A few weeks ago in front of Lincoln Center in New York, while Women in The World Summit was about to start, a woman who seemed to like she could move mountains called Tina Brown was telling me, “I very much liked your description… What was it? ‘Having a sword fight with the ghosts’.”
As the organizer of the event, she was referring to a conversation where I had talked about the online harassment against women who were public figures and how it was impossible even for Hillary Clinton, who enjoyed enormous support, to defeat the faceless insults on social media. All of this felt to me like having a sword fight with ghosts.
It is 2012. I am in Tunis. The Islamists are in power after a very promising “revolution,” organized largely by women that brought down the country’s dictator. I reside in Carthage, a high-end, secular district. Due to the civil unrest, the government declares a curfew and the radical Islamists surround the district each night with torches in their hands, shouting “Allahu akbar!”, threatening to burn down the entire place.
I live by myself in a small studio in a garden, and some nights I drink myself to sleep, hoping no one will break in. All of this happens a few days after I have lost my job as a columnist for writing two critical articles about the “accidental” massacre on Iraqi-Turkish border that left a dozen of kids dead. Worse still, there is a massive venomous campaign against me on social media, especially on Twitter.
Now imagine this. Thousands of accounts spreading horrible lies about you day and night, seven days a week, for months. On top of this, there are the countless fake porn accounts using my name. It’s a time when “government trolls” is still an unknown concept, and Oxford Dictionary has not yet logged the word “post-truth”. At a time when online harassment is still fashionable and cool, I am attacked in the most humiliating manner, not only by government trolls but also by my readers or people pretending to be my readers.
It will take months before “normal people” realize that this actually is a massive government operation to discredit public figures critical of the regime but at the moment I am on my own. I try to fight back but I am soon reminded of an Eskimo form of punishment, which involved forming a circle and placing the criminal at the center to laugh at them until they willingly choose to desert the community. This collective mockery does not kill physically but it certainly destroys your public reputation. If I have one thing in common with Hillary Clinton, it is the helplessness against this massive “fake-truth building process” that pervades not only your entire life but soon forces you to start doubting yourself and everything you have achieved.
Social media ghosts were lynching my public identity.
At this specific time, there is only one thing I can hold on to not to go completely insane and it is the novel I am writing, Women Who Blow On Knots. Now, thinking back, I was not actually intending to write a novel that would be published in several countries but just trying to survive with the help of my broken yet courageous characters. The novel took off when I decided that fighting ghosts with swords was not a survival strategy. I was instead trying to create an uncontaminated space of literature in which to exist as a human being while social media ghosts were lynching my public identity. Fortunately, I was able to invent this survival method thanks to an Ethiopian refugee at the Shusha camp on the Libyan-Tunisian border.
Shusha Camp is a place where no human should spend more than fifteen minutes yet hundreds of sub-Saharan African refugees are staying there for months on end. It is a death-yellow desert, devoid of all other colors. Among the many people I interviewed was a young single mother with a three-year-old daughter sitting in front of her tiny tent.
She had a heart-shaped garden, with empty plastic bottles stuck in the desert sand. Bedouins had given her some seeds for herbs, which she had planted in the ground, greening the desert. The novel was my own heart-shaped garden, a promise to keep myself sane, the way her promise was probably an act of determination to create beauty against and despite the maddening world.
* * *
It is 2017 now, the 16th of April. In Zagreb, I am looking at the same iPhone screen, which I was glued to five years ago in Tunis. The Turkish referendum for presidential regime in Turkey has just taken place, putting an end to democracy and secularism in my country. There is a video circulating on social media showing a woman being beaten by five male government supporters just because she resisted poll rigging at a polling station.
The women of Turkey have been fighting against the dictator’s will during the rallying period with all they have and this is the grand finale, literally with blood, sweat and tears. These are not the ghosts that I had to deal with five years ago; these are real people producing real violence. She is shouting on the video “I have a child! Please have mercy!” The vicious men beat her as if she is the mother of all evils.
And I am thinking maybe there is no tomorrow for such women. At least, not for secular women who have been living in a relatively free and equal-rights society in Turkey until now. All of this will come to an end if Erdoğan gets his way, and so these women are fighting for their lives, and this is not a fancy metaphor. It is not only that the entire country will become more Islamized but also and more importantly it will be more obedient. There will be no refuge especially for those women who reject ultimate obedience.
This is when I start to ask myself, where is the heart-shaped garden now?
* * *
“Make Feminism great again” goes the motto of the most prominent German women’s magazine EMMA. My piece on women in Turkey appears in this issue along with American and European feminists.
A war is coming. A war our grandmothers fought and we thought had been won for good.
Apparently we all are now running short of “heart-shaped gardens” all around the world. There is no escape from the rising global misogyny. It does not maybe take the same crude shape as it does in Turkey but I see Merkel during her visit to the United States sitting with Ivanka Trump at a “girls’ table”. There is the Scottish Prime Minister with the British Prime Minister and all the mainstream media is talking about is their legs. Or there is Hillary Clinton subject to brutal sexist attacks. German feminists all of a sudden have to fight for abortion rights once again after so many years. American women are obliged to demonstrate en masse against a spoilt brat whose smart talk about “grabbing pussies” evidenced a fundamental and shocking misogyny. In addition, all of the women who are also public figures in several countries are put in a position to take up their swords to fight the ghosts of rising populism and against the mobilized ignorant masses rebranded as “real people”.
I feel obliged to say it. A war is coming. A war our grandmothers fought and we thought had been won for good, will repeat itself in a different shape. We will have to forge new swords for the post-truth age where there will be no fair play and we will have to discover new ways to cultivate our heart-shaped gardens.
This certainly will be a global war, from Asia to Europe and beyond, therefore our new forms of martial arts should be reinvented collectively as well.