In Turkey: The Insane and the Melancholy, political commentator Ece Temelkuran invites the reader to draw up a chair as she attempts to untangle the complicated, often contradictory, nature of her country’s current political environment.
Temelkuran’s book provides an insightful and informative study of modern Turkey.
The book is written in an intimate, conversational style. It is not a point-by-point account of Turkey’s recent political history. Rather it is impressionistic—combining personal reflection, popular culture and smaller vignettes. This gives the writing a personal tone, impressing upon the reader the author’s sadness, fury and desperation as she catalogs the injustices and atrocities she attributes to Turkey’s leaders, past and present.
In the first half of the book, Temelkuran uses the rhetorical device of the family photo album to introduce the reader to the many individuals who have shaped the course of Turkey’s history over recent centuries—despots, victims and heroes. This includes a number of actual historical photos which add color to the text. Through this introduction to Turkey’s history she attempts to explain the path that has led the country to its current situation, ruled for over a decade by an overtly religious regime with a growing hostility towards the secularism upon which the country was nominally founded.
The chief protagonist of the book’s second half is Turkey’s current President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and his Justice and Development Party, or “AKP”. President of Turkey since 2014, prior to which he was Prime Minister for over a decade, Erdoğan’s influence on contemporary Turkey covers all aspects of modern life from religion, to academia and fashion. So strong has Erdoğan’s role been in shaping Turkey in the last decade that Temelkuran refers to him as the “re-founding father”, drawing comparisons to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey. She provides historical context to Erdoğan and the AKP’s recent rise, placing it within the context of Turkey’s complex political environment of competing identities and influences.
Early on, Temelkuran introduces the inherent conflicts within modern Turkish national identity. Located on the border between East and West—Europe and Asia—Turkey is internally divided as to its true cultural and political allegiances. Since federation, the Republic of Turkey has also maintained an uneasy balance between secular militarists and Islamists. However, the author argues that the deepest divisions in current Turkish society are not between the secular and non-secular, but rather between the obedient and non-obedient. It is the obedient who feel the full brunt of Temelkuran’s criticisms.
She accuses her fellow countrymen of engaging in collective national amnesia, conveniently forgetting the past in order to suit present political needs. She quotes one local, “Turkey has the memory of a goldfish.” It is this “forgetfulness”, she argues, that has allowed the modern Turkish state to continue to roll from one coup, one regime to the next—never learning the lessons of the past. This willingness of Turkey to “kiss and make up”, she argues, means that conflicts are never truly resolved.
Her fellow intellectuals are not spared from criticism, who she accuses of surrendering too willingly to the changing political climate in order to secure their own positions in society. Western media and governments are also taken to task for uncritically accepting the image of Turkey portrayed by the government as a secular, moderate Islamic nation and role model for other Arab countries. In doing so, she argues, they overlooked Erdoğan’s many failings and emboldened his persecution of his enemies.
The central event around which the book pivots, however, is the Gezi Park protests which took place in Istanbul’s Taksim Square in 2013. Initially a response to the destruction of three trees as part of a government highway construction project, the protests quickly grew into the largest display of mass resistance to AKP rule since Erdoğan came to office. The protests lasted from May to August of 2013, before ebbing away with the coming of Summer.
An active supporter of the protests, Temelkuran considers their impact and ultimately concludes that while the government remains unchanged, the events of 2013 were transformative for all those Turks involved. She depicts the protests as a unifying force, painting a scene where
secular socialists held umbrellas for anti-capitalist Islamists as they prayed in the rain … [and] a nationalist leftist young woman held hands with a Kurdish activist.
Of particular interest, she details how social media, particularly Twitter, was used as a tool of resistance during the protests—coordinating logistics and disseminating information. The social media channels established at that time of the protests continue to play a role in keeping the country’s dissenters connected and engaged.
The author’s natural humor provides the book with its lighter moments, and is laugh-out-loud funny in many parts.
Temelkuran places the Gezi Park protests against the background of Turkey’s other ongoing internal conflicts—most notably that with its Kurdish populations. She frames this conflict as Turkey’s own Vietnam War—inflicting physical and emotional damage upon generations of young Turkish men and women in the hope of achieving a vague and potentially unachievable political objective. Space is given to the various minority voices of Turkey—Kurds, Alevis and Armenians—who have historically suffered most in such times of upheaval. Special note is also made of the additional burdens faced by women in Turkish society, as they are often the most visible face of religious, ethnic and political identities. The Kafkaesque restrictions all of these groups face in modern Turkey are vividly captured by the author, often using humor to reveal their tragicomic nature.
Indeed, the author repeatedly emphasizes how important humor has become for her and other Turks as a coping mechanism in the face of their current situation. Indeed, her natural humor provides the book with its lighter moments, and is laugh-out-loud funny in many parts. This allows it to transcend its serious and distressing subject matter and ultimately deliver a final conclusion that is determined and forward-facing. Although polemic in style, Temelkuran’s book provides an insightful and informative study of modern Turkey.