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Leading Journalist Ece Temelkuran On Life In Turkey After The Recent Coup Attempt

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. Here, 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 with deteriorating mental health.

This is, in a way, what Ece's new book does. Titled Turkey, The Insane and The Melancholy, it is a look at the country's history, using 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 through to the Gezi Park protests of 2013, where protesters staged a mass sit-in to demonstrate (mostly) against Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan's authoritarian brand of leadership.

Since the events of Gezi – where more than 8,000 injuries were recorded – things have hardly calmed down in Turkey. In the last year alone, there have been 14 bombings in the country, which many view as the gateway between the Middle East and Europe. Some of these attacks are thought to have been engineered by ISIS, in a retaliation towards Turkey's alignment with allied forces fighting ISIS in Syria. Others have been attributed to the PKK, the Kurdistan Workers' Party, who have long been angered by Turkey's denial of rights to Kurdish citizens.

Then, less than a month ago, on the 15th of July, 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 at around 300. The subsequent fallout has been intense; Turks thought to be associated with suspected coup organiser, a Muslim cleric called Fethullah Gülen, have either been incarcerated, lost their jobs, or disappeared. Amnesty International have reported human rights breaches spanning torture to execution, which the government have denied.

Meanwhile, amidst the chaos, Ece Temelkuran occupies a dubious position. A critic of both Erdoğan and Gülen, she sits in neither one camp nor the other, but fears getting caught in the ongoing crossfire between the two parties. Below, 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 bombing at Ataturk Airport on the 29th of June 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 criticised them both, for instance like me, well, it feels like you're standing still, praying not to become a target for a stray 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.

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 polarised 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 polarisation, 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.
Photo: ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/Getty Images.
Why do so many people think America/ the CIA is behind the recent coup?
Because the last one was supported by the U.S., for starters. We heard the voice of Paul Henze, the [former] CIA Turkey Chief of the time telling U.S. President Carter that "Our boys did it." For many people, it is hard to imagine that a NATO ally, with a delicate geography like Turkey, could manage a coup attempt on its own, so to speak. Mostly because it is a gigantic party of power games over here, with the Kurds, Russia and Syria all trying to get a foot in. Moreover, Fethullah Gülen, the man allegedly responsible for the coup attempt, is based in Pennsylvania.
In my opinion, it is first class political stupidity to think that the U.S. is the almighty evil power plotting coups here and there across the planet, but there are reasons for people to believe so. Or maybe it is useful popularism not to talk about the real reasons of such an incident. The U.S. is distant enough you see. It’s easier to blame them than turn the lens onto the state of Turkey itself.

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 then ever.

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, Women Who Blow on Knots. The worst part wasn't getting fired, the worst thing was how the AKP trolls treated me afterwards. 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 away... it was magic that I survived it. Anyways, afterwards I decided to go back to literature and I did. I thought I had better things to do than getting into a fight with organised and mobilised 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.

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.


Turkey, The Insane and the Melancholy is now available on Zed Books here.