Ramadan in Turkey: Culture Wars and Bülent Ersoy

It’s Ramadan in Turkey right now, and Istanbul has had a bad month. The first day a bomb went off, killing five police officers. Shortly after, a group of men armed with pipes raided a record store in Cihangir where a number of people were quietly listening to a new Radiohead album and drinking beer. The attackers swore and shouted about how disrespectful it was to drink during Ramadan while beating the attendees. One yelled that hew as going “to burn them inside.” The perpetrators were detained by police but were later released without charges.

Video of the attack in Cihangir – not graphic.

Later the same day, Erdogan vowed to rebuild a military barracks on the site of Gezi Park, a plan which sparked nationwide protests in 2013, during which a number of people died. Those protests gave rise to predictions of a Turkish Spring akin to the Arab Springs happening around the same time. This didn’t materialize, but the prodigious force of these protests caused Erdogan to withdraw the proposal to build on Gezi . . . apparently until now.

The next evening a group of people protesting the attack in Cihangir by standing and drinking in the street were attacked by police, who shot tear gas into the crowd even though the protest was peaceful. Meanwhile, the perpetrators of the original attack haven’t been charged even though one of them was caught on video, and the business owner and business have been evicted by the owner of the building, who is presumably afraid of further repercussions. Then it was announced that the forthcoming Transgender and Gay Pride Parades have been cancelled too over “security fears” during Ramadan as ultra-nationalist youth organization Alperen Hearths threatened violence. The same thing happened last year; the government forbade the parade to go ahead only a few days before it was supposed to take place, even though there is no legal requirement for parade organizers to request government permission. Both this year and last, the parades went ahead anyway and were violently dispersed by police armed with water cannons and rubber bullets. No “ultra-nationalistic organizations” perpetrated violence, except the state of course.

To finish off this violent layer-cake with judicious sprinkling of powdered wtf, the same day that the Transgender Pride Parade-goers were attacked by police Erdogan and his wife Emine broke their Ramadan fast with none other than Bülent Ersoy. Ersoy, transgender diva extraordinaire, apparently labours under the illusion that she isn’t transgender. And while it may be the desired outcome of the trans movement to obliterate questioning around your identified gender (a more complicated issue that I won’t get into here), the fact that she deems it appropriate to allow her trans compatriots to be teargassed and shot at with rubber bullets while she breaks bread with the man who allows it to happen smacks of a complete divorce from reality. Ersoy is not much of an inspiration (as other people on the internet have called her), simply for the fact that she’s trans and has done what she wants. Everybody tries to do what they want, and the only difference between Ersoy and regular people is that she succeeded at it because she had money and musical success.

Source: The Guardian

Source: The Guardian

Erdogan looks like he just sharted.

At any rate, I was expecting Ramadan violence. In theory, Ramadan is supposed to be a month of peace, giving to the poor, and understanding what it is like to live with little. For me, Ramadan is mostly an occasion to witness two things: hypocrisy and how the fissures of Turkish society widen each year.

My first Ramadan in Turkey, I witnessed my employers feast like gluttons each night and sleep all day, while leaving nannies to take care of their children at all times (that’s right – no time off, but you can do that when you employ someone from Nepal because it’s not like they speak Turkish well or know their rights.) My female boss talked constantly about how much she hoped Ramadan would help her lose weight while lamenting how skinny I was compared to her while eating “all the time.” (In fact, I ate less than she did, was significantly taller, and exercised every day. Furthermore, she only fasted for about three days, though she still piously slept the whole day and partied all night. She was delusional.)

While I’d initially been looking forward to the experience of Ramadan that first summer in Turkey, assuming that the intentions of the holiday lined up with its practice, I quickly changed my tune. When my bosses were awake during the day, they were cranky, abused their children and staff, and talked about how generous they were to the poor. In response, I gorged myself on breakfast every day and drank at every opportunity because, even though I still believed that Ramadan could be observed sincerely, it was all too much to bear.

Around that same time, Erdogan was in the process of moving from being the prime minister of the country to being the president, and people were questioning his motives. There were rumours that he had cancer for a while, and that the presidency (which was more ceremonial than anything at the time) was a way to live out his political days. There was also speculation that he was doing it to keep his hold on power.

That summer I went to the gay pride parade in Istanbul, which smacked more of a protest than a party, but went ahead peacefully and relatively safely.

IMG_20140629_164816996 IMG_20140629_171709119 IMG_20140629_184803850

People put signs in the gate of the Russian embassy, as Russia was already persecuting gays at the time.

It was that summer that I began to realize that Turkey was not as stable as it appeared from my vantage point in Canada. Secular friends talked about how much that hated that there were cities in Turkey where it was impossible to buy food during the day during Ramadan, about how they were concerned by how the government was encouraging a return to conservative (ostensibly “Muslim”) values. At the time, it didn’t seem as bad as they said. It wasn’t – and it was.

I came back to Turkey a year later to an even more polarized political discourse. Secular people bemoaned how many more women were veiled. The government had refused to negotiate with Kurdish militias, restarting a war that had been in a state of détente for a while. And even though I didn’t want to engage in the same kind of judgement that Turkish people seemed happy to throw at each other, I started to understand when I bussed one day through a more conservative area of Istanbul wearing a dress that went up to my neck and down to my knees and was rudely stared at by many of the covered ladies there.

Though I resisted feeling the same way about “other” people that many of my secular compatriots did, (“I could never have a friend who was veiled!” “You don’t understand Muslims – but I do, and they are bad people!” “Muslims! – followed by an eyeroll. I’m from a Muslim family, I can say that.”) I began to understand the depth of Turkey’s fissures, great canyons of difference that are capitalized on by the government, who caters to the more conservative and anti-Kurdish crowd by promising a more Muslim and more secure state if they can only stay in power.

In the following months, Turkey began to experience terrorist attacks. The first, which the government, unbelievably, blamed on Kurdish people, targeted Kurdish protesters. The rest were a mixture of ISIS and Kurdish factions, or at least, that’s who claimed them. Whether or not the government was responsible is a question, although as one friend said, “The government created the conditions for these kinds of attacks to exist.”

This brings us to Ramadan, the Muslim holy month, and the best time of year to determine who belongs on which side of the canyon of difference because, at this point, radical Muslims have license to attack secular people for behaving in supposedly “non-Muslim” ways with minimal, if any, repercussions. Furthermore, the cancellation of the Pride Parades because of “Ramadan” helps reinforce the idea that Muslims cannot participate in the Pride movement, that there is an ideology-binary, that you’re either with the government or against it. In reality, one of the women in the above photographs is sporting a hijab, but appears as into the idea of pride as everybody else.

Turkey is not a stable country by any means, and much of the political manoeuvering has people coming up with wild – or not so wild – conspiracy theories. After the Radiohead attack in Cihangir, a neighbourhood that houses the largest part of Turkey’s expat community, a Turkish friend mused that the neighbourhood was targeted for that reason and that the attackers might have had something to do with the government. “The government has no reason to want expats,” one friend noted, “because expats understand that there’s something better out there. They know that Turkey doesn’t need to accept this kind of treatment.”

It’s not something I want to believe, but it’s hard to prevent these theories from lodging in your brain. Suddenly, the fact that it takes six months to get a residency permit and that it’s nearly impossible to leave the country during the six months that you’re waiting for your appointment becomes not a symptom of Turkey’s general administrative inefficiency, but a deliberate attempt to keep naysayers out.

As for the new plans for Gezi Park, they are certainly a provocation and could potentially send Turkey sailing into a civil war. I can just imagine Erdogan a la Nero, except instead of plucking the strings of lyre he’d be plucking the hairs of his moustache (because, how the hell else do you get a moustache to even do that?) and instead of Rome it’s Constantinople. Or Ankara. Or whatever. I’m done with the analogies. I just hope things calm down after Ramadan.

On a more positive note, here in Kyrgyzstan I stayed at an AirBnB where my host was celebrating Ramadan. My host, a very kind and gentle man and one of my best AirBnB hosts to date, didn’t even tell me that he was celebrating. I only found out after staying at his house for five days.

“Do you celebrate Ramadan every year?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “This is actually my first Ramadan. And actually it’s kind of about forgiveness – I mean, not that I’ve done a lot of very bad sins but – um, I don’t know how to express this in English exactly.”

“Is it sort of like reminding yourself how good God is, compared to you?” I asked.

“Yes, like this, kind of,” he said. “And anyway, it is not about showing how good you are. You are not supposed to act any differently during Ramadan. You don’t get to be mean to others because you are hungry, and it’s a personal thing so you shouldn’t tell everybody you are fasting.”

In conclusion, Erdogan doesn’t own Ramadan. He just uses whatever he can to suit his political agenda and allows others to do the same.

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  1. Paul says:

    Brilliant read, thanks Kate.


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