As a writer you assume that you can write anywhere. You believe the place comes secondary to a quiet space and a clear mind that is ready to create your ‘Art’. Such naivety brought me to Turkey a decade ago and although I have functioned here with some success, you eventually realise that everything about a place, the people, the politics, even the climate, has infected almost everything you have ever written.
To give you an example, I am sat here almost naked with a sleeping, half-feral cat balanced on an old pillow across my legs – not for her comfort you understand, more for my protection from her razor sharp claws, when she starts dream twitching. It is barely ten in the morning but already the mercury in my thermometer has climbed above 35C on its way to peak somewhere in the low to mid 40’s this afternoon. A quick re-read before editing of yesterday’s new writing for my next novel finds amongst other things a stone well full of cool water and a single sweating brow. There is also an oblique mention to a windmill, which may or may not be a sub-conscious reference to the fan oscillating behind me. I also notice in my book notes from last month: a young woman beaten up by a soldier, a baffling court case and also quite a few tears shed, which makes me wonder if this has anything to do with the recent disturbances in Istanbul’s Taksim Square, or last Monday’s clashes outside a court, dishing out verdicts on some of the hundreds of people implicated in the *Ergenekon Conspiracy case, where water cannon and tear gas were again being liberally used by riot police?
I learned quite some time ago that the only way one can live here comfortably is if you put certain issues like politics out of your mind. Anyone under the misapprehension that you can transport your own cultural values here to influence the attitudes of people to the secular country they were born in, or even express an opinion about Turkey’s current Islamist leaning Government, will quickly understand that this is a perfect recipe for a headache.
So what does a writer do in a country where 64 journalists are currently in prison and another 123 are awaiting trial? These figures reported by several foreign news agencies earlier this month after being released by the Republican People’s Party here – who also claim they are higher than China and Iran put together. Add to this the 59 media staff, who have recently been fired or forced to resign for their coverage of the anti government and anti Prime Minister Erdogan protests last month and you will hopefully see what a precarious position I could be in if I started expressing an opinion about what went on, or what continues to go on now the cameras have all gone away.
So it is my intention to try and steer clear of politics so I don’t fall foul of the strict ‘Anti-Turkishness’ laws found in Article 301 of the Penal Code, which used together with ‘Anti Terrorism’ laws, is one of the biggest reasons writers end up in court. The argument in some cases has gone something like this: Because you are criticising the Prime Minister or denigrating the ruling party, you are technically Anti-Turkish because the AKP party was elected by the Turkish people as the government, so you are actually criticising Turkey and the will of its people. You can imagine how this would go down in a western democracy, if suddenly Barrack Obama, David Cameron or Angela Merkel started to deal with their dissenters in the same way? So it perhaps comes as no surprise to learn that there is something of a contradiction, when it comes to Turkey’s preparations for accession into the European Union. We have a country trying hard to declare itself reformed and now almost a haven of free speech, while at the same time, a growing number of European commentators have, in recent months, been quick to remind them that speech cannot be regarded as truly free in any country, where it is only tolerated as long as the subject matter falls within a ruling government’s narrowing interpretation of what is and isn’t acceptable?
Anyway, I almost digressed to a knock on the door from the Jandarma! So I will make this bargain with you dear reader. These pages are really about the simple life of a writer, who has seen how easy it is for some observers to turn their readers off, with their deliberately antagonistic opinions or just boring political rhetoric. So I intend to keep things light and look for interest and perhaps humour in the day to day. That doesn’t mean that I will always shy away from describing any difficult things I see or hear, but I can only do this within the law by being apolitical – The politics and laws of Turkey are for the people of Turkey to deal with or change, not outsiders. As Alexis de Tocqueville once famously put it “People get the government they deserve.”
* Ergenekon: In a country like Turkey, where recent politics has become extremely polarized the Ergenekon Conspiracy is viewed in two very different ways. My friends who support Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan believe the government uncovered a deep state, whose aims, among many includes the restriction of his AKP parties Islamist leaning policies, with the ultimate threat of a military coup. Whilst my less religious friends claim the case is no more than an attack on the secular traditions enshrined by modern Turkey’s founding father Ataturk, with the principal aims of seeking revenge against the military for its part in the fall of the AKP’s previous incarnation, the Welfare Party in 1997, and to finally silence the last effective opposition to Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian governance.
After studying claim and counterclaim I personally have no firm feeling about where the truth really lies. However, after the special court, handed down 254 sentences of up to life in prison last Monday, perhaps the only certainty is that it will not just fade away as some had hoped. Because on that very same night, while many government leaning commentators declared the outcome as a new era in Turkish politics, I watched two middle aged women waving an unsettling, homemade poster, which equated the Ergenekon verdicts (many will claim unfairly, while others might argue prophetically), with Hitler’s 1934 Night of the Long Knives.