I was in London working on a novel a few weeks ago when I heard from a friend in Istanbul that he was on his way to Gezi Park. “To guard the sycamores,” he said, laughter in his voice. “We will camp by the trees and make sure the bulldozers don’t hurt them.”
Wishing him luck, suspecting nothing, I returned to my story of a young Indian elephant driver, an outsider, finding his way through 16th-century Istanbul. All day long, I remained in the past, unaware of what was happening in my home city as police raided Gezi Park, dousing peaceful protesters with water cannons and tear gas. Tents were set on fire. Unarmed young people were subjected to violence.
A few days later, I flew to Istanbul. Taksim Square, the heart of the city, was pounding nervously; hundreds upon hundreds of protesters waited for the next confrontation. Similar protests had erupted in more than 70 cities, leaving thousands wounded and at least five dead.
The crowds cut across ideological, social and class barriers, something new for Turkey. Suddenly a Kurdish nationalist was helping a Turkish nationalist escape from police; a conservative sang side by side with a leftist; an Alevi shared a platform with a devout Sunni. Women were at the forefront: mostly young, but also middle-aged; there were students, professionals and housewives; some covered their heads, but most didn’t.
All week I collected graffiti, such as “Hey, we are emotional people here. You didn’t need to spray pepper gas to make us cry.” I listened to the terrible stories, as well as the jokes and black humor. “Dear prime minister, are you sure you would want three kids like us?” was a favorite, referring to Erdogan’s previous calls for all Turkish families to have at least three children.
My novel was cast aside. On the last day of the protests, the crackdown was as harsh as on the first. Despite attempts at reconciliation, as a country we returned to square one. I found myself wondering what fiction meant at a time like this, if it meant anything.
Words matter in Turkey. Stories matter. The same book is often read by four or five people. When a reader enjoys a novel, she (most readers are women) gives it to her husband or aunt or childhood friend, or mails it to her cousins in Frankfurt. Pirated, shared, underlined, books reach the nooks and crannies of our lives in ways that politics and politicians can’t.
At the same time, words get us in trouble. Article 301 of the penal code, which makes it a crime to insult “Turkishness,” swings above our heads like the sword of Damocles. Because politicians are too easily offended, many of us either censor our words or soften our tones — something we find hard to admit. For this reason, perhaps, the mainstream media were largely reluctant to cover the protests, showing food programs or wildlife documentaries instead. A young man, one of the new “standing man” protesters who stay still in the square, held a sign that said, “Hush, the media are sleeping.”
Last week, as I commuted back and forth between Istanbul and London, I went back to my novel. The questions I was exploring about the 16th-century Ottoman Empire — how to see social unrest from the eyes of the “other,” how to encourage individuality in an otherwise top-down society — suddenly seemed more modern and relevant than ever. In Gezi Park, and in Turkey, they remain unanswered.
Elif Shafak is a novelist and the author of The Bastard of Istanbul, among other books. She lives in London and Istanbul. Her most recent novel Honour, was published in March.