Elif Shafak

What makes Turkey tick

The Turks are obsessed with politics, but the media is dominated by the state, and everything happens too fast

What makes Turkey tick
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Turkey: The Insane and the Melancholy

Ece Temelkuran

Zed Books, pp. 320, £

I remember an American author once saying she wrote about love and friendship because, after all, these were the fundamental things that people talked about when they gathered around dinner tables. Not quite so in Turkey. Over lengthy breakfasts and suppers, lunches and drinks, we Turks tend to talk about something else: politics. The truth is, we cannot get enough of politics. Even though politics dampens our spirits and darkens our minds, we return to the subject, like moths to their flames.

Politics is a fast-running hare: we chase it as fast as our legs can possibly carry us, never quite managing to get hold of it. Everything happens too fast in Turkey. From one week to the next the mood alters. Yesterday’s heroes become tomorrow’s betrayers, and then suddenly, vice versa. There is barely any time to stop and contemplate and analyse. Instead we, millions of us, speed forward in confusion, trying to make sense of the next scandal, the next tragedy, the next political tension. In the span of one single summer, this nation has witnessed a series of terror attacks by PKK and Isis, a bloody and horrific coup attempt by a Gulenist cabal within the Turkish army, and sweeping purges in its aftermath that affected thousands of people. As a nation we are traumatised. Certainly depressed. But there is, as always, no time for any healing. Almost every day I hear about another journalist, writer or academic being blacklisted for this or that reason. Fear, paranoia and conspiracy theories abound. Many citizens try to plough their way forward, as though afraid that if they look back they will all turn into pillars of salt. Remembrance is cursed in this land. No wonder this is a society of collective amnesia. One would go mad if one kept it all stored in recent memory. And yet because Turkey refuses to come to grips with the mistakes of the past, it is bound to make the same mistakes over and again.

Ece Temelkuran’s Turkey: The Insane and the Melancholy should be read against this turbulent background. As one of Turkey’s leading journalists and activists, Temelkuran offers a vivid portrait of a nation in constant turmoil. The book is deftly divided into three parts: yesterday, today and tomorrow. Referring to the mad pace of daily life in Turkey, she says, ‘The speed with which funerals are carried out in Turkey might surprise a westerner but really it shouldn’t.’ Even grief is a waste of time in a land where so much happens so fast.

The book analyses the rise to power of the AKP government and the dramatic changes that it went through over the years. Identity lies at the core of the most bitter political debates and cultural clashes. ‘From the start, the party declared that we were the mighty grandchildren of the Ottoman and would once again assume our former grandiose, intimidating identity.’

A substantial section of the book analyses the lack of urban planning, speedy gentrification and the construction of shopping malls in major cities. Temelkuran points out that the AKP government is particularly fond of shopping malls. ‘They don’t love them merely as glittering indicators of a prosperous economy: they think opening new shopping malls is a magic solution for the most serious political and social problems of the country.’

One of the strongest points of emphasis in the book is Temelkuran’s focus on how ‘women are being used as cannon fodder on the front line of social life’. Equally powerful is her analysis of the loss of freedoms across the Turkish media, both visual and in print. Temelkuran touchingly mentions how her 74-year-old father feels frustrated because he needs to get the hang of technology, especially social media, in order to be able to follow the news in Turkey. As many observers have pointed out, over the years, while the Turkish media has visibly and increasingly lost its diversity, social media has become more and more politicised.

For many of my friends in England, for instance, social media is mostly a tool for socialising — posting messages and images about places to visit, movies to watch, books to read, restaurants to discover etc. For the Turks it is rather different. Cyberspace is a relatively more egalitarian and diversified political space than any public space. It is a platform where you can vent your anger, obtain information (and, unfortunately, misinformation) and ultimately, feel that you are not as lonely as you thought you were. But there is also a major downside: the Turkish-speaking social media is a platform where hate speech is given free rein. Anyone who dares to speak differently is singled out immediately and attacked by trolls. Because of a comment they have made, artists, writers, poets and academics can be easily lynched or even sued. Women writers and journalists are especially subject to misogynistic abuse.

Temelkuran underlines how one of the first things to change radically in Turkey over the years was daily life itself. From sculpture to literature, from satire to theatre, the conservative ideology of the times tried to shape every inch of daily life. Until not that long ago, anyone who went to school in Turkey would be familiar with the national oath. We would line up in school gardens and shout in unison: ‘I am a Turk, I am honest, I am hardworking…’ The oath would end up by repeating the line: ‘May my existence be dedicated to the Turkish existence.’ This is a society of altruistic dedications — sometimes to fatherlands, sometimes to fathers. Temelkuran says Erdogan singlehandedly ‘amassed all political power for himself’ and she calls him ‘Turkey’s most effective leader since Ataturk’.

Temelkuran finishes her book by raising the vital question of ‘What is homeland?’ Is it a place, a memory, a longing? ‘A deep place of silence hollows out inside you, dark and locked up.’ Written as though ‘talking to a good friend who is far away’, packed with both knowledge and emotions, The Insane and the Melancholy will help you to understand Turkey better. Here is a book that should definitely be on the reading list of everyone who is sincerely interested in this troubled country and its beautiful, often confused, always lonely people.