All posts tagged Turkish Politics

  • Life in Istanbul these Days

    Sorry for the long absence – it was, I promise, one that would have counted as “motivated” by even the nitpickiest of my high school teachers. I’m working full-time, I’ve had some minor but time-consuming health problems, I did a bit of travelling, and I got married. I’ve neglected a few projects because of the craziness of it all, and this blog is one of them.

    Here are some notes from life in Istanbul as of late.

    Turkey is going to have a referendum in early April about some proposed constitutional changes. These, if accepted, would give the presidential office and Erdogan a great deal of power. I’m beyond caring about it because whether Erdogan wants to maintain the veneer of democracy or not changes little about what is actually going on. The only thing to do is to choose battles we can fight in our corner. To that end, Adem and I have a laundry list of products we no longer buy and stores we no longer frequent because of their links to the government. Ülker and Godiva products are out, we’ve stopped shopping at Şok, Bim, and A101, and we try to shop at the bazaars and neighbourhood shops and to buy local so that our money goes towards providing livelihoods for local merchants instead of big companies that tend to funnel money upward.

    Although I don’t feel any anxiety about the referendum, it is hard to ignore the campaigning. As my neighbourhood tends conservative, huge posters encouraging people to vote yes to the constitutional changes are prominently displayed all over the place. Under one of these posters, another poster has been hung advertising “psychological consulting.” Although I’m reasonably sure that said “psychological consulting” would also be coming from a conservative perspective, it still makes me laugh every time I pass by.

    Along with the posters everywhere, campaigners are handing out flyers in the street and mobile propaganda trucks play jaunty patriotic tunes. The ones against the constitutional changes all play the Izmir March, whose lyrics translate roughly to “Long live Mustafa Kemal Pasha! May his name be a jewel in our crown.” Like many marches, the Izmir March is a major earworm and I find myself whistling it frequently, even if my feelings towards Atatürk are not particularly worshipful.

    In other news from this month, my eyes have been opened to the meaning of my status in Turkish society as unmarried lady living with her boyfriend. I’ve never felt exactly uncomfortable in my neighbourhood or apartment building, but it did make me laugh ruefully this past month when the neighbours started speaking to me all at once. Before I had assumed that their not speaking to me was just because we live in a huge city, but I now suspect it was because Adem and I were living in sin.

    It all started when, a week after the wedding, I said hello to the opposite neighbour and mentioned “my husband.”

    “Your husband?!” she said. “Adem is your husband?”

    “Yes,” I said, “we just got married.

    “Congratulations!” she said. “Why don’t you come in for tea?”

    She has never invited either of us for tea before.

    A few days later, our downstairs neighbour caught us as we were heading out and admonished us for not inviting her to the wedding.

    “We’re neighbours!” she said. “You should invite us!”

    “It was just a small civil wedding,” Adem said. “We’ll have a bigger wedding and invite you.”

    “Congratulations, congratulations,” she said. “Yes, let us know when you have the big wedding.”

    Now she too always greets me whenever we cross paths in the hallway and asks me how I’m doing. I appreciate the attention but do find is amusing (and disturbing?) to see how shut out I was until I made an honest woman of myself. On the other hand, it’s not exactly surprising and they were never rude to me, so I suppose I’ll accept the friendliness and reserve my personal misgivings for bigger problems than their tacit judgement of our choices.

    More to come, I promise.

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  • Dare to Disappoint: Growing up in Turkey – Turkish Literature in English

    Özge Samancı’s bildings-graphicmemoir Dare to Disappoint: Growing up in Turkey chronicles her growing up years in Izmir in the turbulent period following Kenan Evren’s 1980 military coup. Turkey’s 1980s was a time of rapid inflation, a dictatorial government, curfews, and persecution and killings of opposition members. Samancı’s parents were both public-school teachers and, as the currency devalued in the wake of the coup, they became increasingly poor. In order to silence the protests of public servants being paid less and less, the government implicitly suggested its employees begin to take bribes. This allowed for a near-complete absence of recourse for people who didn’t have money and wished for any sort of legal protection.

    Samancı’s father’s response to the treacherousness of life in Turkey is to push his two daughters to do well in school and get well paying jobs. At one point, he tells them, “you have to be good at school. Otherwise, in the future you will be dependent on your husbands or us. Your husband will tell you what to do. You will lose your freedom. In this country, if you are a woman and you don’t have a job, you are ZERO, nothing, NOTHING!” Özge and her sister Pelin respond to this pressure by working very hard and attending weekend school so that they can go to more prestigious high schools and colleges. (This educational pressure was a reality for many Turkish kids of the period, including Adem.)

    The political narrative is a perfect pairing to Özge’s own personal journey to find herself amongst the obstacles of the Turkish education system and her father’s insistence that she be financially successful. Through Özge and her family’s stories, Dare to Disappoint poses questions of what to do in the face of a society that restricts you and its other citizens and forces you to behave in certain very prescribed ways. Do you try to follow your dreams, or is it best to just try to survive?

    This graphic novel also provides a clear window into how the Turkish present mirrors the Turkish past. The modern Turkish “democracy,” the legal system that favours those with money and power, and the intense competition among people who can be trying to raise a family working six days a week for 400 American dollars per month are all foreshadowed in Samancı’s work.

    Samancı also explores the question of whether resisting the status quo is even worth it, both through her own life and in a more political sense. In one scene, her parents watch two protesters protest the government on television and remark that “they’re so brave.” However, the with backdrop of executions and jailings one can’t help but wonder where the line between stupid and brave lies.

    Despite all the serious questions, Samancı is able to demonstrate the turbulence of Turkish society and its effect on her and her family in a way that is gracious rather than angry, humourous rather than jaded. If there is one book I would recommend to people trying to understand modern Turkey, this one is it.

    Other things about Turkish culture you can see in the book include: political graffiti and movements, Kemalism and Kemalist attitudes towards Ataturk, Turkish communism, and the rise of kumpir.


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  • Islamic Coverings in Turkey: Women, Young Girls, and Economics

    During my first trip to Trkey in 2014, I was surprised to see few women sporting Islamic coverings. Although public transit was plastered with advertisements for silk hijabs sported by smiling women wearing shiny trench coats and coordinated makeup, the street itself was relatively bare of covered women. In retrospect, the fact that I spent all my time around the Hagia Sofia and Blue Mosque explains my experience; touristic neighbourhoods are typically only frequented by foreign women since Turkish women understand that the shops and restaurants there are overpriced and the salesmen typically lecherous and inappropriately bold.

    The following summer, I moved to Izmir. Izmir, by Turkish standards, is remarkably liberal – a repository of the deification of Ataturk and his doctrine of secularism. In Izmir, bikini-clad ladies roam the beaches and barely-there sparkly dress-clad women roam the nightclubs (before returning home each night to save their virginity for marriage.) Wearing a hijab in Izmir was an act of rebellion, not a capitulation to a ruling social morality. Even my erstwhile boss, a self-professed Muslim from a more conservative city in the south eschewed it. “No, the hijab is not very good. Anyway the way women wear it these days, it is not modest!” she wailed to me once. “If you wear the hijab for modesty, you shouldn’t also wear makeup!” She showed me a picture on her phone of a Facebook friend of hers, smirking shiny red lips at the camera over a sumptuous meal, an orange hijab of expensive fabric carefully arranged atop her head. “See?” she said. “This woman is wearing so much makeup. She looks not modest.”

    My more recent forays into Turkey have allowed me to see a third snapshot of Turkish culture. I now live in a mixed neighbourhood of Istanbul. Here, Turkish students and Turkish and Syrian families of varying levels of conservatism live together. In my neighbourhood, it is a bad idea to eat in public during Ramadan. Shorts are a fairly rare sight on both men and women, even in the heat of summer. About 50% of women wear some sort of head covering, from the hijab paired with jeans and a long-sleeved t-shirt to the face-covering niqab styled with matching long flowing black robes.

    I’m told that there has been a shift towards covering in recent years – that in the olden days of 20 years ago, women who covered typically only did so following marriage and usually simply tied a scarf loosely over their hair. The new style of more intense covering has been blamed variously on the government, the government, the government, and Arab influence coming in from Syria and the Gulf, a typhoon (apparently) blowing the winds of conservative political Islam Turkey’s way. Of course, these are only the perspectives of the ultra-liberal mostly-Marxist couche sociale that I find myself a part of – it’s not exactly easy for me to gather other perspectives because the people who have them aren’t in the habit of talking to foreigners like me and, as I don’t attend school or work in Turkey, I have equally few opportunities to talk to them.

    The prevalence of Islamic covering in Turkey presents an intellectual conundrum for me. As a feminist, I support a woman’s right to wear what she wants. I’m not so blind to the fact that women are presented with many similar messages in the West as they are in Turkey – you should be sexy, but also not sexy. If you’re too sexy, people won’t take you seriously. If you’re not sexy, people won’t think you’re attractive. You should wear makeup to look nice, but not too much because there’s a possibility that people won’t find you attractive if it’s too much. They could also find you too attractive and then it will be your fault if they come onto you inappropriately. You should exercise and keep in shape – but God forbid that a man see the outline of your butt in yoga pants because he might get a boner or talk about seeing your butt to his friends. You shouldn’t care about what men think of you and you should wear what you want for yourself. But be sure that it’s sexy enough to be attractive and modest enough so that nobody can question your character. And don’t forget women. Women are the arbiter of what society thinks too, so if they think you’re not dressing correctly – well, you shouldn’t care, but make sure you’re sexy enough for women to compliment you, but not sexy enough to make their partners be attracted to you.

    But back to the hijab. As a Westerner, I’ve always had a live and let live relationship with the hijab. In Canada, whenever I see one I think one of these things:

    “I just remembered I forgot to buy dish soap.”

    “Oh, a woman wearing hijab.”

    “That must be so warm in winter.”

    “How does she make it look like a turban? How do the pins stay in place? I wonder if they can prick you by mistake, or are there safety pins specifically for hijabs that you can buy?”

    “Is that really all her real hair under that thing?”

    “She could be wearing it for so many reasons – it could be because she wants to express her religion outwardly. Or because it’s a way to publicly express her identification with her culture. Or maybe because her family wants her to. Or maybe she didn’t wash her hair today.”

    In short, I tend to make the assumption of a more-or-less free choice, or a choice that, at the very least, is just as free as the choice I and many Western women make to dress in ways that tread the brutal line between being attractive and being the sort of person one takes seriously.

    This live and let live attitude came with me during my first months in Turkey, and I ardently argued for my perspectives to secularist friends and acquaintances, probably to their great annoyance. After more time spent in the country, however, my perception of the hijab in Turkey has changed; I now understand that pressures to dress a certain way go beyond society and enter many strata of government. To hear my friends tell it, a certain level of conservatism is practically a requirement if you have your eye on a good post in government, and a post in government is like being thrown onto an island of job stability while other Turks drown in the treacherous sea of the Turkish economy. So, while I still affirm an adult woman’s right to wear what she wants, the social pressure that exists in Turkey to dress in a way that covers your body is bothersome to me because the more pressure there is, the less choice a woman actually has.

    What bothers me even more is when I see prepubescent girls who are already covered. I have seen a few girls around the age of eight. My sister-in-law told me she once saw a covered little girl around the age of 5. I’m no Muslim theologian, and I haven’t thoroughly studied what Muslim scholars say about Islamic modesty’s links to (female) sexuality. However, this lack of profound knowledge notwithstanding, I do understand that popular perception holds that the hijab is about hiding the body and sexuality or (more generously) about seeing a woman for virtues that have nothing to do with her body and sexuality. So whenever I see young girls with heads already covered, I can’t help but resent the implicit sexualization of the young girl’s body.

    If I’ve learned one thing from feeling frustrated about people who cover their children or people who refuse to admit that the hijab isn’t as free a choice as it could be, it is this: engaging another culture can present real and serious difficulty to people with a particular notion of ethics, morality, and what is good for people; it is not as simple as just “respecting” somebody else’s culture. Sometimes, differing beliefs can even motivate the essentially altruistic behaviour of trying to change something about a culture (although, of course this may not be perceived positively by the culture one is trying to change.) Even though I say nothing when I see eight-years-olds wearing hijab, I feel suddenly empathetic for the bad guy “orientalists” and “missionaries” and “colonists” of history, not because I think all their actions can be justified, but because I understand what it feels like to see something in another culture and believe that it’s basically wrong.

    When do we have the right to try to change something? Or to make a moral call? Does anybody have any ideas that are better than mine?

    **To be very clear: I believe that adult women should be able to make the free choice to cover or uncover. I also believe that implicit sexualisation of young girls and being forced to cover for economic and other unavoidable reasons is wrong.

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  • The Armenian Genocide in Conversation

    Summer 2012

    I first learned about the Armenian Genocide in university, but the first exposure I had to the controversy it is the centre of in Turkey and the Caucasus came a year later, when I found myself a student at a summer program in France.

    For a reason unbeknownst to me, the group of fifteen classmates had come to include four Turkish women, two of whom spoke a very approximate  French and one of whom provided little evidence that she knew any French at all. Her name was Deniz.

    One day after class, about ten of the group members decided to go out for a beer, including Deniz, the Turkish girl who didn’t talk. We sat down, and I asked the unsmiling waitress which of the beer selection was her favourite. In true French waitress fashion, she shrugged non-committally. I pointed out a white beer of middling price. “What about this one?”

    “Bof,” she said. “People know it.”

    “I’ll have that one then,” I said, mentally making a note to tip the next North American waitress I would meet extra for at least bothering to pretend to have an opinion on beer.

    A few minutes later, the aforementioned unsmiling waitress returned with the alcohol, and the tongues loosened as we put our middling French to use.

    I don’t remember how long it was into the conversation, but at some point somebody mentioned the Armenian genocide. A few minutes passed as we spoke about the genocide; I can no longer remember in what context we were discussing it, but the point is we were discussing it on more or less the same terms. Nobody was questioning its historical veracity.

    Well, not nobody. As everybody paused to catch their breath, Deniz’s voice mumbled from the end of the table. “It didn’t happen.”

    There was a long and awkward silence.

    Summer 2014

    I was talking to Kerem, a Turkish academic I’d met online, about my distaste for Orhan Pamuk, Nobel Prize Winning Novelist and (in my opinion), self-indulgent bore.

    “There are some people that think he won the Nobel Prize for political reasons,” he said. “Because he came out in public and talked about the Armenian genocide without denying it.”

    “That could explain why somebody who writes such boring novels about himself could have won the Nobel Prize I guess,” I said.

    “Maybe,” said Kerem.

    September 2015

    I was back in Turkey for a few days, staying in the home of an erstwhile friend. She was a university educated woman – a teacher, in fact – and absurdly liberal. So I made the mistake of assuming she believed in the Armenian genocide and mentioned it casually when talking about something related.

    She did not.

    “You want to know what I think?” she retorted. “I think that Armenians are powerful and have a lot of money and influence, and because they are all around the world their story got very popular, but that’s not the truth. It was a war. Lots of people died and I don’t know why Armenians spread this story.”

    A few days later I had drinks with another friend, an academic. “Why are Turkish people so defensive about the Armenian genocide?” I asked. “Well, Turks are very nationalistic,” she said. “But to be honest, I’m not entirely sure. You know, actually a lot of the Armenian genocide was actually perpetrated by Kurds, but they are usually more willing to accept responsibility.”

    October 2015

    I took the train to Armenia. It was the centenary of the Armenian genocide, and Yerevan was decked out in commemorative material. I met a Polish guy at the hostel I was staying at. He knew more about Armenia than I did.

    “You know,” he said. “Of course I believe in the Armenian genocide, but I think Armenians need to stop making it a big deal on the international stage. Armenia has so few friends – their borders with Azerbaijan and Turkey are closed. All they really have is Russia. If they just made peace with everybody, they might have some chances to develop, but as it is….”

    The Next Day

    I met a woman at the post office who invited me to her house for dinner. I accepted. We spoke about her children, both adults, both successful. She was proud of them. We spoke about her divorce. She was proud of that too. We spoke about her vacation to Turkey. “You went to Turkey?” I asked. “Yes,” she said. “But when people asked where I was from, I told them I was Russian, not Armenian. You know history? They are our enemies.”

    “Huh,” I said.

    A Few Days Later

    I made my way to the Armenian Genocide museum in Yerevan. I hate genocide museums, but I felt like I had to go. The museum was up on a hill; the way up was flanked by commemorative posters, including one that portrayed an eraser erasing Armenian words and a pencil replacing them with Turkish. The woman at the museum front desk suggested I join a tour that had just started. I was clearly the only person participating who was not Armenian.

    IMG_2949 IMG_2952 IMG_2954 IMG_2955 IMG_2959

    The tour guide had a monotone voice and unconsciously blasé attitude towards showing very graphic content. “The Ottomans liked to decapitate their victims” she intoned. “Here is a photograph of some Ottoman officials posing with a disembodied head in Macedonia.”

    A few minutes later she showed us photographs of a starving woman, ribs sticking from her torso, clearly close to death. One of the women in the group broke into loud sobs.

    The guide continued without seeming to register. “Some Armenians were even crucified. Look, here are some pictures of Armenians that were given face tattoos brought into harems.”

    November 2015

    I was in Azerbaijan. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union Azerbaijan and Armenia have been at war over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, a territory which used to have a mixed population of Azeris and Armenians. After the territory was granted to Azerbaijan, Armenia claimed it; as a result of this Armenia now counts next to no Azeris and vice versa due to refugees flowing both ways. Refugees to Azerbaijan from Nagorno-Karabakh were not well taken care of, and there is a lot of resentment and hatred towards Armenia among Azerbaijanis.

    According to the owner of a bookstore I went to in Baku, Azeris are not great readers, but Azerbaijan does have a national novel, a romance called Ali and Nino. The book is about the Caucasus in the early 20th century, as exemplified through Ali, an Azeri youth, and his Georgian love Nino. Unfortunately for Ali, there is also an Armenian fellow with his eye on Nino, and Ali exacts his revenge by killing him when Ali believes that Nino has been kidnapped by him.

    I met an Azerbaijani while I was staying in Baku, and mentioned I was reading the book to him.

    “Oh,” he said, “I read half of it but never finished. What happened at the end?”

    “Well,” I said, “The Armenian guy dies and—“

    “Good,” he said.

    Baku by night.

    Baku by night.

    A Few Days Later

    I was staying at an AirBnB in Baku, home to a wonderfully hospitable family and an exchange student with whom I spent every evening. This particular evening, the extended family had been invited over. One of them mentioned the Armenian genocide. Needless to say, I was surprised.

    “You believe in the Armenian genocide?” I asked.

    He seemed taken aback, but quickly recovered himself.

    “No!” he said. “Armenians are – Armenians are, well it was a war, and lots of people died. Turks died, Armenians died. The same number of Armenians and Turks died, that’s it. Same number, same number.”


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  • 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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  • Tanks A Lot Turkey: A Coup and a lot of Uncertainty

    I know some of you might have been waiting to hear me say something about this, but I’ve held off on writing. It’s been a rough couple of days.

    We watched the coup via social media the night it happened, staying up all night to hear the new developments. Immediately, people on social media began saying that it was an autocoup – that it had been designed by the government in a bid to consolidate power. Then people thought it was real, and then they decided it was staged again because it was too sloppy and the government was able to play too many cards to end it. Then some people decided it was staged, but not by the government, while others began to accept that it was a real coup. Nobody however, at least in my social media feeds, seemed to believe that Fethullah Gulen, the man who the presidency has claimed is responsible for the coup, had anything to do with it.

    The most horrifying thing about that night, however, wasn’t the wild conspiracy theorizing, but the government’s response to the coup. Turkish citizens began to get text messages from the government and imams began yelling from mosques for Turkish citizens to go out in the streets and protect their country. From what I heard (or rather read from Turkish friends on Skype and Facebook during the coup) from my incongruously peaceful balcony in Georgia, people were marching in the streets towards the soldiers yelling Allahu Akhbar. When the soldiers surrendered, many of them were beaten and some killed by this angry mob, who spent the next night celebrating in the streets their victory, as if they really ended the coup.

    On Facebook, one Syrian woman wrote something the next day to the effect of, “I saw this kind of thing is Syria. Believe me, these people did not end the coup – the coup ended because of orders from on high. I know from Syria that unarmed people can do nothing against a tank. And yet they believe they ended the coup.” Yet people still went out in the streets with the belief that they could, which caused me to remark to Adem that “every Turk is born a sucker,” in reference to Ataturk’s famous statement that “Every Turk is born a soldier.”

    It wasn’t only that. The day after the coup ended, news stories started to appear that stated that the privates involved in the coup had been told that it was a military exercise. Some of them were doing their mandatory military service – and some of them, at 20 years old, died or were severely beaten by the mob.

    As far as I am concerned, citizens who went outside during the military coup to protest it are moronic sheep. You can’t defend democracy with your fists when you’re faced with a tank. It just doesn’t work. This being said, the fact that the government asked its citizens to perform this operation means they have a total disregard for the lives of their citizens as long as it serves their interests. Citizens were killed for nothing. Not for democracy, certainly, and not for positive change either.

    The other horrible thing about this is that, despite claims from the Turkish government, this is not about democracy. The last Turkish election was not democratic – government-critical media outlets were raided and destroyed prior to the election, and a previous election was considered invalid because a coalition could not be formed because the ruling party was just unwilling to form one. Another thing is that many domestic (and foreign) media outlets have stated, “Well, they’ve elected somebody bad, but the people have spoken.” This isn’t a fair analysis either. Since the Gezi Park protests, nearly all non pro-government protests, no matter how peaceful, have been silenced by police. Why weren’t the government opposition out in the street, also voicing their support for democracy? Because people are terrified. There is now no question on everybody’s mind about who holds the country’s power.

    As for me, I’m shaken up. My boyfriend and I had always planned to leave the country – we could see that things weren’t headed in a good direction, and we didn’t want to raise children in a society as hyper-nationalistic and competitive as Turkey. But, we thought that we could survive it for a few years before thinking about moving back to Canada, that a further consolidation of government power would come gradually and not all at once. Now, I don’t know what we can realistically do – or rather, what I can realistically do. We spent this week in Georgia, and even pre-coup it was like a breath of fresh air. Nobody bumped into me or stared at me in the street. Women were walking alone at 3 a.m. without incident. And people were even baring their midriffs like it was the most normal thing in the world, and not a 90s trend that has suddenly become “vintage” enough to come back into style (oh God, no.)

    The point is – violence is like alcohol. Your liver can metabolize so much, and I think I’ve reached my limit. The past few days were a series of difficult conversations with my boyfriend. “We should try to leave Turkey as soon as possible.” “That makes me feel really horrible. It makes me feel like giving up.” “I know.” “I wonder how we’ll get you to Canada. I can support you in a cheap country, but if you can’t find a job in Canada I’m not sure what we’ll do.” “Do we need to get married this summer? Will that help us?” “I think it will, yes. But we won’t get to celebrate it properly. Even if we managed to have a wedding in Turkey at a more appropriate time, the situation means that most of the people I would want to invite won’t feel comfortable coming for who knows how long – and who can blame them?” “Yeah, I see. I do want to do it properly.” “We can’t leave until you finish school.” “I can’t get a passport until I finish my military service.” “If you do your military service, you’ll be working for Erdogan. They could order you to do anything, like those boys in the coup.” “I know, but I can’t apply for Canadian permanent residency without a passport.” “In September I’m going back to Canada.” “Maybe we can meet in Georgia instead of you coming to Istanbul. During my school holidays. Then when I finish my military service we can go somewhere else.” “I thought it would be okay. I mean, I can take some of it. You know – terrorist attacks, okay – that’s just the normal stuff.” “Do you realize what you’re saying? If there were terrorist attacks in Canada, nobody would call them normal.” “You’re right, they wouldn’t. I don’t want to go back tomorrow.” “It’s just a month. You can make it until September. We can go to the seaside.” “Okay. Maybe it will be nice to go to the seaside.” “If we have to stay in Turkey for my work, we’ll move to a small town, okay?” “I guess, okay.”

    I remember once seeing a series of photographs of a wedding in Syria. The photographs were taken amidst the piles of rubble of a building, and the photographer said he took them to show that life triumphs over death or something. What I didn’t understand (and understand now) is that they are actually a symbol of all the people who were robbed of their weddings – people who died too young to have them, people whose relatives and friends who they wanted to be there couldn’t be there, the people whose weddings were perfunctory affairs and not the celebrations they had hoped for. And although we’ve been lucky enough not to have any of our loved ones be significantly harmed by any of the forces of evil in Turkey, considering a shotgun wedding this summer makes me feel sad and resentful, not excited. We could have had a wedding after many years together, we could have had time to save up for a nice one, we could have had the time to prepare mentally or the huge step that is marriage, my family and friends might have felt comfortable coming to attend it – of course we may still get to have a wedding at some other time, but it’s still not quite the same as doing it on our own terms.

    On the other hand, many things about Istanbul are still the same, but the question is whether it will stay that way. Everybody knows that the government holds all the cards now – and the government has made a point of not protecting those it deems anti-government or anti-Islamist. Will women be harassed for not dressing sufficiently modestly? Perhaps not, but now the playing field is different. When I first came to Turkey two years ago, the tourist sector was thriving, and everybody know that severely harassing women over their choice of dress was, at the very least, bad for business. The violence this year has ensured that there is no longer any tourism sector, and therefore no financial incentive to do anything about protecting women’s rights – but plenty of ideological incentive to do otherwise. Lots of other things are up in the air too. Foreign academics have been barred from leaving the country, and 30,000 educators have lost their jobs or been suspended. Police are stopping people in the streets to look at the WhatsApp messages on their phones, to make sure they don’t say anything bad about the government.

    Things may settle into a bad but predictable rhythm, but now everything is up in the air. It’s now impossible to assume the best, and not knowing how things are going to play out makes it worse.

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  • 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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  • The Hijabi Hairdresser and (the few) Gender-Segregated Turkish Spaces

    The second time I came to Turkey, I was dragged to an upscale hair salon in Izmir with my former employer only to discover that all the hairdressers were men. I was amazed. It was different from Canada, to be sure, where hairdressers are typically women or gay men. However, it wasn’t just that. Although Izmir is the most liberal city in Turkey and women in Izmir don’t tend to wear any kind of covering, it’s still Turkey. In other words, men in Izmir still tend to behave possessively towards wives, sisters, and girlfriends, and virginity before marriage is still valued. Because of all this, the idea that men should bear the responsibility of touching women in order to make them more beautiful seemed . . . bizarre.

    I’ll get back to this later.



    I suppose it is bad to steal pictures without asking, but had to use it. Sadly, I have never gotten three things done at once or been fed Turkish coffee at a Turkish salon.

    When I finally moved to Istanbul, I starting making periodical appearances at my neighbourhood hamam. The first time I went, it wasn’t busy. When I entered, the women who worked there were sprawled across benches watching an Indian soap opera on a 12 inch television. When I came out of the steam bath, one of them put some music on and they started to belly dance. I joined in briefly, to hoots of kind laughter and motherly correction that had no effect on my technique.

    The second time I went it was busier. Women roamed around in varying states of undress: one had a nipple straying out of her bra; another was wearing a t-shirt and a pair of panties two sizes too small. Another was clothed, sprawled out on one of the benches, napping. All seemed comfortable. It was like I’d walked into an Orientalist painting . . . except imagine each woman aged about 50 years and about 10 kilos heavier, plop some of them in chairs getting their roots bleached old-lady blonde, and imagine them all clucking simultaneously when you walk the wrong way or forget your slippers.

    Like this Gérome painting....but not.

    Like this Gérome painting….but really not.

    That day I was there not because I wanted to get scrubbed, but because they provided waxing services. I asked if they were free to wax me and was met with a raucous course of yes. A moment later I was hustled into a small room and told to remove my clothing below the waist – even though the door to the room was open. The woman who waxed me was in her sixties and insisted that I stand while she did it, presumably to save her back. Understanding that my Turkish needs improving, she was careful to speak slowly and loudly to me as she spelled out the ingredients of the wax. “Sekeeeeeeer, li-mooooooon, su – her sey dog-aaaaaal.” (Sugar, lemon, it’s all-natural.) I stood their naked from the waist down as she ripped my body hair into submission when all of a sudden another woman of roughly the same generation as my waxer hung her head and both breasts into the room to ask about something, before continuing contentedly on her bucknaked way as I did my best not to collapse in a fit of giggles at her nudist nonchalance.

    I adore the atmosphere of the hamam. Not one woman in there appears to care what her body looks like or to have any kind of running competition with anybody else. Most of them are over 50, and many older; when you go into the actual steam bath part of the hamam (rather than the outer courtyard), most of the woman are unselfconsciously naked, lifting flaps of skin and breast to scrub underneath, enjoying a massage or full-body exfoliation, and chatting with whoever they’ve come with. I heard from friends that they even sometimes make food and just go and eat it there if there are no husbands or children or grandchildren that need tending. At any rate, it’s convivial and relaxed and relaxing and a little bit funny to get mothered this way and that for a few hours while wearing very little.

    Hamams are, of course, segregated by gender. Women and men bathe at different times or in different sections, depending on the size and architecture of the place. My hamam excursions made me wonder whether other gender-segregated spaces existed in Turkish society.

    Most things in Turkey are not segregated by gender, and although patriarchal attitudes are alive and well, the legacy of the Ataturkian reforms reigns superficial king in public places.* There is still some segregation, however. Now that I live in Istanbul, I am surrounded by many more women who choose to cover themselves to varying degrees. In Montreal hijabis are a common sight, so the proliferation of hijab-clad women did not give me pause at first – until I noticed that every hair salon I passed by still seemed to be staffed by men like the ones in Izmir were. So I put the question to Adem. “Where do women who cover get their haircut?” I asked. “I think just at a regular salon,” he said. “Many women veil just for political reasons, but aren’t necessarily religious. They probably just take their hijab off when they get into the salon.

    “What?” I said. “Women are just veiling for political reasons? That can’t be right.”

    “No really,” Adem said. “Before the ruling party came into power almost nobody veiled. And then as soon as they came into power people started to do it because the government was religious – or at least, claimed to be. So there are lots of reasons to cover your hair besides religion. People need to seem sufficiently religious to work in any occupation that has anything to do with the ruling party, so women will veil in order to get better jobs or make their husbands more competitive on the job market. It’s also a fashion statement. And some women decide to veil after they decide to make a change in their life in order to indicate that they’ve turned over a new leaf. And of course many of the women you see wearing abayas and niqabs are not Turkish at all – they’re Syrian. Anyway, I think they must just get their hair cut at a regular hairdresser. If they weren’t veiled before they can probably still make an exception for a few hours.”

    I was not convinced that this could possibly be true. While it’s true that the current ruling party identifies itself as religious and makes statements about women that belong in the dark ages (e.g. birth control is unbecoming to Muslim women, it is not modest for women to smile), it did not seem possible that all women who chose to cover were doing so out of societal pressure. Assuming that some were motivated by sincere desire to observe their faith, it made sense that there should be facilities where they could get their hair done outside of the prying eyes of men. I also know that many hijabis enjoy looking good as much as their uncovered counterparts; I once bought a pair of yoga pants in a store stuffed with cheap pornographic lingerie. As I turned to examine my rear (the whole point of yoga pants – hello), the saleslady, a hijabi around my age, flashed me a thumbs up and said, “Looks great.” And that’s not even to mention the fact that many covered women seem to make up for any attractiveness they may have lost by covering their hair by making themselves up like movie stars and posting duck-faced selfies on Instagram.

    So I was on the hunt for a hijabi hairdresser. Adem wasn’t much help, so I put the appeal out on Facebook. The first comment was a bit reactionary. “Turkey is not a segregated country.” it said. “It’s not the Gulf. Most hijabis are just happy to have a man cut their hair.”


    Subsequent comments disagreed as helpful hijabis came out of the cyberworks. “They exist,” they said. “The windows are blocked out so people can’t see in, which is why they aren’t as obvious. And they tend to be in neighbourhoods, not downtown, although there are some downtown too that cater to tourist women from the Gulf. Look for a place that says “tesettur bolumu” on the sign.

    As it turned out, the answer to my question had been staring me straight in the face. Across the street from my apartment stood another apartment building with a sign that said “tesettur bolumu.” One morning, I went there, ostensibly to get a pedicure. The salon wasn’t located on the ground floor like most others I’d seen, and I had to knock on a heavy wooden door to get in. A woman peeked around the door. “Welcome,” she said, and that’s about it. I asked if they offered pedicures, and she waved me to a seat off to the side before motioning to a young esthetician who dutifully placed a tub of hot water beneath my feet, then returned to curling her hair while waiting for my feet to soften.

    In truth, I’d been expecting something like the hamam – convivial, cheerful, a clothed but uncovered place where women might let loose a little bit. Nothing could have been further from the truth. The pedicure was conducted in absurd silence. Not only did the staff not talk to me, which I might have understood as they may have assumed that my knowledge of Turkish was too limited; they didn’t talk to each other. And when a hijabi did come in she kept her carefully arranged hijab on, turning 180 degrees in front of the mirror and checking her profile and makeup before seating herself on the couch to gossip quietly and nastily with the staff at the salon about mutual friends and acquaintances. At the end of my pedicure I paid and went out, probably never to return.

    On my way home, I passed by a third gender segregated space, this time for men. This is the kahve, a café where men shoot the shit, smoke nargile, drink tea, and play board games. I can’t write much more about it since I’m not allowed inside; from outside it seems fairly lively, though more subdued than the hamam.


    On the right, a kahve spilling out into the street.

    I hear worries from friends and family all the time about the possibility of Turkey becoming more like a Gulf country, a place where gender segregation is the norm rather than the exception, or where women are judged (more than they already are – and they are) by what they choose to wear. The current political establishment appears to be driving Turkey in this direction, though many Turkish people resist this pressure; some even refuse to associate those who would agree with the current government’s ideology and policies. When I told friends I was writing about this, many reacted by expressing these worries. It is a sobering counterpoint to my merry curiosity, and an important one. In ten years, how will Turkey’s spaces have changed with regard to gender?

    *Ataturk was, among other things, responsible for the adoption of Western dress (thereby abolishing the veil and fez), and giving women the right to vote.

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  • Fear in Istanbul

    Istanbul is a city where I’m always on my guard. The hellish traffic and pedestrian-unfriendly roads, the leering men (in certain neighbourhoods), the jacked-up tourist prices, and the pickpockets and beggars have made their mark on my daily behaviours. In Canada, I can walk aimlessly; in Istanbul, I walk with purpose and don’t look around so as to look neither vulnerable nor approachable. In Canada, I look both ways before crossing; in Istanbul, my head rocks back and forth like a metronome before and during my road crossing. Right left – oh there’s a car, I’ll just stop here for a second in the middle of the road – good, he’s gone, okay now should I let this line of 20 cars go or should I stare them all down and dare them to run me over?

    In Canada, I don’t watch my purse as it swings next to my hip; in Istanbul, I even hug it to my chest if I’m in a crowded place. As for men, I prefer to stay outside of tourist neighbourhoods so that people will tend to assume I am Turkish or not have the linguistic skills to approach me.

    You get the picture.

    The funny thing about this is that, although I am more guarded in Istanbul than I am elsewhere and have been a victim of many of the dangers of Istanbul (including pickpocketing, groping, rude too-persistent flirting, and many a near-miss traffic accident) I rarely feel personal fear. I feel annoyance, anger, fatigue, and self-righteous indignation on a regular basis. I even feel fear regarding the political situation in Turkey, and the eventual fate of the entire country and a few friends in positions of opposition to the most excellent president. Personalized fear about my own safety, however, is something I’ve rarely felt.

    This time, things are different. Over the past year, Turkey has been the victim of seven terrorist attacks, two of which have occurred in Istanbul. And while I’ve written before about the importance of not allowing yourself to feel afraid when these things happen; that they’re statistically very unlikely to happen to you and so on, the truth is that I am more affected by my knowledge that they happen than I’d care to admit.

    After the second attack on Istanbul two months ago, I started to have anxiety attacks while still in Canada. In a crowded bar thought, “The death toll would be huge if there were an attack right now” and be unable to be present with the people in front of me. In the subway, I would keep an eye on seemingly abandoned baggage as tightness mounted in my chest, at one point even leaving to take the next train. And after my initial excitement at riding the new Azur train in Montreal dissipated, the first thing I thought was, “That open design would make the death toll of a bomb a lot higher.”

    The anxiety attacks became less frequent as my most recent arrival in Istanbul approached, I guess because it had been some time since the most recent terrorist attack. So I was unprepared for my arrival.

    It started with the loud bangs. Istanbul is a busy city that produces many loud bangs. There are lots of things that can bang: trunks of cars, fire crackers, celebratory gunshots after a soccer game, garbage trucks, etc. Instead of immediately jumping to the conclusion that it was one of the many innocuous things that can go bang every time something goes bang, it always takes me a moment to shake off the conviction that it was a bomb.

    A few days after my arrival I had to take the T1 tram to Kabataş. This is the tram that goes through Sultanahmet, where the first bomb in January went off. My first trip was uneventful, but as I approached Sultanahmet on my second trip, I noticed a young man to the left of me carrying a large suitcase. There was nothing about this man that indicated any danger. He looked to be Turkish. He was wearing a pair of sunglasses and had absurdly well-coiffed hair (absurd by Canadian standards; well within the standard of “normal” by Turkish ones.) I started to feel my chest tighten. As we continued along the route towards Sultanahmet, it tightened further. I felt a strong urge to get off the tram, but knew that if I did I would be not only late to my appointment, but would have capitulated to my fear.

    I stayed on the tram but elbowed my way to the other end of the car in the hopes that, if the bag did blow up, I might stand a chance of being among the injured instead of the dead.

    When I arrived at my destination, I could barely breathe. It took a half hour for the chest tightness to dissipate, and I was dogged by soul-sucking post-anxiety-attack fatigue. Later, I took the tram back the other way; the only incident was an American couple fighting awkwardly in the tram, assuming (I guess) that nobody around them spoke English. “I feel like you’re not respecting my friends right now.”—I know you feel that way, but I don’t want to stay up until 2 a.m.–“Yes, but I feel disrespected and ashamed, that’s how I feel.”

    When I came to the next morning, I began to think about the anxiety attack again. Before leaving, many of my friends expressed concern about the possibility of terrorist attacks, and I reassured them (truthfully) that the chances of anything happening were low and that if I did manage to be killed at any point, it was most likely to be death by dolmus. Of course, I told them, living in Istanbul comes with risks; anybody who wants, or is forced, to live here can’t allow him or herself to think about it too much, both because it is a useless exercise and because the relative risk is very low.

    Still, it’s hard to hold myself to this ideal. I do succumb to fits of anxiety. So what to say? Touché, terrorists? You’re assholes, but you know how to do the job.

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  • #Sultanahmet

    Sultanahmet, a week before the attacks.

    Sultanahmet, a week before the attacks.

    There has been another terrorist attack in Istanbul, this time in the hyper-touristic area of Sultanahmet, site of the Hagia Sophia. So far ten are confirmed dead, 15 wounded. We don’t yet have reliable data about the identities of the victims, but it seems to be split between tourists and Turks.

    I was there in Sultahahmet, taking pictures in the snow, not more than a week ago. I could say, “It could easily have been me,” but I won’t because that’s facile and also . . . that’s the point of terrorism.

    The main differences between terrorism and war is that terrorism is waged with the intention to cultuvate fear, not casualties. I don’t wish to sound blasé. My heart goes out to the victims and their familites.


    We have to maintain some perspective.

    Turkey has a population of 75 million. In the past year, less than 200 people have been killed in terrorist attacks. That is 0.0002 percent of the population. On the other hand, 10,000 people die in traffic accidents every year in Turkey, according to the World Health Organization. That’s a whopping 0.01 percent of the population. If you are a tourist in Istanbul, your chances of dying at the hands of a drunk and unscrupulous dolmuş driver far outnumber the likelihood of death-by-terrorist-attack.

    The same is true in France. Deaths by bombing, despite the brutal Paris attacks, is still statistically very low.

    Why am I saying this? For a few reasons.

    The first reason is that these attacks have the potential to cripple the Turkish economy. This year, Turkey has already lost many of its Russian tourists – one of the largest tourist groups that used to come to Turkey. The Turkish economy is hugely dependent on tourism. And the Turkish economy is not an abstract thing. The Turkish economy is people feeding their families.

    The second reason is about values. People who live in fear act in fear. They make stupid decisions because they won’t look behind the curtain and face . . . statistics. In the case of both Turkey and France, this could mean voting for a government that promises security at the price of human rights or even at the price of other human lives. Furthermore, these governments will likely not even deliver the promised security. Judging from today’s events, the Turkish ruling party certainly hasn’t, despite winning a parliamentary majority in November.

    In fact, each time there is a terrorist attack, the AKP (the Turkish ruling party) imposes a broadcast ban on the Turkish people, leading me and many others to wonder what they are hiding. Are they afraid people will say that their government response to terrorism is ineffectual? Or that people will accuse them on capitalizing on it for their own political goals? Or that they will be reminded that they sold arms to ISIS? Do they just want to make people more afraid by restricting their knowledge?

    I don’t have clear answers to these questions but I do know what I would tell anybody engaging the issue of terrorism.

    Don’t be afraid. Terror is the point of the attacks, and the best way to fight terrorists is to not give them what they want.

    Me? I’m going back to Turkey in the summer, and the worst part of my trip will probably be the quality of the food on Air Canada.

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