Confronting the past to make sense of the future

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.  

Gezi Park Protestors, Taksim Square, June 16, 2013. Credit: Mstyslav Chernov

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.

  1. Few random notes on Ece’s book…

    Ece is poorly educated and ill-informed about Ataturk.

    Alphabet reform is not a reform by itself…. It was a part of language and education revolution. Rate of literacy of the newly formed Turkish Republic in 1923 was approximately 6-7% among men and 1% among women. There were no printers except one in Istanbul. Latin alphabet among many other benefits as described in the extract below for University of Colombia website enabled printers to be imported with immediate effect for a speedy literacy and educational revolution. Ataturk followed alphabet reform by language reform and educational reforms. He formed Turk Tarih Kurumu (History Society) and Turk Dil Kurumu (Language Society) in 1931 and 1932 to promote the history form the Turkish perspective and also use of pure original Turkish words in place of Persian and Arabic. By 1938 the year he died 35-40% of Turkish population was literate. Since 1970s figure is and should be above 90-95%. AA

    “The cornerstone of education is an easy system of reading and writing. The way to this is the new Turkish alphabet based on the Latin script.”

    The most difficult change in any society is probably a language reform. Most nations never attempt it; those who do, usually prefer a gradual approach. Under Atatürk’s Leadership, Turkey undertook the modern world’s swiftest and most extensive language reform. In 1928, when he decided that the Arabic script, which had been used by the Turks for a thousand years, should be replaced with the Latin alphabet. He asked the experts: ” How long would it take ?” Most of them replied: ” At least five years.” ” We shall do it,” Atatürk said,” within five months”

    As the 1920s came to an end, Turkey had fully and functionally adopted, with its 29 letters (8 vowels and 21 consonants), has none of the complexities of the Arabic script, which was ill-suited to the Turkish language. The language reform enabled children and adults to read and write within a few months, and to study Western languages with greater effectiveness.

    Thousands of words, and some grammatical devices, from the Arabic and Persian, held a tight grip over Ottoman Turkish. In the early 1930s, Atatürk spearheaded the movement to eliminate these borrowings. To replace the loan words from foreign languages, large number of original words, which had been in use in the earlier centuries, where revived, and provincial expressions and new coinages were introduced. The transformation met with unparalleled success: In the 1920s, the written language consisted of more than 80 percent Arabic, Persian, and French words; by the early 1980s the ratio had declined to a mere 10 percent.

    Atatürk’s language reform -encompassing the script, grammar and vocabulary- stands as one of the most far-reaching in history. It has overhauled Turkish culture and education.

    Her mickey taking over ‘Şapka’ reform is more a stain on herself than Ataturk. Rather than mentioning first the banning of the veil, to mention hat is cheap. Fez was never a Turkish headgear anyway! It was semi Greek / Balkan and not ever worn by any Turkic nation or tribes nor was it Islamic. It was again a part of series of social reforms not intended for everyone but civil servants, as a gear for ceremonies etc… AA

    European hats replaced the fez; women stopped wearing the veil; all citizens took surnames; and the Islamic calendar gave way to the Western calendar. A vast transformation took place in the urban and rural life. It can be said that few nations have ever experienced anything comparable to the social change in Atatürk’s Turkey.

    It is sad that she does not know all consonants in Turkish take an “e” at the end except K that takes “a”. Hence her proclamation that “state orders PKK to be pronounced pe-ka-ka instead of pe-ke-ke is ridiculous. Having said that anyone who pronounces AKP as AK Parti or a-ke pe is equally wrong as correct way should be a-ka-pe. (ah-kahpe) check the meaning of kahpe!

    There are several date errors 555K is 1960 not 1950. Several occasions 1970s and 1980s are mixed up, the most important is that no left fist before 1960, hence pre-1960 demonstrations were not leftist as such they were for freedoms only. Leftist student movements started in mid-late 1960s. TIP (Turkish Workers’ Party) was formed after 1960 coup and libertarian 1961 constitution as a socialist party even though communism was still banned. In 1970 coup right wing Demirel was overthrown but only leftists were murdered and imprisoned, same in 1980. I know less of 1980 as I was in the UK but during my 2 months military service in 1982 I got the gist of extreme right wing religious fascism. Hence when I say Turkish military is right wing Islamic fundamentalists better believe me otherwise you might as well read the Gulenist AKP version of Turkish history.

    As to the Kurds…. Another point she conveniently misses the MP who was with mafia leader and police chief in Susurluk was a Kurdish landowner MP. She conveniently misses that Diyarbakir and all those towns have Kurdish mares, generals, police chiefs…. They do not have selected pure Turkish employees. Many of the soldiers PKK kills are Kurdish too. So I sympathise with anyone who wishes desire for more freedom but this in itself does not entitle them to have a breakaway state as if there are 15% Kurds in Turkey’s population, 10% live outside the “Kurdish” regions. I have not heard exactly what Kurds demand if it were not to form a new state, nor am I sure why PKK started to kill the young teachers and burned all the schools late 1980s to avoid local children learning Turkish!

    As to the Armenians she makes one interesting point perhaps by mistake that the Ottoman military wing appointed to control the movement of Armenians was exclusively made up of Kurdish soldiers. This must be a mistake and betrayal of her Kurdish friends on her part, so what happened to Armenians during their travels.

    Other than these minor points her reflections on RTE and AKP are largely correct and accurate even though they are as she puts it pictures of many incidents. She reflects more on her friemnds and makes very little about the huge support AKP had from liberals most of them would have been her close friends too.

    She does miss the fact that bringing AKP to power was a civil coup d’état by the USA, IMF and Gulenists in the judiciary. How do you organise supposed laic President ex-judge (Sezer) to throw constitution booklet to the Prime Minister (Ecevit) causing a scandal and leading to a financial crisis to lead to early elections…. When RTE was ineligible, get the elected Parliament change the law give him special pardon to be elected in an illegal by-election to become Prime Minister! By millions of bribes and international underhand tactics. Even before that they tried to poison Ecevit for many months… only the military hospital cottoned on and fixed him.

    I disagree with her predictions about future. The backbone of Turkey will resist and islamisation of the society will halt. Nothing will come of Kurds unless they abandon terrorist means.

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