bombing at Ataturk Airport, you wrote an article for The New York Times about how people in Istanbul seemed to be indifferent. I was shocked. What has it been like after the coup?
"The problem when answering this question is there is not only one Turkey in Turkey. If you’re a person affiliated with the Fethullah Gülen movement [the people suspected of being behind the coup], you are living in a horror story. If you are a supporter of AKP [Erdogan's party], then you are celebrating on the streets. If you are a person who criticized them both, for instance like me, well, it feels like you're standing still, praying not to become a target for a bullet. "Right now feels like sitting and waiting for yet another delicate political climate to pass. In Turkey, we've become masters at this — masters of adaptation. In order to keep their sanity, Turkish people have developed improved skills of indifference. You have to. Not only because of the frequent terror attacks of the last year, but also the regular shifts in the political climate. It’s like living in a bumper car."

Maybe because of the things that I have been through, I am not a big fan of the word hope. I am more into the word determination.

Ece Temelkuran, journalist and author
I was surprised, reading your book, by just how many coups there have been in Turkey in the last century. Is there a sense in your country of history repeating itself?
"Of course — it’s a vicious cycle of Revanchist politics in Turkey. The story from the very beginning has been one where whoever pulls the strings builds a system through which they can vanish their political rivals, and you end up with a polarized society; one's victory is another's tragedy. The repetition of this through history is stupefying. It’s why I called my recent novel about the 1980 coup Cycle: Time of Mute Swans. The polarization, the divisiveness of the political power, the complications of international politics were so similar then to today's situation. "I guess the international image of Turkey is getting a bit like it’s 'one of those crazy countries where anything can happen.' That’s the saddest thing about this repetition of history. "

Young people and dissidents are planning their next move. Would you consider leaving Turkey before the political climate gets any worse?
"The idea of leaving the country is spreading among those people who have the luxury to do such a thing, and especially young people. It is not only because they are dissidents, but when your main job becomes surviving physically and emotionally, one may start thinking about other options. Imagine bringing up your baby in a country where a bomb explodes here and there constantly. "A humongous motion of sweeping humans from south to north is taking place. First it was Iraq, then Syria, and now it is probable that the people in Turkey will try to go North. It is as if history is the most careless and clumsy engineer in this region, and it does not care for the people who really believed in their countries. I don't believe that the dream of Turkey being a secular, stable, and democratic country within the Middle East is a lost cause, but I cannot help but see that the dream now requires more determination than ever."
Photo: ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images.
You have always been outspoken about the government — you have even been fired from publications for it. How do you protect yourself now?
"Yes, it is true. I lost my job as a journalist because of the critical articles I wrote. It was in 2012. I was in Tunisia writing my second novel already, The Women Who Blow on Knots. The worst part wasn't getting fired, the worst thing was how the AKP trolls treated me afterward. I cannot remember how many porno accounts they opened online in my name. "But I have been outspoken not only about the government but also about the Gülen movement. Oh, those articles they wrote in Gülen papers about me, saying that I should be imprisoned right was magic that I survived it. Anyways, afterward, I decided to go back to literature. I thought I had better things to do than getting into a fight with organized and mobilized ignorance. Now I mostly write articles in English, and only write literature in my mother tongue. I guess a woman should be like a phoenix in a part of the world where justice is so rare."

I don't believe that the dream of Turkey being a secular, stable, and democratic country within the Middle East is a lost cause, but I cannot help but see that the dream now requires more determination than ever.

Ece Temelkuran

What are your hopes for Turkey in the coming weeks?
"Maybe because of the things that I have been through, I am not a big fan of the word hope. I am more into the word determination. "My determination at the moment is to tell the story of Turkey from those people's point of view who have been dismissed. My mother was imprisoned when she was a leftist student in the 1971 coup, and my father, as a young lawyer, rescued her from the hands of generals. This is the family I was born into. These are decent people, and the story of people like them has not been told. These are people who believed that there could have been a Turkey without political Islam, one with equal and dignified citizens. They dreamed of a country that could break away from the vicious cycle I have been talking about. Generations paid for this dream, like in Iran, Iraq, Syria, or Lebanon, or even in Afghanistan. It is almost like Persepolis — over and over again. My dream right now is just to tell this story."
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