Microeditorial: Are We In Trouble? Turkey Summer 2016
There were four of us in the flat. Helen used to live in Beirut; she’d joked a few days earlier that Turks had started to adopt the city’s slogan: Party tonight, you might die tomorrow. Now, at five in the morning after the second F-16 went over us, she was the only one among us smart enough to grab her cell phone charger as we ran out of our apartment and down to the door of our basement-level neighbour. The first boom had woken us up from the dazed half-sleep of adrenalin and exhaustion. Our flat faces the Bosphorus. The F-16 had gone right over our heads up to Taksim Square. A five minute walk away. At the back of the building as far away from the windows as possible we crouched, four of us on the floor. That’s ok, guys, said Doğan. It was just a plane. We got up laughing and checking Twitter – people were saying, was that a sonic boom. People were saying, they’re shelling central Istanbul. Bombs in Taksim. I looked out over the water. The windows had been blown open. Then the sound began again, the gathering rush of an F-16 approaching Mach 1. In the sky a white projectile flew up in the direction of Taksim. “It’s coming again,” I said, and it did. Again we sprinted back and dropped to the floor between the front door and the walls, in the middle of the house away from every window. This time the glass facing the water bulged inward as though it was canvas in a strong breeze. This was not a sound moving through the air but a force that shifts objects and will leave your ears half-deaf; after all, air is a physical thing too, and this thing rips it, tears it, shoves it around. Unsure now – bombs or pure sound? – we put on jeans and shoes. Helen picked up the charger, I pulled a bra from my closet thinking, if we’re going to be out on the streets hiding from planes, tanks, and mobs of the righteous, I want to have a bra on.
We ran down the stairs as the planes circled again overhead. Our neighbour was outside his door in his boxers, his arms around Helen. “Ne oldu, abi? “He said. “What happened, man?” Nobody knew – Twitter was still confused, some saying bombs and others beginning to confirm that it was merely jets breaking the sound barrier. A scare tactic. Barış, our neighbor whose name means peace, opened a beer. “Neyse abi, napalım,“ he said, turning back into his flat with a wave and a laugh. Whatever man, what are we going to do?
Since well before midnight machine gunfire had rung out from the Bosphorus Bridge. Soldiers under the command of generals attempting to overthrow the Turkish government by coup d’état had blocked traffic. Civilians fed up with coups were unafraid. They walked toward the tanks, some wearing Turkish flags, and when they were fired on, they simply lay down then walked on. That had been the first sign: both bridges and all major roads into the city blocked by military personnel. A video showed soldiers telling pedestrians, It’s a coup, go home. A friend called her sister, who was with us. “There’s something going on with the military,” she said. “Come home.”
In Ankara, a military helicopter controlled by the rebels fired onto civilians from the air. Tracer bullets – they make pretty red-lit trails in the dark. Niall, an old friend and committed communist visiting Istanbul for the first time, wanted to go out and see. Let’s get out on the streets! The rest of us – untrusting of city roads on which the Turkish police and the Turkish army were facing off, surrounded by amorphous groups of the incensed public – said no. He went alone. Machine gunfire continued to ring out from the direction of the bridge, its lights, blue, white and red, in honour of those killed in the Nice attack the night before. What a time to be alive, a friend messaged me. Others wrote, Coup? Or simply, Fuck.
Half an hour later Niall was back. In his arms he held three takeaway pizzas. “I went in there to get a pizza because I was hungry and the guy just handed them out to me for practically nothing,” he said. “They were chasing people out of the shop, he kept yelling at me, ‘Turkey, big problem! Go, go!’ Well, at least we got pizza. Let’s see what flavours these are.”
In the supermarket down the road people were buying stocks of water and food, prepared for who knew what. Somebody else messaged me: Charge your phone. Why, I wrote back. In case they cut the electricity.
Doğan’s mother called me. She’d been around for all four previous successful coups – 1960, 1971, 1980, and 1997.
“We’ve been through many coups. And this – I guess this is your first one?”
“Yes, it is.” Thinking: and probably not my last.
“Ok, well, I just wanted to say don’t be too worried. It’s not about us. The other coups were like this too, it just passes after a while, we’ll be fine. And this is quite a sloppy one.”
Coups come like clockwork, and this one was long overdue.
“You need anything, just come to us. Ok?”
Bridges closed, highways blocked, airport overrun with coup soldiers and civilians both.
Chaos is a gradual thing. It evolves in front of our eyes, out of sight, and then seems to reveal itself all at once, only when it is absolute. Of course we saw it coming, many commentators saw it coming, people even joked It’s about time, been almost twenty years now. The military structure has long been loyal to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s brand of laiklik – roughly translated as secularism, akin to French laïcité, in which the state is secular and also controls organized religion via its Presidency of Religious Affairs, known simply as Diyanet. That structure was gradually broken and re-shaped by an elected Islamist government: starting in 2007 the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, together with its former ally Fethullah Gülen and his network of supporters, broke the power of the generals with a series of trials known as Ergenekon and Balyoz (Sledgehammer). This year, many of those generals were acquitted and released. They have become the allies of the government in the fight against Kurdish separatists; yet as the government becomes increasingly Islamist, the army remained largely Kemalist. At some point, something would have to give. But when? Under whose name? And how would it look, how would it sound?
Which is why you find yourself drinking wine on the terrace when news of a coup arrives, or why the president was on holiday by the sea, or why at five in the morning you eat a slice of cold pizza waiting for the shake to steady that the F-16s put in your hands.
But chaos is deceptive, too: roll the kaleidoscope and the same elements appear newly arranged, identifiable but in no way the same as they had once appeared. Thus what at first seemed like a successful military coup – the president escaping on a plane, the prime minister on air saying, Yes, a coup has begun, statements of control by the military read on semi-official state TV, and tanks in the capital – began to look like a farce. A false flag, some said, arguing that the AKP staged it in order to seize even more power. The president has landed in Iran, the president has been denied asylum in Germany, the president’s plane cannot land because the coup plotters have taken over the airport in Istanbul: Twitter was a feast of the improbable and the depressing, far ahead of any major news organization and yet also replete with groundless conspiracies. A media gag, the knee-jerk reaction of the government to any major crisis, was ordered and then lifted within hours.
Then came a moment of absurd eloquence: President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the most powerful man in Turkey, self-styled defender of the true Turkish people, Islamist, longtime hater of Twitter, enemy of opposition journalists, beloved of the 49 percent, made a statement not from any official platform or government office but over FaceTime. A CNN Türk anchor held her phone up to the cameras; the cameras zoomed in to show the man’s face; the anchor’s manicured nails held Erdoğan up for the people to see. It’s hard to tell where he was – on a plane? Somewhere with curtains. He tells the people to come out onto the streets, to walk to the squares and defend their democracy. Someone takes the phone away from him, and then next time we see him is at Istanbul’s Atatürk Airport. It seemed that Erdoğan’s camp had recognized the power of the thing he had once hated most: that uncontrollable chimera that is the internet.
Over the three days since that night information has come out in bursts. Information in this case does not dispel chaos and does not reveal some inner logic. It simply spells the chaos out, draws lines between and around events in new ways so that we way know exactly what kind of a mess we were in. Or still are in. It is reported that the intelligence services knew about the coup plot and issued indictments for those involved. At an upcoming meeting of the supreme military council on August 13, there was to be a purge. And so those behind the coup took a leap: let’s do it tonight, before the witch-hunt begins. The alleged leader of the coup is a former airforce commander who was to retire in August, Akın Öztürk. We see him now in videos shot from police headquarters, lined up with the other alleged masterminds. There are bruises on their arms and their faces are swollen. Öztürk is wearing a striped polo shirt. There is a bandage on his right ear. The man looks thin and old, dull-eyed. Semi-official state media reports that he has confessed; other channels say he has denied the accusations laid against him.
It is not him I feel pity for. It is not him who was broken by this. Starting in the early hours of Saturday morning, photojournalists began sharing images of the soldiers – conscripts, just boys. In some photographs their mouths are open as the hands of civilian men grab at their limbs and faces. In others the soldier-boys lie huddled in their camo gear as a man uses his belt to beat them. In one video a boy no more than eighteen tells his police interrogators, “They told us it was an exercise. I was going to be discharged in four days.”
It is also reported that late on Friday night helicopters were dispatched in the direction of Marmaris, where Erdoğan was on holiday. The intelligence services intercepted communication between them, and a general loyal to the president called to warn him – Erdoğan was rushed out of his hotel. Not long after, soldiers dropped from ropes onto the building. A bomb was set off, and a number of hotel staff killed. Erdoğan by that time was on a plane. The plane was being circled by rebel F-16s, yet they did not shoot. Did they know the thing was bust? In Istanbul, tanks rolled out of the barracks and onto the bridges. In Ankara, other rebel jets dropped bombs on the parliament. At Istanbul’s main airport, people pushed back the armed rebel forces that had taken control. Where are the soldiers, they chanted. Erdoğan was able to land. The next time we see him, he’s addressing the press from an official media briefing room. The man is calm, the man knows his place.
Some time around midday on Saturday we leave the house, the same four as the night before. We find a place to eat breakfast. The mosques around us sound out not the daily call to prayer, but the prayer that announces the death of a martyr. Then an announcement begins: Come out tonight to the streets and squares, do not stop protesting this thing until the last minute.
All public transport is free. The metro is opened mere hours after it became apparent the coup plotters would not win on Friday night. On Sunday night Taksim Square is filled with people waving Turkish flags; more super-sized flags are suspended from wires between the giant light posts around the square. People are jubilant; boys and girls in cars hoot and shout, waving flags out of their windows. On Istiklal Avenue, a pedestrian street lined with shops and cafes, a group of young men on motorbikes and scooters go by: some of them make the symbol of the Grey Wolves, an ultra-nationalist faction. They wear Turkish flags wrapped around their bodies and their bikes. Some groups shout Allahu akbar. They heed the words of Erdoğan, who has said, “This coup was a gift from God.”
The chaos is something like a mirror. It reveals what was already there, makes plain the things that cannot be ignored. Life has that habit of continuing with barely a hitch, there are people on the street drinking beers and eating. Elsewhere on the same streets there are many people who see this as their revolution. Then there are those who opposed the coup absolutely but who do not support the government. There are those who are simply afraid. I overhear a journalist speaking on the phone, saying, “I am in a bit of trouble here. Already they sentenced me to two years before for another story, they will do it again. Maybe it’s not good that I speak to the international media. I’m in trouble.”
People turn to look at her as she walks past their café tables. I want to reach out and touch her arm. I want to say: Speak. Please go on speaking.
This article was originally published on July 21, 2016 in Aster(ix) Journal. It is republished with permission from Aster(ix) Journal