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Turkey: Language is a Battlefield

Tuesday 7 November 2017, by siawi3


Ece Temelkuran, artfully thoughtful / Courtesy of Zed Books
Turkey / Books

Language is a Battlefield: An Interview with Turkish Writer Ece Temelkuran

Simon Leser
UK Literary Editor

Updated: 4 November 2016

We caught up with Ece Temelkuran to discuss her latest book, Turkey: The Insane and the Melancholy, as well as Turkey’s increasingly volatile state of affairs. Read our review here.

Poet, novelist, journalist, TV presenter and unwitting dissident, Ece Temelkuran has been a constant figure in Turkish public life. In 2012, she became a victim to the political establishment’s hardening grip on freedom of expression, getting fired from Habertürk for her critical stance on the ruling AK Party — her columns had culminated in a scathing attack, following the massacre of residents of the Kurdish border town of Roboski by the Turkish Armed Forces.

Her latest title translated to English was published this month, and traces the historical origins of the country’s current woes in a form that defies convention — it is part memoir, part political essay, and part creative non-fiction. A timely release, then, considering the troubling events that recently befell the country: A failed coup, attempting to topple the AKP regime led by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and a brutal repressive aftermath, targeting tens of thousands and further condemning democratic institutions. In London last week to promote her book, Ece Temelkuran met with The Culture Trip to discuss her work, the false dichotomy of pessimism and optimism, as well as the politicization of the Turkish language.

Photo: The three works by Ece Temelkuran currently available in English | Courtesy of Verso Books, Zed Books, and BOA Publishers

This book reads very differently from your last translated work, Deep Mountain (2010), despite also being something of a variation on the theme of political non-fiction. What was its impetus, and how was it written?

I just wanted to tell my story of Turkey, not only as a critic of the political powers, but through more personal experiences. As you know, writers, intellectuals, and journalists like me were quite invisible for a while, when the perfect marriage between moderate Islam and democracy was the only acceptable Turkish narrative. But now that the ‘Turkish model’ experiment is failing, everybody is turning their heads, seeing what else people have been saying. It’s like they’re discovering, for the first time, that actually a lot of criticism had already been piling up.

This book was written about one and half years ago — first published in German — and it is just a start to the story: I try to make it, you know, a ‘Turkey for beginners’. It is a very complex story even for those of us who have been following it professionally, sometimes it’s almost impossible to understand. So this book is an orientation tour, so to speak, of my Turkey, not only a place where journalists and intellectuals are critical of Erdoğan, but where people like us — seculars, progressives — were left invisible. That’s what was devastating and traumatizing: You turned on CNN International and the BBC, all of those huge media outlets, and you saw people talking about your country, completely dismissing the fact that you are a part of it as well. They created an identity for Turkey which didn’t include people like me at all. So you go crazy… 10 years of that!

The 1980 military coup is a recurring theme in the book. Not only does it seem to have set the tone for what is happening now, but it is an event you remember, one that’s affected you personally. Is it comparable to Turkey’s more recent dramatic developments?

No, this time it was so sloppy. I remember seeing these young soldiers not knowing what to do on the bridge — we know what a proper coup looks like! Normally they don’t ask you to leave politely, you cannot stand against them… you get killed. When you have a coup you always expect politicians to be arrested and so on, yet they were all speaking in the media. Many people thought that was strange. It was only after the fact that new footage was released and we saw how well organized the whole thing had been. That night, I was in Istanbul, with the jets flying over us, and the sonic boom… You know I’ve seen a lot of things, I did journalism in places like Lebanon in 2006, but I was very scared. Because to go through that as part of your job is one thing, but to go through it with your pyjamas on is devastating, and very frightening. Things became really serious when parliament was bombed, I could see how it traumatized everybody.

Actually, I’ve a novel that’s going to be published next year in English [Devir] about the 1980 coup and how Turkish politics is a vicious cycle of vendettas. I come from a Leftist political family — I would’ve been a Red Diaper Baby had I been born in the United States. And you know what they say about football? ‘Football is a simple game. Twenty-two men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, Germans always win.’ Well, a military coup is a simple game: it comes with a 48-hour curfew and, at the end, Leftists are always imprisoned. So, you know, to compare it, it was disorganized, but I still thought with many others in Turkey: ‘Okay, whoever is doing this right now, you’re going to be killed, along with the Leftists.’ This is always what happens.

Since the coup, more than 100,000 civil servants have been purged from the state apparatus, and upwards of 43,000 people have been detained…

Turkey is a very traumatized country right now, you know, and this coup attempt came as a trauma to the political powers especially. So this is the response… and even the President now admitted that it might have gotten out of hand, saying so to state officers. There is a lot of confusion at the moment, and it has its devastating consequences. I find it interesting that everyone is paying attention now, whereas exactly the same kind of repression had happened 10 years ago against seculars. And it was as massive! The only difference today is that this is happening over a very short time… but the government had already built this gigantic prison¹ outside of Istanbul, with a courthouse actually inside, for political prisoners. So this kind of response is not exactly… unexpected.

Years of repression, an attempted coup, and now an unprecedented crackdown… and all this time the main opposition party (the social-democratic CHP) seems very silent. Two of its most prominent members, Gürsel Tekin and Sezgin Tanrıkulu, came to London last January, and they seemed particularly defeated… to say the least.

Yes, this is what they do. I mean, they politely ask the Turkish government to release all those detainees (laughs)… Erdoğan is a brilliant politician, and I mean it, he paralyzed every section of the opposition in just a few years, so I wouldn’t blame the CHP really for not doing enough. The CHP have their own difficult experiences.

For the past 10 years the same thing has been happening to the Turkish intelligentsia and the opposition: They go on TV, say, talking about something, criticizing something — doesn’t matter what — and all of a sudden this AKP guy brings up a completely different subject. For instance: ‘so what are you going to say about your support for the previous coup?’ The answer, of course, is that the conversation isn’t about that. But then the AKP guy goes again: ‘because you don’t want to’. And at some point the presenters turn around, and you have to ask: so are we going to talk about that, change the whole conversation for it? This is extremely ruffling. The opposition has to be on the defensive. This is how they manipulate, and all you’re left with is to ask yourself… what’s happening?

This sounds similar to the political rhetoric many Western countries have started to see — ’post-truth politics’, as it’s called here. In your book you talk a lot about history being forgotten, is that how you think it got started?

I should say that I really think neo-liberalism, at the end of the day, stupefied the whole planet — and this is what you get if you worry about free-market democracy, and only free-market democracy. If the Turkish story goes back to the 1970s², the whole mess for the world started in the 1950s, I think, when they thought it was a brilliant idea to kill all the progressives in the Middle East and Africa. We ended up with all these conservative, right-wing, ignorant masses… You see, progressives weren’t only there to promote socialism, as everybody feared, but they were also the seculars and, as it turns out, the pro-reason faction! Now we’re left with post-truth and post-reason.

Progressives are on the retreat everywhere; intellect is pretty much a failing narrative, and has itself been disappointing. I read this article in the New Yorker a few weeks ago about Voltaire and Rousseau, and it was saying that Voltaire has been defeated by history, whereas Rousseau, who was in a way against elites, is now on the rise. The world is going to be witnessing this anti-elite political discourse much more. And we are seeing the consequences: a gigantic sweeping motion going from south to north, and the European Union countries — Britain as well — experiencing the consequences of the Syrian and refugee crisis; the idea of a uniform world, unipolar world, is not working. But I think it’s kind of too late — I am famous for my pessimism, by the way. I do think that we’re going to be living in a Mad Max kind of world with less, you know, style (laughs).

In his most recent novel (Nutshell), Ian McEwan has a fantastic line about pessimism, actually: ‘Pessimism is too easy, even delicious, the badge and plume of intellectuals everywhere. It absolves the thinking classes of solutions’. Would you agree?

I don’t believe in this dichotomy. I refuse it. I come from a turbulent country, where I am something of a public figure, and I’ve had people ask me ‘Is there hope, Ece?’… I hate that question. Because what if there is no hope, are you just going to lie back and do nothing? So no, I don’t believe in the dichotomy of pessimism and optimism, hope and despair. But then, I do understand why McEwan said that. It is always more delicious to talk about things in negative terms; it allows you to be sarcastic as well.

I do think that there is a way, but it won’t be easy. ‘Andalucia Reloaded’³, as I mentioned in the book — I would love to be part of that solution! We are in a serious need of a new International [Socialist International], and all these experiences in North America, Turkey, the Middle East and Europe should be discussed on an international level. We need a new narrative. I was following the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre and India, and the discourse created there was actually very useful, and had an influence on the world… just not in the way we expected it. You ended up seeing the likes of Ahmadinejad and Hezbollah, in their twisted forms, using that very discourse.

Sabahattin Ali’s melancholy 1943 novel Madonna in a Fur Coat has been something of a surprising bestseller in Turkey for the past two or three years. Why do you think that is?

Well, it was featured in a scene in a popular TV show, but beyond that… [laughs] No seriously, nobody knows why people are reading this book. I think one of the reasons might be that the Turkish language has been constantly damaged by political powers since 1980. This book is written in very rich Turkish, and it might be the first time this generation’s read that kind of Turkish. And they are really amazed by the language — which was actually daily conversation some 40 years ago. They go on Twitter and put these, to me, very normal sentences and comment like ‘My god, look at this! How beautifully said’. It’s not! They just forgot their language… This is a very serious issue in Turkey, people cannot speak Turkish.

What do you mean cannot speak Turkish? What’s happened to it?

As I say in the book, the aftermath of the 1980 coup saw some Turkish words being banned. Well it didn’t stop there: The intellectual world vanished, and Turkish was transformed into something militarized, Ottomanized, Arabized, and people don’t understand each other for the very simple reason that they can’t speak proper Turkish. I’m seeing it on television: a guy is saying something and it’s obvious he’s meaning something else, and a guy saying something else is meaning completely the same. It is crazy! Words have become political signifiers to an excessive degree. For instance, there are two words for “society,†if you use the Arabic term millet, which is the AKP’s favorite word, you mean those AKP supporters. If you say halk, like I do, you become kind of suspicious… and this is for almost every word. Take, for example, “genuine†: if you use samimi which is the Arabic word, it means you are AKP-inclined; Erdoğan uses that one, for example. But if you say içten, which is the actual Turkish, it means you are part of this elite. This is a language which is partitioned, polarized in its every word.

So what’s next for you? Do you plan to keep on fighting for your language?

A few years ago I made the decision not to write anything political anymore; the fight in Turkey had become extremely ugly. I decided to write stories… two of my novels are going to be translated into English, actually: one out next summer [Women Who Blow on Knots], and the other at the end of next year [Devir].

In the beginning — in the very beginning — I was a literature person, and I’m dying to go back to it, and this new novel I’m working on. I’m really looking forward to Turkey being a more serene, calm place. I have a beautiful garden in Istanbul, right now the olives are ripe… there are many fruit trees. I’m looking forward to going back without being depressed about the country.


¹ Silivri Prison, opened in 2008.

² Large pro-market reforms were instituted in Turkey after the 1980 coup, which had its roots in the previous decade.

³ ‘There’s no other solution but to return the words and the knowledge of being an able mass to the poor, the repressed and the wronged, not only of Turkey but of all other lands. This is why all revolts, both above and below the navel of the Earth, must be “united†. The East and the West must be reconstructed at the point of contact: that is, Andalusia.’