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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  1. Paul says:

    Thanks, Kate. Please keep writing more about this. I trust you.


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