North Africa, West Asia

Please stop saying that Turkey is gone!

The types of adjectives generally accompanying articles about the Middle East create a core of “knowledge” that is a distorted and narrow reality.

Janine Rich
23 December 2016
Thanassis Stavrakis AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

A hearse passes outside Marmara University Theological School mosque as Turkish policemen patrol in Istanbul. Thanassis Stavrakis AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.As I write this, it has been nearly five months since the coup attempt that failed in its goal to unseat President Erdogan, and the Turkish government at large. In the past months, much has changed.

Some changes are obvious – a declared state of emergency that seems to have no particular deadline; incarceration and strong public/media condemnation of the coup attempters (and many others); mass firing of academics and restriction of their right to travel abroad.

Some of the changes are subtler, their tendrils creeping softly into the fabric of daily life. A re-branding campaign that included changing the previously-named Bogazici Bridge to 15 Temmuz Sehitler Koprusu (The Martyrs of 15 July Bridge).

An interesting display of photography that popped up in the crowded Taksim metro station, depicting civilians fighting the military during the night of the coup, meaningfully located in a place previously reserved for historical pictures of Istanbul from the early days of the Republic.

As a friend of mine noted recently, there is a tangible change in the very atmosphere. People look at each other differently, he remarked, “as if you could be anyone.”

And recently, after an eerie period of calm, two bombs targeting a police van ripped through a large, well-known street in Besiktas, one of Istanbul’s most popular neighborhoods for night life.

A video  that emerged within an hour of the attack is a bizarre and perfect encapsulation of Istanbul today: two young men sitting near the shore at night, playing guitar and singing together, their friend recording them on his Smartphone. In the background, far across the water yet close enough to feel, a sudden burst of violence.

As a resident of Istanbul and a writer, I have found myself somewhat haplessly paralyzed by these events. On one hand, I am not a Turkish citizen, and I do not wish to use my platform here to silence or discredit those who know and understand more than I do, and who are already saying what needs to be said in ways far better than I ever could. 

On the other hand, self-censorship and safety loom large for all writers at the moment. While I am certainly not famous enough to garner a particularly wide audience with my critique, Turkey’s leadership, much like its new friend in the US, has a habit of making mountains out of molehills (and then blasting those mountains to the ground).

And yet, the writing goes on, with trepidation and a far greater sense of melancholy. Much has been written globally about Turkey in the days and months following the coup, and as usual, the most prescient and informed local voices generally cannot be heard above the din of external analysis. 

And of these articles that have received the most credibility within international media, both analytic and personal, there is a clear trend – that Turkey is on a dark path from which there is no return. Or, more fatalistically, that Turkey is already finished, its future tied up and parceled neatly with the other “Third world countries” that we so love to shake our heads disappointedly at.

It should be noted that this is not a trend reserved only to major outlets such as CNN and Fox. There has been an astonishing amount of similar articles and opinion pieces published on smaller blogs and political forums by former or current resident of Turkey, by people who have traveled briefly in Turkey, and by others who, for various reasons, feel an emotional and personal attachment to the region.  Within these pieces the tone is bleak, the past is whitewashed as a time of lost joy, and the future is nonexistent.

It seems, in fact, that there has been little written at all that challenges these doomsday predictions. So, without further ado: to both local and international journalists, analysts, scholars, writers and Twitter users, a kind reminder - Turkey is not yours to condemn to death. And no, it does not matter who you are, or how knowledgeable you think you might be about the politics, cultures and structures of the country or the region. Turkey does not owe it to you to shape itself into what you think it should be.  And when, inevitably, it does not do this, that does not mean that the country is beyond saving.

This is, of course, not a phenomenon that is specific to media coverage of Turkey. The same overwrought headlines of doom, gloom, and futureless-ness have been used to condemn nearly every non-western country at some point. Why is it seemingly impossible to take the same level of understanding and nuance with which we look at our own societies, and to extend it to the societies of others?

There is no such thing as a place that is truly “gone”, truly hopeless. It is a truth so obvious that it seems nearly ridiculous to repeat. All places, all political entities are complex and multilayered. Of what purpose, then, are articles with headlines such as “The Istanbul I Knew is in Ruins”, other than to serve as clickbait-y self-promotion for the author?

There is something of a “race to the bottom” tendency amongst both writers and political analysts who study the region, in which one’s prestige and (supposed) wisdom is positively correlated with one’s level of cynicism about the future of the Middle East.  

I am not suggesting that a sunshine-and-daisies outlook is a more credible alternative. Things are not at all promising at the moment, and it would be a lie to say that those of us who have the privilege to leave whenever we want have recently started giving each other guilty looks, discussing quietly that we have been considering it.

However, it cannot be ignored that articles predicting ever-larger levels of violence and misery receive greater attention. That those who speak with high-pitched hysteria of how utterly disastrous everything is are deemed far more interesting, intelligent and cool.

Blame Twitter, blame the 24-hour news cycle, or blame something in the air that has made us increasingly intolerant of nuance, increasingly unable to deal with the multiplicity of truth-claims that surround us and thus eager to swallow whichever story is the most thrillingly dark.

There is a type of cruel politics to casually pronouncing (from the safety of abroad) the demise of a city, country, or region. These articles are simplifications that distort reality and commit violence and erasure upon the communities that they declare are doomed.

If Turkey is truly gone, if Istanbul is destroyed, fallen to the supposedly violent wiles of the Middle East, what does that mean for the millions of people who still live here? In what multiplicity of ways does that perspective erase the complexity of communities here? Does it not deny the very existence of activists, scholars, shopkeepers, school principals, gardeners, parents, and more who are fighting the multiple levels of oppression present in (although not unique to) their societies?

Is it not also an act of oppression to make no note of these people whatsoever, to instead present poverty statistics and border degradations and terrorist attacks as if there is a mathematical equation for how to declare a place unsalvageable?

There is a falsely commonsensical notion that reporters, writers and analysts are mere observers, lying neutrally outside of the scope of complicity. If there was any merit to this claim before, the Internet has destroyed it. To report on violence is to become a part of it, to create a discourse about it that has the power to persuade and to create a sense of normalcy.

This is, of course, not to suggest that the answer is to simply not report anything. It is to say that it is imperative to understand the power that an authoritative voice of information comes with, and to take steps to avoid both the normalization of violence and the hyperbolic over-simplification of complex situations.

The types of adjectives generally accompanying articles about the Middle East (war-torn, devastated, ancient, extremist, historical) render images in the minds of readers that have a great deal of power. They create a core of “knowledge” that is a distorted and narrow reality. To read this genre of doomsday reporting as absolute truth is more than just a crisis of misunderstanding.

If a city such as Istanbul is “destroyed”, if it is “gone”, then why should anyone care about its future? We can mourn for it, perhaps post a few sentimental statuses on Facebook to show our worldliness, and move on.

After all, why would anyone try to hear the voices from within a city that no longer exists?

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