A Fearful Man is a Bad Man

A few weeks ago, we went to see my in-laws for the end of Ramadan. It was a whirlwind. We ate my mother-in-law’s (unparalleled) Turkish cooking, and received honest-to-goodness calls from relatives in my mother-in-law’s honest-to-goodness parlour (complete with china cabinet, tea and coffee in fancy cups, and elaborate slightly uncomfortable furniture, natch). The pre-call routine involved gossip about who hadn’t shown up yet; during the call, the gossip was about other relatives’ news; and after the call everybody put themselves to discussing who’d decided to wear a hijab this year, the relatives who’d stopped wearing them, and that one relative that talked so fast that nobody (not just me!) could understand her. Perched uncomfortably on the parlour couch I willed my ears into understanding the direction of the conversations, answered questions about my family and did my best to act polite, shake hands the right way, and definitely not shake the hand of the father of a tidily hijabbed family who, Adem informed me later, bothered him because they even refused to touch his hand even though they were family, and that he really didn’t feel it was necessary for them to sexualize a familial relationship in any way.

Then there was the story that got told and retold of how my brother-in-law once ate an entire tray (60 cm diameter) of baklava, the extremely-cool-for-a-nine-year-old manicure I gave my niece, walks by the seaside, a whole host of childhood and high school friends that Adem and I ran into on the street and in cafes, a trip to buy some new clothes -“Don’t mention your boyfriend’s belly too much! You’ll hurt his feelings!” said the salesman to me after I told Adem that he should get a larger size – and then, when I thought that I couldn’t eat any more again MORE BAKLAVA and chocolate and coffee and relatives and neighbours asking who I was and on and on it went.

It was pleasant and normal and a bit tiring, but mostly pleasant.

Soon after the holidays, of course, came the coup and a whole host of unpleasantness and abnormalcy. These days, while Turkey has returned to normal in many ways, it’s a new normal and a not altogether agreeable one. What I have learned is that there are still the small normal joys of Istanbul life – when the grocer down the street tries to tell me that they are selling spicy tomatoes that day because he thinks my delayed reactions are funny, when the baker gets me the bread I always buy off the shelf before I ask for it, when I pet the street cats outside of my apartment, and when I watch the neighbours who leave their lights on at night do normal peaceful things – washing dishes, playing computer games, smoking and drinking tea, lying in bed, playing with their phones, feeding their babies.


Istanbul is densely packed like this, so spying on neighbours is both easy and affordable!

There is a dark undercurrent of fear in daily life now though. No matter what nationality you are, if you are taken into custody by the Turkish police they are legally authorized to hold you for thirty days. (The American and Australian embassies warned their citizens that, should they be taken into custody they could ask police or prison officials to please, kindly, notify their embassies. Because, of course, there is a huge incentive for police and prison officials to do that when they suspect you of terrorism. Oh, and the Canadian embassy did not warn Canadians that this was a potential threat, I guess because they feel like sending an e-mail round and having a Facebook page is a heinous waste of government manpower.)
There have been some police seizing cell phones looking for anti-government messages. (I always delete my most recent messages before going outside now – not because I supported the coup, but because I vehemently do not support the government.) Additionally, many Turkish people believe that the CIA was behind the coup, a theory that seems quite farfetched from where I’m standing, but has even been aired in major newspapers. And so far tens of thousands of people have been arrested or detained, many of whom have no links to Fethullah Gülen, the man now more-or-less universally accepted to be behind the coup, at all.

Last week, a woman who was six months pregnant was attacked in our neighbourhood by three people, who accused her of dressing immodestly and of being a Gülenist (these two things are actually a bit incongruous since Gülen is an Islamist, but Turkey never seems to make sense, so whatever.) The attackers, apparently, told her that there were four other people in the neighbourhood that they had an eye on. Hearing this sent me furiously googling Krav Maga classes somewhere – anywhere – so that I’d have something to do if I were assaulted in a similar way and was forced to physically defend myself, my freedom to wear bloomers, and my position that anybody who would send soldiers out to their deaths without telling them that that might be what they’re in for is not somebody I would like to align myself with, ever.

It hit me then that something had changed in my responses to learning about what’s going on around me; or at least, I’m learning how I respond when these kinds of things are going on around me. In Canada incidents like this are essentially unheard of, so I’ve never been in a position to really think about what I would do. I’ve never been physically violent with anybody outside of fits of childhood rage, and I have no desire to be. But I’ve learned now what it’s like to live in fear, to have your decision-making be reduced to the autopilot of fight or flight responses. Even now, when I think about what the appropriate course of action would be if I were attacked, I find myself at a loss despite the fact that, when I left Canada, I was definitely of the opinion that I was a pacifist if nobody but myself was in a position to be harmed.

I’ve been reading through famous Turkish writer Yashar Kemal’s oeuvre, and in one of his books he writes “A fearful man is a bad man.” I think this is true much of the time. Fear has made me question my own values, and I see very clearly now how quickly it can change a peaceful person into somebody who accepts and normalizes violence because I have become that person in moments of thoughtlessness and … perhaps even in moments of thoughtfulness.

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