On a Thursday in 2012 Ece Temelkuran’s phone rang. She was living in Tunis, working on a novel and writing for the Turkish newspaper Habertürk, and now she was being told she was without a job. “Ece,” her boss said, “you know why.” Her last two columns—one an address to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan titled “Sir, Yes, Sir,” the other a diatribe mocking Erdoğan’s reaction to an airstrike that killed nineteen children in Turkey’s Kurdish southeast—pushed what was already a polarizing career to its breaking point. Adored by the left and loathed by Erdoğan’s supporters, Temelkuran had made her name as one of Turkey’s most influential journalists; she had done stints as a columnist and TV presenter. The call in 2012, however, arranged something of a silence.
Already at work on her second novel, she turned to literature, dedicating her writing in Turkish to novels and poetry. A work of reportage, Deep Mountain: Across the Turkish-Armenian Divide (2008), had come out from Verso a few years before, and now that she was denied a domestic audience she increasingly wrote journalism in English, making her one of Turkey’s most prominent commentators on the world stage. Slowly, and over the same span, coverage of Turkey in the international press took new shape. Turkey is now known as a haven of press unfreedom, and Erdoğan no longer appears as the vessel of moderate free-market Islamic democracy that Western pundits and politicians, from Blair to Obama, had once proclaimed him to be. In fact, Turkey now seems to be in the vanguard of something else entirely: a global turn toward illiberalism.
In the amnesiac liberal understanding of Turkey, the crisis is sudden, of recent vintage. But it has roots in the rise and fall of Turkey’s left, from which Temelkuran’s writing draws much of its strength. In the ’70s, as across much of the world, Turkey’s economy was floundering. Statist, import-substitution strategies had accumulated massive debt, but the state’s benefactors (workers and clientelist networks, who crowded out industry and an export-minded bourgeoisie) retained too much political influence for a new economic package to be implemented by democratic measures. Under the growing tensions, movements demanding a political upheaval began to gather. Political forces on the far left and far right flared up and threatened Turkey’s military-backed center-right establishment. Radicalism thrived in the universities and the Kurdish southeast, while state-backed right-wing militias struck against perceived revolutionary ripples and made power bids of their own, imposing de facto control over swathes of the countryside.
Between 1977 and 1980, over five thousand people died in what was tipping into a “confined” civil war, fought along the margins of political life. Islamists at a protest in Konya called for the return of sharia law and refused to sing the national anthem. Rumors swirled about socialist sympathizers in the military plotting a revolutionary break. Instead the military’s center-right majority stepped into the breach. “Within a week,” Perry Anderson wrote in a pair of characteristically sweeping 2008 essays, “the army struck, closing the country’s borders and seizing power in the small hours.” The same day Jimmy Carter took a call from the CIA’s man in Turkey: “Our boys did it!”
An extraordinary bout of repression ensued—hundreds executed, millions blacklisted, thousands purged from the state bureaucracy—as the junta secured an approved path for democracy’s return. Neoliberalism was imposed almost overnight: trade liberalized, state appendages slashed and privatized, wages cut, capital markets opened and interest rates hiked. The decapitated left fell into a long political sleep.
But culturally, as Anderson concluded his essays by arguing, a broad Turkish left invented a critical landscape “without equal in any European country of the same period: monographs, novels, films, journals, publishing houses that have given Istanbul in many respects a livelier radical milieu than London, Paris or Berlin.” Like in Iran, where a religious revolution was accompanied by rich cultural production, an impressive cultural episode in Turkey developed amid the conservative “passive revolution” that emerged oddly alongside the military’s neoliberal reforms: Latife Tekin, Orhan Pamuk, and Elif Shafak in literature; the late work of Yılmaz Güney and the recent of Nuri Bilge Ceylan in film; and, as Anderson noted, Ece Temelkuran in journalism.
Her vocation now exceeds that single category. Temelkuran’s reputation, abroad as much as at home, now rests on her dual output, produced at an industrial scale: novels on the domestic front, journalism and political writing internationally. Different in their ways, the two forms nevertheless fade into one another. Temelkuran’s journalism is more reminiscent of the feuilleton than punditry or reportage, freely polemical, zeroing in on things marginal and neglected, sweeping over history with a paradoxical gaze, tiny and totalizing. (A sample, from a piece in the New Left Review: “Turkey has always been a sharply divided society, both politically and sociologically, to the extent that there are two kinds of toilet, á la Turca and á la Franca, that define whether you are a conservative or a secular modernist.”) The novels, similarly, form around the precise, topical frame of a political moment. Her first, Banana Sounds (2010), yet to be published in English, features two women (one from the Philippines, one from Turkey) who arrive in Beirut and explore the history of the Lebanese Civil War. Next came Women Who Blow on Knots (2013), the first translated to English, following four women as they travel across North Africa and the Middle East during the Arab Spring. Now a third is out in English. A historical novel, The Time of Mute Swans (2015) unfolds in Ankara over the summer days leading up to the 1980 coup, offering a snapshot of the left as it teetered on the precipice of near-extinction.
The contemporary significance of the political rush of the late 1970s (Turkey’s 1968, as it were) and the terse counterblow of 1980 have recently become a fulcrum in Temelkuran’s work: “the opening scene of the movie we’re now living,” a critic at the mainstream daily Hürriyet wrote of The Time of Mute Swans. Such historical attention isn’t unique in the Turkish cultural sphere; historiography wars seem perennially to rage across any number of theaters. Battles are fought and present-day parallels suggested through television period dramas, revanchist national maps, upmarket restaurant menus, city spectacles, costumed tourist packages, not to mention intellectual output.
Much of this pomo historical jockeying was captured by Temelkuran in her recent political book Turkey: The Insane and the Melancholy (2015), translated into English in 2016. In the years preceding the Arab Spring, Erdoğan’s AKP pushed a neo-Ottoman foreign policy dubbed “Zero Problems with Neighbors,” with the goal of establishing Turkey as the central, sole transcendent player in the region (a policy, as a glance at the Syrian civil war shows, now outmoded). Buttressed by culture wars at home—strictures on alcohol, lavish attention to headscarves, a familiar rhetoric of Anatolian piety versus Cihanğir-based cosmopolitanism—Ottoman paraphernalia has developed its own elaborate cultural-political logic. Historical re-enactors dramatize the Conquest of Istanbul each May 29th: “throngs of people in Ottoman attire and brandishing wooden swords attack men in Byzantine costumes” in full-to-the-brim soccer stadiums, as “Istanbul is considered to have been conquered afresh when the Islamic or Ottoman flag is planted in the penalty box.” Ottoman palace boats “with display window dummies decked out in a mustache and beard and the attire of an Ottoman pasha” line the Bosphorus. Restaurants claim to have inherited secret palace recipes; films and television dramas outbid each other in period extravagance. More generally, the AKP stirs up support by positioning itself against the curbs on religious expression enacted in the republic’s early, imperiously Westernizing Kemalist years, representing this history as the singular hegemonic tale of national life. Temelkuran calls the party “a historical resentment production center.”
Less garish historical lineages appear in recent intellectual accounts. The journalist and novelist Kaya Genç’s Under the Shadow: Rage and Revolution in Modern Turkey (2016), a gallery of well-drawn profiles of young Turkish activists from across the political spectrum, frames its subjects with a historical metaphor: the split within late Ottoman politics between the “Young Turks”—Western-looking anti-Sultanate modernizers Genç maps onto the Gezi Park protestors—and the less famous “Young Ottomans”—pro-sultanate conservative reformers who sensed a moral vacuum in Tanzimat modernity and pushed for “a synthesis between Enlightenment ideas and Islam,” aligned by Genç with today’s young AKP supporters. Catholic in its sympathies, the frame comes with a price. Broad-brushing together a foggy “resistance”-like proto-popular front, the parallel predicates itself on the left existing more as a blur than a defined force—which is an accurate enough analysis of post-1980 Turkey. As a result of the left’s opacity, 1980 has loomed ever larger in socialist accounts like Temelkuran’s, in a bid to retain not just perspective but radical memory in dim times. Much of the Turkish left’s most compelling work, ever since the writer Murat Belge’s 1981 essay “The Tragedy of the Turkish Left” (penned, pseudonymously, as Ahmet Samim), has been retrospective.
Culturally, however, the left’s fate has been distinct. Despite its political weakness, the left has historically been a vital intellectual force in Turkish life, the comparative ideological poverty of Kemalism—a patchwork, contradiction-strewn strain of thought, Westernizing, domineering, and nationalist, stemming from Turkey’s first president Mustafa Kemal Atatürk—providing an opening filled brilliantly by the likes of Nazım Hikmet (communist; Turkey’s most distinguished poet), Yaşar Kemal (Kurdish Marxist; Turkey’s leading novelist until Pamuk won the Nobel), and Yılmaz Güney (Kurdish Marxist militant; perhaps Turkey’s most renowned filmmaker). In the republic’s inaugural half century, cultural life turned around two axes, oppositional and hegemonic: a spirited, embattled left (all three aforementioned figures spent time in prison) and a dominant infrastructure of Kemalist state patronage. Prior to the ’80s Hollywood was kept out; state-approved melodramas, slapstick comedies, social-realist dramas and odes to independence flourished in the heyday of Yeşilçam, Turkey’s national film industry. The novel became synonymous with the “village novel”: pedagogical, social-realist reports from the countryside, sometimes brilliant (Yaşar Kemal) but often dreary, typically produced and consumed by the urban bourgeois and linked, therefore, with Kemalist attempts to recruit the peasantry into a modern bureaucracy. (Certain village novelists wrote in an artificially pure Turkish championed by Atatürk, deprived of its Arabic and Persian influences and remote from everyday language.)
In 1980, however, Turkish culture broke ambivalent new ground, a process captured with peerless sophistication by Nurdan Gürbılek in her essay collection The New Cultural Climate in Turkey: Living in a Shop Window (2011). With both the left and Kemalist statism in shambles—two formations with overlaps, but only to a degree—cultural life turned into a paradoxical mix of “repression” and “explosion.” On the one hand state subsidy gave way to privatization, inflows of American kitsch, and corporate arts sponsorship, matched by the acceleration of anti-communist state censorship. But on the other the old, restrictive notions of what constituted public life, whether propagated by the left or Kemalism, no longer held. In Gürbılek’s telling, the 1970s left succeeded in creating a public realm of solidarity, but “it succeeded too well,” constructing a singular vision of a public without ample room for individual and minority expression, hemming in the left’s cultural and political horizon. Meanwhile at the hegemonic level, Kemalism had founded itself ever since the birth of the republic on a violently homogenous, genocide-hushing notion of Turkish nationalism.
As the onslaught of junta-led neoliberalism demolished the political left and threw Kemalism on its heels, “the repressed returned.” Women, Kurds, queer and trans people, Islamists, the peasantry all entered the public sphere in ways previously barred, enlivening activist strains of religious conservatism that would eventually find form in the AKP, but also injecting the cultural left with a newfound feminism and minority-consciousness. Private and local experience, too, became public in ways long neglected, and amid this cultural shake-up—commodification on the one hand, liberation on the other, the howls of prison torture all the while subterranean and silent—the remnants of the left went to war with itself, fighting over the aesthetic ironies of postmodernism, the about-face turns of market triumphalism, the fate of Kemalism, or the “explosion” of arabesk, the hybrid folk-pop music resulting from Turkey’s great rural-urban migration. Segments of the left took refuge in Kemalist nationalism; others in a late Eurocommunist quasi-liberalism. A familiar aporia set in, chronicled by Gürbılek with Adornian parataxis: “Cultural identities could now express themselves without cover of a grand narrative umbrella; but the political common ground upon which those identities could transform one another had already lost its power to support them. . . . The particular, the personal and the private found ample opportunity for expression; but the domain of experience which arose on these foundations was in danger of losing its particularity, perhaps more definitively than ever before.” Dizzied by a new cultural matrix, the old revolutionary guard had to look back, self-critically, to see “why the opposition left of the 1970s had not been revived, and also to digest that reality.”
Such are the retrospections of the 1970s’ revolutionary left. Temelkuran, a generation removed from Gürbılek, represents something else: not the backward-glancing comrade but the daughter of one, born in 1973, raised in Izmir by a social-democrat father and Maoist mother. It’d be hard to think of a more consummate figure of what a true Turkish “new left” would look like: democratic socialist, feminist, with books on the legacies of the Armenian genocide, on the Arab Spring, on the Latin American pink tide (untranslated), chapters and articles on Kurdish politics, nearly three million Twitter followers and a sui generis facility with the media. A New Left Review essay one day—a TED talk the next. There aren’t many left figures of this sort, particularly not in the Anglophone world, and the tendency is for the ones we do have to be pigeon-holed from the start: here’s 30 seconds, remind the good people at home what dogma and utopia sound like. Temelkuran’s TV spots are different. English-language hosts, at least, seem genuinely not to know her politics, and the alternating strength and weakness of her position is not that she sounds out-of-touch but that there’s not much of an organized left for her to ground herself in: she’s stuck championing a party that doesn’t exist, or deflecting narrow questions about the narrow political forces that do.
Two examples. First, a 2015 TEDx talk in Istanbul, in which she begins by telling a story of a friend who grew up next to an American military base and would, along with her sister, play a game called “Americanism”: suddenly they would open their mouths, swagger around ridiculously, and transform into Americans. That, Temelkuran goes on, seems to be what’s expected of her on the TEDx stage: playing American by being hilarious, emotionally-affecting, and motivational. Playing along, she lists contemporary crises—migrants drowning in the Mediterranean, terrorists detonating themselves in Paris, skyrocketing inequality, climate change—and offers a brief description of the only potential solution, socialism (she bows to dead socialist militants the world over, and tells the audience “this summer, at the beach, read socialist, not self-help, books”), to which, in idiosyncratic keeping with the enthused expectations of the venue, six thousand people break into applause. Sharp, Brechtian, un-nuanced in a spectacle-savvy way: an almost ideal instance of what the first stride of a march through the commercial media institutions looks like, all in ten minutes.
A less satisfying but yet more impressive appearance took place on the BBC television program HARDtalk. The episode is a masterclass in journalistic reduction, but also in how to navigate the self-parodying mediascapes of the West as a socialist-feminist intellectual from the Middle East. Temelkuran came on the show in fall 2016, just months after that summer’s failed coup attempt. The host, Stephen Sackur, seems to have invited her convinced of a series of assumptions. Temelkuran appears in his eye as a “courageous,” “deeply Westernized” scourge of Erdoğan, who risks being locked up at any moment. Temelkuran counters his assumptions in turn. She’s not courageous, she says, and doesn’t want to be branded as such; a kind of fetishized anti-dictatorial courage rhymes too easily with thoughtless opposition and Western self-flattery, not requiring much “intellectual capability” nor allowing for sophisticated historical and geopolitical analysis. As for Erdoğan, it’s true that she’s a critic, but she would rather now make a more expansive point: it’s less about Erdoğan than about a system, a history of the partnership in Turkey between religion and neoliberalism dating back to 1980. Sackur asks which side she’s on: Erdoğan or the Kemalist establishment, the current conservative crackdown or the history of Kemalist coups, illiberalism in the name of democracy or coups in the name of secularism? Temelkuran says she’s a “storyteller” and returns, again, to a vaster historical picture in which Kemalist coups, neoliberalism, and religious conservatism entwine. Sackur mistakes political perspective for self-preservation and asks if she’s dodging the question because she’s frightened; what, moreover, does she make of Erdoğan’s then-all-time high approval ratings? “The new fashion in media” is to be against Erdoğan, she says, but such modish analysis misses how the so-called Turkish model, supposedly marrying democracy, neoliberalism, and religious conservatism, was flawed from the start. “Democracy,” she ends, more suggestively than defensively, “is a funny thing.”
Heroic in her refusal to bow to categories, Temelkuran’s answers nevertheless appear haunted by a left she can barely allude to, thrown to the margins of an ever-thinning but hyper-prominent realm of politics. Relentless politicization: this, paradoxically, is what led Temelkuran, committed socialist and political journalist, to fiction. Everything in today’s Turkey is politics, and yet it all takes place on such a delimited plane—what is a socialist to do? The risk in her literary turn, however, is the ease with which the room of the novel can be refurbished into a boutique: an innocuous place for left politics to extinguish itself, resigned to the margins as consolation for political defeat. The Time of Mute Swans is too historically serious for this fate, but a tension remains between the richness of its allegory and the cuteness of its plotting.
Narrated in turn by two children, The Time of Mute Swans acts as a kind of inverted young adult work: it portrays the world of its child narrators not as the dramatic and limitless truth of the shallow repressions of adults, but rather the seriousness of the adult political world as it might appear to children, mistranslated and experienced anew. Within this frame unfolds an allegory of the Turkish left. At the story’s heart are two families, the one working-class Alevis (a minority Shia sect, associated in Turkey with the left), the other petite-bourgeois state bureaucrats. Both open onto representative social milieus.
Ali’s family, recent migrants from the countryside, live in a gecekondu or squatter settlement on Ankara’s outskirts, an area allied with the Marxist-Leninist group Devrimci-Yol (Revolutionary Path), the largest of a startlingly diverse set of groups on the ’70s left-political landscape. They attend political meetings; observe the base of the fascist Grey Wolves on the hill opposite (militant wing of the far-right nationalist MHP, now allied with the AKP); start a food collective; attend demonstrations and store guns in their cellar.
Ayşe’s family lives in the city center. On one side of their apartment is “the student dormitory housing the nationalists,” the other “the Political Sciences campus crawling with leftists,” and in front the police station, which each day more and more leftists are rounded up and thrown into. Politics shadows all talk, and all relations: Ayşe’s mother, once a revolutionary and now an employee at the National Archives, was imprisoned and tortured after the ’71 coup; her father, a social democrat, is by turns vehemently political (in one scene he reads the entirety of Allende’s “Last Words to the Nation” to Ayşe and Ali, two kids barely of school age, before asking professorially for their reactions) and shamefully cautious (elsewhere he flees from an oncoming Dev-Yol demonstration by ducking into a pickle shop). Part fantasy space of the official Kemalist public and part sprawling Anatolian city, the Ankara portrayed here spans from government office to squatter settlement, fascist-patrolled park to Atatürk’s mausoleum, its settings capturing the image of Kemalist society and its negative. Temelkuran’s novel depicts two interlinked families of differing social classes in the final days of such a depiction’s full plausibility. As Gürbılek writes, “The ‘great transformation’ of Turkey which began in the 1980s has long since been accomplished: any common ground where people of different classes might meet in the big cities is almost completely gone.”
It’s out of this lost common ground that Temelkuran constructs an allegory, unfolding against the backdrop of the approaching coup. It’s the sort of allegory that divides into overlapping narrative threads and allegorizes at multiple levels: the Turkish left, the dilemmas of historical memory, the act of writing the novel itself, all serving not so much the heaven-and-earth closure associated with allegory as the airing of diverse tensions and debates.
The first allegorical thread takes place in the archives. Sevgi, Ayşe’s mom, has been getting calls from an old lover and comrade from her revolutionary days. They meet; he gives her an envelope and asks her to hide it in the archives, to keep “a record not of what we lived through . . . but of what we won’t be able to remember.” She does so and is caught by a superior; the envelope’s contents, it turns out, are children’s photos of comrades who died in revolutionary fighting. “I don’t know, Sevgi,” Önder explains. “Perhaps I believe in the power of whispering now. When everyone else is shouting, it’s one way to be heard.” Later a Dev-Yol militant says the opposite: “The only way to make yourself heard through all this noise is to shout it out, loud and clear.”
A second thread begins when Ayşe and Ali decide on their own action. Ali’s dad serves tea at Ayşe’s dad’s office, and after the Grey Wolves raid the gecekondu and burn down their house Ali’s mom picks up extra work as Ayşe’s family’s housekeeper, bringing Ali in tow. Through a series of plot mechanisms—a rumor goes around that a general has moved a swan from Liberation Park to his private residence, from which it flew away and died; as a result, the city devises a plan to render the city’s swans incapable of flight; meanwhile, Ali’s house is burned down and the prison in the police station across the street grows ever more crowded—the children mistranslate the pressure of the political moment into a plan to save the swans. (The inspiration for the novel came when Temelkuran read of protestors at Ankara’s chapter of the Gezi Park protests protecting Liberation Park’s swans from police teargas.) The plan deepens late in the novel as Hüseyn and Birgül, two Dev-Yol militants hiding in the spare room of Ayşe’s neighbors, are burst in upon by the police. They try to leap across to Ayşe’s family’s balcony and fall to their deaths, as Ayşe and Ali watch from the window. Suspended in flight in Ali’s imagination, they are “reincarnated” as swans. The children’s plan grows urgent: the night of the coup, with the army “seizing power in the small hours,” they sneak out with a bottle of chloroform and a wheelbarrow and return home, as day breaks, with a swan.
Ayşe and Ali’s logic doubles and distorts the story’s revolutionary stakes into tragic and farcical aspects. Though it is at times “cloying,” as the New Yorker had it, their fuzzy relation to the political drama of the day more pointedly conveys the generational challenge of grasping the political past. Ayşe and Ali are not only children in the novel’s historical present but childlike future political actors sleeping or struggling through our present. They are the vague left of today thinking back, as if through a transfiguring film, to the more defined, lively landscape of a generation ago. Not that nostalgia carries the day. Dev-Yol’s lack of democracy comes in for repeated criticism, and while the novel is written from a clear perspective, it seems more interested in the uncertainties that such clarity opens up, in the present as much as the past. Temelkuran’s decision to take up novel-writing and the wider backdrop of the Turkish left’s cultural turn themselves come in for allegorical treatment, as whispering or shouting, working quietly and decently (preserving photos in an archive, reimagining the radical past in a novel) or with militant volume are put to open-ended novelistic exploration. Jameson once wrote that the imperative of today’s historical novels is to “rattle at the bars of our extinct sense of history,” a condition of historical amnesia heralded after the 1980 coup by the head of the junta, General Kenan Evren, in an infamous remark addressed to the left: “Such a generation we shall raise that they will not remember you.” Temelkuran’s project—to re-animate something of the ineffable of this old Turkish left—is nevertheless also one that turns its questions on itself.
Temelkuran’s books tend to be bestsellers, and Time of Mute Swans proved no exception. But it is still worth remarking on: a bestseller that sympathizes with Marxist-Leninists and that actually deserved to be titled, as it was in Turkish, Devrim (Revolution). By the end of the book, the coup has happened and much of the cast has died, but Ayşe, Ali, and Ayşe’s family find themselves at a fish restaurant in Perşembe, the parents drinking rakı as the sun glistens over the Black Sea. Ayşe’s grandfather is dying; they’re off to see him, military checkpoints and all, in his last days. A strange optimism is in the air. Swans, for the first time in memory, have flown from Siberia to Turkey’s north coast, and as they flap towards the restaurant Ali directs Ayşe’s dad to take the swan from the car and set it free. It swoops down and skims over the sea with the rest, and the allegory, or so it seems, has found its vexed inspirational close: the dead revolutionaries of the past, reincarnated in the mind of a child as swans, are now liberated by the youthful initiative of the next generation of political actors, extending a bridge from the old left to the new.
A slogan of the ’70s Turkish left was “to lay claim to the past and march on the future,” and it’s this spirit that the novel captures in its Hollywoodish last movement. It’s curious to note the overlap between what the New Yorker calls “cloying” and the uplift native to much left-activist writing, but one also wonders, with the perplexing tumult of Turkey’s past decade, about the expiration date of the novel’s closing mood. The Time of Mute Swans came out in Turkish in 2015, two years after the Gezi Park protests and the same year that the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) received the best electoral results ever achieved by a party of the Turkish left. Evolving out of an alliance between the Kurdish movement and the post-Gezi left, the HDP confronted Erdoğan with his most serious opposition yet, stretching Europe’s left-populist upsurge from Spain to Turkey, France and Greece notably in between. “The next decade,” Temelkuran wrote in 2015’s Turkey, “will be the decade of the Kurds.”
In the years since Erdoğan responded to predictions like these with a brutal campaign against the Kurdish southeast, shelling cities, executing civilians, and enjoying near-total silence in the Western press until recently, when the onslaught crossed the border into Syria. After the failed 2016 coup, the level of repression exploded, with the HDP’s leadership imprisoned, elected officials tossed out, party offices raided and newspapers shuttered. Around six thousand HDP members now languish in prisons. Yet again the left struggles to survive, and the fate of uplifting endings hangs in the balance.
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