Turkey Needs A Literary Voice More Than Ever

Some time ago I submitted to your attention an article, written by Ayfer Tunç, expressing the need for Turkish literature to stand independent from any supposed Occident-Orient conflict. She argued that such a narrow literary outlook confined its voice to a set of Western expectations in which there was no space for nuance, overlooking poetic idiosyncrasy as some sort of curious cultural trivia.

Over the weekend, Reuters reported that Erdogan’s government has replaced a number of key military personnel following its leadership coup in 2011:

Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, who chaired the Supreme Military Council meeting, has eroded the army’s power since his Islamist-rooted AK Party first came to power in 2002. The secularist military staged three coups between 1960 and 1980 and pushed the first Islamist-led government out of office in 1997.

The council decides on promotions and retirements of top officers every year at its three-day August meeting and had been expected to make major changes at this week’s gathering.

The forced retirement of paramilitary gendarmerie force commander General Bekir Kalyoncu, who had been the leading candidate to take over land forces, was the most unexpected of the Council’s decisions.

Media reports said Ankara was opposed to Kalyoncu leading the country’s land forces as he was regarded as a government critic and his name had cropped up in testimony in the trial of the alleged Ergenekon conspiracy against Erdogan’s government. A verdict on that trial is scheduled for Monday.

Instead, General Hulusi Akar was given the job and, according to custom, would be expected to replace General Necdet Ozel as overall armed forces head in 2015.

Meanwhile, General Ilker Basbug has been jailed for his role in the “Ergenekon” conspiracy – what would be appear to be the final gasp of the Kemalist secular military.

The removal of an unaccountable military has been essential since Turkey’s earliest bid to join the European Union in 1987; but the irony is that this is also precisely the methods deployed by authoritarian governments to consolidate their rule. They roll over the secular tradition under the pretense of civil rule – as we found ourselves arguing in remembering Morsi – only to restrict, simultaneously, the power of the voters who gave them the authority to do so. Democracy is meaningless without the constitutional commitment to human rights and political equality; but who now could protest if Erdogan were to lift the ban on religious parties?

Following the violent crackdown on the Gezi Park protests, Germany shut down negotiations on Turkey’s entry to the EU; in response, the Turkish EU minister has been quoted as saying “the EU needs Turkey more than Turkey needs the EU” and that “if we have to, we could tell them, ‘get lost'”. Where, then, does this leave the Cypriot occupation, poorly enacted women’s rights, the denial of the Armenian genocide, intellectual property law, the Kurds, abuses of the environment?

European, Western, secular, religious, conservative, nationalist? As Hitchens said in 2011:

The nascent Islamist populist movement—the Justice and Development Party of Recep Tayyip Erdogan—understood very well that, once in the European Union proper, Turkey would be prevented by EU law from submitting to another period of rule by men in uniform. We thus saw the intriguing spectacle of quite conservative and nationalist Turks (with a distinct tendency to chauvinism in Erdogan’s case) making common cause with liberal international institutions against the very Turkish institution, the army, that above all symbolized Turkish national pride and prestige. This cooperation between ostensibly secular and newly pious may have had something to do with a growing sense of shame among the educated secular citizenry of big cities like Istanbul, who always knew they could count on the army to uphold their rights but who didn’t enjoy exerting the privilege. The fiction of Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s complex Nobelist and generally liberal author, has explored this paradox very well. His novel Snow is perhaps the best dress rehearsal for the argument.

We could really do with some more Orhan Pamuks to inform us about which direction Turkey is heading. Preferably beforehand…

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The Rise of Eastern Literature?

For all of Edward Said’s complacent dismissals of Eastern backwardness as imperialist-driven, novelist Ayfer Tunç argues that Turkish writers are perfectly capable of rising above the interminable clash of Occident with Orient:

… we’ve come to find it hard to believe in our own quality. This is because the history of our republic is the history of our complex about the West. We imported from the West, but we couldn’t believe we could send anything back in the other direction. This is the issue at the heart of our literature. But I’m keen to believe that young writers from this country can overcome this complex.

I don’t doubt it. Western values don’t need to be isolated to the West; literature can rise about the local and explore the universal.

If, of course, there’s the market to buy it.


The Story of Zahhak: Kurds and Newroz

The Story of Zahhak

Zahhak

Newroz is the Persian new year, celebrated on 21st of March; but it’s also very important to the Kurds of Syria and Turkey. I love the story behind the festival – it puts Easter to shame, that I can tell you:

Zahhak was an evil king who conquered Iran and had serpents growing from his shoulders. Zahak’s rule lasted for one thousand years. During this time, two young men were sacrificed daily and their brains were offered to Zahhak’s serpents in order to alleviate his pain. However, the man who was in charge of sacrificing the two young men every day would instead kill only one man a day and mix his brains with that of a sheep in order to save the other man. As discontent grew against Zahhak’s rule, a nobleman planned a revolt led by Kaveh (also known as Kawa), a blacksmith, who had lost six sons to Zahhak. The young men who had been saved from the fate of being sacrificed (who according to the legend were ancestors of the Kurds) were trained by Kaveh into an army that marched to Zahhak’s castle where Kaveh killed the king with a hammer. Eventually Kaveh was instated as the new Fereydun king.

There’s some great symbolism behind it, too:

For this reason, it is traditional to end quarrels, forgive debts within ability and overlook enmity and insults. It is a time for reconciliation, when forgiveness and cheerfulness are the dominant sentiments. Newroz celebratory table contains specific meaningful elements. First, there must be a mirror, which reflects the past and shows the future so people can make reasonable plans. Next there must be candles which the flame hark back to the sacred nature of fire in the Zoroastrian religion of ancient Iran, and personify the light, sanitary and energy of a righteous life. Upward moving of the flames state the progressing and improving of life’s quality and style.

The original spirit and actions of Newroz is struggling and resistance to overcome tyranny. It is a symbol of a popular solidarity to get strength and more power to end up injustice and oppression by overthrowing the evil tyrants, and then the oppressed people to enjoy the glorious new day.

Newroz in its deep rational concept does not just belong to the Iranian nations; it is a model and possession for all oppressed people in the world, to get freedom, democracy, gender equality, religious tolerance, and civilized prosperity, freedom of expression, individual dignity and national integrity. Newroz as a cultural meaningful traditions phenomenon is a historical symbol of liberty.

I believe this is from Qamishli earlier this week: