Ece Temelkuran’s book is as tumultuous and haunting as the news that emerges daily, relentlessly, from Turkey. I write this as images circulate of the 51 wedding guests killed in a suicide bombing in the south-eastern city of Gaziantep, just five weeks after an attempted military coup claimed hundreds of lives and prompted a sweeping purge of academics, diplomats and state employees. Temelkuran could not have predicted these events, but she has nonetheless written a primer for today’s chaos, a masterclass in expecting the unexpected. A coup attempt in 2016 seems less surprising when viewed against the four coups of the last six decades, all of which Temelkuran weaves into her mosaic of political history.
Turkey: The Insane and the Melancholy lays bare not only the recent years of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s rule but the very foundations of the republic itself, a painfully close examination of the political and cultural shifts of a profoundly damaged country just shy of its centenary. Its author — an award-winning journalist and novelist both celebrated and reviled by her fellow Turks — makes no attempt to conceal the emotion of someone writing in the eye of the storm.
If her style seems hyperbolic or overly emotional to the western reader, that is because Turkey itself is pure hyperbole. Its history is also so densely packed that at several points Temelkuran resorts to bullet points to list the outrages committed by politicians at various stages during the republic. She regularly employs sarcasm when discussing the ruling Justice and Development party (AKP), remarking that its obsessive focus on 2023, the centenary of the founding of the republic, means “they plan to stick around for at least another decade”. On the next page, she explores the “deep sense of frustration” inherent in a commonly used Turkish expression, moving seamlessly between wry polemic and astute linguistic analysis.
This book is both an elegy and an exposé of Temelkuran’s homeland. It is also, inevitably, partisan. She often refers to “them” when discussing supporters of the government and “we” to refer to its critics. In a country split 50/50 at the last election in its support for the ruling party, this is understandable (I am aware of doing it myself). Towards the end of the book, Temelkuran, who was fired by her editor at the newspaper Milliyet in 2012 for writing a column scathingly critical of the government, describes the psychological effect of a particularly bad period of abuse on Twitter, on which she has 2m followers: “The ridicule was so awful that I had started sympathising with the death and rape threats I was receiving at the time”.
Many of Temelkuran’s observations have an almost spooky prescience; commenting on the “post-modern” coup of February 28 1997, during which a secularist military pressured an Islamist prime minister to resign, Temelkuran writes: “No one knew in those days that the pressure this course of events put on the political Islamists would feed into resentment, leading to a policy of never-ending vendetta years later.” This is how living in Turkey often feels: a grand, Middle Eastern version of The Godfather, in which vendettas are carried out in a relentlessly bloody power-cycle; Temelkuran provides us with details of the script and casting.
One of the treats of this book is the cameo appearances of some of Temelkuran’s insightful colleagues, including Ozan Tuzun, who has “figured out the algorithm that enables [Erdogan] to feign innocence despite all his crimes, and to convince the masses of his unparalleled victimhood despite all his power”. This provides some insight to answer the bemused west’s perennial question: “Why is Erdogan so popular?” With the exactitude of a scientist, Tuzun outlines his findings: “The algorithm is made up of several steps and, when given enough time, he will use them all (1 through 8), whereas if pressed for time, he will use only a few (in general, 1, 3, and 6).” This sounds like political satire but it is not; I ran through a couple of Erdogan’s recent speeches in my mind as I read through the steps and, sure enough, they match up.
Seeing the pattern in Erdogan’s speeches, rather than focusing on day-to-day scandal, is only one example of how it pays to look at the bigger picture in Turkey. Temelkuran ends her book just after the June 7 election last year, a moment of hope before a summer of violence erupted between the Kurdish PKK and the Turkish army, followed by the November 1 election when the vote swung back to a comfortable win for the AKP. Top that off with the recent crackdown precipitated by the coup attempt, and it is unsurprising that even the most optimistic of the “other” 50 per cent have given up hope of any positive change in the foreseeable future.
But, after all, what is “foreseeable”? Turkey is ever-changing, ever-surprising, as Temelkuran reminds us. “What will become of this country of ours?” — this common Turkish phrase is her parting note, part-question, part-statement of melancholy. It is all we can ask as we watch Turkey’s story unfold.
Turkey: The Insane and the Melancholy, by Ece Temelkuran, translated by Zeynep Beler, Zed Books, RRP£12.99/$19.95, 320 pages
Alev Scott is author of ‘Turkish Awakening: Behind the Scenes of Modern Turkey’ (Faber)
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