By Charalampos Tsitsopoulos
Book Review: Ece Temelkuran – ‘Turkey: The Insane and the Melancholy’ (Zed Books)
Following our recent interview with the award-winning journalist and novelist Ece Temelkuran, Charalampos Tsitsopoulos reviews her latest book ‘Turkey: The Insane and the Melancholy’ — a striking account of recent Turkish history.
Ece Temelkuran’s ‘Turkey: The Insane and the Melancholy’ combines literary eloquence with a deep knowledge of domestic politics. The author manages to touch upon all of modern Turkey’s historic milestones while entwining them with incidents of everyday life: producing a multi-faceted masterpiece for both the uninitiated reader and the scholar.
Over the last few years, literature on Turkey has been produced in copious amounts. A country of immense geopolitical importance, Turkey has been analysed, and indeed over-analysed politically, religiously and economically. For both the layman and the scholar, books on Turkish politics are easy to come by. Yet Ece Temelkuran’s book is a rare contribution in that it eloquently weaves the personal with the socio-political.
Ece Temelkuran comes from a seemingly endless pool of talent in the country. And the novelist and commentator emerges as yet another literary star; combining linguistic finesse with profound socio-political sensitivity.
For those following Turkish politics, the book doesn’t contain much new information. Events such as the Gezi park protests, the Roboski Massacre, and President Erdogan’s efforts at revolutionary constitutional reform are well known. Rather, the book’s attraction lies in casting a new light on well-known events, with the author re-situating them in wider political and societal traditions.
For example, the Gezi Park protests of 2013 reverberated across the world. However, coverage by an increasingly sensationalist international media failed to convey the movements true symbolism. Rather than adhering to a simplistic secular-vs-religious or government-vs-anti-government nexus, the protests are seen not only as a reaction to a brazen act of political intrusion, but against a society permeated, and increasingly defined, by a cold ‘survival of the fittest’ logic. As the author writes, Gezi was ‘a performance of cohabitation’ between dissidents ‘who came from completely opposite political wings and from all walks of life.’
The same holds true for Turkey’s intractable ethnic conflict. Eschewing the simplistic establishment line, Temelkuran situates the rise of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in the persecution of Kurdish political activists that followed the 1980 coup. For the author, the blood-curdling torture in Diyarbakir prison under the military junta was “the nightmare that changed it all”. It was here that the PKK was born: out of limitless torture, humiliation and murder.
The author is lucidly trenchant in her analysis; showing that, while the President can conclude that “there is no Kurdish problem, it’s some Kurdish citizens who have problems,” the legacy of past injustices remains. With, for example, children condemned to 20 years in prison after protesting against the forced prison haircut of PKK leader, Abdullah Ocalan. For the non-Turkish speaker, or the reader who hasn’t followed Turcophone media, the author gives great insight into how such events have been framed by the political and media establishment, and the way that this leaves them (un)resolved.
For example, Temelkuran delves into the events which took place at the Pozanti juvenile prison in Adana in 2011; where a number of Kurdish children were allegedly raped, sexually harassed and tortured in detention, but the story was ‘not even an issue for the mainstream media.’ When the story was timidly circulated by concerned citizens on social media, eventually gaining greater publicity, the government’s response was simply to move the children to a different facility in Ankara, while offering the Pozanti administrator a generous promotion to move to another prison. The symbolism could not be clearer: perpetrators of crimes against the weak need not worry, the state will protect you.
The book echoes the oft-heard argument that no land can progress if it doesn’t come to terms with its past. In Turkey, this past seems to have sustained a double injury: both the injustices done to minorities and groups opposing the state, and the expunging of this violence from the official narratives. This has given rise to a process of mass denial and oblivion, which can lead to catastrophic indifference towards those wronged, both for the present generation and those that follow.
A final reckoning with these forces that engendered modern Turkey has yet to occur. In a telling – and striking example – Temelkuran describes how Mevhibe İnönü, first lady of Turkey between 1938 and 1950, was the first woman in the country to obtain a driver’s license. Yet, the next paragraph mentions Mevhibe İnönü’s frustration when forced to remove her traditional attire and wear a Western one instead. This serves not only as a verdict on the pitfalls of forced modernization, but becomes a useful metaphor for Turkey’s subsequent social development. Today, one could legitimately make the case that the same process is developing in reverse: the AKP government attempting to impose rigid Islamic social norms on a country of diverse traditions.
Finally, Temelkuran underlines and critiques the intellectual banalities that plague Turkish studies. Confounded by Western intellectuals who once put Turkey on a pedestal, using it as a model for a vague democracy-Islam marriage, she reproaches this as little more than the outcome of an ‘international marketing project’. Turkey, with its dire record of upholding freedom of speech, can hardly serve as a model anywhere, And as Temelkuran pointedly writes: ‘we, as people of Turkey, deserve better.’
‘The Insane and the Melancholy’ is an apt title for a country where emotions run high. But it is also an intimate and humanely written book. Temelkuran’s words feel like little calls to awareness, empathy and resistance. By weaving the political with the personal, Temelkuran doesn’t seek to subjugate the former to the latter, which could have resulted in a rather facile attempt at personal vindication. Instead, the book attempts to show how the personal so often comes to define the political, even at the highest echelons of power. With its abundant reference to artistic works, its delving into the history of the country and its beautiful language, ‘The Insane and the Melancholy’ is a worldly plunge into a land with a cosmopolitan past: exactly what the local powers that be are striving to erase.