Turkey’s newspapers this week documented the deep cracks appearing inside the treasury room of Istanbul’s Topkapi Palace — one of the country’s top tourism destinations and once the home of Ottoman sultans. While older cracks had been covered with concrete, “Hurriyet” reported that parts of this iconic structure risk total collapse as a “result of years of neglect of historical heritage.”
These days, I often find myself thinking about similar cracks — political fault lines and social fissures to be more specific — appearing more and more across my motherland, Turkey. And there are many, way too many.
Turkey’s connection with its own past is beset by sharp ruptures. Ours is a society of collective amnesia. Everything is written in water over here, except the works of great architects, which are written in stone; and the words of great poets, which are written in our hearts. Everything else is or can someday be forgotten with a dizzying speed. Throughout the Anatolian peninsula, the clocks run so fast that there is no time to stop and think, let alone to digest. No time to heal. No time to grieve. No time to analyze. In this country, the deepest cracks are covered speedily with the thickest cement. And yet, never before have those cracks been as visible and as divisive as they are today.
Turkey is a bitterly and sadly polarized country. We have been divided into invisible cultural and political ghettos of citizens who do not break bread together anymore, let alone appreciate their shared values. Anger is the new national currency. There is too much anger on all sides. And distrust, that too. Nobody trusts the other. Against this fragmented and fractured background, anyone who speaks critically is immediately labeled as a betrayer.
On July 15, Turkey experienced a horrific and bloody coup attempt. When this dark night was over, more than 200 people were dead, hundreds injured and millions of citizens shocked, scared and traumatized. The failed coup opened up wounds in the civil society that will in all likelihood take decades to heal. And it smothered what little democracy was left, giving the authorities a legitimate opportunity to consolidate their power.
There is no doubt in my mind that whoever was behind the military takeover attempt must be fully investigated. What they have done was totally wrong. There are strong accusations about the presence of a Gulenist cabal within the army, and these allegations must indeed be taken seriously. It is remarkable that the country’s liberals have in unison stood up against the putschists. Turkey’s liberals and democrats have defended a government they have clearly not been fond of against the illegitimate putsch.
Nevertheless, ever since that awful night, Turkey entered a new phase of purge and paranoia: Thousands lost their jobs, had their passports confiscated, detained or arrested. The Head of the main opposition Republican People’s Party, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, said close to one million people had been affected by the government crackdown. Among them are nurses, doctors, teachers, businesspeople and academics. Once a stigma is stuck on someone, it becomes very difficult to prove one’s innocence. In a society throbbing with conspiracy theories and suspicion of the other, many people feel intimidated and insecure.
The spirit of national unity that emerged after the coup, unfortunately, did not last long. The secularists feel increasingly confined. Nowhere is this more visible than in the loss of women’s rights. When a young woman wearing shorts was kicked in the face by a man for not wearing “appropriate attire” on a public bus in Istanbul, many Turkish women felt the same anxiety and repulsion as though it was them who had been directly hit by the thug.
If the old divide of secularism versus religiosity is a persistent crack, “the Kurdish question” constitutes yet another one. It is becoming more and more difficult to write about this subject. Nuances are lost. People are expected to take sides for once and all. Between PKK’s hawkish policies and violence and the Turkish ultra-nationalism, Kurdish and Turkish liberals are being sandwiched and intimidated by both sides.
Every writer, journalist or poet in Turkey knows that words are heavy. Because of words we can get into trouble any day. Because of a poem, a novel, an interview, a tweet or a cartoon, we can be called a “backstabber” in pro-government media, lynched in social media, demonized, ostracized, put on trial or even get arrested.
I have friends and colleagues who are in prison as I am writing this piece. Professor Mehmet Altan, a prominent intellectual who is being accused of giving subliminal secretly coded pro-coup messages to the public on TV. The wonderful writer Asli Erdogan or eminent linguist Necmiye Alpay and veteran journalist Nuriye Akman were also detained. Another award-winning writer Murat Ozyasar, who had become a father only three weeks ago, was arrested at his house while his wife, Sibel Oral, writer and journalist, was breastfeeding their baby girl.
After the terrible coup attempt, Turkey had a golden opportunity to unite around democratic, pluralistic values and cultivate coexistence, peace and harmony. That moment has been squandered. What we are left with today is a climate of intense paranoia and suspicion.
Meanwhile, underneath layers of cement, the cracks get deeper. And the only possible way forward is by urgently repairing and restoring our badly broken democracy.
Elif Shafak is an award-winning novelist from Turkey. She is the author of 15 books, including The Forty Rules of Love and The Architect’s Apprentice. The opinions expressed here are those of the author.